Wednesday, December 31, 2008

San Miguel de Allende quest

Centro Historico


View from the top of the hill overlooking el centro historico.

El jardin

La Parroquia

San Miguel de Allende is beautiful, and strange,with its Mexico but not really charm. The historic center is a food wasteland as others vistors have mentioned, but some others on this work trip spent one of the mornings walking around to the top of the hill to see a great view of the city.There was a fonda near La Parroquia that was promising,but they didn't open 'til 1PM, and upon returning at 1PM we discovered that the waitress wouldn't be there until later.With my groaning companions in tow, we went to Aqui es Mexico.We ordered mole rojo and verde, tinga, and the worst chiles en nogada ever made.Think, "new from Taco Bell, Chilis n nogaahhhda."The moles?The rojo was just Ok, more beer,please.

On the way to our gig, I spotted the place a fellow traveler had spoke of, a mercado and tianguis(flea market)not far from centro El Parian.I had to wait until the next day, but awoke after another wild night to get to some recon.We stopped for some tortas de carnitas, beautiful, in one of those little stands we are all familiar with.Amazing, my unadventurous companions avoided the exotics, so all the pleasures of pig parts were mine and mine alone.Next, El Texano, for a primordial Bajio style barbacoa.Earthy lamb, with pancita,a substantial consume, and a little moranga thrown in to appease the higher pleasure centers.The moranga had a texture and flavor that'd make you cry.Forgeting that I had many good foods awaiting, I really went to town at El Texano,with a hot comal blistering tortillas behind my back, ignoring the disgusted looks from my friends at the sight of me eating blood sausage.

This area just goes on and on as you are leaving town, we entered a tianguis and a sweet viejita said it was called Tianguis El Chicano.The women were selling gorditas de trigo(gorditas of wheat), and other homebaked breads, nopales, and artisenal products.Nearby, I managed to find room for a gordita with an orange cheese resembling requeson filled with frijoles.In a round pan, rellena(blood sausage), a travesty that I could not taste this.My regrets are crescendoing as I write.

If I had a full day to investigate Mercado El Parian and all its food stalls and restaurants I could have unearthed countless gems, but I was pleasantly surprized by this encounter in San Miguel de Allende.

My last taste, a fresh raspado of grosella(gooseberry)engulfed in a swirl of drunken, lazy bees.Best raspado ever.We also went to Winestyles, a chain of wine bars, with the San Miguel location showcasing the wines of the Valle de Guadalupe and other wine regions of Mexico.They have a pretty extensive selection of Mexican wines including boutique wineries, definitely worth a visit and a belt or two.

You won't find many great eats in the Centro Historico, but the tianguis and market is walking distance from the city center.Be sure to walk around the beautiful colonial buildings and take in this historic city, but take your appetite to elsewhere, where the local fleamarket, stalls, and markets will do you right.

Carnitas, at the tianguis

Barbacoa and pancita,El Texano

Moronga, blood sausage from El Texano


Rellena,another way to say blood sausage,que rico!

Mercado El Chicano

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Throw it up for La Raza:Tapatio cuisine in North Hollywood

Have a seat, and enjoy the lush tropical setting.

Tasty tacos de barbacoa

Torta ahogada, La Raza.

Tacos de papa

Go Chivas!!

Tortas Ahogadas La Raza has been around North Hollywood for many years hidden in plain sight.The restaurant appears to be more an ad for the Club Deportivo Guadalajara, known as the Chivas, with its red, white, and blue decor and dancing chivas mascots on the weathered sign atop this humble establishment. The outdoor seating, school lunch benches surrounded by a makeshift canopy and what look to be abandoned plants definitely don't make for a romantic setting.And, the tortas ahogadas sign that could let you know there was a restaurant there looks like radio station banner.They won't win any awards for restaurant design, but if you've ever been to Guadalajara, you will recognize the chefs cooking.

