Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Croquer: Homegirl Café

I have heard about Homeboy Industries over the years, the nation's largest gang intervention program started by priest Father Greg in downtown LA, offering job training and placement, tattoo removal, psychological services, anger management classes, legal services, and most of all a community for men and women who are in desperate need of hope. But it wasn't until recently that I had heard about Homegirl Café & Catering, staffed by 30 young women who are in training to learn the various aspects of the food service industry, plating some incredibly fresh and delicious Mexican dishes, most of the produce direct from their own organic garden. Now serving Saturday brunch in addition to weekday breakfast and lunch, I had a couple of friends meet me downtown to kick off our weekend. 
The sunny, modern space was clearly already a popular brunch destination, we got a table just before the room completely filled up. The service was extremely friendly, and upon asking, the recommendations came flying. Our server suggested Angela's Potion to drink, described as spinach and mint limeade. "Trust me, it's goood," she assured, and it was! Frothy fresh from a juice maker, the concoction was tart, herby and refreshing. My friend Kaya got Sarah's Drink, a vibrant Raspberry and Mango juice.
Now with more anticipation, we dug into the extensive menu, perplexed as to what to get. The brunch offerings spanned a large variety of Mexican breakfasts, tacos, salads, and unique sandwiches such as Chata's Sandwich (roast beef with spicy apple & tomatillo salsa, red onions & mayo) and Consuelo's Sandwich (homemade jalapeno pesto, panela cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions & mayo).
But let's be honest, when Chilaquiles are on a menu, and featured as they were on Homegirl's menu, it's a no-brainer. Homegirl's crisp tortillas are simmered in salsa and topped with red onions, cotija cheese, sour cream & cilantro, with choice of green tomatillo salsa or Gabrielle’s morita salsa, and served with choice of black beans, salad or Homegirl potatoes. Kaya went with the morita red sauce and potatoes, while I went tomatillo, black beans and added a fried egg. Though I enjoyed my bracingly tart plato verde, the smokey morita chilaquiles hit the spot with adequate heat and bold flavor.
Cat arrived fashionably late and ordered the Enchiladas Negras, rolled tortillas stuffed with scrambled eggs and topped with salsa negra and cotija cheese, served with cabbage, jicama, orange and cucumber slaw. The salsa negra was rich and delicious, I found myself sneaking spoonfuls from the edge of Cat's plate.
In fact, all of the sauces were so tasty that I was very happy to read today that Homegirl salsa is due to start arriving in Ralph’s stores soon, and also that a Homegirl Café is being seriously considered for a new section of LAX.
Thankfully Homeboy’s businesses—the Homeboy bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen and the Homegirl Cafe—are all largely self-sustaining. But the main services that Homeboy provides to approximately 12,000 people each year from gangs all over LA County who come for help are given away free. Since 2008, like many nonprofits, Homeboy has seen its grants and donations slide drastically. Meanwhile, fiscal hard times caused the number of people in need of Homeboy’s services to rise. Now, an estimated $5 million is needed to keep Homeboy going.
In May, Father Greg and his senior staff had to lay off 330 of their 427 employees.
“People are willing to raise tens of millions to save the Hollywood sign and MOCA,” said Greg following the announcement, “and I don’t begrudge that. I love MOCA. I just wish the same level of concern was present when it comes to saving the real, live human beings who come through our doors every day at Homeboy.”
Those wishing to donate to Homeboy Industries can do so here, while supporting Homegirl Café and Homeboy's other businesses will continue to help.
And after such a lovely experience, I personally can't wait to go back. The food is undeniably Angeleno, and loaded with heart.

130 Bruno St. Downtown LA; 323.526.1254
Homegirl Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 28, 2010

Croquer: The Dim Sum Truck

I may have been on my way to gobble chili and beer all afternoon, but driving through Santa Monica on Sawtelle Saturday morning, a pale yellow truck emblazoned with my favorite weekend words "Dim Sum" caused me to steer curbside.
I didn't have much time and only wanted a sample, so quickly ordered my Dim Sum go-to, a pair of BBQ Pork Buns (one steamed and one baked, please). Now, looking over the menu more closely, next time I'll have to be sure to try the Pan Fried Pork Spare Rib Buns, Lotus Wrapped Sticky Rice, and Peking Duck Tacos...

