Review: Em’s Place; Recommended

McAllister between Hyde and Leavenworth

Em’s Place is my all-purpose fall-back lunch spot. It’s extremely convenient to school, and they haven’t let me down yet. The decor may leave something to be desired, but hey, it’s the Tenderloin. And the food is good, which is what counts.

The menu includes breakfast, American food, and Chinese food. I haven’t explored their breakfast option much, but I can vouch for the #3 breakfast ($3.65) — grilled cheese sandwich, two eggs, and hashbrowns. It wasn’t a revelation in cuisine, but all three parts of the breakfast were well-made, and the hashbrowns were generously portioned.

The Chinese food is pretty good. Their great strength here is that they use good ingredients and don’t overcook them. So most of their dishes consist of good-quality meat and nicely tender vegetables, which gets you a long way in Chinese food. Their sauces tend to be a little syrupy for my tastes, alas. I recommend the black pepper chicken ($5.25), the teriyaki chicken ($4.75), or the broccoli chicken ($4.95) (I understand you can get beef or pork in any of these for 50 cents more, but I’m cheap and I like chicken). The pork fried rice ($4.95) is hit and miss; it’s been really good on some occasions, and sort of mushy on others. On the other hand, I have to respect a pork fried rice with actual slices of barbecue pork rather than rubbery cubes of extruded pork-like product. The curry chicken ($4.95) is mediocre; there are better places to go if you want curry.

The American food is also tasty. I highly recommend the grilled chicken sandwich with BBQ sauce ($4.50). The quality of their chicken helps here, and the syrupy quality of their sauces is actually a plus with BBQ. They make a perfectly serviceable burger ($3.75), a darn tasty turkey burger ($4.50), and as I mentioned, a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich ($2.95). I can’t endorse their breaded foods; the chicken club ($4.50) and chicken-fried steak ($5.50) are fine, but not great. There’s better stuff on the menu. Of the side orders, I recommend the potato salad. The fries, in my experience, are unexciting, and while the fruit cup is fresh, it’s basically a small cup of melon chunks.

Originally published on Tournedos

Impression: Larkin Express Deli: OK

Larkin between Golden Gate and Turk

I like this place, but I have to back off from a recommend because I think my soft spot for quirky little places with character is clouding my judgment. For me, the strategically placed sign concealing a hole in the window is cute; others might feel differently. I ordered a turkey sandwich on a sweet roll, which was $4.95. It was a good sandwich, if nothing to write home about. They use fresh roast turkey, though, which is definitely a standout; I could see getting a yen for that at some point. I must warn you, however, not to get a soda from the cooler. I think they don’t get much sell-through, and my soda tasted a bit…off. When bottled soda is past its prime, something ain’t right. On the other hand, they also have fresh cookies, which are good but a bit pricy at $1.65.

Originally published at Tournedos

Impression: Taqueria el Castillito: Recommended

370 Golden Gate Avenue (between Hyde and Larkin)

I like this place; it strikes that balance between asepticness and squalor that is the hallmark of a good Mexican joint. Their regular burrito has a nice heft to it, and they don’t put anything weird or messy in it — rice, beans, meat, and salsa. You can get cilantro and onions if you want. I had mine with grilled chicken and the spicy salsa. The grilled chicken is good, but pretty ordinary. The spicy salsa is nice; it’s got big chunks of jalapeno that put some body behind the heat. The regular burrito is also $4.40, which is pretty reasonable in my book.

UPDATE: Taqueria el Castillito has another location on McAllister between Leavenworth and Jones. It’s a little smaller; I like the Golden Gate one better. But for Tower folks, it might be more convenient.

Food Review: Biryani Chapati

Turk and Leavenworth
San Francisco, CA

A restaurant just broke my heart.