The tortas ahogadas are delicious and exactly as you would receive them in el centro historico, GDL.Tortas ahogadas(drowned sandwiches)are made with a bolillo, and a chile arbol based sauce and also a less spicy tomato based sauce.I got the mildly spicy tomato based version, but I'm sure it's not a problem to get them kick up the heat.They have tasty tacos dorados de papa(fried potato tacos)that are pure street comfort food.Tacos of barbacoa, while not the best I've had, are genuine Tapatio flavor and worth having again.Some other Tapatio treasures, botanas and tostadas of oreja(pig ear), cuero(pigskin), and pata(pig foot) are rare and magnificent versions here at La Raza.

There are a couple of shrimp standards, al mojo de ajo and empanizado, not particular to Jalisco, but this chef, la cocinera, can make good food so give 'em a try.For dessert, jericallas,Mexico's answer to creme brulee and gelatina(Mexican jello).

Come experience a taste of Jalisco, superb tortas ahogadas, tostadas, tacos, and botanas(snacks), another great regional option for Mexican food in the San Fernando Valley.

Tortas Ahogadas La Raza
5938 Vineland Ave.(south of Oxnard St.)
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Think they close around 7PM, or until the chef goes home.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Kosher dude!A Shawarma Truck

Street shawarma with Israeli salad and hummus

shawarma at the place

Hamakom(the place)

Eldad and the boys busy at work

After pestering Eldad, the owner of the only Glatt Kosher Shawarma truck in LA for the past week, I finally got to have a bite this evening.On my way to a Christmas party last week I spotted the "Place Mobile Grill" trailer parked on Zelzah, just south of Ventura Bl. in Tarzana.I was noticing many Israeli restaurants in the area, some which I hadn't noticed before, but this truck.It is the nicest looking truck I've seen, painted with a circus-like design.It's actually a trailer tied to a truck, but I'm callin' it a truck.

Hamakom(the place, metaphorically speaking), also called the Place Mobile Grill, had closed down a couple of days due to Chanukah, but was back in action tonight.They have a website to let you know where they will be located, , but it's not working yet.In the meantime you can call Eldad, at 888-510-5552.It's great, you call and follow the prompts expecting to get an automated response, and then on comes Eldad.For now they are on Zelzah, south of Ventura Bl. on the east side of the street.I believe they are out there daily 'til about 9PM or 10PM.

The menu is extensive with salads, different shawarma plates(traditional and non-traditional), borekas, shishliks, paninis, all Glatt Kosher.I had the shwarma plate tonight with an Israeli salad and hummus.A little pita on the side.This was a pleasurable street meal served from a real rotisserie, with fresh ingredients, and excellent flavor.I'm no shawarma expert, but this find is another reason why I Love LA.

Hamakom(The Place Mobile Grill)
Zelzah, just south of Ventura Bl. in Tarzana

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thanksgiving the Gaucho Way at Fogo de Chão

Weber Haus, the real premium cachaca, imported by the restaurant.

The spread at Fogo de Chão, Beverly Hills

Alcatra, bottom sirloin, the gaucho was on his game.

Picanha gente!

Daniele Soldate flanked by two excellent Fogo de Chão staff

The gauchos of southern Brazil now how to put on a feast.Multiple cuts of roasted meat, fresh vegetables, salads, cheeses, beans, rice, fried polenta, farofa, accompaniment sauce, and caipirinhas.A celebration after a hard days work on the range for the Brazilian cowboy.So,what more could you ask for on Thanksgiving but churrasco at Fogo de Chao.

The southern Brazil tradition of grilled meats with a generous salad bar to accompany the assorted cuts is a resplendent hypothesis. Churrasco is a customized experience for the diner, but anarchy isn't the path to gaucho paradise. Raw vegetables are always included to aid in digestion, hearts of palm, maionese (Brazilian potato salad), various other salads, fresh rounds of cheese, smoked salmon, roasted peppers, molho campanha(accompaniment sauce), an assortment of vinegars and oils,and radicchio are among the salad bar fare at Fogo de Chão, all purposeful and mouthwatering.

Brought to your table are fried polenta, farofa (manioc meal), banana frita, and mashed potatoes. Because the largely non-Brazilian crowd thumbs their noses at such plebian foods like beans and rice, they aren't at the salad bar nor are they brought to the table--don't worry, just ask and your waiter will bring them to you.