Croquer: Yaki's

Sometimes simplicity is best.
After years of discounting the teriyaki bowl as a Yoshi-no-no, a recent lunch in Burbank rekindled my appreciation for a basic meal of charbroiled protein, veggies, rice, and sauce.
I have no idea how pioneering Yaki's the Original Teriyaki Bowl actually was in the history of the Americanized beef bowl, but I do know that people still LOVE the place. A small booth sitting on the corner of Alameda and Main, Yaki's is fast but hardly menial, with remarkably friendly service. And is seemingly rather health conscious. Their menu touts "Eat lean. It's your body." Further stating that Yaki's uses no MSG, only skinless boneless chicken and lean beef, and that Yaki Sauce & Yaki's Bravo Sauce contain no fat.
The fresh and tasty bowl does hit the spot without overfilling. My favorite is the Suicide bowl - charbroiled chicken over steamed rice and cabbage topped with Yaki's sauce and spicy cilantro-y Bravo sauce. Splurge and add grilled fresh pineapple for fifty cents.
And if I'm feeling naughty... I get the Bull Dog - A hot dog with cheese and mustard wrapped like a spring roll and deep fried. The mayo-ribboned teriyaki dipping sauce makes the treat a truly sinful delight. Because nothing says "eat lean, it's your body" like a cheese-oozing-deep-fried-Asian-pig-n-a-blanket. Also available by the 3-pack with fries, aptly called the Dog Pound. Woof!

904 W Alameda Ave. Burbank; 818.845.1016

Croquer: Free Chili 2010 in review

America may have lost this Saturday (..the first -and last- sports reference on ChocoMeat), but Texas helped ease the pain at Brennan's Pub in Marina del Rey with the Third Annual Free Chili cook-off. What started with a Jameson shot with fellow judge Chris "CJ" Jacobson (a fan favorite from Bravo's Top Chef and chef at Santa Monica's The Yard) ended with a belly full of spicy chili, cold beer, and an all-around rip-roaring good time.
Competition was tough - These folks were NOT messing around!
Free Chili co-founder Matt Brennan flexes his Meat Hammers.
The Chili Cone man.
3rd place winners, second year in a row!
The Captain came in 2nd (his Wisconsin cheddar cornbread was bomb).
Free Chili co-founder Adam Ford and the day's landslide winner, chili champion Nate Ford.
Judge's Table: Chris "CJ" Jacobson, Mackenzie Miller (of the Texas Exes), and myself waxing poetic on our blind tastings.The chili was judged sans accoutrements, a controversial rule the Texans were steadfast on.
The Free Chili 2010 posse. Hey, everyone wins! Well, except for the chili awarded with the "Golden Skidmark" (lowest score)... Those ladies were not stoked!
A happy foodie family. Judges with Free Chili co-founder Aileen Burdock.

Looking forward to Free Chili 4 next year! Perhaps I'll even enter the competition myself...

Photos courtesy of Barbara Bialkowski

Friday, June 25, 2010

Buvare: Il Gentiluomo

On the eve of a friend's classic cocktail party, I thought I'd post this little concoction inspired by some recent visits to cocktail hot spots The Tarpit and District. So far my predictions about Amari haven't been far off, herbal liqueurs such as Averna, Torani Amer, and Cynar have been steadily rising to the top of the cocktails lists at many of my favorite joints. A pleasant night at home led to this Hoskins Cocktail kith bitter-orange-driven Italian Gentleman...

Il Gentiluomo

2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce Torani Amer
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Tuaca
1 dash orange bitters

Fill a mixing glass with ice and add ingredients.
Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Cin cin!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Recettes Secrètes: Milk Chocolate Hazelnut Panna Cotta

Showing up to a dinner party empty handed just isn't an option. Wine, fine, but I still always feel guilty for not contributing more. For the last, I insisted on dessert as well. My brilliant party planning friend Nicolette of the Kitchen sugested this great recipe adapted from "The Craft of Baking" by Karen DeMasco (Clarkson Potter, 2009). It was easy and turned out delicious! The best part is that you can make it ahead of time, avoiding that whole potholders-in-the-car scenario we all love so much...

Milk Chocolate Hazelnut Panna Cotta
Time: 20 minutes, plus 6 hours chilling
Makes 6 servings

1 1/8 tsp unflavored powdered gelatin
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup Nutella
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts, for serving

In a medium bowl, whisk gelatin with 3 tablespoons cold water. Place chopped chocolate in another medium bowl. In a large bowl, combine Nutella and salt.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring cream to a boil. Pour half the cream over gelatin mixture and whisk gently to combine; stir in vanilla. Pour remaining cream over chopped chocolate; whisk until smooth. Combine two mixtures; whisk well.
Pour one-third of the gelatin-chocolate mixture over Nutella; beat using an electric mixer on low speed until a smooth paste forms. Pour in remaining mixture and milk; beat until fully combined.
Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into six ramekins. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until set, about six hours or overnight. Serve sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts, if desired (I substituted chopped hazelnut Ritter Sport).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Croquer: Sri Siam

