Changes

Huntington Beach: my new hometown


Forgive me in advance for what is, in effect, a navel gazing post. A lot has happened here in the past few months. From a work perspective, I’ve taken on new responsibilities at IBM, some of which I’ll discuss here on the blog in the coming weeks. In general though, my mission is still to lead the social business strategy at corporate. Pretty great if you ask me.

More importantly though, I also moved my family across the country, back to California. It has been a tougher transition than I would have thought – despite all my complaining during the winters, the fact is I absolutely love the Northeast, Connecticut and New York City. That said, the 50 degree disparity in warmth right now is validating our decision to move back to where we grew up.

So, for the time being we’ve settled in Huntington Beach and I’m working out of the IBM Costa Mesa office. What this all really means is that my access to fantastic ethnic food for lunch has increased exponentially.

Which leads me to my last point in this largely housekeeping blog post. In the past, I’ve only blogged periodically about food. Most of the time, I share all my food notes on Chowhound. And while I continue to do that, I have felt a need for more organization in the public expression of my field notes. So I’ve decided on two courses. First, I’ve spent a lot of time building a fairly detailed Google Map of places I’ve been to, or been tipped off to in Orange County (embedded below). And secondly, I have decided to forgo any attempt at lengthy, flowery, superfluous restaurant reviews (of which I generally have no tolerance) in lieu of short missives that communicate just the basic, actionable impressions I capture on my trusty blackberry while eating around Orange County and beyond.

So expect to see here on this blog a much higher frequency of abrupt field notes of taco joints, ramen haunts and banh mi bakeries. In the meantime, here’s my work-in-progress map of Orange County food notes:


Authentic Chinese in Connecticut? Yes indeed: Lao Szechuan

One of the nice benefits of the new board changes on Chowhound is that all of Connecticut is now lumped together, rather than Fairfield County being split off and grouped with Westchester and the rest of the NY Metro area. For me, that means I am now exposed to the fact that, apparently, there is food east of Norwalk.

In particular, this new board exposed me to the fact that despite my grumblings over a lack of good Chinese in Connecticut, there is allegedly a wonderful Szechuan restaurant just shy of New Haven in the undistinguished town of Milford. For the past few years, people have been talking on Chowhound about this little restaurant called Lao Sze Chuan serves up high-quality authentic Chinese food from Szechuan province. In the middle of Connecticut?

Upon this discovery, I and my Sinophile friend, Shawn Nelson, tricked our families to schlep up to Lao Sze Chuan for a quick weeknight meal. In terms of aesthetics, the restaurant is a step up from the typical suburban Chinese joint, as evidenced by the white table cloths and clean decor. Feeling obligated to try more than we could possibly consume, we ordered the following:

  • Ox tongue and tripe with hot sauce – $9
  • Szechuan dumplings in red chili sauce (8) – $6
  • Scallion pancakes (two orders) – $5 each
  • Fried pork dumplings (two orders) – $6
  • Breaded sole fillets with Thai sauce – $19
  • Sauteed shredded beef with Szechuan jalapeños – $13
  • Twice cooked sliced pork with Szechuan jalapeño and leek – $12
  • Chicken Lo Mein – $8 (crowd pleaser for the kiddos)
  • Sesame Chicken – $12 (also for the kiddos)
  • Bok Choy and garlic

Although I am still digesting all of this, I’ll just highlight a few of the main dishes below:

Ox tongue and tripe with hot sauce

2010 02 09_0314 To a Westerner it’s a dish that sounds daunting. But put aside the reservations because it’s one of the best cold appetizers I’ve ever had. Of all we tried, this dish best showcased the purity of the Szechuan peppercorn, in all of it’s unique tingly, lip-numbing heat. The tripe had a slight, pleasing crunch, but not chewy or tough at all. The thinly sliced ox tongue had a deep beefy-like flavor, but without being too overpowering. The dish was dressed perfectly by a szechuan peppercorn-infused sauce that cut the richness of the tripe and beef.

Szechuan dumplings in red chili sauce

These Szechuan dumplings were more reminiscent of a ravioli in form than a stereotypical Chinese dumpling. The small pork fillings were wrapped in a thin, rather delicate dough swimming in a black-red chili sauce. All together, it was a nice surprise. Given how good these are, I wouldn’t bother with the regular dumplings here, which were sub par to begin with, let alone compared with the Szechuan dumplings.

