Category Archives: On Cooking

Entree the Dragon: Part 2 of 3

Entree #4: PAELLA DE MARISCOS @ PICARO (SF, CA) 

My buddy wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star. I think. Or at the very least, he wanted to be the note player/singer that was well liked and well understood. I’m not sure if either has happened for my friend yet, but in the past, while his star rose, I was there. I was also there when no one gave a shit at all.

Anyway… During the times when all seemed on the upswing, my buddy comes up to San Francisco, summer of 1999. Particularly trying time for me, I was 25, recently divorced, and I didn’t really want to hang with a musician and his band o’ groupies. I wanted to wallow.

“We’re in town to shoot my video,” he says. “What do you think we should do?”

“Lineup,” I say. “Lineup of beautiful, naked women, maybe they’re in body paint, but they’re definitely all behind you, as you do your music video thing.”

“What are they doing?”

“Being beautiful. Being naked. Making you seem more controversial than you really are.”

“Nah. I think that’s a bit much.”

And, while he might’ve been right, it was 1999, I still think I was more right. Why is it that THE MAN would ever have a problem with a naked woman, after all?

“Madonna did it. You can do it. And you’re playing your own music,” I said. “Just say fuck em. And before you know it, they’ll all wanna fuck you.”

I was dismissed as too extreme. I’d pay for that youtube video now though. Those groupie chicks were hot! And we could’ve found more. Or not. But anyway…

During the shoot one night, me, him, his newly fangled entourage of groupies and band, we went out for dinner, near the shoot, near my apartment at the time, and it just so happened that we stonily stumbled into a place called Picaro.

Talk to the whitey hipsters of that time, they said Picaro sucked. Talk to most anybody from the Mission around that time, and Picaro was considered average at best. Spaniards of SF were mostly agreed: it was just okay. Most people felt Picaro was mediocrity inside of a mediocre egg. Why? Because the dotcommers who’d infested my neighborhood thought they were average, and like osmosis, this opinion seeped into the Mission’s zeitgeist. Fine. Yet. Why would anyone pay attention to a nerd’s take about art?! Either you make art, so you can talk on it intelligibly…or, you don’t, so you can’t.

THIS was the first paella I’d ever shared…with anyone…ever. Amazing. Buttery rice and lemony seafood and saffron and garlic and veggies and I love that this LOVE is hitting my mouth, with a slight kick, just like love does. This paella took 45 minutes to cook for a reason. I had to savor every bite. I had to. That paella’s balance of rice, seafood, saffron, stock, heat, sweet, sweat, mole, salt, acid and umamskys…these were all in effect on that one night — not traditional, not easily categorized, this was just one phenomenal pot o’ rice n’ stuffs. I had to take in every syllable of that night too, cuz I was rockin with a wannabe rockstar and for a night, it did not seem so. The sangria (which was also amazing) was flowing, everyone was loose, happy, free. It felt like we ruled the universe of rock that night. One of the truly special meals I’ve ever had.

I think that this seafood paella taught me a huge lesson: you don’t need to be a rockstar to rock. You just need to be you. Critics are critics. Celebrities are celebrities. And you are you: a creator. And curator. And destroyer. Repeat. Totally different. Totally unique. Totally you. You can make a dish, you can make anything at all, you just have to make it true to you. If it is true to you, well, you’re on a brilliant path, and this will shine through.

One last detail about that meal that I should not overlook. One of those groupies showed me her left breast/nipple that night, after I told her about my idea for the video, which she agreed, was brilliant. It was bold, erect, made this elegant arc up toward the sky, like a perfectly groomed bunny slope. Yup, I still think I was right about that music video.

Editor’s Note: There was not mole in that paella. That was a lie.

The nipple thing is 100% true.

paella-de-marisco

The company you pair with the food & drink can elevate your “status.” Even if it’s a fleeting moment, it matters.

entree #5: CABEZA/Lengua BURRITO @ El FAROLITO (SF, CA)

In 1999, I used to live in the Mission District of San Francisco. Very close to my place, at 24th & Alabama, was this small little Mexican Restaurant called El Farolito. One of my roommates in my flat said that this place was going to change my entire world: this was the best burrito in San Francisco he said.

