Friday, September 30, 2011

Once More With Trader Joe's

There are very few sandwiches better than the Cuban sandwich. So when I saw this wrap for the first time at Trader Joe's the other day, I grabbed it without hesitation. Pork, ham, cheese and pickles in a tortilla. Sounds great. But it wasn't. There has to be some secret to eating Trader Joe's wraps because, as much as I love the store, I just don't like their wraps very much. Their taste always falls short of my expectations. Maybe I should be heating them up before I eat them or something.

I will say, however, that the "Cuban inspired mustard dressing" was delicious, by far the best part of the meal. I'm going to look up recipes to see if I can duplicate it.

I used to eat these lemongrass chicken "stix" all the time. And then I stopped, for no good reason. Maybe I just got tired of them. But the other day I tried them again for the first time in years. The spring roll wrappers are full of chicken with a very strong lemongrass flavor. (If you don't like lemongrass, you will hate these.) You can bake them in the oven or fry them quickly in a little oil, which is what I did this time. I'm not sure I could eat these as an entree, but as a snack or appetizer, they are quite good.

I've written before how much Elizabeth loves the tarte d'alsace, but the other night when we were at Trader Joe's they were sold out of it. So we tried this other tarte for the first time: mushrooms with Emmental and Parmesan cheese. It cooked in the oven in less than ten minutes. It was fine, but the flavors were very strong, and the whole thing was a runny mess. (You can't pick up a piece without all the toppings sliding off.) I would get this again, but it's definitely a second choice to the tarte d'alsace.

I enjoy most of the products that fall under the "Trader Ming's" name. (The orange chicken, the tempura chicken, cha siu bao, etc.) So when I saw the spicy beef and broccoli, I decided it was at least worth a try. This one is more complicated than most: you microwave the broccoli, saute the beef, and simmer the sauce separately. Then you add the broccoli to the sauce for a couple of minutes, then the beef for thirty seconds.

I loved the sauce: it was indeed spicy. And some of the pieces of beef were very good. But a few of them were stringy and tough. I mean, I know there is only so much you can do with frozen beef, so I'm not going to judge this too harshly. But too much of the beef had to be thrown out. I will try this again one day and see if the beef is better, but if not, I will write it off.

The chicken gyoza are one of the few items I can think of at Trader Joe's that have been around for as long as I can remember. You can steam them, pan fry them, or cook them in the classic potsticker-style. On this occasion I pan fried them, threw some diced chives on top, and drizzled Tabasco Sweet & Spicy sauce over the whole thing. These are great as an appetizer or, in this case, a meal.

Everyone who loves chips and salsa has, at some point, tried a salsa that promises a certain flavor and fails to deliver. This is almost always the case with garlic. I can count on one hand the number of garlic salsas that I felt contained enough garlic. Fortunately, this is one of them. The garlic flavor is abundant.

The white corn tortilla chips aren't anything special, but the bag is huge, they are inexpensive, and a great vehicle for scooping up this tasty salsa.

Pho is not something I am an expert on: noodles and soup are not my favorite foods. But I have certainly had pho that I love. So, in the interest of trying something new, I picked up Trader Joe's take on it. There is a "fill to this line" marking inside the container for you to add water. Three minutes in the microwave, three minutes of resting, and you're ready to go. 

I really liked the flavor of the broth. And, although there weren't very many noodles compared to most bowls of pho I have had before, the noodles that were present tasted nice. Unfortunately, the frozen beef, upon being cooked, was almost inedible. This isn't really a surprise but it bears mentioning. I tried this because I wanted something new to write about and I thought there was an outside chance it would be good, but this isn't something I will ever try again.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Keeping It Simple

I needed to watch baseball last night. I won't go into details, there's no need: if you like the game, you understand what I mean when I say it was the most exciting night of baseball I have ever seen that did not involve the Angels. If you don't like the game, you don't care anyway. So dinner was going to be simple. No going out, nothing that involved the outdoor grill or lots of prep work.