Scallion Pancakes

I’m not sure how particular to Szechuan scallion pancakes are, but we couldn’t resist ordering them regardless. Lao Sze Chuan’s pancakes were far better than your typical suburban Chinese restaurant, packing good flavor with a nice crunch without being overly greasy. That said, their pancakes lacked the flakiness of great scallion pancakes and don’t really compare well to my all-time personal favorites at Nice Green Bo in NYC. Given the other great things on Lao Sze Chuan’s menu, I’d look elsewhere on the menu for appetizers.

Breaded sole filets in Thai sauce

2010 02 09_0315 The proprietor of Lao Sze Chuan strongly recommended we try this dish; I’m glad she did as I would have never tried it otherwise based on the menu’s description. Of everything I tried, this was the best single dish of the night. The sole couldn’t possibly have been cooked more perfectly – large filet chunks, impossibly tender and bathed in a mildly spicy-sweet sauce. The hearts of palm, garlic and mushrooms filled out the dish to make it a must-try for anyone going to Lao Sze Chuan. Oh, and don’t be daunted by the “Thai” name – it felt Szechuan through and through to me.

Sauteed shredded beef with Szechuan Jalapeños

2010 02 09_0316

Despite the name, this was one of the mildest dishes of the night (apparently Szechuan “jalapeños” are milder than their Mexican namesakes). The beef was mildly flavored, but velvety in texture. The peppers gave the dish a very pleasant peppery flavor with a subtle bitter note to the dish.

Twice cooked sliced pork with Szechuan jalapeño and leek – $12

2010 02 09_0317

Of the main dishes, this was perhaps my least favorite. But that says much more to the strength of the other dishes than this dish being poorly executed. In fact, this dish would be the star at any other Chinese restaurant in Connecticut. The fatty pork (uncured pork belly?) was sliced paper thin taking on a ribbon-like quality. Cooked with traditional Szechuan spices, leeks and peppers this was still a very good dish. (I sold it to my kids as “Chinese bacon”) My only complaint is that, even though well executed, I was still left with too much of a greasy aftertaste. That said, I’d happily take it any other day of the week when I don’t have access to the rest of the menu.

To wrap up a wildly long post, if you happen to be within a 45 minute radius of Milford, CT, go to Lao Sze Chuan. You’ll count the time and gas investment well worth it.

Lao Sze Chuan
1585 Boston Post Rd.,
Milford, CT 06460
203-783-0556
[MAP]


Aires de Colombia in White Plains

It took me a year from the time I first wrote this restaurant in my notebook to when I actually tried it, but at least I got there.

I first noticed Aires de Colombia while driving around aimlessly looking for Empanadas during my Empanada trek last year. I took note of it, but just didn’t have a chance to try it.

I finally went for lunch today. I was alone so my samplings were small, but I was very pleased with my meal.

I started off with my must-have Colombian drink, guanabana con leche. Man, I love that drink. I was a bit cash poor today, so I ordered only a few empanadas, then an appetizer of chorizo that came with an arepa con queso.

empanada from aires colombia restaurant-1 I actually ordered two empanadas. One came out immediately and had obviously been fried before I got there. It was still very good – a fat four-inch half moon with a crunchy orange crust, filled full of beef and some potato. And unlike so many Colombian empanadas, Aires’ empanada filling had a very high meat-to-potato ratio. When the second empanada came out – freshly fried, it was that much better. A great texture to the crackling crisp orange corn-based dough. At $1 each, you could easily leave there dropping only $2 for empanadas and feel satisfied.

choriz con arepa y queso with empanada at aires colombia-1 The chorizo and arepa came next ($3). Nice sausage. Lots of flavor, a bit of a spicy kick even, in what seemed to be a natural casing. All in all, quite pleasant, if not extraordinary. Similarly, the arepa was quite good. As is typical with Colombian arepas, it came flat , sprinkled with queso fresco. The arepa had a nice slight char on the outside from the griddle, but, importantly, inside it was pillowy soft with a a strong corn/hominy flavor and aroma once you bite into it. Coupled with the quite piquant vinegary salsa they offer, it was a good meal. Including the guanabana con leche, which was $3, my meal set me back $10.

It’s a nice addition to the long list of Colombian restaurants in Westchester.

