Monday, August 31, 2009

Dinner at the Farm

Elizabeth and I had been thinking about going away over the weekend, possibly a trip to Santa Barbara. But the room rates - even for the less fancy motels - were ridiculous. I don't know why I'd expected anything less. There are obviously some people who still have plenty of money to spend. (Two years ago a group of friends and I did a wine tasting trip; we stayed at the Days Inn in Santa Barbara. It was pricey then, but 's even more expensive now, which I'd never expected.)

But our friend Tracie's boss owns a farm down in Ramona, and she suggested the three of us go there for the weekend. That sounded fantastic: less crowded, less expensive, just a relaxing weekend. The property is fantastic. It's about eight acres with a ranch-style house and a back patio just above a lower lawn and creek. As soon as I saw the patio I knew that's where I'd be eating dinner.

We opened a bottle of Trader Joe's Trentatre and sat around nibbling on some bread with feta cheese marinated in olive oil and herbs. In the background of the first two pictures you can see rosemary bushes, but neither reveals just how much rosemary there is. I have never seen that much in one place, and we decided we'd be fools not to take advantage of that.

Tracie picked a bunch of rosemary and chopped it, adding it to some diced potatoes and baking them in the convection oven with olive oil. I grilled a few sweet Italian sausages while Tracie made a salad with a vinaigrette. This was not a very fancy meal but then again a fancy meal isn't what the situation called for. Great food can sometimes improve the circumstances, but great circumstances always improve the food. If you understand this then you understand everything.

Everything we ate was good, but the star of the meal was the potatoes. They were the best oven roasted potatoes I have ever eaten. I was not surprised when Tracie informed us that the oven is a convection oven. This was the most enjoyable meal I have had in a long time. It would only remain that way for 24 hours, however. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Avanti Cafe

Avanti Cafe has been around for about two decades. When I was younger I enjoyed it because it had two of my favorite things: fried cheese and barbecue chicken pizza. I certainly preferred Crocodile Cafe and California Pizza Kitchen, but if my family was going out to dinner and they said it was going to be at Avanti, I never complained. (Unlike meals at Cask & Cleaver, Restaurant Lozano, or a host of other places that I'm sure I never gave a fair chance because they didn't serve fried cheese.)

Up until yesterday, however, I can only remember eating at Avanti once in my adult life. It's not in a very convenient location, on the corner of Lake and Union, and the parking can be terrible. Most of the time when I an considering a dining location, I simply do not even think of Avanti. For most of my 20s the bulk of my meals in Pasadena were eaten in Old Town, and lately my tastes are more for Asian cuisines and barbecue, or places on Lake Ave with outdoor seating (Wolfe Burgers, Crocodile Cafe, Celestino, etc.)

But yesterday I met a friend for lunch on Lake Ave and we were trying to decide where to go. I suggested Big Mama's Rib Shack or Avanti, and she enthusiastically said "Avanti!" This was on the early side, about 11:45, and we were able to get a parking space in their tiny lot. We walked in and looked at the menu on the counter. (In my memory there was always table service, but now you order at the counter, pay at the register, and they bring the food to you when it's ready.)

There was a nice-looking lunch special: a plate of pasta salad and a slice of pizza for $6.50. But I'm very picky about pasta salad, it's not my favorite, and at any rate I wanted more than one slice of pizza. I decided to order a small "Chicken Magnifico" pizza - barbecue sauce, chicken, cilantro and Bermuda onions. My friend said that sounded really good to her, so I suggested she get a pizza as well and we trade some slices. She ordered a small "Duck Sausage" pizza, with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach.

It took about 15 minutes for the pizzas to arrive. The first thing I noticed was the size. The small size of each pie cost about $10, in line with the prices at places like Crocodile or CPK. But these were a little bit larger. I pulled off one piece of my pizza and the sauce burned my fingers. Nothing wrong with that, I thought to myself. I immediately recognized upon my first bite that the toppings were fresh, but what blew my mind was the crust.

