Friday, May 28, 2010

Fast Food Review: Burger King Whiplash Whopper

When I first heard of the "Whiplash Whopper," I immediately thought Well, there's something I'll never try. A new burger from my least favorite fast food restaurant, named after a Mickey Rourke character in Iron Man 2 (I haven't seen Iron Man 2; apparently I'm the only person in America who didn't like the first one), and one that isn't even being promoted since Burger King is so busy pushing their fast food ribs? No thanks.

Then a funny thing happened the other night. Well, it's probably only funny to me, so I will spare you the details. At any rate, Elizabeth and I were on the Central Coast at the start of a wine-tasting weekend and our original dinner plans fell through; we found ourselves on a street with three food options: an Italian restaurant that looked as if it hadn't had a customer in a few years, Carl's Jr., and Burger King. I decided to try BK.

The Whiplash Whopper sounded suspiciously like the Angry Whopper: spicy sauce, crispy onions, spicy cheese. I tried the Angry Whopper twice last year and thought it was terrible and, unforgivably, bland. Even the jalapenos on the thing were bland, which I did not think was possible. So while waiting the fifteen minutes for my food (seriously, it takes a quarter of an hour to get a Whopper ready?) my expectations were pretty low.

The first thing I noticed when I got the sandwich was the heft of it. It felt like a shot put in my hands. I unwrapped it and removed the tomato and noticed how many fried onions and fried red pepper pieces were on it. I took a bite.

Here's the part I didn't expect: it was really good. The meat tasted like a fresh beef patty just grilled up at a backyard barbecue. I cannot remember ever having a BK patty that did not taste freezer-burned and dry. Until now. And it was actually spicy. It was, unquestionably, the best thing I have ever had from Burger King.

So I'm a little torn. I would like to eat one of these again, but I want to eat this exact burger. I could see myself ordering another one and having it be terrible. So maybe I should just let it remain my one great experience at BK. (However, I would certainly try this again before I ever try those ridiculous ribs.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gambas al pil-pil

Last week my friend Mick returned from a month-long vacation in Europe. Several of my friends have gotten in the habit of emailing me pictures of food from their vacations when they find something particularly good. Mick sent me a picture of a dish he had in Spain that he referred to as "shrimp pil-pil." I had never heard of such a thing but it looked amazing, so I went online to find out exactly what it is.

It's very similar to gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic): it's shrimp with garlic, oil, and peppers, usually served in an ceramic dish and accompanied with crusty bread. I immediately made plans to make it soon, reading different recipes and gathering ideas. Last night seemed like a good time to experiment.

As an appetizer, I toasted some crostini and topped it with Drunken Goat. I have written of this cheese many times so a brief description is all that is necessary: a Spanish goat cheese submerged in red wine for 72 hours. To offset the mild, fruity nature of the cheese I baked some prosciutto in the oven for twenty minutes, crisping it up. I then sprinkled some basil over the pieces.

For the shrimp, I sauteed chopped garlic in olive oil and butter until it was golden, then added two kinds of peppers - pepperoncini and sweet peppers - for a couple minutes, turning up the heat. I coated the shrimp with paprika and added them; they cooked quickly, no more than three minutes. Most pil-pil recipes call for a dusting of parsley, which I love but Elizabeth does not. So I used cilantro instead, along with a few sprinkles of red chili flakes.

I poured the shrimp into a ceramic container (a Trader Joe's fan might recognize it as one of the vessels the TJ's creme brulee comes in) and served it with slices of bread. It was fantastic. I will absolutely make this again, although next time I will add some more sweet peppers and also a few drops of sherry.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pizza & The Lakers (2010 Edition)

I wanted something simple for dinner last night so that I could watch the Angels and Lakers games. Pizza is always pretty easy to make and usually delicious, so that's what I decided on. (Plus, last year I made pizza several times during the Lakers playoff run, which ended with a championship.) I had some fresh mozzarella in the fridge and my original idea was to make my favorite pizza: roasted garlic and basil. But - and I cannot believe I am admitting to this - I did not have any garlic in the house. I don't know what to say. But I did have prosciutto and mini sweet peppers, so I was able to make do.

My mom told me yesterday that she liked my post on KFC but wishes I would "stop eating so much fried crap." I tried to explain that my fast food posts are always popular and that is the rock upon which I am building my empire. (I also considered
expressing my affection for this guy, but in the end decided not to.) At any rate, although pizza is not exactly health food, eating half of a homemade pizza is a lot healthier than most things you can get from KFC.

