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Culinary Clash #4: Red Velvet Cupcakes

February 1, 2011 1 comment

Bless the south!  Fried chicken.  BBQ.  Biscuits and Gravy.  I could almost hoist the confederate flag outside of my house.  Almost.  If it had a cast iron skillet on it instead of the blue X, then it would be very possible.  Yeah, I loves me some southern food.

Rooted in southern tradition, the Red Velvet cupcake has become the darling of the cupcake craze.  Invented in the early 1900s, its red hue was originally the product of a chemical reaction between natural cocoa powder and buttermilk.  Somewhere along the way, bakers started adding food coloring to the batter to create a more stunning red.  Nowadays, it’s too easy to waste money on a sorry imitation that is simply a red dyed yellow or white cake.  It may catch the eye, but there’s no distinctive Red Velvet flavor and texture.

I think its “flavor charm” comes from a little bit of sensory trickery.  Our eyes see the red and signals are sent to the taste buds to expect a fruity flavor.  Then we actually partake and the flavor profile is so unique.  It’s that surprise (almost confusion) that is part of the pleasure.  A real Red Velvet cupcake will have a slight hint of cocoa, without being chocolatey.  Add to that a gentle tanginess from the buttermilk and flavor compounds not generally found in nature are created!  It should be moist without being oily and have a delicate crumb that still feels substantial in the mouth.  These final two characteristics are also a chemical reaction attained by using natural cocoa powder, not dutch processed.  Lastly, the cream cheese frosting better not be too sweet!

Upscale cupcakeries dot the southland with their cutesy names and decor.  Among the most popular are Sprinkles, the Beverly Hills hero that started it all, and SusieCakes, the retro bakery that also happens to be one of Martha Stewart’s favorites.  And so we clash….

Red Velvet from SusieCakes.

I really dig the dollop of frosting in the middle of the cupcake, a SusieCakes signature.

Red Velvet by Sprinkles.

As you can see, there’s a big difference in color.  SusieCakes’s is an almost neon red, no brownish tinge, meaning not enough cocoa powder (if any).  It’s very moist, and the frosting surprise in the middle is nice, but the flavor just wasn’t there.  I walked into Sprinkles a bit of a skeptic.  But it lives up to the hype.  The cupcakes are presented beautifully and the service is excellent.  Despite my blurry picture, you can see that it definitely has sufficient cocoa powder.  It’s everything a Red Velvet cupcake should be.  Maybe more.

Throw the towel in!  Sprinkles wins this clash in an easy first round knock out.

Sprinkles Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Susiecakes on Urbanspoon

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Culinary Clash #3: L.A.’s Best French Dip

January 27, 2011 5 comments

The French Dip sandwich.  Maybe Los Angeles’s most famous contribution to the culinary world.  Thinly sliced meats lovingly paired with a crusty french roll and served “au jus” (with the natural juices that collect in the pan during cooking).  Usually the bread is dipped prior to serving but some prefer to dip while eating.  Pre-dip or self-dip, the French Dip is a fine example of The Fun Foodie’s mantra, “Less is More”.

There’s not much doubt that this popular sandwich was birthed in L.A..  The controversy comes with trying to figure out exactly which “hospital” gave it its first spank.  A gamut of legends have emerged.  They range from a simple accidental falling of bread into the pan, to the appeasing of a customer complaining about stale bread, to the kindness of a chef helping a patron with sore gums.

Clash #3 is between the two purported originators of the French Dip: Philippe’s and Cole’s.  Both are 100+ year old institutions with ardent defenders.  But that’s where the similarities end.  Philippe’s is bright and bustling, rather large with a casual feel.  Cole’s is dark and subdued, yet cozy with a retro charm.  Philippe’s menu is extensive, offering a wide range of classic American comfort foods.  Cole’s is straightforward, sandwiches and sides.  I take it as a kind of “in your face” brashness that says, “we’re so good at what we do we don’t need to try to be anything else.”

Philippe's pork dip with potato salad.

Philippe’s roasts huge bottom round roasts for their beef dips.  I was shocked to learn that fact on the Travel Channel.  I had already experienced Philippe’s and it was truly one of the best sandwiches I had ever eaten.  The problem is that bottom round is one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can buy.  And for good reason: it is awful.  The flavor is bland at best (livery, usually), and it is a terribly tough and dry piece of meat (a heavily worked muscle at the animal’s hind quarters with little fat).  I have no idea what Philippe’s does, but they do it right.  They somehow transform a bargain cut into something fit for gourmet consumption.  All it needs is a touch of their house-made hot mustard (be careful, it is really hot!).  As awesome as the beef dip is, we actually like the pork dip even more (they also offer ham, lamb and turkey).

