Take A Taco

Tacoteca
Santa Monica, California

Grilled octopus taco with spicy peanut sauce

Grilled octopus taco with spicy peanut sauce

In the de facto American taco capitol, nary a head would turn or eye bat at the opening of another high-end taqueria, but with the house specialty being Mexican alcoholic beverages such as tejuno, pulque, tepache, and a plethora of craft mescals, Tacoteca has transformed the former Charleston space into the definitive destination for craft Mexican consumables. In a no-holds-barred attempt to rework south of the border gastronomic culture into a unique yet accessible Mexican party in Santa Monica, restaurateur Adam Fleischman has assembled the crack team of Chef Ricardo Diaz, Mixologist Gilbert Marquez and beer expert Bradley Japhe.

A numbered bottle of Ilegal Mezcal's Mezcal Joven

A numbered bottle of Ilegal Mezcal’s Mezcal Joven

Entomophagists will delight in the creative use of insects in Tacoteca’s beverage offerings (oddly enough they don’t make an appearance in the cuisine) – the fine mezcals and cocktails are accompanied by crushed, stacked and skewered chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers) and a tiny dune of maguey worms pulverized in salt; orange slices provide a sweet citrus alternative to the typical lime wedge. Each shot of mezcal is served in a clay copita, which allows the spirit to come to life and breathe. Some cocktails are downright strange – the La Bruxa (“witch” in Spanish) employs a jalapeño-infused mezcal with blended banana, lime and cilantro, but is then muddied with activated charcoal simply to give the drink a murky black tinge.

Duck tamal with guayaba salsa and mole

Duck tamal with guayaba salsa and mole

Aside from the tacos, most of the other plates are shareable – a row of corn coblets are treated with cotua cheese, lime mayo, cayenne powder and tamarindo in a playful attempt to mimic elote; a tamal stuffed with chunks of moist duck meat is given the two-tone treatment with a split topping of rich chocolate mole and guayaba salsa. Other dishes are tributes or plays on non-Mexican dishes (such as the Shrimp Luis, a Mexicanized version of shrimp Louie). Seafood features prominently on the menu, and for vegetarians there’s even a veggie tostada that employs hearts of palm as a suitable substitute for scallops in a ceviche-like blend.

Aguacatero with avocado-infused mezcal, skewered grasshoppers

Aguacatero with avocado-infused mezcal, skewered grasshoppers

The tacos are exemplary – meaty chucks of tender lamb and carne asada are in ample supply, topped with mildly spicy yet flavorful sauces such as Mexican chimichurri and mint garlic salsa; the stand-out open-faced taco features thick, grilled octopus tentacles and a satay-like serrano-peanut sauce, a combination that came to Chef Diaz as in a dream. Quality and taste are priorities, although some may find the tacos a bit steep at around 6 bucks a pop, but where the fare and bar offerings combine playful artistry with tradition, Tacoteca is changing the face of Taco Land one menu item at a time.

Tacoteca
2460 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica CA 90403
GPS Coordinates: 34° 2’6.50″N 118°28’41.90″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Tacoteca in Santa Monica, California

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Tacoteca. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

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The Meat On The Skewer Goes Round And Round

Status Kuo
Mar Vista (Los Angeles), California

Thick and juicy rotisserie pork

Thick and juicy rotisserie pork

Describing the recently opened Status Kuo as status quo for its busy corner of Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood would be a gross misrepresentation – the name is a play on words for chef/owner David Kuo. The restaurant is being billed as a rotisserie, and should the silhouettes of meat animals on the sign perched high atop the roof be confusing, the various meats doing their slow, savory decadent dance on the skewers at the front of the restaurant will remove all doubt – Kuo’s business is meat, and business is good. With the cooking area in the open, the clean, lean and mean space is filled with the aroma of roasting meats, which seems to offset Kuo’s meek come-on for vegans to run the meat gauntlet and enjoy the menu as well. Although there are several plainly-marked vegan dishes on the menu, it hardly seems necessary as these superlative dishes can be enjoyed by vegans and omnivores alike.

