Thursday, June 28, 2007

RIP: Albert J. Langer

Is there anything more perfect than a Langer's hot pastrami on rye? The pastrami is what you hear the most about, the succulent, pungent, perfectly spiced, thick cut (always order hand cut) pastrami. But the fresh baked rye stands on its own. The crisp, chewy crust with a soft, pillowy interior, smelling of caraway and always fresh. Put it all together with a generous dollop of mustard and you have one of the most perfect sandwiches available. Some people prefer the #19, with coleslaw and swiss cheese, but not for me. Nothing extraneous should stand in the way of me and my pastrami. And I'll have an egg cream with that please.

In 1998, I moved to LA from Manhattan, where I had worshipped at all the temples of pastrami, from Carnegie Deli to Katz's. These were places where the pastrami was piled so high that you would need mandibular implants to fit your mouth around a sandwich. They are less sandwiches that giant towers of meat with a perfunctory slice of bread on the side, vertical sandwiches for a vertical city.

New Yorkers, used to judging pastrami sandwiches by weight and girth, often complain that a Langer's sandwich is light on the pastrami, but quantity isn't what Langer's is about. It is about gestalt, the perfect blend of flavors and textures, the creation of a zen-like balance on a plate, with a pickle. Once I tasted a Langer's sandwich, I left all of New York behind. I never again complained about LA's lack of good bagels or pizza or public transportation, because LA has Langer's and New York doesn't.

Al Langer, pastrami legend, died last Sunday at age 94. Rest in Peace, oh lord of pastrami.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: American Single Malts

Whiskey Wednesday will take the day off next week for the July 4th holiday, and what better way to get ready to celebrate than with some American single malts.

American what?

Scotch single malts sure, Japanese even, but American? Yes Virginia, there is a burgeoning American single malt movement. They are being made in small batches, here and there, across the nation. They can be difficult to find, but I've tracked down as many as I could to bring you this round up of American single malt whiskey.

St. George Single Malt Whiskey
St. George Spirits, Alameda, California
43% alcohol

It is hard to imagine that one of the effects of the massive closure of military bases in the San Francisco bay area would be the manufacture of fine spirits, but so it is. St. George Spirits operates out of an old military hanger in Alameda (near Oakland), making vodka, liqueurs and brandy as well as its St. George Single Malt.

Speaking of brandy, St. George tastes like fruit brandy. I don't mean it's whiskey that tastes slightly of brandy, I mean it tastes like someone tapped the wrong cask! Sniff this stuff and you get a strong whiff of fruit, I'd say pear, like a fruit brandy or a sweet dessert Riesling. When you take a sip, you expect sweetness, but instead get an immediate jolt of spice which drives the fruit to the background. Then, when you swallow, you get that fruit back in the aftertaste (oh, sorry, I mean the finish). The mouthfeel is syrupy, which detracts some from the whole experience, leaving a coating on the tongue.

Ignore the anglophilia of this bottle's name and label, complete with dragon and coat of arms. Don't compare this to a ain't that and it really shouldn't be trying to be that. What is it? A pleasant though curious whiskey full of fruit and spice. A good one for the brandy drinker or the curious wine buff, but not necessarily one that will please the typical whiskey aficionado.

To sum up: I Can't Believe it's not Pear Brandy.

Peregrine Rock California Pure Single Malt Whisky
St. James Spirits, Irwindale, California
40% alcohol

A hometown single malt, St. James Spirits makes fruit brandies, rum, vodka, tequila and other spirits in Irwindale, just east of Los Angeles. Their single malt is made from peated Highland Scottish barley aged in oak bourbon casks. Oh, and a portion of the proceeds go save the endangered Peregrine Falcon. Whiskey with a conscience...only in Los Angeles.

Peregrine Rock is a sort of hybrid. The aroma is floral, a bit Irish, a bit bourbon, though with some fruit. The taste is like a cross between Irish and bourbon, smooth but sweet, with light fruit tastes and vanilla; I don't taste any real smoke. Nothing about this whiskey really speaks to me. The flavor is pretty unexceptional, missing the complexity of a good whiskey.

To sum up: Needs work.