Since I started school, I’ve been on a bit of a culinary expedition to try eateries convenient for lunch between classes. The Tenderloin is full of those little hole-in-the-wall eateries that could be wonderful and could be abysmal, and there’s not really any way to tell unless you give it a try. I noticed, on one of these walkabouts, a hand-lettered awning which read “Biryani Chapati”; I thought, “Cool! Indian food!” (Now, I imagine some of the locals will be saying, “You madman, why would you eat at a dubious Tenderloin eatery when the ever-fabulous Naan N’ Curry is mere blocks away?” I’m funny like that sometimes. (On a wholly separate note, Biryani Chapati turns out to be Pakistani.))

I was briefly confused upon arriving by the big CLOSED sign at the top of the front window and the small OPEN sign at the bottom, but I figured I’d take the open door as a hint. The staff, in traditional downscale ethnic restaurant style, were all sitting around a table chatting when I came in. I wasn’t really sure what the idiom of the joint was: should I sit down? Order at the counter and take out? Order at the counter and sit down? The guy who seemed to be in charge was headed behind the counter, though, so I walked over there. He handed me a folded paper menu, and cheerily offered to explain their offerings. “We have chicken curries, lamb curries, we can put vegetable…” (I do have to hand it to them, though; it was actually a pretty clear menu. I’ve been in Indian places where the distinction between certain dishes was … subtle at best.) I ordered chicken biryani and an order of naan, and he invited me to sit.

We’ve got some fine examples of the po-ass decorating style in the Tenderloin; one of my favorite places near campus is dark, rowed with cafeteria tables, and they store random supplies in the bottom shelves of the soda fridge. Biryani Chapati, however, may be the purest example of the form yet. They barely have a counter; I think they don’t even have a cash register. Bare white walls are adorned with construction paper butterflies. My table was at a slight angle. I was a little concerned. But everything was clean, and the carafe of water was a nice touch.

When the food arrived, I was still reserving judgment. The naan looked disappointing, like a whole wheat tortilla, and the biryani, while generously portioned, was nondescript. In the eating, however, I was impressed. The biryani was spicy, but not painfully so; the naan was much better than it looked. The chicken was tender and falling off the bone (indeed, my only complaint about the food would be that I’m not a huge fan of chicken dishes with unexpected knobs of bone, authentic though they may be). About halfway through my meal, they brought out what I assume was probably raita, but serving an ordinary portion of raita in a massive soup bowl looks a bit weird. I failed you, my audience, in not trying it, but as I said, it looked weird, and I don’t like raita that much anyway. The staff was extremely attentive; the manager asked me several times if I wanted more naan, because I could have more free of charge. I suspect the red carpet treatment would be on account of my being their lunch rush; I came in at 12.30, and no one else came in while I was there.

This last bit is what makes me sad. My lunch was six bucks (they didn’t even charge me for the naan, so I overtipped), and I was the only customer for at least half an hour. Maybe they do a brisk delivery business, but I suspect they won’t make it. Nice folks, making pretty tasty food, but the skankier end of the Tenderloin just isn’t prime foodservice space.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Food Review: Trader Vic’s Palo Alto

Last night, one of Jen’s volleyball folks had a birthday bash at Trader Vic’s, and we attended. Considering the culinary experience, I have to say that the decor was nice.

To begin with, if one is going to slap a 20% automatic gratuity on a party of 20, one ought to assign said party more staff than one waiter and a busboy. The service was extremely slow and moderately inept; I was unimpressed.

We began with drinks. Jen ordered a Mai Tai ($8.50), figuring Trader Vic’s would be the place for a good Mai Tai; while the glass was large, it was mostly filled with ice and an lime half. According to the waiter, it was made with “lemon juice, lime juice, Mai Tai mix, and rum”. Maybe it’s just me, but I am dubious of destination drinks made with mixes. I had a glass of Firestone Riesling ($6); that’ll teach me to buy wine from a tire company.

