Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trader Joe's Mahi Mahi

Trader Joe's once again comes through with a great, easy to make product: seasoned mahi mahi fillets. Mahi mahi has been my favorite fish for a few years, so when I saw a package of it in the frozen section of TJ's, vacuum sealed in a package with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, parsley, red chili and black pepper, I thought it would be good to grill for dinner.

I took it out of the freezer and let it thaw in the fridge overnight. Once the grill was hot I threw the fish on, cooking it for about five minutes on each side.

I had a package of shredded cabbage and I made a simple cole slaw - mayonnaise, vinegar, a few drops of olive oil and a generous amount of fresh cracked pepper. The second thing I ever started making myself, when I was 20 and first got into cooking, was cole slaw. I found a recipe online for cole slaw that I thought sounded good so I made it for a party, and more than a dozen people told me it was the best cole slaw they'd ever had. I do not remember if I told them it was a recipe I'd found or if I tried to pass it off as my own. (My guess would be the latter.) I used to make it frequently (and everyone said it was amazing), but it calls for about a dozen ingredients, so I've found that this scaled-down version of it is easier - especially when I'm just making it for one or two people.

I also wanted some potato chips to go with this dinner, so I went by Whole Foods to look at their selection. They had a bag of Terra chips in a new "General Tso" flavor with a $1 off coupon adhered to the bag, so that's all I bought. The total at checkout, with the coupon discount, was $1.86. I'm reasonably certain that's the smallest amount I have ever spent at Whole Foods. I heated the chips in the oven, at 350 degrees for five minutes, to warm them up and release some of the oils. They were very good.

The fish was outstanding - tender and very juicy. The lemon flavor was almost overpowering so I added more black pepper to it. If I had been serving this to guests I would have melted some butter on the fish as it grilled, but I was trying to make it somewhat healthy.

I will definitely try this mahi mahi again, perhaps even chopping it up and serving it in tacos next time.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Slaw Dogs V and VI

It's been a while since I've written about The Slaw Dogs. My trips there have slowed down, no question. There have been several times I have driven by with the intention of eating there but the lines snaked down the street and I went somewhere else. Now that the weather is nicer it's more fun to eat outside at In-N-Out, where, let's be honest, the food is just as good and half the price. But mostly I just couldn't keep going to Slaw Dogs as much as I did when it opened or I knew I would get sick of the place. ("I must confess/ I could use some rest/ I can't run at this pace very long")

Not long ago I did a favor for my mom, running something by her work, and she suggested we meet my dad in Old Town for lunch. He wanted to try Big City Hot Dogs. I'd read a few things about the place - just enough to know that it didn't interest me. My friend Tracie ate there and reported that it was nothing more than average, and it was damned with faint praise by Ben over at the sky is big in pasadena, that treasure trove of daily photographs of Pasadena. I said we should try someplace else instead.

So (without my input) it was decided that we would go to Slaw Dogs. That was fine with me, I'm always up for a hot dog. There was one left that I had yet to try: the "TNT," a 10" dog stuffed into a burrito with chili, cheese, grilled onions, french fries, bacon and pastrami. It was delicious and I ate it a little too quickly. "Do you want another one?" my mom asked me. I'm not going to lie: I kind of did. But I knew I shouldn't, so I just munched on a few fries. And hour later I was very glad I hadn't attempted to eat a second TNT.

My dad - this was his first trip to The Slaw Dogs - ordered a beer bratwurst with nothing on it. "You don't want any toppings?" I asked.

"No," he said.

He loved it, and after eating it he went up and got another.

"This is delicious," he commented. "Toppings only would have ruined the flavor."

On Sunday, a couple hours before we headed down to Chavez Ravine, Elizabeth and I wanted to get a quick bite. A week or two earlier she mentioned that she hadn't been to Slaw Dogs in a while and wanted to return. So I suggested we give it a try. It wasn't terribly crowded and we were able to place our order within five minutes of entering. (I didn't have my camera with me so I had to use my phone; that's why the pictures aren't particularly good.)

Elizabeth ordered the Picnic Dog - the hot dog I'd eaten on my first visit to the place - and she liked it, although there was too much barbecue sauce on it for her to love it. I opted for the special: a Buffalo Dog, with slaw, blue cheese dressing, buffalo wing sauce, carrots and celery.

