Monday, September 26, 2005

il cantuccio

i've been meaning to try il cantuccio for years now but you know how it is in san restaurants pop up all over town like fleas on a pound dog and it's impossible to keep up without growing very, very fat and very, very poor.

this last saturday, after some techno-freak german-nudie action at the "love parade" i was in the mood for something sedate, easily digested with no nudies. walking by il cantuccio for the 24,679 thousandth time i peered in to see an empty table in the long, narrow, cozy dining room peopled with - gasp- normal folk. folk wearing collars (not leather studded). folk who were about my age and up. i sensed no "buzz" or "trendiness" or "hipness" or hype raditating from this little trattoria. bundled up in my scratchy cardigan, sturdy walking shoes and wielding my psychic walker, in i wheeled myself.

we began, sedately enough, with a green salad.

insalate mista $5.75, mixed green salad with cherry tomates, olive oil and balsalmic vinegar

the insalate mista appeared to be an unassuming little fellow with just a few tiny cherry tomato halves nestled in your standard bed of mixed greens. but it was tasty. it was excellent. the balsalmic and olive oil dressing was light and hit the perfect balance with just a touch of acidity and a subtle depth and sweetness that could only come from a very good, aged balsalmic. the cherry tomatoes, though sparse, were incredibly sweet little nuggets of tomato candy. a good omen for the meal to come.

potato stuffed ravioli with lamb sauce

the meat eater ordered one of the specials of the evening, a potato stuffed ravioli in a tomato-based lamb sauce, which he raved about. the report was that the potato filling was creamy but not heavy and the ground lamb had that rich lamb flavor without being too gamey, as lamb can be sometimes.

capellini pomodoro $9.95, angel hair pasta tossed with garlic, arugula, chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce

i ordered the angel hair pasta with garlic, arugula and tomato because it was the only pasta item on the menu that didn't contain any dairy. generally i shy away from capellini as it's often not cooked properly and the delicate noodles easily become lost in an over or under abundance of heavy handed sauces. this dish was perfectly executed. the tomatoes were seasonly sweet, the arugula lent just a touch of color, the dish was studded with bits of coarsely chopped garlic and the tomato sauce just coated each noodle. there was the right amount of olive oil in the sauce to keep the pasta separated withougt sending it into the oil slick zone. this was one of the best pasta dishes i've had in a long time.

having injudiciously gobbled down too much of the delicious, spongy foccacia like bread that came with the meal we skipped dessert, but the usual classic italian sweets were all present and accounted for...from tiramisu to panna cotta to biscotti. maybe next time.

and there will be a next time. this place is a neighborhood gem that dishes up classic italian fare in a cozy and intimate setting where you can actually have a conversation, unlike other italian places in the neighborhood whose overhyped name shall go unmentioned.

good for meat eaters. pretty good for vegetarians with four appetizers, salads, pizzas, and four pasta dishes that seem to be meat free. nor will vegans starve with a selection of two appetizers, some salads and the capellini pasta dish. there is a nice looking gnocchi on the menu which they could probably omit the cheese from.

il cantuccio
3228 16th street
san francisco 415 861 3899

citysearch review

Thursday, September 22, 2005

cama, one dollar happy hour beers

there are so many bars in the mission it boggles the mind. despite living in this cornucopia of boozing establishments, i generally frequent the one closest to me, a mere half a block's staggering distance away. a bar whose name shall go unmentioned and who is not the topic of this post. there is a certain comfort in seeing the same drunks year after year, defying the surgeon general and general common sense by not looking that much the worse for wear than the rest of us. maybe the teeth, nails and vital organs a bit more on the yellow side along with a bleary-eyed aura of desperation, but hey, who can see such tiny details in a dark bar? anyway, my point being that i'm a lazy git and it takes something special to tear me away from my most local of locals. something special, or to be more to the precise, something specially cheap.

and that brings us to cama, "a modern day pause", whatever that means. all i know is that they have a cheap happy hour. one dollar pbr (pabst blue ribbon, for those of you who are too well bred to know) until 8pm. yep. i said one dollar. and i said 8pm. did i mention this comes in a pint glass and not one of those toddler-sized juice glasses? and from 5 till 7 (i think, don't quote me on this), they have two dollar well drinks. but the pbr is good and gassy and light and tasty and half the price.

