Thursday, May 26, 2005

all star tamale stand, farmers market

summer is coming upon us and that makes me think of giant tsunamis of fog roaring over twin peaks every afternoon, farmer's markets exploding with produce from the central valley and delta, and...tamales. yes, tamales. i don't know about you but there is nothing like all that fresh green produce, deep burgundy cherries, bloody red beets, succulent peaches and snow white daikon radish to get me into the mood for something heavy and rib sticking. specifically, all star tamales, a little tamale truck that rolls through the bay area's farmers markets selling a huge variety of very tasty tamales, like: green pasilla, picadillo, chicken mole, pork mole, green chile and cheese, green pork, red pork, black bean and cheese, vegetable, beef, spinach and cheese, red chicken, green chicken and sweet corn. they're pretty big and at 2.50 each or two for 4.75, not a bad price.

this past wednesday at the farmer's market i picked up these guys.

the masa was very good, a fairly fluffy dough not at all leaden or overly dense with excellent corn flavor tightly wrapped in a generous few layers of corn husks.

the chicken tamale was your basic shredded chicken in a very light red sauce, just enough to keep if from being dry. nothing gourmet, just a nice honest shredded chicken-y bit of goodness.

the vegetable tamale was generously filled with a variety of veggies, including broccoli, which might make some purists shudder, but the very concept of a veggie tamale would probably do that anyway, regardless of the presence of broccoli. it was very tasty. in fact, the texture of the dough and it's nice flavor made me very suspicious that my old nemesis mr. lard might be lurking about, but since living in mexico i've adopted a policy not unlike the military's attitude towards gays - don't ask, don't tell.

the only downside was the salsas. they were pretty (but we already know that looks don't mean much) and the guy gave me a very generous portion (and size really isn't everything) of them, but sadly they didn't quite live up to the tamales. the green one was a tomatillo salsa that lacked both heat and zing, tasting watered down. the light red one was a tomato-chile salsa that also was very bland. the worst offender was the dark red salsa which tasted like straight watered down tomato sauce. granted these might be meant simply as a sauce to moisten up the tamales without imparting any flavor of their own, but to be honest, the masa was so good that additional sauce wasn't necessary, and that stuff just seemed like impertinence. speaking of salsa, go to my other blog here for the most awesome dried red chile salsa recipe.

so if you're at the farmer's market and your stomach's a-rumblin' or you don't feel like all those darn veggies for dinner, you can't go wrong with a little all star tamale. just bring your own salsa.

all star tamales can be found at the following farmer's markets:
walnut creek broadway street (sundays, 8-1)
san francisco civic center (wednesdays 7:30-4:30)
san francisco alemeny street (saturdays 7-2)
oakland 9th and broadway (sundays 8-2)
benicia (thursday night 5-9)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

damo sushi, pleasant hill

finding good food in san francisco is a no-brainer. even what passes for mediocre eats here would be considered very good in other places, both near and far. we are spoilt indeed and every time i head out to the extreme east bay to visit my moms (think past pittsburg and you're on the right track) i'm painfully reminded of this. it's all the more difficult since she really prefers to eat japanese food, being japanese and all. i cannot tell you how many terrible "japanese" (i use the term very loosely) meals i've had in the five years she's lived out there, everything from treacley sweet teriyaki skewers that instantly burned cavities through the enamel of my teeth, to restaurants that served slices of (oh the horror!) pineapple in the green salad, to bento boxes filled with limp, flaccid tempura and low-grade mushy rice. which is why i'm writing this post about a very passable japanese restaurant in pleasant hill called damo sushi.

this little restaurant is located in a mini strip mall on contra costa boulevard in pleasant hill, just a few blocks past the sun valley mall, nestled amongst a vietnamese place, a mexican place and a pizzeria. the main draw of this complex is a pretty rockin' asian grocery store that carries a very interesting mix of thai, chinese, japanese, indonesian, etc. food stuffs. it's probably the cleanest chinese market i've ever been in, with no scary fish smells, either fresh or dried.

