Monday, February 28, 2011

Weekend Eats (Including the Meal of the Year)

The other day, my friend (and new neighbor) Tim brought me back some barbecue from the desert. (You can read about it on the barbecue blog.) I only ate a few of the items that afternoon and shoved the rest in the fridge. Friday, in need of a snack, I took out the barbecue and chopped it up. I placed the brisket, hot link (there was only one piece left, as I had snacked on the links off and on for a day) and pulled pork on a pile of tortilla chips. I added mozzarella cheese and the last few pieces of goat cheese I had in the fridge and heated it, then added some chopped cilantro.

They were some of the best nachos I have had in a long time. 

When Elizabeth got home from work, she offered me half of a patty melt she'd had for lunch from Astro Burger. I heated it in the oven and ate it. It was decent, but obviously it would have been a lot better at the burger joint.

I like the vast majority of things I try from Trader Joe's, so I got a bag of Caesar salad. I strongly disliked it. The dressing was disgustingly oily, one of the worst Caesar dressings I have ever tried. I don't know if I just got a bad batch - I have a hard time believing anyone wants a Caesar dressing to taste like this; it was basically just oil and salt - so I might try it again before I write it off.

I ate a strawberry-frosted donut and homemade vanilla cream pudding. No, I'm not six years old anymore. Yes, this was freaking delicious.

Saturday afternoon, after we'd taken the cat to the vet, I asked Elizabeth what she wanted for lunch. She suggested tacos. There are very few times I would ever say no to tacos for lunch. Pretty much only when I've had tacos for breakfast, I guess. I considered where to go. I was planning to stop by my parents' house for a while to watch a basketball game, so I decided on Rosarito, on the eastern side of town. I'd only eaten there once before, but really liked it.

I got two chicharron tacos and a fish taco; Elizabeth ordered her usual dos tacos de carnitas. Chicharron tacos are traditionally fried pork rinds, but Rosarito's version is basically pork rubbed with red chili. At any rate, it is delicious, one of my favorite tacos in town.

The fish taco is not the heavily-battered and fried piece of fish that one normally associates with fish tacos (which, to be honest, I freaking love). It is a thinner, pan fried (or perhaps plancha-grilled) piece of fresh fish that is no less delicious. It doesn't have the oh-so-satisfying crunch of a battered fish taco, but instead has a flaky, citrus-kissed flavor of fish in every bite.

Originally, Elizabeth had planned to have a girls night out with a couple friends, and I was going to drink some wine and eat steak with Tim. "We'll have a 'He-Man Woman Haters Club,'" he said.
But Elizabeth's plans fell through so we changed the club slightly and she came with me. Tim had purchased one of those amazing flat iron steaks from Taylor's, large enough for the three of us, and it was sitting on the counter doused with olive oil, salt and pepper when we arrived.

A nice cab to drink before dinner.

Tim cooked the steaks in a pan of a butter/olive oil mix for a few minutes then took them out to let them rest.

A simple salad of lettuce, cheese and dried cranberries. "This would not have been on the menu if there wasn't a woman here," Tim explained. "We would have just eaten meat and potatoes." But the salad was fantastic and I was very glad he made it.

After cooking the steaks, Tim added cognac, mustard and cream to the butter/olive oil and meat juices. More on this in a second.

Oven-roasted potato wedges with olive oil and spices.

I know the year is only 1/6 of the way finished, but it will take a pretty amazing meal to top this one. Everything about it was perfect. The cognac-mustard sauce was an amazing complement to the steak. (After my plate was cleaned I torn off some bread and went back into the kitchen and dipped it in the pan.) The potatoes were some of the best I have ever had, beautifully roasted golden wedges of which I had second and then third helpings.

"I don't have anything for dessert," Tim said apologetically. I tore off a piece of bread, dragged it through the sauce and meat juices on my plate, and topped it with a piece of greens. It was the best dessert I have had in years.

For dinner Sunday night - I was so thrilled to be watching my first preseason baseball game that I forgot to eat lunch - I decided to cook a bag of fish & chips that I picked up at Vons the other day. It didn't look like anything special, but it was a big bag and on sale, and I'm always willing to try a new kind of fish & chips.

I'm not going to lie: I did not have high hopes when I saw it all spread out.

After half an hour (the instructed cooking time) I took it out of the oven and plated it with two sauces I made: a tartar sauce with mayo, lemon juice, relish, and chopped fresh pickle, and a spicy cocktail sauce with chili sauce, Atomic horseradish and lemon juice. (Both were great.)

The potatoes were pathetic, flavorless wedges of varying sizes - some burned, others were barely warm in the center.

The fish was surprisingly good, all things considered. There wasn't a lot of flavor but it was a nice texture, better than I was expecting. If the "chips" hadn't been so lousy, I would consider buying this again. But they were so I won't.