cama inhabits the old dr. bombay's spot, that chilly, sodden old reject of a tiki bar that popped up, unluckily enough, between tiki bar trends. it is still chilly. downright cold, as a matter of fact. like a meatlocker. the interior is "arty", with skateboard art, pictures of donkeys with giant genitalia (to scale, in other words) and, oh the horror, a few rollerbladers painted in silhouette on some of the tables. what were they thinking? don't they know that putting skateboarders and "bladers" together is like holding a dual mime/clown convention? it can only end in bloodshed.

anyhoo, the space is kinda "arty" (in quotes because it feels like it's trying a little too hard), kinda "lounge-y" with built in sofa type things in the wall where the old booths used to be, definitly chilly enough to keep you awake, has a little smoking patio in the back (for all you degenerates), a video monitor and some good music playing on the hi-fi if you get the right bartender. on weekends during the daytime you might catch andrew whose i pod selection is so closely aligned with my tastes that i could almost proclaim him a genius, if i were a genius, that is. which i'm not. i mean, who plays marlene dietrich and radiohead and mr bungle back to back to back? someone other than your sophmore year special ed classmate, that is. not that i'm implying that you were in special ed...

i recommend this place cause: it's dark enough to make everyone look pretty; has cheap beers so that even people who don't look very good at first will, with the mere investment of a few slim dollars; it is never crowded; has a good sound system; and, most importantly of all, is a cheap way to get a little liquored up before heading off to face the anorexic, rictus smiling hostess of your overpriced, overhyped mission destination restaurant (take your pick starting with delfina and ending with tokyo go go). the beers go down just as well, if not better, before a slice of arinells or a supertaco...

cama bar
3102 16th street
san francisco
415 864 5255
citysearch review

Monday, September 19, 2005

tokyo go go, happy hour

the other day i went to tokyo go go, which procaims itself to be "san francisco's funky, hip sushi bar and restaurant". normally i avoid these "funky, hip" places, finding them pretentious, irritating and anything but "hip". not that i would know this hippness if it wielded it's wide ass around a sharp bend and hit me smack between the ears with either cheek. oh, that remindes me of an incident i recently witnessed on the 22 fillmore wherein this ample teenage girl in tight lowriders got up from her window seat and tried to scootch to the aisle to disembark when the busdriver, late no doubt for his crack connection, put the pedal to the metal. the poor girl didn't have a chance. she fell straight backwards and a little downwards, right smack into the scaberous face of the bum who'd sat next to her. mortified, she apologized. the bum's response was classic, "better you than him", he said, pointing a blackened and cracked digit at the fat guy standing in the aisle next to him. truer words were never spoken. the giggling men who witnessed the exchange all bobbed their heads in agreement.

what was i talking about? oh yes, i was ranting about "hip and funky" places and a little ass in the face, therefore it must be tokyo go go. i wandered in early one sunday evening for a drink and a snack. they have this sweet little happy hour deal where you get a choice of handrolls for three bucks and kirin on draft or hot sake for another two bucks. three for well cocktails.

the decor is "hip and funky". the food is good. the service is unbelievable. unbelievably bitchy (yes, that old sexist term is the best fit in this case). i've been coming here on rare occasion ever since they opened and the service has continued to astound me. i think they use the same personality exam as the federal government uses to screen for dmv workers. not a slag on all the servers and hostesses there but, well, it's been pretty consistent for me. for example, dropping by for the happy hour cheapo deal, our server exhibited surprise and a chilly disregard when we told her our order of a few beers and handrolls. "that's it?" was her response. "yes, just a little snack" we replied. "you're not kidding" she retorted as she snapped up the menus and walked away with nary the shadow of a smile. the retort is not common, but the chilliness is.

