Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Wild Boar Burger at Green Street Tavern

Last week another website did a short profile on me in which I called the burger at Green Street Tavern the best in Pasadena. A few people questioned me about that, a couple of them animatedly telling me that I was wrong. (This always makes me laugh. It's called an opinion, people; when you are profiled and you call the Carl's Jr. "Double Guacamole Bacon Burger" the best in Pasadena, I will not argue with you.) But quite a few other people were simply curious about the burger, asking what it is that makes it so good. I gave an explanation to the first couple people who asked about it, but then started saying "I tell you what, I will post a picture of it next week."

Sunday afternoon I stopped by for lunch. It was a gorgeous day and I sat at a sidewalk table on Green. There was a large party going on inside - this seems to be a fairly common occurrence these days at Green Street Tavern - but I got the table I wanted and the service was excellent as always, so I couldn't complain. I ordered the Wild Boar Burger, medium rare with fries.

It took between fifteen and twenty minutes to receive the food, a surprisingly quick time considering how busy they were. (However, I would have gladly waited twice as long; it was a beautiful afternoon and people were everywhere, a nice day for people-watching, which is always better on Green than Colorado.) I sliced my burger in half, which is somewhat of a necessity: the melted mess of manchego tends to drip out onto the plate if you attempt to eat the burger whole. I don't mind the mess, but I mind losing the cheese.

As you may have noticed in the photo, the burger was not medium-rare, it was pretty much the textbook definition of medium-well. I don't like sending things back, but I hate overcooked meat more. I took a bite to see how it was. It was still delicious. I decided to eat it. (It really was delicious. Trust me, I would have sent it back if it was not.) The cheese, greens and wild boar bacon provide a beautiful texture, and the bun is exactly what I want encasing a gourmet burger: enough resistance to hold together until the very last bite but still soft enough not to interfere with the quality of the ingredients.

The fries were once again great, and probably my favorite fries in Pasadena as well. These are freshly cut and fried twice, then served with a bit of chopped garlic and a slight dusting of truffle oil. Hell, take away Wurstkuche and these are probably my favorite fries in the entire world. I have never left one on my plate, and this time was no exception.

I have had this burger several times. This was my least favorite (because it was overcooked) but it was still fantastic. I would get this burger every single time if the "al pastor" sandwich wasn't so damn good as well. But that's a post for another time...
An Update
I decided to add this picture because the Two Guys make a good point in the comments below - pork does look different than beef when it is cooked, and pork is almost always cooked well done; very rarely is a customer given the option of medium-rare for pork. However, this picture is of the Wild Boar Burger I had a couple months ago at Green Street Tavern, again requesting it medium-rare. It's not a great picture, but you can tell that it was much juicier and pinker than the burger I had the other day. This is what I was expecting to be served again, but the burger I received was much more done. But, as I have pointed out, it was still delicious.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Carne Asada and Mexican Coke, Underneath the Wistaria on a Saturday in March

Ever since I started this blog in the summer of 2008, inspired by a comment my friend Phil made on the Barbecue & Baseball blog, I have wanted to write a title for a blog post reminiscent of something Richard Brautigan would title one of his short stories. There is no writer I have ever read - not my current favorites like Mark Arax or Jonathan Gold or my literary idols of the 20th century like Jim Harrison and Cormac McCarthy - who write sentences quite like Brautigan, equal combinations of whimsy and beauty.

Saturday afternoon I was over at my parents' house, and it felt like a nice day for carne asada. The Wistaria vine above the back patio was as beautiful as I have ever seen it. I have a lousy sense of smell, but I could smell this strongly from twenty feet away. I was grilling on the barbecue when Elizabeth sat down at one of the tables. 

"Should we eat outside?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

Years ago I used to either buy flap meat at Ralph's and marinate it for a couple days, or buy the carne asada at Taylor's butcher shop, which, although delicious, was a little too decadent for true carne asada. ("Carne asade for white people!" is how one of the butchers at Taylor's once described it to me. I have no idea what that meant but it seemed to make sense.) Then, a few years ago, I discovered the carne at King Ranch Market. Inexpensive (it was $3.99 a pound when I started buying it, it's now $4.99 but still a great bargain) and fantastic, marinated in their own blend, I became addicted to it. I cannot accurately state the number of barbecues and parties over the years at which I have made this carne asada, but it's somewhere in the dozens. 

