Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Lets taco 'bout last night

So, against all odds, I made it to the end of the holiday and now I'm finally at the end of my American blog posts. Sure there was the afternoon where we went to Venice Beach and I made the Ewing eat poke with avocado (kinda normal), pizza with avocado (kinda weird) and ice cream with avocado (very weird). And then there was the time we went to the Wynn buffet and ate prime rib and beef ribs and mac and cheese (despite my carb ban, so I could fit in even more food), before the Ewing went wild on the wheel of gelato (7 desserts...I ATE 7 DESSERTS - TE). But you're just going to have to imagine all that.

And yes, in case you're wondering, that is my ankle. Have you really been to Vegas without getting a tattoo at two in the morning after watching two of your good friends getting married in the Neon Boneyard followed by dinner and dancing, complete with a surprise visit from Tina Turner herself, at the top of the Stratosphere.

The real purpose of this final blog, however, is not my poor life choices, but instead to chronicle a whistle-stop tour of Mexican food in Southern California/Arizona. As we've pretty much had a moratorium on Mexican food in this household, after my ill-fated attempt to eat all the burritos in London, I was pretty excited to start with a sunny Sunday evening visit to the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, in Los Feliz.

It's a bold claim (and I'm not sure I've actually eaten one like this, to compare it to), but the eponymous fish taco was pretty good. So were the shrimp tacos, both lightly battered and freshly fried to order before being topped with a mix of shredded white cabbage, red radish, pineapple relish and 'la crema magica' from the DIY condiment station.

Even better were the veggie options (no, really), in the shape of the green papa taco - filled with a kind of spiced mashed potato - and the elote, a corn cob drenched in crumbled Mexican cheese, chilli and more crema. A shout out, too, for the two lovely guys working there. Admirably calm in the face of a constant queue while patiently deciphering our mangled pronunciation.

The sprawling metropolis we now know as La La Land started life on a much smaller scale when eleven families of pobladores - the original settlers - arrived from the Gulf of California to establish a pueblo that become the City of Los Angeles. You can still visit the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, including the famed Olvera Street, to see where the story all began.

Originally known as Wine Street, but later renamed for a renowned local judge, Olvera Street is a pretty place to take a wander. Particularly in late spring, before the temperatures soar and with the blossom on the trees against the bright blue Californian skies.

While the painted stalls may all be hawking generic ponchos, piñatas and pottery, making it down to the end brings the reward of Cielito Lindo, a small stall on the corner that is also known as the home of the taquito - a corn tortilla, stuffed and rolled and then deep fried until crisp - in the US.

The Ewing and I both went with the two taquito one tamale option, served with beans and cheese and their famous avocado sauce. While I feared  a plate of greasy stodge -more suited to soaking up several bottles of Sol than a light lunch – it was all excellent. 

Nothing fancy but just good, freshly cooked food that is clearly still just as popular with the Angelinos than tourists. A fact borne out by the fact we spent our visit surrounded by local ladies on their lunch break, picking up their taquitos with their perfectly manicured nails while putting the world to rights.

Our last brekkie in LA was at Texan transplant, Home State, home of the breakfast taco, but this is not bastardised Tex-mex food as we know it. Instead it features a range of rolled tacos, stuffed with a range of breakfast items such as eggs, beans and bacon and eaten in the morning, as well as migas - Mexican scrambled eggs with crispy corn strips - and homemade guacamole, queso and salsa to go with their homemade fried flour tortillas chips.

We both chose a brace of breakfast tacos, on Homestate flour tortillas, and continuing my love affair with egg, I chose the Trinity; organic eggs, bacon, potato, cheddar; and the Frio, with refried charro beans, bacon and monterey jack.  Both were good  but - annoyingly, as it so seldomly ever happens - the Ewing chose even better with the Pecos - organic eggs and shredded brisket.

