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KotW: Wow for wowshi. March 23, 2009

Posted by panterazero in Kip of the Week, restaurants, reviews.
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West Los Angeles, less imposing than downtown to the East and less posh and pricey than Santa Monica to the west, is a Shangri-La for cheap eats. Today, let’s talk about wowshi.

Wowshi, if you’ve never met them (I never had), are a Middle Eastern take on calzone — a spicy meat filling wrapped in pita dough, then baked to a delectable brown. Contrasted to the Italian contender, there’s no messy red sauce, the fillings are more varied, and the bread jacket is far more tender and flavorful. This is a big win.

Last night I had my first wowshi at Bella Pita on Westwood Boulevard. This is a little vest pocket of a place that seats about 10, cozily, and does a robust trade over its counter. The menu is not only wowshi, but more formal sandwiches on the same delectable home-baked pita, as well as falafel, and side dishes like french fries, fried cauliflower, black beans, and Kalamata olives. Naturally, I didn’t and couldn’t sample everything in a single visit, I only wanted to. And, of interest in these trying times, there’s not a thing on the menu over seven dollars — which is why this place does a roaring lunch business with rave reviews.

If you happen to be in West LA, you’ll find a ton of really good ethnic fast food, most of it cheap. Give serious thought to Bella Pita, which is a place I’d go back to any time — and we know I’m picky.

Bella Pita
1945 1/2 Westwood Blvd.
West Los Angeles
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.

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Peppers (yes!) sausage (yes!) January 24, 2009

Posted by panterazero in exotic!, herbs & spices, pig pig pig, restaurants, reviews, Uncategorized.
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Sometimes I chase after peppers, and sometimes I stumble over them.  Last week in Southern California, I had a surprise roughly comparable to the existence of Saeng’s Orient — the discovery of a fine Hungarian restaurant and deli in a tiny town in the high desert.

Hungarian cuisine is legendary for its promotion and extensive use of paprika peppers, whether in the dry ground form also called paprika, the lip-stinging and lipstick-red preserve called lecsó, or simply as a vegetable to be sliced and cooked in soup or stew.  Of course, various types of fresh hot peppers can be found — and are inventively used — all over central and southern Europe, but many Hungarians are convinced that the best European hot peppers with a pointed shape grow only in Hungary.  (Sounds like New Mexico.)

Cut to the barely known community of Littlerock, California, which is about half the size of NetHeadChef’s “P’ville,” with one post office instead of two, and without the university.  It’s a pleasant place, and various farm stores advertise specialties like jerky, fresh fruit, homemade candy, etc.  So far it’s not too different from some other towns in the California high desert.

But in the 8800 block of Pearblossom Highway, Valley Hungarian Sausage & Meat Company offers 36 kinds of homemade sausage — most European, some not — together with sliced cold cuts, Hungarian plate lunches, pierogies, an amazing range of Hungarian specialties in jars, cans, and bags (even Hungarian pasta!), and, naturally, homemade dill pickles.  Their fresh Hungarian sweet sausage is exceptional, and I say that without fear of contradiction.

Littlerock is about 40 miles east of Santa Clarita, or about 70 miles northeast of downtown LA.  It’s worth the drive, but I would call or e-mail first to confirm hours:

Valley Hungarian Sausage & Meat Company
8809 Pearblossom Highway
Littlerock, CA 93543
Ph: (661) 944-3351
vhsm@sbcglobal.net

KotW: New Mexico Food, Part Two July 16, 2008

Posted by sarawr in herbs & spices, Kip of the Week, New Mexico, restaurants, roasts, soups and stews.
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THE LOCAVORE IN HEAVEN: Green Chile Stew

This is the signature dish of some parts of New Mexico, and has escaped to a few places — not many — in other southwestern states. If the chile grows where you are, you can order this (usually for about five bucks a bowl) at fancy restaurants, less fancy restaurants, coffee shops and even airport lunch counters (note 7). If the chile does not grow where you are… which may be only a few miles of difference… you will ask for green chile stew and the waitress will look at you funny.

But although it’s useless to order this in a restaurant in (say) northern California, you can make it yourself if you acquire the materials. That’s an adventure in itself and not cheap, but it can be done. Personally, I do it, because I think that really good green chile stew is one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. (And if the best green chile stew I’ve ever made has never quite equaled what they serve in the little restaurants around where Sara lives — well, that’s the exile’s lament.)

4 quarts chicken stock (note 1)
28-ounce can diced Italian tomatoes in juice
2 big yellow onions chopped fine
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 lb. (about a dozen) roasted Barker, Big Jim, Sandia or Socorro green chiles, skinned, topped, seeded and chopped (note 2)
two teaspoons powdered cumin
two teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
salt to taste
3 4-ounce cans Hatch diced green chiles (note 3)
1 cup of 505 (or other) medium green chile sauce
4 to 6 cups of roast chicken meat, mixed light and dark, diced (note 4)
6 stalks of celery trimmed and sliced
6 carrots pared and cut into hunks
2 large white potatoes, peeled and cut into french-fry-like sticks (note 5)
one can El Pato Salsa de Chile Fresco (note 6)

Bring the chicken stock to a boil, add the tomatoes and onions, and let simmer twenty minutes. Press in the garlic, add the chopped roasted chiles, cumin, oregano, and salt, and let simmer twenty minutes more. Add the canned chiles, chile sauce, meat, celery and carrots, and cook till the carrots are half-done. Add the potatoes and the El Pato sauce, and continue to cook till the potatoes are sort of not raw. (They’ll keep cooking in the hot broth but you want them to still be a little crunchy.)