I purchased four pounds of it at King Ranch. Admittedly this is a lot for four people, but leftover carne asada is not a problem - it can go in sandwiches, top nachos, or just be eaten cold. The meat cooks on a hot grill in about three minutes per side. Sometimes there is a lot of fat that needs to be trimmed away, but this time there was not. I chopped it up while the table was being set. I spooned some carne into three tortillas for myself, topping it with cilantro. I assumed my parents would have an onion that I could dice, but they did not. Never make assumptions.

A few weeks ago, after reading something I had written, my dad asked what the difference is with Mexican Coke. I explained that the use of cane sugar adds a slightly different sense of sweetness and, at least to me, a cleaner aftertaste. He remarked that he had never tried it. So I had also picked up four bottles at King Ranch. My dad drank his in less than two minutes. 

The tacos were outstanding. I ate five of them, adding hot sauce to my last two. My parents had been to the Victory Park farmers market in the morning and I had asked them to pick up a container of Holy Guacamole for Elizabeth, which she loves. So she added some guacamole to her tacos. I think that's disgusting but I took a picture of it anyway, since pretty much everyone I know thinks guacamole is good.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pei Wei Asian Diner

Pei Wei is owned by P.F. Chang's, a restaurant I have never much cared for, the kind of gorgeous, dimly-lit Chinese restaurant that evokes an exotic location but serving sickeningly sweet sauces ladled over food that tastes as if it has been recently defrosted and fried. A friend and I once ate an entree of crispy chicken and later looked it up online to see how much sodium it contained. The answer was about what we were expecting but the calorie count was not; it was just under three thousand calories for the dish. 

That being said, for Americanized Chinese food, it is not the worst I have ever had. (I also am not one of those people who use the term "Americanized" in a derogatory fashion. This is America, and Americanized ethnic food does not necessarily mean bad, it simply means it should be placed in a separate category from "authentic.") It's just that P.F. Chang's food costs two or three times the price of identical dishes from any average greasy-spoon Chinese takeout joint. A friend and I were once craving Asian food in Denver and were not sure of any other options, so we ate at P.F. Chang's. But in the San Gabriel Valley, a lack of Asian options is never a problem, and consequently I have not been to the Pasadena P.F. Chang's in more than seven years. 

When Pei Wei first opened in East Pasadena, I tried it and found it to be exactly what I expected: I paid close to forty dollars for three shrimp dishes, only one of which was good. The other two were perhaps the saltiest entrees I have ever eaten. That experience, combined with the fact that Fortune Chinese Cuisine was across the street, serving larger portions of better food for less money, meant I never went back. (Fortune eventually made some changes, became worse than P.F. Chang's, and, not surprisingly, closed.) I was relatively certain that would be my one and only visit to Pei Wei.

Fast forward a few years to last Friday. My brother and I met at my parents' house to take a couple of their old pieces of furniture to Goodwill. After the ordeal - one of the chairs was in such bad shape Goodwill didn't even want it - we were trying to come up with a place for a quick lunch close by. My brother used an iphone app and suggested Pei Wei. I said I would give it another try. 

"Maybe someone will take the chair while we're inside," I said hopefully as we parked.

"That would be great," he said. "Much better than if we come out and the chair is still here but my truck is gone."

This Pei Wei is one of the more boring looking structures you will ever see. If not for the narrow patio on the north side of the building it looks somewhat like a small warehouse. There were a few tables occupied but not more than ten customers in total. We briefly looked at the television screens flashing (why, I have no idea) the menus but found that annoying and walked over to the traditional menu hanging on the wall.

I was planning to order the orange chicken - which I admit is a little prosaic - but then spotted a special: Caramel Chicken. I could see a number of ways that this could go wrong, but the girl behind the counter assured me it was really good, so I decided to give it a try. We ordered six spring rolls to share and my brother ordered the Thai Blazing Noodles, choosing chicken as his protein.

We poured ourselves drinks and sat down. We noticed that the other tables waiting for food had numbers on top of them.

