Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Portugal - squid with the squad

While I was very excited to have finally finished writing about my American adventures – well, almost finished, there’s still the story of the day I went to Venice Beach and ate avocado pizza followed by avocado ice cream, but maybe that’s a story best left untold – working through the enormous amounts of food I had consumed meant that in the meantime I had managed to fit in a whole ’nother holiday.

Normally I wouldn’t plan trips so closely together - if only to give my cholesterol levels a chance to stabilise - but my Dad was visiting from Down Under and had suggested meeting for a week in the Algarve, home of many memories from the many great  holidays we spent there when I was growing up. It also meant that I wouldn’t have to properly unpack from my States trip. And, however much I think I hate doing other chores, there is a special circle of hell dedicated to opening your suitcase and actually dealing with the stuff stuffed inside.

While I’ve decided to only write about one restaurant we visited on our trip - no one has time to read about every sardine or Super Bock we ate over the week (spoiler, there were a lot) -  Portuguese food is, on the whole, both excellent and underrated. It may not be fancy, but from cold beers to warm custard tarts, salt cod to cabbage soup, roast suckling pig to piri piri chicken, there are plenty of good ways to get fat.  

And of course you can wash it all down with some serious booze with a range of port wines, madeira, vinho verde, ginja cherry liqueur, and medronho – a potent firewater made from the fruit of the strawberry tree, which confusingly look like lychees, that is a speciality of the Algarve – all cheap, good and available in copious quantities. I also recently discovered they make a rice pudding and cinnamon flavour cream liqueur, the thought of which fills me with a kind of delirious excitement that something so magical exists.

While it might not be the fanciest or the hippest, and it’s certainly not the quietest, Adega da Marina does remain one of the best known restaurants in Lagos. Even the Ewing had heard of it before our visit, although that may have had something to do with the fact that they are known for the football scarves and flags that hang from the rafters all around the cavernous room.

One of my Dad’s friends, who owns the apartment we were staying in, gifted them a promotional Wasps RFC flag, sponsored by a well-known cider maker, but it was put up on the wall with the Magners side facing out. Maybe they are just as upset they moved from Wycombe to Coventry as I was.

All meals in Portugal start with couvert - small plates that typically include breads, pates, olives and cheese - that are bought, unbidden to the table and are charged if you eat them. You can ask the waiter to take them away if you don't want them, but there was precious little chance of us rejecting slices of crusty bread slathered in sardine paste and the round of cheese made of a mix of cows and sheep milk. 

The house salad is also excellent; a simple mix of knobbly tomatoes and cucumbers, sweet white onions and grated carrots, and topped with fresh oregano and a simple oil and vinegar dressing.

The dish they are probably most famous for is the prawns, ordered by weight, either simply boiled in the shell or, as we ordered, fried in plenty of garlic and olive oil. We ordered 400g , above, a giant platter that was nearly too much (there isn't really such a thing when it comes to garlic prawns) that cost the princely sum of 16 euros.

As good as the prawns were, the platter of fried baby squid from the special board were even better. Soft and bouncy, like the lyrics of a Prince song, there wasn’t a hint of grim, fishy rubber band elasticity, just the sweet hint of the sea combined with a slight hint of iodine from their ink and lashings of good olive oil and salt.

Alongside, although barely necessary, was a mountain of chips. While I’m fairly indifferent to a fried potato, or really a potato of any kind (with apologies to my Irish grandmother) there is something about a Portuguese potato that is quite untouchable. Holidays as a kid would see me eat my annual allowance in a fortnight, and I am pleased to say they are still as wonderful (and I have still retained my voracious capacity).

I didn’t get pictures of my Dad and the Ewing’s main meals, (probably just as well, judging the quality of the one’s I did take) but they enjoyed the classic piri-piri chicken and a majestic whole sea bass respectively. So much so that neither of them could manage desert, even between them, something virtually unheard of. Even more so when the Ewing had to walk past the desert cabinet on the way to the loo and was given a recommendation for the syrup-laden orange roll by a very enthusiastic lady.

Obviously she wasn’t going to let that information go to waste, so when my Dad was at the Irish bar by the Marina watching Ireland win their first test Down Under since before I was born (not before my wife and my father though, backing up my assertions during our trip that I wasn’t yet old) we decided to go back for lunch a deux. Partly for the orange cake and the prawns, and partly because we knew they would be showing the Belgium Algeria game from England’s World Cup group and it would be a shady place to watch it away from the heat of the afternoon sun.

As well as the prawns, we also ordered a portion of the clams à bulhão pato, served steamed with white wine, lemon and garlic. Like their mastery with spuds, the Portuguese are pretty good clam-cookers -  in fact so much so that one of their most famous dishes, Porco à Alentejana, combines pork, clams and cubes of fried potatoes (I had a very good version a couple of doors down from Adega on our first day in Lagos, accompanied by a bottle of Matteus rose and the Portugal versus Morocco game) – but I digress.

These were equally wonderful, especially eaten, like the prawns, with a pile of crusty bread to drag through the briny, buttery juices and accompanied by another bottle of cold vinho verde. They also contain a serious amount of garlic, so make sure your significant other tucks in as well, or holiday romance may be off the cards.