"Well you haven't done me wrong.. yet," I told my boss as he drove me and a couple of coworkers into the valley for a destination lunch break at one of NoHo's cult Thai secret spots. "Pressure's on," he grinned, pulling into a tiny strip mall housing a donut shop, 7-11, and Sri Siam Cafe.
The shoebox of a storefront had only one open table which we tucked quickly into whilst plates piled with steaming noodles and huge fragrant slices of fresh pineapple sailed past.
We ordered a table-full of dishes, including the spicy roast duck in red curry (above), with coconut milk, pineapple, fresh tomato, Thai eggplant, basil leaves, and tender duck. This one made me tear up a bit at "medium" heat.
My favorite was the texturely-sensational Crispy Rice Salad - Thai sour sausage mixed with crispy rice, roasted peanut, ginger, and green onion with fresh mint, cilantro and lettuce leaves for wrapping. Crunchy, tart amazingness.
The Pad Kee Mao (flat noodles stir-fried with beef, green chili, and basil leaves) was flavorful, but surpassed slightly by its competition. Finishing off with a Thai iced tea with black pearl tapioca to cleanse the burn, it was easily one of the best Thai meals I've had yet in Southern California. Worth the afternoon trek. And the 'colorful' valley scenery along the way...

12843 Vanowen St. North Hollywood; 818.982.6262
Sri Siam Café on Urbanspoon

Croquer: Lake Street Creamery

OK so this tiny kitten licking a tiny ice cream cone may have sold me, but the Lake Street Creamery truck has a mouthwatering menu worth checking out.
I'm ready for the Pancake Breakfast Ice Cream, with real maple syrup, bacon chunks and fresh ground peaberry coffee. There's also a cake donut flavored ice cream, licorice flavored Black Jack, and chili-spiked chocolate Aztec Sacrifice Ice Cream. All in an eco-friendly waffle bowl. Or if you prefer, floating in black cherry or cream soda.
Truck launches this Saturday, so grab your cat, tiny hat, and let's do this.

Follow them on Twitter

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Croquer: Free Chili 2010!

Join Chocomeat this Saturday, June 26th 2010 at 1:00pm for a serious Texas-style chili cook-off!
Organized by some Texans who know good chili, the Third Annual Free Chili promises some stiff competition and a whole lotta hotness!
I will have the honor of judging the contesting chili alongside Chris "CJ" Jacobson, who was a contestant on season three's Top Chef and is currently the chef at Santa Monica's The Yard, and Mackenzie Miller, a native Texan who was born into chili and also organizes the LA chapter of the Texas Exes.
All are welcome to try their hand at the chili competition, but forewarned though there are no ingredient restrictions, keep in mind these Texans are hardcore! "You can come with chicken green chili with white beans...but you get no respect. That being said, in 2009 a vegan chili placed 3rd in the fan favorites..."
Partaking in enjoying the chili is free and open to all, and what better way to spend a beautiful sunny afternoon on the coast? Austin's own Tito's Vodka is rumored to have a presence as well - Never a dull addition to a FREE chili fest.
More details on entering and attending can be found at
Did I mention it's free? 

Saturday, June 26th 2010 at 1:00pm
Brennan's Pub
4089 Lincoln Blvd. Marina del Rey, CA 90292; 310.821.6622

Croquer: Carmela ice cream

My coworker Julie made my day today. She called me to the conference room kitchen after returning from an off-site event with a surprise. It was in the form of several pints of Carmela Ice Cream, who had catered her event.
She passed me a spoon with a grin. The salted caramel was just starting to melt, but continued to blissfully melt in my mouth like a pat of frosty butter. Cacao nibs crackled through bites of dark chocolate. One vibrant with honey and subtle lavender notes made me pine for a warm tarte tatin to smother with it. But the winner was the fresh mint with cacao nib - "The mint is fresh from his garden" Julie told me, and the proof is in the pudding.
The LA-favorite is available at farmers markets (Hollywood, Culver City, South Pasadena, Pacific Palisades) and a few local stores (Naturewell, The Curious Palate, Locali, Joan's on Third).

