At the top of my to-do list

I’ve been on a Port Chester binge lately. And in delving deeper into PC goodness, I’ve been tripping over some new places that I’m dying to try. If only I didn’t have pesky work (or limited cash), I’d try them today. But in the meantime, here are the three places now at the top of my to do list:

  1. Rancho Grande, 8 Poningo Street, Port Chester, NY
    This is a little Mexican place that always seems so lonely I feel guilty not going in and trying it out. Every time I pass by, one of the owners is peering out the window like a puppy dog waiting for an owner. If for no other reason than to absolve myself of guilt, I need to try this place.
  2. Aqui es Santa Fe Cafe, 32 Broad Street, Port Chester, NY 10573 (914) 305 1060
    IMG00008-20081204-1323
    I wrote up more about this place here on Chowhound, but, briefly, it’s a nice, cozy little place for which I’m holding out a lot of promise.
  3. Keylee’s Restaurant, 11 Pearl St., Port Chester, NY
    Keylee's Guatemalteco Restaurant
    I snapped this photo as a friend and I drove down to Rinconcito Migueleño. I have no idea how long this has been around, but any place that references “guatemalteco” food is worth noticing. I’m hoping for some great hand-made tortillas. Here’s hoping.

So many places, so little time…


Solve the world’s food problems: Demand better tasting food.

smarter apple

My two worlds have collided this week: work and food.

At IBM right now, I’m deeply involved in the communications efforts supporting the “Smarter Planet” agenda. Basically, the premise is that the systems that make the world work – financial, food, health, water, traffic, etc. – are largely broken and need to be fixed. IBM’s point of view is that it takes technology, sure, but also policy and cultural change to really find solutions to these problems – to make them smarter.

This week, we’ve been focusing a lot on building smarter food systems. You can read through some of the content here for more background, but the essence is that as our food systems have become globally interconnected, it has heightened the potential risks associated with food safety, nutrition, affordability and availability.

Clearly, this topic of food interests me very personally. So allow me to be indulgent and offer some of my own perspectives on the topic. While many people far smarter and more qualified than I are working on this issue, I have but one point of entry to the topic: taste. Simply, I believe this country’s food problems can be solved with a greater emphasis on better tasting food. Trust me, I’ll explain. But first, some background:

I remember as a kid frequently driving to San Diego from my home in the Inland Empire – about 45 minutes East of Los Angeles. Anyone who has driven that stretch of the I-15 corridor to San Diego knows you pass miles and miles of rocky hills, largely covered by dark avocado trees. The avocado groves thrive in the warm hilly terrain and make the dry, often parched hills, look lush and verdant. Not long after one such trip, I went with my mom to a local produce market and was tasked with buying the avocados. Expecting to find avocados from some of the trees I’d seen on my last trip, I was surprised to find only avocados from Chile or Mexico.

If avocados grew commercially in abundance just miles from my house, why could I only buy ones picked from trees thousands of miles away?

Fast forward 20 years to my now hometown supermarket in Connecticut. It’s August, prime summer produce season in the Northeast, and yet all I find in my supermarket are tomatoes from California. (Ironically, it’s easier to find California grown avocados in Connecticut than in California, as this blogger also noted this week).

Clearly, something is wrong. How much money is being wasted sending food across the country when it’s grown around the corner? What kind of unnecessary energy is burned in the process?

With populations on the earth facing devastating food shortages, something feels wrong about shipping food across the globe to places fully capable of providing for its own.

Somehow we need to create an independent market for local agriculture that is capable of supporting the local population, as much as practical. We need market incentives that force supermarkets to make dramatic changes to how they source, distribute and market food.

How do we do that? the government’s solution, to date has seemed to hinge on farm subsidies. Just read Nicholas Kristof’s column from today’s New York Times to see the absurd results of those programs.

I have a different idea. Remember, I love food for food’s sake. So it always comes back to taste. And, I can’t help but think that peoples’ desire for better tasting food can, ultimately, help lead to the kind of systemic changes needed in our food supplies.