I wasn’t about to be impressed by this place right away. I’d been around to several places in the Mission alone that served really good burritos. I’m a California kid. Through and through. Santa Cruz represent. You grow up here, you grow up eating burritos. Some of the best burritos I’ve ever had come from hole-in-the wall places in Santa Cruz county. In fact, I’ve seen every county in this state, and I’ve probably had the best burrito that could be claimed from 3/4 of them.

I must implore you: El Farolito offers the burrito to end all burritos.

“El Farolito” means “the lighthouse” and what a perfect name for this place. Why? Because wading through the fog of opinions about burritos in California, one bright beacon of burrito shone through at the hole-in-the-wall on 24th & Alabama.

The ambience was awful. Fluorescent lights. Orange plastic picnic tables from the 1960’s. Casio driven Tejano music. Drunk people wandering in at all times of the day and night. This was a place where you’d better place your order in Spanish, in well pronounced Spanish, because you could see it in the cooks/counter people’s eyes, they didn’t particularly care for the massive gentrification going on around them, for the last 5  years, even if it was making them some more money.

However, if you ordered in Spanish, you were showing respect for the fact that Yerba Buena’s (San Francisco’s original name) oldest neighborhood, the Mission, is overwhelmingly Mexican, and that the vast majority of residents in the Mission primarily have spoken Spanish for about the last, oh, 150 years. So I’d order in Spanish. And I’d get a nod that says, I know that you know that we must respect each other here.

Like most white boys, I was a carne asada guy for awhile. Maybe I’d go pollo. Maybe some nights I’d get adventurous and go al pastor. But like so many great ideas in history, I discovered something of incredible importance during a drunken stumble…this time into El Farolito…I started to order, then, I stopped and thought on it. Though I’d been for a loyal customer for about a year, I was about to push the boundaries of our newly forged mutual respect. Thankfully, the cook took pity on me as I fearlessly and drunkenly made an interrogative before placing my order.

“Que comida te gusta aqui?” (What food do you like here?)

“La cabeza. O la lengua.” (The head. Or the tongue.)

“La cabeza?…En el interior?” (The head?…On the inside?)

The cook laughed… “No. Interior es sesos. Fuera es cabeza.” (No. Inside is brains. Outside is head.) As a side note, El Farolito serves sesos, but I’ve yet to order them because, I’ll admit it, I’m just too much of a pussy to eat brains.

I thought I understood at that point. Cabeza meant the forehead, the cheeks, etc. So I ordered the burrito con cabeza. I took a bite. Ridiculously good. The meat was so tender, it melted when it hit the palate, almost like chocolate. The bite was unforgettable. Was it the booze? Was it that I was starving? I went in for another bite. Then I proceeded to wolf down that bad boy in about 1 minute flat.

I went home, passed out, and briefly wondered if what I’d eaten was as good as I thought it was. I had never heard of “nose-to-tail” at that point of my life, but from that point on, I was excited to eat animals, or parts of animals, that one might not immediately consider eating…(Except for brains. Ech.)

Since I was pretty broke during those days, I was a frequent visitor to El Farolito because you could get a sizable meal for cheap. But could I also get something amazing tasting for cheap too?

So in the next few days I went back. I ordered the cabeza and ordered the lengua too. I’ve got to say, these, to this day, are the best tasting burritos I’ve ever eaten. They must have braised that stuff for hours upon hours – so damn good. As time has gone on, El Farolito has expanded their locations and has become increasingly popular. And you probably don’t need to order in Spanish to get a little bit of neighborhood cred.

The lesson learned this time? If you have the opportunity, ask the cook (better than the waitstaff) what food he/she likes @ the place. If you ask with humility and if you are truly curious, most cooks will tell you what the absolute best thing to eat in their place is, nine out of ten times.

cabeza

The burrito to end all burritos is in San Francisco’s Mission District.

entree #6: Kaya Toast @ street (LA, CA)

Years and years passed from the time I’d had those El Farolito burritos. Another stint in Washington DC came and went, then some time in Sonoma County, before I moved to LA in 2003. And I admit that I’m omitting a lot of great meals and great dishes from my list of life-changers, because, everything that I’d had during this time just doesn’t make the cut for me that way.

