Showing posts with label Mexican. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mexican. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Croquer: Elvira's

Growing up in Tucson made me relatively confident about a few things from a young age: 1) Desert survival, and 2) A palate for superior Mexican cuisine. Nestled in the foothills of the Sonoran desert, Tucson is just a short cruise up a dusty old highway from Mexico. I have many childhood memories of warm sunny afternoons in Nogales, our border town, waiting outside of la farmacias beside dried iguanas for my aunts, hunting for the perfect el payaso marionette all day in cobblestone alley marketplaces, trying my hand at bargaining, and my first taste of tequila from a clay cup filled with fresh muddled mangoes and limes. To this day one of my most exciting ambient dining experiences was at La Roca, a restaurant built into the rock walls of hilly Nogales.
Several years ago, one of Nogales' other prized restaurants Elvira's (est. 1927) closed -- But luckily for Southern Arizona's lovers of  Chef Ruben Monroy's blend of contemporary and clasico Sonoran style cooking, Elvira's has re-opened, north of the border.
Now helming the small artist community of Tubac (23 miles north of Nogales), Elvira's new space is a proud frontispiece of Chef Ruben Monroy's other faculties (he holds degrees in both graphic arts and interior design). Metal piñatas, candles, monolithic ceramic pineapples, star lanterns, carved wooden angels and more hanging glass teardrops than you can shake a stick at fill nearly every interior surface. Like his cuisine, Monroy blends old Mexico and new, but through a whimsical looking glass.
My mother, sister, two nieces and I drove down for lunch one brisk desert morning over the holidays. Slightly stunned by the elaborate decor, we were even more struck by the menu - how would we decide when there are five different dark moles alone?
Luckily drinks are a no-brainer. Elvira's house margaritas are as good as top shelf most places, thanks to fresh lime and expert balance of sour, sweet, and salty.
For the little girls we ordered a quesadilla with roasted chicken and chihuahua cheese. The simple preparation was surprisingly outstanding due to superior homemade flour tortillas and plump roasted chicken.
My sister ordered the classic Mole Negro - the "King of Moles" due to its high number of ingredients (34), including chile pasilla, banana, chile cascabel, almonds, and chile chipotle. Robust and delicious!
I got the Mole Atocpan, which came with a back story. The menu printed that this mole commemorates the 75th anniversary of the town where mole was created - San Pedro Atocpan near Mexico City. This is problematic because clearly the town is older than that! However a little research found that in 1940, Father Damian Sartes San Roman came to the parish of San Pedro Atocpan and saw the potential in marketing the town's various moles -until then only made for special occasions- as a way to raise living standards in the area. 75 years ago would roughly mark the initial trips into Mexico City to spread the magic that is mole to the mainstream. To this day every October there is a mole festival in San Pedro Atocpan.
This special recipe is actually one of the better moles I've ever tasted. Somewhat sweet and spicy with incredible richness and depth from raisins, chile ancho, chile pasilla, cocoa, cilantro, cinnamon, and more.
My mother went lighter with the Chile Poblano "Frida Kahlo" - more of a New Mexican dish. The poblano was stuffed with squash blossoms, roasted corn, queso chihuahua, and covered with bean, chipotle sauce. The flavors were tasty albeit simple, yet overall the least winning of our selections.
All in all Elvira's was more impressive than we expected, and a perfect fueling stop before heading down the frontage road to the tiny mission town of Tumacacori where my favorite spice station lives - Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.
The intense bouquet of scents that greet you at the door of this humble red brick chili roasting factory and spice shop is tangible. My four year-old niece said she "had a headache" and asked me to go play outside with her due to the smell, yet I was actually starting to get hungry again. An overflowing shopping bag of earthy red chili powders, herbs, spices, mesquite-smoked salts and hot sauces later, we were back on the old highway. Add a fresh tortilla and tamale stop at Mercado Y Carniceria El Herradero back in Tucson and you have, in my book, the perfect Southern Arizona afternoon.

Elvira's
La Entrada De Tubac
2221 E Frontage Rd. Bldg A, Ste A101; Tubac, AZ 85646; 520.398.9421
elvirasrestaurant.com
 
Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.
1868 E. Frontage Rd. Tumacacori, AZ 85640; 520.398.2591
santacruzchili.com

