Thursday, July 28, 2005

¿Donde Estan Mis Desayunos?

What the F is up with the lack of good Mexican food in El Cerrito? Not in the roach-infested backstreets that smell of axle grease. Not in Albany. EL CERRITO CENTRALE. Yeah, you know, the place with the Spanish name whose Mexican food isn't worth a hill of [sic] beans. I'm talking about the hundred or so blocks between Cutting and Solano, where citizens are plentiful and desire for la comida Méxicana goes unfulfilled daily. Good carnitas or even beans and rice are as rare here as a good bowl of pho in Berkeley.

Here are your options if you go diminutive burro hunting in El Cerrito (Which, yes, we affectionately call El Burrito).

Best Burrito: Best diarrhea. White rice, TERIYAKI glazed chicken (thanks to the owners) and a Central American staff that knows better than to serve what they're serving. On the plus side, if you are into a bowl of tofu they do make a really good vegetarian plate. Just avoid the Mexican food at all costs. I guess they couldn't really make it by pimping themselves out as "Best Dobu" (Korean for 'tofu').

Christopher's Nothing Fancy Café: Christopher's nothing Mexican cafe. Or perhaps Christopher's nothing affordable cafe. Let's make some fajitas out of crappy beef and charge 14 bucks for them. No, gracias.

Trevño's: Mal trabajo. This place's salsa makes Rubios' seem spicy. Talk about getting the gringo treatment - there is no way on earth to get a non-huero meal there. Hang out about noon on a Sunday and you'll find out why; droves of pasty, fat Americans straight from church, wheezing in the throes of a diabetic-style attack from not having consumed animal fat in the last forty minutes. Watch them sop sour cream (not créma) on everything and see how much of it ends up IN (not on) their mouths.

Rubio's: I shouldn't even mention it because no one expects anything from it. Not a mom and pop shop, just a huge faceless corporation so I can't attack any one person's character. In fact, the group of Hmog/Pinoy/Méxicanos that run the El Cerrito branch are quite competent and friendly. They can't help it that they're serving fried up nuggets of someone's regur. I see they're serving tortas now. How sad. If you really have to go here, do what I do: get something really cheap to go, like chips or a single fish taco. Then go over to the salsa bar. Ignore the salsa. Fill your bag up with the uncut lemons and limes at the bar and skip on out of there. As I say, the staff is rather vigilant, so you'll have to be crafty. Hell, if they catch you just act like you thought they were there for the customers.


Salsa Taqueria #2 (Formerly Fidel's Taqueria): El sabor autentico de la mierda Méxicana. This place is a shit sandwich. Nothing more need be said.

Unnamed Taco Truck, Central Ave.: Hooray! A taco truck in my own town! How pleased was I when this truck started parking on apparently random days outside of the abandoned lot on Central? Plenty. Unfortunately, it stinks. The carnitas (really the Ume-Shiso Maki of Mexican food--for the uncultured, that means it's the litmus test) is in cubes, always a bad sign. The salsas are abysmal. The service is ass and it's overpriced. Que désagreable.

Taqueria Del Palmar: This could get ugly.
E and I were so pleased two years ago when this place opened up. Like Guy notes, they do put nice little touches on things, like cool serapes under the table glass and little fake cacti. Hell, they even have Salsa Yucateco (a habanero sauce) for the patrons to use directly on the food or mixed with their once-good salsas, which at one time you could retrieve by yourself from their little salsa bar. The place is truly Mexican, at least when compared to the México that I know, in that you must allow four to six weeks for delivery of your food. This is not a problem for people who know how long a Mexican 'minute' is, and we always tip the cook and the server.

To begin with, we started off our experiences with this place by ordering a few faves. Chile Relleno burritos, sopes, tortas de carnitas, enchiladas, y otras cosas que buenas. We were stunned every time with how great they were. We got to be friends with the owner, Alfredo, who always knew us not just as another couple of hueros, but as hueros who liberally applied the hottest pepper on earth to their food and raved about it every time. Donning a shirt and apron as white as the sauce which bears his name, Alfredo would offer a big smile and pats on the back every time we came in. "Good to see you again!" and the like.

Unfortunately Alfredo's friendly nature was taken advantage of by friends and family. I can't say how many times we walked into the restaurant to see groups of people eating and not paying, a bunch of hangers-on who preyed on the restaurant to the tune of huge meals all the time. I'm not going to say that I know how the business end of things works there, hell, maybe Alfredo owed these guys money. Maybe he had dozens and dozens of co-investors in the restaurant who as a rule would always eat for free, but I doubt it.

After a while, in the tough, tough restaurant business and for whatever reason, Alfredo began cost-cutting. The torpedo-shaped tortas piled high with carnitas and fixins slowly morphed into squatter versions...and then finally into the dreaded burger-bun torta that signals the end of all things good. During all this, the service declined along with the quality. As mentioned above, E loved the sopés that they made/make there. Once, she ordered them from a girl we'd never seen before to the reply of "We've never had sopés." (insert bitchy teenage flip of the hair here)"EVER." How fucking infuriating is that, when someone tells you you're not gettting a ticket as you both watch a meter maid writing you one? So, the anti-gringo sentiment grew. Could we have done something wrong? Maybe they were angry that we always paid our bill and tipped heavily? Or was it our friendly attitude and constant patronage that tipped the scales against us?