The orange roll looks a bit like our swiss roll, but has a close texture and richness which comes from the fact it is made entirely of eggs and sugar, with no flour at all. It's then soaked in a orange syrup, and is sweet and rich and fragrant, like most Portuguese puddings.

I went with the classic pudim flan, which is very similar to a creme caramel. A rich baked custard of milk, cream, egg yolks and sugar, in a smoky puddle of caramel sauce and best served with a strong bica, or espresso coffee, alongside.

After twenty odd holidays to the Algarve over the years, it was great to finally show the Ewing some of my happiest childhood memories - including the beautiful beach that my Dad and I both confessed we never really liked going to. Too hot and too sandy. The apple never falls far from the tree.

Luckily she loved the holiday just as much as we did and there's already talk of returning, to both Lagos and Adega, where I'm looking forward to completing a hat-trick of visits.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Bucks Bites: Cheque it out

There’s nothing mad dogs and Englishmen love more than pub garden weather. Any hint that the sun might be coming out and we are there, balancing a pint of fizzy lager in one hand, while battling with the slightly damp parasol with the broken catch. 

From sitting in unmown fields on splintering picnic benches, to huddling on rickety pavement tables while breathing in the hot fug of traffic fumes, to concrete courtyards that are sticky underfoot and smell of stale fags, the sheer elation of being outside with a beer in hand seems to overcome all other circumstances.

While it is nice simply to be outside, swatting away wasps and getting slightly sunburnt, living in leafy Bucks means we are blessed with some very picturesque pub gardens to sit in. Having decamped from North West London as a child, this often meant family expeditions out into the gently rolling Chiltern Hills, with one of my Dad’s recent favourites being the Chequers at Fingest.

As he was staying with us recently, on a bi-annual visit from Oz, it seemed an apt place to go for dinner and celebrate the start of the great Heatwave of 2018 (can anyone still remember back to a time when they needed a coat, or shoes or trousers, or pretty much any clothes at all…).

Being a Brakspear’s pub, somewhat unsurprisingly, they serve Brakspear’s beer. Regular readers (Hello, Mummy P) may remember me talking about just this very drop when I went for a recent dinner at another charming Chiltern pub, literally but a stone’s throw from the Chequers. Which is handy, as I can just put in a link here and don’t have to bother repeating myself (not that that normally stops me)

It turns out my Dad is rather a fan of a pint of the famous double-dropped bitter as well, and we quickly made our way through three each, while the Ewing cursed being the designated drivernot, perhaps, because she particularly wanted to drink lots, but more the fact the decline in the quality of conversation and increase in beer drunk seemed to be directly proportional.

As much as my figure and Instagram feed may suggest otherwise, I don’t eat a huge amount of burgers. Yes, the word huge may be relative (literally and figuratively) but, as most of us have bitter experience, their proliferation on most pub menus does not guarantee something that you will actually enjoy eating. Especially at 15 pounds, as the cheeseburger costs here (a sum that would buy you ten of my beloved double cheeseburgers from Maccy D’s, the connoisseurs choice).

Still, we all ordered the burger anyway, although my Dad did initially attempt to order the sausages, being starved of a proper pork banger in Australia – where the grainy and perennial disappointing beef snag still rules the roost, despite the influx of Brits and Irish living – only to be told they were off the menu.

As far as burgers go, this was a champion; hefty in stature, but manageable without contorting your jaw awkwardly to eat; pink and juicy in the middle – the burger is made onsite – this was a squirter; topped with good cheddar cheese (nothing really beats plasticky American, but this was nice in a classy way) melted properly across the top; and served with lots of pickles, tomato and raw onion.

In fact, the food was so good that, with the heatwave extending into an almost unprecedented second week, the Ewing suggested we returned (sadly sans my father, who was heading back Down Under) a couple of days later, which, being the weekend, meant there was the added bonus of the pizza oven in the garden being fired-up for the weekend.

Pizza came topped with prosciutto, rocket and Parmesan, finished with a hefty glug of heady truffle oil - bringing fragrant joy or funky misery depending on which side of the tuber-scented condiment you come down on. For the record, I'm a fan, of the funk if used judiciously as this was. As was the Ewing, masterfully modelling her dinner in a surprisingly good-natured photo opportunity. A decade of my incessant photo taking has gradually worn her down.

The fierce heat of the wood oven had given the base the proper combination of chewy and crisp, with a smoky depth coming from the charred spots on the edge of the crust. And, while at fourteen quid for a disc of dough topped with a couple of slices of ham and a handful of salad, it could hardly be described as cheap, it still seemed fair value.

While the lure of the burger was strong, I plumped for the pork chop - served with a green peppercorn sauce, cabbage and mustard mash. While there is nothing particularly revelatory about the combination of meat and two veg, pork chops were my favourite meal when growing up and, on tasting this, it's fair to say not much has changed all these years later. 

Everything on the plate was perfectly judged from the punchy mustard mash, to the buttery crunch of the cabbage, to the crispy rind of the chop, best eaten alongside the briny pop of the bottled peppercorns in the rich cream sauce. Pub food at its finest.

Relaxing in the sun with beer, family and pork chops. At the risk of sounding like Homer Simpson (and surely there's nothing wrong with that), I'm not sure things can get much better.

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.