Monday, July 19, 2010

Croquer: Red O

And then, as soon as he stole America's heart on Top Chef Masters, the humble and lovable Rick Bayless opened a flashy restaurant in West Hollywood, the first outside of his Chicago Frontera dynasty. I couldn't help but approach Red O with a touch of reticence. Could this Vegas-y monolith be from the same down-to-earth Bayless that taught me how to eat well everyday through his fresh cookbook Mexican Everyday? When I went to enter Red O, a man outside the door asked for my name to ensure I had a reservation - but he wasn't the maître d', he was actually a door man... for a restaurant? Red flags waved, but I kept calm and carried on.
The interior is dim and dinny like a hotel lobby (for some reason I expected the spray of a fountain on my face from between the potted palms). Architecturally I found it over-embellished, and over-decorated (a la Z Gallerie) - Also shockingly dated for a brand new A-list restaurant. Why is it not clean and confident, like Bayless' food? Once I got one of the host's attention she said it would probably be another 30 minutes or so for our reservation (9:15pm on a Tuesday), so we made our way to the bar for a drink.
A winding glass-walled tequila cave and ornate metalwork-encased bar express a strong alcohol prevalence at Red O. This made me look forward to the specialty margarita menu I knew I would be handed. We saddled up on bulky cream leather bar stools beside two older women sipping chardonnay bobbing in two slingy black swings, an unintentionally perverse decor concept.
I ordered the Market Margarita, fresh cucumber-honeydew melon muddled with agave nectar, Arette blanco tequila, lemon & lime juices. Michael ordered the Maceta Margarita with Herradura silver tequila, Veev Acai spirit, fresh Mexican papaya, homemade limonada, rosemary & lime. We thought we'd sample the exotic differences between the two very different sounding drinks. I sipped mine, it was a decent margarita, but the cucumber and honeydew flavors were incredibly subtle, or perhaps overpowered by the sour limonada (their homemade marg mix). I tried Michael's Maceta, expecting a sweet punch from the Acai and papaya, with rosemary nuance. I laughed, it tasted exactly the same! He sampled both, shrugged. Despite a slightly different hue, we sat and sipped our innocuous coolers while the abrasively plastic bar crowd cawed about us like ravens on Hitchcock's playground.
Our table was ready close to 10:00pm, which probably benefited us as the room began to clear and we were seated at a quieter corner table.
Our server went over the large menu, loaded with 'savory snack' starter small plates such as tamales, taquitos, and quesos fundidos. We immediately gravitated toward the Shredded Creekstone Beef Short Rib Sopes in a roasted tomato-green chile sauce. Things were looking up! The smoky delicious short rib and crispy masa sopes were a match made in heaven, married in the delicate but flavorful chili sauce and dusting of crumbled queso fresco. I could have eaten 2 more orders...
Next we tried the Slow-cooked Sonoma Duck taquitos with tomato-arbol chile sauce and arugula, per suggestion from a friend who had come a week prior. The light shells reminded me of egg rolls more than taquitos, and they were very petite. The flavors were nice, but maybe too mellow following the bold sopes.
Since it had turned into a late dinner, we decided to split an entree. We settled on the Tinga Poblana - A pork trio consisting of homemade chorizo, braised Gleason Ranch pork shoulder & belly, with roasted tomatoes, smoked chipotle, Yukon gold potatoes, avocado, queso fresco. The dish was an absolute winner. The layers of flavor and consistencies found neglected taste buds in the back of my mouth and made them sing. Warm homemade tortillas sopped up the rich broth and tender pork. The bites of avocado tamed the heat, which was just right. It was the kind of dish you could eat again and again and never tire of.
The desserts all sounded relatively expected (tropical fruit sorbets, empenadas), but the creamy goat cheese cheesecake with caramel corn and Mexican "root beer" sauce sounded just curious enough to try. Our server told us it was a Frontera staple, served at all of Bayless' restaurants. All the more reason. The cake was actually another series of bite-size pieces. The sauce is made from Hoja santa, a central Mexican herb sometimes aptly called "root beer plant". The piquant sauce had more bite than Barq's and complimented the farmy cheesecake, nutty crust and caramel corn crown ever so nicely.

While the meal overall left a pleasant impression, existing a stones throw in any direction from winning authentic Mexican food a fraction of the price, Red O's existence in LA amongst such ubiquity still seems curious. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken have made a name for themselves over the years in LA creating "new" Mexcian cuisine, as Bayless has in Chicago. But why here, why now? I expected to be blown out of the water, which would have been my answer. But while I wasn't, I of course can't hang it all on Bayless. I learned he is not in fact the executive chef of Red O  - Michael Brown (of Patina Group and Wolfgang Puck Catering) is. Bayless does not cook in the Red O kitchen, nor does he own it - Mike Dobson and Rick Teasta (responsible for the EZ Lube oil changing chain) do. So is it really any more than Bayless' name? He developed the menu and trained the staff, but what's in it for him? These are all questions I asked myself leaving Red O, satisfied with a tasty meal but still searching for answers.