"How come we didn't get a number?" my brother asked.

"I dunno. Maybe because we're white."

He looked around the room. "But every single other customer in here is white, too."

This was a good point. After five minutes a server came over to our table and asked what number we were. She informed us it would be on our receipt. After confirming that we were the number she was looking for, she sat down the plates. Of the wrong food. My brother straightened it out and she went away, returning about a minute later with the correct food. 

The spring rolls were lousy. They are advertised as containing ginger and onion but I did not taste either, and that's a shame, because they were very bland. My brother only ate half of one; he liked them even less than I did. (That evening, I reheated the leftover spring rolls in the oven and ate them with a spicy sauce; they were much better that way.) Fortunately, he liked his noodles a lot. I took a piece of his chicken and it was surprisingly tender and spicy. I could have eaten a bunch of them.

My caramel chicken was also surprisingly good. My fear was that it would be much too sweet, but it was not, and it had a nice amount of spice that crept up on the back end of each bite. I had requested brown rice and it was passable, if a little bland. It also came with a slaw of veggies with plenty of cilantro. This was delicious and I wished there was more of it.

I certainly don't plan on going to Pei Wei again, although this was a more enjoyable meal than my previous visit. It's more expensive than it should be (this meal was $28 for the two of us, and neither of us had alcohol) but it's still cheaper than P.F. Chang's. However, as it always comes down to with places like this, there are just far too many much better Asian options in the San Gabriel Valley for me to come here again.

Friday, March 26, 2010

King Taco

King Taco has been open for several years in Old Town, but I'd only eaten there twice, both years ago, and neither time was I impressed. The food just didn't taste very fresh. This was the fifth or sixth King Taco I had been to, and by far my least favorite. It wasn't terrible but if it was late at night I much preferred the taco truck that used to be in the parking lot on Fair Oaks and Union, where The Container Store is now. During the day, I preferred heading up Fair Oaks a few blocks to El Taquito, which I've always thought was several times better than King Taco.  

But I was meeting my friend Bryce to drink some beer and watch some March Madness, so I figured I could use a little snack first. This was about 4 in the afternoon and King Taco was as uncrowded as I have ever seen it. I ordered one chicken taco and one carne asada, both with hot sauce. The food was ready in less than a minute. The two tacos and a drink cost just over four dollars. 

The chicken taco was much better than I remembered, but the carne asada was the same. I can't really complain too much about a taco that cost $1.25, especially when I ate all of it, but this tasted like carne that had been sitting around for a day or two. If I return - which may well be a few more years - I will stick to the chicken.

Overall, I have to say I like King Taco. It serves its dual purpose of feeding the lunch crowds and the late night crowds (they're open very late on the weekends). It's nice to have a few places left that are inexpensive and easy. But I'm more excited about the hot dog joint opening next door than I am about returning to King Taco.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Slaw Dogs IV: "Farewell-To-Winter Dog"

The Slaw Dogs is nothing if not ambitious with its "special" dogs. A couple of times I have been richly rewarded, but an equal number of times I have been underwhelmed. Today's dog most definitely falls into the former category. The Farewell-to-Winter Dog came with sweet potato fries tucked into the bottom,  with cripsy sage, melted Swiss cheese, bacon, grilled onions, and roasted garlic mayo. 

I don't know if I have ever had the combination of bacon and crispy sage on anything. I'm not going to say it's better than garlic and basil, but it's still one of the best combinations I have ever eaten. This dog is in serious competition for the best dog I have had yet from The Slaw Dogs. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Olvera Street

When Elizabeth's sisters were here visiting last September, we took them down to Olvera Street one afternoon. It was the perfect afternoon for the place: very hot and not too crowded. We finished off a couple hours of shopping - Dawn bought a "Los Doyers" t-shirt and Kate bought a painting of a large naked woman - with some cold drinks on the patio of one of the cantinas.

Dawn, who is getting married in July, recently decided there is something she saw on that trip that she would like to be a part of her wedding. (I'm not supposed to say what, on the off chance that one of my seven readers might somehow be at the wedding, and thus the surprise would be ruined.) 

