Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fry Me to the Moon: The LA County Fair

As Paul Lynde sang in the 1973 animated version of Charlotte's Web, "The fair is a veritable smorgasbord orgasbord, orgasbord."...okay, Cole Porter it ain't, but as far as the LA County Fair goes, it's hard to disagree, at least with respect to fried foods. This weekend, like a rat after garbage, I made my annual trip in pursuit of the best deep fried junk imaginable.

Every year at the fair, there is something new dumped into the frier, and this year it was s'mores. The deep fried s'mores, available at the same food hut offering deep fried Twinkies, Oreos, frogs' legs, artichokes and Coke (??), probably win the award for worst presentation. The s'mores looked more like deep fried cow pattie, something which may be in the works for next year's fair.

From what I could tell, rather than a true s'more, this was pretty much a single marshmallow, battered, fried and topped with chocolate. Unfortunately, the batter to marshmallow rating was out of balance; it needed more gooey marshmallow. The bites that picked up a lot of goo, some batter and some chocolate in the right proportions, though, were an oozy bite of heaven. Still, they should have included a full chocolate bar and graham cracker...then it would have been a s'more.

From the same stand, we had deep fried artichokes, which were nice. Usually we get them from the other purveyor (Jeannes?) which are also good, but these had a better ranch dressing accompaniment.

I usually pick up some deep fried Oreos, which I can never resist, but are never as good as they sound. This year I passed. (And don't even get me started on the vomit-inducing monstrosity that is the Krispy Kreme Fried Chicken Sandwich).

Moving around the fair, we picked up some excellent apple fries. Apple fries are french fry cut apple slices, battered and fried and served with whipped cream. When done right, as these were, they taste like little bits of apple pie. The whipped cream was not only real, but impressively thick and rich.

But for me, the piece de resistance of fried fair food is still that old standby, now approaching its fourth or fifth year, the deep fried Snickers Bar. Available at the Texas Donut Stand, the Snickers bar is everything fried junkfood should be. The puffy batter encases and then soaks up the oozing, melting beauty of a warm Snickers. Oddly, the Snickers advertising is pretty low key for the really need to know where to find it. Served on a stick, looking like a smallish corn dog with powdered sugar, the fried Snickers is the perfect fried fair food. These things are so rich and excessive that even I can't eat one of these on my own, but split two or three ways, it's just right.

Given the perfection of the Fried Snickers, I can't fathom why there aren't more fried candy bars at the fair? Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Almond Joy, Three Musketeers, Milky Ways...all of these should be shoved on a stick and fried, post haste!

Now, even I can't live on fried food alone, so we did venture into the world of non-fried fair food.

King Taco, the legendary East LA taco chain that has fair booths, is one of our regular stops. It may not be quite as good as their stands, but I don't get real King Taco enough, so this does it for me.

Then it was off to Dr. Bob's famous Inland Empire ice cream. I've never been to the Dr. Bob's scoop shop in Upland, so the fair is as close as I come to fresh scooped Bob's. I usually stick to his Scharffen-Berger chocolate flavors, which are the best chocolate ice cream anywhere, ever, but I couldn't resist the novelty of his delicious, creamy licorice ice cream...very licorishy.

...and then I saw it, or maybe I felt it, the tractor beam like pull of an enormous sign picturing the Giant Western Sausage. I knew immediately that this Giant Western Sausage was my destiny. I was nervous, anxious even; could a food whose major selling point was its size actually be good? I straddled up to the booth and watched people order corn dogs the size of baseball bats. Well, the sausage was modest, tiny really, compared to those...not really all that excessive. Then it came, an enormous could have been 18 inches long, covered with peppers and onions, served on a warm, buttered bun. I sized it up and met its forlorn stare with my own. I bit. Shockingly, this was a pretty decent sausage. It had some spice, some garlic, some zest, some zing, and, size wise, it was the sausage that kept on giving.

