P.B. & J. Cinnamon Rolls

January 15, 2011 Leave a comment

How fun is experimental baking?  No test tubes, beakers, or hydrochloric acid needed.  A generous heaping of creativity, tempered by a dash of common sense can yield inventive family favorites.  The Fun Family loves them some cinnamon rolls!  The gooey classic is always a crowd pleaser, but we also like to mix it up with blueberries or chocolate (check out our recipe here).  At Christmas time, I tested out my Peanut Butter and Jelly creation on a sort of “focus group” of teens.  The feedback ranged from good to really good.  I think they’re pretty stinkin’ good, myself.

You be the judge.

The standard dough and cinnamon/brown sugar filling was used. A couple good handfuls of Reese's peanut butter chips were added to make up the "P.B." part.

The "J" is as simple as adding 1/2 cup of strawberry preserves to the cream cheese icing and using 1/4 cup less powdered sugar.

Categories: Recipes, Sweets Tags:

Nickel Diner (Part 2)

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment
Yes, research is ongoing for The Fun Foodie.  Just wanted to share the latest findings at the downtown L.A. gem, Nickel Diner (read my original review here).  We didn’t sit down this time.  They are very gracious to pack up their sweet treats to go.  I think they do it often.

Red Velvet Donuts. A very enjoyable pastry cream, but not any legit "red velvetiness" going on (more on the Red Velvet craze in a coming cupcake clash). Still, a great donut!

The Maple Bacon and Nutella donuts were as awesome as I remembered. The Strawberry Crumble was a bit too fake tasting for me.

Their apple-filled house-made Pop Tart is many times better than what we all thought was so wonderful as kids!

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

Nickel Diner

December 8, 2010 2 comments

Amidst the historic buildings and inebriated transients of downtown L.A., you’ll find a smattering of world-famous eateries that have been around since The Great Depression.  I’m not sure about the history of Nickel Diner, but its retro look makes it at least seem like it’s been there forever.  A good chunk of downtown has undergone a successful gentrification, but the block that Nickel Diner calls home is definitely not part of that process.  But you would be truly missing out on a gem if you let the surroundings intimidate you.  It’s not as bad as it might look to those unaccustomed to big city woes.  Rarely does anything worse happen than someone asking you for some spare change.  If that’s not encouragement enough to give Nickel Diner a try, take a look at this: 

Maple Bacon Donut with Nutella Donut in the background.

Brioche French Toast with house-made jam.

You read that right, Maple Bacon Donut!  Weird, I know, but think of the salty-sweet goodness of a HoneyBaked Ham, plus the pillow-plush luxury of yeast-risen dough.  Much more substantial and a bit more dense than a Krispy Kreme donut, Nickel’s creative pairing is magic!  The contrast in textures and tastes just works.  Please, trust me.  You must try one before you die.  The Nutella Donut is quite awesome, too.  The added crunch of the crushed hazelnuts is yet another testament to the fearless innovation of the folks at Nickel Diner.  I must return to try the Strawberry Crumble and Red Velvet donuts.  I would go tomorrow if it weren’t for that pesky obligation called a job.

And The Fun Couple makes yet another great French Toast find!  Brioche is a flaky and rich french bread that is a cross between a pastry and a yeast bread.  Nickel takes cinnamon brioche, lightly batters it, griddles to a perfect golden crispiness and serves with butter and house-made jam.  The strawberry-pear-rhubarb jam (I had to ask) was absolutely the best preserved fruit spread I’ve ever had!  I think they fill their homemade pop tarts with it.  Yeah, they make those, too.  Wanna go, dontcha?

We also shared the “Fifth and Main”, spicy BBQ pork hash with two poached eggs.  The shredded pork was tender, but the BBQ sauce was a bit on the sweet side for our tastes (not bad, though).  It did have a nice kick and was paired nicely with the fried potatoes.  The eggs helped tone down everything.  Nice meal, but probably not one we’d order again.  The coffee was good.  So was the service.

