Monday, November 29, 2010

Corkbar:A California Wine Getaway in the Heart of Downtown LA

If you've ever spent day in California wine country, Corkbar will revive those unforgettable weekend treks through breathtaking scenery, fantastic wines, romantic dinners,winderful people, and that California sunshine. Whether it was happily stumbling about Grand Ave in Los Olivos, cruising down the Silverado Trail,watching the fog burn off in Monterey County's River Road Trail, or the unexpected taste of a nice wine from Lodi in the Central Valley,a day tasting wines in California is an escapist's paradise.

Corkbar, located in downtown Los Angeles set out with a simple mission, to recreate the California wine tasting experience. Certainly, this journey down sensory memory lane is no easy undertaking, and many of LA's wine bars seem to have no connection between their own food and wine, let alone the charm and allure of our state's wine tasting rooms.

One look through Corkbar's wine list, and this proposition should begin to gain your approval. The wine list features wines that you'd recognize from your days tasting away in Santa Ynez, or Napa,but the choices are smart and feel they've been plucked from the journeys of a California wine junkie.

Great values and stand out wines from little known producers outside the respective wine regions are featured. They offer around 80 selections by the glass, and a variety of bottle price options in the $30 to $60 price range, like Babcock's expressive '06 Syrah for $34.Or, have at some of Palmina's rare Italian varietals like tocai friulano,also known as sauvignon vert($57), or that "little rascal" from Piedmont,arneis($49).Palmina is located in Lompoc's wine ghetto where you can further indulge these Italian varietals.

Thanks to Wagstaff for the invite and opportunity to sample some of the Fall Menu items and have at that exciting wine list. Corkbar's seasonal California wine country menu was developed by Executive Chef Albert Aviles.

Billy Joel wrote,"a bottle of white, a bottle of red.....we'll get a table near the street,in our old familiar place...." To this I say YES, yes to it all.Let's start with a white,shall we?

I've been to Zaca Mesa and thought it a beautiful property, but the wine tasting was forgettable except that delicious Roussanne.This is a wine list you'd put together if you'd been to every one of these wineries and seriously tasted everything.The 2006 Zaca Mesa Roussanne($15/glass and $57/bottle) from the Santa Ynez Valley has a sexy nose of Mediterranean fruit, and an earthy finish.

The wine list has something for everyone, and presents an impressive list of varietals, all from the Golden State.

For that bottle of red, I chose Morgan's 2008 "12 Clones" pinot noir, from the Santa Lucia highlands in Monterey County.Twelve different clonal sections of pinot noir go into this wine with the characteristic bold fruit and elegance associated with wines from the Santa Lucia highlands. This pinot noir lets its presence known, unabashed flavors on the front, and pleasing complexities on the back. I parked here for the rest of the dinner.

The menu is solid, and the cheese and charcuterie are the perfect casual selections to pair with your wine, the kind that you would carefully pick yourself with the help of an educated cheese monger.

The cheddar cheese gougeres($7)is a fine savory snack, and you can select one of the suggested wine pairings or explore the wine wine list.

The root vegetable salad($14) has arugula, dandelions,and upland cress with roasted root vegetables.This is a great salad, surprisingly good.

You can have a sandwich with a nice zinfandel like Corkbar's burger($12). Here we sampled a small scaled version of their burger. All of their sandwiches include house made condiments and ingredients.

Coconut curried mussels($17) like all the menu items have California wines in mind.

The seared sea scallops($24) on a bed of parsnip puree were lovely with my roussanne.

The root beer braised short ribs($16) over a cheesy polenta are a great deal, a meaty dish that calls for a robust wine like a cabernet sauvignon, or a syrah.

The Bacon Chocolate Cake was described by chef Albert as a sweet accident of a dessert. This new item on the Fall Menu is a rich indulgence to enjoy one of Corkbar's dessert wine selections.

The flavors, the wines, the friendly, casual service all tucked into contempo Downtown Los Angeles design and lifestyle. From the cheese boards to the main courses, the menu is full of satisfying options, and the wine list is a California dream.