Did the Giant Western Sausage change me? Was it a turning point in my life, infusing me with a new found respect for ground meats? I'll never be sure of that, but I'm pretty sure that I'll be thinking about it come next fall, when I saunter over to Pomona and wade through the pigs, pottery, table settings, home made jams and tapestries, looking for sustenance, and plenty of it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Accidental Eater: Vietnam House

So sometimes you find great food by a good tip, and sometimes you luck out. This is a story of me lucking out.

My stories starts, not surprisingly, on-line. If you haven't checked out the food blog My Culinary Adventures by Silverlaker Bon Vivant, you must. Her taste runs similar to, ethnic eats in the mid-LA area. Most of all, the food photography is amazing; I read and a I salivate and I must eat.

Now, as you all know, I have no photographic talent and I'm too shy to whip out the camera during a meal. My original intention was not to include any pix on this blog, but I came to see that the regular blog background is somewhat monotonous and pictures really do help break it up. So now, I include the occasional really bad picture of some piece of food I eat at home or a bottle of booze, complete with glare, smudges, blurriness, etc. Because of my poor skills, I am deeply respectful of those, like Bon Vivant, who can pull off food photography that makes you wish you were pulling up to the table.

So, I'm reading BV's report on Luscious Dumpling in San Gabriel. As a dumpling maven and a lover of San Gabriel Valley restaurants, I'd always intended to try LD, but Bon Vivant's pix sealed the deal.

My dining party and I headed out to San Gabriel last Saturday hoping for an awesome dumpling experience. We found LD with a full restaurant, a large line and a Closed sign hanging in the window, which we assumed someone had just forgotten to flip to Open that morning.

We went out to the line and asked the people in the front what we do to sign up for a table. They told us the restaurant was closed (despite the people eating) and they were just waiting for take-out. The people behind them in line, shocked to hear this, had thought it was open and they were going to be served. Now, this was about 1 pm on a Saturday, which seems an odd time to close, but I certainly have experienced my share of rather odd operating hours in the SG Valley, so we shrugged it off. Disappointed and not a little forlorn from our dumpling mishap, we moved on.

Lucky for us, the San Gabriel Valley is extremely forgiving of the hungry traveler. In the very same strip mall, we found the excellent Vietnam House. This busy place is apparently owned by the purveyors of the famous Golden Deli. We had beautifully fried cha gio (spring rolls), a lovely Vietnamese crepe, and (my favorite) the vermicelli noodle dish known as bun, topped with a smoky charbroiled pork. The pork chop on rice was also excellent, less smoky than the char but amazingly tender. Next time I will try the seven courses of beef, the famous Vietnamese beef sampler which is also on their menu.

Vietnam House started for me as a fallback, but I think it will now be a destination of its own...of course, if it's too crowded, I can always go to Luscious Dumpling.

Vietnam House
710 W Las Tunas Dr
(From Alhambra, head East on Maine from Garfield, and it becomes Las Tunas, strip mall is right past Mission)
San Gabriel, CA 91776-1156
Phone: (626) 282-6327

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: We Want WhiskyFest!!

Sponsored by Malt Advocate Magazine, a good if poorly named whiskey periodical, WhiskyFest, held each October, is the premier whiskey event in the US.

What is WhiskyFest? A one day, two city whiskey extravaganza, featuring panels, seminars and hundreds of samples of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish and other whiskies. For years, every fall, WhiskyFest has attracted afficionados to its events in New York and Chicago.

This year, for the first time in seven years, they have added a new city. WhiskyFest is coming to California with WhiskyFest...San Francisco?!?

What's the deal WhiskyFest? Yes, I know the Bay Area, of which I am a native, is a capital of fine food and refined drink, but those guys are wine drinkers. We may not be as fancy, as in shape or as rich, but we are whiskey drinkers and there are a lot more of us. We want a WhiskyFest!!

Now, I wrote to the good people of Malt Advocate and they told me they did not have "any plans for further expansion" but would keep my suggestion in mind...the blowoff.

So, come on Southern California, email
Malt Advocate Magazine and tell them that LA is where it's at for whiskey and we want WhiskyFest!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Box 'o Brulee

Call me a child of the '80s, but I still love New Wave music, skinny ties and Creme Brulee. Not the lavander flavored monstrosities that you still see at a surprising number of fine restaurants, but the traditional, pure vanilla custard with caramelized crust, now relegated to steak houses and...Costco?