Both of us ordered salad: Jen took the house salad, while I opted for the caesar. I can’t evaluate the house salad, because it never came. At least they didn’t charge us for it. The caesar ($8) had three serious flaws. First, the croutons were bland and stale. Second, they went a little nuts with the lettuce; they used the outer leaves of Romaine and tried unsuccessfully to cut them into bite-sized pieces; as a result, most of the salad was a mess of limp, perforated leaves. Finally, the dressing was watery; I can only imagine they didn’t drain the lettuce before dressing.

For the main course, I had the grilled king salmon ($25); Jen had the seafood taro nest ($23). The salmon itself was fine, if unexciting. It came with dry, leathery fingerling potatoes, and some grilled zucchini and eggplant that I couldn’t bring myself to eat. The whole dish sat on a pool of what was probably beurre blanc, though at the time it struck me more like bechamel. So not disastrous, but I’ve had a lot better food for twenty-five bucks. Jen’s seafood taro nest was a stir fry of overcooked marine life and canned vegetables. It looked pretty dismal. She picked out the seafood and called it a night. The taro nest also came with a side of rice, which I asked if I could take a bit of, as I wanted a palate cleanser after my buttered salmon. It takes some talent to screw up rice, but they managed it. I’ve had better rice in cafeterias.

So, when all was said and done, with the food, drinks, and aforementioned automatic gratuity, the bill was $96 for an evening of insipid 50s-style Polynesian fusion cuisine for two.

I suspect I won’t be going back.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Sacrificed Chine of Beef
with Nectar Reduction
Pan Sauce
(Sept. 9, 2004)

Ingredients:

1 sacrificed chine of beef, about four poundsĀ 
2 tbsp butterĀ 
1 cup nectar
2 shallots
1 cup tears of the damned
Salt
Chopped parsley to garnish

Selecting a good beef chine is essential to this recipe. We recommend a chine from the rib or loin, which are more suited to dry cooking methods. Chuck and round chines are better
for braises and other moist cooking methods. If your worshippers can’t be relied upon to secure a high-quality rib or loin chine, or to sacrifice it appropriately, smite them and build your cult from scratch. This recipe demands a high-quality chine, properly sacrificed to add that smoky altar tang.

Season the chine well with salt while melting a tablespoon of butter in a roasting pan over high heat. Once the butter stops foaming, sear the chine about 2 minutes on each side.
After searing, place the chine on a roasting rack, fat side up, and place in a 350-degree
oven for about two hours, until omniscience suggests the roast is medium-rare.

Meanwhile, begin reducing a cup of nectar in a saucepan over medium heat (for a subcontinental twist, you can substitute an equal amount of soma or amrita for the nectar). It should take about half an hour for the nectar to reduce down to a quarter cup.

When the roast is done, move it to a plate and tent with foil. Remove any fat from the pan juices, and then place the roasting pan back on the stovetop over medium heat. Add two diced shallots and saute until golden. Deglaze with one cup of the tears of the damned, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the pan is deglazed, add the nectar reduction and stir to combine. Wait for the foam to subside, then reduce the heat
to low and let the flavors meld.

When the chine has rested about ten minutes, remove the foil and carve. Add any juices from the resting plate back to the sauce, and whisk in a tablespoon of butter and a splash of fresh nectar. Ladle about two tablespoons of the sauce over each portion of meat and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with a small salad of ambrosia and endive.

Review: Bluewater Grill

888 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Bluewater Grill is a nice-looking seafood place along the route by which I take Jen to work, and on several occasions we’ve said, “We should go there sometime”. Well, tonight we finally got around to it. And this is not your grandfather’s seafood restaurant.

Oh, wait. Yes it is.

The food wasn’t bad, mind you. It was just … unexciting. The free bread was an uninspired sourdough. It was warm, which was nice, but the crust was unexciting and chewy and the crumb was uniform and bland.