but back to damo sushi. the interior is a large, square, fairly bright space with a little fountain in the center of the room, just as you walk in the front door. at the rear is a sushi counter. the decor is functional and the ambiance is pleasant if not fancy. there is a sort of eighties feel to the place, which seems appropriate given the space.

once seated we were served complementary edamame and a pot of hot green tea. i just love it when they give you your own pot of tea since i can drink gallons of the stuff and hate flag down the wait person every time i finish a cup. we ordered tempura udon and the sushi combination dinner.

the tempura udon (7.95) was preceded by a green salad that was dressed with a creamy japanese salad dressing. the salad was passable with a pleasant dressing, fresh lettuce leaves and sweet cherry tomatoes. the tempura udon was beautifully presented with the noodles and broth served in a gigantic bowl while the tempura was fanned out separately on a bamboo boat. the broth was perfect: light, flavorful and steaming hot.

the tempura was also very good. the batter was very crispy and firm and did not get soggy by the end of the meal. if there is anything i can't stand it's soggy tempura. the only misstep in this wonderful dish was the udon noodles. they were a little overcooked and therefore a bit mushy.

the sushi combination dinner (14.95) was a lot of food. served with miso soup, rice, salad, and tsukemono, it came with a choice of one of the following: 5 pieces of nigiri OR 6 pieces of california roll OR chef's choice sashimi AND a choice of one of the following: chicken teriyaki OR beef teriyaki OR salmon teriyaki OR chicken katsu OR saba shioyaki OR tempura OR ton katsu. we selected the chef's choice of sashimi and the tempura. the chef's choice that day was tuna and yellowtail, both of which were quite fresh, beautifully presented and generously portioned. as mentioned before, the batter for the tempura was wonderful but the sweet potato was sliced too thickly and therefore not thoroughly cooked. the miso soup was made from a light miso and therefore was not overly salty. the service was adequate although we did have a little trouble flagging down the waitress to pay our bill.

i was pleasantly surprised by damo sushi. if you're in the area and want a decent japanese meal, this is the place to go.

damo sushi
508 contra costa blvd
pleasant hill, ca
925 288 0007

Monday, May 09, 2005

the birthday part I: don pedro and déjà vu

for the past unmentionable number of years i've needed a little something to face this special day. this day of commemoration. of exit stage left, slap you on the ass and make you cry before thrusting you out into the world to develop from something angry, pink, wrinkled and screaming (for good reason 'cause you just dumped a load into dirty plastic panties) into something sneering, gawky, greasy, zit-ridden and angry (for good reason - just look at you!) into yet something else relatively sedate and passive, khaki clad, banging at the register at the local chuck e cheese whilst marking off these days, these birthdays, one by one. all of which conspire to return you to your original state. wrinkled. screaming. with a fresh load in your plastic panties.

this dark vision is why, for these past few years, i've allowed myself something special on my birthday, something "a wee bit stronger", whilst still in bed (with the blankets pulled up over the head, of course) pondering what the heck another year really means. in years past i've nestled down with such elixirs as wild irish rose, coors in the can, olde english, menthol cigarettes, etc.. this year the big winner was don pedro brandy. cheap even in mexico, from which this caramel-colored brew hails.

don pedro. i don't recommend it unless it's your birthday.

also, just for background, each year my s.o. (significant other) otherwise known as the b.a.c. (ball and chain) and i surprise the other with a day's adventure. don pedro set the tone for this year's escapade. after rolling out of bed with an empty flask around 11 am i was instructed to dress with sturdy walking shoes and garb myself in the colors of a safety cone. sadly not a difficult request. the flask was refilled with makers mark and the first installment of the day that would really make me feel a year older began.

deja vu pizza. 16th street just above guerrero. a perfect foil for el senor don pedro. i don't know if any of you've ever noticed this place, but it's been around for years. nary a customer. i've always assumed it was some mafia-owned money laundering operation, the way they managed to keep the store front open without any visible business. no, not true. i lie. i know they sold a slice of pizza once, about 3 years ago to a friend who deemed it the worst pizza he'd ever had, with a crust like burnt yet soggy cardboard. and that was the good part. for extra fortification i took an extra swig of bourbon before entering. as it turned out, this precautionary measure was completely unnecessary.