However, in 2012, I was to have my mind blown again. In what used to be Highland Grounds Cafe was a place known as Street, and has since been rebranded and is now called Mud Hen Tavern. When the place was called Street, the concept was simple but complex: make elevated forms of street food from around the world.

So check it out: this is the dish – toast wedges, coconut jam (kaya) that has been infused with something called pandan leaves, used in Southeast Asian cooking, soft fried sunny side up egg, a dash of soy sauce, a dash of cracked black pepper. Some greens. Done.

This is essentially toast, jam, veg, and an egg. And it is one of the best tasting little dishes I’ve ever had. When Street ceased to be called Street, and was transformed into Mud Hen Tavern, I was pleased to see that the Kaya Toast was still on the menu. Kudos to Chef Susan Feniger for this choice.

The lesson here: if you do something great as an artist, it doesn’t necessarily need to be incredibly hard to execute, it doesn’t need to follow any rules per se, it just needs to be consistently great and it absolutely should be a staple of your repertoire.

Greatness is hard to achieve. So don’t turn away from it when you find it.

kaya

Like the Beatles, this is simple without being simplistic, complex without being complicated, ultimately genius and hitting all the right notes.

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The creator who didn’t run away from her great creation, Chef Susan Feniger

 

Entree the Dragon: Part 3 of 3

ENTREE #7: The “DIBS” @ EDGEMONT Hollywood (LA, CA)

It happened like this… my girlfriend Hope was, at the time, a vegan… and I wanted to eat a gourmet burger in her presence. Though I was not specifically precluded from eating or cooking up some fatty ground beef around her, we were new in our relationship, and I wasn’t about to jeopardize things by chomping on or cooking up some pulverized bovine.

This was not the type of culinary challenge that I hadn’t overcome in the past, but as most omnivorous cooks will tell you, we’d prefer that the people we cook for eat both flesh and veggie.

In any event…I fashion myself a debrouillard in times of crisis in a kitchen or behind a cafe counter, but this was a more fundamental crisis, a crisis on the homestead! I wanted to eat a gourmet burger in the comfort of my own apartment…yet meat and cheese are 86’ed…ah, the things we’ll do for love.

With ground beef off the table, what was I to do? My mom suggested chicken (“Vegans can eat chicken, right?” she asked.) Not so helpful. I’d experimented with a few of the veggie burgers on the market, and some recipes from vegan places in LA like Real Food Daily and Truly, but the problem was almost always the “binding” – veggie burgers that are out there, by and large, don’t have a texture that even somewhat resembles a burger.

However, after trying some brands, I discovered that a company called Gardein makes a decent replication, texture-wise, to a good ol’ slab of 80/20 mashed up cow. Now it was time to fortify the burger part, and also build around it ingredients that might lend one to thinking he/she is eating the real deal.

First – I took the Gardein burgers and let them thaw. I seasoned them with salt, cumin, garam masala, curry powder, onion powder and garlic powder. Pan seared both sides in olive oil and quickly broiled, I had made what I’d set out to make – something that was savory, something texturally and aromatically quite burger-esque. Two bonuses were that it took almost no time to make, and also it was intriguingly reminiscent of Indian cuisine.

Now it was on to the rest of it.

For the middle: Since I was shooting for a gourmet burger, I knew I wanted elements that highlight & accent the “meat.” Cheese is necessary to any gourmet burger I believe. I used Daiya’s shredded mozzarella – when it’s heated and melted properly, it tastes as close as a vegan cheese will ever taste against a real melted cheese. Probably because mozzarella is such a neutral kind of cheese. I wanted to let this neutrality work in my favor, so why not put it exactly in the middle of everything? The Gardein patty is not especially thick, so I decided to go double patty, and have the “cheese” melt in the middle of the two patties.

For the top side: toasted wheat bun, with mango-serrano pepper puree, arugula, thinly sliced heirloom tomato, salt.

For the bottom side: toasted wheat bun, horseradish veganaise, and a tiny amount of small diced red onion.