We ordered wine and appetizers to start with; Jen had a glass of Pinot Grigio and a cup of clam chowder, and I had a glass of Riesling and a bay shrimp cocktail. The waitress warned us that the Riesling was sweet, but I like sweet wines (what can I say? I’m a wuss). Jen’s wine was good, and the clam chowder was tasty but very rich. My shrimp cocktail was also good, though I probably would have eased up on the cocktail sauce a little. I’m not sure what to think about my Riesling. I now understand what they mean by wines having “apple notes”, because my wine tasted like cider. This was OK — I like cider — but it was a little weird. Still, so far so good.

In passing, I want to note that there was a massive box of Old Bay on our table.

For the entree, I ordered grilled catfish, and Jen ordered scallop and shrimp skewers. We both got sliced tomatoes and sauteed spinach as sides, because we are people on a diet, not professional food critics. And here is where Bluewater Grill didn’t come through for us.

The spinach was OK, but swimming in oil, which made it a little unctuous for my taste. The tomatoes were quite good; firm and sweet and huge. Should you go, I recommend the sliced tomato side. Alas, my catfish was profoundly bland. It was cooked well — tender and moist. Just deeply uninteresting. You would never know it was grilled. Jen’s skewers, meanwhile, were similarly bland. It took a while to find any evidence of grilling on the scallops, and the pieces of seafood were spaced on the skewer with unappealing squares of bacon, charred at the edge and underdone at the center. Judging from the look of the food, they used the exact same seasoning on the catfish, the scallops, and the shrimp. That just doesn’t seem right.

We also had to ask three times for water, which was annoying.

In the end, Bluewater Grill seems to have good-quality ingredients, but not a lot of ingenuity in putting them together. If I were to go again, I’d focus on dishes where the flavor of the seafood itself is paramount. The shrimp cocktail was good, and I’d bet the raw bar might be tasty too. More assertive fish like salmon might also fare better with their chef.

Bachelor Cuisine: Kielbasa
(June 21, 2003)

Gooey starch is all well and good, and a bachelor heart is warmed by it. But now it’s time to turn to something heartier. Something rib-sticking. We need some meat.

Today we’re looking at kielbasa. It’s ideal for our purpose — a little smoky, a little sweet, not too expensive, usually precooked (and thus easy and safe to handle and prepare).

I like the Hillshire Farms Turkey Polska Kielbasa, myself, but you should experiment. For example, the Hillshire Farms regular kielbasa has a firmer skin, with more of a snap. I don’t like it so much, but you might. Or perhaps you feel like true bachelor cuisine ought to shun un-fried poultry. In any event, there are many excellent kielbasa products out there for you to explore.

And now . . . the recipes.

Kielbasa with Dwight Street Sauce

Ingredients:
1 bun-length piece of kielbasa
1 sandwich roll
Ketchup
Cranberry juice
This recipe was developed during the year-long period of box mac and pork fried rice that followed college. It’s simple but tasty.

Place a bun-length chunk of kielbasa into a pan over medium heat. Add a good squirt of ketchup, and a hefty splash of cranberry juice. Stir and flip the kielbasa occasionally. The heat will cause the ketchup and cranberry juice (with perhaps a bit of help from kielbasa drippings) to combine into a sweet and tangy glaze-like sauce. The sauce will keep the kielbasa from burning. When the sauce has reduced to taste, move the kielbasa onto your sandwich roll. I prefer a sandwich roll to a hot dog bun because it has more heft and chew. Kielbasas are also often too big for a normal hot dog bun. You can pour or spoon the sauce over the kielbasa if you like, but it usually isn’t necessary; a good coating before leaving the pan will do.

Kielbasa with Peppers and Onions

Ingredients:
1 large kielbasa
1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 onion

Slice your kielbasa into inch-long chunks. Slice your bell peppers into strips about half an inch wide. Chop your onion into half-inch square chunks. Toss everything into a pan over high heat and cook until the onion turns golden and is softened but not limp.

This recipe can be served on a sandwich roll or over rice. You can also add the Dwight Street Sauce to this recipe; it helps avoid burning.

