Friday, April 29, 2011

Cafe 140 South

For the better part of two decades, I ate at Crocodile Cafe several times per year. When I was a kid it was one of my favorite places in town to eat, if not my favorite. Where else could I get a three-section pizza and a giant plate of curly fries?

As a teenager it was a great place to go on dates: their potstickers with lime-cilantro sauce were just different enough to be mysterious to a 17 year-old. "I prefer to eat these with chopsticks," I once showed off to a girl, unaware that she had lived in Japan for a year. The date ended at 8:30 on a Friday night, I believe, though that was just fine by me because it meant I could be home in time to watch Homicide: Life on the Street.

I didn't really date a lot in high school.

I digress.

As an adult I often met a friend of mine for lunch at Crocodile; she worked just across the street on Lake Ave. She was a vegetarian so she never wanted to share potstickers. We always ended up with a plate of onion rings, but that was just fine by me, too. But then she got pregnant, stopped working on Lake, and our lunch dates ended. I ran into her just the other day.

"Justin stopped taking me to lunch once I got knocked up," she explained to Elizabeth.

"That sounds like Justin," Elizabeth agreed.

I've digressed again.

A while back, Crocodile renamed itself Cafe 140 South and streamlined the menu. My old favorites are still there, along with a few new items.

My brother and I stopped by for lunch a few days ago. I had suggested a couple of other places but he wanted to try Cafe 140. I agreed as long as we could sit outside. (The inside of Crocodile used to get deafeningly loud at lunchtime; once I had lunch there with Elizabeth and our friend Clare and we all had to yell at each other.)

The sunken patio next to Lake Ave was full. Apparently other people were on to this whole hey-let's-eat-outdoors-on-an-85-degree-day idea. But we were offered a table at a small patio off to the side of the restaurant, which ended up being even better.

It was a hot day and the idea of drinking anything but iced tea was not appealing to me.

I tried a piece of the bread because I was quite hungry, but I did not enjoy it.

For years when we were little, my brother and I loved the three-section pizza on the old Crocodile Cafe menu: one part BBQ chicken, one part spicy sausage and pepperoni, one part four-cheese. Then I realized that every time I finished the BBQ chicken part of the pizza, I always wanted more of it. (My brother came to the same conclusion with the spicy sausage and pepperoni.) So I started always ordering the BBQ chicken pizza.

The other day I considered getting a pizza, but I wasn't really in the mood. My brother was, however, and ordered the Italian sausage pizza. (And a plate of fries.) He liked the pizza - he ate all of it but the one bite he gave me - but he was not a huge fan of the olive oil sauce. I didn't have a problem with it, and I especially enjoyed the onions and scallions, but I certainly think a red sauce goes better with sausage on pizza. 

I was considering the short rib sliders or the Kobe burger. I assume the latter is the same as the one they served at Crocodile, which was one of my favorite burgers in Pasadena. Then my eye caught the "Cafe 140 Special Burger" - a blend of brisket and short rib, ground fresh daily, on a bun with blue cheese. I inquired about it; the server assured me it was great.

I requested it medium-rare. When it arrived and I cut it in half I saw that half of the patty was slightly-pink; the other half was gray throughout. I've ordered enough restaurant burgers in my life to know that requesting a burger medium-rare is a crapshoot. Maybe one-quarter of the time I get them done properly. Most of the time they're done however the cook feels like. It is what it is. (This is why, when I want a great burger, I cook it for myself at home 90% of the time these days.)

But a burger that is not cooked as I requested - and as I pointed out, this one was half-right, which is better than most places - is not a big deal as long as it tastes good. And this one did indeed taste good. Not great by any means, and certainly not worthy of the $14.95 price tag (the Kobe burger is only one dollar more and much better) but a tasty restaurant burger.

The blue cheese was overpowering. I love blue cheese, so it did not bother me too much, but if you only like blue cheese in small doses, this is not the burger for you.

The burger was accompanied by a giant hunk of dill pickle. Which is always a good thing.

I have always enjoyed the curly fries in this location; they have always been nicely spiced without being terribly salty, but at this lunch only half of them were good. The other half were undercooked. I asked my brother what he thought about his plate of fries. 

"It seems like half of them are great and half of them suck."

Well, okay.