Sizing up rotisserie pork right off the spit

Sizing up rotisserie pork right off the spit

Most of the substantial plates arrive at the table with a vibrant salad strewn across the top; Kuo’s fresh salads feature root vegetables, seeds and edible flowers, but there’s no attempt to hide or disguise the ample portions of meat with vegetation. Thick slabs of rotisserie pork take up the better part of the dinner plate – the meat dissolves in your mouth and bursts with flavor; the chicken is consistently moist and savory. The coating on Status Kuo’s fried chicken has a pronounced crunch to it, creating a shell that seals the juices inside – oddly the color ranges from a golden brown to a dark chocolate color.

The pasta dishes are exemplary (albeit the firm al dente pasta may not be to everyone’s liking) – the oddly-named Taiwanese Sunday Gravy is richly flavored with chopped, braised pork, and a pocket of pickled mustard greens with a playful bite.  The vegan Donald Watson features firm, thick noodles with crispy slices of kabocha squash, chanterelles, and meaty cubes of sunchoke.

Vegan noodles with sunchoke and chanterelles

Vegan noodles with sunchoke and chanterelles

Thick sandwiches on airy ciabatta bread are satisfying – the lamb tri-tip makes subtle use of horseradish, with sassy arugula and caramelized onion. The BBQ jackfruit sandwich is a bit of an odd duck – the sandwich is loud and in your face with a lightly dressed slaw, but the unique flavor of the jackfruit gets muted from the profusion of tomatoey BBQ sauce.

For the time being the beverages are limited to house-made sodas, but it is advised to save room for coffee and one of Status Kuo’s hand-made fried pies with a cup of French press coffee. Although Status Kuo is vegan-friendly, recovering meataholics may be a bit uncomfortable with the mammalian imagery, but the fare is accessible to vegans and omnivores alike. There are plans to further develop the menu, but the restaurant could do worse than to maintain the status quo.

Status Kuo
3809 Grand View Boulevard
Los Angeles CA 90066
GPS Coordinates: 34° 0’16.20″N 118°25’52.05″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Status Kuo in Mar Vista (Los Angeles), California

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Status Kuo. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

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Just Say Mo

The Dirty Mo at J Mo’s Sandwich Shack
Carts on Foster, Portland, Oregon

The daunting Dirty Mo at J Mo's Sandwich Shack

The daunting Dirty Mo at J Mo’s Sandwich Shack

Portland’s food cart scene is as quirky as the city itself – it takes a special breed to command a trailer in the oft dark, damp clime of the Rose City. While many of Portland’s colorful characters are home grown, Bay Area transplant Jason “J Mo” Moreno worked virtually every restaurant position from front to back door up and down the west coast until he settled in Portland almost three years ago to open J Mo’s Sandwich Shack in a converted 1970’s camper. While his business card lists him as owner, chef and bad ass, Moreno has a vibrant sense of humor and treats customers as if they’ve just shown up at their Italian-American goombah’s pad in Passaic, New Jersey for dinner.  Moreno was out of commission for a while this past summer with a nasty broken leg, but is back with a vengeance – there are multiple stories about his accident, and while the truth isn’t bad, his back-up story is amazing.

J Mo's modest kitchen

J Mo’s modest kitchen

Like most carts in Portland, hours can be erratic, affected by weather and demand, and although their website lists closing hours from 3 PM to 9 PM, Moreno states that he’s stayed open late nights occasionally to service hungry patrons from the nearby strip clubs – if in doubt, a  phone call is in order. A dormant neon sign isn’t necessarily a sign that your quest for home-cooked Italian is for naught – on a recent wet Sunday afternoon I found a dry Moreno at the pod’s indoor beer garden, and although it was slow, he happily opened the shack and fired up the stove. J Mo’s vends a variety of sandwiches, including the classic Italian sub, and one of the most popular is a recently introduced chicken Parmesan, but the holy grail of sandwiches that put the shack on the map is the infamous Dirty Mo.

Jason "J Mo" Moreno's signature pose

Jason “J Mo” Moreno’s signature pose

Calling the Dirty Mo a sandwich is case of semantics – this is a formidable Italian meal in a sub roll that is barely able to contain the ingredients, with the heap of old country comestibles spilling over the top like lava from Vesuvius. Moreno joined me in the shelter of the beer garden to watch in amusement as I calculated how I was going to address the matter at hand – while you might be able to wrap your mitts around the sandwich and attack it with jaw in full open position, logistics quickly requires the use of a knife and fork. Although it was unnecessary, Moreno apologized for the cue ball-sized meatballs in advance, lamenting that they were just cooked today (he generally likes to have them mellow at least a day in the zesty marinara), and having had lasagna heated up the second or even third day, perhaps even eaten cold out of the refrigerator, I knew exactly what he meant.