Cole’s uses a much better cut of beef, the brisket.  It is the go-to slab for corned beef, pastrami and Texas BBQ.  It has big, beefy flavor and melt-in-your-mouth succulence when cooked properly (low and slow).  Most foodies would agree that this would give Cole’s the upper hand right off the bat.  I walked into their historic building expecting a clash of titan proportions.  But it wasn’t really that close.  Cole’s beef dip was good.  Very good, in fact.  The meat was tender and flavorful, the bread had that classic crusty exterior, and the “jus” was nice.  Philippe’s is just better in every facet of “French Dip-ology”.

Cole's beef dip. Good, but not quite good enough.

Philippe’s array of creamy side salads are all very good.  Plus, you can get a good cup of coffee for nine cents!  At Cole’s, we had their bacon potato salad, which was extremely good.  If this had been a potato salad clash, Cole’s would’ve scored a knock out.  But this was a battle of L.A.’s finest, the famous French Dip.  Regardless of who actually invented it…

Philippe’s is the best.  Hands down.

Philippe the Original on Urbanspoon

Cole's on Urbanspoon

Culinary Clash #2: Filipino Food Trucks

January 4, 2011 2 comments

The Los Angeles gourmet food truck craze has spawned over 2,000 mobile eateries.  They are truly unique eating experiences, sometimes over-hyped, but often times they’ll break new culinary ground.  Think about it.  With no seating and unpredictable ambience, these trucks have got to come up with creative offerings to bring in business.  From Korean BBQ tacos to burgers smothered with sausage gravy to red velvet pancakes, the menus are inspired and inspiring!  In this “culinary clash”, I’d like to highlight two of the street food scene’s newest competitors: The Manila Machine and The White Rabbit Truck.  As a Pacquiao fan Filipino, their island offerings are near and dear to my heart.  And stomach.

The Manila Machine, the brain child of two food bloggers, was the very first Filipino food truck on the scene (see my original review here).  They offer dishes that feature familiar ingredients that are presented in creative ways.  Their style is a fusion of old school and nouveau.  Excellent food from really friendly folks.

The White Rabbit Truck takes a more aggressive approach, creating a Mexican-Filipino fusion.  Traditional Filipino meats like Adobo and Tocino are paired with tortillas to create distinctive tacos and burritos.  I must admit, the thought was quite off-putting at first.  Don’t get me wrong, I loves me some Mexican food (as in King Taco not Taco Bell)!  It just seemed so very wrong to have the comfort foods of my youth served with anything other than white rice. 

This deep-seeded prejudice overwhelmed me as I approached The White Rabbit Truck while it was parked at Disney headquarters in Glendale.  I ended up ordering an old fashioned Sisig rice bowl.  No fusing cultures on my watch!  We were keeping everything separate … but equal, of course.  But as I waited for my racialy pure dish to be prepared, I had an Affirmative Action moment.  Why not give a Filipino taco a chance?  About 90 seconds after ordering my Sisig, I ordered one Tocino taco.

And it was good!

Tocino taco ... judged by the content of its character!

Really good!  Tocino is cured pork that many think of as “Filipino ham”.  It is not smoked and quite a bit sweeter.  White Rabbit serves it on two corn tortillas and tops it with a tangy and slightly spicy slaw.  The flavors work together like the colors of a rainbow.  I couldn’t believe my taste buds.  Tocino tacos … who woulda thunk it?

Sisig. Kickin' it old school.

The Sisig was also quite good.  A melody of crispy (yet succulent) bits of fried pork, sauteed with onions, garlic, and jalapenos.  It is brightened up with a splash of citrus.  I can definitely see this working fabulously as a taco, kind of a kicked up version of carnitas.  Two complaints about my first White Rabbit Truck experience: the steamed rice was a bit dry, and the tortillas were not warmed up on the griddle (they were brittle and one actually cracked).  C’mon, White Rabbit, measure out the water carefully and slap those tortillas on the griddle for a couple seconds!

Now for “The Clash”….  The Manila Machine makes their Sisig with pork cheeks, and you don’t get much more tender than those nuggets of goodness.  They add a textural counterpoint with crushed chicharrones on top.  The flavor profiles of the two trucks are very similar with this dish, but the unique mouth-feel of The Manila Machine’s rendition is truly a wonder to behold.  Score one for the bloggers!