the ball-and-chain ordered me the lunch special. for four bucks i got a massive slice of cheese pizza (more like two), a drink and a little side salad. and it was fine. the salad was nothing special - the ever present and indestructible romaine leaf, a few black olives, maybe a slice of tomato with a little plastic container of dressing on the side. i viewed it as medicine. the pizza slices were huge. and strangely shaped - i don't think the pan was round, but this was a bonus for us 'cause we both like crust and our slices had a little extra edge of crust. the dough was that in-between dough. thicker than a new york extra thin but thinner than, say, a fat slice. over all a very light and slightly doughy springy crust. it was well crispy on the bottom, the way i like it. the sauce and cheese were inoffensive. i dumped a pile of oregano, onion powder and hot peppers on it and it was just fine. in fact it was delicious. at 11 am on a saturday there were at least three other customers and one delivery order. i wonder if they changed management or if this place really used to be some sort of mafia-front or what.

the bottom line is that this is a perfectly acceptable pizza by the slice joint. sure there are better and sure there are worse. it's just a tricky location 'cause if you walk a block down you can have an arinels slice (my favorite), a few blocks over you could get a pauline's pie, or if you're really drunk and need something to soak up the alcohol you could go to cable car on valencia where the crust is thick enough to choke on. but if you live in the area or are waiting for the 22 out front, don't be afraid. come on in. it's good and cheap.

deja vu pizza, 3227 16th Street, San Francisco

the birthday part II: "the rawk" and sweeties

everybody has to rock a little on their birthdays, no matter how old or young you may be, from the cradle to the rocking chair. i was whisked off to THE rock. or the rawk, as i prefer to think of it. yes indeed. alcatraz island. ball-and-chain told me that he was going to leave me there 'cause i'd been so cranky leading up to my birthday. i still don't know why he insisted on the safety cone orange colors...maybe so he could see me in the crowd. and avoid me. or just in case he decided to throw me off the boat so someone else could fish me out and take me home? hmmm...

so i was then whisked off to this mega-tourist attraction that i've never been to despite having been born and raised here in the sf bay area. it's actually a little thing i do, just to be an ignorant ass, for example i've been to flagstaff arizona three times but never went to the grand canyon. stupid, no? hell yeah! stooopid.

well, the rawk. it was a beautiful day. it was crowded. or crowdy, as my mom would say. my flask ran dry and there were some pretty scary euro-trash tourists milling about. think multiple drag-queen renditions of christina aguilera, but not drag-queens. actual girls. maybe. i could hear the thumping techo beats of an ibiza disco every time our paths intersected.

well, we did the audio tour, piled back onto the ferry, sucked down a canned beer and were vomited out back at fisherman's wharf, along with the other tourists, like so many indigestible bits. we then made, what i thought was at the time a fatal tactical error (but ended up very well indeed). we began bleakly wandering around that no man's land past northpoint but before north beach. past the cost plus world market. away from the touists and all businesses. looking for a bar. just as my sturdily shod feet began to drag and my bleary eyes began to dart around in search of a cab, there it was.

sweeties bar. tucked into a residential street in in-between-landia. this tiny little neighborhood drinkery feels a little amputated. as you walk in there is a bar on your right, but it is about 1/2 or 1/3 as long as you might expect. beyond that is a little room the size of a san francisco bedroom (think slighlty larger than a walk-in closet), and off to the left of the entrance is a pool table in a little room. this place is supposedly owned by the same people who own the bar at pier 23, i think it's called?

we were thirsty and the two buck drafts were just right. but we were hungry too. we asked the barkeep if they didn't have some chips or pretzels or some such drunkards foods on hand. he said no, sadly enough, but then turned around and popped down a few delicious truffles from his box of candy. and they were the last two. this was followed by some delicious german wafer chocolates from his personal stash. then he asked our signs, disappeard into another room and came back with two little red boxes containing our respective signs in etched glass. you know the ones. they're round, glass, beveled edges, etched picture and name of the sign. it was inexplicable, but it being, unbenownst to him, my birthday and my being drunken, i was deeply touched.