Carts on Foster's pod bar

Carts on Foster’s pod bar

If you happen to be strolling up Foster Road while Moreno mans the stove, his cart is easy to find by the intoxicating cloud of garlic spilling out of the cart’s vents. Although the aroma hits you in the face like a wet sock, the sandwich doesn’t reek of it; Moreno has perfected the perfect balance of Italian spices throughout. Describing the Dirty Mo is an Italian meal in a sub roll is literal – a nest of al dente linguini (listed as spaghetti for the Medigans) rests atop sheets of Provolone and then capped with a row of massive, moist and meaty meatballs. There’s enough fresh basil to represent the tricolors without overpowering the sandwich; the whole shooting match is drenched in marinara and loosely held together by a garlicky fresh sub roll.  Even a gavone should skip breakfast before attempting to conquer the Dirty Mo, but don’t fret if you only get halfway through – imagine how good it’s going to taste tomorrow.

J Mo’s Sandwich Shack
Carts on Foster
5205 SE Foster Road
Portland, Oregon 97206
GPS Coordinates: 45°29’44.55″N 122°36’31.30″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to J Mo’s Sandwich Shack at the Carts on Foster food cart pod in Portland OR

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Great Scot, Marty!

The Gorbals
Los Angeles, California

The belly of the beast and former set of "Knife Fight"

The belly of the beast and former set of “Knife Fight”

Since 2009, Angeleno foodies have braved a dodgy stretch of Downtown Los Angeles to experience Top Chef Ilan Hall’s gastropub, The Gorbals. In recent times, The Gorbals debuted a “sports bar” entrance on 5th Street, around the corner from the original entrance in the derelict lobby of the Alexandria Hotel; the belly of the beast remains the same, but patrons may miss the experience of feeling as though they’re navigating through the rough-and-tumble namesake Glasgow neighborhood Hall paid tribute to in commissioning his restaurant. Prior to opening a second restaurant in his native New York, Hall filmed the first two seasons of Esquire’s “Knife Fight” at The Gorbals, but since the show has migrated home to Brooklyn, the future of the Los Angeles flagship is in the wind.

Seared pig's head, a tribute to sisig

Seared pig’s head, a tribute to sisig

Recent reports have Hall closing The Gorbals in Los Angeles, with possible relocation in the works; although the restaurant has made improvements (like having their own bathroom rather than having to use the hotel’s sketchy facilities down a narrow tunnel in the basement), there have been numerous building issues to contend with over the past five years. If you haven’t been to The Gorbals in a while, I recommend a visit before possible gentrification and/or demise at the end of the year. Don’t be put off by the locked doors, covered windows, and signage advertising restaurant space for rent at the Spring Street entrance beneath the tattered banner; The Gorbals is still serving full-tilt boogie until a final decision is made. This may also be your last chance to enjoy the meaty gastropub fare, such as the pig’s head platter that put The Gorbals on the L.A. gastronomic roadmap.

The poorly-named bánh mì poutine

The poorly-named bánh mì poutine

Chef in residence Peter Haller has amped up a few dishes and added a few new ones, although several dishes on the menu are “off the table” in terms of alteration; of these, the curiously-named “Bánh mì poutine” remains relatively the same. Unfortunately, the bánh mì poutine simply isn’t either; the dish is fresh, but more akin to something you’d have with a vegan beer on the sidewalk at a Whole Foods. There’s no squeaky cheese curds, no savory brown sauce (although to its credit, the hoisin sauce applied is at least the right color); on the Asian side, there’s no crusty, palate-chafing bread, no carrots, no cold cuts or head cheese. Ordering this item with the slightest expectation that it will somehow satisfy your craving for poutine or bánh mì will only result in abject disappointment, and even without the misnomer it’s bland at best; how it makes lists in Los Angeles where you can “eat poutine like a Canadian” is beyond me.

