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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Food Trucks Roundup: Fressers and Grilled Cheese


I randomly ran into not one, but five trucks on Abbot Kinney one recent evening, so after having had a full dinner, I sampled each and every one of them with my partner in crime and here's my report.

The best trucks were Fressers hot pastrami and the Grilled Cheese Truck. The very worst were Calbi and Flying Pig. A sympathy vote goes to the mediocre Fire Hook, which doesn't twit or even have a Web site. But more on that later.




Let's start with Fressers, the best: piping hot, hand-sliced pastrami sandwiches on rye with good quality mustard. The pastrami was soft and seasoned just right, except there was something slightly off in the seasoning that was too pungent and didn't gel well. Otherwise, a very solid sandwich.

The price of $9.25 seems steep for street food, but I was able to finagle half a sandwich for $5 and they threw in a delicious potato salad that had just the right amount of mayo -- enough to actually taste the potato. It was no Langer's and definitely no Katz's in New York, but for a mobile truck, it was superb. And hands-down the best out of all of the trucks that night.

Now for the grilled cheese truck. Going for a plain one seemed too boring, so we got the Signature, aka Cheesy Mac and Rib, which is mac-n-cheese and bbq pork with caramelized onions, all melted into one goodness of a sandwich. Who's in for carb overload? It tasted like comfort food on steroids. There's oozy cheese, tender bbq pork and warm, toasted bread all holding it together? Sign me up! Definitely not for every day consumption but would go great with a cold glass of hefeweizen!




Now for the duds -- BIG time. I should preface this by saying I never liked kogi's tacos, only because I thought the relish was overpowering and oftentimes the meat was overly sweet. But these impostors or copycats were so incredibly bad that they made kogi look good. To be perfectly honest, it's easier and better-tasting to make Korean tacos and kimchi quesadillas at home!

First off, Flying Pig. The braised pork belly in a bun was not soft (the bun was but the pork wasn't) and Momofuku-wannabe combination of adding red onion escabeche and sesame cucumber wasn't working.

The short rib and spicy pork tacos were drowning in sugar or whatever sweetening agent they used. The meats were not good quality and smelled. The relishes were straight up bad.

The bigger offender, however, was Calbi. Perhaps not too surprising, considering it cut a deal with the Baja Fresh owners to franchise the truck. Franchise this garbage? Sacrilege! We could barely take another bite of these tacos that I would go as far as describing as disgusting. The short rib and spicy pork tacos were just that -- not edible. We threw them in the trash after one bite. Ugh.

The Fire Hook truck was standing in an isolated corner, with no foot traffic to speak of. There were two older Korean ajushis hanging out in the back who made our spicy pork tacos. The minute we spotted the OG of all Korean orange juices -- Sac Sac -- we knew the meat would be a lot better than the other trucks. We also saw other cans of refreshments offered, like shikhe, the sweet rice dessert drink, and soojeonggwa, a ginger and cinnamon-based dessert drink. As expected, the spicy pork itself was as it should be -- spicy and flavorful without being too sweet. But the taco wasn't really a taco. One shell of tortilla that they topped with some shredded lettuce lightly tossed with some sesame oil and sesame seeds. To make matters worse, they added chopped tomatoes and cheap, rubbery-tasting shredded cheese. The only good addition was chopped kimchi that was barely noticeable.

It was clear these guys had jumped on the bandwagon without much thought or preparation. I mean, living in LA, it ain't hard finding someone who can actually make authentic tacos. Even if one were to argue that these were their interpretations of an authentic taco, it still wouldn't fly because it didn't have any such character. It was mimicking but poorly so. If you want to reinvent what kogi did or a real taco is, I'm all for it, but poor reproductions don't help anybody.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Burger Roundup: Magnolia and 140 South Cafe


Being a burger fiend, I make it my business to sample as many burgers around town as possible. Here are few good ones and those you can skip.

Most interesting buns
Rockenwagner 3 Square Cafe & Bakery (left) has the much hyped pretzel bun and as much as I like the German chef's other offerings, the burgers weren't my favorite. I like softer buns but the slider sampler was fun and came with bun variations that gave burgers an interesting twist.



Most unlikely decent burger
Magnolia's (right) downtown outpost seeks to be a swanky bar but while the ambiance and most of the food don't accomplish that, its burger has a very serviceable patty that was juicy and cooked just right -- medium rare. The sesame bun was on the dry side but I would return for the burger. The atmosphere isn't much to write home about. Good if you have a concert or game coming up at LA Live or Staples Center.