but back to the goodstuff, the food. happy hour hand rolls are tasty and included (on our visit) a choice of: shrimp tempura (with cucumber), unagi (with cucumber), spicy tuna (with cucumber), crab and smoked salmon (real crab, smoked salmon, spicy mayo and cucumber), hamachi (with scallion and tobiko), albacore poke (with onion, wakame and schichimi), veggie (chef's choice), dynamite (baked spicy scallops with wasabi tobiko), and sunshine (hamchi, cilantro, wasabi tobiko and quail egg). the handrolls are a decent size, the rice is well seasoned and the fish is high quality. the kirin draft is light and smooth and excellent.

if you're looking for a bargain (you don't want to get too thrifty when dealing with raw fish), don't mind a certain chill to the service you do get (be prepared to be aggresive in flagging down your server during happy hour - or better yet, just sit at the sushi bar), and crave some tasty sushi, tokyo go go is really a good value. and unlike most places, their happy hour is everday of the week: monday - saturday 5:30 - 7:00, sunday 5:00 - 6:30.

tokyo go go
3174 16th street
san francisco
415 864 2288

citysearch review

Friday, September 16, 2005

marouch, los angeles

garnishes: pickled beets, olives, green onions, mint and hot peppers

tucked away in a faceless mini mall off santa monica boulevard and edgemont, with too few parking spaces and too many giant suvs, as are most business establishments in la, is marouch. probably the best middle eastern (lebanese-armenian) restaurant i've ever been to. of course i have yet to get myself to saha in san francisco, thus the probably part.

we showed up, a ravenous table of nine, at 8:00 pm on a saturday night. we had reservations but didn't need them as the place was about only 25% full. my friend, the picky eater and he who turned me on to this place couldn't believe it. i suppose it was due to the holiday weekend. all of la was eerily abandoned.

the interior is warm and inviting: there's a fountain by the door; the lighting is just dim enough to lend a certain flattering, wrinkle reducing light; the colors are warm; the tablecloths are white. it's a nice space. kinda klassy. spelled with a k, mind you.

cup of lentil soup ($2.50)
i started with a cup of lentil soup, which was thick and creamy, a bit more like a split pea soup than the thin version you'd find in an indian restaurant. served with bits of fried pita bread. it was good and hearty but paled in comparison to the rest of the meal.

fattoush ($5.00)
upping the ante, next came the fattoush. it was delicious. the dressing was neither too oily nor acidic, hitting a subtle note. there was a good balance of tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, bell peppers and pita bread chunks. wholly satifying with no ingredient dominating. the pita was toasted and so retained some of its crunch in the salad.

hommos b-tehiny and fool maddamas ($8.95)
tahini and fava beans together in one plate, am i in heaven? these favas are cooked to a meltingly tender consistency and seasoned in lemon juice, garlic and olive oil, served in a nest of the the creamiest, garlic-iest, tastiest tahini. the favas were lightly tossed with some scallion, parsley and bits of tomatoes and had a light yet zesty flavor. the tahini was pure creamy garlic heaven.

babaghanouge ($ 6.95)
very very creamy and very very smoky. this dish had a nice tart bite from the lemon juice that balanced out the incredibly smoky flavor of the eggplant. served with a dollop of tomato, parsley and olive oil on the top. without a doubt this was the most distinctive and flavorful babaganouge i've ever had. it was my favorite dish of the entire meal.

mouhamara ($7.95)
"man, you gotta try this stuff", my friend the picky eater kept repeating, "it's unbelievable". and so i did. and i was not disappointed. for the uninitiated, mouhamara is, according the the marouch menu, "crushed walnuts mixed with hot red pepper paste and olive oil". this does not begin to describe this dish. first off, it is not in the least bit spicy, as you might expect it to be based on the "hot red pepper paste" part. the flavor is more reminiscent of a roasted red pepper paste - smoky, meaty and sweet, with the walnuts giving a nice crunch to the pate. served with a drizzle of olive oil and toasted almonds on the top.

mixed grill ($30.95)
off of the entree menu came this mixed grill for five. it was six skewers of chicken, beef, lamb, cut into giant chunks served over a bed of rice. the meat was reported to be succulent and well flavored but at about five bucks a skewer, the price seemed a bit on the steep side to me.

fresh baked pita bread
the meal is served with fresh baked pita bread. it was a little rubbery, like all pita bread that is not steaming hot or toasted, but with a wonderful and lightly smoky flavor.

marouch was a totally satisfying dining experience. the service was friendly and efficient, the ambiance was warm and welcoming, and the food was top notch yet reasonably priced. if, no, when you go, do not miss the unbelievable babaganough and the mouhamara.