Fresh mozzarella makes any pizza much better, however it can turn into a runny mess while waiting for the dough to cook in the oven. So I stretched out the crust on the pizza pan and baked it by itself for just under ten minutes in the oven. Then I topped it with a spicy tomato and garlic sauce (that sounds exotic, I suppose, but really the only reason I got it is that it was on sale for $1 at Raphs), the cheese, half a dozen slices of prosciutto, and several slivers of the mini pepper.

After 7 minutes in the oven (at 500 degrees) it was exactly as I wanted it. I removed it, sprinkled a generous amount of chopped basil over it, and served it up. It was delicious. The prosciutto was from Trader Joe's and was a little too salty, but that's a minor complaint. The total cost for this pizza was probably less than $5.

Apparently cooking pizzas during the Lakers game isn't good luck like it was last year, but I may try again this weekend.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fast Food Review: KFC Extra Crispy Strips

There once was a show called 24. The premise was relatively simple: bad people wanted to kill millions of Americans, usually by some form of weapon of mass destruction, and a man named Jack Bauer would do whatever it took to stop that. If Jack needed to shoot a child molester and then cut his head off to infiltrate a gang of criminals, then so be it. ("I'm gonna need a hacksaw.") When life handed Jack Bauer lemons, he killed terrorists. Because, well, Jack Bauer f**king hates lemonade.

If the show was absurd - and it most definitely was - there was never any apologizing for it. Taking place in real time, characters would say things along the lines of "I'm in Ontario, I will be in Santa Monica in 8 minutes." And then they would be in Santa Monica in 8 minutes and nobody would act as if there was anything strange about it. Jack would inevitably save the day, usually by some combination of breaking the law, torturing some bad guys, and killing a few to save the many. Jack's heroism was not in his ruthlessness - although, not surprisingly, many saw it that way - but rather his acceptance of the fact that what he was doing was sometimes wrong and he would have to pay the price for his actions. If he had to destroy his old identity and go into hiding, or be tortured in a Chinese prison for 20 months, he faced the consequences.

Then, somewhere along the way, the powers that be decided instead of Jack killing terrorists, the show would be better if it involved corrupt politicians, increasingly conspiratorial plots, and less action. Not surprisingly, ratings tumbled, and finally the show was cancelled. Last night was the final episode, and I wanted to watch it, although I'm not quite sure why. It hasn't really entertained me in 5 years. (Of course, I watch Angels games this season, too; like 24 I know I'm probably not going to like the outcome but still I watch in hope.)

Over the weekend I saw KFC ads for new "extra crispy strips." I was not sure if these were going to actually be a new product or just the chicken strips that they used to serve years ago, before they came out with the disgusting "original recipe strips." So last night I decided to give them a try. It seemed like a simple thing to eat in front of the TV.

I ordered a six piece chicken strips with potato wedges and cole slaw. KFC has two new sauces: Spicy Chipotle and "KFC's Signature Sauce," whatever the hell that means. I got one of each. Unwrapping the box, I realized that these were indeed the same strips that KFC used to have. That's not necessarily a bad thing - for a few years I worked less than a block from a KFC and I used to eat these strips more than I probably should have - but these aren't quite the "new" product KFC is making them out to be.

They were just as good as the used to be: satisfying, if not exactly delicious. I do not think I will ever get them again but you could do a lot worse. Interestingly, the two sauces tasted exactly the same to me: creamy and not very spicy. They even look the same. Elizabeth had gotten her favorite item from KFC, popcorn chicken, and I asked her to try the sauces. She said the chipotle sauce was slightly spicier, but she agreed they were very similar.

So we ate our chicken, I watched some of the baseball game (the Angels lost) and we watched 24. It could have been much worse, but it was still pretty unsatisfying. I did not expect anything different, though.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Taco Grill

On Friday I picked up some canyoneering equipment and took it out to my brother's house in Glendora. This was about 11:15 in the morning, during those 90 minutes on Fridays when traffic isn't too terrible yet on the 210 freeway, and he asked me if I wanted to get some tacos. I shrugged and said "Sure." I don't get to hang out with my brother as much as I would like to these days, and I always enjoy eating with him, but I wasn't terribly excited about the prospect.

