Wednesday, August 31, 2005

West Village, New York, NY - Mexicana Mama

New York is a hotbed of CIA's best (although you really couldn't go wrong with the majority of chefs from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America), and the owner of this dazzling Latin jewel in the West Village graduated #1 of her class. I once complained that there was no Mexican food to be had on the east coast, and there very well might be a substantial lack of such in Boston. But if you're lucky enough to be in the NY neighborhood of Mexicana Mama, you'll be treated to an experience that is both faultlessly authentic and that brushes your taste buds to the seventh heavens effortlessly.

I've noticed that the most delicious (although the word 'delicious' is far too trite to describe the warmth and singing beauty of the dishes at Mexicana Mama) food experiences I've had in NY are in cosy quartered slivers of restaurants that seat 30 people, maximum. The ambience is crammed into small lengths of space with complementing accessories, music, and artwork stretching up high walls. And so, with the high quality and obviously high demand, which reviews like this will only fuel, comes the unavoidable wait. I write this as a disclaimer of reality, although I did not experience it personally, as this time around J, a friend, and I visited one off-hour afternoon in the dead of winter.

We piled our coats onto high-perched pegs that seemed to be meant for 6-7' giants, and crowded around a brightly-festive table. Everything was a joyous burst of color and energy, from the decorations to the fabulous food we were about to launch into.

We began our lunch with airy tortilla chips charmingly presented in a cut-off brown paper bag, and a heavenly salsa whose innocuous cheesy-orange color disguised its mind-blowing, richly deep smooth flavor, supporting spices, and completely unidentifiable essence. My tongue curled helplessly in speechless wonder around this indescribable source of bliss, amazed that it had never before encountered any of the components of the salsa; together, or individually. This was a truly amazing beginning to the meal, and everything that followed was equally stunning.

Curious, I went for a Mexican drink, intensely pomegranate-red and brightly tart. It would have been a lively counterpart of a truly fiery meal, but without such a foil, it was a bit too striking on its own. It was quite pretty, though, adding another burst of flavor and color to the party.

My companions had established this restaurant as one of their favorites long ago, so they knew the best things to get. I let them take the lead, and simply had fun tasting everything set in front of me. We made a second appetizer of one of the entrees: Queso Flameado. It was a sinfully-indulgent concoction of creamy white chihuahua cheese melted onto and around a heavily spiced pile of chili-laced, oil-soaked Northern-style chorizo. Wrapped up in a steamed corn tortilla with chunky guacamole (this is hands-on messy!), it tasted like rich, creamy, fiery heaven. Who cared about the cholesterol hell reflected back in the red oil? This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where you firmly blindfolded your conscience and then dug in deeply.

Our friend, a regular of Mexicana Mama, loved the food so much that he said his first dates would have a trial run there; if the female didn't share the same joy in the meal that he did, that would also be their last date. Not a bad philosophy to live by. Might as well have a meal that you know you'll enjoy, regardless of the company!

He swore by the burritos here, specifically, a massive barbacoa burrito wrapped and toasted to render the flaky flour tortilla skin lightly crispy. Inside were the most tender, flavorful strips of beef harmonizing beautifully with black beans, smooth, melted chihuahua cheese, chipotle potatoes, and creamy, sweet butternut squash. I thought the butternut squash addition was ingenius; one of those "now why didn't anyone think of that before?" delightful discoveries, but perhaps the more meaningful testimonal was that our friend, an all-meat and no-vegetable type of person, never even noticed that there were vegetables in his beloved burrito! And at just below $12, this dish is a great value; good luck finishing it if you have appetizers and desserts to take into consideration as well!

J had a fiesta going on in his plate; the Arrachero a la Mexicana dish at $18.95. It offered a rainbow of flavors, with succulent hanger steak buried in a trio of sauces including a vibrant mole sauce, light Mexican cream and lightly seasoned cubed tomato, and a hearty sauce of roasted poblano, chili morita, and chorizo that provided the perfect kick. Mexican rice and black beans accompanied in a side dish. This dish was amazing, with so many fantastic taste sensations piled expertly on top of one another, but never becoming overwhelming. I only have the memory of two bites of this dish, before he claimed the rest. I don't blame him. ;)

By the time I got to my dish, I was completely dazed and satiated by the incredible rush of flavors that had already seduced my tongue. But I enjoyed my $14 Taco de Puerco en salsa chili Cascabel lunch equally, both that day, and the following day when I was happily reunited with it as leftovers that had lost surprisingly little of the vivaciousness of the previous day. Three soft corn tortillas pointed to the sky with their generous offering of robust chile-roasted pork filling wrapped with chihuahua cheese and black beans, showered with mild red onions and cilantro, and firmly supported by Mexican rice and guacamole-like avocado. The pork was on the lean side (both the hanger steak and the steak burrito were richer in fat), but tender and moist. The chili didn't seep into the pork as much as it had the beef, but the overall courtship of textures and flavor was successful and deeply satisfying.