Aires de Colombia Restaurant
64 W. Post Road,
White Plains, NY


The Taco Trucks of New Haven

Vodpod videos no longer available.
If you’ve ever driven on I-95 through New Haven, you’ve seen them. A row of seven or eight food trucks lined on Long Wharf between the freeway and the water. After a few years of passing by, I finally had a chance to stop by and try them out. Of course, it’s taken me seven months to post the images, but better late than never.

The day I went, there were seven trucks in total. Four Mexican, two Puerto Rican and one lonely Hot Dog truck in the middle. To really do the trucks justice, one would need to spend some considerable time at each. I have been once, and barely touched the surface. So stay tuned for future reports. But in the meantime, I can certainly declare that the tacos placero (have no idea what the translation of “placero” is) from the Nexcalli truck were wonderful, and the cemitas I had at the starkly simple Santa Apolonia truck was equally gratifying.

But, really, that was just a teaser. Must go back for more… and must not wait another seven months…


New in NYC: In-N-Out… er… I mean, Fresh-n-Fast burgers

I’m in the process of writing up notes from my two days of pure pork gluttony in Arkansas last week, but need to shoot off this quick dispatch. As an unashamed Southern California boy still in exile in New York, I’m always pining for a taste of home (honestly, half the reason I fly back to LA is for the fish tacos at Tacos Baja Ensenada). I have a routine when I travel to California. My first stop is always In-N-Out and my last stop before heading back to the airport is In-N-Out.

So, I was really taken aback when walking down 23rd street in Manhattan yesterday going to my office when I saw what, at a glance, looked exactly like an In-N-Out Burger (forgive the terrible quality cell-phone pictures):

fresh-n-fast burgers

It’s a new burger joint, just steps away from the uptown 6-train subway stop at 23rd Street. Clearly, they have In-N-Out as their model. Everything was a copy – the menu, the font, the color scheme, the red-striped tiling on the wall, the hyphenated “N” name, even the paper hats of the employees are In-N-Out ripoffs. They even tout the fact that everything is fresh and they don’t have a freezer. The only thing missing was a glass case of t-shirts for sale with pictures of California beaches.

fresh-n-fast menu

Having a blatant In-N-Out rip off in NYC both intrigued and annoyed me. I’d love an In-N-Out burger locally, but I’m not sure how I feel about the obvious copying of the entire In-N-Out restaurant. I did a quick search and it looks like I’m not the only one who has noticed the striking similarities.

So, like any good expat, I decided to give it a try. The first difference is the price. A single burger will set you back $4.24, cheeseburgers are $4.74, fries are $2.60. But more striking is that a double cheeseburger goes north of $7 and a shake is more than $4. Those are Shake Shack prices.

Having eaten literally thousands of In-N-Out burgers in my lifetime, I think I’m a pretty good benchmark.

fresh-n-fast burger

The Fresh-N-Fast burger is actually pretty decent, with a soft pillowy white-bread bun that compacts under the burger, crisp iceberg lettuce, and nice red tomatoes. Fresh-N-Fast burgers also have an In-N-Out-esque thousand island like sauce. But the big difference is the patty. The Fresh-N-Fast patty was bland with little flavor and a slight cardboard-like texture. It may not have been frozen, but it still didn’t have a beefy freshness to it either (where Shake Shack excels). Don’t get me wrong, the burger isn’t terrible. It’s a competent burger, satisfies the urge and can be acquired quickly.

Their fries are slightly thicker than In-N-Outs, but are similarly weak – I’ve never been a fan of In-N-Out’s fries. Fresh-N-Fast’s fries may have been a bit better, but it’s all relative to me.

Frankly, if it didn’t try and rip off In-N-Out so blatantly, I’d probably think much higher of Fresh-N-Fast. But because they explicitly welcome the comparison, I have to declare that they just don’t measure up. And comparing to similarly styled burgers in NYC, I’d still give a big advantage to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien followed by the Shake Shack.

All that said, it does have one big leg up on Shake Shack. On a sunny day, you won’t have to wait an hour for your burger. And for those of us who don’t have interns to send down to wait in line for us… that’s a big plus.