Our breakfast came out to be just over twenty bucks with the tax and tip.  My wallet thanked me.  My circulatory system, not so much.  With an ungodly rush of sugar and pork coursing through my system, I could hear my heart whisper:

“I know you hurt me because you love me.”

Nickel Diner on Urbanspoon

Kansas City BBQ Pilgrimage

November 23, 2010 2 comments

Hardcore BBQ fans pray towards Kansas City, their smokey “mecca” that boasts the most BBQ joints per capita in the nation.  It may be the only city where tourism actually centers around a particular cuisine.  Foodies of all walks of life acquaint themselves dreamily with this city through TV, books, and the internet well before making their pilgrimages.  The Fun Foodie recently had the opportunity to spend two days in this BBQ bastion.  I was commited to visiting the three biggies: Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, and L.C.’s..  I had also hoped to make a couple surprise discoveries.

With The Fun Family in tow (my wife plus four kids, 13 and under), the first stop was a relative newcomer, Gregory G’s just around the corner from the Truman Presidential Library.  Reviews were very promising, but our experience was mediocre at best.  Supposedly a “mom and pop” establishment, but the mom and pop were missing.  Had they grown so quickly in such a short amount of time?  If they ever served legit ‘que, it was a thing of the not-so-distant past.  Their food felt commercialized and sterile, lacking any personality or soul.  The ribs were nice and tender, with just a slight hint of smoke.  Decent, but forgettable.  The brisket was sitting pre-sliced in the steam table and was a bit on the dry and bland side.  The sausage was no better than the vacuum sealed links you can find at the grocery store.

Gregory G's brisket; a healthy heaping of beef, but where's the smoke ring?

My highest hopes rested in Arthur Bryant’s, probably the most famous BBQ restaurant in the nation.  This legend came into existence in the 1920’s and has been the focal point of countless television specials, magazine articles and blog posts.  Its locale in a run-down industrial area of downtown may be off-putting to some, but it really isn’t all that bad.  Regardless, the smell of their unique blend of hickory and oak will be comforting.

You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but my heart went all a-flutter upon entering this holy shrine.  We arrived at just a hair before 5:00 pm and were lucky to beat the dinner rush.  I walked right up to the counter guy who was behind a plexi-glass barrier that told me the area probably was as bad as I had read.  I ordered a sausage sandwich and burnt ends with fries.  Burnt ends are a Kansas City delicacy that is difficult to find elsewhere.  The fattiest, smokiest, most charred pieces of the brisket are lovingly trimmed off, drowned in sauce and re-smoked.  We’ve found them at one place in California (check out my cyber-alter-ego review here) and they were really good.  Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends were quite the let down.  The problem was the sauce and the method.  The meat was super tender, but was more like a pot-roast then smoked brisket.  Cooking in all that sauce amounted to more of a braise than BBQ.  Most importantly, the sauce tasted weird.  It had a sharp flavor that was really out of place and overwhelmed the burnt ends.  Just couldn’t get passed it.  Not terrible, just … weird.

The sausage was also weird, but in a good way.  It was sliced thin and, thankfully, served without sauce.  Very savory, smokey and moist.  Arthur Bryant’s lard-cooked, fresh-cut fries are some of the most talked about sides anywhere.  But what we were served were luke-warm and a bit soggy.  Definitely not fresh.  They were tasty enough to let me know that they would be quite special right out of the fryer.  All-in-all, Arthur Bryant’s was a pretty good experience, but pretty good is disappointing when you’re on a pilgrimage.

Arthur Bryant's burnt ends, aka pot roast.

Really, that's sausage. Different looking, but super tasty!

