Thursday, January 31, 2008

Market Restaurant and Bar

Holy cow...

Let's just say 2008 is off to a well-fed start. I think this is easily the best meal I've had in a while. I love attention to detail, and Market really pays attention to detail.

It's San Diego Restaurant Week, so I made reservations at Market. I've been wanting to try it for a while, and SDRW is a good time to do so.

No pictures because there was no way to discreetly take them. Plus, D. looked horrified that I was even considering it. Anyway, thank goodness I didn't go there, because we sensed we didn't resemble their typical clientele. Ok, it was more than a feeling. D.'s car, a 2003 Passat Wagon, was the crappiest car to pull into the valet station. The valet attendant, who was no more than 2-3 years younger than us (if not the same age), was utterly surprised that we were going to eat there.

The crowd: older, rich, and pretty. We're not that young, but we do, unfortunately, look like we're still students at UCSD. That's not to say we dressed poorly... we were in the dressier side of "business casual," but we still look... young. Hell, we looked like we were going to Sunday school. What?! We're not J. Crew models. Someday, I'm going to be grateful for the genes that keep me looking youthful, but right now, I want to look my age, dammit! The hostesses raised their eyebrows and responded with a surprised, "Oh?!" when they noticed we had reservations. To the staff's credit, the initial surprise was instantly covered up and smoothly replaced by friendly professionalism.

D. and I joked quietly that we should wear sandwich boards that say, "Yes, we can afford this meal. No, we will not embarrass ourselves... we hope." Or perhaps we should enter with our W2's in hand... a bit direct, but it'd work.

Our server, a wry and dry gentleman who looked a bit worn-out by the swarm of customers, was great and so were his compatriots. He approached us with a bit of hesitation, looked slightly dismayed when we indicated that tap water was fine (he asked specifically about the water), and finally relaxed into a relieved smile when we ordered alcohol.

Then, he carded us. I'm flattered, since it's been a while since I've been carded, but it indicated that we were definitely viewed as quite young. Oh, well.

He brought me a delightful glass of tempranillo, a 2004 from Pago Florentino in La Mancha, Spain. Yum. On that wonderful note, our meal began:

It started with an amuse bouche of chili-glazed shrimp drizzled with ponzu and ginger sauce and topped with diced pineapple, peppers, and a little sprout of Japanese parsley. Really good. Their bread basket had crusty artisan bread along with amazing cornbread muffins. Mmmm... I'll have to tinker with cornbread recipes.

I started with the house-smoked maple-cured salmon, which was topped with two "fish sticks", freshly fried white fish (cod?) triangles sitting on top of a baby greens salad drizzled with a dressing that definitely contained yuzu, which I love, thanks to Morimoto. It was garnished with a hard-boiled egg, perfectly done so the yolk is just shy of solid and topped with caviar.

D. had the French onion soup with house-made meatballs. He thought it was a nice twist on the stereotypical French onion with the huge slab of bread and cheese on top. There was a little cheese and some bread, but the meatballs sat squarely in the middle of the dish.

For the entree, I had the miso-glazed seabass with shittake mushrooms in a warm broth that was highly reminiscent of Chinese beef noodle soup. Rich and shoyu-based, it was flavored with star anise, which led to the comparison. The fish was served on a bed of perfectly-cooked udon and topped with baby enoki mushrooms, slivers of baby bok choi, and more Japanese parsley. The fish was incredible, smooth and moist with the deep and almost meaty flavor of miso. I love bok choi, which is best when picked young.

D. liked his flat iron steak and roasted winter veggies. He bit into a brussels sprout and wasn't overly pleased with that, but he thought it was pretty good overall.

I can't rave enough about the dessert, a vanilla bean panna cotta on top of two crisp meringue sticks and a pool of huckleberry sauce. The panna cotta was smooth and complimented the crunchy meringue and sweet huckleberry sauce fabulously. A yuzu sorbet (very likely a palate cleanser) was served on the side with slices of blood tangerine (is there such a thing... it was dark red tangerine wedges), slivers of apple, and tiny cubes of red jello. It was a berry flavor of some kind, very sweet and definitely not strawberry, raspberry, or cranberry. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I liked it.

