Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rollin Out the Beef Rolls at 101 Noodle Express

It seems crazy that I've gone all these years without making it to 101 Noodle Express, but man am I glad I made it. I hit the Alhambra shop, though there are several branches in the San Gabriel Valley and even a few mall locations.

The thing to get here is the beef roll (pictured above) and after having it this weekend, it is something I'm going to be craving. Marinated beef with a sweet cilantro sauce wrapped in a Chinese pancake. This is everything you want in a snack: savory, sweet, salty and greasy with the added flavor boost of cilantro. It's hard to explain how good this thing is.

There are other good dishes at 101. The dan dan noodles are slightly spicy and are especially good with a few scoops of 101's cilantro sauce that you'll find on the table. Lamb soup with cabbage is a funk-o-rama with big slices of liver and hand pulled noodles. The liver isn't's cooked to dry consistency, but all of that flavor is in the broth and the noodles are nicely chewy. Dumplings are okay, but nothing special and the fried ones tasted a tad off, like they were fried in old oil.

But the thing here is the beef roll, and that's what I'll be going for in the future, possibly pretty regularly. Oh, and they have a pork roll too. Next time...

101 Noodle Express
1408 E. Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 300-8654

Thursday, July 28, 2011

RIP Pal Cabron

I am saddened to report on yet another restaurant closing in my neighborhood. Pal Cabron opened with much fanfare and seemed destined for success. It was a spinoff of the popular Guelaguetza Oaxacan restaurant and it had fabulous cemitas, including my favorite La Muy Muy, a pork milanesa with pickled peppers, quesillo and the papalo herb on a big, fresh sweet bun. I was seriously obsessed with this place for several months after it opened.

I still need my neighborhood cemita fix so I guess I better start checking out the local cemitas trucks.

Rest in peace cabron.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit

I haven't reviewed a Turkey in a while, so I thought I'd give Kentucky Spirit a spin. It's Wild Turkey's single barrel bourbon at 101 proof.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, 50.5% abv ($45)

The nose is syrupy sweet, candy corn, caramel and toffee. The palate is less candy and has a nice richness to it with a good dose of wood, and a bit of a perfumy quality. There's a nice long finish with a good balance of sweetness and wood.

Choosing between this and Wild Turkey's Rare Breed, which is a bit cheaper, I'd probably take the Rare Breed which has such great balance, but this is a decent bourbon as well.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Philly Diner in Tahoe

Completing my Northern California sojurn was a trip to the North Lake Tahoe area, centered in Truckee. Now, I've been to Truckee many times over the years and consider myself pretty familiar with its offerings, but I'd never made it to Jax Diner.

Jax is literally an old, east coast style diner in that the train style building originally housed a Philadelphia area diner dating back to the 1940s. It was shipped to Truckee in the 1990s where it now sits attached to a larger building.

Everything at Jax is homemade from the thick toast to the parmesan dusted potato chips to the crunchy potato salad. The day were there, there was a meatball sandwich special which had thick, moist meatballs on homemade rolls with a nice, tanky tomoato sauce. I was less impressed with the Philly cheese steak in which the beef got a bit too dry and I longed for more peppers.

The shakes at Jax, as one would hope, were excellent. Thick and cold and served with the extra in the metal cup with plenty of malt in the malteds.

We had lunch, but I'm guessing the breakfasts here are great. This will definitely become a regular stop for me when I'm in the Truckee area.

Jax Diner
10144 West River Street
Truckee, CA 96161
(530) 550-7450

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Auburn Pie Stop: Ikeda's

There aren't too many reasons to head to the city of Auburn at the base of the Sierra foothills, but if you are heading to Tahoe or Reno from the Bay Area, you pass through Auburn on Interstate 80. And just off the Foresthill Road exit is Ikeda's, an old grocery store and food stand where you can get burgers and fries, high end beer and wine and all manner of homemade sweets (brittle, pretzels and nuts covered in all sorts of goo, caramels, etc.). But what you really need to get are the fruit pies. Ikeda's makes fruit pies and cobblers that are hard to beat. They have them all year, but in the summer, they are made with the seasonal fruit that grows in the Sacramento Valley. There is peach, strawberry rhubarb and all sorts of berry. My last trip I picked up a razzleberry (raspberry and blueberry) crumble. The fruit was fresh and the crust and crumbly bits on top are sweet and flaky. Now that's good pie.