I started by cooking some Trader Joe's cha siu bao in the steamer.  I put them in the bamboo, left them alone for twelve minutes - you know, the amount of time it takes a Red Sox pitcher to throw three pitches - and returned to take them out. I mixed up a sauce: orange simmer sauce, soy, and a few drops of mustard, then spinkled chives over the whole thing. They were delicious. I considered making more of these as my main meal, but decided to make something else.

I took some of the Trader Joe's carnitas that I have written about many times and, taking this whole 'keep it as simple' thing to the extreme, cooked it in the microwave. I piled it onto a soft telera roll that I had purchased the day before at Super King market - it's possible I have finally found my perfect hamburger bun, but more on that another time - with chopped onions and cilantro, then doused the whole thing with Trappey's hot sauce. It wasn't quite as good as the pork buns, but it was a great sandwich.

And I was quite pleased with the outcome of all the games I watched.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fast Food Review: Popeyes Dip'n Chick'n

"Well I wish I was in New Orleans
I can see it in my dreams
Arm-in-arm down Burgundy
A bottle and my friends and me"
                               - Tom Waits

I miss New Orleans. I miss it tremendously. In the first eight years of my adult life I went there four times: in '98 on a road trip, in '00 for Mardi Gras, in '02 for my birthday, and in '04 for Jazz Fest. And I haven't been back since. In the summer of '05 I drove out to Minneapolis with a friend who was moving there. I had planned to rent a car and drive down the Great River Road to New Orleans, but my boss called and said he needed me to cut my vacation short by a few days, so I booked a flight home. I sat in the Minneapolis airport throwing back beers - I hate flying and always need a few before getting on the plane; I know you're not supposed to do that but I've never had a problem - when I watched the hurricane starting to destroy the city. Some of my friends have returned since then, but I never have.

I won't go into stories. Like Las Vegas anecdotes, there is nothing more interesting to you than your New Orleans stories and nothing more boring to other people. But let's just say I have dozens, all of them centered around beautifully brief sentences that I've only head once in my life:

"You alls don't have to go, but it gets pretty boring here after sunrise."

"If you go back to that bar, can you see if my snow globe and disposable cameras are still there?"

"'That elevator broken, use 'da one in the bar."

I could go on and on. I know I said I wouldn't go into stories but I will tell you a brief one about how I came to love Popeyes. In the first 24 years of my life I'd only been there once - my buddy Zach and I went to one in South Central L.A. (it was the closest one to where we lived at the time) to get some fried seafood to cure a hangover. I liked it but didn't love it.

Two years later I was at Jazz Fest, in the Popeyes Blues Tent no less, waiting to hear the great, criminally-underrated Chris Smither. A very large man sat close to me and my friends Kevin and Hatcher. It was easy to tell that fried food was a big part of his life. But he was also very friendly, and he struck up a conversation with us. Upon learning that we were from the Los Angeles, he started running down the list of items at KFC and explaining why each comparable item at Popeyes was superior.

I would love at some point in my life to be as much of an expert on anything as this guy was on fast-food fried chicken.

Anyway, this guy was nice enough to stop talking once the music started, and I don't remember saying another word to him. But I was suddenly craving some Popeyes. Of course, I wasn't going to get Popeyes while I was on vacation in New Orleans - that would be like getting spending the night in Memphis and eating a barbecue sandwich for dinner at Applebee's. (Okay, bad example: I did that once.) So I waited until I got home from that trip, went to Popeyes for lunch one afternoon for the second time in my life... and I've been loyal to the place ever since.

And whenever I hear that they are coming out with a new promotion, I jump at the chance to try it. The newest item, Dip'n Chick'n, sounds quite similar to the Rip'n Chick'n that debuted in July. Right down to the silly apostrophes. But I don't care what a product is called, only how it tastes. I headed up to the Popeyes in Pasadena yesterday at lunch time.

It was a madhouse: there are arrows painted on the ground in the parking lot indicating which way you should drive. Nobody cared, it was a free-for-all. Inside it was hot and crowded. I ordered the food - $3.99 for the chicken and fries; I opted not to get a drink for one dollar more - and stood around to wait.