Only one word to say about it all: AMAZING. I can't wait to go back... well, maybe after a slight makeover and/or laminating my W2, but I will go back.

Mien Trung

Yeah, yeah, we're finally caught up. This meal is from January 30, y'all. I'll admit something... I've taken a vow of less eating out. I don't generally eat out for lunch, but we've had some fantastic meals, a lavish (and insanely busy) holiday season, and a trip 3,000 miles away. Needless to say, some budgetary evaluation needed to take place. I don't spend my money on much. It's either clothing or food and, frankly, food outweighs clothing easily.

I also took a good long look in the mirror and, well, it ain't pretty. I was moving from square-shaped to dreidel-shaped. Now I'm looking at Oompa Loompa. I'm also wasting money on a gym membership and it's really starting to hurt my wallet when it should be hurting my body. That next Pilates class is really going to burn.

With that said, more restraint was practiced in January and the posts after Dad's Birthday covered the eating out for the month. January 30 was a great eating day, with Mien Trung for lunch and Market for dinner.

Let's start with lunch... Mien Trung is the true definition of "mom-and-pop" operation. Mom's cooking in back, Dad overlooks the dining area, and the kids help out. I spotted another woman in the kitchen, but couldn't tell if she was related or not.

It's in Kearny Mesa, next to Mesa College. The specialty of the house is bun bo hue, which is spicy pork noodle soup. Fantastic stuff. I had a love/hate relationship with it growing up because of the spiciness. Mom's version is fabulous, but this one holds its own very well. I'm going to have to take Mom and Dad here the next time they visit.

El Jefe tells me that to have the real thing in Hue, Vietnam, is close to a religious experience. His expectations were high and it seems they were met, as this is our second visit and he's the one who insisted on coming here.

I had a regular bowl of bun bo hue. The broth wasn't too spicy, which fits me perfectly. I love this broth so much. The rich pork flavor and the lemongrass is a little bowl of paradise. Besides the broth, I don't prefer much else about BBH, generally. Typically, the stock meat is served with the noodles and, since the bejeezus has been boiled out of it, it's rather bland and kind of dry. It's utterly broken down, so it's soft. The noodles are thick, long, and slippery. The pho noodles are much more wieldy, so when I can, I order this dish with the pho noodles.

Anyhoo, Mien Trung's BBH has the usual meat: brisket and hock. I'll eat the meat, but there's not much to say about it. The noodles are fantastic. Perfectly cooked, they stay long and tender. Most places cook the hell out of it and it breaks into little 2-inch sections, which I can't pick up with chopsticks. I'm sure it's more of a commentary on my chopstick-wielding skills than the noodles.

In the end, the broth wins out. Throw in a big handful of cabbage/lettuce and add a squirt of lime, the richness of the broth is complimented by the freshness of the greens.

The aforementioned greens:

Jefe had bun rieu oc dac biet, which is a bowl of crab and tomato broth that serves as the base for BBH (I think). The word "oc" was translated to "snails" in the menu, but it was actually conch. Looked pretty good. I might have to try the bun rieu next time I'm there.

We had a side of banh beo, steamed rice flour patties topped with dried shrimp, dried onions, and cha lua (Vietnamese pork sausage). They sell homemade cha lua there, so I bought a log to take home. Yum. It's compressed pork wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Gorgeous. I'll have to post again when I have some tonight.

Another lunch spot for the rotation. Can't wait to eat here again.

Ritual Tavern

It was a rainy Thursday night last week and the gang met up here in lieu of watching Thursday night TV. Writers' strike means more good eating. Ritual Tavern's fairly new to North Park and it's very close to the house. The restaurant is essentially a classy pub. Warm and rustic interior belies the rather plain and uninviting exterior. There's an exterior view to the kitchen, making it look almost like a pizza place.