Fresh-N-Fast
111 East 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010


The road to the US Open is paved with tacos and kebabs

I’ve had 15 half-written food posts that I’ve been sitting on – some for more than six months. So I’m going to attempt to unclog the bottleneck here with a few of these posts. They won’t be fully fleshed out, take it as you will. First is below.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve been somehow successful in keeping IBM’s sports sponsorship as a small part of my communications beat at IBM. It’s great, doesn’t require a lot of time and allows me to dabble in sports PR and sports social media.

One of our premier sponsorships is the US Open Tennis Championship. Held in Queens, NY at the end of every summer and, it’s one of the quintessential New York cultural experiences. And while the tennis is spectacular, and the work generally successful, what I really get excited about is the excuse it gives me to hunt for tacos in Queens.

So, on my way to work at the Open on one particular day, I decided to get off the 7-Train at 74th St, and eat the rest of my way toward the Tennis Center, snacking on tacos, quesadillas, sopes and kebabs along Roosevelt Ave. Below are some of my notes.

Tacqueria Coatzingo. 7605 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY

Photo courtesy of Yelp

I have been to Tacqueria Coatzingo a few times before, but my last visit had been at least three years ago. I recently started a query on Chowhound for the latest in spit-roasted tacos al pastor. Coatzingo rose to the top of that discussion, so I decided to start my crawl there. As one of the few places that roasts their al pastor on a spit, Coatzingo automatically gets bonus points.

The tacos al pastor at Coatzingo are very good. Deeply flavorful pork, marinated in adobo, then roasted on a vertical spit giving it a nice char. Generous portions topped with onions, cilantro and avocado salsa (this is the thin, ubiquitious Mexican salsa de aguacate, not the common chunky American guacamole). A good, solid taco al pastor.

Taco cart @ 74th and Roosevelt, Queens

Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture and can’t remember the exact name, but this cart on the south side of Roosevelt, right at the 74th street intersection and below 7 Station puts out very good tacos al pastor. In fact, they are about as good as any non spit-roasted tacos al pastor can be. Huge portions of flavorful pork, served with chunks of pineapple, onions, cilantro and salsa de aguacate. I actually preferred the flavor of the adobo marinade to Coatzingo’s tacos al pastor, but Coatzingo’s cooking method (i.e. spit) gives it an edge. Regardless, this was a good, fat, tasty taco.

Kebab King 7301 37th St. (73rd & Broadway)

Kebab King is near legendary amongst Indian and Pakistani circles. It’s a 24-hour Pakistani restaurant that has a reputation for serving some of the best, authentic Pakistani food around. I caught Kebab King at the right time – during Ramadan – which ensured small lines during daylight hours. There are probably some better places with nicer settings, but Kebab King (the Queens location, not Manhattan) holds up to any of them.

Since I was on the move, I stuck to mobile food – kebabs: Lamb, beef and chicken to be exact. All three were of similar style, consisting of meat ground with spices, herbs, marinated (I think) in yogurt and chiles, then shaped around a skewer and cooked over a live fire. I didn’t see a lot of taste variance between the three kebabs, but all were good so I didn’t complain. (Note: subsequent conversations with Kebab King patrons and friends pointed me to other parts of the menu, like the tandoori fish, beef nihari, chicken biryani and szechuan goat. Some I’ve sampled since, some I haven’t. Stay tuned for another report just on Kebab King).

Tacos Guichos Cart – Roosevelt & 84th

tacos guicho - queens

Taking a break from the al pastor tacos I’d been sampling, I grabbed a carnitas taco from the Tacos Guichos cart at Roosevelt and 89th. While I do love tacos al pastor, carnitas (good ones, that is) probably rank at the very top of my taco food chain. Well, just under the angelic baja fish taco. This was a great carnitas taco: tender, mildly caramelized, super rich pork, overflowing the two tortillas on which its served. Garnished with onions, cilantro and salsa, it’s was a beautiful marriage making a glutton of anyone who eats it.

Random taco stand at 99th and Roosevelt

taco cart 99th and roosevelt

Along Roosevelt Avenue, you’ll find any number of taco stands that sell fresh quesadillas. This particular cart had no name anywhere to be found. It sits on a lonely corner at 99th and Roosevelt on the NE side of the intersection. If, for some forsaken reason, you haven’t had a real Mexican quesadilla, it’s well worth the $2-$3 treat. Almost always made with fresh masa, they consist of large corn tortillas, pressed to about a 10-inch diameter, then cooked on a hot, dry griddle and filled with any number of ingredients.

quesadillas on roosevelt ave

My choice for today was huitlacoche. An ingredient not all that common in this part of the country. Inky black and earthy in flavor, huitlacoche is my favorite quesadilla filling. At this unnamed taco stand, they are done very well. Huitlacoche mixed with onions, chiles and cheese. When cooked, huitlacoche almost melts, giving the quesadilla a rich creaminess that makes it a near perfect treat.