Chef Haller plates Brussels sprouts

Chef Haller plates Brussels sprouts

Since most of the patrons are a drinking crowd, a large portion of the menu follows the popular trend of smaller bar food (banchan, tapas, shareable plates, American dim sum – call it what you will, we’re talking about saucer-sized portions). If reports are true, and The Gorbals remains a fixture on the L.A. food scene, the menu will be noticeably greener – now is the time to sample Chef Haller’s artistry with animal flesh. One standout dish is Haller’s nod to his roots, a dish called “seared pig’s head” that bears some similarity to sisig. A slightly cooked, coarsely-ground pork patty dominates the plate, lovingly caressed by chiles and a calamansi marmalade and finished with a runny fried egg; the dish is nothing short of delicious.

The popular dry-aged beef burger

The popular dry-aged beef burger

The revamped house burger is as tall as it is wide; the dry-aged meat actually expands as it cooks rather than cook down. This beef disk is one of the most popular items, and although the burger is topped with a blend of 7 preparations of onion, they all merge together on the palate. The Gorbals’ take on the popular Thai curry mussels is a welcome departure that succeeds where the bánh mì poutine fails – the dish is still traditional enough to live up to traditional expectations, yet subtly daring. In lieu of Chinese sausage, the bowl is punctuated with balls of “green chorizo” (made with green paprika); instead of potato, cubes of Korean pear impart sweetness while maintaining the texture of potato. The broth is delicious and worth ordering extra bread to sponge it up with.

The Gorbals' take on Thai curry mussels

The Gorbals’ take on Thai curry mussels

Haller is known for spectacular presentations, and the hamachi with Napa cabbage, nam chim, alligator pear, and shrimp chips is visually stunning. Also in the food art category, a roll of braised boneless lamb neck takes center stage on a platter conservatively populated with vegetables and sauce; lamb also features in a very green meatball dish. A picture-perfect duck confit latke is seared with duck fat, topped with duck skin chicharrón and dappled with dots of applesauce and sour cream. The perfect bar food, Chef Haller’s Armenian nachos were borne out of the necessity of feeding a large group on short notice; crispy leaves of lavash are accompanied by a mound of hummus with Havarti and vegetables.

It is unclear what the future holds for The Gorbals, but it’s an adventure that is currently worth undertaking, and you can be relatively certain you won’t encounter a Knife Fight (at least inside the restaurant).

The Gorbals
216 W 5th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
GPS Coordinates:  34° 2’51.45″N 118°15’0.32″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to The Gorbals in Downtown Los Angeles, California

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by The Gorbals. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

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I Went Down To The Crossroads

Quartzsite, Arizona

The official quartz map of Quartzsite

The official quartz map of Quartzsite

Picture a place where quirkiness is de rigueur and places like Portland, Oregon; South Austin, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Venice Beach in Los Angeles immediately come to mind, but the unsung bastion of cheerful insanity is undoubtedly the dry scrap of earth in the middle of nowhere and between everywhere, Quartzite, Arizona. For most of the year, this 36 square mile patch of desert at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Arizona Highway 95 is relatively quiet, but in January and February, over a million people descend on the self-proclaimed Rock Capital of the World for weeks of swap meets and the largest gathering of rock hounds in the United States. The city was founded in 1867 at what was then Fort Tyson and named for its most plentiful resource, quartz; the gems and minerals found in the area attract the bulk of Quartzsite’s visitors, but its strategic location between Yuma to the south, Parker to the north, Phoenix to the east, and Los Angeles to the west makes it a year-round oasis for truckers and RV enthusiasts.

Paul Winer, aka Sweet Pie (nude pianist and book store owner)

Paul Winer, aka Sweet Pie (nude pianist and book store owner)

Summers in Quartzsite can be brutal, with Fahrenheit temperatures reaching as high as the 120s, but there’s still an ore car’s load of joyful lunacy to be found in the off season. One resident who is likely unfazed by the heat is the owner of Reader’s Oasis, the town’s bookstore on Main Street. Paul Winer (aka Sweet Pie, the Nude Boogie-woogie Pianist) dresses for work in little more than a “ball bag” and a pair of sandals, a trademark from his days as a musician in New England. In the 1960s and 70s, the Lynn, Massachusetts-born Winer played clubs throughout New England in his birthday suit, prompting the government to revoke clubs’ licenses when they couldn’t get him to cease and desist his nude pianist act. Winer made Quartzsite his home in 1972, and occasionally performs there in various stages of attire (with occasional gigs as far as New York City), but these days you can usually find him in the massive book store featuring many out-of-print and hard to find titles. Although you may catch him donning a sweater in the colder months, Winer is mostly au natural and will happily pose for pictures and share his life story with anyone who cares to listen.