We also had a Frito Pie, which for the uninitiated is a bag of Fritos (twisty strips of crunchy tortilla) split open and topped with chili con carne, cheddar, lettuce, sour cream, tomato, pickled jalapeño and pickled red onion. Basically nachos in a bag, and as good as it sounds. To drink was Topo Chico, a cult favourite sparkling water, bottled in Monterrey, Mexico. The Ewing thought it tasted like all fizzy water, but I bought the hype. Damn, this stuff was refreshing. 

Most people head to Sedona to hike around the stunning red rock formations, indulge their spiritual side with visits to the famous ‘energy vortexes’ or visit the art galleries and craft shops. While we made it to Cathedral in the Rocks (half an hour after it closed), my highlight was visiting the only McDonalds in the entire world that doesn’t have a yellow arch. Which is just as unique as other local landmarks such as Snoopy Rock, a formation that is supposed to resemble the beagle.

Of course I didn’t eat at Micky D’s (I probably would have had one of their sausage McGriddles, but it was past breakfast time…), but we did enjoy dinner at Torta de Fuego, a very decent Mexican restaurant, just down the road from our motel.

A torta is a kind of Mexican sandwich, and we know how I feel about sandwiches. Despite my passion, I forwent a sarnie on our visit, although I did end up having a burrito; which is essentially a wrap, which is essentially a sandwich anyway....

Full points for the condiment bar, full of salsas and sauces and chunks of limes and pickles radishes, but I’m taking away half a point away for putting it right by the door and half a point away for not giving us gratis tortilla chips (or asking if we wanted to order any), something I only noticed when I had picked up a rainbow array of sauces and had nothing to dunk into them. 

I was also quite amused by the customer who picked the only obviously English girl (obviously me) at the condiment bar, before launching into a monologue questioning what everything was, and then getting offended when I clearly had no idea. In case you were wondering I just pointed at what I hoped the most incendiary one was, and crossed my fingers it would burn. 

As for our food, the Ewing's camarones el diabalo really did burn. A great pile of giant shrimp in a deep crimson sauce, rich with smoky chillies, with a scorpion-like sting in the tail. An accompanying pile of refried beans, rice, salad and foil wrapped tortillas quenched the fire; slightly. As did the comically oversized sup of horchata, the sweet rice-based drink flavoured with cinnamon. There may have been tears, although they were (mostly) from happiness.

I had the Fuego burrito mojado, a burrito stuffed with carnitas with rice, beans, guacamole and pico de gallo, and topped with soured cream, mexican cheese and cilantro. No, I haven't turned American, but coriander isn't going to cut it in this situation. I ordered it off menu 'Christmas style' - topped with both green and red salsa - to make it look like I knew what I was talking about after the salsa bar debacle. I still didn't really know, but I knew I liked it.

While the Vegas food scene seems to centre around celebrity chefs and fancy high end dining and the obligatory all you can eat buffets, there are also a few lower-end gems that are worth looking out for. One of these is the lauded Tacos el Gordo, a small chain of taco stands that started in San Diego, and have recently successfully transplanted to The Strip.

While you can expect an endless queue for ballast at four in the morning, the fact we walked past it every day while heading up the strip meant we stopped in for a more civilised lunch. Made even more sophisticated by the fact we had met up with the magical Stealth, who was the only person in Nevada in May who was wearing tweed.

There are three queues when you get inside; one for the adobada - a huge rotating spit of pork marinated in brick red chilli - one for chorizo and carne asada. and one for all the organ meats, with bubbling cauldrons of beef breast and pig guts.

As well as the familiar tacos you can also order mules, which are a a thick tortilla 'sandwich' filled with meat, griddled cheese, guacamole, salsa, onions and cilantro - a vampiro is the same, but with extra crispy tacos. There are also sopes, corn cakes topped with the meat of your choice, and cheese smothered quesedillas.

We shared a box of their famed loaded fries piled with carne asada, soured cream and guacamole, as well as a slice of wobbly sweet flan, in a puddle of bitter caramel sauce. Of course we also had tacos; with tripe - surprisingly great, served as crispy strips, a little like calamari. We also had lengua, slices of soft tongue similar to corned beef (why is it that offal is always likened to something less 'awful'), that became the the Ewing's favourite after our honeymoon adventures in San Francisco.