Mexican Terror Kielbasa

Ingredients:
1 large kielbasa
1 green chile pepper
1 red chile pepper
1 onion

This dish is prepared just like Kielbasa with Peppers and Onions, but with different ingredients. It is the result of a tragic misreading of an early, less clear version of the recipe for Kielbasa with Peppers and Onions. Two out of three roommates rate it “hard on the digestion”. The other really likes it, though.

Kielbasa Braised in Beer

Ingredients:
1 large kielbasa
1 bottle of beer
a few shallots

This recipe is adapted from one in James Beard’s American Cookery.  However, the original calls for red wine. Now, there’s always a place for alcohol in bachelor cuisine, and certainly red wine is truer to the spirit of bachelor cookery than some wussy Chardonnay, but a more
virile brew, like beer or tequila, would be better. Thus, whenever possible, a bachelor chef replaces wine with a beer or spirit more befitting his muse (keep an eye out for the upcoming beer risotto).

In this dish, beer seems most appropriate; braising in tequila, while decadent, would be more expensive than bachelor cuisine can reasonably sustain.  I prefer a relatively mild beer for this dish. I love stout, but I find that in sauces and stews it tends to bring an unpleasant bitterness to the party. A nice ale would be good.

Slice your kielbasa into as many pieces as you have guests, and chop the shallot finely. Put the kielbasa into a skillet with the shallots and beer and bring to a boil.  Depending on the size of your skillet, another bottle of beer may be called for. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the skillet, and braise the kielbasa for 35 minutes, turning once.

When done, the kielbasa will be swollen and juicy, with a pleasant note of beery bitterness. I like to serve this plate with mashed potatoes.

Kielbasa Tubesteak

Ingredients:
4 3-inch pieces of kielbasa
4 strips of very thinly sliced steak, about 3 inches wide
1 bottle of beer
Condiments

This recipe has two things the ideal bachelor cuisine recipe should: an absurd amount of protein, and a really juvenile name.

Begin by quickly searing your steak over high heat on both sides for about a minute. The idea is to take the red off and prevent the steak from stretching and shrinking in later stages of the recipe. Both sides of the steak should be just grayed, but there should be no red spots left. It doesn’t need to be browned.

After you’ve seared the steak, you may want to blot off any fat that may have rendered out, depending on the cut. While you do, toss your kielbasa into the pan to warm them up a bit and add the beer. As in Kielbasa Braised in Beer, you may need two bottles if your skillet is large. Lower the heat to medium, allowing the beer to come to a boil while you begin the next part.

Spread each piece of steak on one side with a condiment of your choice. I recommend a good mustard, though Dijon was very disappointing. Ketchup is serviceable if unexciting. Barbecue sauce didn’t survive cooking in my test, but a thick sauce might work well. Horseradish might also be good for some palates, or you could use some soy sauce and pickled ginger for an Asian/fusion-inspired twist.

Remove the kielbasa from the beer, and roll each piece inside a piece of steak, condiment toward the kielbasa. Secure with toothpicks. By this time, the beer ought to be boiling. Reduce the heat to low, add back the tubesteaks, cover, and leave to simmer for 10 to 20 minutes.

Kielbasa Tubesteak keeps relatively well, though it dries out a bit if left to stand. A relatively small portion is very filling, especially if you use a strong-flavored condiment.

Food Review: Mulligan’s

2650 Broadway
Redwood City

It turns out to be very difficult to review a bacon cheeseburger. It’s hard to pick what distinguishes a particular bacon cheeseburger from the many I’ve had in the past. However, I discovered this after I’d already ordered my meal at Mulligan’s, so I’d best make my best effort nonetheless.

They make a good bacon cheeseburger at Mulligan’s. It’s got a good heft to it. The bacon is good and thick. They cook it medium rare when you order it medium-rare. The beef is good quality and well-seasoned. They put mushrooms on mine; I’m not clear on whether that’s standard. Indeed, I wish they hadn’t. The mushrooms added unnecessary moisture to an already juicy burger. The wetness was in fact my only real complaint; I like a juicy burger, but I prefer not to be juggling napkins while I’m eating because my food is oozing onto my hand and I can’t put the burger down because the plate is covered in drippings. I think the mayonnaise was a contributor here as well. I like mayo on burgers sometimes, but mayo’s main value in sandwiches is as a moistener, and this burger was in no need of extra moisture.