I picked up this four-pack of Miss Meringue Creme Brulees at Costco, and suprisingly, they were excellent. The custard was rich, thick and creamy. Now, a Brulee from a box is never going to have the crust of a freshly burnt one, it's just not physically you need to think of it as more of a Flan. But the topping on this Brulee was a beautiful, thick caramelized syrup that dripped nicely into the Burlee when I took a spoonful.

I kid you not, this Brulee is better than many I've had at restaurants.

Costco Creme Brulee, who knew?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

No Feh to Feta

Cheese snobs don't do Feta, the brined sheep cheese that is the accompaniment to so many Greek dishes, but I do. I love the salty pungency of a good Feta, whether in a salad, on a sandwich or by itself.

Papa Cristo's (Pico and Normandie), LA's best spot for Greek food and groceries, carries three Fetas: Greek, French and Bulgarian, and I gave each a try on a recent trip.

Greek Feta is the classic; flavored perfectly, salty and sharp, it is exactly what you expect when you bite into a lamb and Feta sandwich and Papa's is a great one.

French Feta was my least favorite. The flavors are much milder than the others. The cheese was less salty and had less character. The French make great cheeses, but they should leave feta to the Greeks.

Bulgarian Feta blew me a way with its big, earthy, barnyardy flavors. Salt and brine, but also some real sheepy flavor. This is probably the only one of the three that could really stand on its own, just on a plate with some bread, as opposed to in a salad or on a sandwich. Good stuff from Bulgarians.

Now, if you are buying from Papa Cristo's, you need to be careful. The cheese lady who was at the counter when I went and ordered all three varieties made sure to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that Greek is simply the best and I really need not bother with the others. Since I was getting Greek, I got a pass, but if you are going just to get Bulgarian, you may want to come up with an excuse to get the Bulgarian..."Yes, Greek is definitely the best, but I've got some Bulgarian friends coming over," or "Greek is too good for what I'm going to do with this feta." If you're lucky, such an excuse may save you from the evil eye of the cheese lady.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: The Book on Bourbon

Bourbon, Straight
The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey
Charles K. Cowdery

If you're interested in learning more about American whiskey, then you owe yourself a copy of Bourbon, Straight. Quite simply, this is the best book on American whiskey that I've read. While the title refers to Bourbon, Charles Cowdery's comprehensive volume covers the big three of American whiskey: Bourbon, rye and Tennessee.

Cowdery, a Bourbon writer and publisher of the excellent newsletter, the Bourbon Country Reader, gives you all you need to get started on a Bourbon journey. His book presents the basics of Bourbon, what it is, how it's made and how it tastes, along with a good dose of history. He covers both the long history of whiskey in America and the stories of some of the big Bourbon families and distilleries.

I was most impressed by Cowdery's tasting notes, presented at the end of the volume. Cowdery eschews the typical free association tasting notes that are one of my pet peeves (...caramel, ocean mist, prune pits, late harvest dates, etc., etc.) Instead, he writes more detailed notes, consisting of several paragraphs as opposed to the more usual several lines. Instead of just naming flavors, he tries to give some context, explaining why he thinks a Bourbon tastes a certain way and giving some reason for the taste (mash components, barrel time, etc.). Everyone in the whiskey writing business would do well to read Cowdery's notes and take a few notes of their own.

A great example of his flair for tasting notes is his description of Eagle Rare, in which he senses lots of "candy" elements: "If candy corn actually tasted like corn, it would taste like Eagle Rare Single Barrel." Now that's a tasting note I can relate to.

If you are interested in Bourbon, rye or Tennessee whiskies, pick up a copy of Bourbon, Straight.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

An Open Letter to Anthony Bourdain

Tony, Tony, Tony...what in God's name has become of you?

When Kitchen Confidential first came out it took the food world by storm, forever changing the way people thought, and wrote, about how restaurants operate behind the scenes. You wrote with a rugged honesty, and you weren't afraid to cast aspersions on the sacred cows and media giants of the food world.