Come explore the spirit of California's wine regions located at the core of LA's top restaurants and watering holes. A top notch wine bar that delivers a focused food and wine experience has arrived.

403 W. 12th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 746-0050
Open Daily 11:30am-2am

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mi Costa, Playa Maviri, Los Mochis Sinaloa: Topolobampo Might be Where the Guide Book Sends You, But Playa Maviri is Where the Locals Eat

Just a twenty minute drive from beautiful Los Mochis, Sinaloa, located in the northern part of the state, lies the tranquil beach destination, Playa Maviri. Nearby Topolobampo is more well known outside of Sinaloa as a tourist destination, a commercial shipping port,and that its name was taken by Rick Bayless for his restaurant of the same name. But if you ask the locals in Los Mochis where the best place to get some of their famous Sinaloan seafood they'll tell you,"uh don't go to Topolobampo, the best food is at Playa Maviri.""Unos Buenos mariscos!!"

In town, at Los Mochis, you'll find mostly seafood restaurants that have a barra fria(cold bar), and a barra caliente(hot bar), but not grills. The outdoor style grills used for Sinaloa's state dish, pescado zarandeado, which means shaken fish, are either by themselves, or on the outskirts of town. But on the beaches, the tradition of cooking pescado zarandeado is widespread and it just feels right. Pescado zarandeado was created in the state of Nayarit, but Sinaloa has its own version, and both states are revered in Mexico for this dish.

In Playa Maviri, there's a seafood restaurant row, competing for the hungry throngs of families from Los Mochis that come out on the weekends. Each joint, covered by a thatch roof or other such humble shelter, has ice cold Pacificos, the local beer, a mangler wood fired grill, a barra fria, and a barra caliente.

Mi Costa is a top restaurant for mariscos at Playa Maviri, since 1987, and you'll get no argument from any natives. If you say you're going to Mi Costa," Oh si, excelente!" Everybody knows this place.

I imagine the beach gets pretty full on the weekends, but on this day, it's calm, the weather is perfect, and you might want to grab a beer and have a walk around while your fish is on the grill.

The grill is a traditional pit style zarandeado set up with a grilling cage. It's a two man operation to turn this beast, and the dish gets its name from all that shakin' going on. Pescado zarandeado is what brings everybody out, I mean, this is where you need to go for this, just a minor sacrifice of a twenty minute cab ride. It's worth it, and any less of an effort will haunt you forever.

Aluminum foil is used to keep the fish from cooking too fast, gotta have that tender, flaky fish. And, a two man operation? Yes, this job is ostensibly performed by men. It's a Man's World....

but it Wouldn't be Nothin'...without a Woman.The other two kitchens in these restaurants are a cooking station for all the hot dishes which is matriarchal, and a cocktailing bar for the raw shellfish preparations,seafood cocktails, ceviches, tostadas, aguachiles(raw seafood in lime and chile), and botanas(snacks). Cocktailing has traditionally been the realm of men, but a little woman's lib has crept in the seafood biz, and I'm seeing more and more female cocktailers here and there.Our cocktailer at Mi Costa was a woman. Viva la coctelera!

Barra Fria(cold bar)

While you wait for the much anticipated pescado zarandeado, you need some bites to go with your chilly Pacifico, or michelada(beer cocktail). Pata de mula, or mangroves cockles, also known as bloody clams is a bold starter. It translate to mule's foot. The pata de mula has its own liquor, that gives it an intense flavor. This is the shellfish that separates the men from the boys. Its firm texture can also be strange to the uninitiated, so please take the time to chew.

Almeja chocolata preparada, or prepared chocolate clams, of the venus clam variety might make you switch loyalties from the oyster to the clam. They only are found in the Sea of Cortez, and in Central America. They have a great texture when fresh, as the freshly cut live chocolata tenses up as it's being cut. Some lime, tomato, cilantro and onion and you have mini-clam cocktails. Or, you can have them au natural. There are a variety of oysters and clams available on this extensive cold bar menu.