While I was waiting I noticed some wonderful news: Popeyes crawfish are returning soon. This made my day. You could have told me the Angels were going to include Wells and Abreu in a sign-and-trade for Albert Pujols and I would not have been this happy. (Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration.) I took a photo with my phone. After a few minutes, the girl behind the counter handed me a paper sack.

"I was going to eat it here," I said.

"I know," she replied, "but we are out of trays."

Okay, I thought. I'll just go eat in my car.

It didn't seem like there was very much chicken. I mean, it's hard to complain about a chicken/fry/biscuit combo that cost me $4.34... but Popeyes used to be a little more generous. (This is even more true with the crawfish every fall. I can't wait to see how diminished the order size is this year.)

The ads make it look like the chicken pieces are formed into tiny bowls to facilitate the dipping, almost like Tostitos Scoops. That's not how they appear in real life: half of them are closed over like conchigle or seashells, the other half are slightly-bent mini tenders. But just as I don't care what a product is called, I don't care how it looks. All that matters is taste, and these were delicious. There wasn't any spice to the breading, just a crunchy, pleasant flavor, and the chicken was tender and juicy, just like the freshly-cooked chicken at Popeyes always is.

Popeyes used to have three of the best fast food sauces around, maybe the three very best: Delta sauce, spicy honey mustard, and horseradish sauce. Now they don't carry any of them. The Dip'n Chick'n is served with a "Blackened Ranch Sauce," about which I was not excited. I don't dislike ranch, it just bores me with it's buttermilk-y, smooth taste. But this was really good: it was peppery and slightly spicy. I don't remember the last time I enjoyed ranch, but I enjoyed this.

I read a story last month that Popeyes is having positive sales numbers this year and planning expansion, while another chain I don't like - one that almost never comes out with good promotions - is continuing to see declining sales. Offhand, I can only think of one Popeyes promotion that I didn't really like - the garlic butter shrimp. Not surprisingly, Popeyes has come out with another winner with the Dip'n Chick'n. It's probably not going to blow you away. But it's something I would definitely be glad to try again, which puts it ahead of 90% of fast food items.

But man I can't wait to have the crawfish again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fast Food Review: Wienerschnitzel Angus Pastrami Dog

"Pastrami is back!" announced the sign at Wienerschnitzel. The only reaction this prompted in me was to say "I didn't know it ever left." But I wasn't going to try it. The last three things I have tried there - the Bacon-Wrapped Street Dog, the Bacon Ranch Chili Cheese Fries, and the Sea Dog - were not good, the latter being perhaps the most foul smelling food I have ever ordered.

But the other day I was out doing some errands and I had not yet had lunch. It was getting late in the afternoon and I had dinner plans, so I didn't want a big meal. It was the last day of summer; the temperature gauge in the car read 95 degrees at 3 PM. Why not bid farewell to summer with that most summery of foods, a hot dog? There are four pastrami options at Wienerschnitzel: a pastrami sandwich, pastrami in a bun, an original pastrami dog, and the Angus pastrami dog in a pretzel bun. I ordered the last one.

There were four women inside the hut and no customers; as soon as I placed my order they all sprung into action. I had my hot dog in less than one minute and I took it to the car: not only was it hot, it was humid, and I wanted to use the AC. (And, to be honest, continue the masochistic relationship I have with the Angels this season, allowing myself the slightest hope that they still had a shot at the postseason.)

It's not the most attractive hot dog you'll ever see. The pastrami was the thin, fatty stuff that I usually don't like, though receiving this kind of a pastrami on top of a $3 hot dog is not nearly as aggravating as getting it in a $10 sandwich. As is the norm at Wienerschnitzel, the pickles and mustard were neon-colored.

It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. The Angus wiener is the same one I have always enjoyed, and the pretzel bun was a nice change of pace - it was a good choice for the thick wiener. My favorite part were the pickle spears, a much better choice than diced pickles would have been. My second-least favorite part was the thin cheese, so thin that it melted into almost nothing.

My least favorite part, though, was the pastrami. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't expecting much. And I didn't receive much: it was chewy, rubbery junk. There may have only been two edible bites of the pastrami.

