Friday, July 29, 2011
In addition to the amazing char siu pastries that were on the menu of Victoria Airlines* on our recent trip, we also enjoyed these flaky and delicately sweet peach-ginger hand pies. When traveling (by air, car, boat, or train), it helps to have snacks or meals that do not require a lot of effort or even utensils. A sandwich is a good example. But these peach-ginger hand pies are sooooo much better. They utilize my absolute favorite neutral flaky pastry dough which I use for savory and sweet creations alike.
The filling is even simpler still. Fresh peaches, fresh ginger, a touch of honey, and some flour to help bind. That is all. Seriously. I considered spicing it up, but I really wanted to taste the fruit and the ginger front and center. That is exactly what you taste and smell when you bite into these hand pies: sweet juicy peaches and spicy ginger. They really are a perfect match. Add a touch of sugar on top of these babies before popping them in the oven and you have a sweet, golden crust.
If you aren't taking them on the road and you want to be really tongue-in-cheek about your hand pies, arrange them artfully in a pretty pie dish. Your guests will laugh if nothing else :)
*Victoria Airlines is not a real airline (as far as I'm aware). I am referring to my imaginary airline company where I make yummy foods to take on plane trips, because you know, food's not free anymore unless you're rich enough to afford first class (I'm not!)... or fly internationally. Bollocks!
Peach-Ginger Hand Pies
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup very cold water
1 1/2 cups + 1 T. all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 cup + 2 1/2 T. unsalted butter, very cold and cut into small cubes
2 peaches, pitted and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces (you can leave the skins on if you like)
3 T. fresh minced ginger
1 T. honey
1 T. all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten with 1 T. water
Sugar, for sprinkling
Start by making the crust. In a small bowl add the salt to the water and stir to dissolve. Keep cold in the refrigerator.
In a food processor, put the flour in the work bowl and add the small butter cubes, scattering all over. Pulse briefly until the mixture forms large crumbs and some of the butter is still the size of peas. Add the water-salt mixture and pulse for several seconds until the dough begins to come together in a ball. You should still be able to see some butter chunks.
On a lightly floured surface, shape the dough into a disk 1 inch thick. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or up to overnight (this dough can now be frozen in a freezer bag and then defrosted in the refrigerator the day before it is to be used).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Add the peaches to a mixing bowl and toss with the ginger, honey, and flour.
Place the chilled dough on a floured surface and roll out 1/8 inch thick, lifting and rotating the dough to make sure it doesn't stick, and working quickly to ensure the dough stays as cold as possible. Add more flour to the board as needed. Use a 4-inch to 5-inch round cutter to cut circles out of the dough. If the dough circles are warm and soft at this point, return them to the refrigerator to chill for 10 minutes. Gather the dough scraps, reroll the scraps, and cut out more circles, until you have 12.
Put about 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of the filling in the center of each dough circle. Fold each circle in half to form semi-circles and press the edges to seal (if the dough is dry and not sticking to itself, brush water along the edge to help it stick). Use the tines of a fork to crimp the edges to seal it well, and place each hand pie on the baking sheet, spaced about 1 inch apart. When all the hand pies are assembled (you may have a little extra filling leftover), place the baking sheet with the hand pies in the fridge to chill for about 15 to 30 minutes to firm up.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Remove the baking sheet from the fridge and brush the egg wash over the top of each hand pie, followed by a generous sprinkling of sugar. Cut a small slit with a paring knife in the center of each pie to allow steam to escape. Bake until dark golden and puffed, about 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the baking sheet from front to back halfway through. Cool for 10 to 15 minutes (or completely) before serving. These are best the day they are made, but can be refreshed in the oven to recrisp the crust if needed.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Inspired by my latest obsession, Atayef bil Ashta, this month's bread pudding is scented with rose and orange blossom and finished with a crunchy pistachio topping. It's incredibly simple, almost a basic bread pudding except that the custard is perfumed with typical Middle Eastern flavor components. This is a great use for leftover rose and orange blossom syrup from my previous post. It does the job of sugar, but adds a whole lot of flavor as well. I opted to make individual puddings, which yielded a lovely and rustic presentation without making a mess of the pistachios on top for portioning out servings.