J had the fortune of re-visiting the restaurant to catch up with his friend, the owner, at which time he had the New York shell steak en adobo de chile meco. In his words:

"It was NY shell steak with a meco rub of red chiles, lime juice, cumin and a touch of honey, and topped with black beans and corn relish. It was pretty darn good. Tender, tasty and just spicy enough to get the sweat beads rolling. Another fabulous serving of Mexicana Mama.

The staff is hip, cool, and friendly. Service is fast and a little hectic and the seating a bit cramped, but hey, what can you expect when more people want to eat than there are tables?"

Mexicana Mama had been touted to me as the best Mexican place he'd ever been to, and now I have to say the same. I absolutely loved it, and know that you would as well. Whoever would have imagined that such incredible, authentic food of a tropical, sun-soaked country could be found at such a high lateral geographical locale, one chilly silver-blue winter afternoon?

Mexicana Mama
525 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014-2607

Monday, August 22, 2005

Los Angeles, CA - Johnathon Club

I'm going to do something unconventional here at twofoodies, and that is to suggest that you take out a club membership, specifically the Town Club portion, at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles. I'll have to warn you however, that membership is very selective (or so I've heard) and well, it's like you're paying to be a member of something that is often associated with snobbery and imagery. So now you're asking yourself, "What does any of this have to do with the thing that drives us all?" Well, everything, because I sure as heck ain't gonna mention something in this blog that doesn't deal with food, no matter how remote.

After a long week at work, I was fortunate enough to be invited to meet someone at the Jonathan Club for drinks. I arrived and sat in a big lobby, exploring the antique art collections and reading the "no cell phones allowed" policy. After he came and took me through a maze of elevators and hallways, we emerged out onto a rooftop lounge featuring a live band and middle eastern hor d'ouvres which weren't amazing but were pretty good. It was relatively sparse at Friday around 8pm. After a quick bite (our appetizers) and some drinks (the sapphire tonics here are consistently good), we headed back into the maze to one of the other restaurants, decided we weren't in the mood for it, and then ventured over to the Grill Room which I think is their version of a steak and chop house. Luckily we had our coats; to get in, gentlemen need jackets. We opted to sit a bit further away from the live band (yet another!) and the menus were distributed.

I'm really trying to rush to get to what is really important to me, which is the steak, but I feel as if I ought to mention something about the general atmosphere of the Jonathan Club. It's old, it's beautiful, it's ornate, kinda like you're in an Italian Renaissance scene. And that's all you're gonna get out of me. I blocked out every memory except for the steak.

I had a 18oz New York steak prepared medium (next time, I'll have to do medium-rare) and ordered a seafood gumbo as an appetizer. For those of you who want smaller steaks, they have a 12oz New York and a 8oz petite filet mignon, among others. Of course they had bigger too; 24oz porterhouse and up. The gumbo was good, not something far from what I might get in New Orleans. But the was darned good. The last time I had steak this good, it was at Mark Joseph Steakhouse in NYC or maybe the Post House, also in NYC. The steak was prepared exactly to medium, in my opinion. Had I known they'd be so accurate and the steak so good, I would have gotten medium-rare, which is what I order at a steakhouse I trust. It had a wonderful flavor and was charred just enough to make me realize that I didn't care about the HCAs (heretocyclic amines, carbon-compounds that are cancer-causing agents) that made the food taste so good!

You can get a variety of steak sauces on the side although I've almost always maintained that the best steak sauce is its natural juices and maybe some salt (although some places make very good cajun steaks). The meat was tender and every bite was delicious. I didn't run into anything I had to cut aside or spit out, and the steak juices just tickled my senses silly. When I was done and so full that I really ought to have loosened the belt buckle a notch or two, I still wanted to have another bite.