As well as tongue, they also serve tacos topped with cheek and brain. So use your head and come here for the food but you may want to skip the woven woollen wear.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Bonehead, Brum

My love affair with Nashville fried chicken started last year at Belle's Hot Chicken in Sydney. After reading about the place, I dragged assorted family members down to their Barangaroo restaurant and watched in in kind of amused horror when my Dad and brother-in-law took on the 'hot' wings (they go up another two notches to 'really fucking hot' if you're a real masochistic), and lost. 

In the end I stepped in and swapped some of my medium wings with them to spare their tears; I know, not all heroes wear capes. My Dad did shout me a RivaReno gelato afterwards, while complaining bitterly that I had nearly tried to kill him...

Anyway, stories of my heroics aside, I was inordinately happy to discover that Nashville hot chicken - cisp-coated fried chicken, given a bath in a blistering paste of oil and cayenne chilli powder that turns it a menacing brick red colour - had made it a little closer to home. To Birmingham, in fact, and not Alabama, but the heart of the West Midlands.

Found tucked away on Lower Severn street, in the shadow of the new sparkly New Street Station, Bonehead sells itself as 'craft beer and chicken'. Yes, it's a tried and tested combination that's not going to break any new ground, but with a decent beer list - that on my visit included a Northern Monk berry sour, the perfect aperitif, followed by a pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray as a chaser - things were off to a solid start.

Wings were offered in a variety of flavours that included buffalo with blue cheese and celery, original with garlic mayo, and honey soy, but it was only ever about the Hothead (their nashville tribute) with comeback sauce, a kind of spiky thousand island that I recently got acquainted with at Dave's Hot Chicken in L.A. 

Looking at the picture now, days later, and I'm still not sure how I felt when I was eating them. I guess a kind of love/hate feeling of searing pain from the chilli, both dried and fresh, coupled with a salty, oily, is-it-too-much moreishness that kept me going back. Eyes bulging and panting like Pavlov's dog, (an attractive thought, I know) until I was sweating and sobbing and filled with self-loathing. Or something close to that, anyway.

As if I wasn't enough of a sucker for punishment, I also had the Hothead thigh burger, with comeback sauce and pickles and a slice of good old plasticky American cheese. While the sweet, buttery bread took a bit of the sting out, it was still a two napkin job. One to (unsuccessfully) stop the grease going on my light grey trousers, and one to mop up my leaking eyes.

While they are centred around variations of deep fried bird, my highlight was the loaded waffle fries, a cool and creamy respite from the salty assault with slaw almost as good as my Mum's, a practically impossible feat. I actually think I enjoyed these even better cold out of a takeout the next morning; the delicious taste of slight soggy regret and raw red onion.

If there was one unintended plus point of too much salt and too much ale (not helped by a trip to Brewdog Birmingham, opposite Bonehead, to try some of the Dugges sour beers they have got in for the summer) it was drinking too much water, followed by the inevitable early morning loo visit. Which also bought the opportunity to see the sun breaking over the top of the Bullring car park. Strangely ordinary yet strangely beautiful, a bit like the night before.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Stick it between some bread and call it a sandwich

I used to work with a woman who would, every day like clockwork, forlornly pull her lunch out of her bag, sigh loudly while exclaiming 'aren't sandwiches boring', and then ruefully start to munch on her homemade sarnie. 

Firstly, I never quite understood why she didn't just make herself something else; secondly, who could possible hate on the sandwich? I'd spend the whole morning clock-watching until I could unwrap mine. It's still feel the same.

I eat a lot of food, and the food I eat the most is the humble 'something between two slices of bread'*. On average I've eaten 6 a week (one a day at work and a bacon sarnie on a Sunday), since early childhood. Which, by my primitive calculations makes approx ten thousand of the things (wow, imagine that - TE).

I never get bored, even on holiday, and as a testament to my love I dragged the Ewing around some of the best on the West coast, starting with the Godmother at the Bay Cities Deli. The most famous woman in Santa Monica.

