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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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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…
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):
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.
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.
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.