It's not too late to submit your bread pudding recipes from the month of July for the Bread Pudding of the Month Club! Check out last month's roundup here, and link up your exciting creations! Thanks so much :)
Rose and Orange Blossom Bread Pudding
Unsalted butter, for ramekins
5 to 6 cups stale* 1/2-inch bread cubes
2 cups milk
1/2 cup rose and orange blossom syrup
1 T. rose water
1 T. orange blossom water
1/2 cup shelled pistachio nuts
Place the oven rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees F. Butter 6 (1 cup) ramekins, place them on a baking sheet, and arrange the stale bread cubes evenly between the ramekins.
Beat the eggs in a medium bowl with a whisk. Whisk in milk, rose and orange blossom syrup (recipe available in Atayef bil Ashta post), rose water, and orange blossom water. Pour the mixture evenly over the bread cubes in the baking dish, pressing down with the back of a spoon or your hands and making sure that all the bread gets submerged and starts soaking in the custard.
Soak for 20 to 30 minutes and then top with the pistachios. Bake until the filling is set and the top is crusted and puffed, about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm.
*If your bread isn't very stale, cut it into cubes and allow the bread cubes to dry out at room temperature all day or overnight. Alternatively, lightly toast them on a sheet pan in a 350 degree F oven until dry, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Monday, July 25, 2011
My current obsession is this incredible Lebanese dessert I tried when visiting Los Angeles recently. Atayef are small pancakes that are cooked on one side, shaped and then filled. They can be filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, nuts mixed with cinnamon and sugar, or ashta, a Lebanese custard flavored with rose water and/or orange blossom water. The version I tried was filled with ashta and served with a flavorful and fragrant syrup infused with rose water and orange blossom water. I fell head over heels from the first bite! The pancake was springy, fluffy, and tender. The filling was thick and creamy and slightly floral, but was not heavy at all. The pistachios were crunchy and, well, nutty :) The syrup tasted like a rose garden, in a totally amazing way! I know some people are put off by the idea of eating things that taste like flowers. I'm not one of those people. I love floral flavors in my food. This dessert was well-balanced in texture, flavor, and even color (the green of the pistachios helped with that).
In conducting some research about ashta, I discovered that some people use white bread as a thickener in the custard, while some people stick with cornstarch only. My family friend who shared her recipe with me does not use bread, and maintains that it tastes a bit heavier with the bread in it. I loved the version I tried in LA and this recipe mimicked that atayef exactly. Her original recipe was without standardized measurements. "Tablespoons" were heaping kitchen spoons. On my first attempt to make the ashta, it turned out way too thin, and I had a feeling I knew why. I tried it again and really increased the amount of cornstarch, but using level tablespoons like my neurotic self always does. This time it was perfect, in flavor AND texture!
The pancakes for the atayef are really unique as well. They are lightly yeasted and only cooked on one side. Bubbles rise up in the pancakes and the surface dries out, a sign that they are cooked through. These babies are then removed from the heat and cooled before assembling. The uncooked side will stick together beautifully when pressed with slight pressure. In addition to the boat-like shapes for these atayef, which are pressed closed only halfway and then piped with ashta filling, atayef can also be filled with ricotta cheese or nuts mixed with cinnamon and sugar and sealed completely and then baked or fried. These are then served piping hot, drizzled with cooled syrup. They are on my list to try next!
The syrup is perfumed with rose and orange blossom waters, but you can use one or the other if you'd like. I think the syrup is definitely worth making, although you can substitute honey if you desire. Although I'm an ardent honey-lover, in this situation I absolutely think the syrup really gives this dessert an edge that would be otherwise lacking, and it really brings out the faint floral flavor in the ashta as well. Feel free to use any leftover syrup for other sweetening needs, perhaps in your tea, on top of oatmeal, or in the bread pudding recipe I will be sharing later this week. Enjoy!