*rolls, baguettes and bagels all welcome

Boars Head genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham and provolone cheese are layered up on crisp Italian bread with a perfectly blistered crust before being given "the works": mayo, mustard, Italian dressing, onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and chopped peppers. You can chose hot or mild, but there's really only one answer to that question; spice all the way.

It's always gonna be a pretty incredible sandwich, wherever you eat it, be it sitting on Santa Monica beach, fending off the seagulls and surreptitiously sipping a cream soda ale at 11 o'clock in the morning takes some beating (yeah baby - TE).

When it comes to iconic LA foods, there is little to beat the french dip sandwich and there is no where more iconic to try one than at Phillippe's, the "Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich". Established in 1908, it doesn't seem like much has changed, from the sawdust on the floors, to the 'carvers' who serve you at the counter, to the row of coin-operated phone booths by the door, this is a slice of the City of Angels set in aspic.

For their signature sandwich a crusty french roll is stuffed with beef (or lamb, turkey or pork) before being dunked in the hot roasting juices - chose single-dip, double-dip, or wet. A slice of cheese is optional, the special famous hot mustard on each table, is pretty much mandatory.

While the Ewing was reluctant to go for a sandwich (primarily because we had literally just eaten taquitos and tamales at Ceilto Lindo, across the street), I lured her in with the prospect of a beer; a schooner of Booming Rollers from San Diego-based Modern Times (I am such a push over - TE).

Even if the sandwich was a duff, it would have been worth it for the booze, with both of us agreeing it was possibly the best beer of the whole trip. And there were a few beers. Of course the french dip was excellent, with the Ewing bravely eating half of my roast beef and cheddar roll, although I had to eat the whole portion of macaroni salad to myself. Hardly a hardship, as I still think of it's mayo and pickle-spiked perfection even now.

If the Ewing thought we were done for the day after our french dip, she hadn't counted on the Dodger Dog at the Dodger Stadium, our next stop. While it might be a stretch to include this as a sandwich, it is meat (of a questionable providence, but animal-derived no less) between bread, so it's in.

Described as a 10 inch pork wiener - I added a couple of inches with the extra large - wrapped in a steamed bun and served either steamed or grilled. The grilled Dogs are considered the "classic" version. with more dogs sold here than at any other Major League ballpark.

I'm not completely sure what type I had, although it seemed a bit scorched, so I'm going with the latter. Was it a good dog? If spongy mechanically recovered meat clamped in soggy bread and smothered in sweet, vinegary mustard and ketchup, then yes. Was it a good experience? Absolutely, even if we left at the top of the 8th inning, with the Dodgers 3 -1 down, only to miss two homers. At least we heard the triumphant cheers as we walked back to Union Station. 

I couldn't possible write about a trip to California and not include at least one mention of In-n-Out, the burger chain established in 1958 that inspires a cult-like devotion. Known for it's secret menu, fair treatment of staff and resistance to franchising it's operations, it also makes a pretty decent burger.

If it was a stretch to include a Dodger Dog, its even more so to include a burger that eschews bread and is instead wrapped in a lettuce leaf, but this is Cali and this is a Double Double (two meat and two cheese) protein style. If the salad is still too carbalicious, you can order the flying dutchman, two slices of cheese melted between two burger patties. 

Of course, they also offer buns, and good thick shakes - above is the off-menu neapolitan, combining chocolate, vanilla and strawberry - and not very good fries that are marginally improved by being ordered animal style - covered in melted cheese, 'spread' (read thousand island) and grilled onions. Make sure they also chuck in some chilli peppers, but be careful; they are hotter than they look.

If burgers and hot dogs are in, then barbecue with parker rolls also qualifies (YEAH! we had such an amazing time on this trip - TE). While we were not strictly in 'cue country, most of the smoked meats in this corner of the country would still run smoke rings around anything you can find back here.

Case in point being Fox Smokehouse BBQ, our last stop on our drive to Vegas. An anonymous looking building in a strip mall in Boulder City, identifiable only by the smoker on the sidewalk outside and a small flashing neon sign in the window.