Was it a nice lunch at Cafe 140 South? Sure. Was it a great lunch? Not by any means. Will I return? I don't think so, at least not of my own choosing. It's a Smith Brothers restaurant, and anyone who has dined in Pasadena for decades knows exactly what that means: good food, prices that make you think it should be better-than-good food, friendly service, and a genuinely overall-pleasant experience that still leaves you thinking: Is that all there is?

This is another one of those places in Pasadena that used to mean a lot to me and just doesn't anymore. It happens. There are still many places where I considered a $50 tab for two people to be worth it at lunchtime. This is not one of them.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pietro's Pizza

You may recall, dear reader, that last fall I introduced you to Pietro's Italian Restaurant, a small, friendly shop up on Lake Avenue where I had a good but not great meatball sandwich. I liked the place fine, but it just so happens to sit smack in a part of town with plenty other things I love to eat: the carnitas at El Taquito Mexicano, the sandwiches at Roma Italian Deli immediately next door, Fatburger, etc. So I had not been back.

The other day I was having lunch with my mom at her work a couple blocks away, and when we were trying to decide what to get, she said a meatball sandwich from Pietro's sounded good to her. That was fine by me; I could try their pizza.

I ordered a small pizza with pepperoni and garlic. When I received it, it smelled as strongly of garlic as any pizza I have ever had. Which is a good thing. But I wasn't a big fan of it. The crust was tasty - rubbed with corn meal and not too thick, but the the toppings were only average and it was as greasy as any pizza I have had in years. Of course, it's still pizza, so it wasn't bad. But I don't think I will ever get a pizza again from Pietro's, I will stick with sandwiches.

My mom's meatball sandwich looked even better than the one I had a few months ago, and she loved it. So I'm including pictures of it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Belgian Fries & Beer

There is no food in the world better than properly-cooked Belgian fries. Not lobster rolls, not charcoal oven-fired pizza, not roasted sweet corn, not carved turkey sandwiches, not even Zankou's chicken tarna wrap which, just the other day, I called my perfect meal. Nope. Belgian fries, when done properly, are as good as it gets. 

Making them at home has always been tough for me. I can't explain why. Maybe I try too hard to make them perfect. I don't know. A couple times I have come close to making my ideal fry, but most of the time I make them and remember the fries I've had at Wurstkuche or Pommes Frites and I think Damn, mine aren't as good.

The other day I decided to give them another try, my first attempt in a couple years. I sliced up several small Russet potatoes with a plastic, uniform-slicing gadget that had been buried in a drawer for more than half a decade. I soaked the fries in water for a couple hours, drained them and rinsed them off.

After making sure the potatoes were dry (an important step), I cooked them, a handful at a time, in a pot of oil close to 325 degrees. I didn't time each batch, I simply pulled them out when they looked ready, but I would guess each batch cooked for about six minutes.

This is what they look like when they come out of the oil the first time: off-white, mostly limp pieces of potato. You can eat them but they taste mostly of slightly-mealy, bland fries.

A hour later I cranked up the heat, closer to 400 degrees, and dropped the potatoes back in for a couple minutes.

They turn a more golden brown and, if you do it correctly, get crispy on the outside. This, unfortunately, was not my best attempt: only about a quarter of the fries were as crispy as I like them. But those well-done fries were perfect.

The only thing I like almost as much as eating Belgian fries is preparing sauces for them. I had an idea for a honey mustard: using the wasabi-sake mustard I got a couple weeks back. I didn't measure the portions, I did it mostly to taste, but I imagine my initial mix was roughly 3/5 mayonnaise to 2/5 mustard. I then drizzled in about a tablespoon of honey.

I intended to make a green onion-black pepper mustard sauce, but I screwed it up and ended up making a green onion-mustard barbecue sauce. It was okay but not as good as I was hoping for. I also used a blue cheese sauce, into which I drizzled a touch of Tabasco sauce. But my honey mustard creation was certainly the star of the show.