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey
Denver, Colorado
Aged 2 years, 47% alcohol

Stranahan's doesn't use the term single malt, but it is a barley-based whiskey. Unlike the other distilleries listed here, Stranahan's only makes whiskey, and their whiskey is all-Colorado, using only local water and local barley. It's even tough to find a bottle outside of the state (I was lucky enough to snag some on a trip to Denver).

It's Bourbony but light. It has some strong banana flavor and some vanilla. I would guess that this does well over ice on a hot summer's day on the Front Range. Overall, a nice whiskey, and again, nothing like scotch. Lots of potential here and I'll be watching their future bottlings.

There is some weirdness going on with these Colorado folks. The bottle is capped with a flimsy metal shot glass, presumably so one can leave the store and get right to drinkin'. The label on my bottle notes that while it was being distilled the distiller was "listening to Bjork." Well, this may be good whiskey, but that's just creepy.

To sum up: I like it.

McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt
Clear Creek Distillery, Portland, Oregon
Aged 3 years, 40% alcohol

Clear Creek Distillery's McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt is one of the better known American single malts, having won some praise from critics. Along with whiskey, the distillery makes a wide variety of fruit brandies. Their single malt is made from peat-malted Scottish barley.

There is smoke there, but it doesn't taste like a peated scotch, where you inhale the strong smoke of a campfire or the char of the grill. It's more like the carbony smoke of "Oh shit, something's burning!" Maybe burnt barley stuck to the bottom of the pot. Smoke and burnt are different flavors...smoke is good, burnt is bad. In addition, there's not much under the smoke flavor-wise, none of the other tastes you would need to put the smoke in its place.

To sum up: Smoke but no fire.


Well, let's just say that the whiskey barons of Scotland shouldn't be fretting over their station in life. These American malts are young and underdeveloped. Flavor-wise, they are a bit of a hodge podge and haven't yet matured into something with a consistent character (either across distilleries or in a single bottle). They need some time and some more R&D to develop the complexity that I enjoy in a whiskey.

We should remember, though, that this experiment is still young. Overall, I'm proud of these American single malt pioneers. In grand American tradition, they have taken a legacy and turned it on its head. They aren't trying to be New Scotland but branching out in their own directions. There is some real potential here for a unique American whiskey to be born. They just haven't quite gotten there yet.

So let's raise a glass (or a metal jigger) to the diversity and creativity of the American single malt. Here's to many future July 4th celebrations with new and different American malts!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Girl Food: American Girl Cafe

If you have a daughter between the ages of 5 and 12 and you live in Los Angeles, I'm guessing you have heard of American Girl. American Girl was originally a series of books and dolls based on various historical periods. Now, it is a marketing juggernaut, selling $87 dolls and loads of accessories in catalogues and stores in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The American Girl mothership in Los Angeles is a sight to behold. Standing at the western corner of the Grove shopping center adjacent to the Third and Fairfax Farmers' Market, it is a sort of a mini-theme park, a temple to little girls and their dolls. Along with dolls for sale, there is a doll salon where you can change your doll's hairstyle, a doll hospital for injured and terminally ill dolls, a theatre with live performances and a cafe.

So on the occasion of the sixth birthday of my daughter, I found myself dining at the American Girl Cafe.

Getting reservations at the Cafe is on par with doing so at Mozza. Calling two months in advance, there were no weekend lunches, so we got a 9:30 a.m. seating for brunch. They told us to show up fifteen minutes early. We showed up and were told we would be seated at 9:30 and we could wander around the store until then. Ah, the marketing savvy, come fifteen minutes early and be our captive while we entice your already overstimulated six year old with additional merchandise.

At 9:30, they seated our party of five: myself, my wife, my mother, our daughter and her doll. Yes, each doll is greeted by name by the hostess (no small feat given that there must be 20 different dolls with a dizzying array of outfits and disguises). The doll is seated at a miniature chair which attaches to the table and is served a doll-sized teacup and saucer, very sweet.