I had another donut for dessert.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Zelo Pizzeria

A little over six years ago, someone told me about Zelo, a new pizza place serving thick slices of gourmet pizza. That day, a coworker and I were deciding what to do for lunch, whether we should try this new pizza place or get something closer to us. I believe we flipped a coin. Zelo lost out.

That night I was watching a game in a bar in Old Town with my friend Hatcher and he asked me if I'd tried the new pizza place that Jonathan Gold had written about in the issue of the Weekly that had come out that day.

"No," I said. "What is it?"

"Somewhere in Arcadia," he replied. "Something like.... Arlo's?"

"Zelo's!" I exclaimed, before running around the corner and picking up a copy of the Weekly and searching out the review. As soon as I read it I realized I'd made a mistake by not having it that day. One of my all-time favorite of Mr. Gold's lines appeared in the review: "Zelo's [crust] is almost beyond crisp, a crackling, luscious, tooth-shattering crispness with the staying power of a Hendrix chord."

Of course I had it for lunch the next day. And it was delicious. But their hours were a little too inconvenient, their pies suffered a little too much when you got them for take out, and I only went back once or twice in all the years since. 

The other day, Elizabeth and I were driving around with no particular lunch destination in mind, just seeing if anything called out to us. We thought about the taco stand formerly known as Taco Station, but every seat was taken so we kept cruising. We considered Rosarito's but did not stop. (Fifteen minutes later I got a picture message from a friend who was there, eating tacos.)

Eventually I had two ideas, one of which was Zelo, and Elizabeth agreed. I had wanted to sit on the patio; not surprisingly every seat was taken (I didn't want to bother people by taking a pic so I went back the next day and took a picture when it was closed, which is why that first picture is a ghost town). We sat at a table inside.

There were three pizzas on the weekly special list and I opted to order one of them, along with a slice of corn pizza. Elizabeth ordered a slice of the corn as well, and a slice of veggie.

The corn pizza is what I had from Zelo my first time, and I believe it is their most popular slice. It is outstanding: fresh corn, balsamic-marinated roasted onions, smoked mozzarella and chopped chives. The crust is crispy and the toppings, in additional to playing well off each other, are very filling. Zelo may well be the only pizza restaurant I have ever been to where two slices are enough to fill me up.

From the specials menu I ordered the "spicy salami." Although there was not a single thing spicy about the slice, it was still tasty, with salami, roasted red peppers, oregano, mozzarella and fontina. I ate it and I liked it, but nowhere near as much as I liked the corn slice.

Elizabeth's veggie slice came with roasted eggplant, marinated green peppers, mushrooms and sauteed onions, and an extra-thick tomato sauce. She loved it. I sawed off a small piece and ate it; I liked it too, although it was my least favorite of the three slices I tried.

As I've written before, it's rare that I go out for pizza anymore, having found that I can make them much more to my liking at home, either in the oven with my pizza pan or on the grill with my pizza stone. However, the pies at Zelo are not something that I would be able to make at home. If it were closer to South Pasadena I would stop in much more frequently for a slice or two. But being where it is, I'm not sure when I'll make it back. 

Zelo's pizzas, by the way, are available "half-baked" - not in the way that some of you miscreants are thinking, but meaning that you can finish the pizza at home in your oven in about 15 minutes. I imagine my next to trip to Zelo will be to pick up a couple of pies in this manner, finish them at home, and relax on the patio with some friends and wine.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trader Joe's Langostino Lobster Rolls and Lobster Ravioli

I've mentioned before that the most popular of any post I have ever written - 559 with this one - is KFC's Chicken Littles. This does not disappoint me; it's nice to know there are other people who share my fond memories of those tasty little bundles of greatness.

The second most popular post is one I did of "lobster" rolls I made a couple years ago using Trader Joe's langostinos. (I did a version that I find much superior a year later, which is also quite popular, but not as much as the first.) It has been a while since I'd made them and that sounded quite good. So, in the spirit of making dinners at home after the past weekend of eating too much, I decided to make them again.

The langostino is one dollar more than it used to be - the way of the world, I guess - but still a very good deal, considering I can make two very nicely-sized sandwiches out of one bag. I've paid twice that price for one "lobster roll" in Pasadena that used langostino meat (which the menu did not indicate).

Like most sandwiches I make lately, I purchased two bolillo rolls at King Ranch Market (33 cents each). After defrosting the langostino overnight in the fridge, I sauteed it briefly with some lemon butter (I usually add a shallot but I did not have one) and layered it on the buns with butter lettuce.

As an accompaniment I made a simple jicama slaw: sliced jicama, chopped cilantro, lime juice and olive oil. This has always been a favorite of mine, one that I make far too infrequently. The crispy jicama (apparently called the "Mexican potato" by many people, though in truth I have never heard it called that) works well with the slightly spicy combination of lime and cilantro.

The sandwiches were, as always, delicious. I am glad I eschewed the mayonnaise-based langostino recipe I used to use in favor of this butter version. I do wish I had realized earlier that I was out of shallots, however. The sandwich was missing a little something, and I think the bite and texture of the shallots would have been perfect.