Did I mention caipirinhas? Well, that was the first thing we did, at home, and upon arrival at the restaurant.Fogo de Chao carries Ypioca, 51, and Leblon.You will be offered the "premium" Leblon caipirinha, but just smile and let them know that the 51 or Ypioca would be fine. 51 and Ypioca are choice and relevant in a caipirinha, Leblon is a product that is neither premium nor worth the extra cost. The caipirinha(little country girl) is the perfect start of all my Brazilian festas (parties), or a nice batida (Brazilian cocktail made with fruit and cachaça). When the mood is right--around mid-feast-- ask for a shot of the only sipping cachaça available in LA: Weber Haus.You won't regret it.

After some caipirinhas, a trip to the salad bar, decanting our bottle of Nickel and Nickel and polishing off our Artiste sauvignon blanc from Santa Ynez, it was time for rodizio (rotation of meats). For Thanksgiving, Fogo de Chão replaced the frango com bacon (chicken wrapped in bacon) with peru com bacon (turkey wrapped in bacon). Then the fraldinha (bottom sirloin), a favorite of the night, alcatra (top sirloin), filet migñon, picanha and mouth-watering ancho beef. As always, the deft gauchos at Fogo de Chao delivered dreamy,sensual cuts from their 15 selections, traditionally seasoned with rock salt and garlic, tender and flavored with nostalgia. Churrasco tip: Use your red and green disc to control service.

Many people go green and stay, bombarded by multiple cuts sitting on your plate in a backlog of rapidly cooling slices of meat. Get a picanha, watch out for filling up on sausages and lesser cuts, add some molho campana on your meat and enjoy. Put on the brakes with the red disc side, and wait 'til you're ready for another bite, the best experience of churrasco is the energy of hot sliced USDA Choice beef from the skewer to your plate for the condiment and then to your palate. Don't worry about missing a cut, Fogo de Chão has an attentive staff and will send out any cut you like by request.If you have room, go for the lot if you have the capacity, why not?

I always look for Danielle Soldate, Fogo de Chão's own "gaucha" customer service representative to get those beans and rice; she will make sure that you get anything you would like to revisit or missed.

The Fogo de Chão in Beverly Hills is identical to their branches throughout Brazil and the US in quality and service, the type of elegance and indulgence experienced by the Brazilian elite in the upscale Jardins neighborhood of Sao Paulo or the lavish Flamengo location of Porcão churrascaria in Rio.

Although there is a lack of Brazilian ambience in staff and clientele, many non-Brazilian staff are learning Portuguese, I did overhear one well-heeled Brazilian couple dining that night. A few moments with Daniele and I begin to feel that sensation, the kind of energy and warmth Brazilians have, the smiling, and the splendor. Fogo de Chão is the best churrascaria in Los Angeles, the most expensive, but 100% Brazilian in flavor and presentation, well worth the extra $$. Not a bad choice at all for your next Thanksgiving celebration.

Fogo de Chão
133 N La Cienega Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA

Los Tacos Coreanos son muy chido! Korean tacos hit LA

Eric, Roy, Mark, and Caroline from los tacos coreanos, Kogi

Korean tacos

short rib taco

Chef Roy Choi knows how to taco

Scrumptious beef and pork tacos the Korean way

I was invited to a private tasting by Abby, of the Pleasure Palate, to bear witness to the Korean taco revolution.Owners of Kogi BBQ, Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin-Manguera, chef Roy Choi, and photographer Eric Shin treated us like king and queens--about 6 of us previewed their new take on the taco truck.

Koreans have a a strong presence in Latin America--in Mexico they reside primarily in Baja, D.F., and the Yucatan. I wonder why this never happened in Mexico's capitol?

Our tasting consisted of the Kogi tacos: Korean short ribs, BBQ chicken, spicy pork, and tofu. Chef Choi also laid his Korean sliders on us since he was in the mood to try something new. Choi is serious, and combines Korean flavors and fresh ingredients to achieve a delicious end.