As you walk into the pink hued dining room, there is a shelf full of dolls near the entrance. Presumably they are there to accompany diners who do not have or did not bring a doll, sort of an American Girl escort service. It was disconcerting, though, to have them all sitting there on the shelves while we ate...just watching us, not blinking, just staring...creepy.

This led me to wonder what would happen if someone showed up with a non-American Girl doll? Would they be politely but firmly told that those type were not served in this establishment or would they be hustled to a table in the back corner where the waitstaff would try to dispense with them as quickly as possible?

I have to say, I had low expectations for the AGC food. I mean, I've never had a decent meal anywhere in the Grove (as distinguished from the excellent choices at the Farmers' Market next door), and this was not only the Grove, it was a decked out doll theme park restaurant in the Grove. I assumed the food would be overpriced slop. I have to say the food was better than I expected, it was overpriced generally good food. The meal starts with mini-cinnamon rolls for all, just an amuse to wet your appetite for the sugar rush to come. The best dish we had was probably the eggs benedict on crab cakes with fried potatoes or a green salad; not the best I've had but a fairly good effort. The various french toast and waffle type items also looked good.

Dessert (yes, dessert is part of the prix fixe at the 9:30 a.m. seating) included a perfectly good chocolate mousse served in a flower pot with plastic flower. This, of course, means that you were eating the "dirt" in the flower pot, which you would think would be something you'd more likely see at American Boy, but no one seemed to mind.

My daughter, as the birthday girl (from my observation, it appeared that approximately 100% of the patrons that morning included birthday celebrants), also got a small piece of cake and we each got a sugar cookie. A dessert trio for breakfast...not bad. We were then told we could keep the napkin holders which double as hair ribbons and the plastic flowers from the mousse flower pot, which double as plastic flowers.

All in all, AGC easily surpassed my low expectations. And as I walked out of breakfast, jolted by the morning sugar rush, and meandered through the chronic cuteness of the store, I found myself curiously drawn to the vast merchandise and thinking, yes, honey, maybe your doll does need scuba gear...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Skooby's: Yesterday's Miracle, Today!

Another Favorite:

Skooby's Hot Dogs, Hollywood Blvd. at Cherokee.

What to get: Great hot dogs on home made buns and some of the best fries and homemade chips in town (love that aioli sauce).

Great hot dogs on Hollywood Boulevard - un milagro indeed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: American Whiskey

On my first Whiskey Wednesday, I discussed America's premier whiskey: Bourbon. The United States, however, is the proud home to a number of whiskies. Gearing up for the July 4th holiday, I will give a brief introduction to American whiskies and next week, taste a variety of new American single malts. But now, I introduce to you, the other American whiskies.

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is all about Jack and George. While bourbon might have more producers, the biggest selling whiskey is Tennessee whiskey, or more specifically, Jack Daniels. In fact, Jack and his pal George Dickel are the only two Tennessee whiskies currently in production.

What is the difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon? While their composition is similar, after the whiskey is distilled, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal in a method known as the Lincoln County process. If you do a search on, you will find much discussion and debate, with an almost Talmudic quality, about how substantive this difference is. Should Jack and George really be considered bourbons? Does the Lincoln County process really merit a distinction? Does the process impart or remove flavor? Is "Tennessee whiskey" simply a marketing label? I am in no position to answer these questions nor do I necessarily care whether Tennessee whiskey is really bourbon or something different. (In the future, we will taste and find out). What is undeniable is that Jack and George are hugely popular, even if they are mostly drunk drenched in Coke.

Rye Whiskey

Before prohibition, if you were talking about American whiskey, you were talking about rye whiskey. Rye was made in great quantities in the once whiskey dense eastern seaboard, with distilleries all over New York and Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion was a protest over taxes on rye whiskey, and even George Washington distilled rye at Mount just can't get more American than that.

After prohibition, rye production never picked up again and for years it was dormant except for the occasional rye put out by the big bourbon companies. In the last decade, however, there has been an explosion of rye whiskies such that rye is some of the most exciting stuff happening in American whiskey.

Most of the new ryes are from bourbon distilleries in Kentucky that are gaining a new found respect for America's first whiskey, but the Anchor Distillery, out in San Francisco, is making a great series of single malt ryes (composed of 100% malted rye) under the Old Potrero label.

