Showing posts with label mole. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mole. 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.

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

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
Café Poca Cosa on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2010

Croquer: Cacao Mexicatessen

In a nearby mysterious land known as Eagle Rock, cool things can soar under the radar for ages, effortlessly being cool and raking in passing raves like underground legends. Take The Oinkster, Fatty's, Auntie Em's or Colorado Wine Co., all incredible, yet casually accessible whenever you make the trek out to meet them. Add a new neighborhood hero to the list, Cacao Mexicatessen.Part taco shop, part Mexican deli, part gourmet Latin food purveyor, Cacao modestly shares a Spanish duplex with a flower shop, and quietly serves the most incredibly inventive and authentic tacos this side of the border. They make and sell all their own salsas, hot sauces and moles. Their cooler case also features an interesting selection of Mexican cheeses, shelves adorned with imported candies, condiments, high-end Mexican cocoa tablets, piloncillo cones, and tamarind coated apples.After taking it all in, we ordered at the counter and sat outside on the quaint patio. Their thin and crisp restaurant style chips (which are bizarrely rare in LA) and spicy puréed salsa already had most of the city beat within minutes of sitting. To drink I decided to start with their signature - How can you come to a place called Cacao and not try their Mexican hot cocoa? As it was a weekend morning, I opted for coffee with mine and got the Azteca Mocha Latte. This divine (massive!) mug was a rich frothy treat with cinnamon, almond, chile de arbol, and chipotle notes. The spice awoke my senses before the caffeine had an opportunity. I'd certainly come back for this alone.Little did I know, the best was yet to come... Cat and I ordered a sampling of their more interesting taco options (there are many) which came out on a large platter with radishes and fresh lime wedges.First bite was the Camarones Enchipotlados - shrimp in chipotle with citrus. Tangy, spicy and wet, it was a satisfying start. Cacao's homemade tortillas are larger and thicker than most local joints, with that much more space to fill with the good stuff! Next was a bite of the Flor De Calabaza - squash blossoms, poblano strips, queso fresco. Delicate and lovely! I always appreciate the use of squash blossoms - who said vegetarian has to be boring?The next bite may have been my favorite - the Tocino Enchocolatado - supple bacon, Salsa de Cacao, avocado, and crema mexicana. This spicy sweet choco-bacon goodness has to be tried!
Unfortunately after that the Hongo De Portobello (Portobello mushroom, spinach, onion, queso fresco) was less than memorable.My interest was piqued again with the next two, first the Carnitas De Pato, or duck confit (listed with avocado, vinegar, onion, radishes, chile oil... But mine came with just the duck meat - that aside, it was the most succulent yet crispy duck! Very tasty on its own!). And lastly, the Cochinita Pibil reminded me why I wake up in the morning, a moist robust roasted pork in achiote with citrus and pickled onions. The most satisfying three bites of food anyone could ask for. After wiping my brow, and thanking everyone back inside, only a matchbox chocolate tamale stood between me and the sublime.

1576 Colorado Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90041; 323.478.2791

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, April 27, 2009

Voyager Bien: 1.5 days in LA

A friend told me this week that I should probably get paid to introduce people to LA as a personal tour guide. It is one of my favorite things to do - driving from neighborhood to neighborhood, pointing out the best hidden strip mall treasures, James Beard award-winning taco shacks, legendary rock n roll monuments, haunted hotels, gorgeous apartments I tried to rent, best city views, secret beaches, design boutiques, specialty food markets, treat shops, and margarita cantinas. I sure exercised my guide muscle this past weekend, with a new challenge. Two of my best friends who reside in Portland came down for a grad school visit/whirlwind "get to know you, LA" trip - A 36 hour kinda whirlwind. The clock was ticking and I was set on doing my best to traverse common misconceptions of the City of Angels and thoroughly impress them!
Here's a rundown of some top hits from the schedule:

• In lieu of a pricey cab, I had them take the $6 FlyAway Bus from LAX to historic Union Station downtown and chill on Olvera Street until I could get out of the office and down to meet them. I was greeted with smiles and a bag of candied whole limes stuffed with coconut and fragrant chili dusted tamarind balls.

• After freshening up we hit Mexico City in Los Feliz for a satisfying dinner of sopes, carne asada, delicious mole poblano and of course margaritas. We walked down Hillhurst to Alcove to pick up dessert to go, selecting a molten chocolate souffle and pb&j cupcake. Grabbed a 75 cl Chimay Grande Réserve (Blue) on the way back home and enjoyed our indulgent gatherings.

• An early rise called for hand-shaken Iced Angelenos at Intelligentsia pronto!

• After leaving campus, our leisurely lunch hunt landed us at M Cafe de Chaya for winning salad The M Chopped (organic hearts of romaine, mixed greens, avocado, cucumber, chickpeas, herb-baked tofu, scallions, ume-pickled radishes, carrots, beets, tamari-roasted almonds, crumbled tempeh “bacon” and tofu-peppercorn ranch) and a celeb sighting or two. Followed by a Laurel Canyon/Mullholland drive and brisk walk partway down Runyon Canyon.

• A serene drive out Sunset Blvd to the PCH and north along the Malibu coast to Point Dume for a late afternoon seagazing landed us at the Malibu Pier Club on the way back down for cocktail hour. Our Royal Hawaiians (Mai Tais) and Canyon Margaritas were accompanied by tasty french fries sprinkled with ground dried Japanese seaweed and a creamy sriracha dipping sauce. Yum!

• Back in Hollywood, our original plan of making a taco dinner after such a long day sounded daunting, so we pulled over at La Brea and Wilshire and settled into Luna Park for a casual supper of sausage pizza, spinach salad and beers. Recalling a previous mention, my guests requested one last stop at Scoops where we savored their signature ice cream flavor, Brown Bread. I quite enjoyed the Goat cheese Fig and Coffee Molasses flavors as well.

We fell into our beds Saturday night deep in sun and comfort food comas. I could only imagine my friends' flight at dawn continuing in the same fashion (and judging from the photos, I was right).