Trivial, you say? Well, let me explain.

Simply stated the closer food is consumed to the place it was grown, the better it tastes. That is an absolute rule.

So, as people yearn for better tasting food, they’ll ultimately yearn for more locally grown food. And as demand for locally grown food increases, demand (read: money) for local agriculture increases. And demand for local agriculture translates into incentives for supermarkets to stock local products. And stocking local products requires more efficient local distribution systems. Problem solved.

It all comes down to consumers’ understanding of what truly good food tastes like. For the most part, we’ve been complacent with two generations worth of mediocre food and have forgotten the link between local food and good food. But if we can begin to remember that linkage, the above scenarios begin to come true.

See how beautifully it all works out in the end? Who can’t get behind the idea of demanding better tasting food?

And that’s what I love doing. Hunting for great food, wherever it exists. And now it’s doubly good to know that my quests are contributing to a smarter food system.

Now, as a pay off for reading this post, a great little video from a colleague explaining why it’s important to know where your food comes from:


Mapping the best Latin food in Port Chester

I’ve decided to start using Google Maps much more to visually lay out the best food around. I’ll probably do this by topic and by location. So, first on the docket is charting all the good Latin restaurants in Port Chester. Here’s a start. This map will grow as I get around to loading it up with all the places I’ve been to. Right now, this represents about half of the places I’ve been to in PC.


Pupusa nirvana, finally

IMG00005-20081204-1249

Sometimes, you just have a hunch.

As I drove down the street a few weeks ago in search of empanadas, I passed a new addition to this restaurant-packed stretch of Westchester Ave. It’s in the same location two other restaurants have occupied in just the last year. But something about that spiffy new blue awning told me it would be great.

After my taquito experience a few days ago, I took the opportunity to walk down the street and scout the blue awning restaurant – Rinconcito Migueleño – more properly. Grabbing a card, I vowed to return as soon as I could.

So today I made my way back, nestled into my seat and took a long look at their short menu. Migueleño is a Salvadoran-Guatemalan restaurant though the menu feels more of the former than the latter.

As tacos are the quality benchmark for any Mexican taqueria, pupusas are my benchmark for any Salvadoran restaurant. So I ordered two pupusas – queso con loroco and chicharrón. I threw in a chorizo taco to check out the Guatemalan side of the menu.

The pupusas were fantastic. They had a mildly crisp exterior, not tough, heavy, chewy or greasy – the usual culprits in a sub-par pupusa. The interior was soft with a strong masa flavor. The queso con loroco pupusa is comfort food at its best: a half-inch thick masa tortilla filled with hot stringy cheese punctuated with the herby loroco. The chicharrón pupusa was equally satisfying.

The vinegary slaw and tomato sauce/salsa that accompanied the pupusas were perfect too. providing the requisite sharpness to cut the richness of the pupusas. All in all, these were the best pupusas I’ve had anywhere around these parts – and every bit on par with the great ones I had from some of the pupuserias in San Francisco’s Mission District a few weeks ago.

Needless to say, this beats its Port Chester Salvadoran neighbors – Rinconcito Salvadoreño, El Tesoro II and Pupusa Loco – hands down.

The taco, on the other hand, was a disappointment. My favorite part about Guatemalan tacos is that they are usually thick, hand made tortillas. But Migueleño’s were made with standard Mexican tortillas. And while the chorizo filling is distinctly different from a Mexican chorizo, it’s just not worth going there when the pupusas are so good and you can get truly outstanding tacos only a few doors up the road.

All told, the pupusas will set you back $1.50 each, and the tacos another $2.50 each. The best bet is to get the $6.50 special, which comes with 2 pupusas, beans and plantains.

Rinconcito Migueleno
118 Westchester Ave.,
Port Chester, NY


Taquitos from Tortilleria Los Gemelos in Port Chester

If there’s one thing that’s in short commodity out here in the North East when it comes to Mexican food, it’s consistency. A place that is good one week seems to be terrible the next. So a restaurant or taqueria that can consistenly turn out great tacos, month after month, year after year, is a real treasure.

