Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's all revelative...

On Saturday, a revelation.  After what felt like an endless quest for decent Mexican food in the East Bay.  After going out of our way (i.e. out from under the rock that is Alameda) late on a Thursday afternoon just for the chance to find something even vaguely familiar (from the Latin familiaris “of the household”).  Just trying to find something, anything that reminded her of home.  Having dead-ended here at Fruitvale's Cinco de Mayo festival:
[Pupusas, griddle fried corn patties filled with cheese, and curtido, the Salvadoran oregano-scented take on saur kraut]

[Argentine arepas, griddled pre-cooked corn cakes speckled with whole corn]

[Tamales de pollo from Tamales Doña Tere on Fruitvale Ave., steamed corn masa filled with chicken and wrapped in corn husks]

To think of all the time we wasted thinking the answer was somewhere out there, anywhere but here.  And then Saturday, a revelation.  Incredible homestyle Mexican right under our fucking noses, not two blocks from where we currently reside.  Here, in Alameda, the epicenter of over-Americanized ethnic foodspots, we discovered Mexican food that wasn't just some watered down, over-salted version of the real thing (I'm lookin' at you La Penca Azul).

We came to El Caballo Wraps to "try" the "street tacos", honestly thinking that this was going to be just another throw away meal that would again leave the bitter aftertaste of raw, unfiltered disappointment in our mouths.  What we got, instead, were the most picture perfect tacos callejeros (which didn't even make it into the photo reel because we scarfed them down so fast).  One de lengua, my go-to taco filling, and another de carne asada, Isaura's go-to and a great barometer for Mexican restaurants.  (If the carne asada is grey or looks it's been anything other than charred or crisped on the flattop - i.e. stewed or boiled, get the hell out outta dodge, son).  The lengua was fatty, crispy and beefy as all get-out, again exactly as it should always be, but isn't.  The asada was noticably grilled, as the term asada suggests, but the fact of the matter is that not every place comes through on this promise, which made this carne standout. But even at this stunning start, we longed to leave.  It was a Saturday night and we wanted to be out, to feel the hum of the city beneath our feet.  But it was cold and rainy anyway, so we decided to stay.  After regaling Oscar, the owner, with tales of our quest for comida casera, of our relief to have found something so sacred, he smiled widely, placing a hand to his heart, offering the most humble gracias.

He then offered us two free samples.  The first this gorgeous, glowing ember-colored tortilla soup.

And this super-fresh tomatillo-chile verde hybrid that I've never even seen before, topped with real crema Mexicana (like sour cream, only better), and queso cotija, a crumbly sheep's milk cheese, also known as feta's drier, saltier cousin.

Minds were officially blown, however, when the entrees arrived.

Rice and beans are also good barometers for Mexican restaurants as they are a mainstay, and both appeared in the grilled chicken burrito.  Both tasted like time.  Like someone had taken the time to brown the rice before adding house-made chicken stock (can't confirm that yet but sure as hell tasted like it).  Like someone had taken the time to caramelize the onions before cooking the beans slowly, over the course of the day.

Finally, the torta to end all tortas.  This one?  De asada.  Chipotle aioli, tomato, avocado, on Mexican telera.  'Nuff said.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yojimbo and Diner Demands

There are certain restaurants to which you travel because there’s something about the place, maybe it’s the people, maybe it’s the food, maybe some mysterious combination of the two that makes every meal memorable.  Yojimbo is, without a doubt, one of these places.  What used to be just another old beach house on Alameda’s Park Street has been converted into a matchbox-sized restaurant with the attitude and ambiance of a close friend’s home.  It’s places like Yojimbo that make hopeless romantics lose it.  The walls are littered with black ink renderings of Japanese and American pop culture icons; Clint Eastwood, Kung-Fu Panda and Totoro to name a few, all painted by one of Yojimbo’s two young chef-owners (who also happen to be brothers).  It’s tiny enough that if there were a bar it could easily be mistaken for an izakaya (the after-hours Japanese bar-and-snack shack hybrid), but it’s also tiny enough that the very thought of trying to find space for such a scheme is pretty much laughable.  It’s so cozy that it’s only out of the kindness of our hearts that we finally end up leaving because when you’re occupying one of only ten other tables, letting the hours fade into the night, it’s easy to see how you’re gluttonous ass is sucking the funds out of the place just by being there, cute as you are.

Coming from humble means, when my 24th birthday rolled around this April, Yojimbo was my celebratory meal of choice.  A lack of financial brawn would keep me out of Yellowtail, my alltime favorite sushi spot (so far), but I knew that with enough batty-eyed persuasion I could convince the chefs at Yojimbo to put together a stellar birthday menu.  And this is what they designed:

Traditional Japanese-style marinated vegetables, or, futomaki, with inari (deep-fried tofu skin) and pickled daikon.