13500 Lincoln Way
Auburn, CA 95604
(530) 885-4243

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Crown Royal Black

After Japanese Whisky, Canadian Whisky might be the whisky that we in the US are most deprived of. If you read Davin De Kergommeaux's excellent blog, you will see reviews of all sorts of fascinating Canadian Whiskies, very few of which are available anywhere in the US. Now, Japan is one thing given the distance, but it seems silly that we can't get all of the great whisky being made just north of the world's longest undefended border. For this reason, I get very excited when I see any new Canadian product, so I was happy to review Crown Royal Black.

Diageo owned Crown Royal is, of course, the top selling Canadian Whisky in the US. The newly released Crown Royal Black is higher proof (45% vs. 40%) and was matured in charred oak barrels to give it a more bourbon-like profile.

Crown Royal Black, 45% abv ($23)

The nose on this is very bourbony with doses of corn and rye spice. The palate is less distinctly Canadian than I would expect. It does start off quite sweet, but there is some significant rye in there that emerges and grows stronger. In some ways, it does taste more like a sweet bourbon, albeit a very sweet one, than a typical Canadian Whisky. The finish has some ethanol notes. This is a very approachable whisky, and the stronger rye presence adds some depth to the usually very sweet and one-dimensional Crown Royal flavor profile. It's a pleasant drink and definitely a step up from the regular Crown. It's the type of drink I would definitely order if it started popping up in hotel, airport and other bars with limited selections.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

San Francisco Coffee: The Long Blue Line

So I spent a week in Sonoma but was fairly lazy about going anywhere else (hey, I was on vacation). We did one day in San Francisco visiting friends, but I had as my one food goal a visit to the legendary Blue Bottle Coffee. I've been hearing about Blue Bottle for years, but had never been. In fact, I hadn't been to the Ferry Building since its early inception as a gourmet food court, which predated Blue Bottle's stand there.

The only day we went to San Francisco was a Saturday, so I knew we would be facing a zoo, but I decided I wasn't leaving without a cup of that famous brew. There were three separate Blue Bottle lines at the Ferry Building, two inside and one outside at the farmers market, all about the same in length. The lines didn't look terrible, not much longer than a Sunday line at the Silverlake Intelligentsia, but they were painfully slow. It took nearly an hour to make it through.

And suddenly I was that guy, the dumbass who spent an hour on a Saturday waiting for a damn cup of coffee amongst food tourists and suburbanites in between their purchases of salumi cones and $60 bottles of olive oil.

I had intended to only order coffee, but once I got to the counter I also grabbed a waffle, since everyone else seemed to, and after an hour, I was pretty hungry. It was one of those hand held European waffles, hot of the grill and slightly sweet, nothing I'd rush to order on my own, but a fine accompaniment to the coffee.

And the coffee was a great, the service was friendly, the latte art was beautiful. Was it worth an hour wait? Was it better than the best coffee in LA? These are questions that are just too painful to ponder after an hour in line.

My advice? Try the coffee, but go on a weekday.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

NorCal Cheese Plate

Northern California has become a major center of artisan cheese, so I always try to sample some when I'm in town. These cheeses come from all over the North Bay, but we got them all at the great local cheese section of Sonoma Market, the fabulous grocery store on Napa Street which carries all kinds of locally sourced food and drink.

This plate features, clockwise from the triangle at the top:

Cypress Grove Bermuda Triangle (Humboldt County). From the makers of Humboldt Fog, these little triangles have long been one of my favorites. Coated with ash, they are spicier tasting than the Fog but have the same creaminess as they age. I actually prefer the triangles to Fog.

Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk (Marin County). Long one of my local favorites, Red Hawk is a washed rind cheese. Buying them can be risky. When sold too young, they are chalky and raw tasting, but when just right, they are creamy and stinky like a French Epoisses. For best results, visit their dairy in Point Reyes or one of their shops, but in a pinch, I take a chance at Sonoma Market, which treats its cheese pretty well for a general market.

Nicasio Valley Foggy Morning (Marin County). This is a fresh cow cheese that's light and fluffy. It could easily substitute for ricotta in a lasagna or pizza or go in a salad with figs.

Nicasio Vallye Formagella (Marin County). A bloomy rind cow cheese. this one is quite mild but has a nice flavor, reminding me a bit of the Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery.

Not Pictured: Bellwether Farms San Andreas (Sonoma County). This is a hard, raw milk sheep cheese with a lovely, subtle flavor giving just a hint of sheep.

Sonoma Market
500 West Napa Street, Suite 550
Sonoma, CA 95476

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Woodford Reserve Four Grain

A couple of months ago, I posted about my Woodford Reserve tasting in which I sampled the entire Woodford catalogue except for the first edition of the Woodford Master's Collection: Four Grain. Well, a sympathetic reader shared a sample of the Four Grain with me.