I'm a big fan of rye. It tastes like a spice cabinet: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice. It tickles the tongue and marries well with the corn that is often mixed with it in Kentucky ryes. In coming weeks, I'll introduce some ryes and do some rye tastings.

Single Malt Whiskey

There is a small but growing group of distilleries, maybe six at most, making single malt whiskey in the US. Some use Scottish barley, some use local, and many make other spirits as well, such as brandy and vodka. Next week, I will review four of these new American single malts and see what the US has to offer in the single malt category.

Next Whiskey Wednesday: American Single Malts

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Recent Reads: The Making of a Chef

Sometimes, when I'm having a particularly hard week at work, I dream of leaving it all behind and going to culinary school. I imagine that the curriculum would be something like this:
Day 1: Searing Foie Gras
Day 2: Making Ice Cream
Day 3: Chocolate Souffles
Day 4: Perfect Sweet Breads

If you've ever had similar daydreams, then you too will be slapped awake by Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef.

What is culinary education really about? From Ruhlman's description, it's weeks and weeks of making stocks and brown sauce along with scintillating classes like culinary math and sanitation. Well, I guess the snow peas are always greener...

Ruhlman has distinguished himself as a food writer and this book, first published in 1997, has become somewhat of a classic in the genre. While it is worth a read to give you insight into the world of culinary education, I wasn't thrilled with the writing. Ruhlman has a fussy writing style and seems overly intent to draw spiritual lessons from the kitchen. Brown sauce becomes an unlikely metaphor for his own successes and failures, and his search for the perfect roux correspondingly becomes a search for the core of the human soul. It's as if he's trying too hard to be the Pynchon of the kitchen.

In his general take on the CIA, Ruhlman is the anti-Bourdain. Where Anthony Bourdain gives you the professional kitchen in all its drudgery and insanity, Ruhlman romanticizes culinary education. Every teacher is heroic, and he adopts wholesale the institutional idolization of the CIA president. While he ponders the ins and outs of each class lesson with a studied solemnity, Ruhlman is much less analytical when it comes to the institution itself. It is clear that he is not there to ask hard questions or raise difficult issues (unless the proper composition of a veal stock counts as a hard question), but to lovingly observe and mediate.

Still, if you ever dream of culinary school, you should read this first.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Favorites: Leda's Bake Shop

You can have your giant Sprinkles cupcakes, I'll take Leda's any day. Miniature cupcakes just bursting with flavor, they have moist cake, thick frosting and a powerful flavor package at the center.

I've never had one that I didn't love, but my very favorites are the tangy passion fruit and the dark chocolate, with a scrumptious bit of dark chocolate ganache at the center of the frosting.

But why, oh why, aren't they open later and on Sundays?

Leda's Bake Shop
13722 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whisky Wednesday: The Young and the Restless

It used to be that scotch marketing was extremely consistent: the older the scotch, the more revered and expensive. But within the last five years, high profile distillers have had great success marketing young scotch or scotch without age statements (which could therefore be any age over three years), sometimes at higher prices than the old stuff: Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Aberlour Abunad’h, Bruichladdich PC5, various Ardbegs, the list goes on and on. What gives with the industry? Why this change after umpteen years of tradition? Well, I credit the ole' US of A, or more specifically, the influence of American taste and culture on Europe and the UK.

Reason 1 - Bold is Beautiful

As scotch ages in the barrel it loses some of its harshness as well as its alcohol content; it becomes more subtle and complex. This is wholly Un-American! We do not do subtle and we are suspicious of complex. We like big, bold, simple flavors. For wine, that means chardonnays that scream oak and cabernets that will knock you down with their power-fruit. Even in France, I have heard tell that the wine cognoscenti is complaining that American bold is catching on with the countryfolk and appreciation for the complexity of Burgundy and blended Bordeaux is waning. Young scotch has powerful flavor, especially when of the smoky variety, which is what most of these younguns are. It's bold, it's no nonsense, it's practically American.