Tostadas are neglected here in the US, even at many of the Sinaloan and Nayaritan restaurants we have in Los Angeles. So, you might overlook these treasures on the appetizer menu, but when in Sinaloa, tostadas should be on your mind. The tostada mitotera, or gossipy tostada, consists of cooked octopus and shrimp, and shrimp ceviche heaped upon a tostada and finished by a callo de hacha(scallop). Mitotera, which means gossip, but also the person who sets off the party, is the sauce, likely a combination of lime, soy sauce or worcestershire sauce, spices, and seasoning.

The tostada itself is not functional with these heaped piles of seafood, as it will fall all over the place if you attempt to pick it up and eat it, but no worries, there are plenty of baked tostadas and crackers at your disposal. The tostadas themsleves are amazing, usually house made, or from a tortilleria.

The tostada embarazada(pregnant tostada) comes with cooked crab legs and shrimp, and beautifully adorned with a whole cooked peel and eat shrimp. This tostada has a touch of spice, but the emphasis here is on the pure sweetness of fresh crab and shrimp.

There are also seven different molcajetes full of seafood:scallops, sea snails, shrimp, octopus, oyster, and clams. The maleficio en molcajete(evil spell), with spicy raw shrimp and scallops, the agasajo en molcajete(banquette), or the molcajete V.I.P., raw scallops and shrimp, octopus, oysters in mitotera sauce, with a touch of shrimp stock. The maleficio and the agasajo are Sinaloan seafood traditions, but the restaurants will make up their own creations with intriguing titles.

Barra caliente(hot bar)

The hot bar includes regional tacos like marlin tacos, shrimp cooked about twenty different ways, fish chicharron, fish filets and plates, and the mignon de camaron, shrimp in the form of a filet mignon, wrapped with bacon with a cream sauce, which I'm tempted to order ALWAYS!

Camarones rellenos are single shrimp wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese. Coastal rice, a perfect guacamole, and the "I Love the 80's" steamed vegetables. At least the vegetables are cooked very nicely. Bacon, melted cheese, and shrimp, does this combination require any explanation? What a fantastic triple alliance. This is also known as camarones costa azul.

La Parilla(the grill)

Pescado zarandeado cooked on manglar wood on the beach. This is why you're here. Mi Costa serves seven luxurious versions of pescado zarandeado. The tradicional uses a Sinaloa marinade, a fat, either butter,olive oil, or mayo, lime, perhaps soy or worcestershire sauce, spices and vegetables, the tipico estilo nayarit is done with spices, chilis, and lime. They also do a la talla(to size) from the state of guerrero and estilo Mi Costa , whole butterflied fish covered with shrimp and octopus, julienned chilis, with a bath of mild chipotle sauce. Oh, and the fish used are seasonal here, only the best quality seafood items are offered at this beloved beach institution. Pescado zarandeado is usually done with sea bream or snook, but it can be executed with any number of local catch: snapper, sea bass,etc.

We ordered the tipico estilo nayarit. The grilling was expert and performed with ease. Always check the protruding spine on the left side of the dish, if it's as tender as the fatty center, you've got yourself a top notch grill man.

The moist, supple fish, in this case sea bream, known as pargo, is made from fresh local catch. It doesn't get any better than this. Pure fish flavors, and a complementary spicing are the way it's done in Nayarit, just to the south of Sinaloa. It's not an easy task to cook this dish without using fats, but the guys at Mi Costa are pros.The fish is sublime.

Pescado zarandeado, while being a state dish of Sinaloa, isn't so common in town, the beach is the destination for this style of dining. A cold bar, a hot bar, and beach grilling before a night at the clubs or before catching a concert at the palenque(concert venue) is 100% sinaloense.

Follow the signs for Topolobampo and keep right on going to Playa Maviri, where Sinaloans go for the best mariscos.

Mi Costa
Playa Maviri
Los Mochis, Sinaloa

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Ultimate Guide to the Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada : Baja California Dreamin' About Tacos de Pescado Estilo Baja

The Baja fish taco is adored in the Californias and beyond. It's required eating in Ensenada by guys on fishing trips, the three day cruise ship crowd, overnighters , Baja wine country visitors, frat boys, cholos, girl's weekend outings, and those kindred souls of mine seeking out the riches of Baja cuisine, culture, wine, and lifestyle.

