Monday, 28 May 2018

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

As a self-proclaimed ouef-avoider for approximately the last 35 years of my life – following a regrettable incident with some dodgy scrambled egg and a hirsute, bare-chested family friend when I was a young child on holiday –  I would always say, in answer to the blog's title, 'not on my plate'. Pretty much everything I care to order when I go out for the first meal of the day involves an egg being boiled poached fried or scrambled and ceremoniously added to anything I might wish to eat.

Which is what makes breakfast in America so exciting. Not only do the majority of restaurants offer an array of pancakes, french toast and waffles, but pancakes remain one of my all-time favourite things ever. Especially the puffy American ones, stacked up high and doused in a lake of liquid diabetes and served with several rashers of crisp streaky bacon that are composed of more fat than lean.

Only something funny happened on this trip; for the first time in living memory I actually wanted to eat an egg. While I’ve made half-hearted attempts before (starting with a breakfast omelette on a Thai Air flight was probably not the best idea…) this time I was committed, starting with the Pantry CafĂ©, in Los Angeles' Downtown.

Open for twenty four hours a day, apparently the front door key was lost years ago -  there’s still a spot by the payment booth where you can see layers and layers of worn linoleum, like a slice of multi-coloured agate rock. There’s an old fashioned efficiency from the waiters, in their black aprons, who make their way through a steady stream of customers, serving countless plates of steak, fried chicken, and omelettes; often with a serving of their signature coleslaw, even at breakfast time.

I think part of the reason I wanted to start eating eggs again, comes from my inherent quest for ‘completeness’. Firstly, I hate to miss out on things and secondly I don’t like the idea of ordering a meal without a constituent ingredient. 

While I will happily eat a fry up sans ouef (everybody has their own idea of what constitutes a full English anyway) ordering ham and eggs without the eggs just seems pointless. Unless there’s also the option of a pineapple ring on the menu, and I'm there. As I wanted to order the ham steak at the Original Pantry, I decided I would also have the eggs.

While I was softening to the idea of egg, I wasn’t committed enough to have it in its two constituent parts, so I chose scrambled, which in America are often cooked on a flat top and are more omelette-like, which is even better. The ham it’s self was gargantuan, a huge slice from a Tom and Jerry cartoon and served with hash browns, a finely chopped fresh chilli salsa and the most wonderful, chewy, crispy sourdough toast, also cooked on the flat top, that the Ewing is still dreaming of now. 

Of course, we also had a side of pancakes, which I soldiered valiantly through as the Ewing was toasted-out. While anywhere else they may have been an afterthought, here they were utter perfection, and still made equal top billing.

Another reason America is great, is that doughnuts and coffee are seen as an acceptable breakfast option. Something I heartily concur with. And although I’d strictly already had breakfast before we had picked up our hire car to embark on our mini road trip, it was still (just) before midday when we arrived.

The Donut Man, in Glendora, is often featured on lists of the best ‘nut shops in the whole country, and is renowned for its fresh fruit doughnuts. Normally I might make some hackneyed remark about it being ‘one of my five a day’, but, having now eaten one, I should think the strawberry stuffed orb – they offer peach in high summer and apple in the autumn - was at least two or three. 

This thing was as big as my head, and I’m not known for my small bonce, and stuffed to the brim. Government guidelines probably don’t suggest your fruit comes glazed in sugar and clamped in fried dough, but hey.

I’m not even going to attempt to justify the tiger tail, a twisted coil of glazed dough stuffed with devil’s food cake frosting, other than for the joy it bought into my life. Especially while enjoyed with an iced coffee, while sat on the bench outside the shop watching the traffic cruise down Route 66.

As I was already falling well behind in my quest to become half pancake during this trip, there was only one option on our visit to Elmer’s in Palm Springs; the german pancake topped with powdered sugar and lemon. 