When you started doing a Food Network Series, I was worried. There you were, swearing and chain smoking as you swaggered around adorned with an earring and a faded Ramone's shirt. Very rebellious stuff...if it were 1977. But the show, A Cook's Tour, was a breath of fresh air on the otherwise staid network. It had a more realistic feel and, impressively, a more cinematic quality than anything the Food Network has had on before or since. Try though they may, the Network execs can't match it. (Pity poor nerdy Alton Brown who they have tried to dress up as a cool biker and send "on the road.")

Now, I haven't seen your Travel Channel show, so maybe I'm missing something there, but sometime in the last few years, things started to go wrong...

Your latest book, The Nasty Bits, while provocatively titled, is a pretty average collection of essays. Strangely, though, you added a section of "Commentary," essentially a post-hoc apologia for each essay. Oh, you were sorry! You shouldn't have said such mean things about Emeril or Bobby or Mario; hey, we're all in this together, we celebrity chefs.

And now, you sit as a judge on Top Chef, hurling the vitriol you used to save for the rich and powerful at the hapless line cooks who are just trying to get their hands on $100,000 or a set of ovens or whatever it is you get for winning Top Chef.

Don't you see what's happened, Tony? You used to be the Hunter S. Thompson of food media, and now you're the Simon Cowell, and in my book, that's a big step down.

Part of me still has hope though, hope that the real Anthony Bourdain is bound and gagged and being held hostage by GE (Bravo's parent company) because he is still too dangerous. Maybe he's in a vault in a refrigerator factory somewhere or a dungeon under Jay Leno's office (NBC being, of course, another GE subsidiary) struggling to get out. Meanwhile, the Top Chef Bourdain is a look-alike or an android or a hologram...well, I can hope, can't I?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Viva El Salvador

September 15 is Salvadoran Independence Day, so I thought it would be a good time to do an update on my continuing search for the greatest pupusa in Los Angeles.

A little review: As you may recall, earlier in the year I did a Pupusa Roundup. Horrifyingly, only weeks after my roundup, the very best pupuseria I found closed its doors. Torn with grief, anger and disappointment, I continue the search for the perfect melding of masa, pork, cheese and beans.

My next try was the new, fancy looking Jaragua on Beverly east of Western. The recently opened orange adobe tower seemed to promise something innovative or slightly upscale. Unfortunately, beneath the beautiful exterior of the place was a pretty unexceptional Salvadoran menu with unimpressive food.

Next stop, tipped off by an anonymous commenter, was El Palmar, a pupuseria in a strip mall at the northwest corner of Third Street and New Hampshire. Now, this place was a contender. The pupusas revueltas were smaller than most but were wonderfully crispy and had a nice balance of pork, beans and cheese. Their Plato Tipico is a great deal...for $6.99 you get two pupusas and two pieces each of yuca, plantains and pastelitos de carne (meat pies). These folks know their way around the frier. The yuca sticks were perfect, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. The plantains were well caramelized and not at all mealy and the pastelitos, a dish I generally don't favor, were fried golden orange and had a tasty ground beef filling. Now for pure pupusa goodness, I'd still take La Pupusa Loca, but El Palmar is a good alternative.

Lastly, if you are looking for a fun way to spend Salvadoran Independence Day, stop by Helados Pops, the Salvadoran ice cream shop on Vermont south of Santa Monica. El Salvador is a land of wonderful tropical fruit that are hard to find in the US, and Helados Pops excels at Salvadoran fruit flavors. Try the rich and creamy Zapote (a luscious, vanilla tasting fruit) ice cream or the tangy maraƱon (the fruit of the cashew nut) sorbet. And Helados Pops has some of the best Strawberry ice cream I've had anywhere.

Happy Independence Day and remember, November 13 is National Pupusa Day in El Salvador.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Trader Joe's Scotch

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the great deals you could get on single malt Scotch at your local Trader Joe's. Trader Joe's is, of course, a rapidly expanding California-based discount gourmet store. In that piece, I talked about the distillery bottlings available at TJ's, including Dalmore, Laphroaig, Dahlwinnie and Glenfiddich.