Just to review, the Four Grain is a bourbon made from four grains: corn, wheat, rye and barley. Most bourbons use rye or wheat as the secondary grain, but this bourbon uses both. The sample I'm tasting is from the first batch of Four Grain, a smaller release of 3,404 bottles which stayed in Kentucky. A second, wider release would go national.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Four Grain, Batch 1, 46.2% abv

The nose on this has what I've come to know as that distinctive Woodford, pot-stilled aroma. It's less medicinal than some of the other Woodfords and more metallic with some plastic notes. Not much bourbon sweetness on the nose but there is some rye spice. If the sweetness is missing on the nose, it comes out prominently on the palate, though it's more a generic sweetness than a corn sweetness. Next comes the rye and some of the metal, and then more rye with a bit of sourness and some pine. It tastes hot for the abv. The finish has a pleasant balance to it without any of the harsher notes.

I'd definitely place this as one of the better Master's Collection expressions, though that isn't saying much, and I should include the caveat that I don't know how this compares to the later batches of the Four Grain that saw wider release.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sonoma Highlights

As promised, here are the highlights from my week in Sonoma. Two oldies and two newer places.

Juanita Juanita

Practically everyone who's lived in Sonoma for more than a decade has a story about the original Juanita, the mysterious, somewhat scandalous proprietor who first opened a restaurant in Sausalito in the 1960s, then moved to Glen Ellen before landing on Arnold Drive in Sonoma in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Juanita is long gone but the restaurant is still some of the best Mexican food in Sonoma, beginning with their addictive, fresh chips and salsa. The al pastor, prepared on the traditional spit, is the highlight. The pork is crispy with a good flavor but not overwhelmingly seasoned, you can get it on tacos or, covered with salsa verde in the chile verde.

Juanita Juanita
19114 Arnold Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 935-3981

The Girl & The Fig

The Girl & The Fig, which first opened in nearby Glen Ellen in the 1990s, is probably one of the restaurants most responsible for making Sonoma a culinary destination. There were good restaurants before it, including the Sonoma Hotel's restaurant which previously occupied the current Girl & the Fig location on the Sonoma Plaza, but the Girl was one of the first to win wider regional, and even national acclaim.

The formula has changed very little since those early days, though there are more figs on the menu (I remember thinking on one of my first visits that the menu was surprisingly unfiggy) and they have a bit of an absinthe obsession (I appreciate the sparing use of absinthe in cocktails but any more than a half ounce and the drink just tastes like absinthe). Still, the duck confit is some of my favorite anywhere with a crispy but not greasy skin and moist meat, there is a nice selection of local cheese and home made charcuteries (though they could be more generous with the charctuerie) and both the chocolate desserts and those using seasonal fruit are very well done. The Girl & the Fig chocolate pot du creme is one of my favorite desserts anywhere and I regularly make it on holidays, but the night I was there they had a wonderful chocolate caramel tart with a few crystals of salt on top. Equally delicious was a stone fruit crumble with a creme fraiche ice cream.

It may not be as innovative as it once was, but the Girl is still one of the best dining choices in town.

The Girl & the Fig
110 West Spain Street
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-3634

La Michoacana

This ice cream/paleta stand on Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs was our top new find of the trip (well, new to me; it's been there for two years now). Sonoma never really had great ice cream, but this shop changes all that. The familiarly named Mexican stand has creamy ice cream with punchy flavors, smooth ice cream pops and popsicles with fresh fruit. The ice cream flavors included caramel, Mexican vanilla, guanabana and many others, all tasting of fresh ingredients and not too sweet. My favorite, though, was the chongo, a Mexican custard with a mild, sweet flavor and little custard bits in it.

Along with ice cream there is a freezer full of what I'd estimate to be about twenty varieties of of ice cream bars, popsicles and frozen bananas. The ice cream bars were particularly good. The strawberries and cream bar tasted intensely of strawberry, like a great, creamy strawberry ice cream (the bar was, in fact, better than their regular strawberry ice cream). I would have liked to try more, like the arroz con leche and the rum raisin. Popsicles included chili with mango or pineapple and other fresh fruit combinations. And to top it off, they have a selection of fresh aguas frescas.

In one week, I visited this place three times. It's a keeper.

La Michoacana
18495 Hwy 12
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-1773

Studebaker Cheesecake

Studebaker Cheesecake has been making cheesecakes for sale at local grocery stores for a few years now, but just a few months ago, they opened their first retail shop on West Napa Street. The cheesecakes are the specialty, and they are quite nice, but the highlight of this shop was the small selection of baked goods. I loved the huge scones using fresh, seasonal fruit (raspberry and blueberry when I was there), dusted with sugar, rich and moist. The chocolate chip cookie was another winner, a whole wheat cookie made with Valrhona chocolate, made fresh that morning. I'm keeping my eye on this place.