the bar was pretty well attended for a saturday afteroon around 5 pm, and as we sat there talking with george, the barkeep, it became apparent why. it's the man himself. he told some fantastic tales of a life richly lived, with everything won and lost and won and apparently lost again. a really nice guy, a tremendous presence, good storyteller, it's no wonder business was so rawking. when he got off his shift at 6pm and another girl came to fill in, the place cleared out. poor kid.

so if you're in that area on a saturday or thursday afternoon before 6pm drop in and say hi to george. an excellent guy. a great yarn. cheap beers.

sweeties bar. 475 francisco near mason street, 433 2343. for the next month they will have readings followed by an open mike each sunday starting at 7 pm, i think. local poets and literary types, like thom gunn have participated in the past readings. check it out.

the birthday part III: the streets of san francisco and greens

part three of my birthday saga began in the same way as many of my nightmares. i get into a car with someone i don't really know and become more and more suspicious as i'm driven off the main road onto isolated, remote trails. that sinking feeling of "oh shit, i'm in trouble now" reverberates through each panic-striken beat of my poor foolish heart.

well, the truth is that i got into a cab with "the man", ol' ball-und-chain, and was driven out to the waterfront. through warehouses and deserted parking lots. through a grey san francisco late afteroon. i felt like i was in an old rerun of the streets of san francisco. what can i say i'd had too many beers to rein in my fertile imagination. i was karl malden. and there we were, greens restaurant.

now i know everybody but everybody goes on and on and on about greens. i'd never eaten there but, after a spate of expensive and extremely disappointing, sometimes downright bad (as in old fish-the worst bad you can get) meals at various expensive downtown restaurants (shall i name names? maybe in another entry) i'd mostly written off these types places that everyone says is good but never is for me. well, greens has renewed my faith. on saturdays there is a prix fixe menu for 46.00. this includes a little pre-starter plate, your choice of a selection of appetizers, an entree, dessert and coffee or tea. it was a great value. even after i had several glasses of wine added to the tab.

the fixed first plate was "andante dairy goat cheese; fennel and easter egg radish salad; picholine, nicoise and cracked green olives. served with soughdough batard and straus butter". it was fantastic. now i generally don't do dairy but on my birthday i do everything except flesh. and the goat cheese was fantastic, it brought tears to my rheumy old eyes. really. tangy, goaty, but not too strong. it was perfect. the olives were salty and added a perfect bite. the bread was acme sougdough, which the b.a.c. liked cause it wasn't too strong on the sourdough flavor.

for appetizers we ordered the spring sampler "gigande beans with meyer lemon and tarragon; three beet salad; grilled italian bread with fava bean puree, mint and shaved pecorino fiore del pastore", and a salad "wilted savoy spinach, treviso radicchio and escarole with sky hill chevre, piquillo peppers, croutons, red onions, aged sherry vinegar and hot olive oil". both of these dishes were perfectly executed. the salad greens were fresh and delicate and the dressing complemented the leaves without being assertive. it was the perfect backup singer. the dish just tasted of fresh green-ness.

the spring sampler, my dish, was even better. the gigande beans were tender without being mushy and the meyer lemon added a beautiful floral, slightly acid note to the dish, just enough to liven it up. the tarragon married perfectly with the lemon. these two seasoning were very assertive and i noted the meyer lemon immediately but thought the tarragon was, um, corriander. i know, i have a terrible palate. of course once i knew what it was it was obvious. the beets were marinated beets in three colors, the red being the most flavorful, and the grilled italian bread with the fava puree was, to me, just okay. the real standout were the gigande beans.

onto the main courses. we ordered a pasta dish "spinach ricotta ravioli with savoy spinach, spring onions, pine nuts, gorgonzola dolce, olive oil, opal basil and parmesan reggiano", and a tartlet "with artichokes, portobello mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, leeks, fennel, asiago and thyme. served with asparagus with lemon oil and roasted cipolllini onions."