This was almost the perfect crust. It was the kind you get in really good pizzerias in New York - firm enough to hold all the toppings in place but just pliable enough to fold if you are so inclined. I do not remember the last time I had a pizza crust this good in the San Gabriel Valley. The toppings on the barbecue chicken pizza at The Croc are fantastic, but they always slide off the flimsy crust into an annoying mess on the plate. I like the variety of pizza at CPK, but their sorry crust is always a disappoinment. With a crust like this I believe they would be one of the best restaurant chains in the country.

My friend's pizza was very good, too. The sausage wasn't anything spectacular, though still good, but what I liked most about it was the spinach. Sometimes spinach is overcooked to the point that you taste nothing but the water that makes up most of it. But the flavor of the spinach was prominent. (I liked spinach when I was a kid because I thought it would make me strong like Popeye. Then I became a teenager and realized it was healthy and stopped eating it, but in the last few years it has become one of my favorite vegetables.)

By the time we finished the place was filling up. Most people seemed to have the aforementioned lunch special, and their pastas looked good, but I was very content with my lunch. I am positive I will be going back soon. Elizabeth moved out here a year and a half ago after spending the first 28 years of her life in New York, and she understandably is disappointed with many of the pizzas she has had here in California. I am looking forward to getting her opinion of Avanti.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pulled Chicken Egg Rolls

Yesterday morning was as unpleasant a day as I can remember in the San Gabriel Valley. By afternoon things had improved, but the morning was just miserable. I had a few errands to run, and the smoke from the wildfire was stinging my eyes. It was already hot and a touch humid by 10:30. I was sweating in a way that I haven't in the AM since the last times I was in the South.
Later in the day, while trying to decide what to make for dinner, I had an urge for the last remaining Dixie Beer in the fridge. I also felt like some pulled pork or chicken egg rolls. I made them last year and they were good, but I had a hunch I could make them better. The last time I made them, I used Jack Daniels pulled chicken. But I had some pulled chicken from Trader Joe's, so that's what I went with.
In addition to the chicken, I chopped up some cilantro and threw it in. I wish I had more cilantro - what I had wasn't enough. I grilled an ear of corn and added that, along with a chopped up, sauteed onion. A while ago I was at Whole Foods and one of the cheeses they were sampling that day was a "bacon cheddar." It tasted much better than it sounded, so I bought some. I diced it into small cubes and added that to the mix as well.
As I rolled the egg rolls, Elizabeth and Tracie sat outside and ate chips and guacamole, a container of "Holy Guaca-moly" that we had purchased at the Victory Park farmers market over the weekend. I hate guacamole and that will never change. (People are often surprised when I mention this, even more than when I say I hate chocolate.) So I didn't have any. But Elizabeth says it is the best guacamole she has ever had, and they are friendly and (presumably) local, so I wanted to include them in this.
The egg rolls fried up in just a couple minutes. I had mixed up a super-secret, proprietary sauce to serve as a dipping sauce. (I'm only joking, it was a mix of sour cream, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce and hot sauce.) The egg rolls were very good. As good as last time? Well, that's hard to say. The addition of the cheese and onion added new flavors to the rolls, which were good. But the Trader Joe's pulled chicken, while not bad, is not as good as the Jack Daniels pulled chicken.
I will make egg rolls again soon, probably for a Saturday football game, and I will return to using Jack Daniels chicken. I also have a couple more ideas for varieties of egg rolls. I am sure there will be pictures.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CPK Frozen Pizza (Four Cheese)

When I was a kid I absolutely loved frozen pizza. I doubt I am alone with that. Celeste frozen pizzas were often in the freezer, along with a forgotten brand of small pizzas that came several to a pack. Whenever my brother and I spent the night at our grandmother's house we would cook a Chicago Brothers deep dish pepperoni pizza, which was probably my favorite, although I haven't seen them around for 20 years. I also liked Tombstone, although the crust never got fully cooked by the time the toppings started to burn.