Which is why, of all the tacos places I’ve tried in the NY Metro area, Tortilleria Los Gemelos in Port Chester is the one I’ve been going back to most consistently since I first tried it back in 2002.

I’ve seen this place go through a lot of changes. At first – when it was named Tortilleria El Paisano (if I remember correctly) – it was just a bare-bones tortilla factory with tables and chairs that served basic taqueria food. The walls were white and bare and the ceiling looked like an old factory ceiling. Slowly they’ve transformed – painting the walls a festive color, redoing the ceiling, changing the name, expanding their menu, redesigning the seating to have permanent booths (which, by the way, are the most uncomfortable booths known to man). They’ve gotten a little more expensive, but their food has remained consistently good.

About a year ago they started offering taquitos, which are nothing more than small tacos (hence, the name), similar to what you find throughout Mexico. Since I usually order regular tacos, sopes or tortas there, I’ve avoided the taquitos. But on Tuesday this week, I decided to order three taquitos – carnitas, al pastor, and cecina.

Taquitos from tortilleria los gemelos Wow, I was surprised at how good they were. In fact, they may have been the best tacos I’ve ever had there. And keep in mind, I’ve had, literally, hundreds of tacos from this place.

Most importantly, the tortillas were perfect. I know they don’t hand make their tortillas, but they do “housemade” them. In other words, this place always have fresh tortillas because they make them there and you can see them running off their conveyor belt. These small tortillas were more tender, and more toothsome than I ever remember their tortillas being. They were slightly thicker and cooked to perfection on the griddle with a little oil to give them tender flavor and texture.

And the fillings were done perfectly. Their al pastor, which has never been their strong suit, was well flavored and slightly charred – a nice touch since they don’t use a spit. Their carnitas, always their best choice, was perfectly tender, moist and flavorful without any hint dryness. And yet, it wasn’t overly rich either. And the cecina taco was good too, though not as memorable as the other two.

So, while Los Gemelos isn’t new by any stretch, it’s good to know that some places are still producing great Mexican food, seven years on.

Tortilla Los Gemelos


In honor of El Charrito taco truck in Stamford, CT

El Charrito - fixed So, I found out last week that El Charrito is going to close up for the winter. I’m not sure what I’ll do for tacos from now until March. After all, they’ve been the only taco I’ve had in Stamford since I discovered them a year and a half ago. But, while I wait until they reappear in March, I figured I’d recap everything I’ve eaten there:

Huaraches – Although my first ever experience at El Charrito consisted of Huaraches from el charritotacos (when they were still hanging out in the the Shop Rite parking lot), it wasn’t  until I had the huaraches in their current location that I was really sold on this place. Their huaraches are thick, sandal-shaped, semi-hard and chewy tortillas smeared with refried beans, meat of your choice, lettuce, cotija cheese, crema, avocado and salsa. These huaraches are very, very good. They aren’t stuffed huaraches like you find in some places where the “tortilla” (for lack of a better term) is filled with beans or meat inside (ala pupusas, but thinner). Nevertheless, these huaraches are very good. At about 9 inches long, these make a pretty good meal unto themselves. $4.50 each

Sopes – really, at El Charrito, sopes are about the same as huaraches, just smaller and round with a slightly thicker tortilla. Excellent.

Tostadas – a different vehicle, but the same formula as sopes and huaraches, with beans meat of choice, lettuce, crema, salsa and cotija cheese. And, like the others, they are very, very good.