Chef Roy Choi is a committed chef and fellow foodie, gave us the low-down on his favorite known and unknown Korean restaurants in LA, and I'm not sharin'! Abby, better get there quick or I'll be writing it up before you:)

The young chef is working hard at this concept and constantly tinkering with ideas to improve, refine, and define this proposal. So--anyways--I'm in--I'm buying it. But, just think about it--an original Korean taco made from rice based tortilla so all that remains is a truly Korean taco.That's just my 2 pesos, along with some Korean style salsa and accompaniments bar. Habanero kimchi? Live octopus tacos? Korean tripas?

Come experience los tacos coreanos, at the Kogi BBQ Truck. Look for their locations by following them on twitter

Monday, December 8, 2008

Signatory Scotch Tasting

Cragganmore Speyside
Bunnahabhain 27 yr and a smoke

The taste

Chris Uhde of Signatory Scotch Whiskey
Last month I attended a private scotch tasting put on by Signatory Scotch Whiskey, an independent bottler of rare Single Malts that would otherwise be lost to the blenders like Johnnie Walker.Special whiskies spared the indignity of becoming mediocre conglomerates, but without these commercial blenders there would be no rare single malts, so let's hear it for the blenders!!Chris Uhde, a representative for Signatory gave us a lecture on the production of scotch from malting,mashing and fermentation,distillation, maturation,filtration, to bottling.This process is easily found on the web, but the thing I found most interesting was the dynamics of scotch production.It's 15% the barley which can be from just about anywhere, 15% the technique, and 70% comes from the barrel used.Hogshead(250 liters), sherry butt(500 liters), and American bourbon(180 liters) are the three sizes, and the use of peat,coal or gas fires during malting also imparts characteristics to the final product.It was a surprize to discover that the barley didn't have to be from Scotland, and that Scotch was more about the traditions and other factors besides terroir.The aging of the scotch is another important element where the scotch mellows and gains complexities;this ends once the scotch is bottled.

Scotch facts
Must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley, to which only other whole grains may be added, have been processed at that distillery into a mash, converted to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, and fermented only by the addition of yeast,
Must be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume so that it retains the flavour of the raw materials used in its production,
Must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years and a day,
Must not contain any added substance other than water and caramel colouring, and
May not be bottled at less than 40% alcohol by volume.

The Signatory guys took us on a taste tour of Scotland through our sensory vessels.On this trip we visited:
Regional profiles

Highlands: It is difficult to generalize a profile of style because of the vast area, but highlands tend to be more full-bodied and flavored with less peat and more malt taste.

Lowlands: This area is in the south on the English Border. The style is lighter, fruitier and dryer in style.

Islay: The Islay is famous for its peaty, salty, iodine-like style.

Islands: Again, because of the vast region, it is difficult to generalize. But because of the location to the ocean, they tend to have a “salt sea air” taste that will be accented by peat depending on the distillery.

Campbletown: These few malts are slightly peated and smokier than the flavors of the Highlands.

The Scotch:
1. Littlemill lowland 16yr(86 proof)

2.Tullibardine Highland 13yr.(86 proof)
Both of these were light and smooth, and pleasurable.

3.Cragganmore unchilled filtered Speyside 10yr.(86 proof)
One of my favorites of the night with a white burgundy finish.This is going in the collection.

4.Edradour Highland 10yr.(86 proof)
This was my least favorite of the night, a mediciny nose, not unpleasant but didn't impress.

5.Glen Scotia Campleton 12yr.(86 proof)
Aged in a bourbon cask, vanilla notes, but the finish was a little weak and mediciny.

6. Highland Park unchilled filtered Orkney 13yr.(86 proof)
Had a grappas quality with mid-palate fruit.Excellent.

7. Glen Elgin Cask Strength Speyside 16yr.(119 proof)
Cask strength(no water added), concentrated sweet flavors, aged in a sherry cask.We were instructed to add water, but I liked it full strength just as well.