It's quite a lovely proposition, a tempura batter fried filet of dogfish, angel shark, mako shark, or a variety of other firm white fish in a warm tortilla with fresh and pickled vegetables,salsa, crema agria(mayo with 2% milk), maybe some guacamole salsa?

It is a popular belief that Japanese fishermen brought tempura technique to Baja, which they acquired from the Portuguese, but make no such careless culinary revisionism, the Baja fish taco,or taco de pescado, is a 100% Mexican creation. All cuisines evolve from outside influences, and no cuisine is pure. Why isn't Italian cuisine called a fusion when it relies on tomatoes from the Americas, and pasta from Asia? Is Italian really Chinese-Mexican?No, it's Italian. Cuisine is the expression of a culture or people, not cooking devices, techniques, or ingredients.

These fish tacos are available all throughout the Baja peninsula, from Tijuana to Cabo, but Ensenada is the epicenter, and considered the birthplace of this iconic food. It's one of the first things one thinks of when planning a trip to Baja. "Fish tacos, dude!"(high fives)

Surprisingly, there hasn't been a thorough investigation of Ensenada's fish taco stands, with just a handful of places receiving any mention. Chris Cognac hit up Puesto El Fenix and Don Zefe in November of 2006, relying on predictable sources, El Fenix always comes up, and many would consider it the best. Don Zefe rated very poorly on my run, one of the worst,and not worth revisiting. Others have written about El Fenix, but didn't even go to the stand, which is the best of the two El Fenix fish taco establishments, just a block away from each other.

Over the course of four years with multiple visits to a total of ten stands, I have compiled a Baja fish taco guide that ranges from the tourist trap stalls next to the Black Market(fish market) to what I call the Holy Trinity of Ensenada fish tacos. This list focuses on the traditional stands, or shacks that serve fish and shrimp tacos, although two taquerias are included due to their reputations. Fish tacos are found everywhere in Ensenada, restaurants, cafes, stands, and taquerias, but they are done best in a stand using a comal de acero, a stainless steel disc shaped comal with a concave well for frying. All ten locations listed here use the comal de acero, use a similar type of corn tortilla, and have the same basic condiments.

I considered the quality of the fish, cooking technique, condiments, and overall flavor. The stands are ranked in order from least to greatest. This is not a top ten list, but an ordering of the range of fish taco options and the most well known stands to tourists and locals.

For most short stays in Ensenada, a fish taco at the various stalls next to the fish market is your first encounter with this Baja temptation. It was the same for me a decade ago. The barkers stand outside and yell for you to come to their stand, and insist that they are the best.

#10-Mariscos El Norteno
Located across from the Black Market

These places are identical, all stocking the same tarros(large beer glasses) filled with the same salsas and condiments and covered in plastic. So, I randomly selected Mariscos El Norteno.

It's certainly a turn off when everybody has the same stuff. These glasses actually depress me.

The weako de gallo looked awful, a medley of out of season fruit and vegetables devoid of color or nutrition.

The taco itself was compromised by the poor condiments, a lack of flavor that even salt couldn't revive. The cooking was good, a crunchy outside, and a token of tenderness, but a lack of seasoning on batter and fish.

Curvina was used, a type of croaker fish, which allows El Norteno to offer this taco for $10MXP, about $.86USD, but it's just not the right fish for the Baja fish taco.

The other nuisance at the stalls is the smell of fish runoff from the market and the nearby docks. One time, many years ago, a fetid odor accompanied my every bite, jamming my senses with cursed air. Well, I hadn't returned until I decided to do this report, so, don't say I never did anything for you. It's a lame fish taco with a side of ass.

Even without the smell, I wouldn't recommend any of the stalls near the fish market. Let the amateurs have at these. You're quest lies elsewhere.