I'd have to say that I was "whelmed" by the experience here. Not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed, but just... whelmed. Anyhoo, they very kindly sat T. down when he was the first of 6 to arrive, which is rare for restaurants. We all had beers and it was a very homey, but loud, atmosphere. I started with the Stone Porter Shake, which was the best part of this visit.

Creamy and nicely balanced between beer and vanilla ice cream, this drink is a must-have.

On their specials menu were black mussels from Carlsbad Aquafarms. Cooked in the classic white wine sauce, the mussels were fresh and fantastic. The sauce, however, was boring as fuck. It was white wine, shallots (or maybe onions), and garlic. The shallots and garlic are cooked down and white wine added to the resulting liquid. The wine broth is used to cook the mussels, adding their juices, and voila! Sauce. Zzzzz...

In Philly, Monk's Cafe did the same dish with much better results. Fennel, spices... anything would have given this sauce some personality. Oh, well... same type of rustic tavern with great beers, but much better food at Monk's.

Served with the "must" of moules, crusty artisanal bread. If the sauce ain't good, the bread serves no purpose. The great quality mussels really saved the dish.

T. and R. had better luck with the gumbo, which R. said was spicy and flavorful. Sadly, no pictures, but it was a pretty dish.

D. wasn't a fan of his Niman Ranch burger. He said the meat was too bland and the "artisan buns" too hard for a burger. Their in-house ketchup was really acidic with onion almost dominating the tomato flavor. Ironically, what would have made a difference would have been sugar or corn syrup, like a commercial ketchup, because sweetness would have balanced out the other flavors.

He also had the bread pudding for dessert.

The house bourbon sauce was good, but the pudding itself was a dense and dry clump with an overpowering amount of cinnamon.

Service was rather slow, but they did let us stay for three hours, so they deserve major props for that. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that our first round of drinks fell within happy hour. I'd go again for the beers, that shake, and the atmosphere, but dinner? Eh, maybe.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

San Diego Chicken Pie Shop

If cafeteria food can be done well, then San Diego Chicken Pie Shop does it. It's an institution, having been around for decades. Hugely popular with the senior crowd, it's crowded by early evening and closes by 8pm.

I love this place. Can't eat here often or it'll kill me, but I do enjoy CPS takeout with an evening of TV. I usually have the pie dinner, which consists of one chicken pot pie, vegetable of the day, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, a dinner roll, and a slice of pie for dessert.

The pie is fantastic. Fork-tender, the crust somehow stays crispy (I suspect lots and lots of lard or shortening) while filled with chicken/sauce and topped with gravy. If you baked the crust without a filling, I have the feeling it might be rock-hard. Anyhoo, a generic chicken gravy is ladled over the pie and mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes are definitely "institutional" (i.e. they're served with an ice cream scoop and scream "school lunch!!"), but they aren't bad at all.

The veggies are arguably the worst part of the meal because they're cooked until green turns to muddy brownish-green. However, there's lots of butter, so that helps. Cole slaw is good. I love the roll, which has a nice crust with the inside being fluffy and moist.

D. ordered a side of cream of broccoli soup, which also has that "institutional" look about it.

Dessert was peach pie. I like it. It's basic, with a sugar-crusted crust and canned peach filling. I love canned peaches, so there's nothing wrong here.

It's not healthy, it's probably more Sysco than homemade, but to hell with it. If it's wrong, I don't want to be right.

China Max

D. and I stopped by for a dim sum fix. I've posted previously about China Max, but this time, I have pictures. I'll keep it short and sweet. Great dim sum joint on Convoy St. It's on par with the good LA dim sum restaurants. It doesn't serve dim sum on carts, but I'm more than ok with that.

A sampling of our dim sum order... we ordered a ton of dishes and finished almost all of them. Starting with D.'s beloved BBQ pork cherng fun or rice noodle rolls.

I had the shrimp version:

Har gow, or shrimp dumplings. China Max makes them beautifully.

We had two types of buns: BBQ pork and custard (pictured). The custard bun was sub-par this time. I don't think they steamed it long enough, so the custard wasn't quite done.