8. Caol Ila unchilled filtered Islay 11yr.(86 proof)
Well, I liked this one before the tasting.Caol Ila is one of my favorite scotches, aged in a hogshead cask.

9. Ballechin portwood finish limited release(86 proof)
Lots of glorious peat, and another big hit of the tasting.

10. Bunnahabhain Cask Strength Islay 27yr.(116 proof)
It was a treat to taste this expensive and powerful scotch, again didn't need water but tried it both ways.

The tasting was a success, with 9 out of 10 scotches being solid, and 4 gems.We tasted another 4 after the fact in the party spirit that ensued but I had put the pen down by then and was enjoying a fine cigar.Chris and Signatory were amazing, informative, professional, and brought some stellar spirits.

I'm pretty involved in my tequila, cachaca, and wine collecting, but will definitely look for Signatory scotch bottlings as spirits I can trust, gotta get that Cragganmore soon.
Signatory Scotch Whiskey at Total Beverage Solutions

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Essential Valle de Guadalupe food and wine!

It was another divine couple of days in Baja last weekend.The food, the wine, the people, the scenery.It has now been about 8 years or so since I've been traveling regularly to Tijuana, Ensesenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe.Occasionally Rosarito, and two trips driving all the way to Loreto.Much has changed.

What is the Valle de Guadalupe and Mexican wine?This is the question that drives the restauranteurs, vintners,chilango wine enthusiasts, journalists,quesotraficos, tourists, and adventurers alike.In Polanco, it's about the boutique and cult Mexican wines.Do you have any Tres Mujeres?Casa de Piedra? For the American media it's Laja, Monte Xanic,Adobe Guadalupe, and Cetto.I mean, every article sends you to the same five places!

Currently, I count 34 wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe(Francisco Zarco,El Porvenir),San Antonio de Las Minas(sub apellation), Ensenada, Santo Tomas, and Ojos Negros.There are an equal number in development in the Valle according to my friend Steve Dryden(Baja Times wine writer/D.F. columnists), and there are people making table wines from their own backyards being sold in restaurants and shops.Yet, where does everyone go?Cetto, Domecq,Santo Tomas,Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou, or Adobe Guadalupe.Where do they eat?Laja.Where do they stay?Adobe Guadalupe or La Villa del Valle.The report, so-so wines, great meal at Laja, wine was expensive, brought my own, I can find better wines cheaper.....

There are good wines at these places, but not necessarily on the tastings.Cetto wines are usually the cheapest in a restaurant and a good value wine with dinner, but they do have better wines not on their tastings in a higher price range.Dona Lupe makes organic wines, but her real talent is in the amazing food products she makes not her wines, which are OK.The Camou tasting has a nice blanc de blancs and chardonnay, but the reds are their cheaper offerings, again their best wines aren't part of the tasting.The more expensive Camou and Xanic wines are not on the tastings and are more of a reflection of their potential.There are wineries just like this in California, and anywhere for that matter.

The next level of traveler makes it in to Muelle Tres and Manzanilla, where I believe the spirit of wine country in Mexico is well represented by Benito Molina.Local ingredients, Mexican ingredients, and select Baja wines.Most of what Benito has you won't find on your drive to Cetto or Adobe Guadalupe.Many are by appointment only, and some are illusive, like Hugo D'Acosta.Liceaga is easy to find and has tour groups coming through, even the obnoxious kind like were there on the Friday after Thanksgiving.The Liceaga tasting has a nice Merlot, chenin blanc, and the grappas are outstanding.