Studebaker Cheesecake
248 West Napa Street
Sonoma, California 95476
(707) 933-9224

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Home Sweet Home: Sonoma Bound

I grew up in the lovely town of Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Now it's a mecca of wine, cheese and other great culinary experiences and a San Francisco bedroom community, but back then it was a small, rural town with a single traffic light, no McDonalds and a single, one-screen movie theater and three or four feed stores. My family moved to Sonoma in 1975 just before the Judgment of Paris and the subsequent explosion of California wine. The wineries were there and were good, but even into the '80s, Sonoma wineries tended to be owned by small, family farmers instead of the well heeled wine legends of nearby Napa and the later crop of tech and show biz tycoons with their vanity vineyards and cult cabernets.

In the ten years after I left, Sonoma changed completely, losing some of its small town character but gaining some great food in the process. Now, of course, Sonoma is just as chic, hyped and expensive as its neighbor counties, Napa and Marin. It's wine is as well regarded as Napa's. The great, recently deceased Ig Vella, who made artisan cheese for decades out of his stone shop, helped birth a movement of artisan cheese makers in which the North Bay Area became one of the major loci. (I was gratified to see that the little bridge over the Sonoma Creek on Napa Street had been renamed the Ig Vella Bridge).

Early twenty-first century Sonoma is a funny composite. Still hanging on are some of the old school, down to earth places that were favorites when I grew up in the '70s and '80s (Mary's Pizza Shack is there, but not dear Moosetta's which taught country kids how to eat Russian peasant food). These hangers on are now outnumbered by the the upscale restaurants and gourmet shops that make Sonoma a culinary destination. But down the road in the Boyes Hot Springs neighborhood there are taquerias, ice cream parlors and other shops opened by the members of the growing immigrant Mexican population, most of whom hail from Michoacan and Jalisco.

It's been a while since I spent more than a weekend in the place that was my home from age 5 to 18, but on a recent vacation, I was able to spend a week there visiting old favorites, newer favorites and a few brand new spots as well as some of what San Francisco and the East Bay have to offer. I'll be sharing some of these reports over the next few weeks. As Dorothy says, there's no place like home.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: GlenDronach

GlenDronach is a relatively obscure Speyside distillery, known for sherried malts, which has been raising its profile of late. Like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, GlenDronach was closed for a brief period in the '90s. The distillery shuttered in 1996 and was reopened in 2002, but the real action took place in 2008 when liquor giant Pernod-Ricard sold the distillery to the owners of the BenRiach Distillery. BenRiach rebooted GlenDronach and launched a new line of whiskies including 12, 15, 18, 31 and 33 year old expressions and a vintage series. The 12, 15 and 18 began hitting US shelves in 2010 so I thought I would check them out. (Excluding the 31 which doesn't seem to be available in the US).

GlenDronach 12 "Original", 43% ($45)

The Original is aged in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. I love the nose on this with chocolate, sherry and dried cherries. The palate is sweet with chocolate notes. The finish is sweet with sherry fumes. This screams to be accompanied by a chocolate bar in the 80% cacao range. There is not a huge amount of complexity here but it's a pleasant sherried number.

GlenDronach 15 "Revival," 46% ($75)

Probably the most popular GlenDronach, the Revival is aged in Oloroso sherry casks. The nose is much more muted than the 12, with less sweetness but the same sherry interplay with just a touch of rubber. On the palate, you get a bit drier sherry with malt and the background. There are some of the same chocolate notes that you get with the 12 but less sweetness. It's a solid sherried malt.

GlenDronach 18 "Allardice," 46% ($120)

Named for the distillery's founder James Allardice, the Allardice, like the Revival, is also aged in Olorso sherry casks. The nose on this one is really wonderful. It doesn't bang you over the head at all but it's got some deep sherry and deep dark chocolate going on. The palate starts with a drier sherry than the others. There are some metallic notes and some interesting botanical notes which last into the finish that are almost vermouth like. This is a very nice one.

GlenDronach 33, Vintage 1971, 40% ($330)

The nose on this has very refined, dry sherry notes. The palate is very pure, dry sherry flavor with some vanilla, floral and woody notes as well. There is lots of flavor packed into this even at only 40% abv. The finish is fleeting with sherry and fruit. This is certainly the most complex of the lot.

Tasting through these all at once, the house style is definitely heavy on sweet sherry with chocolate notes, though they get drier as they age. For my part, the 12 was a bit too sweet for me, and I tended to enjoy them more as they got older. Fans of Macallan, Glenfarclas and other sherried malts should definitely give GlenDronach a try.