But TJ's also has their very own line of independent bottlings under the Trader Joe's label. TJ's specializes in reaching agreements with manufacturers to put out items under the TJ's label. While TJ's carries some popular brands (especially of liquor), they prefer to sell their own label.

According to the label, the Trader Joe's single malt collection is bottled by Alexander Murray & Co. This bottler does not appear to produce other bottles for retail sale so my guess is that it is a new bottler or a new corporate form of an existing bottler formed specifically for TJ's.

The TJ's label bottlings include a variety of malts at a variety of ages. At my most recent trip to TJ's, they were offering three malts, two of which I describe below. The third was an 18 year old Macallan priced at $45.99, which was more than I wanted to pay for this little project.

So, here are my notes on TJ's label single malts, all are bottled at 40% alcohol:

Glenlivet 15 year old

Like most American single malt drinkers, I drink a lot of Glenlivet for the sole reason that it's often the only thing available. The 'Livet is the biggest selling single malt in the US and it, along with Glenfiddich, are the two malts most likely to be available at any given bar or restaurant. The famous Speyside malt is a pleasant enough Scotch with a good malty quality, but not one I do backflips over.

The TJ's Glenlivet, however, was particularly unimpressive. It was so light and weak as to have a watery quality. The malt was there but it lacked the mouth-filling quality that you want in any whiskey. This strikes me more as a mixing whiskey. It might be good in a cocktail, but there is just not enough there there to sip it neat. I was mighty disappointed with it.

Bowmore 18 year old

As far as whiskies go, I have comparably less experience with Bowmore than other malts, especially other Islay malts. What I've had of it, I've really liked, finding it complex and smoky without being overwhelmingly so, and I've always wanted to expand my familiarity with Bowmore.

The TJ's Bowmore is very perfumy, which is not something I usually associate with Bowmore, although as I said, my Bowmore experience is limited. Like the Glenlivet, this malt had a weak and watery quality to it. The most enjoyable part comes with a nice smoky finish more suitable to Bowmores I've known.

To sum up: I was thoroughly unimpressed with TJ's private label bottlings. If you want to try Glenlivet or Bowmore, go to a liquor store and buy some distillery bottlings or more reliable indies.

As for Trader Joe's house label Scotch, they have many more offerings which appear to change fairly regularly, so this is a very small sampling. Based on this disappointing tasting, however, I don't think I'd drop cash on any of the others, especially when they offer so many good deals on distillery bottlings.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Like Buttah: Vermont Butter and Cheese Co.

Good butter is one of those things that makes you understand how amazing the world can be, so creamy, so fatty, so delightfully rich. A good cultured butter tastes more like a mild cheese than your regular supermarket butter, and I have found none better than the amazing butter from the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company.

Weighing in at 86% butterfat, the lightly salted Vermont butter hits you first with the cream, but then gives you a mildly cheesy taste and finish. I buy this stuff in huge sausage like tubes because it's that good, rivaling the best Normandy butters I've been able to try in the US.

As good as this butter is, it is enhanced by the addition of sea salt crystals in Vermont Cultured Butter with Sea Salt Crystals. The crunchy salt adds the prefect touch to the already wonderful butter, creating an addictive treat. If you are like me, once you taste this butter, you will find yourself wondering how much butter you can legitimately put on a piece of bread without being considered excessive. My rule: as long as the slice of bread is thicker than the butter on top of it, you're okay.

Regular Vermont Butter is available at a number of locations including The Cheese Store of Silverlake, Surfas and Bristol Farms. I've only seen the sea salt version at Surfas. While the Vermont Butter and Cheese website does not sell directly to consumers, it appears that there are on-line sources for purchasing their products (though I wouldn't order any butter by mail in scorching LA right now).

One note about buying the cultured butter with sea salt: Be sure what you are getting is fresh. If it has been sitting around for a while, the sea salt crystals can actually dissolve, which completely ruins the experience.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: The Indie Scene

No, I'm not talking about obscure alt-rock's Wednesday so I'm talking whiskey.