#9-Tacos Corona
just north of Juarez on Espinoza
Tacos Corona, while being better than a Back Market experience, falls in the category of below average. Like most of the stands, it is a family run operation, mothers and daughters, cousins, and grandmothers. They've been around for 40 years, and the current family member that owns the stand has had this place for 17 years.

All of the stands use their oil a couple of times, which I don't mind. A seasoned oil of lard, yes, all these tacos are cooked in lard. But, it must be strained and filtered, and changed when needed.

While the condiments were acceptable here.....

the batter was very dark, not the golden brown crispy outside you crave. The flavor and texture damaging bits were visibly floating around the comal, resulting in a coarse, oily crust.
Mako shark was used, a quality fish, but the flavor was an upfront saltiness with no substance on the back end. The problem here is in the frying.

#8-Tacos Don Zefe
on the corner of Riveroll and Mutualismo

Tacos Don Zefe is a taqueria, and one of the well known destinations thanks to a story by Chris Cognac.

There's a very pleasant seating area, and a formal stand that seems more California than Baja, like a hot dog stand.

The taco was made with angelito, Angel Shark, on a fresh tortilla. It's served traditionally, a warmed tortilla with the fried fish is given to the customer to indulge his/her inner taquero. Standard condiments are available, nothing that stands out though.

The seasoning is rather dull here, and a few bites leaves you wanting less, as in why did I order this. Also, the frying technique needs to improve in order for this stand to hang with the big boys.

#7-Tacos "Nemo"
on the corner of 6th and Gastellum

Like most of the stands here, Tacos Nemo is a family run joint. They've got a cute name and mascot. Can you say copyright infringement?

There appears to be a pattern here. Second tier fish taco stands use the less expensive angelito. There's no difference in price, so I think angelito, a slighty more affordable fish perhaps allows for a greater profit margin.

Only slightly better than Don Zefe's, Tacos Nemo also suffers from the same deficits in flavor, and fry technique. Finding Nemo? Nah, I don't think so.

#6-Tacos Lulu
on the corner of Juarez and Floresta

Oh how I wanted to love Tacos Lulu. A family run stand, mother and daughter working alongside another family member. A family recipe, that luxurious dogfish, and just a great group of people.

This is a much more engaging fish taco than the previous ones, but just didn't inspire. They have some friendly regular customers, as I'm sure all these stands enjoy.

The balance of crispy outside, tender inside, and seasoning here are so crucial to the fish taco. This was clearly a superior taco to numbers 10 through 7, but the only achievment here is mediocrity.

#5-Tacos Castillo
On the corner of Juarez and Castillo

The big surprise of all the places I went to was Tacos Castillo, a stand I had never heard of anywhere.

This is a tasty fish taco, well seasoned, and the frying here is competent. The condiments here were solid, and a fine roasted chiles salsa added a little character.

This is the kind of stand that would be outstanding here in Los Angeles, if they could work out the sourcing issues, of course. This stand uses angelito.

#4-Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix
on the corner of Espinosa and 6th

Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix is the stand everyone talks about. It is more inviting than the original down the street because it has seating, and a taqueria style structure.

The frying here is consistent and expert. This is the benchmark fish taco in Ensenada, that solid workhorse that always brings it.

Fine condiments, and just a brilliant red and a tangy green pair of salsas allow for a pure Baja fish taco expression. Cazon, of course, is used at Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix.

But, Puesto El Fenix is better than Mi Ranchito El Fenix.

And now for the fish taco Holy Trinity. These stands are all worthy of your attention, and a crawl of these three traditional stands should be included in your Ensenada itinerary along with falling off the bar drunk and hitting your face on the floor boards of Hussong's Cantina, and getting your name engraved on a grain of rice. Who does that?

#3-Tacos La Floresta
on the corner of Floresta and Juarez

Tacos La Floresta is a no name stand located on Av. Floresta . It is truly a shacky shack. When I arrived there was a flock of hungry fish taco fiends gathered 'round.

This is excellence, perfect frying of the rare mako shark. The owner Rica, is a sweet lady, who sweetly smiles and calmy directs her crew as she facilely cranks out stellar fish tacos. The flavors are subtle, but that crust, and clean fish flavor meld into a refined cooperation of textures and savors. Crunchy, hot, cold,tender, fruity, creamy, and wet satisfaction.