Reason 2 - Hope I Die Before I Get Old

In the UK and continental Europe, age is still identified with respect and reverence. The Queen is old. The Pope is old. The Rolling Stones are old. In the US, we do not revere our elders. We don't trust anyone over 30. In fact, we don't trust anyone old enough to remember who said we don't trust anyone over 30. We prefer youth in music, in politicians, and apparently, in scotch.

Reason 3 - Time is Money

Most importantly, by selling young, the distilleries are making profits on scotch that would have otherwise evaporated. You have to have some sympathy here. Scotch is a tough business. The distilleries go through all the trouble of making it and then they have to sit on it for at least ten years before anyone will buy it. That's why there are very few new distilleries opening up. You have to have a lot of foresight to do well. Case in point, Lagavulin, which dropped production of its popular 16 year old scotch when sales were lagging in the late '80s. They didn't foresee the single malt boom we are currently experiencing and as a result, didn't have enough product to meet demand in the early part of this decade. As a result, they have been surpassed in sales by competitor Laphroaig which had made the right call. A few new start-ups, like Arran and Kilchoman, are betting that the single malt boom is more than a fad...but it's a crap shoot, and marketing young scotch takes some of the edge and the risk out of the business.

For my part, I think a lot of the new, young scotch is high quality stuff. Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Ardbeg Uigeadail, and the mystery malt Smokehead are great, fun to drink smokers, but hey, maybe that's just my American bias.

Next Wednesday: Part 1 of my July 4th Salute to American Whiskey

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Great Los Angeles Pupusa Roundup

LA is awash in pupusas. The Slavadoran patties of masa filled with cheese, pork and beans are probably the most ubiquitous food from Koreatown to downtown, from the East Valley to South LA and beyond. They are to central LA as the hot dog or pizza slice is to Manhattan…a fast food staple that is available anywhere, at anytime, from a myriad of vendors.

I’ve loved the pupusa since I first tried one 13 years ago in Dallas. Since I moved to LA, I’ve tried them all over town and even made it down to El Salvador. (If you’re ever there, check out the pupusas at El Peche Cosme in Santa Tecla). I like to think of myself as pupusero (essentially, a pupusa chowhound).

For this roundup, I spent the last month and a half going to old favorites and seeking out new tips. I went to a vast array of pupuserias, concentrated in the mid-city to downtown corridor but venturing out when I got a hot tip. One thing I learned was that there are a lot of mediocre pupusas out there – they can be hard as rocks, greasy or mealy with flavorless fillings. For the most part, I’ve left those off the list and limited my roundup to the better and the best. After all, why tell you where not to go (unless it’s someplace you might be tempted to go because of wrongheaded or outdated tips).

At each pupuseria I had at least two pupusas: one queso con loroco (a Salvadoran vegetable) and one revuelta (a combination of chicharron, cheese and, usually, refried Salvadoran red beans). In a number of the restaurants, I tried a few other varieties and even other food, which I will comment on, but I focused in on the pupusas.

What makes a good pupusa? For me, there are several elements. The masa should be crisp on the outside, well cooked and not mealy. There should be a good proportion of filling to masa such that you can’t get a bite-full of pure masa. The filling should be flavorful. El Salvador is a country of strong cheeses, not pungent like French cheese but salty and distinct. The cheese should have flavor, not be a generic Mexican queso fresco and certainly not Monterey Jack. The chicharron should have a smoky, porky flavor. If I can’t tell I’m eating pork from the first bite, I’m not happy. The curtido (the spicy cabbage slaw that serves as condiment) should be acidic and spicy and most importantly, crisp and fresh tasting. No wilted cabbage please.