Atayef bil Ashta (Custard-Filled Pancakes)
2 cups half-and-half
3 T. sweetened condensed milk
1/3 cup plus 2 T. cornstarch
1/2 cup water
1 T. rose water
1 T. orange blossom water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 3/4 cups milk
Non-stick spray or butter, as needed
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. rose water
1 tsp. orange blossom water
1/4 cup shelled pistachio nuts, finely ground for topping (in a small food processor)
To make the ashta, add the half-and-half and condensed milk to a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn't burn. Meanwhile, mix together the cornstarch and water until smooth. When the half-and-half mixture starts bubbling, whisk in the cornstarch slurry and keep whisking until very thick. Remove from the heat and whisk in the rose water and orange blossom water. Pour into a bowl or tupperware and top with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap to the surface of the custard (to prevent a skin from forming). Cool completely and refrigerate until needed (it will continue to firm up in the refrigerator).
To make the pancakes, mix together all the dry ingredients in a bowl and then whisk in the milk. Set the mixture in a warm place for 1 hour. Heat a large non-stick skillet or griddle over medium to medium-high heat. Lightly grease the pan as needed (beware, non-stick spray can sometimes burn and overly darken your pancakes if the pan is very hot). Add a scant 1/8 cup (2 tablespoons) of the batter (which should be slightly thicker than a crepe batter) to the pan to form 3 1/2-inch circles. It should spread out on its own. Allow the pancakes to cook on one side only. Bubbles will rise to the surface and the top will start to dry out as it cooks (if bubbles do not start to rise almost immediately, your pan isn't hot enough). When the top is dry and the bottom is golden, the pancakes are done. Do NOT flip them. Just set them aside until needed. Continue cooking the pancakes and allow them to cool fully until ready to assemble.
To make the syrup, add the sugar and water to a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When the mixture boils (and becomes transparent), add the lemon juice and slightly lower the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes longer to thicken it slightly. Remove from the heat and mix in the rose and orange blossom waters. Set aside to cool. This syrup will keep well in an air-tight container at room temperature until needed.
To assemble, take each pancake with the uncooked side facing up and fold them into half rounds, pressing together the edges from the center to one end, leaving about half open for filling. The edges should stick easily with enough pressure. Remove the ashta from the refrigerator to remove some of the chill and whisk it to smooth it out a bit (it will be very thick). Fill the ashta into a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip (or into a disposable pastry bag cut at the end). Pipe the ashta into each of the pancake "boats" filling it fairly generously. Dip the exposed ashta of each atayef into crushed pistachios to finish (or alternatively sprinkle the pistachio on top of the ashta). Serve the atayef bil ashta with the syrup for drizzling. Alternatively, serve the atayef with honey. Atayef is best the day it is made, but leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for about a day before the texture starts to change.
Friday, July 22, 2011
With enough time spent in any major city, new restaurants are easily discovered. Even though I got on the plane to Los Angeles with a pretty clear picture of what I wanted to eat while I was there, there were definitely a couple surprises that left a wonderful impression. These restaurants will officially be added to my arsenal of go-to LA dining destinations depending on my mood and cravings (and location).