Maybe it's been too long since I've had decent steak, but if the Jonathan Club continues to serve up steak like that, I've got to get myself a membership.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Milpitas, CA - Mahalo BBQ

Aloha! I'm on a Hawaiian kick. From the warming Aloha Festival in San Francisco's Presidio, to tropical flavors infused in my food, to 'Hula Hips' and 'Hot Wahine' clothingwear with pua shell and kukui nut leis, I'm reveling in everything Hawaiian. Just call me Leilani. ;)

This past Saturday, a new Hawaiian place was spotted: Mahalo BBQ. The menu and vibrant yellow and red color scheme was an almost-identical rip-off from L&Ls, but that's about where the similarities ended. L&Ls is Hawaiian fast food: heaping trays of bbq'ed meat with artery-clogging macaroni salad and two scoops of rice. It's not gourmet, but it's satisfying, and it's certainly a pretty decent value. Mahalo follows the same basic framework.

The two restaurants (if you can call them that) are decorated along the same lines, with faux-grass fringes, tropical hanging plants, and surf accessories and hula pin-ups hanging from the walls. But L&Ls, even with its fast-food bent, has the all-important aloha spirit. It's the music, the hawaiian shirt 'uniform', and the tanned, easy smile behind the cash register. Hawaiian is not food, it's a feeling. And so when that aura is missing, everything else dulls as well. Mahalo was manned by quiet, unassuming Chinese who smiled shyly when we ordered, but were unable to respond to any questions or comments with little more than 'we open for 6 weeks now'. The interior was sadly quiet, even with about one third of the tables being occupied, with the main sounds being Chinese exchanged between two female staff members.

One dish was the quinessential BBQ platter: a generous pile of bbq'ed chicken, kalbi (beef shortribs), and bulgogi (finely sliced beef strips) elevated by raw, pale green cabbage, and flanked by two ice-cream scoops of rice and one of macaroni salad. The meat was well-flavored, but lacking excitement. And for one of the two bbq plates ordered, the chicken and beef were woefully overcooked. They were lackluster and dry in such a state, and edible but not enjoyable. In terms of rice, I prefer a high-grade short-grain rice that is plump, moist, with slightly-chewy interiors that remain individualistic instead of gumming into an over-moist, soft pile, like this rice was very nearly in danger of becoming.

Garlic shrimp is a menu item not often seen, so I ventured to try this one, and I was pretty glad that I did. I expected the shrimps to be sauteed with a garlic-oil sauce, not deep-fried and then garnished with a salty garlic-green onion mixture, but the latter worked surprisingly well. The eight shrimp were a good size, with a crunchy batter of medium thickness that didn't overwhelm them, and the savory pale-golden garlic added creamy zings of flavor that played delightfully in my mouth. Actually, I have to give the cook kudos for not over-cooking the garlic. This minced garlic was soft and moist, with that full-bodied mildness that is usually only found in oven-roasted garlic heads.

I was pleased to find that there was enough garlic to mix with the raw cabbage to make a tasty impromptu cole slaw. The macaroni salad may seem a overbearing with the mayonaise (this goes for most Hawaiian mac salad incarnations), but I find a happy medium by mixing it with equal parts of rice and/or cole slaw.

I wanted so much to like this newcomer.. and really, I was entirely content with my shrimp dish... but I was disappointed by this place. Food is great and all, but what I really look forward to is the life and laughter. The people hired are essential to a place's sucess. Add some Hawaiian (or Hawaiian-at-heart) people to your staff, please! Mahalo~ :D (mahalo = 'thank you' in Hawaiian)

Mahalo BBQ
[address unknown, right next door to Banana Leaf, at 182 Rance Drive]
Milpitas, CA 95035

Home Cooking - Hawaiian Pineapple and Pork

Pineapple and pork hook up with each other in Hawaiian pizzas, in sweet and sour pork, and in Thanksgiving hams. So I already knew that this recipe couldn't be bad (besides, it was also from the same cookbook as the previous entry).

I had recently purchased an entire rack of ribs because they were silently oinking to me from the meat case of my local grocery store. I really had no business buying them because I can hardly eat 2-3 ribs by myself, much less an entire rack, but as usual, I was easily won over. I lugged them home, plonked them into my fridge, and then began the enjoyable search of finding the perfect 'dressing' for them.