4905 santa monica blvd. (nr edgemont)
los angeles
323 662 9325

citysearch review

Friday, September 09, 2005

pho fresco, los angeles

all of my friends (yes folks, all TWO of 'em) have moved to los angeles. why? they all, without exception (meaning both of 'em) admit that although life in la can be hellish (smog, traffic, bad food, excessive plastic surgery) it also can be cheaper. and it's definitly warmer. plus, they all drag out that old excuse of "it was time for a change". so change they did and here i am all alone in my kingdom of fog and good food. and sometimes i take a trek down to hell-a. and i eat. and with rising gas prices, i try to eat cheap.

pho fresco is a little neighborhood vietnamese/thai place in tragically la trendy los feliz. it wins my heart because the entire decor, including the signage and name is recycled from it's predecessor, an italian joint called al fresco. tacky, no? hell yes!

the menu is divided into two sections: vietnamese and thai. i've only sampled the vietnamese dishes, being a big fan of lite, non-greazzzy fare. it's pretty good. and it's pretty durn cheap too.

here is the number fifteen, the bun chay dac biet - vegetarian. tender rice noodles piled atop a bed of shredded lettuce greens and bean sprouts and topped with carrot and daikon slivers, shitake mushrooms, tofu, and eight(!) fried veggie spring roll pieces! it comes with rice vinegar/soy dressing on the side to be added to your liking. all this for only $5.95. it is huge. it is a meal in itself.

on previous visits i've had the number seven, pho chay - vegetarian ($5.95). a gigantic bowl of rice noodles with tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and the usual vietnamese accompaniments (bean sprouts, lime, basil, etc.). with a light yet savory broth it's a decent rendition of your vietnamese vegetarian pho.

although the inside is a little reminiscent of an actual southeast asian restaurant (like someone's garage), the food is reliably decent, cheap, there's never a wait, you can bring your own booze, and the service has always been friendly. if you live in the neighborhood or happen to be in the vicinity and don't want to deal with fancy/overpriced los feliz fare, this is a good bet.

pho fresco
1769 hillhurst avenue
los angeles
323 906 0599

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

umpqua store, oregon

umpqua, oregon. this place is really, but really out in the sticks. ever heard of it? umpqua. it sounds like something one of those pesky oompa loompas might chant in a charlie and the chocolate factory themed acid trip (but in reality it is named after the umpqua tribe of native americans). this "town" consists of a post office and general store (adjacent), a volunteer fire department (maybe) and some number of houses, trailers, pickup trucks and barns nestled deep in the formerly lush but now sporadically clear cut forests of oregon.

i don't know if you're familiar with oregon but there are only a few "major" cities, such as: the trucker hat wearin', meth-lab littered town of medford in the south; the perennially dreadlocked, filthy-hippy-birkenstock-shod denizens of eugene a bit further up north; and the, it's-so-far-up-north-it-might-as-well-be-washington, city of portland; and, hmmm, well, i guess that about covers it. umpqua is located way off of the five, between roseburg (about two hours north of medford) and eugene (about an hour and a half further north). you'll probably never find yourself here, but if you do, and if you're hungry, this is the only choice in town. and it's pretty good.

dinner, which is served only on weekends, consists of an entree plus your choice of foil wrapped baked potato or pesto pasta or rice pilaf (not recommended), plus a vegetable, plus a choice of salad or clam chowder. homemade bread is brought to the table. three types: honey wheat, white and a dark brown bread. they are all absolutely delicious - light and fluffy with a nice crust and excellent flavor.

the clam chowder and is highly recommended. the potatoes are cooked through yet still a little firm, not mushy. the broth is rich without being cloying and with none of the nasty thick gelatinousness that you find in some chowders.

blackened salmon ($16.95). fresh salmon blackened with a spicy and flavorful coating. the fish is juicy and tender. the vegetable of the night was broccoli, sadly served with a cheese sauce. i'm told that it's unusual for the veggies to be served with a sauce. but i have to admit, it was tasty in a white-trash kinda way.