D. wanted potstickers and I wanted Peking-style pork spareribs, which are on the lunch menu. We indulged our guilty pleasures.

Daan taat, or my beloved egg tarts. Great dessert.

Fantastic meal. It was a lot of food for $20 a person. A tad pricey, but dim sum tends to be slightly pricier than the average lunch.


I'm glad I finally made it to this place. L'Opera is the recent reincarnation of Opera Patisserie, which will open a new branch in Sorrento Valley. When they do, I'm going to be obese from daily croissants. I have never been to the downtown location when it was just Opera, because they closed at 3pm. However, the new cafe is open from 7am-7pm on weekdays. I've read that the name change was due to business disputes, but whatever keeps this shop open will be fine with me. They have the best croissants I've had in San Diego. In fact, they're so good that they evoke memories of Paris. Wow. Once you bite into that flaky, tender, and buttery masterpiece, you know what I mean.

The staff is fantastic, fantastic, fantastic. I can't be any more effusive in how great they are. This place totally rocks. Croissants run for $2.50, but with the quality involved, I'd pay.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Roasted Chicken

Inspired by Mom's pho ga and a craving for roasted chicken, I decided to roast a whole chicken, then reuse the carcass and uneaten meat to make the broth for pho ga. Thomas Keller's recipe is the recipe to use. Oh, my goodness... that was a beautifully moist chicken. D. complained that his slices of chicken breast were too moist. White meat? Too moist? I think I threw something at him. Keller's recipe keeps the breast insanely moist, which is due to the high heat and the lack of moist seasonings to avoid steaming the chicken.

The potatoes and cauliflower were placed under the chicken to absorb the fat. Removing the fat keeps it from smoking in the high heat. The potatoes, however, did not do well without some moisture. They were tough on the outside and slightly softer on the inside. Not uncooked, just had the moisture baked out without a skin to protect it. The cauliflower just tasted like fat. Ew. So, they served their purpose, but I was hoping they'd be edible, at least.

The chicken was served with an asparagus risotto recipe from the NY Times. It's a Batali recipe and while it tasted good, I didn't quite get the same green color as the picture. I think I messed up the asparagus puree with too much water.

Great meal... definitely one I'd make again.

No pictures, but a quick note on the pho ga. It turned out all right. Since the chicken was already cooked, I couldn't use as much water as I normally would for a stock. I still added too much water, so we had to bolster it with bouillon. Still pretty good and somewhat like Mom's.

Super Cocina

What a find! This homey Mexican restaurant is a Chowhound favorite and I understand why. Dishes rotate every day and everyone will find something they like amongst the myriad of choices. It's basically home-cooking for sale.

When we went, a friendly man behind the counter greeted us with rapid-fire descriptions of the available entrees. For $6.99, you can decide on portions of two entrees, beans, rice, and tortillas. I decided on birria, which is goat stewed in a delicious broth with spices. I detected at least bay leaf in there. The goat was gamey and rich, cooked to tender perfection. The second entree was
chupaderos, which derives its name from the fact that you'd slurp the sauce off your fingers (chupar means "to suck").

I asked for my usual double-order of rice instead of rice and beans. On R.'s plate, there was a bay leaf in the beans, which was a nice touch. D. had the empanadas and spicy pork. The empanadas were well-made, but the filling was very mild. Too bland for my liking.

We'll have to go back and explore other options!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Shanghai City

D. and I are rarely enraged by a restaurant outing, but Shanghai City pushed us close to it. Just about everything was terrible about it. Inspired by an online discussion about beef noodle soup, we headed to Shanghai City on a recommendation that they had some of the best beef noodle soup in town. The recommendation wasn't wrong. It was very good. In Mandarin, it's called or niu rou mein (ngau yok mein in Cantonese) and it's a classic Northern Chinese dish. So, we'll start with the best and work our way down.