To drink was an Arnold Palmer -  a mix of half still lemonade and half iced tea - a drink that apparently got its name in Palm Springs and the perfect PG Tips substitute in 25 degree weather. Also, check out that view. If you do ever eat here, ask for a table on the patio out the back, and you too can gaze out on the San Jacinto Mountains.

Anyway, back to the food and as the name might give it away, this wasn’t an American style stack, but a giant singular pancake. Coincidentally you may have seen it on social media recently, being called out for its resemblance to a shallow Yorkshire pudding. Which it pretty much is. 

Served with the lemon and sugar, it was like crossing the best part of a Sunday roast with shrove Tuesday – and all before noon - and was just as brilliant as you might expect it to be. I also had scrambled eggs and bacon and hot sauce, cos it's ‘Merica and there clearly wasn’t already enough food to incapacitate me for the rest of the day.

The Ewing’s southwest omelette was very polite in its presentation, but delicious all the same. Although she did make the rookie error of choosing the fruit cup instead of the hash browns, which, despite us being in the fecund garden of Cali (the state that produces the sizeable majority of all fruit and veg in the states), consisted of browning banana and hard melon chunks. Whereas you can never go wrong with crispy, salty shards of fried potato.

Another day, another doughnut, and Jelly Donut in 29 Palms is one of the last stops if you’re heading out West (there’s also a great gas station, stuffed with a treasure trove of craft beers, just as you hit the city limits). It’s pretty unmissable, with its drive thru canopy and giant sign, and is worth a stop for classic American donuts, you won’t get anything fancier than sprinkles here, and polystyrene cups of percolator coffee.

I also like the fact that ‘jelly’(our jam) donuts are covered in powdered sugar or glazed, not like our crunchy granulated sugar. Here the glazed ones are raspberry, and the powdered ones are stuffed with a bright lemon, that matches the Formica table tops. The maple old fashioned donuts – craggy edged and made with a buttermilk enriched dough – are cinnamon-scented simple perfection and the giant apple fritters, studded with huge chunks of the fruit, were big enough that even we didn’t mind sharing.

Chicken. Fried. Steak. Three of my favourite words, right there. Combine them in a sentence and you may have one of the finest culinary contributions Southern American cuisine has made to the world. The first time I tried this magical combination of two already pretty great foodstuffs – a thin piece of steak is pounded to tenderise, before being coated in season flour and breadcrumbs and fried - I was 15, in a small restaurant in rural Arizona.

I still remember everything about that night, the way some people remember meeting their wife, or their first child being born. The Kinks playing in the car on the way there, the cloudless desert sky, the blood red velvet drapes at the windows and the chintzy tableware. But mostly I remember the wonderful food.

While my meal of ambrosial CFS and cream gravy remained indelibly etched on my memory, it’s taken me until now to try it again. After all, I grew up in the south of England, where the steak came unbattered, and the gravy is always brown. And let's not even start on the 'biscuits' that often come with gravy in the American south.

Squaring the circle, this version was also eaten in rural Arizona - in Parker, a town on the Colorado River Indian Reservation that was half way on our drive to Sedona - and was as good as I remembered.  Alongside was more scrambled egg and home fries cooked with onion and green pepper (one of the only times I've actually enjoyed the pizza-ruiner).  

Pudding (no, not the American kind) was the American kind of biscuit, light and fluffy with baking powder, like our scones, and perfect covered in Smuckers grape jelly. 

Image result for ihop  stratosphere
Our friend’s Vegas wedding also happened to fall on the same day  as the Ewing’s birthday. As I didn’t want her to miss out on her own celebration, I also excitedly planned a surprise brunch trip to IHOP for birthday pancakes.

The surprise being that, apparently, my wife doesn’t really like pancakes. Despite me making them for her on countless weekends for the past decade. She also decided to make this announcement in front of our friends and brunching partners, Stealth and GWP, while pointing out my own deep love for the puffy discs of dough. (Yeah, yeah, I'm a bitch but name one time I have ordered pancakes and proclaimed I loved them so much I would order them again - TE).