usually only on the lunch menu, here are the fish and chips. the fish for the evening was halibut but sometimes can be cod. either way, it is dredged in batter and fried up very crispy. a winner.

baby back ribs ($16.95). this guy was gigantic. i mean really big. i took a picture with someone's forearm in the background for scale but i thought it looked prettier without the living body part. the meat was slow cooked and fell off of the bone. the sauce was tangy and sweet and smoky. so good, one of our party ordered a second batch to go for sandwiches.

pesto prawns ($15.95). big, juicy succulent prawns in a light cream pesto sauce tossed with linguine. the cream pesto sauce was, much like the chowder, rich and creamy without being too rich. by the end of the meal, the remaining cream sauce had not congealed into a solid mass. from a cardiologist's perspective, an excellent sign.

and the poor, sad vegetarian, what of her you might ask? well, not wanting to create a ruckus by asking for something special (although i feel pretty sure they would've been accomodating), the herbivore had the sides that accompanied the extra order of ribs. the salad was your standard iceberg variety loaded with cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and the like. the potato was a nice, well cooked russet, such as you might find at a steak house. the vegetable was straight from a trailer. or maybe the makeshift kitchen of a convenience store. and the bread was just fantastic. this bread rivals any acme or semifreddi or tartine loaves i've come across. plus, there is no corkage for the homemade moonshine you bring along.

and on the way out you can pick up a little something for the road from the front of the store.

sam's place
umpqua store
fort mckay road
umpqua, oregon

Friday, September 02, 2005

san jose tofu

i've been going to san jose tofu for as long as i can remember, which despite years on drug abuse, i mean experimentation, i mean i never inhaled, reaches pretty far back - a least an hour or two. i was raised in the general vicinity (before there was even an apple ipod), and since moving away to other countries and other counties, i've spent hours journeying back either physically or mentally to this little mecca for chunks of my creamy, curdy, melt in you mouth soybean heaven. you haven't had tofu till you've tried this stuff.

this is a little family run operation located in san jose's rinky-dink japantown. just a little store front with a tiny counter separating the steaming sinks and vats of incubating tofu gnomes from the "dry" section that houses a couple of refrigerators, some veggies and packaged goods. it's a bit of a throwback to be able to watch the tofu guy wading around in his rubbers amidst the wetlands of tofu creation. and when you buy the stuff, the lady just scoops it out of the sink - kinda like waching your lobster get plucked from the tank.

the process of tofu making involves first soaking the soybeans, followed by boiling and straining to remove the pulp from the juice. essentially the same process as making soymilk. this pulp, which is called okara and can be used for other dishes, is then removed. at san jose tofu they put the okara into a plastic garbage can and you can get yourself a bag or two of the stuff to take home. the many uses for okara are pretty surprising: you can use it for breads, veggie burgers, okara "chicken" nuggets, or more traditionally simmered with dashi, veggies and seasonings. if you're interested in the pan-asian history of okara, there's a pretty interesting article here. being a fan of recycling, i get pretty excited about using this tofu by-product.

the soymilk is then slowly mixed with either nigari (natural magnesium chloride) or calcium sulfate until soft curds form. the curds are then poured into a tofu pressing box and pressed until firm. once the desired firmness has been reached, the blocks are then submerged into cold water where they await their lobster-like fate.

prices are 1.70 per block with a slight discount for larger quantities.

this tofu is not like anything you can buy from the grocery store. it is neither silken nor firm but rather light and curd-y. more like a soft pressed fresh cottage cheese. the flavor is clean and light. it is best served cold and with grated ginger, green onion and soy sauce. "please don't put teriyaki sauce on me" mr. tofu says.

if you're in the area, or are just another tofu freak like myself, you need to check this place out. general tip: to keep your tofu fresh (either san jose tofu or your general grocery store garden variety), change its water every day. be a shame to go all the way to san jose for a stinky rotten white log. here is a sfgate article on san jose's japantown with a mention of sj tofu.

san jose tofu
175 jackson street
san jose, ca
408 292 7026
mon - fri 9-6, sat 9-5
Site Meter