Images via

Monday, June 21, 2010

Croquer: Lasagna Lab at Cube

There's really no excuse for NOT eating out this Tuesday night. Finely curated marketplace and café Cube on La Brea is a couple of weeks deep into its summer-long Tuesday Night Lasagna Lab, where $20 buys you a farm-fresh meal of chef Erin Eastland's homemade pasta lasagna, imaginative side salad (no "mixed greens" here), and a glass of wine paired by Cube's wine director -and owner- Alex Palermo.
The other Tuesday, I nabbed a last minute reservation at the cheese bar to check it out. The small café and sidewalk patio were bustling but not overstuffed, the charming server still able to immediately present an amuse-bouche and dole out some charm. We ordered the lasagna prix fixe, and in addition a starter of the Hamachi crudo. This "Italian sashimi" is composed with house pickled kumquats and leek scapes, drizzled with fruity olive oil. The puckish kumquats add a satisfying zing to the sea spray fresh dish.
After the hamachi our server returned to regretfully inform us that (at 7:15pm) they were already out of the special lasagna prix fixe... In frank disbelief we asked if she was certain. Our orders had been in, and I knew the books were filled up all night for the special menu - seemed early in dinner service to have run out. She returned saying that they had one left, so we gratefully claimed it, and in place of the other ordered the sweet corn stuffed pasta with brown butter, bacon, red cow parmesan. 
The sweet corn pasta was delicate and fresh. Refreshingly, the bacon was not overpowering, rather the rich cheese dominated the flavor profile. A nice addition to the meal.
The special this week was a white lasagna with baby zucchini, squash blossoms, and also the delightfully pungent red cow parmesan. My disdain of 'fallback zucchini' diminished with the crisp paper-thin slices of farmer's market baby zucchini here, layered between delicate pasta sheets and bolstered with conservative amounts of cheese. The salad of spring baby greens, grilled peach, cipollini onions, thick cut bacon, and aged balsamic was fantastic, all rounded off nicely with the 2004 Ca'Rossa Roero Nebbiolo.
Definitely plan a Tuesday or two at Cube before September, but book a reservation for early in the night so you don't miss out! And if lasagna is not your steez, swing by for Dessert Bar Mondays featuring $5 sweetmeat small plates (like Tres Leches Cake with Vanilla Bean Parfait & Milk Meringue) from Executive Pastry Chef Jun Tan, mini cheese plates by Cube Gourmet Buyer Rachael Sheridan, and of course more paired wines by Palermo.

Cube Cafe & Marketplace
615 N La Brea Ave. LA; 323.939.1148
Cube at Divine Pasta Co in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Cube Cafe on Urbanspoon

P.S. On the topic of awesome homemade lasagna... The recent lasagna special at my new favorite neighborhood haunt Osteria Mamma was also delicioso!

Osteria Mamma
5730 Melrose ave. LA; 323.284.7060

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Croquer: Flying Pig

This spring's Silver Lake Jubilee may have been a sleepy alternative to the overcooked Sunset Junction summer cluster-you-know-what, but the Jubilee definitely represented what LA's current mobile food scene has to offer. One newbie to me was the cotton candy pink truck donning a flying pig called.. Flying Pig.
James Seitz's menu transposes Asian and Pacific Rim recipes using Le Cordon Bleu French technique, proffering some tasty results.
First on my list was the braised pork belly with red onion escabeche, pickled sesame cucumber, death sauce on a steamed bao bun - basically a chocomeat bushwhack, reason enough to seek out the pink truck.
Furthering me admiration was the spicy pork taco of marinated pork shoulder with green papaya, black sesame seeds, cilantro cream, and death sauce.
And for dessert the tamarind duck taco - Duck confit with pickled red beets, toasted almonds, radish sprouts, mandarin orange, and tamarind gravy. YUM.

Don't wait for Sunday dim sum, seek out this sucker.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Voyager Bien: Moto

I'm missing New York this week. Over the past few years a few Brooklyn joints have proven to be mainstays in my heart. One in particular is on my mind this blustery morning. Every visit, whether it's the first night in town or a quiet respite before heading back to the airport, Moto in Brooklyn is always on the agenda.
Nestled under the tracks of the JMZ train Hews stop, a hanging bicycle is nearly the only signage outside the narrow wedge-block corner café Moto. Entering through the curtain is like stepping into a Parisian-inspired 1930s speakeasy, a compacted jazz band often playing to one side, church pews and small marble tables lining the walls up to the tiny round bar. Candlelit crowds sip wine out of tumblers, snack on simple heartwarming plates like warm lentil salad, mussels, and pork ribs. But the real reason I continually return to Moto is for the last course. Armed with an espresso, glass of port, or a Black Velvet (Guinness and sparkling wine), I always order the famed date cake.
Visually akin to a giant cube of fresh gingerbread, the moist earthy cake is served warm anchored in a sticky pool of toffee caramel, topped with fresh whipped cream and a spring of mint. Even beside Moto's high scoring crème brulée (on record as my favorite dessert varietal) the date cake sparkles.
Don't be scared off by the occasional setback of a wait (and note: Moto is cash only), because once you get nestled into your seat and take your first bit of cake the pleasure of your night will be just beginning...

394 Broadway (between Hooper St & Keap St) South Williamsburg, NY; 718.599.6895
Moto on Urbanspoon