Showing posts with label horchata. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horchata. Show all posts

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Croquer: Guelaguetza

The best thing about Autumn is food. Not just harvest foods (though they rule), but how the body turns on in general to warm home-cooked meals, rich sauces and fresh baked goods. Everything is new again. What was too hot or heavy for Summer is suddenly enticing and exciting. While many might categorize Mexican cuisine as more "Summer", there's something about Oaxacan flavors specifically that fit quite nicely into the portfolio of Fall. Squash, cinnamon, pumpkin seeds, raisins and nutty bittersweet chocolate.. Robust and comforting flavor profiles that rival anything in your cooking magazine Fall issues.
I have sampled many Oaxacan mole negros living in the west/Southwest, always on the search for one better than the last. Recently I finally made it to an LA Oaxacan cuisine institution that did in fact give my mole negro list a run for its money, but also created a whole new running.
Guelaguetza on 8th street in Koreatown taught me that the best things in life are often free.
Upon entering the two storefront-sized brightly-lit cafe, my friend David and I were waved in to take a seat in the dining room at one of many shiny, colorful oil cloth-covered tables. Then a large plate of warm chips covered in a red sauce and crumbled white Oaxacan cheese was set before us. Eyes wide, we thanked the man and sampled our amuse. In synch our eyes shot up at each other and met, sparkling. "Yummm," we said in unison. This wasn't a cheapo enchilada sauce that many LA restaurants drown their chips in and microwave with cheese, calling it nachos. No, these were crispy light fresh chips, the sauce was a sweet and luscious red mole complimented by the salty crumbled queso fresco. Before our waiter was back to take our drink order the plate was clean. We bashfully ordered our drinks, David their Horchata, uniquely topped with nuez (chopped nuts) and tuna (cactus fruit puree). I was intrigued with the Chilacayota - A sweet drink made from "a special squash", cinnamon and dark brown sugar. The waiter assured me it was delicious. It was! Strange texture aside (somewhat of a spaghetti squash, so some trouble with the straw), the flavor was delightful, and quintessentially autumn.I was completely overwhelmed with the food menu. Oaxacan specialties are my absolute favorite and this menu was out to push me over the edge. As the waiter hovered nearby, sent away several times while we agonized, I basically closed my eyes and pointed to make a damned decision. It was the Tamal Oaxaqueño de Mole con Pollo - A banana leaf-wrapped tamale filled with shredded chicken in a mole negro made from chiles, nuts, seeds, spices and Oaxacan chocolate. No argument from me there.
David was still obsessing over our second plate of chips in red mole, so asked the waiter if that was the same sauce on the Coloradito con Pollo. It was, so he ordered that, chicken covered with Oaxaca’s famous red mole, topped with "string cheese". Unsure what exactly that meant (mozzarella?) I was curious what he would get.
As expected, I couldn't be more pleased with our meals. The tamale was tender and satisfying, moist flavorful chicken layered with steamy white masa and a focused, rich mole. David's was in fact covered in a string cheese, but this was a Oaxacan specialty I had never seen - literally white cheese teased into stringy stiff curls and piled into a mountain atop the chicken and mole. It was chewy and delicious, like salty cheese curd in "string" form.
The waiter asked how everything was with a grin because he was confident we were pleased. I can tell that is the common reaction here. I then noticed that everyone dining in the room was jovial and upbeat, as this is a place that celebrates the fun of food. It's not for ambiance, a scene, or to be seen... It's for hardcore food lovers.
By the time we paid the bill, our waiter was showing us his new tattoos, calling us "friend" and saying "see you next time, eh?"
He sure will.