I brought my Mexican friend José there once during this transition to crappiness period, when I still held out hope that Taqueria del Palmar was going to pull itself out of the tailspin it so deliberately set itself up for. José is even from the same city as these folks, Guadalajara, as his surname Jara attests to. Long story short, he didn't even finish his meal. Ol' Joe Spears (the gringo name we kid him with) lost a lot of respect for our palates that day.

Whatever reason there may have been, the place went to hell in a handbasket. It's really sad when a once-great establishment gets wrecked by a staff of suck-ass, good-for-nothing teenagers and a bunch of freeloading asshats. The taqueria was really poised to show El Cerrito the meaning of good Jalíscan Mexican food, but instead all it did was to tease our taste buds for a few months until crappy circumstances turned it into a dungheap, pulling the serapé right out from under us. Palmar, I shed a selfish tear for thee.

Monday, July 25, 2005

summer squash

Hey folks; I've been remiss in my posting lately. Coming soon will be a post on my gorgeous Kabocha squash I've been growing in my backyard as well as one on the subject of the (as yet to happen) SF Bay bloggers' picnic. These two might end up being the same post due to the fact that I'll prolly end up serving kabocha at the picnic! Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Roughing It

As stated in a previous post, twice a year I look forward to going up to my cousin's cabin to goof off in earnest. The ATF would have a field day with our festivities because they hit on each of their favorite points oh-so-many times a day. However, while all the rednecks are out there tearing up the countryside and shooting animals, we slightly better rednecks turn our aggravation inwards, smoking, drinking, and eating our way through the weekend.

Some people, when they go camping, don't even bring a fork. I guess they think that food will just fall into their mouths wherever they go. My sister and her boyfriend just recently started bringing lamps with them when they go camping. In all seriousness though, most of the folks that join us on these trips bring nothing but cigarettes and their share of the keg money and just think that's how it works. Not me and E. This time I brought a whole bed complete with duvet cover and a solar shower for when the propane shower runs out of hot water. We also brought a massive feast.

For my own part, I like to make a phat dinner on one of the nights that we're there, not just to try out my cooking skills, but to test them as applied to a large group. You cook differently for 15 people than you do for six, and Dutch ovens are a great way to address this issue.

E and I set up a menu that took into consideration everyone's dietary concerns and the fact that they would be incredibly hungry. On tap for the evening were:

  • Vegetarian Dutch oven stew
  • Meat Dutch oven stew
  • Drunken Duck
  • Lobster Bisque
  • Dessert: Dutch oven peach cobbler

We forgot to bring the mushroom stock up with us so we had to start that on Friday night to be ready for the Saturday festivities. I bought four portobello mushrooms and began roasting them, then combined them with the tops of all the vegetables we pre-prepped for the next day (including parsnips, turnips, onions, potatoes, leeks, etc.) Boiled this down over one of my camp stoves for about an hour then reserved the juice and threw out the detritous.

The next day was shotgun and dinner day. Before we left to go shooting, I had started a boneless leg of lamb over some mesquite with instructions to the stay-beninds to take it off the heat if it started getting too smoky. We both had very good luck with the shotgun, with me shooting 4/5 clay pigeons down.

Right, E. shows the clay pigeons that she means business. Above, the lamb begins its journey into our GI tracts.

We returned to camp before all of the others to tend to the food. While I was slow-roasting the lamb I thought I'd prep the duck as well. We used some abbey ale in the drunken duck can as chimay was unavailable, and we were too far away from Fort Bragg to obtain some of our favorite Belgian-style ale, Old Coast Ale.

Then, to ensure proper cooking of the whole bird (this was a muscovy duck and far more fatty than the liberty duck I prepared in the post below), I build up a Korean flag-style circle of bricks around the quacker. These bricks got very hot and hit the duck from all sides with heat. When we pulled it off it was a gorgeous brown and completely done:

First to go was the lobster bisque. I'd like to say I caught the lobsters and cooked them myself, but of course I didn't. It was just a Heinz soup mix (we have a friend who is a restaurant supplier) that you add a gallon of whole milk to. People seemed to really enjoy it although I wasn't into it at all. Lobster is probably my favorite food, and Heinz should stay away from it.
Next, E and I got about the business of doing the Dutch ovens in earnest. Into the meat oven went stock I made from the drunken duck below, root vegetables, savory vegetables, and herbs. After the meat oven had boiled for about half an hour, E put a bunch of dumpling mix that she had made from scratch on top. Only the lucky ended up getting one of these, but the lucky turned out to be 95% of the campers. Much to the vegetarians' delight, we ended up serving them first as their oven was done cooking first. Next came the meat oven, and we essentially had to fight people off of it. Yeah, it was damned good.

After that we turned our attentions to the portion of the lamb that didn't make it into the pot and the duck. We threw both of these back on the grill for a few minutes then cut them and served them. People jumped all over it.
Next E washed out the veggie oven and began her cobbler. The peaches were a little worse for wear, having been in a cooler for a day with a bunch of heavier, less bruisable items. But we pulled through and managed to serve almost everyone a large slice of cobbler from the small, 8-quart Dutch oven.

The next day, we rested. But, we did help our friend Brad make his oh-so-Atkins friendly 'super chicken'. It's a breast of chicken pounded flat then wrapped around cream cheese and chives. About this you wrap 3 strips of bacon. Owch.
I made brad put five strips of bacon around mine because I wasn't sure that my heart had had enough punishment over the weekend. We joked that the next step would be to cut the chicken into rounds, then batter and fry them and top with chocolate. Maybe next time.