8155 Melrose Ave. 323.655.5009
redorestaurant.com
Red O in Los Angeles on Fooddigger
Red O on Urbanspoon

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
homeboy-industries.org
Homegirl Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Croquer: Café Poca Cosa

Probably the first time truly stunning inventive cuisine really bowled over the young Mr. Hazard was many years ago during one of my first college break visits back to my hometown of Tucson at Suzana Davila's uniquely Tucsonan Café Poca Cosa. I was awestruck by its power, a satiating fulfillment for the hunger pangs anyone who's ever read or seen Like Water For Chocolate has endured. I discovered new taste buds at Poca Cosa.. To this day, it remains my favorite.
Originally opened in a tiny space (hence the name) downtown on Scott Street more than two decades ago by Davila and her father, Poca Cosa later expanded with another larger location adjacent in the bottom floor of the historic Santa Rita Hotel (which opened in 1904 as Tucson’s most elegant hotel - and was totally haunted). 17 years later, the hotel's closure and demolition plans forced Poca Cosa to move.
Now housed a few blocks away in a shiny new building on East Pennington Street, the dark jungley candlelit cave-like charm of the Santa Rita dining room is replaced with floor-to ceiling windows to the street outside and a streamlined modernity, but luckily keeping local artist Daniel Martin Diaz's signature artwork and Santo-VS-Diablo Mexican folk art decor.Location adjustments aside, the winning element of Poca Cosa that has never changed is the ritual. Davila believes in experience; you are not sitting down for a meal, you are patron for Davila to graciously share her passion with. Upon arrival you can expect a friendly introduction from a nicely dressed server (no uniform, aprons, order pads, or pencils behind the ear here) checking to see if it's your first time and/or welcoming you back. Next order of business is always making sure a pitcher of margaritas is in line (the only way to go) as their addictive chips and salsa are dropped. Served up and salty, pleasantly potent and chockfull of chopped citrus, Poca Cosa's are certainly of the best margaritas anywhere.By now rookies may be wondering why there is still no menu in front of them. Poca Cosa's menu changes twice daily and is scrawled in Spanish on a chalkboard that your server brings by once the table is settled, drink in hand to explain dish-by-dish in detail. Spontaneity is another crucial element of Davila's style. The last item on the menu is the Plato Poca Cosa - Davila's hand-picked selection of any three menu items arranged on one plate. You can not choose them, it is always random, and if there are several Platos ordered at the table, every one will be different.
Besides an obviously upscale and fresh take on Mexican, the specific cuisine is hard to pin down. Moving far beyond the local Sonoran flavor, with definite Oaxacan odes (she is known for having some 26 moles) Davila, like many Mexico City chefs, cooks in the alta cocina Mexicana tradition (preserved by the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture), looking to indigenous dishes dating back to Aztec times. Sauce reigns supreme in Davila's dishes, and comprising of countless ingredients lock in her distinct talent.The Plato Poca Cosa presentation usually consists of two proteins and a Pastel de Elote ("tamale pie"), piled high with greens, tropical fruits and vegetables. A vinaigrette, warm tortillas and pinto beans are served communally. On my last visit, as is customary, our entire table ordered Platos, and I was quite happy with mine: Pollo Oaxaqueño, Carne Asada en Mesquite, and Pastel de Elote en Manzanas al Horno. The carne asada is ALWAYS good here, grilled to perfection and bursting with vibrant flavor (my very first Poca Cosa experience was just after coming out of the vegetarian closet and BOY did the carne asada reward me for the decision!). The pastels can be either savory or sweet, and mine, made with canela, baked apples and cheese was a little of both, but completely delicious. Best was the pollo in a complex Oaxacan sauce.. beyond description really. The Japanese may have coined Umami, but there was something magical here that similarly transcended.My mother enjoyed her selection of Pescado en Tomatillo con Aguacate (fish cooked in foil with a tangy tomatillo and avocado dressing), Carne Deshebrada en Salsa de Chipotle (shredded chipotle beef), and Pastel de Elote con Calabacitas Mexicana (savory tamale pie with squash, corn and cheese).My father scored my favorite dish - the Pollo en Mole Negro. In the roulette game of the Plato you can never get everything you want though, and settled for a bite. Easily the best mole I've ever tasted to date, and in large part my introduction, Poca Cosa basically set me up to fail as a mole connesuir (until I can make it to the source, that is). This dish is a must for a Poca Cosa novice.

For this last visit we did lunch, which is a more affordable way to experience Café Poca Cosa (same portions, big difference in price). But even more friendly on the pocketbook, down the street is the Little Poca Cosa (151 N. Stone Ave.) - the sister café is now run (suitably) by Davila's sisters Sandra and Marcella. This "little restaurant with a big heart" expands upons Davila's passion for her homeland and collects thousands of dollars each year to help the needy in Mexico, and decorates the restaurant's walls with pictures of children receiving food, medicine, and gifts. The vibe here is more casual, the service more lax, the music unapologetically loud, and the food is still great. Little Poca Cosa however is cash-only, open Monday through Friday for breakfast-lunch only.

Café Poca Cosa
110 East Pennington Street, Tucson, AZ; 520.622.6400‎
cafepocacosatucson.com
Café Poca Cosa on Urbanspoon