The dog was delicious, although the bun seemed comically short. I understand that I ordered a foot-long hot dog and it was probably going to be too long for the bun, but when the dog is covered with these great toppings - and costs seven bucks - it would have been nice to have a longer bun (like the Dodger Dogs we ate later that day). There was no way to spread the toppings onto half the dog.

It might be a few more weeks before my next trip to Slaw Dogs (unless they come up with a menu special that I can't resist), but I know the next thing I want to try: kimchi sweet potato fries.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Golden China

I've written about Golden China before but we will revisit it; it is not the best Chinese food you will ever have - if you've any sense of culinary adventure and have explored the San Gabriel Valley, it's probably not in the top 50% of Chinese food you have had - but it is tasty, fast, inexpensive and plentiful.

Elizabeth had a half-day on Friday and we had been craving Chinese food for a few days, so we had planned in advance to eat at Golden China. Their lunch specials, introduced to me by my friend Les a couple years ago, run until 3 PM on weekdays, and we stopped in just after 2. (For those who don't know where it is - and, even though I had passed by it more than one hundred times, I did not know where it was before Les told me about it - Golden China is in the shopping center with Vons and Round Table Pizza on Fair Oaks.) It was by far the least crowded I have ever seen the place.

We both decided to try items for the first time. (My favorite food of theirs, the House Special Beef - crispy beef with tangerine peel - is not available as a lunch special or I would order that every time.) I ordered the sweet & sour chicken; Elizabeth opted for the Mongolian beef. She was also craving egg rolls, so we ordered an appetizer of that as well.

"You know," the waiter said, "you get an egg roll with each lunch."

"Yes," I said, "but we need more."

Every lunch special comes with soup, rice, the aforementioned egg roll, and a small amount of salad. The speed at which the food comes out is ridiculous. I mean, almost unbelievable. The U.S. soccer team wouldn't even have enough time to give up a goal before the first of the food hits the table. We got our soup within perhaps one minute.

The hot & sour soup was disappointing. Usually I really enjoy this soup but this time it was a gelatinous, not-even-slightly-spicy mess. Neither of us ate more than a few bites of it. Thankfully, the egg rolls were out within two minutes, and they were much better. Golden China's hot mustard is fantastic, a sinus-clearing blast of flavor that I use liberally with the egg rolls.

Just seconds after getting the egg rolls, we got plates with the rice, salad, and our additional egg roll, all of which were good. The Mongolian beef arrived shortly thereafter. I wasn't expecting very much from it; in my experience that dish is usually inferior, much-too-salty beef. This was some of the best I've ever had.

The sweet & sour chicken came out a couple minutes later. (It might have taken longer to receive this dish than any I have ever ordered here: almost seven minutes.) The white meat chicken and batter were very good while still hot, although after a few minutes of sitting in the sweet & sour sauce, it lost its crunch. It was still good, but not great once it got cold.

I would order the Mongolian beef again but probably not the sweet & sour chicken. But they were still both good that evening: a lunch at Golden China always means leftovers for dinner. Some Chinese places with lunch specials give you a much smaller portion of the food. Golden China gives you pretty much the same amount of food you would get if you had ordered an entree. We took two boxes home with us and ate leftovers for dinner while watching the Dodgers-Yankees game, and we still didn't finish the food.

The cost for lunch (and dinner)? $18. Both lunch specials were $5.85 each.

Elizabeth once told me that when she was a kid and her family got Chinese food, she would would take the stuffing out of the egg roll, mix it with the rice, and call it "Chow Mei." (I had to ask her how to spell that for the purposes of the blog; she looked at me as if I had asked a completely unreasonable question and said "Like Chow Mein without the n.")

"Make Chow Mei!" I said to her.

"OK," she said, "although I can't believe I'm 30 and I'm doing this."

I have to admit, it did look pretty good. I also kind of wanted to eat the empty fried egg roll wrapper. But I did not.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Mamma's Brick Oven Pizza

There's a scene in the movie Old School where the guys are hanging out in a restaurant and a KFC is visible outside the window and across the street. That KFC was on Fair Oaks (I never went there) and closed down a few years ago. Mamma's Brick Oven Pizza opened in its place. When I saw Old School in the theater, I never could have known that half a decade later I would move a half-mile from that location. But I did, and I tried Mamma's for the first time shortly after moving to South Pasadena.