Then, like many, many other foods, when I got into my teens I realized frozen pizza just isn't that good. Even with the rise of pizzas like DiGiorno and Freschetta, who claim to make frozen pizzas with crust like pizzerias, none of them can compete to pizza made with fresh dough. Despite really liking California Pizza Kitchen, I never thought their frozen pizzas were anything special, and they always seemed overpriced. I do like Trader Joe's frozen pizzas, but I would never confuse them with pizzeria pizza.

A few years ago, at the CPK in Santa Monica, I tried one of their thin crust pizzas - the Sicilian - and thought it was very good. They now make the thin crust pizzas in a frozen variety. I decided to eat one a couple days ago, the "four cheese" variety. I once read that a good way to improve frozen pizza is to add some fresh cheese to it. The simple brilliance of this amazed me. Now, whenever I cook a frozen pizza I make sure to add a fresh ingredient, sometimes several.

For this pizza I added some Trader Joe's English cheddar with caramelized onions. I love this cheese; the cheddar is sharp and the onions actually taste like caramelized onions. I chopped up some basil as well and added it to the pizza when it came out of the oven.

I had followed the instructions "for a crispier crust," but it was not. Not even close. The toppings were pretty good, although the fontina cheese was dominant. If I had known it was going to be that strong I would have added more than the approximate ounce of cheddar that I did. I also wished I'd added more basil. Overall, though, the toppings were a higher quality than I was expecting. But the soggy, floppy crust was too much to overcome. I don't plan to eat one of these again, I will just stick with the less expensive and much better Trader Joe's pizzas from now on.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fast Food Review: Burger King Angry Tendercrisp

One night in my early 20s, while making dinner with my friends Tom and Zach, I made a comment that "everything fried is good." That was all the challenge those two jackasses needed, and they set about taking pretty much everything out of the fridge that they could and mashing it into a giant ball: chicken, bacon, pickles, cheese, carrots, etc. I think they put potato chips in it. Gummi Bears, too.
The end result was something only slightly smaller than a medicine ball. It looked like all the contents of the fridge had been crushed in a car compactor. And then they breaded it and fried it, topping it with a remoulade sauce I had made a couple days earlier for a Mardi Gras meal. I ate it, of course, otherwise I would have had to admit I was wrong and that maybe not everything is good when fried. I don't know how many calories it was, but it's safe to assume it was the most unhealthy meal I have ever eaten.
Until now.
Burger King, in their never-ending quest to make jaw-droppingly unhealthy food, released the Angry Tendercrisp: 1030 calories, 61 grams of fat, and 2670 milligrams of sodium. (It is recommended not to exceed 2400 milligrams of sodium in an entire day.) Obviously, I had to try one.
I tried the Angry Whopper back in January after quite a while of anticipation. (An acquaintance of mine did some work on a commercial for it and had told me about it long before Burger King started advertising it.) It was tremendous letdown. Well, maybe "tremendous" is too strong a word. It was as much of a letdown as a hamburger from my least favorite fast food chain can be. It's not like it ruined my weekend. It's just a hamburger; I didn't really care.
So I wasn't expecting much from the Angry Tendercrisp. But it was much better than the Whopper. As I have written many times, though, I just don't think BK's burgers are any good. What I was most disappointed in with the Whopper was the fact that it wasn't spicy at all. The Tendercrisp is no different: the sauce has a tiny amount of bite but nothing more than that. And even the jalapenos are bland, which I can't explain. The chicken was pretty good, though.
I tried this sandwich so I could put it on the blog, but I will never eat one again. A chicken sandwich containing more than 1000 calories had better be damn good. This was not.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Luscious Dumplings Inc.