I ordered a side salad. It was unexciting — green lettuce with some tomato and cucumber and a watery Italian dressing — but I don’t expect salad perfection from a bar/restaurant with seven TVs of football on.

Jen ordered the French dip. She said it was pretty good; the beef was not at all gristly, and they toasted the bun, which was a nice touch. However, Mulligan’s is one of the places where they put cheese and onion on a French dip, which Jen thinks makes the sandwich bitter and interferes with the true French dip experience.

She got fries as a side; I wish I’d followed her lead. The fries were crispy but not overdone — very tasty. A little salty, perhaps.

Each entry was, as I recall, $7.95, with the side included. On the whole, it was a reasonably good dining experience. There are a lot of places you can get decent bar-style food for eight bucks, but Mulligan’s is as good as most of them, and if the urge strikes while you’re in Redwood City, there’s no reason not to stop in.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Food Review: US Chinese Food

2490 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA

I have a taste for bad Americanized Chinese food. I credit it to the year when a New Haven hole in the wall called Main Garden was my source for several meals every week. As such, I tend to hunt down low-end Chinese food wherever I go, in hopes of finding food both tasty, ample, and dirt, dirt cheap.

US Chinese Food isn’t a bad entry in the field. It’s a cheery, brightly-lit place as steam table cafeteria-style restaurants go; it lacks the plasticized aura of Mr. Chau’s (a local Chinese fast food chain, for those outside the Peninsula area). A combination plate, which includes an entree and either chow mein or fried rice (or half and half), is $3.95. The service is friendly and quick, and the food is pretty fresh for steam table food (they do one thing I haven’t seen before: they wrap half of each large tray in plastic wrap, thus staving off the inevitable drying out).

I had beef broccoli this time out. It was good, but not exceptional. The beef was fine; not delicious, but not rubbery or unappetizing. The broccoli was surprisingly fresh-tasting. Most steam table beef broccoli has been steamed to within an inch of its life, and this entry was actually firm and crunchy. I would have been a bit happier with this development if they’d used less stem; fresh crunchy florets are great, but you want broccoli stem a little more thoroughly cooked. The sauce was OK. Sweet and unassertive.

I got half and half for my starches. The chow mein was good — greasy, but that’s to be expected. My only complaint is that the noodles were a little…institutional. They were square, and a little doughy. Very filling. The fried rice was mediocre; nothing was specifically bad, but there was a flavor to it that just didn’t seem right. (It’s surprising to me that relatively few restaurants around here make good fried rice. Gin Mon back in Belmont made a darn good fried rice, and I’ve been to a couple places up in SF that were good, but a good fried rice seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Safeway used to make a decent pork fried rice, but these days they only seem to have chicken fried rice, which is not as good.)

Jen got the General Chicken (one of the peculiarities of modern Chinese food is that there seems to have been a consensus, at least here in the Bay Area, to drop the whole debate about how to spell Tso/Tsao/Cho/Mo/whatever and just call the spicy-sweet fried chicken bits dish General Chicken. Better than Default Chicken, I guess). The general consensus is that it was pretty good. Not very spicy, and probably would be better if it were fresher; this tends to be generally true of fried chicken dishes in steam table restaurants. Jen agreed that the starches were unexciting; the square noodles seemed to bug her more.

Still, when all is said and done, it’s a decent Chinese lunch for 4 bucks a head, and the portions are quite hefty. They don’t take credit cards, but they have an in-house ATM. They have tables in the store if you want to eat in, and they have parking in back. I suspect I’ll be going back the next time I get the yen for a big mess of cheap Chinese.

Originally published on LiveJournal