the spinach ravioli were very rich but not cloying. the ravioli shells were delicate, almost like a gyoza or wonton wrapper - it seemed too delicate to hold together yet it somehow managed. the ravioli filling tasted of green. it just tasted and felt deep, dark, green and velvety. quite an experience. the sauce was a light butter and olive oil sauce. as i said, very rich but not over the top.

our favorite dish by far was the tartlet. a perfect little free-form tart with a golden-brown crust stuffed with all the good things in the world. mushrooms. artichokes. leeks. roasted tomatoes. it was rich and earthy. like how i'd imagine good, fecund, damp soil to taste and smell to a truffle snuffling pig. all of the components were so meaty and satisfying with the roasted tomatoes really bringing a carmelized sweet acidity to balance it all out. the roasted cipollini onion melted in my mouth. it was perfect. the asparagus spears were fat, juicy, dark green spears and practically squirted my companion in the eye with each bite.

and to round out both the evening and our bulging guts came desserts. we shared a chocolate cake and a pear brown butter tart. i'm not the biggest chocolate cake fan but this was good. very chocoalte-y. very moist. very big. they had a selection of three scoops of tea-infused ice cream on the menu as well. were i to do it again i would choose those. you can get decent chocolate cake anywhere.

the other desert, the brown butter tart was excellent. like the dinner tart, the crust was perfect and the brown butter filling was not too sweet, not too rich. but sweet and rich enough. the standout for me was the accompanying loganberry ice cream. we finished with espresso.

what can i say except "wow". this was an excellent meal with no missteps. the quality of the ingredients were very high and the dishes were crafted in such a way as to enhance the flavors and neither overwhelm nor mask. service was friendly, efficient and professional. and the famous views. they were nice but not as nice as the food.

i'm a believer. greens, building a, fort mason, 415 771 6222.

the birthday part IV, the end: a long walk to j-town and dimples

and so all good things must come to an end. and sometimes they end with a long walk to a very strange terminus.

after waddling out of greens we milled around aimlessly in the parking lot waiting for our senses to clear. which they never did. which is why we decided to walk all the way over to japantown. it being saturday night in the marina and pacific heights, we spied the usual tight-lipped dinner parties from down below, a handful of people dressed up like chickens, hogs and dalmations, packs of boastful, puffed up fraternity brothers and no shortage of sandal-clad, tottering, giggling groups of girls, flipping their hairdos and talking trash about each other.

so we walked. and we walked. and we walked. at the end of the road we came to roost here. dimples.

this is a very strange place located almost in the basement of the denny's on post street. garish neon flashes outside, beckoning you down that dark stairwell to the underbelly of j-town. once you hit the basement level and hang the mandatory right, there it is. a boxy room with a bar to your right with a few stools scattered about. as you walk in, to your left are mirrors and a few linolium booths that are reminiscent of an airport cafeteria in cold minimalist plastic black eigties style. at the end of the small room is a jukebox which has a selection of elton john love songs and korean romantic favorites on hand. the bar at this point curves to the right for a few stools and there is a video poker machine set into the corner. to the left of the juke box is "the room", of which i shall speak later.

this was our second foray into the dimples universe. the first time was on a friday night about 6:30 pm. after years of seeing that damn sign but being too afraid to go in alone, i dragged the ol' ball-and-chain in behind me, as back up, as they say. i had no idea what to expect. as i descended i heard a muted drunken roaring and hearty back slapping. i was afraid. i was elated.

lined up at the bar were four drunk salarymen. i don't mean financial district guys off work. i mean the japanese salarymen you can find late at night in any tokyo or osaka outbound train, either seated or standing hanging from the handstrap for dear life. the shiny suits worn a few years too long, shoulders flecked with dandruff, greasy skin and the inevitable gyoza breath. and boy are they drunk. and stinking. green to the gills and swaying like hula dancers. so anyway, there were four of them lined up at the bar, slapping each other on the backs, giggling, swaying. boy, i tell you it brought back memories. especially when one of them fell off his stool. twice.