Arthur Bryant's Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Not even ten minutes after finishing up at Arthur Bryant’s, we were being yelled at at Gates BBQ.  They have this strange tradition of yelling, “May I help you??” to customers as they walk in.  Some may find it welcoming, I see it as contrived and fairly annoying.  As we were quite full from our first dinner, the six of us split one burnt ends sandwich and a couple orders of fries.  After ordering, I watched a guy pull a blackened hunk of meat out of the pit and heard him do the meat cleaver boogie for what seemed like hours.  He hacked and hacked and hacked away and placed a huge pile of burnt ends on a roll.  I was shocked at the size of the sandwich, easily enough for two hungry adults.  It comes unsauced, which tells me they have nothing to hide. The meat was great, crispy and smokey, but just a tad on the dry side.  Sauce is a must, not to make up for any short-comings, but because their sauce is excellent!  Well balanced, with chiles, cumin and garlic making for a savory accompaniment.  Gate’s Extra Spicy BBQ Sauce is right up there with the very best I’ve ever had.

The key ingredient to Gate's burnt ends? The meat cleaver boogie.

Gates Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Alas, the time had come to leave mecca.  But I still felt empty.  Figuratively, speaking, of course, as I had eaten enough to feed a small third world country.  I had eaten some very good BBQ in my short time in Kansas City, but I was looking for something more along the lines of a life-changing religious experience.  Heading south out of town, my final hope was L.C.’s BBQ, a smallish joint that was a bit off the beaten path.  It’s billowing smokestack was like a lighthouse drawing me to safety.  The air inside the restaurant was smokey and delicious.  The BBQ pit was right behind the service counter, and I looked lovingly into the heart of this humble joint as each order was filled.  Our order?  Pork spareribs, brisket sandwich, burnt ends and fries.  I don’t remember where I started, all I know is that I didn’t want it to end.  The ribs were amazing!  The meat pulled easily off of the bone without falling right off of them, had a great spice rub encrusted on the exterior and were wonderfully smokey.  The sauce complimented the meat nicely without overpowering it.  It was as close to a perfect rib as I’ve ever had.  The brisket was amazing!  Sliced thin, tender and smokey.  The burnt ends were — you guessed it — amazing!  They were chopped up into perfect little bite-sized pieces, with just the right balance of lucious fat, crispy crust and succulent meat.  Somehow, these tender morsels would just melt away upon contact with my mouth, but still had some substance and bite to them.  I felt like bowing my head to honor this meat after each bite.  Remembering the barred windows outside of the restaurant, I felt like I was in a BBQ prison … but with no desire to escape.  Wow.

And the fries cooked in lard were quite epic, too.

L.C.'s Ribs.

L.C.'s brisket sandwich.

L.C.'s burnt ends.

L.C.’s = Best.  BBQ.  Ever.

LC's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Marston’s

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Food Network Magazine named Marston’s Restaurant in Pasadena the “Best Breakfast in California”.  This cutesy converted house is a few blocks from the heart of Old Town Pasadena and easy to miss.  But it’s also a shame to miss.  You’ll eat in tight quarters but there’s such an inviting and warm vibe to the place.  Then there’s the food….

Corn Flake Encrusted Sourdough French Toast!

Spinach Omelet with Hollandaise and Fried Potatoes!

There just needs to be an international proclamation that all French toast be made with sourdough.  The tanginess of the bread is such a wonderful counterpoint to the sweetness of the batter and syrup.  The corn flake crust is not only a textural delight, but it also imparts a subtle flavor without being overwhelmingly sweet.  This is an amazing treat!  And this is coming from a food nerd who can make some mean French toast.  My only complaint is that the maple syrup came cold.

The Fun Wife went with the omelet, which was bursting with filling and flavor but a tad overcooked.  The egg was a bit dry and tough.  The Hollandaise sauce was bland.  Not bad, but it just didn’t really add anything to the plate.  The big star of our whole breakfast was, surprisingly, the side of potatoes.  These are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill, breakfast home fries.  They’re incredibly savory, an explosion of butter, garlic, onions, and herbs.  “Best Breakfast” is still debatable in my mind.  But these are easily the best breakfast potatoes I’ve ever had.

I look forward to sleeping each night just for the possibility of dreaming about those potatoes.

Marston's on Urbanspoon

Categories: Restaurant Reviews