I bit in. Yes.

I named this entree is “The DIBS”: Double Indian Burger Supreme. This is what I bit into. I was proud to discover that not only had I created a gourmet burger indistinguishable as vegan or non-vegan, I had achieved a gourmet burger that I’d put up against any of the best rated burgers out there.

The lesson I learned here: if you have a goal, and you go through the requisite trial and error process, as impossible as you might think your goal is to achieve, you may yet be rewarded for your efforts.

My quest to create a supreme vegan burger started here.

My quest to create a supreme vegan burger started here.

entree #8: EVERYTHING @ Red Rooster HARLEM (NY, NY)

There was a period of time where I was a junkie for cooking shows. In particular, cooking competition shows. Like any self-respecting junkie, I lived in great denial of my addiction and also, at the same time, was an expert on all things related to said addiction. Fortunately, this particular addiction had some positive results yield from it, and one of those positive results was becoming familiar with a chef named Marcus Samuelsson.

When I started watching these cooking shows, I was surprised (perhaps naively so) that there were so few people of color on camera. While the historically racist and sexist Hollywood studio system could be partially to blame, I think even more upsetting was how far apart the perception and reality of cooking is, as represented on TV.

Every restaurant or cafe I’ve worked in, every kitchen I’ve worked in, the vast majority of people working in the back of the house are Mexican, Central American, or South American. A few women. A few black people. Even fewer white folk…and those of us who do want to work BOH know two things are for certain: 1. we better bust our asses working as hard as our Latino coworkers are (even though that’s pretty much impossible) and 2. we better speak Spanish, or at the very least, “kitchen Spanish” or we have no chance of lasting.

So I got over my addiction relatively quickly, because for any junkie, that terrible moment of reality hits you when you know that what you’re indulging in is artificial, challenges your best self, and makes you realize there’s no turning back: you have to quit using. Yes, I might still sample a Top Chef or a Chopped here and there. And Bourdain is always entertaining. But for the most part, I’m pretty much over this addiction. I really am…

But there’s this judge on Chopped – he’s black, he’s got funky hair, funky threads, a funky accent that I can’t quite pin down. He’s colorful, he’s charismatic, as if made for the TV. The guy’s got an absolute no bullshit look in his eyes, like he’s lived through some real shit, and came out of it, properly scathed. He’s not striking me as some chef that’s purely a PR creation, a celebrity by way of being Hollywood’s chosen token black chef. Far from it. This man’s criticisms are fair, tough, and very direct. I could tell there were years of cooking experience behind each critique (not unlike other judges on that show.) What I liked about him more than the other judges was that he was the toughest, the most sincere, and also the most insightful judge. At least that’s how he seemed to me.

I didn’t really know his background, but I didn’t need to, to say to Hope, “Next time we’re in New York, let’s go to his restaurant. There’s no way that it will not be very good.”

Boy was I wrong. Because his place, Red Rooster Harlem, is phenomenal: the best restaurant experience I’ve ever had.

November of 2013 rolls around, and Hope’s dad has a birthday in New York. Hope and I specifically get an apartment in Harlem via Air BnB that keeps us close to the subway and also fairly close to Red Rooster.

Hope (now a former vegan, without any goading by me, whatsoever) and I walk in, a killer Isley Brothers B-side is playing, just loud enough that it matters. We’re immediately welcomed by a host who’s genuinely nice and welcoming. It’ll be a minute for our table he says, would you like to have a drink at the bar?

I ordered a “Brownstoner” cocktail. It is delicious, nutmeg infused bourbon with cherry & St Germain. The wine list is impressive, extensive, and even includes wines from 3 California winemakers I very much like: David Bruce, Clos du Val and Foxen. And they don’t just have a house white or a house red: they’ve got a house Gruner, a house Sauv Blanc, a house Pinot, a house Malbec. The beer list is just as impressive. As I sip my delicious drink, I know there is no way one could not find an alcoholic drink of one’s liking here. The artwork is colorful, eclectic, personal, and the patronage is totally diverse. The music continues to pump, B-sides only. The staff is in good spirits and absolutely knows it’s shit.