Coincidentally, I also had a lovely, fresh Dole gold pineapple, so I was all set for this recipe. When selecting a pineapple, choose one whose leaves are all green (they'll start to wither and brown the longer they sit around at the store, so you can tell how fresh they are), with a plump, bright golden exterior (I have had a few successes with pale-yellow green pineapples, but it's a gamble that the unripe fruit will come into it's own, so don't settle for that unless you have absolutely no other options.), and a strong pineapple-y scent. As with most fruits, the more intense the smell, the better it'll be.

Easy Local Ribs (from 'Best of the Best from Hawai'i Cookbook')

3 pounds meaty, country-style pork spareribs, cut into pieces (I was lazy and left mine as a rack of ribs)
3 T soy sauce
1 t salt
Dash of pepper
Pineapple chunks
Green onions, chopped

Rub spareribs all over with soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Place ribs, meat-side-up in a foil-lined shallow baking or roasting pan, and cover with foil or baking-pan lid. Bake 20-25 minutes at 450 deg. Drain off fat.

[the semi-raw ribs with soy-sugar-vinegar-pineapple glaze]
1 C syrup-packed pineapple chunks, drained (I used real pineapple, and upped the amount to 1 1/2 C)
1/2 C packed brown sugar
1/3 C ketchup (I substituted Vietnamese sweet chili sauce that's served with grilled chicken)
1/3 C vinegar (I used rice vinegar)
2 T soy sauce 2 t grated fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced

Combine Sauce ingredients; pour over ribs. Bake at 350 deg. for 1 hour or until tender, basting occasionally. Garnish with pineapple chunks and green onions.

Moistly sweet and tangy, with teases of ginger and garlic. FInger-licking good~

Friday, August 05, 2005

Home Cooking - Ono aloha

There's nothing I love more than a cookbook compilation of the 'best recipes' from a slew of other well-regarded cookbooks. In the case of Hawaiian food, it usually comes in the form of a plastic ring-bound stack of pages. I consider this compilation layout to be less than professional for some food genres, but for island food, plastic binding = AUTHENTIC. So ono!!! (ono = delicious in Hawaiian)

Macadamia Nut Bars (from 'Best of the Best from Hawai'i Cookbook)

2 eggs
1 t vanilla
1 1/2 C brown sugar
2 T flour
1/4 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/2 C flaked coconut
1 C toasted macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
Powdered sugar for topping

Beat the eggs, vanilla, and brown sugar together until smooth. Sift flour with baking powder and salt; stir into egg mixture and blend well. Fold in coconut and nuts to complete the filling.

Butter crust:
1/2 C butter
1/4 C sugar
1 C flour

Blend butter, sugar, and flour together with a fork to make a crumbly texture. Press into a 9" square pan. Bake at 350 deg. for 20 minutes or until light brown. Remove from the oven.
Gently spread Filling over crust. Bake an additional 25 minutes at 350 deg. Remove from oven and place on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cool 5 minutes, then cut with a knife into desired size squares.

This is what the shortbread crust looked like after the first round of baking. It was so beautifully golden, sparkling with sugar crystals (which, unfortunately I could not capture with my camera), I was quite tempted to abort the recipe right then, and dig right in.

Somehow, I mustered up the will-power to continue, and soon blanketed the buttery base with a toffee-pale topping. It poured out easily and evenly, which was a welcome change from those 'shape, push, and spread' thicker concoctions that rebel against the spatula.

The end result was bliss-inducing. The gooey, syrupy, soft-caramel-like insides was the perfect binding between the crust, toothy nuts, and chewy coconut shreds. The top skin was a light shell almost like a meringue, and crumbled upon contact. The bar overall held together pretty well, but it did lean towards the soft side. Then again, most of the bars didn't last more than a few seconds, so that wasn't too much of a concern. This recipe is definitely a keeper!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Anywhere, USA - Food on the Go

When you travel, it's always nice to take a little stroll and try some of the local food, even if it's not that different from what you normally eat. But let's face it: not all travel is so relaxing and fun. Sometimes you're stuck eating on the go, ordering room service, or just making do. And it might not always be pleasant. This entry is dedicated to travel food and will highlight some experiences from a recent flight and hotel stay.