3337 W 8th St, Los Angeles; 213.427.0601

Photos via David's iPhone

Monday, November 3, 2008

Los Días de la Vida

El Dia de los Muertos may just be my favorite holiday. The sentiment surfaced when I was living up in the NW where my withdrawl of Sonoran Mexican culture would pang most around the Day of the Dead. Every year since then I have tried to do something to celebrate the life in death, the Mexican way - be it an all-out fiesta or a simple altar of ofrendas in my home. Since living in LA, I've discovered the rich and vibrant cultural events that span the first several days of November, which seem more like Los Días de la Vida than Los Muertos to me.
While I attended Hollywood Forever's massive festival on Saturday Nov. 1 for the second year in a row, I found the crowds and queues more daunting than the rewards of the event. The vibe is invigorating and the costumes incredible, but it was the exceptional food and art of Festival de la Gente on Sunday afternoon that hit the spot for me.
It was there that I enjoyed the best pupusa I've ever had - spicy carnitas covered a seasoned pork and cheese pupusa, fresh from the grill and then topped with spicy marinated cabbage, cilantro, several salsas and crema Mexicana. INCREDIBLE!
A festive display of aguas frescas, but I went with a strawberry horchata to tame the fire from the carnitas.
An ofrenda of a Virgin Mary Pan de muerto.
And what luck - the 4th Annual East LA Tamale Festival was happening the SAME DAY. So, I popped down to MacArthur Park where the café-cum-community-building-project and self-proclaimed "tamale capitol of the world" Mama's Hot Tamales hosts the event.
Still full from the pupusa, I enjoyed a delicious champurrado and a "scenic" stroll along MacArthur Lake to attempt working up an appetite.
I stopped at the first tent where smiling ladies sold me a delicious steaming chicken tamale with mole negro, then headed over to Mama's to see what International delights she had on the menu.
Mama's angle, rather than focus on one region's cuisine, is to showcase recipes from the women who have come through her program from all over Latin America. Mama trains these pupils how to serve fresh food to the public, and thus helps create jobs in the community (read more here). Of the variety offered Sunday, I tried the decent El Salvador chicken which had a mild red sauce, bell peppers and potatoes inside a white masa tamale. It was the Honduras tamale though, made with chicken, olives, raisins, potatoes and rice that tantalized my tastebuds.

I already can't wait until next year. To tide me over, I think I may need to attempt my first-ever tamale making assembly line this New Year's Eve.. I'll keep you posted on that!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jury Duty Dining: Inside the Downtown Lunch Scene