Despite this revelation, and the accompanying minus wife points, we still all went to IHOP; the strange chalet like building  in the shadow of the Stratosphere, if you fancy visiting. The Ewing was placated by their vast omelette menu, me because they had pancakes with sprinkles – which I was determined the birthday girl would enjoy – while others in our group were happiest because of its proximity to the ReLeaf Dispensary. 

Despite walking past multiple times, I failed to get a photo, so the one above is from Trip Advisor. I took the photo of the syrup bottles though; no less than four different flavoured ways to get your sugar spike.  

IHOP’s are ubiquitous a sight across America, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for anything beyond edible, as long as it came adorned with sprinkles. As it turned out I was more than pleasantly surprised by our food. In fact, it was excellent. My steak and cheese omelette stuffed with hash browns and topped with salsa, was by far the greatest iteration of eggs I encountered on our trip. Although, as I mentioned before, what could be really bad about something that’s stuffed with crispy fried potatoes and covered in cheddar. 

You may also be happy to hear that he Ewing also very much enjoyed her food, and even tried a forkful of the birthday pancakes - a stack of pancakes with sprinkles in the batter, topped with frosting and whipped cream, and more sugar strands – although others at the table seemed to enjoy them more. Any correlation between this and visiting the ReLeaf Dispensary is entirely unsubstantiated.

Monday, 21 May 2018

L.A Chicken (not the one on the Christchurch Road)

So I'm back behind by keyboard; after nearly three weeks of unabashed joy, eating and drinking our way between L.A and Vegas, it's finally time to undo my top button and start to digest our adventures. 

After my trip to Down Under last year, I got bogged down in all the detail and ended up only documenting a couple of my meals in Sydney, although I'm probably still digesting that beef rib now...  This time I'm planning to try and write about all the highlights (there were many), but in far less detail. A kind of edible aide-memoire, grouped broadly into food stuffs or meal times, for when I can't remember why that button won't do back up again. As the title of the blog has probably given it away, I'm starting with chicken; the Ewing's favourite. After me, of course

One of my clearest memories of university came during a typical Friday night in my student halls, drinking cans of Fosters with a few mates and possibly nibbling on a Camberwell Carrot or two.  Later, with Jools Holland came on the T.V. and Beck - the shaggy-haired lo-fi musician best know for mumbling about what a waste of space he was in the style of a white Chuck D - was singing a song from his new album, Midnite Vultures.

That song was Debra, and that night I fell in love with the funk soul falsetto of the story of Beck trying to hook up with Debra, and her sister, by taking her to Glendale is his Hyundai for dinner. Although he  'wouldn't do you like that Zankou Chicken'.

Of course, I really had very little idea of what he was actually singing as the lyrics weren't in the liner notes (I rushed out and bought the album the following Monday morning), and the internet was a clunky thing in it's infancy that required five minutes of painful dial up tones to even get connected, and then didn't seem to have the answers anyway.

In fact, it probably took me years to find out what he was wittering on about, and even then I wasn't ever sure that I would get to make a pilgrimage to the hills of L.A, or eat at the famous chicken restaurant that I later found out was famous for its brilliant white garlic sauce, and for it's family tragedy.

But, nearly 20 years after first hearing it, our first stop in L.A was at the original East Hollywood branch of Zankou. Despite being horribly jet lagged, and viewed with suspicion by a cop with a gun as I took photos outside (who turned out to be very friendly, as it happened), our pilgrimage was just as perfect as I hoped it would be.

The  Ewing's rotisserie chicken was the perfect comfort food, even with the spiky beet pickled turnips and chillies alongside. My chicken tarna plate was even better; the chunks of spit-roasted meat served with pools of silky houmous and tahini, grilled flat breads and the unforgettable garlic sauce. It really is unforgettable; well, I'd definitely give it a couple of days and a packet of Wrigleys. Just make sure your significant other is also a fan.