Best deal(s)
This is somewhat of a tie between The Park in Echo Park and Cafe 140 South in Pasadena. The Park (left) has burger nights on Wednesdays where you can get a burger and a side for only $5.

Cafe 140 South (below) offers a burger, curly fries and a solid pint of Craftsmen beer for $11.50. Craftsmen is a Pasadena brewery and its IPA went perfectly well with the bloody meat.




The portions were generous in both, but ultimately, the patty at Cafe 140 won out over the slightly pasty patty in the Park. The fries were also better at Cafe 140 although the curly fries would have been better spicy. Many places had a hard time serving piping hot, fresh out of the fryer fries.

The bun at Cafe 140 was on the dense and dry side. It needs to be softer and more fresh. The shredded iceberg lettuce could be replaced by butter lettuce or arugula.


Overrated
I was disappointed at the burgers at Hal's Bar & Grill on Abbot Kinney and Hole in the Wall Burger Joint in Santa Monica.

Hal's came overcooked with room temperature fries. Great live jazz but wouldn't return for the food.

Hole in the Wall (pictured left) is known for its build-your-own burger and message boards raved about the pretzel one but it didn't do anything for me.

I also tried burgers at fancier venues like bld and the gorbals (pictured below -- full review coming soon) but while ok, they didn't measure up to my all-time favorite burger at Houston's or its sister Bandera on Wilshire Blvd. I had to send an overcooked burger back at the Gorbals and they replaced it with a bloody one and also generously took it off the bill. The compressed sesame bun was interesting but I prefer the soft bun.


I also tried the burger at Le Grand Orange Cafe in Pasadena and it was a juicy enough burger, especially enhanced by the roasted poblano chiles topping.

I am looking forward to trying many more burgers dripping in their juices with, ideally, sweet potato fries and a cold pint of IPA.

I'm also not going to list the restaurants' addresses and phone numbers if I link them.

Enjoy!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dinela Roundup: Locanda Veneta Rules, Ortolan, Craft and Palate Disappoint


I didn't go all out this dinela season but it's always a pleasant surprise when I discover a gem I hadn't previously noticed. This time around, it was Locanda Veneta, a low-key Italian joint in Beverly Hills that might as well be straight out of a small alleyway in Venice. It's rustic Italian food at its best, with decent service and hugely generous portions (maybe this part is more American).

The perfectly grilled baby squid atop spicy greens was superb, probably one of the best dishes I've had during Restaurant Week this time around.

The squid was seasoned lightly with some salt and pepper, and squirted some fresh lemon juice over it and I could taste the sea. So soft with enough of a bite. I'll definitely dream about this squid, or I'll just have to return for that.


The first course consisting of mushroom risotto, a creamy lobster squid ink (aka black) ravioli and a spicy penne alla arrabiata was a great pasta sampler. I liked the risotto the best, cooked al dente with an intensely mushroom flavor that took me back to the woods. The arrabiata was nice and tomato-y with a bit of a kick. The lobster was not fresh and pretty much killed the ravioli. I was mildly annoyed when I asked the owner to announce the dishes and he went on this patronizing explanation that would be fit for someone who's been living in a cave all her life and had never had Italian food before. "Risotto is made from arborio rice...The ravioli sauce is a saffron sauce. Saffron is..." and I had to stop him. I couldn't take it anymore. I know he was trying to be friendly. Let's not go overboard here.

As for the others, the radicchio, arugula and endive salad that was very lightly dressed in a vinaigrette was refreshing; the braised rabbit with olives, pearl onions and mushrooms was very tender, a bit salty and reminiscent of coq au vin, the classic French chicken dish braised in wine and veggies; and the pork loin stuffed with fennel and Italian sausage accompanied by grilled radicchio and caramelized onions was good but I don't like the strong Italian sausage flavor, so had to remove it before eating. The grilled radicchio transformed the bitterness into a wonderful sweetness and the onions were very sweet. The desserts were nothing special -- tiramisu and a Nutella crepe that was overly sweet and ridiculously over-decorated with creme. This from a Nutella fiend...

Portions were so large I currently have a lifetime supply of rabbit in my fridge, not to mention spinach gnocchi that it came with that I'll sear on a pan when reheating. They'll taste better that way anyway -- less mushy and crispier.

Ortolan
Did somebody say Michelin 2-star restaurant? I was never a Michelin believer, but I was appalled at how awful Ortolan was. So what if the chef is French? The service was downright terrible and the food was highly forgettable.