The food. I won’t review it. Suffice to say, it’s great. My favorite things were the chicken liver butter, Helga’s Meatballs (with lingonberries!) and the Chicken & Waffles. I wanted to eat more, but I knew another day would come when we’d be here. And how I look forward to that day.

The manager approached our table at one point during the night, and warmly asked us how everything was. I told him: the drinks were great, the food was great and the service was outstanding. I told him we were from LA, and that I’d wanted to come to the place for a little while. The manager then informed us that downstairs is Ginny’s Supper Club, the “speakeasy” portion of the restaurant, where a DJ would be spinning more B-side grooves and we quickly heard that Gary Clark Jr. might be making an appearance and perhaps play some tunes. He wanted us to be part of something. And he was sincerely glad we were there. How often does the manager of a place make a patron feel that way?

And I was now over the moon, thinking about the times back in the mid-90’s I’d seen Prince play at Slim’s in SF, or seen Neil Young at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. This was going to be a night to remember.

We didn’t see Gary Clark Jr. play that night. Maybe if we’d stayed later we’d have seen him, or maybe he just didn’t feel like playing? I did see him arrive. No matter. Because we did stay late into the night, dancing to great tunes, dancing with a diverse and cool crowd, drinking amazing beverages, soaking in incredible vibes. I saw the Chef/Owner roaming the place, checking in with friends, he also seemed in good spirits, and though I thought about introducing myself, I decided, why should I bug the guy? Why make this about me? He’s here to say hi to his friends and to his staff. He’s not here to talk to me. Maybe another day I’ll talk to him, I thought, and, when I do talk to him, I’ll tell him that for a night, it felt like New York as I remember it in the late 80’s or early 90’s, where you could palpably feel “the vibe” and it’d lift you beyond your normal self.

The word restaurant comes from the French “restaurer” meaning “to restore.” Red Rooster Harlem did that for me – I was restored, inspired. Now and forever will I be a fan. So much so that everyone I know in LA has been told by me or Hope how great this place is. So much so that I read the guy’s book, entitled, “Yes, Chef.” Like Red Rooster Harlem, his book is a generous sharing of himself. I highly recommend it to both writers, cooks, or writer/cooks like myself.

The lesson here is: go to Red Rooster Harlem.

RedRoosterLogo

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Chef Marcus Samuelsson knows what he's doing.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson knows what he’s doing.

entree #9: Coconut red curry biscuits & The Tripel Burger @ The Tripel (Playa del rey, cA)

You just read about my addiction to those cooking competition shows. My problem with the competition shows, beyond the aforementioned  lack of Latinos,  is that the criteria for judging a dish can be so subjective. I mean, no two people make an omelette quite the same. It’s sort of like a poetry competition — how are you going to determine the “better” sonnet? It doesn’t really make any sense to say one is better than another. Isn’t a poem whatever you want it to be? My brilliant English teacher Mr. Don Hilbert used to say, “Wrong! There is always one correct answer. There IS always one correct judgment. You will never know for sure what it is. It can not be definitive. However, you can educate yourself enough to make a good guess as to what it might be.”

So it was 2013 Top Chef competition and there’s this woman from LA, Brooke Williamson, who’s steamrolling through the other chefs with surprising ease. I’d heard of her from another chef I’d worked with in LA a few years previous. Her name got brought up as I was intrigued by some of the more odd flavor choices my boss would make for certain dishes. Like a lot of cooks, he was a stoner – he’d get stoned and try out some crazy shit. Sometimes it worked. When it didn’t work, he’d check out what Brooke Williamson was doing. Both he and Brooke were LA natives. He said that she was a prodigy, that most LA-based cooks had heard of her for awhile, and he said he had no qualms with lifting ideas from her from time to time.

As I watched her crush everyone around her with dishes that at first seemed simple, down home type of stuff, but with a twist, she then showed great ability to work with a variety of ingredients, and an even greater ability to put together flavor combinations that not only were surprising, they totally worked out great.

Somehow she doesn’t win the Top Chef title that year. But there was no chef on that season who’s food I wanted to try more.