"Wow, way to take lemons and make lemonade, Nathan.."
I smiled, looking out of the plate glass lobby of the Walt Disney Concert Hall at a bride awkwardly discharging tulle out of a vintage limo door on the other side.
"Well hey," I retorted into my phone, turning toward the escalator to underground parking. "If I am going to be forced to spend a whole week or more in downtown LA with generous hour and a half lunch breaks, you can BET I will take advantage and at least get a decent blog story out of it." It was day three and I had already covered several downtown neighborhoods and classic LA dining establishments. I was officially on a jury panel in Judge Ito's courtroom and opening statements had been made. Ito guestimated a "couple day" trial, but I was prepared to be around for a while. Luckily downtown LA is one of my favorite sectors that I don't visit nearly enough. Thus I was excited for the challenge to diversify my generous lunch break each day and sample the best of what the civic center has to offer.
On day one I was a bit anxious come lunch as I was to report to a different courthouse after my break for a jury panel selection. Nervous about being late, I just followed the suits to the nearby CPK where I knew I could score a cold pint to calm my nerves. After lunch I walked through the sublevels of the California Plaza adjacent the MOCA and found everywhere I should have eaten, including the "wine country-inspired eco-artisan" Mendocino Farms Sandwiches & Marketplace barracaded by a mob of menu-wrinkling accountants. I picked up a small cup of green tea ice cream at the eurasian-vibed convenience store Famima!! and made my way back to the courthouse.
The next morning started with a long unplanned coffee break, which I filled with a piping cup of champurrado on nearby Olvera Street. Growing up less than an hour from Mexico, I understand that Olvera is touristy yes, but still a great place in LA to score some authentic cuisine, and actually introduced me to the rich frothy masa harina, chocolate, and cinnamon breakfast beverage champurrado - a hearty new favorite of mine.
By lunch I had a new friend and she insisted on introducing me to the world famous Phillipe The Original, self-proclaimed originator of the "french-dipped sandwich." Entering this madhouse took me back in time, one long deli counter runs the length, fronted by a battalion of sandwich-makin' matrons in 50's waitress smocks and paper diner hats doling out trays to one of some 12 long lines of hungry downtowners. Anticpation mounted in the line as I shifted on the sawdust covered concrete floor, deciding between sandwich meat; mayonnaise-based side salads; and kosher pickled items on the side.. I ended up with an au jus-logged pork french dip with swiss, paprika dusted old fashioned potato salad, bright purple pickled egg, a sweet pickle and arnie palmer to drink. Possibly the most satisfying of my lunches all week, I was ready to get back in line for sampling #2 when my fellow juror and I realized we were running late. I will SOON return my fair Phillipe..
Day three brought me back to square one, as my new friend was dismissed from the panel and the jury was locked. I decided that today I would take a longer walk to South Main and Winston, a block down from Pete's Cafe and the hip Old Bank DVD to Vietnamese hot spot Blossom Restaurant. I snagged a patio table out front and immediately had an iced coffee with condensed milk and menu in front of me, waitress asking what I'd like. They obviously were used to the lunch rush here. I ordered the lemongrass steak and eggroll Bún (cold vermicelli rice noodle bowl). Within minutes I was chopstick-deep into one of the most delicious peanut-dusted cilantro-heavy Bún bowls I've ever had. I routinely enjoy Silverlake's Pho Café, but in the future might venture downtown more often for my Shaking Beef.
Since Jurors get into MOCA free with their badge, I decided after we were released at 4pm to make the most of my plan-free evening. After checking out the fantastic Martin Kippenberger Retrospective at the MOCA on Main, I continued on to his massive "Problem Perspective" installation at the MOCA Geffen Contemporary space in Little Tokyo, coupled with a colossal group show Index: Conceptualism in California from the Permanent Collection. I left filled to the brim; a daze that took me back to art school reviews, so I quelled myself in the Japanese Village Plaza with mindless shopping for cheap household goods at Tokyo Japanese Outlet and a dinner grocery stop at Nijiya Market, one of my favorite food shops that I affectionately refer to as the "Trader Joe's of Asian Markets." I skipped them that night, but Fugetsu-do and Mikawaya are also two essential stops in the neighborhood, sweet shops specializing in Mochi that have been operating since 1903 and 1910 respectively.
On day four I returned to Olvera Street for the food.. Most locals know to pass up the over-priced sit-down restaurants and head straight for the hole-in-the-wall counter spots that get lost among the cluttered vendor booths. Though corner mast Cielito Lindo is arguably the most popular of these, and though I usually visit La Noche Buena for my taquito, tamale and jamaica fix, Juanita's charming vendor who sold me on the champurrado earlier in the week brought me back for what may have been the best tangy guacamole sauce covered taquito combo plate on the street yet.
Finally, deliberation day had come, and I knew I had to use my last lunch wisely. There were so many places I had not tasted yet: Señor Fish's new downtown location, The Redwood Bar's infamous burger, historic French bistro Angelique Café, or my favorite hidden gem in Little Tokyo - the yellow-awned Daikokuya on First Street serving up the best ramen in LA. But history trumped taste buds today and I ventured down old Broadway all the way to 8th Street to finally see the eccentric Granddaddy of all cafeterias, Clifton's. The redwood forested interior was delightfully dated, though the clientele were less inviting than I'd hoped, and actually caused me to check to make sure I still had my wallet. I went through with it though and moved down the line with my warm damp tray, camping it up with a carrot/raisin slaw, Americana enchiladas, spanish rice, jello, and horchata "with fruit". I settled into a table on a terraced forest step and watched the REAL downtown LA dine in front of me in all its glory. The food was.. well, cafeteria food. The fruit was a nice addition to standard horchata however. The big kick came in the form of a cube of jello. Now, I got the opaque white jello with yellow shreds thinking "festive piña colada?" No, it was not. I chewed the first bite unable to detect a flavor. Bites two and three kept me guessing. But the shreds definitely were not coconut or pineapple.. rather a little waxy. It was official this was not a sweet jello. So what WAS it? It hit me with a sickening gulp that I was eating a flavorless white gelatin filled with bland shredded American cheese. I set down my fork, gathered my belongings and left Clifton's then, happy to limit our historic affair to viewing the kitschy vintage postcards on their website.
"Part of me is a little sad," I said into the phone as the bride outside beamed for the photographer. "I've been enjoying this surreal metropolitan urban life. Like I could become a public defender, get a refurbished loft and never look back." After a pause, my friend started laughing, and before I knew it I was too.
'Til next time, downtown...