And now, on with the roundup:


La Nueva Flor Blanca
Beverly Blvd., west of Normandie

La Nueva Flor Blanca is a little shop on Beverly Boulevard’s Little Central America strip (between Western and Vermont), which shares a block with two Korean nightclubs and…another pupuseria. The first time I tasted a La Nueva Flor Blanca pupusa, it was a revelation. I had liked pupusas and had been eating them for years, but LNFB’s were the first ones that made me see that pupusas can be truly great. LNFB understands the gestalt of the pupusa, the relationship between masa and filling that makes it work. The pupusas there are hand made while you watch, the masa is crisp and the filling plentiful. The Queso and Loroco is excellent and so overstuffed that a bit of queso always drips out onto the grill, making for some tasty fried cheese bits. But the crux of the LNFB experience is the amazing pork. The pork filling at LNFB, which they make on-site, is the best I’ve ever had, spicy and porky and crisp. When you mix it with the cheese and beans, it makes for what I think is the single best pupusa in all of Los Angeles. I can eat three LNFB revueltas at a sitting, not out of hunger, but out of a desire to keep tasting that perfect mesh of flavors, perfectly cooked. The one complaint I have about this place is the wilted and limp curtido, but the pupusas are so good that unsatisfactory condiments will not get in the way.

La Pupusa Loca
SW corner of Wilton and Santa Monica Blvd.

La Pupusa Loca is a comfy restaurant in an unimposing stripmall. (Strangely enough, it is right next to a pizzeria called La Pizza Loca.) La Pupusa Loca may be the best all-around Salvadoran restaurant I visited. While the traditional masa pupusas were very good, the highlight were the arroz, or rice pupusas. Rice pupusas are a different breed of pupusa, made with rice flour instead of masa. They are harder to find than traditional masa pupusas, but they do appear on the occasional menu. The rice pupusas at Pupusa Loca are heavenly. The rice is fried crisp, but when you bite into them you get that chewy, sticky sensation of rice, like those southeast Asian rice paper eggrolls I love so much. The rice has less flavor and is less absorbent than masa, so the flavors of the fillings are enhanced and have to stand on their own. LPL has fabulous fillings and they stuff lots of them into each pupusa. The pork was nicely smoky, the cheese was plentiful and flavorful. Now, this is not to downplay the masa puspusas, which were excellent with a nice crispy texture, but the arroz pupusas really blew me away!

Other good eats at LPL. Liquado de Zapote, a Slavadoran fruit that I’ve only had in liquados, this one is sweet and thick, if a bit grainy, and tastes like a vanilla shake. LPL offers some of the best fried plantains I’ve ever had, with a deep brown, carmelized flavor…it was almost like eating Bananas Foster sans the booze.


Delmy Pupusas
Sunday’s Hollywood Farmer’s Market on Ivar

Delmy’s at the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market dishes out pupusas to a long line of shoppers who know their heriloom radishes from their grass fed bovines. Delmy’s is the only pupuseria I’ve seen with a largely non-Salvadoran clientele, and that’s not the only thing that distinguishes it. It has a much wider menu of fillings, including shrimp, chicken and veggie but without any loroco. Instead of encasing the filling within the masa, the filling is blended throughout to make something really more akin to a Korean egg pancake than a traditional pupusa. They are flat and thin. The masa is also different. I’m not sure if it’s differently composed (flour, maybe?) or it’s just the effect of mixing everything together, but it has a slightly lighter taste and a pleasant sour tang. The curtido at Delmy’s is a purple sauerkraut that will make your lips pucker and goes with the overall sour theme. While different, these are very good pupusas. As for the fillings, the cheese could be more flavorful, but the pork has a good smoky flavor. The shrimp were plump and well cooked, but I’m just not ready for shrimp pupusas. I’m convinced that Delmy’s is the next step on the pupusa’s journey to the U.S. It is the introduction of the pupusa to a wide variety of non-Salvadorans. One day, when pupusas hit it big…when some temple of haute cuisine whose chef shops at the market starts serving a pupusa stuffed with braised pork belly, foie gras and goat cheese accompanied by a cabbage coulis, people will likely look back to Delmy’s as the bridge to mass acceptance of the once humble pupusa.

Los Chorros

Century Blvd. & Condon, Inglewood

The outer window of Los Chorros welcomes you with a clutter of beer signs, the Health Department’s giant “B,” and a poster touting it as part of Inglewood’s “No Prostitution Zone,” though looking around the parking lot, someone may want to call whatever agency enforces those zoning laws. Inside, however, are some great Salvadoran eats. I hadn’t been to Los Chorros in years, but they are still putting out great pupusas. Their queso con loroco is particularly excellent with a good crust on the masa and nice flavor. The revuelta was a bit too heavy on the beans and light on the pork for my taste. The curtido was quite spicy, but wilted.