Zankou wasn't the only chicken place I had dreamt of visiting (seriously, this is the kind of thing I fantasise about...), I was also extremely excited about visiting my namesake, Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles. Even better as it was for breakfast; who doesn't dream of  consuming lashings of maple syrup and deep fried poultry before nine o'clock in the morning.

Inside is rather odd, with a kind of wood cladding effect and tiny, high windows that make you feel a bit like you're eating in a large garden shed. While the ambience may have been unusual the chicken was great: We both had the Obama Special - three wings, one waffle, butter and syrup - which was lighter than it may first appear and a just reward for our earlier trek that morning to the top of the Griffith Observatory to see the sun rise.

As I'm sure is already apparent, I love both fried chicken and spicy food. So even the Ewing contriving to get a touch of sunstroke from falling asleep on Venice Beach - alongside a livid red stripe down one side of her body - wasn't going to stop me visiting Dave's Hot Chicken in Hollywood. (just what someone needs when they have sunstroke and sunburn - the hottest chicken on earth - TE).

After leaving her tucked up and swathed in cold flannels, I made it to Dave's and made short work of my two chicken tenders (extra hot), served on a spongy slice of Mother's Pride with crinkle fries and pickle chips. Bonus points for the generous inclusion of plenty of Dave's sauce (a tangy thousand island) and honey (a revelation). Someone just open a Nashville hot chicken restaurant in London already. 

And, cos I'm a kind and caring wife, I bought the Ewing her own portion back to eat in bed. Just what you want when you're already burning up. (I notice from her proofreading comment above, she's now preempted me on this....)

Tenuous link award goes to the next restaurant, Sapp Coffee shop in Thai Town, included here because of the addition of poultry in their signature jade noodles. Admittedly, it's duck and not chicken, a pretty paltry reason to shoe horn it in to this blog, but it fits here as well as anywhere else, and the food was too good not to write about somewhere in my meandering round ups.

The Ewing, unsurprisingly after a surfeit of meat, went for the classic som tum - green papaya salad with dried shrimp and peanuts and a glass noodle salad with squid. Both were excellent, but even better was watching  the hysterical tears roll down her face after recklessly eating all the scud chillies, seeds and all.

I had the jade noodles, topped with roast duck, barbecued pork and crab and served with a DIY dressing including ground chillies, sugar, fish sauce, lime and peanuts. They're famous for a reason and each mouthful was a joyful blend of sweet, sour, hot and salty that makes Thai food so great. Being only eight minutes from our motel (thanks Google Maps) I'm sad we didn't get to return and try out the boat noodle soup, thickened with beef blood and topped with pork scratchings.

In a pleasing arc of symmetry, we finished the trip how we started it, feeling hungover and eating chicken. This time we had made in to Vegas (no fear, more details of the road trip to follow) and made it through both a hen night and a wedding. After a hungover afternoon, mulling over how I was going to fit my recent acquisitions of stout, M&Ms and peanut butter into my suitcase, I finally threw in the towel (I didn't, it wouldn't fit) and walked down the Strip for a last supper.

Everyone loves a good Elvis pun, especially after seeing our friends wed by the King the day before, and Viva las Arepas is one of the better ones. The menu, unsurprisingly, centres around arepas - Venezuelan corn bread cakes, stuffed with a variety of different fillings, but they also serve wood fired chicken, beef and ribs.

We ate arepas with smoky chicken, cheeses and avocado; and arepas with shredded beef, black beans and sweet plantain. My highlight was the yuca con chicharron, or plantain 'fries', topped with nuggets of crisp, salty pork, while the Ewing enjoyed her quarter chicken (it must of been a giant cock, as there were at least four pieces) served with salad in a garlicky sauce, just as we had nearly three weeks earlier. A fine and fitting end to our eating adventures.