And, of course, nothing goes better with Belgian fries than a cold beer. I wish I liked Belgian beer; it would be nice to open one with these fries, but I can count on one hand the number of Belgian beers I have ever enjoyed. Instead I opted for a Sierra Nevada Torpedo: a super-hoppy, citrus-tinged IPA. It's certainly not my favorite of the Sierra Nevada stable, but then again they don't make a bad beer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

La Golondrina Cafe

Under almost any circumstances, Olvera Street is a nice place to take out-of-towners: there is shopping, cerveza and margaritas, history, churros, mariachis, people-watching... a little something for everyone. Sure, it's kind of hokey - in more than a dozen trips there, I have yet to find something non-edible that I actually would like to own - but on a sunny day there are far worse places to be.

But on this occasion, with Elizabeth's sister and brother-in-law, we had an actual mission. You may recall, last summer, that Elizabeth and I attended their wedding in New York and brought with us the cake-toppers we had purchased on Olvera Street, which all of the guests loved. Dawn and Brian used them in a diorama, and they were hoping to find one of a cat as well. So we headed down to Olvera Street and it did not take long for them to find what they were looking for. We turned our attention to lunch.

I have eaten at El Paseo many times, but never at La Golondrina across the street. So we decided to try it.

Chips and salsa are a good way to gauge how the meal is going to be, right? I was worried: these were disappointing. The chips were not warm. For a restaurant that was packed, there should be fresh tortilla chips coming out all the time. Unless, you know, they were just recycling the chips left behind on other tables. 

And the salsa was boring - pretty much a flavorless mess of tomatoes and juices, with a small amount of onion mixed in.

"I want to be on your blog just like Kate was," Dawn said. For those who do not remember, Elizabeth and Dawn's youngest sister, Kate, insisted that I post a photo of her on my blog back in 2009, which I did. 

"So you want me to take a picture of you?" I asked.

She thought about it for a moment. "Well, no, maybe just an action shot of me going for some salsa."

I am a beer guy, and I'm definitely not a tequila guy.

There is nothing too challenging on the menu. If you've been to Acapulco - the restaurant, not the city - you will be familiar with the options, right down to the hamburgers on the kids menu.

Elizabeth ordered a melon margarita and Brian selected a Cadillac margarita, probably because it was the one with the most booze, I suspect.

An ice-cold Pacifico on a warm day on Olvera Street is one of those Los Angeles moments I treasure, like a weekday game in Chavez Ravine or riding the train down to Philippe's.

Brian drank his margarita slightly faster than Elizabeth.

I had asked the waiter how the mole is at La Golondrina.

"Oh man," he said. "It's the best. It's the best you will ever have."

I admired his enthusiasm, if not exactly his honesty. I ordered a chicken enchilada with mole sauce.

When it arrived I winced: the mole looked like it had been painted on and had the consistency of the slime that comes in those little plastic balls from vending machines.

Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. While far from being the best mole I have ever had - it's not even the best I have had this month - it was neither too sweet nor too much like cheap chocolate, my main complaints with most mole I try. This had a noticeable but not overwhelming dark chocolate taste and a bit of a spice.

The waiter came back after a few minutes.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"It's very good, but it's not the best I have ever had."

"Oh come on! What is better than this?"

"Do you know La Cabañita in Glendale?" I answered. "That's my favorite mole I have ever had."

He paused for a moment, seemingly thinking it over.

"Yeah, okay," he said. "That's better. But this is pretty good."

"Yes it is," I agreed.

Elizabeth got the beef taquitos. She said they were fine, although I could tell she did not love them.

Dawn had the chicken fajita salad, the contents of a chicken fajita piled into a towering bowl of fried toritilla. She liked it but wished it contained more lettuce.

Brian had the cochinita pibil. He also enjoyed his meal but thought it was too greasy and ended up spooning most of it into tortillas with rice to cut the grease. I did not try any; I knew immediately by looking at it that it would pale in comparison to my two favorite places for cochinita pibil.

I tried the beans only after I had eaten all my food. They were fine, but I was so full by this point that any criticism I give should be taken with a grain of salt.

Talk about a Good Friday.

I did not have any problem with La Golondrina. But I like El Paseo Inn more. (And, to be honest, I could probably name 50 Mexican restaurants in the Los Angeles area that I like more than both of them.) This meal at La Golondrina was more expensive than any I have eaten at El Paseo, and the latter has always been a notch or two tastier than this meal.

While I would have no problem returning here, if it's up to me I will always choose El Paseo from now on - if for no other reason than that their chips and salsa are much better.