Brunch is serious business in LA as it is in other cities. People will wait an eternity for pancakes at The Griddle. I know because I've done it, many many times (although I usually forgo the pancakes for papas y Benedict, their version of eggs Benedict). Since the weather is perpetually nice in LA, lining up on sidewalks in the morning for eggs is not uncommon. Similar to New York City, the wait for brunch is a lot less severe the further you get from the center of the city (the outer boroughs for NYC, and in LA... the VALLEY). Just speaking the words "the valley" makes this ex-West Hollywood resident feel dirty inside. I prefer the other side of the hill, but when every single relative of yours lives in the valley, you spend a lot of your time there when you visit :) It happens.
|Basil Artichoke Scramble - Three scrambled eggs topped with sundried tomato, feta cheese, fresh basil and artichoke hearts, with zucchini shreds and wheat toast $8.50|
When meeting a good friend for brunch (who also lives in the valley), you pick someplace close, convenient, and surely awesome. She suggests EAT in the NoHo district of North Hollywood. It's an up-and-coming neighborhood that is actually worth a visit if you're in the area. That's where you will find the restaurants and bars worth going to in the area (if you choose to go out on that side of the hill...). The menu at EAT is enticing (and fairly cheap). You look forward to brunch! She suggests the basil artichoke scramble, her favorite, and you order the same. You MUST get the zucchini shreds as your side. It comes with toast and the butter is perfectly soft and spreadable. You have no regrets. None. The neighborhood is fun and less "valley" than others, the food is fresh and fantastic, the shreds are life-changing, essentially pan-fried zucchini strips. Your friend is amazing, and you have a seriously memorable brunch. You add EAT to your "love" list, even if it's in the valley. You're an equal-opportunity food lover.
11108 Magnolia Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91601
The beach is one of my favorite things about LA. There is so much versatility depending on which area you visit. High class beaches lined with mansions will greet you in Malibu, while graffiti and a far more bohemian lifestyle is what you'll find in Venice. I love it all! Equally! There is something special everywhere you go. I took my mom on a little tour of some of my favorite places in the city, which included the Getty Center, Venice Beach, and also Santa Monica. We decided to have lunch in Santa Monica, and hadn't planned ahead of time where we would eat.
We wandered around 3rd Street Promenade and some of the neighboring streets, but nothing really stood out to me as a place that was worthy of taking my mother on our very special tour of LA. Finally, I saw it. Blue and white vertical stripes on the awning called to me. Blue Plate Oysterette was written across it. Tada!! It was meant to be. Here on Ocean Avenue, across the street from the beach, an oh-so-very nautical-inspired "oysterette" (a much cuter term for oyster bar) featuring a seafood heavy menu that made me wish I had time for more than one visit here.
|Ahi Sandwich - Tarragon Aioli, Arugula, Onions, on Brioche with Yukon Gold Old Bay Fries $16|
My mom had the ahi sandwich on brioche. It was lovely and fresh, with a mild tarragon aioli. The Yukon gold old bay fries were an excellent accompaniment to all seafood. Old bay is a traditional seasoning for seafood, so using it on the fries at a seafood joint is such a smart idea! They were so flavorful and fluffy and crunchy, and really perfect with our seafood.
|Oyster Po-Boy with Shredded Cabbage, Tomato, Onion, Dill Dressing, and Yukon Gold Old Bay Fries $15|
I wanted everything on the menu, but settled on one of the specials, the oyster po-boy sandwich with shredded cabbage, onion, tomato, and dill dressing (as a dill-hater this made me nervous, but it was really quite mild and well-rounded). The oysters in the sandwich were Kumai oysters from Baja California, and each one was the size of my head! No exaggeration, they were the biggest, plumpest oysters I've ever seen! There were 4 in the sandwich, and it was so stuffed that oysters were falling out as I attempted to eat the sandwich. Each fried oyster was incredibly melt-in-your-mouth tender, slightly briny and sweet, with a great flavorful crunchy crust. Again, accompanied by their wonderful old bay fries, it was an incredibly satisfying meal.
I felt so comforted by the decor here. Lots of blues and whites, a television featuring a surfing video, aqua-colored glass lights hanging from the ceiling, seashells, an octopus-framed mirror, and mermaid and merman adornments on the bathrooms to differentiate the sexes rounded out the setting.