All products used to finish your tacos are exceptional.

These are the kind of fish tacos that Baja dreams are made of. Fish taco worshippers concentrate about this stand eating in silence, only intermittent conversation interrupts the feeding frenzy of shark eating man!

#2-Puesto Fenix
the corner of Juarez and Espinosa
Puesto Fenix would be my last stop on this fish taco odyssey. Having found three gems, I took time out to celebrate, by ordering another fish taco, carefree, sans camera. I just kicked back and actually felt a huge burden had been lifted off of my shoulders. OK, not really.

I hung out for awhile at the end of the fish taco portion of the day. By 5pm, most fish taco stands are giving way to the night time tacos, carne asada, al pastor, or suadero.

When I asked the team at Puesto Fenix what kind of fish they used, a very serious gentleman responded," filete de cazon." I like that. Yes, give it its proper due, dogfish filet homes!

Here, the same green salsa from Mi Ranchito El Fenix, but the difference between the small chain in taste is substantial.
This taco is more boldly flavored, a noteworthy taco. If this stand is why you're praising El Fenix, then you are justified, if not, just walk one block north on Av. Espinosa and your perspective shall improve by leaps and bounds. I never saw the reason in plugging El Fenix until I stopped here.
As all of the top three stands, an expert balance of all the components of cooking, quality of ingredients,and condiments is key. While I love Tacos Floresta and could easily spend an afternoon there, Puesto Fenix has a more robust flavor in the batter.
#1-Fish Tacos Ensenada
on the corner of Juarez and Gastellum

My number one fish taco stand in Ensenada has been close to my heart for many years. It's definitely not because of the name, Fish Tacos Ensenada. I was reluctant to share this stand back in my chowhound days, always referring people to Mi Ranchito El Fenix. When I brought a large group of bloggers, chefs, restaurateurs and writers down in the summer of 2009, we went to Mi Ranchito El Fenix. I hadn't finished putting my favorite stand to the Pepsi challenge.

I only shared this place with small groups, and close friends. A recent e-mail from a reader inspired me to finish this run down, so I could without hesitation, share this special stand.

The stand is, well, of course, a family run operation. A woman from El Salvador moved to Ensenada, got married and in time opened a fish taco stand with her husband. These days, Yasmin, the cute young lady pictured here, works alongside her sisters, and their mom.

This is the only stand that has such a mob of killer salsas. Everything from standard creations to the creative little numbers crafted by the owner and her daughters. The salsas are always changing, colorful, and vibrant.

The freshly fried cazon here is a sight to behold. Fish Tacos Ensenada is oldschool, just a tortilla with a comely piece of plump fish are given to the lucky diners. As much as you want to race to condiment while the fish is at its peak, you are likely to give this baby the once over, just for a second though.

They've got everything here:fresh cabbage, pickled cabbage, six to eight salsas, toasted chile de arbol, mayo, and crema agria. Consistently, the fish sings with virtuosity. I would drive here just for a fish taco, and I have.

Like Puesto Fenix, the seasoning here in upfront, the cooking is sublime, but the difference is in the condiments, and the overall flavor of this fish taco. It's good enough to make a frat boy moon his buddies and lose himself in base hyperbole. "Oh my god, dude, this taco is like.....SO awesome."

It's the end of a day glorious day tasting wine in the Valle de Guadalupe, and I appoach Highway 1. Do I head north, or do I head into town? Perhaps, just one taco before I hit the road. I'm not really hungry, but my craving can't be denied.

Fish tacos, or tacos de pescado, as they are known in Mexico, are a universal pleasure. You're not wrong to want to hit up the best while in town. Your expectations are high, so allow me to take you to the promised land of milk and honey. Set your sights on my beloved Fish Tacos Ensenada, the famed Puesto Fenix, and the local favorite Tacos La Floresta, and experience the best fish tacos Ensenada has to offer.

Ensenada, B.C., Mexico