Rich and flavorful broth with chunks of beef shank and noodles. The noodles are not made in-house, which is a shame. They were a bit chewy, but good. The beef was a bit tough, but not terribly so. Here's a shot with the noodles:

When we were seated, they brought us spicy pickled cabbage to munch on. I love pickled cabbage in all forms. They were a bit heavy-handed with the chili, but it was decent.

We ordered potstickers, which were really bland and loosely wrapped. D., a potsticker connoisseur, was annoyed. Apparently, their xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are really good and we made a tactical error by not ordering those.

The last, and worst, dish we ordered were the Shanghai-style pork spareribs. Most likely the predecessor to sweet-and-sour pork, this dish should celebrate Shanghai cuisine's flair for sweeter sauces without screaming Panda Express. Chang's Garden in LA has a sticky sauce that's slightly sweet and there isn't a lot of excess. The pork is lightly fried and very tender.

Shanghai City's version, however, was disgusting. It was coated in a gelatinous brown glop that could have been pure corn syrup. The whole dish was almost one solid mass because of the sauce. The pork was cartilaginous and fatty. It was inedible.

Service was very nice when we walked in and became progressively worse throughout the night. The problem: three large tables of college kids celebrating a birthday. They were spreading out and very loud, blocking all aisles leading to our table. The servers' response was to simply ignore us as long as possible.

That noodle soup and potentially good xiao long bao are the only things that would bring me back. Oy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dad's Birthday Party at Mission 261

Dad's birthday is on New Year's Eve and we have been going to Mission 261 for a couple of years now. They're very kind to us and provide a spacious private room and two staff members for the evening. I'll have to say this about their service: it's incredible. Chinese establishments aren't renowned for their service, but Mission 261 does an excellent job taking care of their customers.

I didn't photograph every single dish, but the photos represent the highlights. We'll start with the suckling pig. Yes, it's a baby pig roasted whole. I'm slightly queasy about the idea, because I love piglets. Live ones. They're too cute. Anyway, Mission 261 dropped the ball on this dish because the pig was roasted way past done. The skin, which is supposed to be crisp, was about as hard as glass.

Peking duck is one of my favorite dishes. The skin is crispy, the meat is juicy, and its served with simple steamed buns. Place a small spoonful of hoisin sauce on the bun, top it with duck or crispy skin, add a scallion, and you're done. Delicious.

The Chinese version of crab cakes, these are crab balls. They're light and flavorful, with a nice crunch to the skin and a tender filling. Crab cakes can be very heavy, but the crab balls are anything but.

Sau mien, or long-life noodles, are a must for birthdays. They're unbroken noodles cooked with soy sauce, shittake mushrooms, and garlic chives. Tradition dictates that you can't bite into the noodles while putting them in your mouth (i.e. you slurp the entire length before chewing) or else you're essentially shortening the life of the birthday person. It's also a dish that cannot be skipped, out of respect to the birthday person. The noodles are a tad bland, but tradition is tradition.

For dessert, we had a variety of goodies. First was the
sau bao or long-life buns. They're steamed buns filled with mung bean paste. Quite good and not very sweet. This platter is for display (they served freshly steamed ones from steamer trays), and the leaves are made from marzipan. The flower is radish slices intricately arranged into a flower.

Family friends brought a yummy mocha-flavored cake. It was filled with fruit and freshly whipped, mocha-flavored cream. As Asian cakes tend to be, it wasn't overly sweet and very light. Chinese bakeries tend to favor chiffon-style cakes with whipping cream instead of heavier butter/egg yolk-based cakes with buttercream.

I made a cake, too, but it didn't turn out the way I'd hoped. I used a recipe from and I had to substitute mango for strawberries. The recipe also says to whip the frosting to soft peaks and the frosting nearly ran off the cake. With red being the lucky color, I decide to make the writing frosting red, which takes a lot of food coloring paste. Also, with the white frosting being more liquid and not enough air, the red coloring started to run. Oy. The cake was a bit dry, too.