The only, and I mean, only saving grace for this place was the seared scallop appetizer that came with chestnuts (one of which was past its prime), grapes and kumquats in a truffle sauce. The scallop was perfectly cooked -- browned and crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. And the tartness, sweetness, sourness and nuttiness of all the accompaniments worked very well together.

The asparagus soup that came in a test tube on the house was ok. The "open ravioli" (consisting of a single sheet covering the veggies) with green beans and other vegetables was extremely bland. The braised short ribs over a light risotto and topped with some haricot verts and greens was overly salty but passable. The salmon wrapped in a pastry with some other things was bland and the salmon didn't taste fresh at all. The chocolate tart and panna cotta desserts were embarrassing.

But the biggest beef I have with Ortolan is the outrageously bad service. To add insult to injury, it automatically adds a 20% service charge to your bill (apparently all dinela patrons as a matter of policy) without telling you and has the audacity to include a "tip" line when paying by credit card. Thank God my dinner companion caught it and after speaking with a manager, it was removed and I was able to give what I believed the service warranted. Whatever you do, Ortolan, you have to pay more attention to the service. Or at least make sure your food tastes amazing so people are willing to endure the sub-par service, especially for those prices. Get thee to the Bazaar or Osteria Mozza to see what I'm referring to when I say good service.

Nick & Stef's Steakhouse
I went for the burger during the lunch hour, since it's a steakhouse and it's hard for a steakhouse to mess up a burger. The burger was decent, cooked medium rare as I like it, with a sturdy bun and basic accouterments like lettuce, tomato, red onions, cheddar cheese and pickles. The Thousand Island dressing/sauce it was smothered in was interesting.

The room temperature, over-salted sweet potato fries, however, were unacceptable. They were sliced too thin and dipped in some sort of sodium bath. No good at all. The skirt steak was tasty but the sides were unremarkable (potato puree and arugula). The lemon merengue pie was too sweet and sorbets tasted like they were out of Ciao Bella boxes (which I like, actually, but I could get that in the store!).



Craft Los Angeles
I was curious to try this celebrity chef's (Tom Colicchio) restaurant even though I never watch Top Chef. Well, I was disappointed. The best thing was the foie gras and jelly spread that was part of the charcuterie plate. It was very well made and was a great match for the bread. The greens salad with pecorino and hazelnuts sounded better on paper than it tasted. Didn't jump off the plate. We got the exotic-sounding "Hawaiian blue prawns" to much disappointment (totally bland and unexotic) and the loin steak atop beans and thyme was decent but nothing to write home about. The desserts were so blah that they don't warrant mentioning. Should've gotten the pork shoulder entree that sources later told me was the best choice...


Palate Food + Wine
A group of us went there for the dinela menu but upon arriving, decided to order off the regular menu. I would not return. Service was equally bad as Ortolan and the food was forgettable. We got the "porkfolio" cured meats sampler that consisted of prosciutto, speck, salumi, finocchiona, saucisson sec and bresaola (air-dried salted beef). I think I could get a better sampler at the Cheese Store or even the Whole Foods in Pasadena. The only thing worth mentioning was the pate-like potted pork that spread like mustard on bread and almost had a chicken/tuna-like consistency and taste but somehow worked well.

The beet and citrus salads (two separate salads) were ordinary. This may sound anal but I took issue with the way the citrus was cut in the salad. Don't cut them against the rind. Segment each piece so we only get the "meat" of the citrus. The extra work is worth it because it doesn't detract the flavors from the peel and white parts.

The best entree was the grilled hanger steak but that was not that remarkable. The dish was good but was neither original nor transformative. The pork belly with squid was the next best dish but it could have been a lot better. The squid's flavors and textures didn't pop to bring out the best in the ingredients, like the squid at Locanda Veneta above. The salmon wasn't fresh and the grilled cod was not edible. The cod was overcooked and smelled fishy.

Now for the service. Our server was not attentive and we had to continuously flag him to get more water and other baisc things that should be done by default. I was looking forward to chef Octavio Becerra's creative concoctions but alas, they didn't work and bad service didn't make the experience any better. I'm surprised at how many restaurateurs don't understand the importance of good service and don't take it seriously, especially when it comes to a so-called fine dining establishment.

Now onto burning all those calories!

Craft Los Angeles
10100 Constellation Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 279-4180

Locanda Veneta
8638 W. Third Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048-3323
(310) 274-1893

Nick & Stef's Steakhouse
330 S. Hope Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 680-0330

Ortolan
8338 W. Third Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048-4311
(
323) 653-3300

Palate Food + Wine
933 S Brand Blvd.
Glendale, CA 91204
(818) 662-9463