One of the more mysterious areas of whiskey is the world of independent bottlers of single malt Scotch. This week, I discuss the basics of indie-Scotch and next week will do a tasting of a few of Trader Joe's indie bottlings.

What are Independent Bottlers?

There are two ways in which single malt scotch is marketed. As everyone knows, single malt distilleries market their own product. In addition, however, distilleries sell a certain amount of their product to independent companies which bottle the whiskey and sell it under their own labels. In the world of wine, the bottlers would be known as negociants. Unlike wine negociants, though, indie whiskey bottlers usually disclose the name of the distillery on the bottling. So, you can buy, for instance, a Macallan bottling of Macallan or a Macallan bottled by one of these independent companies.

Why Drink Indie Scotch?

Indie Scotches provide a good way to try alternative bottlings of distillery malts. Most distilleries have a set number of bottlings they release, usually based on age, which they blend and dilute to reach a particular flavor profile. Indie bottlings give you a chance to try something different from your favorite distillery. Whereas distilleries blend different ages of Scotch (a 10 year old Scotch produced by a distillery is actually a blend of different barrels in which the youngest Scotch in the blend is 10 years old), indie Scotch often comes from a single cask or set of casks from a given year (look for distilled by and bottled by dates). In addition, indies are less likely than distilleries to use coloring and chill-filtering, which most experts believe effect taste.

In addition, for Americans, there are some Scotches for which distillery bottlings simply aren't available. Mortlach and Linkwood, for instance, rarely, if ever, send their bottles to the US, so an indie bottling is your only way to try one outside of a trip to Scotland. Similarly, moth-balled distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora and Dallas Dhu are only available in the US through indie bottlers.

So indie bottlings are a good way to try alternative ages and bottlings of your favorites and to taste malts that aren't available in the US.

What Indies Should I Buy?

This is a tough, tough question. The nature of Indie bottlings is that they are unique, which makes for interesting tasting but also makes purchasing them a sort of crapshoot. Whisky Magazine now does an annual wrap up of the best independent bottlings, but not all of those listed are available in the US.

My strategy is to just pick distilleries I like or am interested in. I've found some great bottlings this way but they vary, and it's hard to identify trends in terms of which bottling companies are better than others.

Where Can I Find Indie Scotch?

Southern Californians are lucky to have one of, if not the largest selection of Indie Scotch in the US. Sitting on an unassuming stretch of Saticoy, west of Balboa in Van Nuys is Wine & Liquor Depot. Wine and Liquor Depot has a very good selection of single malts, but they have an amazing selection of indies. Their selection includes bottlings from Cadenhead, Murry McDavid, Balckadder, Signatory, Scott's and many other distinguished indie bottlers. They have, literally, hundreds, maybe over one thousand indie Scotches. So go to Van Nuys, peruse the selection and pick something to your liking. (And afterwards grab some noodles at the nearby Pho So 1).

Unfortunately, while the store has an amazing selection, they don't really, how should I say it, emphasize customer service. Their clerks are surly at best and downright grumpy on off days. If you're lucky, they might make a recommendation, but don't count on it, and they seem to have surprisingly little knowledge about the indie bottlings, despite the breadth of the store's selection.

Next Wednesday

Next week we will do some indie tastings, looking at the indie bottlings which are being marketed by Trader Joe's.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cheese Tasting: Bellweather Farms Crescenza

Crescenza is an Italian style rindless soft cow cheese from Bellweather Farms in Petaluma, California. Bellweather makes a variety of cow and sheep cheeses but this is the first one I've had (though I have enjoyed their creme friche).

Like an uncut wheel, Crescenza ages as you keep it. At its youngest, it is smooth and light with a bit of tartness. As it ages, the tartness increases and it develops a briny tang. At room temperature, it is nearly liquid, and I like to empty the little liquidy pouch into a bowl and dip crackers or bread in it.

All in all, it's a good cheese, but not one I go ga-ga over.

A small packet of it will run you about $6.00 at The Cheese Store of Silverlake.