Serve with warm flour tortillas, homemade if you can get them.

NOTES

1. The best chicken stock, of course, will be made from the carcasses of a couple of roast chickens, with vegetables and seasoning. If you don’t feel like going that far, use good-grade chicken stock in boxes, but choose organic and low-sodium — you can adjust the salt later on your own and you don’t want too much added in advance.

2. Where the chiles grow, you can get these freshly roasted in August and September, or frozen the rest of the year. If, like me, you don’t live there, you can order them (mostly in fall, winter, and spring, not summer) frozen and airfreighted from places like newmexicanconnection.com or hotchiles.com. They’ll be about $10 a pound.

I recommend you buy medium or medium-hot frozen peppers, and whole, not chopped. The ones that are chopped before freezing lose too much flavor — at least for that price. When you’re ready to use the peppers, thaw them, take the tops off, hold them under cold running water, slip off and discard the skins, split the peppers open and rinse out the seeds, then chop the peppers.

3. Yes, the canned chopped peppers do have to be Hatch — the national brands, like Ortega and La Victoria, don’t taste the same at all. As for the sauce, it can be 505, Garcia, Hatch, Leal’s… just so long as it’s from New Mexico or, at a stretch, West Texas. If you don’t have sauce, use more canned peppers, and vice versa, but it’s best to use both.

4. Chicken is my preference but you can also make this with bite-size pieces of pork shoulder, or even with hamburger, although that’s my least favorite. If you use red meat, brown it before you add it.

5. These are authentic, but optional. If you use them, you might want to put them in what you’re currently serving rather than in the whole pot, so they won’t get cooked twice in the leftovers.

6. This is sold in little yellow eight-ounce cans. One side says “Tomato Sauce” (understatement) and has a picture of a blue-headed duck in an oval frame (“El Pato” means “the duck”). The other side says “Salsa de Chile Fresco” and has a picture of three chili peppers, one red and two yellow. This sauce adds cascabel chiles to the stew, which are very good things. In the Southwest you can buy this in Wal-Mart, in California I’ve even found it in Safeway, and you can also buy it online; it’ll cost fifty cents to a dollar-fifty a can depending on where and how you buy it.

7. Most of the restaurants with good stew are sort of…remote. But on the upper floor of the Albuquerque airport (Sunport), between the elevators and the A gates, there’s a coffee counter called Black Mesa Coffee Company that makes excellent green chile stew. Also pretty good coffee.

(c) July 2008 Kip Crosby

Saeng’s Orient Review. June 29, 2008

Posted by schizodigestive in New Mexico, restaurants, reviews, Thai.
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Kip and I have an announcement to make: There is water in the desert. And by “water,” we mean “good Thai food.” It’s hard to find decent Asian food of any variety ’round these parts (these parts being the Land of Enchantment, er, Enchiladas) — Adri had been telling me about Saeng’s Orient  for three years, but I never got around to going. This weekend being what it was — Adri, Kip, and I sitting around thinking of things to eat — the topic of Saeng’s came up again. The difference was, this time we actually went.

Saeng’s Orient is the kind of restaurant that doesn’t exist on the plains. It’s a bright blue, hand-painted metal structure that may have originally been a trailer. It’s on a classic two-lane blacktop road, halfway between civilization and an Air Force base. You would have to see the “neon” “sign” to believe it; the thing is nothing more than several strings of Christmas lights tortured and twisted into letters that spell out “Saeng’s Orient” in four different, jarring colors.

The dining room is more reassuring — but not by much — than the exterior, with sturdy wooden tables that seat four, nondescript carpeting, and bright calendars and posters of Thailand. We were encouraged to choose our own table, and it’s a good thing we liked it, because we ordered and then waited a while. (A good while, as it turned out — as the waitress told us after twenty minutes, “Saeng likes to make this stuff fresh, you know.” To which we said, “Okay.” Who’s gonna argue with totally fresh Thai?)

The menu, with about twenty-five Thai dishes and fifteen Chinese dishes, also does some tongue-in-cheek borrowing from Japan (chuka soba) and the Philippines (pansit), and includes several dishes that might baffle even an aficionado of big-city Asian cuisine. Any dish can be ordered at one of six (!) levels of spiciness, ranging from “no hot,” which actually isn’t, to “X-hot,” which is recommended only for those with seriously armored mouths. (Or for those upon whom you wish unending suffering, according to Adri.) “Medium” is a good compromise, which allows for all the flavor but won’t leave you with nagging blisters.