It didn't feel fake, we were a short walk to the beach. I felt like I could have stayed there all day. This tiny eatery could easily accumulate a long wait during busy times. I can only imagine. The menu is mouthwatering, and the seafood is incredibly fresh. A meal of fresh oysters can get very pricey, but the rest of the menu is more moderate and affordable. I do suggest if given the opportunity, you make every effort to stop by this sweet little oysterette on Ocean Avenue. It's a breath of fresh ocean air...
Blue Plate Oysterette
1355 Ocean Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Earlier this week, I shared some classic LA eats that should be on everyone's list for a visit to the city of angels. I also have some personal favorites that may be off the radar, but are definitely on my list of nostalgic spots. Today, I will share a couple of those here on Mission: Food. If I had been writing this blog back when I lived in LA, these would have definitely gotten their fair attention :)
One of the perks of working at the Simpsons, much like working on any television production, was free lunch every day. The difference at the Simpsons, however, was that we had essentially no limit on our food budget. We could order as much food as we wanted! We would order lunch every day from one restaurant and also from the commissary at Fox, and sometimes the bill at the restaurant alone would top $700, although a more average bill ranged between $300 and $500 a day. That's a lot, folks. We were feeding anywhere from 20 to 30 people per day. It adds up. And the restaurant was only half the food. Each day we would select a different restaurant. We had our binder of favorites, and one of the overall favorites of the staff was Clementine, a few short blocks from Twentieth Century Fox Studios.
Clementine is a family-owned bakery-cafe featuring a seasonal menu. How many bakeries do you know that change their menu five times a year to ensure fully fresh and seasonal offerings? Not a whole lot! Clementine makes everything in house and by hand, from their perfectly balanced sandwich options (which now include a design-you-own grilled cheese) to their ever popular specialty salads, and from every cookie and brownie that they produce. It is all lovingly and artfully prepared year-round. They also feature two fresh soups a day that change regularly. You can call or check the website for the daily options. I had many favorite dishes throughout the year, and each new menu brought back old memories.
My (and every Simpsons employee's) favorite time of year at Clementine was when their incredible Sloppy Joes returned to the menu. They are currently on their summer menu, so I was thrilled for the opportunity to have one during my trip back to LA. They are better than any Sloppy Joe I have ever had, way better quality and more flavorful than anything that comes out of a school cafeteria (or can). It shouldn't even be in the same food group as the others, that's how good this sandwich is! The meat is flavorful and juicy, topped with sharp cheddar, and all encased in a soft and golden brioche bun. When getting it to go, expect it to be wrapped in foil, and be a lot messier to eat than if you get it at the cafe. It was a lot less messy during my visit this time around than on previous to-go orders. They also serve their delicious homemade bread and butter pickles on the side. Another favorite sandwich I remember is their rare roast beef sandwich, though I don't think there is a single item I ordered (and I think I tried EVERYTHING on the menu at least once... remember, I didn't have to pay for any of it, muahahahaha) that I didn't like.
|Sloppy Joe Sandwich $9.50|
Another seriously popular menu item is Clementine's chocolate chip cookies! I know, you think you've had the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. I've honestly never been to Levain Bakery in NYC, and I know they are famous for theirs. I think every bakery makes theirs differently, but for what it's worth, with every order from Clementine we also ordered 2 dozen cookies, and a good bunch of those were chocolate chip. In fact, many people (including yours truly) would order a couple chocolate chip cookies separately from the 2 dozen cookies just to make sure we got our chocolate chip fix before the boxes of cookies were completely ravaged. They are thin, somewhat crisp around the edges, super chewy, and gooey. A well-balanced chocolate chip cookie for any occasion.