So Elizabeth and I headed down to Olvera Street to see if we could pick up this particular thing. We took our friend Carla with us, who had not been there in years. After the shopping, we stopped into El Paseo Inn for a snack. We started with chips and salsa, which were great. There are very few things in life that I find more addicting than tortilla chips when they're fresh out of the fryer. Elizabeth ordered a peach margarita and I opted for a Pacifico (I've never been a margarita fan). Carla asked the waitress's advice and ended up getting a Cadillac Margarita. 

The patio was crowded so we sat inside. This did not bother me; I love the inside of this building. Unfortunately, three kids were raising hell - running around the place at full speed, swinging toys on the end of strings, and climbing on the vacant tables, throwing the clean silverware at each other. A table full of women sat nearby but I could not tell if the kids belonged to the women, as they made no effort to stop the kids' activities. Eventually they got up to leave - and sure enough, the kids did belong to them. F**k, I hate people sometimes. 

We ordered some chimichangas - flour tortillas stuffed with chicken and spices, rolled, and covered with tons of cheese and green salsa. These were absolutely delicious, like the flautas we'd had at Casa del Rey, only the exact opposite. We were thinking about getting another appetizer but instead decided to have a churro.

We left El Paseo and walked down to a churro cart. Churros might be one of the things that are more addictive than fresh tortilla chips. These were fantastic. Some people were getting their churros filled with caramel or creme, but we opted to eat them plain. I could have eaten at least five of these. 

I really like Olvera Street. Yes, it's usually crowded and it's pretty much a tourist trap. In half a dozen trips there over the last few years, I have yet to see one item in any of the stores that I would like to own. But there is a certain charm to the place: it may be dirty and cramped, but it's ours, you know? The oldest existing house in Los Angeles is there, built in 1818 - the equivalent of something 500 years old on the East Coast.  

Afterwards we walked over to Union Station to catch the Gold Line home. This is one of my favorite buildings in Los Angeles, and we stopped at the Traxx bar to have a beer before we left. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Brother's 30th Birthday, Part II

As I mentioned yesterday, Sunday was my brother's 30th birthday and I spent the afternoon with him, eating lousy Mexican food and shopping for his party. Sunday evenings aren't my favorite for hanging out anymore, so Elizabeth and I spent the afternoon prepping for the party and left relatively early.

A decade ago I was living in Boulder, Colorado, and one day my friend Erik and I went up to Golden for the afternoon. We visited the Golden City Brewery ("The 2nd Largest Brewery In Golden," still one of my favorite slogans ever) and the Spyderco factory. I bought two kitchen knives, one of which was a santoku that I loved but had not seen in years. I figured it got lost in one of my moves over the years and hadn't thought about it in a while. I found it in my brother's knife block. It was nice to be reunited with it.
We put out some chips and salsa and pita chips with dips, all from Trader Joe's. There is nothing particularly special about these, but they were tasty and went quickly.
I cooked some TJ's "Pastry Pups" (delicious) and some flatbreads (not so delicious) and only set off the fire alarm once.  
Sometimes when I cook brats in a pan of beer on the grill - actually, most of the time - I use whatever beer I have, often the cans of lower-quality stuff in the garage that have been left over from barbecues. But for this occasion I decided to use Alaskan Amber - one of my favorite amber beers. I emptied several bottle into the pan.
I cooked six of the seven packages of Johnsonville brats in the beer. They took about 25 minutes to be (mostly) cooked. I took out a few of them for people who were already there and grilled them directly on the grates for a few minutes to get them golden. I took off the pan, put it to the side and covered it with foil, figuring after I left guests could take brats out of the pan and finish them on the grill. 
I made myself one just the way I like it - with sauerkraut, caramelized onions (my brother had a full set of Le Creuset pots and I cooked several sweet onions for more than an hour until the were beautifully caramelized) and spicy brown mustard. I only had two beers during the afternoon; if I'd had a couple more I might have been able to eat several of these brats, but one filled me up.
Instead of a birthday cake, my brother wanted clown cones, so before my parents came over they went by Baskin Robbins and picked up 35 of them. I was too stuffed from appetizers and the brat to have one, but I still took a picture of the one that I felt looked most like me.