Glendora is in Los Angeles County but it's always felt more like the Inland Empire to me, or maybe Claremont or La Verne: a sleepy bedroom community, the kind of place I would enjoy living but not necessarily dining. I think the best meal I'd ever had in Glendora was at Chili's. I was not expecting much from a taco place.

When we got there I was expecting even less. It's a hole-in-the-wall in the Sport Chalet shopping center, just north of the 210. We walked in and the man behind the counter lit up when he saw my brother.

"Hey man," he said. "7 tacos, meat and cheese only?" (My brother later revealed to me that he eats there about three times per week.) I needed a little longer to study the menu. I decided to get the same kind of taco as my brother - a hard shell chicken taco, without the "guacamole sauce" that the tacos come with. I ordered a carnitas quesadilla and an al pastor soft taco in addition.

We had to wait about ten minutes for our food, so we stood outside and talked.

"I think you're going to like these," my brother said. "They're awesome."

That was good to hear. Although my brother and I diverge a bit on our favorite kind of foods (He loves Mexican and South American food, but not the kinds that are my favorite; I love Asian cuisines most of all, but not the kinds that he does) when he assures me that I will like something, he is always right.

We got the food and drove the short distance back to his house. I snacked on a few tortilla chips on the way back; they were awesome - thick, freshly fried and salty. We laid the food out on the counter and cracked a couple bottles of Session Premium Lager, from Full Sail Brewing Company in Hood River, Oregon. (One of the most beautiful locations in the entire country, by the way. My friend Tom and I once spent the better part of a summer afternoon sitting in their taproom, sipping beer and watching windsurfers on the Columbia River.)

I had not received my carnitas quesadilla - they had given me a soft taco instead. My brother pointed out that he had not heard me order the quesadilla and guessed the man working there had not as well. (My brother had paid for the food, and he said he hadn't been charged for a quesadilla.)

I was a little upset about it because I had wanted a quesadilla... until I bit into my chicken taco. Wow. I do not remember the last time I had a better hard shell taco. The citrus-marinated chicken was amazing, tucked into the bottom of the tortilla that I had watched the guy fry right in front of me. The cheese was higher quality than most places like this use. The three things blended together into one of the best things I have eaten all year.

The al pastor was almost as good as the chicken: marinated pork, with cilantro and onions (also no guacamole sauce). I wished I had gotten more than one of these, or perhaps an al pastor torta instead. I'm not sure I can eat King Taco ever again; their al pastor tacos are a pale imitation of these.

The carnitas was the only thing I did not love. It was good, but a little too dry by itself. I added some of their red sauce to it - which was pretty damn hot - and it was better. But it did not blow me away like the chicken and the al pastor did. I suppose it was a good thing I did not get the quesadilla after all.

I am not sure I can accurately descibe how much I like Taco Grill. Would it be the same if it wasn't a last-minute decision to eat there, or if I had higher expectations? Probably not. But it was what it was and I loved it. I am already planning my next trip there, which I guarantee will be soon.

PS: My brother wanted me to take a picture of a beer and some tacos with the Full Sail Brewing Co.'s website on his iPad in the background. I said that was absurd and refused. But then I thought about it: that's a pretty simple request, and he did buy me lunch. So, why not?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fresh & Easy Onion Bhajis

I had planned to write today about Elizabeth's birthday dinner the other night, when four of us went out to a popular Pasadena restaurant that many people have raved about, including friends and bloggers whose opinions I really respect. Neither Elizabeth nor I had ever been there before and we were both looking forward to it.

How I can I put this?... Let's just say that since Hooters closed a year and a half ago, there hasn't really been a restaurant in Pasadena that I hate. Now there is. Everything about the meal was disappointing, from the obnoxious noise level to how ridiculously close the tables were to each other (the man at the next table was literally 10 inches away from Elizabeth), from the apathetic service (a server dropped a knife off a plate onto my leg and didn't even apologize, then left the knife on the floor for ten minutes) to the quality of the food, almost everything was disappointing. Of the four entrees on our table, only one was good. Thankfully, that belonged to the birthday girl, whose salmon was actually very tasty.

So I won't be writing about that place today. I may give that restaurant another try at some point, perhaps for lunch, before I write about it. Because there is no freaking way our experience the other night can be a typical one. Instead, I will write briefly about our dinner last night.

A couple weeks ago, while eating dinner at Mezbaan, I realized I had never written anything about Fresh & Easy's onion bhajis. I have been eating them for more than two years; they are always a great snack or part of a meal. The packages are big enough for two people to share and cost $2.99. They can be fried or baked in the oven. Frying gets them crispier, obviously, but there is not any noticeable difference in taste. So I usually cook them in the oven to be healthier.