|Chocolate Chip Cookies $1.75 each|
In a city as large as Los Angeles, dining options are spread out, but Clementine is one of my favorites. Not only have I actually tried almost everything on every seasonal menu, but I loved it all! Clementine is a stand-out dining option in Century City/Westwood, and a great idea for a bakery fix on a drive to the beach (it's right off of Santa Monica Blvd). I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did and still do :)
1751 Ensley Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Another consistent favorite was and is Locanda Veneta, a well-respected Italian eatery in an unassuming location across from Cedars-Sinai Hospital near Beverly Hills. It is a favorite among celebrities, and also my friends (who are celebrities in their own right). On the pricey side, this is more of a special occasion spot (unless you're swimming in the Benjamins, and then feel free to splurge any time). I have spent my own and friends' birthdays here, farewell dinners, welcome dinners, it's a pretty solid choice for a nice meal. They also used to have a really good-looking waiter there named John Mark I used to enjoy oogling at, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't work there anymore... *sigh*. From top to bottom, I used to love every single thing on the menu (including that waiter *wink wink*), although on this recent visit, I found the bread to be seriously disappointing for an Italian restaurant. The interior was exceptionally doughy. They serve a pesto spread with the bread, which is fairly tasty, but some of my friends don't care for it. Olive oil is a standby choice.
|Fresh Fettuccine with Black Truffles (Special) $38|
I love their spaghetti with lentils, roasted tomatoes, and spinach, which my former roommate orders every single time she dines there! I've shared the recipe on my blog in the past in case you're interested in recreating it :) Their fagottini melanzane (eggplant rolls) are a good choice as a starter, as is a seasonal special of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with cheese. Their squid ink ravioli stuffed with lobster and served with a creamy saffron sauce is one of their most popular dishes! I've tried this and loved it (and the recipe is featured in their cookbook as well, though I have yet to make it myself). They have a great pappardelle with strips of filet mignon and mushrooms in a flavorful sauce that is a good pasta option for meat-lovers. Most recently, I couldn't resist one of their specials, a mixture of fresh fettuccine and black truffles. $38 is was not too shabby for the amount of black truffle shaved over the top! I would have liked the noodles to be a bit firmer, but otherwise, it was a really great dish. Note that some of these photographs were taken years ago before I polished up my photography skills :)
8638 W 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90048
|Fried Zucchini Blossoms (Special Appetizer) $14|
|Fagottini di Melanzane - Eggplant rolls, stuffed with Mozzarella and Basil, baked with Tomato Sauce $12.95|
|Spaghetti with Lentils, Spinach, Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic $20.95|
|Squid Ink Ravioli stuffed with Lobster Meat in a Creamy Saffron Sauce $25.95|
|Pappardelle with Strips of Beef Filet Mignon, Wild Mushroom and a “Barolo” Sauce $27.95|
Monday, July 18, 2011
I recently traveled back to Los Angeles, where I lived for 3 1/2 years after graduating college. It was my first time back in years, and it was actually pretty emotional "going home" again, but I was looking forward to visiting my friends and family there, and also tasting some of the comforts of my former home. And since this is a food blog, I will focus my energy on discussing some of the awesome SoCal food I enjoyed during my trip. There were some meals that I absolutely knew I had to squeeze into my visit, some LA classics. There were some other old favorites that I personally loved during my life in LA, but wouldn't necessarily consider traditional LA eats. There were also some new spots I got to try out and thoroughly enjoyed! I can't wait to share them all with you! This week I will be sharing several posts delving into my Los Angeles dining adventures! If you live in the area or plan to visit, please feel free to add these to your "to do" lists! I swear, you will enjoy every bite.