The signature items … now, that’s a different story.  If I weren’t so full, I definitely would’ve returned to the truck to order a few more tacos.  The Manila Machine’s pandesal sliders were tremendous, especially the Beef Tapa with Achara slaw.  I’d have to call it a draw.  Obviously, more research must be done.

Both trucks are really good, and different enough to carve out their own distinct niches.  I suppose the Sisig and attention to detail (properly cooked rice and gently toasted pandesal) give The Manila Machine the slight edge.  But if they were parked on the same block, I’d definitely visit both!

Mabuhay!

Culinary Clash #1: NY Pizza in San Diego

December 13, 2010 1 comment

I discovered New York pizza during a family vacation to “The Big Apple” more than ten years ago.  It was even better than I expected.  Having worked at a Pizza Hut as a teen, I loved the greasy fried texture of pan pizza.  I still really like it, but I’ve definitely been stricken by the thin crust goodness that started back east.  New York pizza is a true work of art, as well as an offspring of culinary science.  Light on ingredients, the dough must be handled properly in order to form the gluten that gives New York pizza its distinctive chew.  Then there’s the high-heat cooking process that makes it wonderfully crisp.  Yes, crispy and chewy.  Kinda like the very best artisanal bread you can find in high end bakeries.  The sauce (if there is sauce) is almost as simple, emphasizing the bright sweetness of fresh tomatoes.  Sometimes the sauce will be nothing more than crushed tomatoes, salt and olive oil.  Others will add a sprinkling (and I mean sprinkling) of basil, oregano, and/or garlic.  But it won’t be the heavily seasoned, watered-down tomato paste mixtures you’ll find in the large national chains.  There’ll be a smack of freshness to the sauce that may be too foreign to the commercialized palate to be enjoyed.  To me, it was an epiphany.  I had to have more.  I had to find someone — anyone — on the west coast who could do it right.

My good Lord showed favor upon me by allowing me to cross paths with a transplanted New Yorker in San Diego.  His accent was undeniable and brash attitude strangely comforting.  If there was true New York goodness to be found anywhere in SoCal, this guy would know.  I asked, and he did know.  I don’t even remember his name.  I wish I had the chance to thank him for pointing me to Bronx Pizza in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego.  I’ve bragged on it before (read my review here).  It immediately became The Fun Family’s favorite pizza place and a definite must-stop whenever we’re in San Diego.  We’ve found some nice spots in L.A., but nothing really close to the authentic greatness of Bronx.

Curious as to what others were saying about Bronx, I sought the reviews of Yelpers, Chowhounds and bloggers.  It didn’t take long to learn that my beloved Bronx had a rival.  More like an arch-enemy if you take on the passion of these pizza joints’ ardent followers.  Turns out a transplanted Italian opened Pizzeria Luigi, and has built up an almost cult-like following.  I’m no homer.  I’ll not blindly follow or ignorantly answer.  I’m a reasonable man.  And a hungry man.  I decided to see for myself.

And, thus, the first in a series of “Culinary Clashes” I’ll be posting.

Pizzeria Luigi's "Donatello".

We wanted to have as even a playing field as possible, so we went with two very similar specialty pies:  Bronx’s Whitestone vs. Luigi’s Donatello.  Both are sauce-less with mozzarella and ricotta.  Whitestone adds grated parmesan and minced garlic, while Luigi adds only grated romano.  Both use high quality cheeses that are very milky and creamy.  Romano is supposed to be much sharper than parmesan, but I didn’t catch that distinction.  The garlic really was the difference.  It was a unanimous decision amongst the six of us judges.  That added punch of flavor just really put it over the top.  The Whitestone is a unique and tasty pizza experience!

I must say that Luigi’s crust edges out Bronx’s.  They’re both close to perfect, Luigi’s just happens to be a little closer.  A tad crispier, with just the right amount of dark brown charring for added flavor.  Their oven must be quite a bit hotter.  Had we never had a Bronx Whitestone, I’m sure the Donatello would’ve been the very best pizza we’ve ever had.  In fairness, it could be that Luigi has another pizza that could beat Bronx.  Maybe something featuring their marinara.  Or possibly that BBQ Chicken Pie I saw in the glass counter.

Hmmm, maybe we should have a rematch.

Pizzeria Luigi on Urbanspoon