Other good eats at Los Chorros: The other food at Los Chorros actually rates better than the pupusas. The fried tamales de elote (corn tamales) are some of the best I’ve had, crisp on the outside, sweet and moist on the inside. The Yuca and Chicharron, that heart stopping dish of deep fried yuca and pork, was insanely good, also the best version I’ve had. It has huge chunks of pork and Yuca, fried perfectly and not at all greasy…this may be one of the best pork dishes in LA.


As I said, I’m not reviewing the numerous pupuserias that I thought were not up to par, but I did want to express my disappointment with two places that are commonly recommended for pupusas.

The Texis Chain
(various locations)

The Texis chain is spread throughout the mid-city area (I went to the original Texis at Vermont and 7th). The pupusas are not horrible, but aren’t anything special either. The masa is a bit too thick and mealy and the cheese is not flavorful enough. The revuelta is nicely done with good pork flavor, but there is not enough filling. The curtido is good and heavy on the oregano. Overall, an okay choice if you’re in a pinch, but nothing to write home about.

Beverly Blvd. west of Vermont

Atlacatl is probably the most recommended pupuseria in LA. Do a search on Chowhound and you will inevitably find Atlacatl recommendations (some by me). I don’t know if it’s that they have gone downhill or that they never were that good to begin with, but their pupusas were quite disappointing. They were well fried and had a decent amount of filling, but the filling was hopelessly bland. I could barely make out the pork in the revuelta and the cheese lacked any real flavor at all. They were also somewhat dry. While I had worse pupusas at other places, these were particularly disappointing considering all of the praise that has been heaped on this place over the years. All in all, I would not recommend Atlacatl for pupusas, especially when it’s a ten minute walk to that temple of masa and pork, La Nueva Flor Blanca.

Other eats at Atlacatl: I did enjoy Atlacatl’s pan con pavo, the giant Salvadoran turkey sandwich with watercress and cabbage, drenched in a turkey gravy like a giant Phillipe’s Turkey dip with veggies.

To Sum Up:

Top Tier: La Nueva Flor Blanca, La Pupusa Loca
Runners Up: Pupusa Delmy, Los Chorros
Disappointments: Texis, Atlacatl
Other good Salvadoran eats: liquado de zapote and fried plantains at La Pupusa Loca; fried tamales de elote and yuca y chicharron at Los Chorros; pan con pavo at Atlacatl.

Please let me know your favorite pupuseria so I can add it to my list. Happy eating.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Tiramisu in a Box

I love a good tiramisu, but in LA, I have found the pickin's to be slim compared to east coast cities with big Italian populations. My tiramisu salvation is Sabor Sensual's tiramisu, a frozen 7 x 8 inch box of tiramisu that is better than most LA restaurant and bakery tiramisu I've had.

The ingredients are impressively basic: mascarpone, cream, eggs, sugar, ladyfingers, espresso, liqueur and cocoa powder; standard tiramisu ingredients. The mascarpone and cream are blended together to form a thick, sweet cream that blends with the espresso soaked lady fingers. This is highly addictive stuff. I often find myself licking the ribbed sides of the plastic box to get every last bit of creamy goodness.

I buy my tiramisu in a box in the frozen desserts chest at Bay Cities on Lincoln in Santa Monica. Put it in the fridge for 3-4 hours and presto: instant, excellent tiramisu.

From the little I could tell from a quick Google search, Sabor Sensual is a New Jersey based company that specializes in Latin American desserts. I certainly will try to grab up some of their other products if I ever see them.

By the way, I've been buying this stuff for years, and the "NEW!" label on the package has always been there...they must be speaking geologically or something.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Lagavulin Sibling Rivalry

When I was 16, my 12 year old little brother was a pain in the rear...always embarrassing me in front of my friends, messing with my stuff, and making fun of my romantic life, or lack thereof. Now, Lagavulin's classic 16 year old single malt has a younger sibling of its own, and a cask strength* one at that. Is Laga getting along with its little sib? Has sibling rivalry reared its ugly head among these Islay offspring? Let's taste and find out.