|Double-Double Animal Style and Hand-Cut Fries|
First up is the Holy Grail of burgers. Do I even have to say it? I mean, when you think of burgers in Southern California, what comes to mind? If you didn't say In-N-Out, then I think there is something seriously wrong with you. Although often compared to New York City's Shake Shack, the two are individually awesome in their own ways. Shake Shack costs more, but it's not really fast food in the traditional sense. According to some research, their burgers feature a mixture of sirloin, chuck, and brisket, all freshly ground and never frozen. It also features soft Martin's potato rolls (which sets it apart from the rest), plum tomatoes, soft green leaf lettuce, and special shack sauce. In-N-Out is more fast food. There are tons of locations (with drive-thrus!). The burgers here are also cooked to order from Harris Ranch beef, with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes on a regular toasted bun (made fresh) with special spread (similar to Thousand Island dressing). These burgers are significantly cheaper, and can be ordered "animal style" which means the patties are grilled with mustard and include chopped caramelized onions, pickles, and extra spread. I'm a big animal style fan. To be completely honest, I can't pick a favorite burger of the two. I seriously love them both in their own special ways. I appreciate the price, speed, and availability of In-N-Out. I love the crazy juiciness of the Shake Shack burger. At both establishments, I order their double cheeseburgers (each featuring two patties and two slices of American cheese), which are called Double-Double (animal style in my case) at In-N-Out and Double Shack Burger at Shake Shack. In-N-Out also features a not-so-secret menu outside of their very limited menu. Shake Shack offers a lot more options on their menus, including lots of frozen custards and concretes. The fries at In-N-Out are hand-cut, but not quite as crispy as the crinkle-cut ones at Shake Shack. In any case, In-N-Out is undoubtedly a must-try if ever on the West Coast. It's a classic, a pinnacle of delicious burger perfection. A visit to California is just not the same without one.
|Fresh tortilla chips with spicy and flavorful salsa, the perfect start to our meal|
Los Angeles is a serious Mexican food nirvana. Sadly, the East Coast totally loses in this battle. No contest. I knew that in returning to LA I absolutely had to have some real Mexican food. But where to go? A couple tried and true spots included La Serenata de Garibaldi, which was a big favorite for lunch during my time working at the Simpsons. I also really loved meeting friends at El Compadre, sipping on their famous flaming margaritas and gorging myself on enchiladas. This time, I returned to Loteria, which currently has three locations, the famous Farmer's Market (where I had dined here before) at 3rd and Fairfax, Hollywood, and Studio City, which is where I went this time. Unlike other "Mexican" restaurants which give you options like "chicken" or "beef" for your tacos, burritos, etc., Loteria gives you real options. It's not just chicken or beef, but so many authentic flavor combinations within each, including lots of vegetarian, pork, and even seafood options.
I decided that the best way to try as much of the menu as I could in a single visit was to have their taco sampler. All 12 of their tacos (not including their shrimp tacos) are featured in miniature sizes, all on their hand-made corn tortillas. If you've never had a hand-made (not store-bought) corn tortilla, your life has been empty until this experience, I swear. The tortillas are flavorful and rustic, a testament to the authenticity of the food at Loteria. Here are the flavor combinations. Each of these can be ordered as a taco, burrito, tostada, or sope:
- Nopalitos - Fresh Cactus Salad. Served with Salsa Verde and Queso Fresco.
- Calabacitas - Zucchini and Roasted Corn Succotash Served with Salsa Verde, Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, and Queso Fresco.
- Champiñones con Epazote - Mushrooms with Epazote Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, Queso Fresco, and Salsa Verde.
- Papa con Rajas - Potatoes with Roasted Poblano Peppers Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, Queso Fresco, and Salsa Verde.
- Mole Poblano con Pollo - Chicken in Mole Poblano Served with Sesame Seeds, Finely Chopped Onion, and Queso Fresco.
- Tinga de Pollo - Chicken, Stewed with Chipotle Peppers and our home-made Chorizo Served with Salsa Roja de Chipotle.
- Pollo en Pipian Rojo - Chicken in a Spicy Pumpkin-Seed and Peanut Sauce Served with Finely Chopped Onion.
- Carne deshebrada - Shredded Beef Served with Fresh Guacamole, Salsa Chipotle, and Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
- Albondigas en Chipotle - Meatballs in a Tomato and Chipotle Sauce Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
- Cochinita Pibil- Pork, Slowly Roasted in Banana Leaf Served with Citrus-Pickled Red Onion and Chile Habanero.
- Chicharron en Salsa Verde - Pork Rinds in a Spicy Tomatillo Sauce Served With Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro and Queso Fresco.