Paul Bunyan's belt buckle

Paul Bunyan’s belt buckle

Many of the shops that sell gems, minerals and jewelry along Main Street are open year-round; Main Trading Post is a kitschy outlet that would make Elvis proud – a sign outside proclaims the world’s largest belt buckle on display inside. The belt buckle (adorned with turquoise, coral and silver) is approximately five feet wide and is wheeled around on a small cart; apparently Paul Bunyan decided not to pick up his order and left it for the store to proudly display at the entrance. Inside, a 7-foot tall grizzly bear stands decked-out like Texas rapper in turquoise jewelry, looking a little ragged at the edges from wear-and-tear. Shacks and stands are interspersed between the vendors selling everything from homemade root beer to fried cheese curds and western-style scones. One watering hole (constructed of two car ports surrounded by a cedar fence) honestly proclaims “Real Bad Beer, Food and Music – Enter at Your Own Risk”. Also not lacking a sense of humor, there isn’t a body of water closer to the Quartzsite Yacht Club motel than the Colorado River some 20 miles to the west.

A rusty whale at Hassler's RV Park

A rusty whale at Hassler’s RV Park

Even if you’re just passing through, as long as you’re on Main Street it’s worth a quick drive through Hassler’s RV Park, a dusty land that demonstrates what happens when you have a truckload of rebar, a blowtorch and too much time on your hands.  If the row of iron candy canes don’t catch your attention, what is most likely the world’s largest fishing rod will. While a colossal fish laden with not-so heavy metals dangles from the end of the line, a whale comprised of welded metal rings rusts in a tiny pond nearby; a veritable iron menagerie grazes from every patch of ground not occupied by camper or RV.

The grave of camel herder Philip "Hi Jolly" Tedro

The grave of camel herder Philip “Hi Jolly” Tedro

One of Quartzsite most celebrated citizens was Philip “Hi Jolly” Tedro, a Syrian-born camel driver who participated in the U.S. Calvary’s Camel Corp in 1857. After converting to Islam, Tedro changed his name to Hadji Ali, which was mangled by the locals as “Hi Jolly”, the name applied to a variety of places around town. After the failure of the U.S. Army to use camels for transportation, the animals were released into the desert where they became a familiar sight to miners for years; Tedro stayed in Quartzsite hauling freight, prospecting and acting as courier until his death in 1902. As a tribute to the colorful character, the Arizona Department of Transportation erected a quartz pyramid over his grave site in 1934, topped with an iron camel-shaped wind vane, now the main attraction at the burial ground now known as Hi Jolly Cemetery.

Mountain Quail Cafe's chicken-fried steak

Mountain Quail Cafe’s chicken-fried steak

If all this lunacy has given you an appetite like a vulture waiting for something to die, skip the plethora of fast food establishments and “family” restaurants clustered along Main Street; the only thing besides water absent from the desert landscape is fine dining, but the old-school Mountain Quail Cafe on Moon Mountain Avenue serves up hearty, home-style cooking that will satiate you for your continuing journey to the four corners of the Southwest. The building and interior resembles a senior citizen recreation room, but don’t let that dissuade you from dining; the Mountain Quail Cafe serves up the meanest chicken-fried steak this side of the Rio Grande. The atmosphere is friendly – expect the wait staff to ask you to share the story of your personal journey through the crossroads of the golden west.

It will never be an alternate to that family Wally World vacation, spring break in Cancun, or your pilgrimage to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, but you’d be remiss to pass up the opportunity to experience the festive madness that makes Quartzsite a diamond in the rough.

Hi Jolly Cemetery
West Main Street
Quartzsite, AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates:  33°39’52.30″N 114°14’10.81″W

Hassler’s RV Park
400 West Main Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates: 33°39’57.63″N 114°13’25.34″W

Reader’s Oasis Books
690 East Main Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates:  33°40’1.39″N 114°12’20.26″W

Mountain Quail Cafe
490 Moon Mountain Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates: 33°40’27.99″N 114°13’44.14″W

Main Trading Post
1170 West Main Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates: 33°39’44.32″N 114°14’12.98″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s day in the quirky, off-beat city of Quartzsite, Arizona

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