Tacos – The tacos are very good at El Charrito. I haven’t tried every variety, but I’ve come really close. So far, I’ve sampled carne adobada (marinated pork), al pastor (another marinated pork, though not spit-roasted like traditional Mexican al pastor), bistek (beef), cecina (salty beef), pollo (chicken), lengua (beef tongue), carnitas (slow-roasted pork), pescado (fish) and pescado al pastor (fish cooked “al pastor style” with pineapple). All of them are good. The standouts for me though are the carnitas and the two fish tacos. The carnitas are good, rich and moist. Sometimes the chunks of fat – intentional with carnitas – are a bit too big, so I’ve got to pick them out, but otherwise, no complaints. And the fish tacos… well, they are excellent. Tender chunks of marinated white-fleshed fish, cooked to perfection. These aren’t baja style fish tacos, which are battered, deep fried fish filets, topped with cabbage and a spicy crema. But they are excellent nonetheless. $2.50 each

Tortas – tortas are the ultimate lunch fare. Big Mexican sandwiches, on a big roll, griddled, slathered with refried beans and filled with queso fresco-style sliced cheese, lettuce, avocado, jalapeños, cotija cheese, salsa, and a huge pile of whatever meat you choose. My favorite torta is always the carnitas torta. El Charrito’s is huge and messy. Get extra napkins and watch out for spilling on your suit. I’ve had more than one trip to the dry cleaners as a result of their tortas. $5.50 each (I think)

Quesadilla – these are a real treat. Put out of your mind the flour tortillas that you find at most places or make at home.  At El Charrito, quesadillas are made from huge hand made corn tortillas, probably 12 inches wide, delicately cooked on the griddle, then folded over and filled with the meat of your choice, some Oaxacan cheese (I think, as it resembles mozzarella in taste and texture ), and other goodies. I think they serve gringo style quesadillas too, so make sure you order quesadilla ala Mexicana. $4.50 each

Hamburguesa – As much as I might say the tortas are messy, the hamburguesas make the tortas seem downright tidy. These are hamburgers with a true Mexican spin – spicy mayo, sliced jalapeños, avocado, etc. These would be the best hamburgers in town, except the quality meat they use isn’t the best. I’m not positive, but it seems they just use normal pre-made beef patties similar to what you find from Costco. If they upgraded to some great ground beef, these would be amazing. They still really hit the spot, but until they upgrade the beef, they aren’t the best thing on their menu by any stretch. $5 (I think)

Tamales – Tamales are only sold at El Charrito on Saturdays, but they are worth the week-long wait. The only tamal they offer is the Oaxaqueño variety – either chicken or pork tamales wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. If you’ve never had a Oaxaqueño style tamal, it’s worth the effort to hunt them down. The banana leaf imparts a unique earthy flavor, and the masa is much smoother and much softer than the more toothsome corn-husk tamal. While I wish these were the real traditional Oaxaqueños, replete with mole negro, they are still wonderful in their salsa verde or salsa rojo form.

Sincronizadas – The best way to describe these are a cross between a quesadilla and a ham and cheese sandwich. In Mexico, the ones I had were made with small flour tortillas, with thin slices of ham, queso amarillo (yellow American cheese), pickled jalapenos and avocado. They may not sound very good, but they are surprisingly addictive. At El Charrito, sincronizadas are made with flour tortillas, with a stringier cheese (probably Oaxacan), refried black beans, and thin slices of ham. That’s pretty much it. I can’t say it’s my favorite thing at El Charrito, but it can be satisfying in a guilty pleasure, comfort food kind of way. $4.50

Burritos – These are the only glaring omission in my list, as I’ve yet to try them at El Charrito. I fear this has more to do with psychology than anything else. Over the years I’ve developed such an aversion to burritos that I just can’t bring myself to try them any longer. Maybe if I were hanging out in Texas or Northern Mexico, where burritos are legitimate components of the traditional regional cuisine, but anywhere else, I just see burritos as an appeasement for the gringo. I realize how silly and elitist that sounds. But I can’t help it. So, I can’t report on their burritos.

Whew… that made me tired. And hungry again.

UPDATE: I went by for some dinner tonight and found out that they’ve changed their plans and no longer are taking the entire winter off. Instead, they’ll be around until January, then will be leaving for Mexico for about three weeks. Then they’ll be back in business. So, Stamford folks, no need to lament a loss of tacos for the entire winter.