This dog could have been really good, but unfortunately it wasn't. I really like Wienerschnitzel's wieners... just not most of the toppings they choose to use. Of course, I'll still try the next one they come up with.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Wonder Burgers

Pasadena is full of place like Wonder Burgers: unimpressive-looking burger shacks serving slight variations on the same menu, a few indoor seats, limited parking. Some of them are quite good: Connal's, Top's, Wolfe Burgers. Some of them are not: Lucky Boy, Everest. I've noticed Wonder Burgers - on Foothill Blvd in the eastern part of town - for years, but never stopped by. Never even considered it, actually: half a mile down the street is In-N-Out. Every time I was in the area and wanting a burger, that's where I headed.

Yesterday, however, Elizabeth and I were out doing some errands and both hungry. We felt like burgers and we were heading towards that part of town. I decided to finally give Wonder Burgers a try.

The woman behind the counter was quite friendly. I don't know if she is an owner or if she just works there all the time - but everyone knew her. A car in the drive-through asked about her mom; a customer greeted her by name when entering; another customer inquired about a burn she had recently suffered.

"This is my first time here," I asked of her. "What should I get?"

"Well, our most popular thing is the Wonder Burger, as long as you like mushrooms and avocado."


I ended up ordering the pastrami burger. I asked if they offered any kind of combo and was told "Not with the pastrami burger." So I suggested to Elizabeth that we share some fries. She said sure and ordered a patty melt. We both got drinks, bringing the grand total to sixteen bucks. Not bad at all.

While our food was on the grill - it only took a few minutes - I snagged some ketchup and a jalapeno from the counter.

I had guessed that a large order of fries would be more than enough for the two of us to share. I was correct, the fries spilling out of the bag and onto our tray.

My pastrami burger was wonderful. There was nothing much to the thin patty - not that I expected there to be - but the pastrami was plentiful, peppery, and not full of fat. This was much better than the pastrami burger at The Hat, and, at $4.90, two and a half dollars cheaper.

But just because something is wonderful doesn't mean it can't be made just a little bit better, right? With that in mind I removed the tomatoes, sliced off a few pieces of jalapeno and added them, and squirted some mustard on top. It was outstanding. I only ate half of it before I started to get full (of course I was shoveling fries into my face as well, more on that in a second) so I saved the rest, which will be my breakfast shortly. Like, as soon as I publish this post.

But the real star of the show was the patty melt. Sure, I liked the pastrami burger a lot. But I've had better. I don't think I've ever tasted a better patty melt. Elizabeth, my diner-loving East-Coaster, agreed with me that it was one of the best patty melts of her patty-melt-saturated life.

The patty, onions and cheese all melded together perfectly inside the bread, which was crispy but not at all greasy. Anyone who has eaten patty melts even just a handful of times knows the frustration of a melt where grease and butter runs down your fingers and before you get through half the sandwich it falls apart faster than the Angels bullpen. This sandwich stayed intact the whole time.

The woman asked how we were enjoying our food.

"I can't believe this isn't your most popular item," I said, indicating the patty melt.

"Well, it is among people who know what good patty melts are supposed to taste like," she answered.

I admired her confidence. It was well-deserved.

The fries were the exact kind you would expect in a place like this: standard, frozen things that you have seen one thousand times before. As long as they're cooked properly, they're fine though never great. These were good when we first got them, fresh out of the hot oil, but each bite as they cooled got progressively worse. We took half the bag home with us but those won't be part of my breakfast. They might well just get thrown out. 

My first instinct to close this out is to write something along the lines of "I can't believe I've never been to Wonder Burgers before"... but that's not true. Of course I can believe it. Pasadena is full of burger joints I love and, let's be honest, Wonder Burgers doesn't look like much from the outside. I don't recall a single one of my friends ever mentioning the place. (In the evening I told some friends where I'd been. Tracie had never heard of it and Tyler's reaction was a more amusing "That place is still open?")

I'm not saying I've found a new favorite place - hell, I'm not even promising that I will ever return - but it was delicious, reasonably priced, and friendly. You can't do much better than that.