Tortilleria Nixtamal, 104-05 47th Ave, Queens, NY

Ok, so it’s not really on the way, and I’ve been going to Tortilleria Nixtamal regularly now for about seven months, but I still had to stop by on my walk over to the tennis center. I’ll spare more details for a full post (which also has been partially written for 6+ months now) but I ordered the fish tacos. Made with fresh skate that’s lightly pan fried, they are somewhat non traditional, but still very good. These are single-tortilla tacos that come three to an order (as do all of their tacos). The pictures here are from a visit about 6 months ago.

IMG00116-20090408-1309 IMG00117-20090408-1312

As I mentioned, much more (belatedly) on Tortilleria Nixtamal in the very near future, but as a preview, I’ll leave you with this picture, taken outside of Nixtamal. Care to guess what it’s for? A hint… lard. Lots and lots of lard…

outdoor carnitas vat at tortilleria nixtamal


Sizing up the Guatemalan scene in Stamford

I’m not really sure if it’s a function of an ever growing immigrant population from Guatemala, an increased confidence in the commercial viability of their home cuisine or a combination of the two, but Stamford has become home to a significant number of Guatemalan restaurants over the past few years.

By my count, there are at least four full Guatemalan restaurants in Stamford now:

  • Antojitos Chapines – 210 West Main
  • Quetzal Cafe – 262 Hope St.
  • Maya Restaurant – 166 Stillwater Ave.
  • Delicias Guatemaltecas – 163 Cove Rd.

By my count, that means there are now more authentic Guatemalan restaurants than there are authentic Mexican restaurants in Stamford (“authentic” being the operative word). That’s as much of a statement about the poor Mexican options as it is about the significance of the Guatemalan scene in Stamford. Regardless, it’s worth taking a closer look at the burgeoning local scene.

Antojitos Chapines was the first of the bunch, opening in early 2005 in the space of the then recently closed Trinidadian restaurant International Roti. Though it has now been two years since I last ate there, I always found it to be good and consistent. Of the four, it still offers the widest range of local foods from small dishes – as the restaurant name suggests – to full entrees and meals despite its tiny size.

Quetzal Cafe opened soon after Antojitos Chapines in 2005. It is smaller than Antojitos Chapines and only offers a small sampling of food. I have to confess it’s been three years since I was last there. When I was last at Quetzal they still didn’t have a kitchen of their own, requiring them to cook off premise and reheat the food on site. That necessarily limited both their selection and the freshness of the food, but it was satisfying nonetheless. However, I am long overdue for a revisit to see how Quetzal Cafe is doing these days.

Maya Restaurant only opened last month. At first, I was giddy at the proposition of what I thought was going to be a southern Mexican restaurant, focusing on Yucatecan food. I even went there on its opening day but was turned back because they weren’t quite ready. When I asked about the menu it became clear at the time that it wasn’t Mexican, but a quasi pan-Latin restaurant without much of a focus on “Mayan” food. They were offering some Guatemalan, some Peruvian and some Mexican food. With no menu at the time, the restaurant seemed to be offering whatever the cooks in the back room knew to make. So I was a bit disappointed. But, after reading a comment on Dave Cook’s blog about his recent experience at Maya, I have decided to go back and give it another try. It’s clear they are Guatemalan at the core of the restaurant and take some pride in their local cuisine and dishes. That makes makes all the difference. So maybe we’ll have a real Mayan restaurant after all. I’ll report back shortly.

Delicias Guatemaltecas is new, though I’m not sure when it opened as I only just noticed it yesterday as I was driving down Cove Rd. I haven’t even had a chance to pop in to grab a menu, but by the looks of it, it’s a typical Guatemalan deli, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here’s to hoping it’s a gem hidden in the chaos that is Cove Rd.

There are probably a few other Guatemalan places in the nearby environs hiding out, waiting to be discovered. I consider it my mission to uncover them all.