It was a great dinner. Happy Birthday, Dad!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Mom Series: Banh Xeo

Banh xeo are Vietnamese-style crepes made of a rice flour batter. They're supposed to be delicate and crunchy, filled with mung beans, pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts.

The materials are laid out by the stove. The pan is hot and the crepes must stay thin, so everything needs to be added swiftly and smoothly.

The batter, which is made with rice flour. The final product is actually yellow, but there are no eggs in the batter. It's also very thin, keeping the shell crispy and not doughy.

In the pan, the mung beans need a while to cook or else they will be hard. The extra time crisps up the shell, with the moisture from the mung beans and bean sprouts keeping the shell from burning. Also, the moisture keeps the shell pliant enough to fold. The dish should be crispy, but not so much so that it breaks when folded.

The finished product, which is cut into pieces and wrapped with lettuce and herbs. Then, it's dipped in nuoc nam, or fish sauce. Mom's version has lots of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chili, and shredded carrots.

Here's a video of Mom making it. It's all in the wrist. The shrimp and pork slices are sauteed first. Then, the batter is poured on and swirled to maximize coverage. Any holes are patched with a little pour of batter. Lastly, the mung beans and bean sprouts are put on top. The lid is put on in the end to steam the beans and sprouts.

This dish is near-impossible to find and the restaurants that carry it usually don't do it well. I'm glad I can get them at Bistro Mom.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Mom Series: Goi Cuon

Goi guon are better known as Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls. They're filled with cold and cooked rice noodles, herbs, lettuce, pork slices, bean sprouts, and shrimp. Mom had the ingredients organized on the table, ready for wrapping.

In process:

The finished product:

Mom's favorite touch is a stalk of chive wrapped in the roll. Chives found in Asian markets are much more mature and thicker than those found in American stores, so the stalks look almost like scallions. They add a crunchy and mild touch to the roll.

D. gave me an awesome new camera for X'mas and it takes videos, so here's one of Mom wrapping a spring roll. The key to spring rolls are neatness and tightness. The shrimp is laid down first and this is a typical practice. With the shrimp showing through the skins, the roll is identified as goi cuon. If it was grilled pork (nem nuong) or shredded pork (bi), leaving the primary ingredient visible helps "label" it. After the shrimp, the pork is laid down, then the lettuce (Mom used two small leaves in this case), vermicelli, bean sprouts, and herbs. The materials are laid towards the top third of the circular rice paper wrapper. The sides are folded in, a chive stalk placed at the base of the pile of materials, and everything rolled snugly. The roll needs to be tight, but not so tight that the skin breaks. There's nothing worse than a loosely wrapped roll, which falls apart when you bite into it.

Look for these videos to pop up occasionally, as they're part of an archive of my mom's recipes and dishes. No need to turn on the sound, because there's no narration. You might, however, pick up random conversation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Mom Series: Pho Ga

Chicken noodle soup, in any country or culture, is comforting. The Vietnamese version shows off a rich stock with minimal additions. There's a variety of ways to make it, but Mom's version is simple and straightforward. She poaches a whole chicken and adds some chicken bouillon to the stock. The poached chicken is carved and served alongside the noodles. I've seen recipes that use herbs and/or aromatics (onions, etc.), which are absolutely required for pho bo (the classic beef pho), but Mom prefers simplicity. It's a very simple stock and the bouillon makes it richer. We're not talking about a ton of bouillon, either.

And the chicken:

Poached chicken normally doesn't sound very appetizing, but if it's pulled out at the right time, it's very moist and flavorful. Mom likes to roast or poach, but poaching has the side effect of good chicken stock. Garnishes include an onion/scallion/cilantro mix and blanched bean sprouts.

The dipping sauce for the chicken is finely diced ginger and garlic (food processor needed) seared with hot oil with fish sauce and sugar to taste. Then, chicken stock is added to the mixture and reduced slightly.

As a side dish, we had
pate a choux, which is technically the term for pastry dough (the type used to make eclairs). In Vietnamese food, it's the name of a flaky pastry bun filled with a pork meatball. The pork is spiced with peppercorns and onions.