Last night that's what I made for dinner. (Dessert was cotton candy from the farmers market.) I left the bhajis in the oven for about twenty minutes - which is a little bit longer than necessary, but I was making a sauce. I mixed sour cream with a small amount of mayo (about 3 parts of the former to one part of the latter) with a tablespoon of lime juice and some chopped cilantro. I had looked at two recipes online, and both called for two tablespoons of cilantro. So I did what I usually do in such instances: I doubled the amount. Fresh, farmers market cilantro is one of the truly great things in life. Never has someone said to me "Hmm, I think there is too much cilantro in this."

The bhajis were delicious, as they usually are. I do not know what kind of spice blend Fresh & Easy uses to coat the bhajis, but I like it. Of course, they aren't as good as freshly made bhaji at an Indian restaurant, but for something already cooked that you can keep in your fridge and reheat at home, they are very good, one of my favorite items with the Fresh & Easy label.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company

For a long time I have passed by the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, on Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. But I never went there. I don't have any good reason why; I have certainly eaten a couple times at another restaurant on the wharf that I found to be average in every way. Perhaps I never felt the Shellfish Co. would justify the wait time: I have never seen there not be a waiting list.

A few years ago I saw it featured on Rachael Ray's $40 a Day - that hyper-annoying show where she ventures to places like the Hamptons and Aspen and drops thousands of dollars on shopping sprees but then shows us how to eat three meals for only $40, a task usually accomplished by some combination of antithetical-to-vacation ideas like eating early bird dinners at 4:30 PM and leaving the server an 8% tip.

But there was one thing about the episode that caught my eye: some of the food they were showing looked damn good. My ideas about the place became a little less harsh. Then, in the last two years, two different groups of people I know went to the Shellfish Co. and sent me pictures. The food looked awesome. Last week, at a happy hour, a man overheard some friends and I talking about possibly going by the Shellfish Co. this past weekend and he enthusiastically said "Aw man, you gots to go there and get some chowda and shrimps." I love it when people talk like TV characters. The die was cast. We were going there.

Sunday morning, on the way back from Buellton (and yes, for the several people who have asked me, we stayed at "the Windmill" from Sideways) we stopped on the wharf. We were having an early lunch because we still had plans to go to the California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard later in the day. (I had planned to do a blog post on that as well, but it was a gigantic mess; thousands of people waiting in long lines everywhere.)

Since it was early - a little after 11 - we were able to take two seats at the bar. (By the time we left, about 45 minutes later, the place had filled up and there were a dozen people waiting outside.) The inside of the restaurant is fantastic, resembling fish shacks I have visited on the East Coast. There are several signs advertising specials above the stoves and fryers in the open kitchen. I was trying to decide if I could handle a Maine lobster or bucket of crabs before noon.

Elizabeth ordered a cup of clam chowder to start. I asked for some bisque. The latter was nothing special at all, very bland. It was not bad by any means, but it was no better than the bisque from Whole Foods or Fish King (both of which are great). The chowder, however, was fantastic. I am not a big fan of clam chowder and I never order it, but I always try it if Elizabeth says it's good. This was the best I have ever had.

Elizabeth ordered the coconut shrimp. It is listed under the "smaller bites" section of their menu, which gave us a good laugh: it was a pretty large amount of food. She loved them. I do not like coconut shrimp but I tried one. The breading was full of coconut flavor (so I did not care for it) but the shrimp were amazing: huge pieces that were remarkably tender and juicy.

I had the crab cakes. It was a toss-up between ordering those or the crab melt, but I asked the waitress's opinion and she said that while both are very popular, the crab cakes are slightly more so, and they are her favorite. They were outstanding, full of fresh crab meat and lightly fried. Everyone who likes crab cakes knows the frustration of getting an order where the breading is fried to a dark crisp and the taste of crab takes a backseat to the burnt breading. These were fried golden and the crab meat was the star of the show.

The onion rings were somewhat of an afterthought, but they were still really good: giant pieces of sweet onion, loosely battered and fried. The cole slaw wasn't my favorite - it was much too sweet - but that's about as minor a complaint as I could possibly make about this meal.

I look forward to returning to the Shellfish Co. at some point and having their crab or lobster. I may even order a cup of clam chowder for the first time in my life.