Hope and I have gone out to The Tripel, in the little beach town area of LA that is Playa del Rey, several times now. This is not a restaurant, it’s a pub. Both the beer choices and the menu are fun. They can spark conversation by themselves. It’s a pub where if you want pub food you can have that (with a twist) or if you want something you’d almost definitely have to get in a restaurant (like braised pig cheeks, for instance) you can have that too. You can watch a game, or you can talk to a neighbor. The feel of the place is casual (as any place near an ocean should be, in my opinion). The staff seems pretty tight. I’ve not seen much turnover over the past 2 years.

The Tripel’s coconut curry biscuits with fresh whipped cream & orange blossom honey is the appetizer that a server at the party in heaven hands out as you mingle with Hendrix, Mother Theresa and Escoffier. So…damn…good. I think I want to have one day in my life where I go to The Tripel and order only beer, biscuits and watch football games, all day long.

If I’m feeling truly decadent, then The Tripel burger shall be ordered. Some say the best burger in LA is at Father’s Office. Others say, Lazy Ox Canteen. Others, the Oaks Gourmet. Others, the Escondite. Others, Stout. Well I’ve tried them all, and I have to say, I think the Tripel Burger wins the title of Best Burger in LA. It’s certainly the most creative. And every time I’ve had it, it just totally freaking rocks. I’m not going to break down the burger component by component. Perhaps most telling, concerning this chef, is that her burger has both duck confit and apricot jam in it, and it’s freaking awesome.

Lesson learned here: when you’ve reached a level of true mastery, like Brooke Williamson has, then you can break rules, add personal flourishes that are “your voice,” and subjective analysis be damned, you’re now a virtuoso.

Tripel_sign

If heaven has hors d'oeurves these bad boys are being served.

If heaven has hors d’oeurves then I hope that these bad boys are being served.

Chef Brooke Williamson is a one of the few virtuoso cooks of LA.

Chef Brooke Williamson is one of the few virtuoso cooks of LA.

entree #10: Hope’s Mujadara @ Our PLACE (LA, CA)

Dutch ovens are great. They evenly heat whatever you’re cooking inside. Though every Dutch oven I’ve ever used has either been made in France or in the US, I will give it up to my brethren from the Netherlands for assumedly creating a simple yet powerful pot that has no canniboids whatsoever.

Wanna cook something slow? Dutch oven’s great for that. Wanna cook something fast? Dutch oven’s also great for that. Wanna cook something evenly and make sure your flavors are evenly distributed? Dutch oven’s fantastic for that too.

Green lentils, rice, leeks, shallots, garlic, bay leaf, cinnamon, cayenne, allspice, cumin, salt. That’s 11 things mixed with H2O (or chicken stock, for another layer of flavor) thrown into a Dutch oven. Timed in such a way that the green lentils and rice are cooked together. Timed in such a way that each added ingredient is allowed to shine on it’s own, yet boosts each ingredient around it.

Every bite I take of the mujadara that Hope’s made, especially after a rough night shift, says one thing: love. Each bite says that Hope loves cooking. Each bite says that Hope loves me. Each bite is filled with flavor and texture. Each bite comes out right because the timing of each step was right. It’s warm, it’s comforting, it’s so delicious. It’s like a magic blanket that can transport your spirit to some cozy corner of the world. And it’s one of those things that the longer it’s allowed to sit and develop, the more layered and wonderful it is. This dish has many components, is quite dependent on timing, and more than anything, it requires some attention for it to come out right. It is what love is.

Hope’s mujadara is a reminder, a lesson to me. It teaches me that cooking and love are so intertwined. They’re art forms that ultimately require that you give of yourself, that you create from the heart. They’re art forms that, when shared with someone else, allow you to transcend mere existence.

What Hope once told me was right: there are dishes/eating experiences that you can enjoy so much that they’ll forever change your life, and perhaps even start you down a path of cooking. And once you’ve entreed the dragon, like Bruce Lee, you come down to one simple truth…

Cooking with love, and vice versa, will set you free.

Hope's mujadara reminds me of what cooking and love are all about.

Hope’s mujadara reminds me of what cooking and love are all about.