other patrons included a pretty young girl all dressed up with an older, much older man. a pretty crass looking but jovial girl watching her cell phone and chatting with the bartendress, and another young, bored looking girl stationed at the video poker machine. we had a few overpriced beers. the drunk salarymen left shortly after the second falling-off-bar-stool incident, arms clasped around each others' shoulders doing that strange "here we come, walkin down the street, hey hey we're the monkeys" staggering walk. the chain being broken only so they could fit throught he doorway. the crass-looking girl got whatever call she was waiting for and departed. the bored girl kept playing video poker. the spring-winter couple left too. not to make hasty judgements but it looked like a first "date", if you know what i mean...

so that was the first time. what was this latest visit to bring, i wondered?

the bar was filled with girls. pretty girls. pretty asian girls. one of them dressed in some formal wear - like what you'd wear to a prom or a ball or a fancy wedding or tea with the queen. there were a handful of decrepit looking guys, most of whom where clutching what appeared to be neon colored phone know what i'm talking about, back when phones had those springy cords that attached to handset to the box. if you're too young to remember go watch a seventies movie - i'll do you good. i asked the guy next to me what they were for - he mumbled something about the bartendress winning them in las vegas. huh?

so we took our usual seats just before the bend in the bar that led to the video poker machine, a different bored girl stationed in front of it and three or four other girls lingering next to her. we ordered five dollar bottles of buds and waited. eventually this mysterious room to the left opens up, i crane my neck around to peer inside - it looks like one of the booths outside but private. a few people go inside. "hmmm, i think to myself, maybe karaoke..." (i like to give the benefit of the doubt, y'know), well to be honest, i didn't hear any karaoke or anything else for that matter. a pack of three young asian guys enters the bar and the girl in the ball gown walks over to them. "hmmmm, maybe like a hostess bar..." the room opens and closes. there is almost a fight over one of the "las vegas souveniers", one guys' buddy knocks him off the bar stool and drags him out, a few single men come in and the girls go over to chat with them. one girl watches her cell phone and disappears after a call. a koren love song plays on the jukebox. i finish the dregs of my now flat beer and feel a year older. although none the wiser.

dimples, 1700 post street, san francisco

Thursday, May 05, 2005

windy city pizza, san mateo

Windy City Pizza, tucked away in a mini-mall off a commercial stretch in San Mateo serves up true Chicago-style feed, from pizzas (deep dish, stuffed, double-stuffed and thin crust) to ribs to Chicago’s famous Vienna hot dogs in a no-nonsense middle america ambiance.

On our latest visit we started with the Greek Salad (5.95). A huge plate piled high with lettuce (mostly the hearty romaine leaf), pale-red out-of-season tomato wedges, kalamata olives, feta cheese cubes and thick slices of red onion, all drenched in a tangy oil and red wine vinegar dressing. This is not one of those frou-frou salads but rather what you might expect from a good diner – very straightforward and generously portioned, it sets the tone for the meal to come.

The second appetizer, Rib Tips (5.95) are succulent and juicy, drenched in a not-too-sweet not-too-spicy barbecue sauce. There were the occassional renegade dry bits but according to my Chicago-bred, finger-lickin’ dining companion, they were authentic and indeed delicious. This appetizer is gigantic and could very well be a meal by itself.

And now to the main event, the pizza. We shared a small 10 x 2 inch deep dish pizza, half spinach and half vegetarian (12.95). This pizza is as thick as a spare tire, which is no doubt where it will go once eaten. A quick scan at the fellow diners confirms this. The crust is crispy on the outside, soft of the inside and flaky throughout…while not greasy this crust definitly has it’s share of fat in it – just the way a deep dish oughta be. This suberb crust is topped by a layer of thick, tangy tomato sauce. Just enough to moisten the pizza and add a little acidity without being too noticable. Generous piles of vegetables and cheese top off the pie which works wonderfully as a unit, each solider (crust, sauce, vegetables, toppings) doing their parts without standing out. No primadonnas vying for their two minutes of glory here – just a good solid team effort that results in a harmonious pizza.

The menu is quite extensive but the real draw here are the deep dish pizzas and the barbecue meats. If you’re a Chicago-transplant and have been hankering for some real comfort food, this is the place to go.

Windy City Pizza
35 Bovet Road
San Mateo
650 591 9457

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