- Carnitas en salsa Morita - In a Spicy Chile Morita Sauce Served with slices of Fresh Avocado and Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
|Taco Sampler $16|
I legit loved all of the vegetable flavors, considering these are generally unavailable at most Mexican restaurants. I loved everything from the mushrooms, potatoes, succotash, and cactus (which reminds me almost of green beans or bell peppers, not slimy when cooked right). I had a favorite from each of the other categories, and generally a least favorite. My favorite chicken taco was the tinga de pollo which was incredibly flavorful and juicy. I also really enjoyed the pollo en pipian rojo, but thought the mole poblano con pollo was a little dry. For the beef tacos, I loved the carne deshebrada best. It was very juicy and tasty, although the meatball one was also quite good and very unique!
For the pork tacos, my favorite was the carnitas en salsa morita, which was spicy and juicy and well-balanced, definitely a highlight. I was also really surprised by the chicharron en salsa verde, which was made with pork rinds. When I think of pork rinds, I imagine them fried and crunchy, but this was soft and cooked in spicy tomatillos. It was not chewy at all (as animal fat can sometimes be), but rather very tender and quite pleasant! I found the cochinita pibil to be the driest of the bunch, and pretty flat in flavor. We also ordered some rice and black beans on the side, and I can happily say that I inhaled every bit of those beans. They were well-seasoned and a perfect compliment to any of their other dishes. Considering that out of 12 tacos, there were only a couple I was so-so about, I think Loteria's selection is incredible, their flavors spot-on, and their menu authentic, especially considering their restaurants are not housed in huts, but rather very nice spaces (some people think real Mexican food can't be found in a "nice" restaurant, I disagree).
|Rice and Black Beans $3.50|
Not only is the food great, but the setting really is enjoyable. The Studio City location, for example, has a nice outdoor seating area, as well as skylights inside the restaurant to provide plenty of natural light during the day. The decor is clean and not kitschy as some other Mexican restaurants can be. Service was honestly above and beyond. Our server was incredibly attentive and helpful, as was the busboy. On our way out of the restaurant at the end of our meal, every single staff member we passed cordially smiled and thanked us for coming and wished us a nice day. It can be rare to experience that kind of courtesy, even at some of the best restaurants these days. It really stood out to us. I would happily recommend Loteria to Mexican food-lovers of all kinds. I look forward to my next visit here with bated breath.
The final "classic" I will be sharing in this post may be a little outside of the box. It actually dates back to 1962 in Lebanon and came to Los Angeles in 1983. It's none other than Zankou Chicken, the famous rotisserie chicken fast food chain brought to LA by an Armenian family wielding an absolutely addictive garlic sauce that would put them on the map. The original store is on Sunset and Normandie in Hollywood, but the chain has now expanded to include a dozen locations in the Los Angeles area. They are most famous for their garlic sauce, a secret recipe which has been sought after for decades. They also feature other Middle Eastern specialties such as shawarma, tarna, kebabs, falafel, hummus, etc. I love their chicken plates, which include a choice of chicken parts (half chicken, quarter dark, or quarter white), hummus, pita, and pickled beets. I also love their shawarma (beef) and tarna (chicken) sandwiches, which include tahini and hummus, and garlic sauce respectively along with tomatoes and onions, all wrapped in a soft pita.
Zankou Chicken is popular among Armenians and Americans alike, the love of this famous chicken joint is not definitive based on heritage. Everyone loves it!! It was even featured in a Beck song and on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, the garlic episode :) A little known fact, back in 2003 the Zankou Chicken empire was entwined in a tragic murder saga when the patriarch behind the chain, stricken with cancer, killed his mother, sister, and then himself. This event became public knowledge many years after it happened when LA Magazine published a lengthy article describing the events. Please read it here if you're interested! It's long but worth the read. And maybe it will get you craving some garlic sauce to go along with your reading... you know where to find it :)