Another Trader Joe's product I have used for years is their lobster ravioli. They are remarkably cheap - I believe $2.99 for the package - and very tasty. The first ingredient listed in the filling is lobster, and indeed there is a lobster flavor to it, but this is not a ravioli bursting with chunks of lobster meat. (Although at that price I don't suppose anyone is expecting it to be.)

These guys only take about five minutes in a pot of boiling water. Any longer and they fall apart quickly. After I drained the ravioli, I topped them with lemon butter and a basil oil I made in the mini Cuisinart; the former melded beautifully with the pasta and lobster flavors, the latter was superfluous. But it looked pretty on the plate.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taco Treat

A couple weeks ago, a reader named Stephen emailed to say that he'd read something I wrote about Taco Lita and asking if I'd ever been to Taco Treat, a couple miles away from Taco Lita, down on Live Oak in area that I am never sure qualifies as Arcadia, El Monte or Temple City. (It turns out that Taco Treat is actually in Arcadia.)

I get a few emails per week from readers, but sometimes they say merely "You should go ___ ," with no explanation why nor what to get. Don't get me wrong, I love hearing from people no matter how brief, but I am less likely to try a place for the first time with no idea why I should go there or what their specialty is.

Stephen's email, however, went into nice detail about the specialty of Taco Treat, a fried burrito. I was intrigued and I made plans to visit with a friend, but we both had something come up that day and could not go. I moved Taco Treat to the back of my mind.

The other day, however, I was at my parents' house and talking to my dad about the best pizza he'd ever had (he decided it was a place on Foothill in Arcadia or Monrovia that has not existed for decades). We talked for a couple minutes about places in the area that no longer exist and places that have been around for a long time. I showed him a picture of Taco Treat and asked if he'd ever eaten there.

"Your mother loves that place," he said. "Back when she was first starting her career, she taught in El Monte and would go there. In fact, we just went there a couple months ago because she had a craving for one of their burritos."

That settled it. That afternoon, while Elizabeth and I were on one of our lazy Sunday afternoon drives, I suggested we stop by for some food. It took me a couple minutes to study the menu; when the lady behind the window realized it was my first time at Taco Treat, she informed me that she would be giving me a fried burrito for free. That was just fine by me.

It's hard to write about the taco without comparing it to Taco Lita: both are hard shell with slightly-greasy meat and lettuce and cheese. The cheese at Taco Treat pales in comparison to the cheese at Taco Lita; I could barely taste it here. But the taco was just as tasty. I would even say the meat in this particular taco was slightly better than Taco Lita. However, Taco Lita's hot sauce clearly tips the scales; it is so good that I have to side with Taco Lita's tacos. (One of these days I will take a packet of Taco Lita's hot sauce to Taco Treat and see how that is.)

Taco Treat's tacos are $2.00 each. Up until a couple weeks ago, Taco Lita's tacos were $1.60 or so, but my dad just informed me that they (he still goes there every Friday night without fail) are $1.90 now.

Taco Treat offers four burritos on their menu, and, as the very nice lady explained to me, all four are fried. I've never been a big fan of beans and I wasn't expecting to like this very much, but it was absolutely delicious. The melted cheese and gooey beans formed a molten-hot sludge that kept trying to ooze out of the super-crispy fried tortilla.

People throw around the term "Americanized" when describing food like this as if it is some kind of pejorative. I do not care. In my world, the "authenticity" of a cuisine always takes a backseat to the taste, and this tasted great.

Elizabeth agreed.

"Once I started eating, I realized I was hungrier than I thought," she said.

"We can always get more food," I said.

Over the weekend I saw a picture on one of my favorite blogs of chorizo corn dogs and it gave me a strong craving. I considered making my own version, but I was feeling too lazy. So I bought a corn dog at Taco Treat. It was completely delicious and completely unspectacular: it tasted like every halfway-decent corn dog I have ever had. But that's all I was craving and it hit the spot.

The lady had come outside and asked us how we liked it. I said very much. She mentioned the other fried burritos they sell, including one with ground beef and diced jalapenos. It took me less than five seconds to decide to order one.

It was good, but definitely not as good as the bean and cheese variety. It needed something else, perhaps some melted cheese, and it definitely needed more jalapenos. It was not very spicy. But, it was still fried beef and tortilla, so I liked it.

I decided to get a fried burrito and take it by my parents' house as a surprise for my mom. She was thrilled when she saw it... until she bit into it. Apparently her favorite is the ground beef version; she doesn't like beans either. Oops.

So, obviously, I like Taco Treat a lot. But not as much as Taco Lita. But that's not a fair comparison; there is no way Taco Treat could overcome my history with Taco Lita. Trying to take that out of the equation - which is impossible but I will still try - I would say that I still like Taco Lita slightly more... that hot sauce is just too damn good.

But Taco Treat is still a great find, and they're even open on Sundays (which Taco Lita is not).