Tempura roll topped with shiro maguro (white tuna), lemon and black tobiko (flying fish roe).

Salmon and avocado topped with unagi (BBQ eel) and wakame (seaweed salad).

The meal was incredible.  The chef who prepared the rolls was extremely humbled by our request; he kept asking, "My style, sushi...my style...?" to make certain we were all on the same page.  The two young women who tag team the dining room as servers were courteous and helpful as always, my water glass is never half empty for a breath past thirty seconds.

So considering just how much I love Yojimbo, you might be able to understand my disappointment when one of my dining companions informed me that they had witnessed the chefs using store-bought instant ramen noodles and foil-wrapped instant soup packets to make their now very popular, very large bowls of “spicy ramen”.  Hard as I try to forgive this choice of prepared ingredients (of which there are considerably more worthy candidates for this application), I can't forgive the chefs for taking an instant noodle-spice packet combo that costs .32 cents at Walmart and elevating it by doing nothing more than adding the word "spicy" to the dish's description on the menu.  Let's leave out the fact that these guys are charging $7 to $8 a pop for these things!  I'd be completely forgiving if they were charging a mere $1.50 for the providing all of the quality boiling water and expertise it takes to make the dish, but they’re not, and it’s killing me a little inside.  No doubt this is what Curtis Stone was referring to when he accused chef Hugh Acheson of “cooking down to your guests” on the last nauseating episode of Top Chef Masters.  (Go here for Eater.com’s Eddie Huang’s unmistakably misogynist take on the show).

As customers, don’t we reserve the right to demand more of the restaurants we love?  Does it not suggest something terrible about who we are and what we value when items like “spicy ramen” show up on menus?  I say this with the understanding that this is not Japan.  And no matter how much we’d like to have a genuinely Japanese experience at a sushi spot some 5,478 miles from the food’s country of origin, it just ain’t happenin’.  What is possible, though, is an appreciation of these wonderful, incredibly unique restaurants for exactly what they are: a well-intentioned love letter to Japan from a tiny suburban island on the coast of California.  I encourage you to continue your patronage to Yojimbo, and to start if you haven’t yet begun, but starve the menu of orders for mediocre ramen.  If we can destroy the market for it, we can destroy the need to make it, and together as eaters and chefs, create something better, which is always, in the end, the goal, no?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Starting Somewhere

I’m sitting in Gaylord’s on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California.  In what could possibly be the most un-Oakland part of Oakland.  Sitting in a window seat inside a coffee shop charging a $1.50 for internet usage and blasting songs by Minor Threat at an unbearable level for any food establishment, it’s unclear which side of the fishbowl you’re on.  While it’s certainly more comforting to think of myself as a quiet, invisible observer in this pristine little bubble, it’s difficult not to entertain the thought that everyone here is trained from infancy in the art of identifying “outsiders”.  Funny…to think of myself as an outsider in my own city.  

Upon completing my local community college’s two-year culinary program last fall, I’d figured out two things: 1.) I was not cut out for the hot, noisy, high-volume kitchens of fine dining restaurants and 2.) I could not have chosen a worse time to abandon the cushy, care-free life of a student.  I was leaving a world where my personal failures elicited little more than a gentle slap on the wrist, and entering a world where the same mistakes could easily seal my fate as one of the millions of Americans who would remain nervously unemployed as one of the worst economic recessions in U.S. history blew over.  For those of us who put in our time in educational institutions, it was like being promised the protection of a nuclear-ready storm cellar, only to find ourselves in the middle of a monsoon…followed by a tornado…hurling softball-sized hailstones at seventy miles an hour.  A natural disaster not even those state-of-the-art cellar doors from the Ivy League where ready for.

The months of unemployment that followed “graduation” were devastating.  Each day spent with my eyes suction-cupped to a computer screen, pouring over what seemed like the same 250 job postings on craigslist for hours on end.  It robbed me of emotional and psychological energy; utterly destroying whatever last shred of dignity still clung to the deep reaches of my broken chi like burnt cheese that still persistently hangs from the ashen grates of a dirty toaster oven.  It rendered me gravely dysfunctional as a human being, and made me completely useless as a friend and confidant to those whom had been there for me in the past.  To be frank, I was lucky to come out of it alive.

So here I am.  Sitting in Gaylord’s on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, across a tiny, water ring-stained table from Isaura, ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend of more than 6 years now.  She made the fatal mistake of falling in love with the Bay Area, moved here from L.A. in the winter of 2009, and together we watched the economy go from bad to worse.  Armed with a degree in Journalism from Humboldt State University (where we first met), she’s doing her best to whether the storm.  She is the person with whom I’d trust my life, my partner in crime, my constant dining companion, my bathroom buddy, the only one willing to talk s--t about me straight to my face.

In a nutshell, this blog is my humble attempt to make sense of this f---ed up world our generation has fallen into, one meal, one album, one bad episode of reality television at a time.