Lagavulin 16 year old, 43% alcohol.

Lagavulin was the first big smoker I tasted. Five years ago, you could get it for $40, but due to demand outstripping supply, the price has almost doubled since then. Now, it seems that this once grand malt has been supplanted by the excellent Laphroaig and Ardbeg as the smoky favorites of south Islay-the smokiest coast of the smokiest island in all of smoky Scotland.

The aroma of the 16 year old is all smoke. Not the heavy char of some Ardbegs but a purer wood smoke, like the smoke that rolls off of the dying embers of a campfire. In some cases, I'd rather smell a smoker than drink one as the taste often doesn't live up to the aroma, but with Lagavulin, the wood smoke is there, followed by a burst of sweetness. Then, you swallow, breath out through your nose and you're back by the campfire. There's a reason that the Lagavulin 16 year old is much sought after, and I'd guess that it's because of the fine melding of these flavors. That's why I prefer it to the standard bottlings of the other two big smokes, the 10 year old Laphroaig and Ardbeg (though those distilleries have some amazing whiskeys in their portfolios).

Lagavulin 12 year old, cask strength, 58.2% alcohol.

Before I was a scotch drinker, I was a tequila drinker, and occasionally, I get a scotch from Islay that has a strong aroma of tequila. This is one of those...the aroma and first sip put you right in Jalisco. There is some understated smoke, but more prominent is the sweetness of a good aged tequila, such that it makes me want to do a side by side comparison with my favorite tequila. The flavor is actually light for a cask strength and there is much less smoke here than in the 16 year old (I've noticed the Laphroaig 10 year old cask strength also to be less smoky than its regular strength counterpart). The flavor keeps that agave, and while there is trace smoke, it's nothing like the peat hit you get from the 16 year old - it's firmly balanced with the sweetness and a slight acidity.

All in all, I thought these were both very nice whiskies. If you're looking for a balanced but smoky scotch, take the 16 year old, but the 12 year old has much to offer with its balanced flavors.

UPDATE: Upon a few weeks rest, both Lagavulin's open up substantially. The 16 year old develops more complexity. Beneath the smoke there are layers of flavor, including some oak which gives it a rustic feel. The 12 year old loses some of the tequila and develops more of a character of its sibling, such that you can definitely tell they are in the same family. As with many whiskies, I think these benefit from a few days open.

*Cask Strength means that the alcohol strength of the whiskey is not diluted with water.

Next Wednesday: Young Turks

Sunday, June 3, 2007

LA's Best Egg Roll - Pho So 1

Pho So 1 is a small Vietnamese restaurant tucked into a corner strip mall, anchored by a Ranch 99, at the corner of Victory and Sepulveda in Van Nuys. When you pass through the doors, you are immediately hit with the fragrance of Vietnamese cooking: mint, basil, lime, cilantro. Pho So has good pho, but I prefer the bun - vermicelli with vegetables and bean sprouts served with a fish sauce. You can get it topped with wonderfully flavored barbequed pork with just the right balance of sweet, tangy.

The highlight of Pho So, though, is the egg roll. The plump rolls contain a luscious meat mixture (certainly pork, possibly beef, who knows what else) with cellophane noodles and spices packed into a rice paper roll and fried to the perfect consistency, where the outer layer of rice paper browns and blisters.

In my view, any rice paper egg roll beats one made with won ton or other flour based skins. The rice gives it that special chewiness and a lightness that is the perfect complement to the dense filling. And rice paper egg rolls lack the greasy mouthfeel of fried won ton skin. Pho So's are done just right. For my money, the egg rolls here are the best in LA!

You can have the egg rolls with traditional garnish (lettuce, tangy, lightly pickled carrots, daikon, mint and cilantro) or in a bun accompanied by the lovely combination of stringy vermicelli with fresh and pickled vegetables.

Anytime I'm in Van Nuys, which is usually to visit my favorite liquor store, I make a stop at Pho So 1. (Since there doesn't seem to be a Pho So 2 anywhere, I'm guessing that the name, like many pho restaurants, may refer to a restaurant in Vietnam).