Everything I learned about social media, I learned from tacos

If you know me, you know one thing. I love food. I really love food. And tacos are generally the focus of my unhealthy food preoccupation. Almost a decade ago I moved to the East coast and out of sheer self preservation, I started what has become a never ending quest to find the perfect taco.

Now that my day job is centered around social media at IBM, I’m realizing the  process of searching for, learning about and sharing great tacos has given me better training in the dynamics of social media than anything else I could have done. 

Following are some lessons I’ve learned about communities and social media, all thanks to the humble taco.

  1. Go where the communities are already congregated on the topic. When I really want to have a conversation about where to find the best food, I don’t start them on this blog. I ALWAYS go to Chowhound.com first. (and trust me, the thousands of contributions I’ve made there over the past eight years are a testament to spending WAY too much time in community efforts).  While my blog might attract a few people (me, my wife, my mom, etc.), thousands are already congregated on Chowhound talking about where to find the best food. My goal is to find great food. My blog isn’t where that happens. I write my blog merely as a means to aggregate my random contributions online, but for real insight, I go to where the community already exists, where the conversations are already lively and the information sharing is the most helpful.
    Lesson: If you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Someone else has likely already built it. Go there first.
  2. Want value? Add value. The quality of what you get from a community is directly correlated to the value of your contributions into the community. This is self explanatory, but suffice to say that the quality of taco recommendations I got increased the more I gave recommendations to the community. Building a level of trust and credibility is paramount to affecting other people’s behavior – including what they offer you, and what they do as a result of what you offer them.
    Lesson: If you want to win friends and influence people, you’ve got to add value to the community. And “value” is defined by the community, not you.
  3. Listen, learn, follow. The great thing about communities is that you are never the smartest or most informed person in the community (if you are, I’d question either your community or your humility). Of all the great tacos I’ve found in NYC, Westchester or Fairfield counties over the past eight years, I’ve rarely been the first to discover them. Usually, someone else has already been there and reported about it. Those tips are often hard to find but through carefully listening, then following those tips, I’ve found some GREAT tacos. Listening preceded finding great tacos. Plus, I was able to see some of the dumb mistakes members made that alienated the rest of the community. Taking a listening-first approach helped me avoid many of those mistakes.
    Lesson: Listen first and you’ll learn things you didn’t even know you were there to learn about. You’ll also understand the explicit and implicit behavioral rules of the community.
  4. Closed loop. I’ve found the more I close the feedback loop, the more valuable feedback I end up getting. Finding tacos requires a lot of probing, asking and discovering. As I’ve taken people’s recommendations to try a certain taqueria, reporting back on those experiences often generates more discussion than the original query. Plus, it has the added benefit of assuring community members their contributions are considered and valued.
    Lesson: Companies would do well to create a more closed feedback loop, illustrating how community contributions are having an effect.
  5. It’s a long-term commitment. If I’d measured the value of the tacos I ate as a direct result of my participation in food communities after the first few months, I’m not sure I would have stuck around any longer. But, I took a long-term view – let’s be honest, food is a lifelong effort – and stuck to it. Over time, I found incredible value from the community (i.e., I eat better now than ever before).
    Lesson: Community focused efforts by companies are often short term in nature. And even when the mission is long term, if the measurements are short term, momentum quickly fades and companies drop their efforts.
  6. It’s not just about blogging. Blogging might be the poster child of Web 2.0, but blogs have not been that helpful in helping me find great tacos. Frankly, the best tools I’ve found in discovering food has been old-school message boards. That’s what chowhound originally was, and, in reality, still is. But that’s where people can share the most information and communities can get the best contribution. After all, forums are the original wiki.
    Lesson: Companies often take a myopic view with social media and focus on the Web 2.0 tool du jour. But sometimes the best solutions are the most boring. Find what works given the intent of the mission.
  7. Avoid any place that sells “hard shell tacos”. OK, I’m not sure how this relates, but let’s be honest, Taco Bell sucks and if you eat there, what you do with anything else in your life really won’t matter that much.
    Lesson: Got some great food tips? Share them.

Now I’m hungry.