We started with fried gilozi and pork satay with peanut sauce. You might think that gilozi are like Japanese gyoza, but they’re not — the skins are thicker, the ends are tucked, and the filling is more finely ground. (Sara called them “a demon cross between an egg roll and a wonton” at the time, and she’s not wrong.) The crimson, translucent Thai sweet & sour sauce served with them involves pineapple juice, coconut milk, tamarind juice, red curry paste, and several other ingredients — this is not shopping-mall sweet & sour sauce. The satay, meanwhile, were adorned with grill stripes, gloriously chewy, and thickly coated with homemade peanut sauce comprising impossible amounts of garlic. (Sara interjects here to say NOM NOM NOM.)

The first entrée, Michael’s basil-and-beef stir-fry in brown sauce, proves that “no hot” emphatically doesn’t mean “not spicy.” The flavorful deep-brown sauce contained galanga, turmeric, and other ingredients that complemented the basil perfectly — but, unusually for a Thai dish, no chili pepper, which made the interplay of flavors very gentle. Although the dish was definitively “no hot,” the most amusing moment of the dinner came when Michael was about twelve bites in: we all looked over to see him, bright red and terribly sweaty, with his eyes bulging from his head and a terribly distraught look on his face. “It’s good,” he said, “but it TASTES like something.” The “something” was, in fact, nothing more sinister than basil.

Kip had the pad prik khing, rich with chunks of marinated pork and fresh green beans, but prepared “medium,” meaning with enough chili pepper to cause total surrender of his sinuses. The same chili was the armature of Adri’s delightful red chicken curry, the light coconut-based sauce of which was speckled with scarlet grains that really packed a wallop. Unusually, the only vegetable included was bamboo shoots, but the straightforward quality of the ingredients gave the sauce the priority it deserved. Sara’s pad thai was absolutely fantastic, and absolutely huge. The testament to its greatness came when writing this entry: there was plenty of the basil and beef left over for reference purposes, but absolutely none of the pad thai. Served mild, it was absolutely perfect — the curry had a nice sharp bite, but didn’t overpower the onion, peanut, and yellow sauce. The noodles, too often a sticky afterthought in this dish, were firm, translucent, and obviously delicious on their own. (NOM.)

We would write about dessert, but we left right after the meal, stuffed to capacity and dizzy with food shock. We’ll take it on faith that Saeng’s Orient offers some of the finest Asian food in New Mexico.

As promised — Turkish food! June 20, 2008

Posted by schizodigestive in guests, restaurants, Turkish.
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This one comes from Kip, too — it’s sort of a follow-up to the eggplant post, albeit only loosely connected. After this, he’ll be guest-posting on some sort of regular schedule, but it won’t quite be three times a week. Let’s give him a nice big hand now, shall we?

I will never understand why Americans aren’t BATS about Turkish food. It is da bomb.

I mean, in Turkey, 72 million Turks eat the stuff every day and fervently — or let’s say fiercely — recommend it to guests. So it must have something to recommend it. And does it ever!!

Turkey’s culinary prowess arises partly from its location amid not only Greece, whose cuisine is justly renowned, and Iran whose food is flat-out great, but lesser lights like Azerbaijan. Not only that, but Turkey spent centuries as the crossroads of the Mediterranean world, so in Turkish cooking you get hints of Sicily, Morocco and even — thanks to the habits of the Turkish moneyed classes — France.

What you end up with, if you’re lucky, is something like the dinner I had in New York last night:

Appetizers:
Fried calamari in tender alabaster-white rings with a golden coating of impossibly fine breadcrumbs, like panko. Actually, a lot like Japanese fried calamari, just cheaper.

Chunks of roasted eggplant mixed with tart Turkish plain yogurt and covered with a roasted red bell pepper.

Feta cheese mashed with parsley, rolled in a tube of filo pastry and deep-fried.

Entree:
A bed of roasted eggplant mixed with butter and grated cheese, topped with slices of grilled marinated lamb, topped again with a thin tomato sauce flavored with cumin.

Salad:
White beans (cannellini), black olives, chopped ripe tomatoes, red onion, cucumber and lots of parsley, in a red wine vinaigrette.

Dessert:
Dried apricots simmered in sweet white wine, stuffed with a creamed blanched almond, and dusted with ground pistachios. (If you’re not in the mood for fruit, there are great Med-conventional desserts like baklava, semolina cake or fried custard.)

And… Turkish coffee. I mean, srsly.

Ok, I’m sorry, but if your mouth isn’t watering by now your tongue is made of STONE. And yet in all the places I go put together, I can only find three Turkish restaurants! Why is this?! Next time you get a chance to go out for Turkish food, don’t pass it up!
……………

My favorite restaurant in New York, bar none, is the Turkish place I went to last night. I’m not going to plug it here, but if you want the address, email me at panterazeroATgmailDOTcom.

Mmm, now I’m hungry. The steak-and-potatoes post is coming, guys; things have been crazy around here and I ended up making a pizza instead — and then eating leftover pizza instead. See you on Monday!