I wrote about Mamma's more than a year and a half ago, but it wasn't very in-depth and the pictures weren't great, so I'm revisiting the place. I could list many reasons why I love Mamma's, or I could just point out that my better half lived in New York for the first 28 years of her life, including 4 years of college in the Bronx and several years living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, and this is the only pizza around here that she says reminds her of New York.

Ah hell, I will still list some of the reasons I love the place. When we moved to South Pasadena two years ago, Mamma's gave us a coupon for a free pizza with the words "Welcome to the neighborhood" on it. The service has always been great at Mamma's; every time I have had to wait a few minutes longer than I was told (I always do pick-up) they have given me a couple free garlic knots and something to drink. The people working there are always friendly.

Of course, all those little things would be meaningless if the food wasn't good. And it is damn good. When I first started eating Mamma's, I would explore some of the different pizzas on the menu, before settling on my standard: garlic and basil. Once, my buddy Phil told me I should try the chicken bacon ranch pizza, even offering to pay for it if I didn't like it. My friend Tracie and I ate it one evening and did like it, but I did not think it was anything too special, and I quickly returned to the garlic and basil.

Then I fell in love with "The Grandma's" pizza: margherita sauce, olive oil, fresh mozzarella, fresh garlic and fresh basil, all on a 16" by 16" square crust. It is one of the best pizzas I have ever had.

A few days ago I was having a beer with my friend Carla, who had taken a couple days off to celebrate her birthday. (Things I Should Have Known, Part 216: no matter how good a friend, never point out to a woman on her birthday that she is almost as old as the President of the United States.) She mentioned that she had never tried Mamma's and wondered if it was good. I assured her it was, and invited her over to my place that evening to give it a try.

As soon as Elizabeth got home I ordered the pizza, with the requisite garlic knots, and, since there were three of us (and it was Carla's first time having Mamma's), some toasted cheese ravioli. They told me it would be ready in 20 minutes, which was almost exactly accurate, and we picked up the food and returned the few blocks home.

It had been by far the longest stretch I have gone in the last two years without having this pizza. Now that I have a pizza pan for the oven and a pizza stone for the grill, it is much more likely that I get dough at Trader Joe's or Fresh & Easy and make my own pizza at home. (I've done the math and each one of those pizzas I make at home costs about four and a half dollars.) But damn... I had forgotten how good this pizza is. The zesty pizza sauce and the fresh cheese are an amazing combination and the thin crust is exactly how I want a pizza crust to be.

"What do you think?" I asked Carla.

"This is amazing," she replied.

"I'm surprised you even have taste buds left at your age."

(Okay, no, I didn't say that last line, that would have just been mean.)

When I had ordered the food, I asked for a dozen garlic knots. Elizabeth immediately said "I think you should get 18." As usual she was much smarter than I; we ended up eating all but two of them. (The additional 6 knots cost $1.75, one of the better deals in town.) They aren't always bursting with garlic flavor - sometimes they definitely could use more - but they are always delicious. The cheese ravioli has to be eaten immediately or the cheese hardens and loses some of the flavor, but when they are fresh and hot they are really good. I dip both the knots and the ravioli in the marinara sauce, which is one of the best ones I have ever had.

I tried to get the ladies to finish the pizza but they threw in the towel. It was sixteen slices and I said that if they each ate five I would eat six. They didn't go along with it. I tried to finish it myself - I probably had at least seven slices, actually - but then, feeling a little full and looking at the two remaining slices, I decided I would appreciate them more in the morning.

And I was absolutely right. Leaving those last two slices for my breakfast was one of the better calls on my part, because Mamma's pizza meets the standard of mine that only the late, great King Arthur's was able to live up to: it is every bit as good when eaten cold the next day.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Give Elizabeth Crabs

I've been feeling particularly blessed as a sports fan this month. The Angels swept the Dodgers for the first time ever at Dodger Stadium. USC football finally got punished for what everyone knew all along: there was something shady going on with their great football teams of the mid-decade. I'm not a big soccer fan, but it is impossible not to get caught up in the majesty of the World Cup. And the Lakers won a second consecutive championship - I'm 31 and they have now won 10 titles in my lifetime - by beating the Celtics.