I went to see if one of my favorite wineries, Vinisterra, was open early Friday, after a couple of tacos de birria.Perfect Mexican breakfast to cushion the consumption of Baja wines.They were closed again, but after talking with a groudskeeper, a French women who had been talking on her cell phone said that she would give us a tour.Vinisterra just built a beautiful tasting room and production facility, I first went years ago when you went up to the house for a tasting.Agnes, a perky and apt wine enthusiast from Bordeaux led us through the Vinisterra wine making process, including a taste of wine from the maceration tanks, still very sweet and viscous.Agnes was a blast and made an amazing guide for a friend of the family that had just taken the tour with the owner earlier that hour! I hope Agnes stays on.But more importantly, this French wine drinker as she called herself, put my convictions into her European perspective.When I asked what she thought Mexican wine was, she named tempranillo,nebbiolo, and chenin blanc, among others.Agnes described the mineral and saline qualities of the soil, and how more professionalism has brought forth wine makers that can balance this challenge of terroir. Vinisterra has a fine tempranillo, nothing like a Spanish Rioja at all,different, Mexican.A Mexican wine, with mineralty, but balanced.Interesting, unexpected, and delicioso. Baja makes different wines, the best Mexican wines, but you have to drink the right ones to know them.Casa de Piedra, J.C. Bravo, Tres Valles, Vinas Piojan, Mogor Badan, the Cabernet at Valmar, Vinos Californios Roganto, that sauvignon blanc made by Hugo at Benito's restaurants.

Worried about spending too much? Well, when you consider the cost of eating at Manzanilla, Muelle Tres, and the phenomenal La Guerrerense, where you can have ceviches of fresh abulone, cod, pismo clam, huarache oysters, and that #&%#ing urchin for next to nothing, what's the problem?How about this, go to Bevmo, get your affordable wine and take it to the best Mexican seafood place in the US......forgot, we don't have places like Muelle Tres or La Guerrerense.OK, the Water Grill, for the same quality, $120 a head, $25 corkage, your stellar wine selection $18, a total of $163. At the stand $30 for the Baja wine, and $10-$15 for a seafood feast that will change your life.

The globalization of wine is a bore, this has always been the wisdom shared by my European friends who are used to their unique local food and drink being distinctive.While Napa makes world class wines, at times I'm perplexed by the lack of diversity.I guess Robert Parker has many wineries doing a bit of a dance.Of course, there are others ignoring RP and making different wines in every market.But, is this what you expect?The same paradigm applied to all experiences?If so, then I suggest getting off the tourist track and at least exploring the best of the Valle de Guadalupe, and no some of these things aren't on the map.That's part of the fun.

Finally, when I see Hugo D'Acosta sitting having lunch meetings at Manzanilla, restaurant owners taking classes at La Escuelita, chilangos in Polanco chasing down cult wines from Baja, and brand new cuisines evolving in front of my very eyes, I just have to ask.Do you think that these people in the Valle aren't possibly getting together and asking eachother questions like," I have a lot of spicy foods, what have you got for me Hugo?" "Wow, this Sonoran beef needs something different, what do you think Camilo?"Only the French and Italians are capable of such complicated thoughts?Baja Med cuisine(La Querencia and and Villa Saverios), Valle de Guadalupe cuisine(Laja), and exploding gastronomic movement from Tijuana to Ensenada are only possible because of the synergy between the food and wine that is happening right now.Laja is part of that, so are the Baja quails I had at a street cart near Francisco Zarco.Martin San Ramon, the brilliant chef from the Cordon Bleu who runs Rincon San Ramon moved back to Baja to be a part of this revolution.The food scene in northern Baja eclipses anything we have here in California wine country in quantity, diversity, and quality.

Baja wine and food is an essential part of Mexico.The wines are made for the chefs in cooperation with the winemakers, and if you're not partaking and exploring then you're missing the experience.For me, it's Manzanillo and Muelle Tres and Benito's select wines, it's Casa de Piedra and J.C. Bravo, roadside Baja quail with a glass of local wine from the abarrotes that sells ostrich, the real del castillo degustacion at Saverios with a nice chenin blanc, the farmer's market pizza maker at Rancho Badan,quesatacos at La Ermita, the sashimi de callos at La Querencia, the pizza with chorizo de abulon at Baja Med Pizza co., fish tacos at my favorite stand, La Guererrense, Ivette Vaillard's Mas Mezcla, and tacos de birria on a Sunday morning.

Just some of the magical and sensual delights of northern Baja and the Valle de Guadalupe.

A little bird for you!
Carreta las Gueritas, Francisco Zarco

cordorniz estilo Baja