Inside smelt like the contents of my holdall after a week sitting around a bonfire at Reading Festival as a teenager. Not great for my Mum doing my washing, but a pretty enticing smell when you know it's the scent of slow-cooked ribs and brisket.

As predicted on arrival, the food was exceptional. Excellent deep fried nuggets of crispy okra with ranch dressing; barbecue pit beans; gooey mac and cheese; crunchy vinegar slaw and cold glasses of PBR for only just one buck. And of course the meat - tender ribs, with a proud, pink smoke ring and just the right amount of resistance when trying to prise them from the bone, and slices of soft and fatty brisket with it's crisp outer bark. Best of all were the pillowy rolls, perfect for DIY beef sandwiches. How can that ever be boring?

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Bucks Bites: Bull and Butcher

Now days it’s hard to think of a foodstuff that doesn’t have its own dedicated day. From cream puffs to cassoulet, chocolate cake to cheese fondue, it seems like there is an annual opportunity for me to be reminded of it while scrolling through Twitter at work, while tucking in to the same weekday sarnie at my desk. Of course, I feel very smug when sandwich week rolls around.

Apart from pancake day, which is obviously one of the holiest days in the glutton’s calendar, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever really been tempted by the marketers ploys to get me to eat more sausages or sandwiches, or sausage sandwiches (possibly because I’m not sure I could eat anymore), although the creation of the ploughman’s lunch - by the wonderfully named, Cheese Bureau - is still one of my favourite PR stories.

That being said, I did find myself a couple of weeks ago cynically shoehorning that it was National Fish and Chip Day on 1 June into the conversation. A handy way to persuade the Ewing that we should go for dinner in a country pub garden to commemorate the fact and a mercifully easy task when fried fish on a Friday was involved.

Of course a far harder job was deciding which pub and then crossing everything that it wasn’t going to rain. In answer to the former, I picked the Bull and Butcher in Turville, a quintessentially ‘English’ pub with whitewashed walls found in the picturesque Hambleden Valley village that the Vicar of Dibley was set in. 

With regard to the latter, not only did the rain hold off, but the clouds even parted a little; a very good job as all the inside tables seemed to have 'reserved’ signs on them. Fortunate really, as my wife’s 'thoughts' of booking had remained just that.

Although it isn’t Beer Day until the 15 June (which conveniently happens to be this Friday…), a pint of beer was a no-brainer, vying with creosote-coloured tannic tea as the perfect beverage with deep fried cod.  As it's a Brakspears pub, I went with their 'ordinary' bitter, a beer that in 1993, beer writer Michael Jackson described as the best in England.

Since their Henley home closed, production has moved to the Wychwood brewery in Witney and it fails to reach those heady heights anymore. That said it remains a great example of a classic English ale with biscuity malts and a fruity spiciness, at a low enough abv (3.9) to be the kind of perfect session beer that creeps up on gently you over an afternoon in front of a log fire with a good book and a wet dog for company.

While I had neither of these, I did have the conversation of the Ewing and my cod - skin on, we are in the South - with a slightly too thick carapace of batter, it was pretty decent, if not up to Prestwood Plaice standards (the Ewing used to drive around with a paper bag in the boot, so she could transport our Friday fish and chips home without risk of sogginess). Alongside were proper fat chips, which may have seemed miserly at first glance, but even I struggled to finish them.

While the main event passed muster, the accompaniments were standout. Peas, which were mushy and not the garden variety (nothing against their rounder brother, but mushy all the way with fried fish), were excellent. I also got the Ewing on the pea and malt vinegar vibe. Try it, it's a revelation. The home made tartar sauce was also stick your finger in the remnants at the bottom of the ramekin good.

My pudding was another pint of Brakspears, although we could have chosen from the stalwarts including bread and butter pudding, lemon tart and a chocolate brownie. Surprisingly the Ewing also eschewed dessert, plumping instead for a handful of runner bean plants from the plant sale to take home instead. Here’s hoping they’ll be ready by phaseolus coccineus week.