Last night was a continuation of this great month: hearing Vin Scully call an Angels game. Very few things are better. (A few times last night I turned away from the Dodgers coverage of the game to the Angels telecast so I could hear the stunningly boring Angels announcers call the game for a couple minutes, just to appreciate the difference.) So it was a night for something very simple for dinner.

Elizabeth and I both love crab, so to surprise her I got a container of jumbo lump crab meat from Whole Foods. I mixed up a vinaigrette of mustard, green onion, olive oil and vinegar and tossed it with the crab, serving it in a glass. It is very simple and incredibly delicious; the tart, spicy sauce is a nice contrast to the sweetness of the crab.

Very few foods I know of elicit such love-it-or-hate-it opinions as dill. Elizabeth and I both love it. (Our friends Murph and Tim both hate it, and the mere mention of it makes them look like they're going to be ill.) We had a jack cheese with dill in the fridge, which I chopped up and put in a tortilla with a handful of the crab meat, some diced jalapeno, and a few sprinkles of dill.

I grilled those for a few minutes on each side, then spread a sauce of mustard, sour cream, and more dill on top. We loved the quesadillas, but they were quite dill-y, obviously. If you like dill and crab, you would have loved these, too, but if not, it would have been one of the worst foods you've ever eaten.

And the Angels came back from being down by three runs to beat the Dodgers once again.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rock Bottom Brewery

My first experience with Rock Bottom Brewery was in Portland, having a few beers with my dad, watching a UCLA football game back when they were good. So it must have been a long time ago. (I was actually a year shy of my 21st birthday, to be honest.) I do not remember the food as being anything special, although the beer was good. At any rate, the only reason we were there was that was the only place in town showing the game we wanted to watch. (We were up in Portland visiting my brother at college.)

Years later my best friend from high school was working in the San Jose/Los Gatos area and I would go up and visit him a few times a year. We drank a lot of beer in those days, so we decided the best idea was to stay at a hotel right next to the Rock Bottom. We would hang out in the restaurant for a long time. Once I went up over Valentine's Day weekend; my mom gave me $100 for David and I to go out for dinner. All these years later I'm not sure what is more funny: my mom giving me a present for Valentine's Day, or that present being money so my buddy and I could go on a "date." Either way, we went to Rock Bottom and they had a beer called "Fire Chief Ale." My friend was a firefighter at the time for the California Department of Forestry. We considered that beer to be a sign and drank plenty of it. We may have spent the entire $100 on beer. I do not remember.

But I have not been back to Rock Bottom in the last 8 years. There is no particular reason why, other than the fact that as I got older and more adventurous in my dining, the uninspiring choices usually found at brewpubs took a backseat to other cuisines. Once you discover things like Malaysian mi goreng or Salvadoran chicharron pupusas, there is only so much excitement you can muster for spinach artichoke dip.

On a recent gloomy day, Elizabeth and I headed down to Long Beach to walk around and get some sun and ocean air. I didn't really have a dining destination in mind, but we walked by Rock Bottom and I suggested we eat there. It was dark inside with only a couple tables occupied, and we almost went somewhere else, but we were both thirsty and decided to give it a try. (Our waiter told us they do a busy weekday lunch from "the suits who work around here" but the weekend lunches are very slow.)

I considered getting a beer for old time's sake, but decided to get an iced tea instead. (I don't drink beer at lunch like I used to, and I'm okay with that.) The appetizer of choice I always got back in the day were "Titan Toothpicks" - chicken, cheese and vegetables all rolled up in tortillas and fried. But this time we decided to get some "Firecracker Shrimp" - fried shrimp in a chili sauce with cilantro. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and Elizabeth got the mahi mahi fish tacos.

The shrimp were a touch overcooked. There is nothing more disappointing than overcooked shrimp, and I will send them back if they are too rubbery. But these were acceptable and we ate them all. The chili sauce was nice, although the ginger-citrus dipping sauce on the side was much better. These were not as good as the Titan Toothpicks are in my memory.