It all started out one sunny morning, as I waited in a terminal in LAX waiting for the non-stop service to JFK on United Airlines. Throughout the terminal, you can buy snacks, sandwiches and other food to bring aboard. In light of recent financial woes, the airline industry has largely stopped giving free meals on domestic flights.

The flight left on-time, much to my delight, and then this foodie fought to stay awake in order to review the food. In the economy cabin, pre-packaged snacks and sandwiches were being sold for a modest fee (meaning, at a markup that makes your neighborhood convenience store look like a charity). I took the chance that the sandwiches were going to be mediocre and that a package of Doritos tastes roughly the same in the air as it does on land, so didn't bother ordering one to review. I don't know what they served in first class, but if you're flying first class, the food's likely not going to be up to par. I found myself settling into business class, where the seats made me think twice about staying awake for a food review. Menus were distributed shortly and looked liked this.

The service thirty thousand miles in air can put some brick-and-mortar restaurants to shame. If it weren't for the restraining seat belts and the silent roar of the jet engines, I might not have noticed I wasn't in a restaurant. The waitress/attendant would come by before each meal with a white tablecloth. Glassware and metalware was provided, along with a pathetic plastic fork (a post-9/11 security precaution which is completely ridiculous, but we won't go into policy since this is a food site, not a debate site).

It was time for breakfast. The ham was decent, not losing to your typical breakfast eatery. The quiche was surprisingly good. The omelette, however, left something to be desired. Aside from the fact that it was 99% egg and 1% other ingredients, it was very bland. And the fruit...fruit in the air tasted bad to me a decade ago and continues to taste bad! I've always found fruit to have a bit of a dried, rubbery and preserved taste when served on airplanes. At this point, it might have become a psychological imprint on my mind so if this is biased in any way, let me know!

They tell you not to order seafood, but I had some anyway. The salmon was rubbery but flavorful. It definitely wasn't outstanding, but considering my current location, it was pretty good. I have had countless experiences of not-so-great salmon while sitting on Earth. The shrimp was surprisingly good. Sure, they could have had slightly fresher shrimp, but given the circumstances, the shrimp was fresh enough and sure as heck prepared well. If airlines can serve up this sort of lunch, then my expectations for land restaurants certainly ought to be a bit higher.

And with that, we turn to room service. Now there are plenty of hotels in the world with outstanding restaurants. If you're stepping out of your room to one those restaurants, you're in for a treat. But, if you've got work to do and you're chained to your hotel room, room service it has to be. This encounter takes place in Ontario, California at the Sheraton. The room service was outsourced just like United's food is. I ordered a bowl of chicken noodle and some steak and shrimp. The food didn't come in a big cart with the works as some of you might be used to, since I ordered so little. But it came on a nice little tray complete with all the necessary gear. There's something nice about being able to enjoy a meal in the comfort of your own hotel room. There's no need to shine those shoes and don on that hip shirt. So who cares if there's a fax machine in the background; at least there's a bed and a television too.

Now, unlike the other foodie, I'm a big steak fan and have enjoyed more than my fair share of steak at steakhouses around the world, so let's start with the steak. It came out medium rare (instead of medium, like I ordered). I suppose if I was willing to take a chance on medium, I should have just gotten medium rare to begin with but when you prepare steak, you have got to cook it right. It doesn't matter how good the quality of the meat is or how tasty it is; if it's not cooked to the degree requested, you've messed up steak. Nevertheless, I'm quite happy with medium rare and delightedly report to you that I never contracted food poisoning of any sort. The steak was very tender but a bit on the bland side. I didn't bother using the A1 steak sauce that it came with, opting instead for the traditional salt. The shrimp could have been fresher and firmer but were otherwise prepared decently with a tasteful (read, not overpowering) coconut batter. The salsa was great, a fruit sauce with a slight kick.

The potatoes were a bit dry, but otherwise normal. The steamed vegetables were a bit oversteamed but very flavorful. I don't even want to know what sort of unhealthy concoction they put on the veggies to make them taste that way, but I wolfed them down. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the meal was the lukewarm chicken noodle. The veggies and the chicken were a bit tough but the noodles were good. The soup was sweet, overly so. I'm not sure if they overdosed on the carrots or just threw in sugar, but lukewarm chicken noodle soup with tough chicken and sweet broth just didn't fit well. All in all, though, the meals both in the air and in the hotel really weren't so bad.