I had not seen my brother in over a month, his life being a series of jaunts to Hawaiin and Puerto Rico, punctuated with the occasional trip to Europe. "It's all for work," he reminds me, as if somehow that fact tempers my jealousy. We had made tentative plans to get some barbecue for lunch yesterday, but he sent me a text in the morning asking if we could get dumplings instead. I asked where he had in mind, although I knew exactly what he was going to say: Din Tai Fung. Which he did.

I replied that dumplings were fine but said I was tired of going there. Din Tai Fung is great and I have had some of the most fun meals of the last few years there, but I need to take a break from it. We live in the San Gabriel Valley, one of the best areas in the entire world for Asian cuisines. Going to the same place can become quite mundane, especially given the proliferation of food blogs in the Valley, a drool-inducing reminder of just how many different restaurants there are out there.
He quickly replied "Luscious Dumplings?" That sounded like a name I should know and I looked it up. I am sure I have read about it before; many of my favorite blogs have write-ups on it. It looked great. I drove over to my parents' house and my brother and our friend RB picked me up there and we headed down to San Gabriel.
It took a couple minutes to find it - it's located tucked away in a strip mall on the southeast corner of the intersection. I was shocked at how small it is - there were 8 tables - all occupied - when we arrived. There was only one other group of people ahead of us, though (this was about 11:30 in the morning) and we waited 15 minutes outside.
We were given the table closest to the kitchen, right by a television turned to the news, much louder than necessary. As is usually the case with my brother, he ordered more food than I thought was necessary: he and RB each ordered a bowl of noodles with pork, and we requested one order each of the celery and pork dumplings and cabbage, pork and shrimp dumplings. We also checked off three orders of fried pork dumplings.
"Do we need that much?" I asked. My brother assured me that he and RB were starving and it would be the right amount of food. They got their noodles first. They looked great although I didn't try any. My brother, after polishing off his bowl freakishly fast, said "I'm starting to worry that we ordered too much food."
In about ten minutes the rest of the food came out. We had five plates of dumplings on the table for the three of us. I thought for sure it was too much, but my brother surveyed the scene and said "OK, I feel more confident now that we can handle this."
The first thing I tried was the cabbage, pork and shrimp dumpling. I was impressed. These were not as good as the juicy pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung, but they were better than any other dumplings I have had there. I dipped them in the sauce I had concocted of chili oil and black vinegar, but they were so juicy and flavorful it wasn't necessary to add any outside flavor.
Next I tried the fried pork dumplings. I am not going to mince words: they were the best potstickers I have ever had. Occasionally I have had freshly fried dumplings at Empress Pavilion that I have thought were the pinnacle of postickers. But never once have they compared to these. They were perfectly fried on one side and gummy on the other. The filling was delicious. I could have eaten a bathtub full of it. (Curiously, although we had three plates of ten dumplings each, only two of the plates contained these amazing dumplings. The third plate of dumplings were no better than average. I wonder if they had been sitting out for a while or something.)
I next tried the celery and pork dumpling, thinking it couldn't be any better than the postickers. And it wasn't... but it was absolutely fantastic. I would take these over the juicy pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung, and that's a sentence I never expected to write.
We were full with about a dozen various dumplings left, but we pushed on and finished them. By this time, about 12:15, there was quite a crowd outside. The wait time was now being quoted as "over an hour," always accompanied with a shrug as if to say "but how the hell do I know, it could be two hours."
The service was decent. Nobody was friendly or cracked the smallest hint of a smile, but I've been to enough places like this to know this is the rule, not the exception. This is their world, not mine, and I'm OK with it as long is the food is this damn good. We were the only white people in the restaurant the entire time, including the crowd of people waiting outside when we left. I do not remember that happening to since a Monterey Park dim sum run I made 9 years ago with my friend Zach, when I was the only white person out of perhaps 200 in the place and the waitress handed me a fork without my asking.
I can only hope that I make it back to Luscious Dumplings some day. I cannot imagine what the wait must be like on the weekends. But, I would be willing to wait for another crack at these dumplings. Simply phenomenal.