My pulled pork sandwich was decent. It was not barbecue at all - it had been roasted - but the pork was lean and the sauce was tasty. Often when you get a sandwich like this, the sauce is much too sweet and that's all you can taste, but this one was a nice balance of flavors. The bun was exactly the texture I like, too. I had ordered homemade potato chips as my side, and I really liked them.

Elizabeth's fish tacos were very good. She had been given the option of grilled or fried fish, and of course chose fried. She gave me a couple bites and I liked them much more than I expected to.

But I don't think I will ever eat at Rock Bottom again. The same reason I went 8 years between visits is the same reason I doubt I will return: there is just too much good food out there in the world to visit chains that serve menus with 95% of the items in common. If I want a roasted pork sandwich or overcooked shrimp, do I really need to visit a restaurant? Can't I do that just as easily in my kitchen?

Like BJ's Brewhouse or Old Chicago, Rock Bottom serves a purpose, and you could do a lot worse than eating at one of them. But you could do a lot better, too.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Father's Day: New York Steaks (and Salted Caramel Gelato)

As I've written before, my parents are very laid back about things like Mother's/Father's Day, Easter, Christmas... well, hell, just about every holiday. Except Flag Day. They are peculiarly authoritarian about our Flag Day routines. (Only kidding.) So when I suggested instead of doing something Sunday afternoon for Father's Day, Elizabeth and I spend the night Saturday night, make a big dinner, and then leave early Sunday, that was just fine with them.

My brother and one of his friends came over to my parents', too, so I got 6 New York strip steaks at Taylor's butcher shop: thick, marbled pieces each about the size of a brick. I didn't want to do anything too fancy to such pretty pieces of meat, so I simply rubbed a little butter and cracked some black pepper on each.

While the meat was sitting out to warm up - for about an hour - I steamed some corn and my mom cooked some asparagus. Normally I would have done both, but I was making a surprise for my dad: Béarnaise sauce. My dad freaking loves Béarnaise, and always asks if he can have some whenever he orders a steak at a restaurant. At most place, the answer is no. So I wanted to make some for him for Father's Day. I'm not saying I was intimidated by making the sauce (although I probably was a little) but I wanted it to be perfect, so I needed a little bit of help in the kitchen.

I cooked the steaks for six minutes on each side, then let them rest. They were fantastic; perhaps a touch past the medium-rare I desired, but considering how thick they were, I was pleased with the results.

My dad lit up when I sat the Bérnaise sauce down in front of him. "Is this Bérnaise sauce?!!!" he asked excitedly. (Elizabeth was in the kitchen and later said she wished she had seen the look on his face to match his exclamation.) He loved it and said it tasted just like a good steakhouse version.

To drink with dinner we had A to Z Pinot Noir, from Dundee, Oregon. My parents have been big fans of this for years, often buying it by the case at Whole Foods. But I'd never tried it. (Pinots are very hit or miss with me and I rarely try them.) I have to admit, this was fantastic. I had three glasses, and would have had more if I hadn't been tired. (I didn't want to fall asleep at the dinner table.)

Last month, on Elizabeth's birthday, we had dinner at a popular Pasadena restaurant. This was our first time there and I absolutely hated pretty much everything about the place. But the one thing that wasn't terrible was the dessert - a salted caramel ice cream.

A couple weeks later we were at Williams Sonoma and saw salted caramel gelato. We decided to get it and prepare it in the ice cream maker. "Oh," the sales person said, "people are saying that this doesn't work in ice cream makers... but we have gelato machines on sale!"

Predictably, she was completely wrong. (By the way, this was not the Williams Sonoma in Pasadena, where I have always had good experiences. This was down in Orange County.) This was the best ice cream I have had in years. Yes, it was pretty rich and I could only eat one bowl, but I'm not a huge fan of desserts, and I loved this. So did our cat and my parents' dog.

I cooked breakfast for everyone Sunday morning. I fried some thick Amish bacon and scrambled eggs with green bell pepper. I made myself a burrito with the eggs, Gouda and sharp cheddar cheeses, chopped cilantro, sauteed balsamic onions, and Taco Lita hot sauce. It wasn't anything spectacular, but it was tasty, and I did not eat again until dinner.