Monday, December 21, 2009

The Fête for James' 40th at Farm House Cafe

Blow James blow!
It's been a busy month, as December always is - but I would really be remiss if I let any more time go by without telling you about the fabulous party Olivier and Rochelle helped me throw at their restaurant Farm House Cafe for James' 40th birthday earlier this month.
Party people
We took over the restaurant with 27 of our closest friends, and Olivier served an amazing five course meal that started with champagne and chicken liver mousse, and ended with house-made chocolates. (Diet?? What diet???) In between we enjoyed a salad of endive, Cabrales blue cheese and spiced pecans with pears and for the main course, a choice of seared scallops with ricotta gnocchi, porcini mushrooms, roasted cauliflower and beurre blanc sauce or sirloin steak with mashed potatoes, red wine reduction, caramelized onions and lobster butter. And yes, it was every bit as good as it sounds.
Seared Scallops with gnocchi, porcini mushrooms, cauliflower and beurre blanc
With the main course we poured a choice of a Vouvray (white) or Carver Sutro Petite Syrah (red) - which was very good and very popular. We went through seven bottles of the red. (It has been duly noted that you cannot order too much red wine or champagne for parties in December.) The wine pairings were suggested by Rochelle and Olivier's wine buyer who went above and beyond to obtain the Carver Sutro for us because he thought it would be the perfect thing - and he was absolutely right.
Le Cheese Plate
Because the birthday boy is a cheese fanatic, I requested a cheese course to be served family style after the entree. These were delightful choices - if only I could remember them all. With this we poured a Tokaji - an irresistible dessert wine from Hungary.
Happy Birthday James!
Olivier also did the cake - a by-request combination of lemon soaked genoise filled with lemon cream and whole blackberries - topped with a layer of passionfruit mousse and gelee. Each piece was served with a white chocolate decoration. There were almost 40 candles on the cake - they were supposed to be sparkling candles, but they were more like hissing and spitting candles. Not quite the effect we were going for, but amusing nonetheless.
party favors
For the party favors, I did up little parchment bags with labels that also served as place cards from Sycamore Street Press. I ordered match books from Dippylulu - made to look like Penguin classics, but with fart jokes on them (Van Winkle Ripped, Great Expellations, Fart of Darkness) we also had some of James' birthday dog tattoos (long story) and some phenomenal caramels from Bon Bon Bar. I also did an "ABCS of James" which I printed and folded up in the bags - and the M&Ms said James is 40 and Birthday Dog on them.
Luis and Bryan
The flowers were from Green Florals in Hillcrest - they did a beautiful job at a very reasonable price. I asked for edibles and succulents with dark red accents, and that was exactly what I received. The table arrangements included kale and succulents with dark red dahlias and orchids, and I ordered one large arrangement for the bar that included a beautiful giant kale and artichoke. The shop is located on 4th just next to Arrivederci Pizzeria and is well worth a visit.
Olivier's Handmade Chocolates
Last but not least, the meal concluded with Olivier's chocolates. I never cease to be amazed at how good these are - they rival the best anywhere. From top to bottom, the small pointed ones were salted caramels in dark chocolate - the triangular ones are mock Toblerone - with crunchy bits and toasted hazelnut, the large hexagonal ones were filled with marshmallow and crunchy nuts, and the white chocolates were filled with raspberry buttercream. A few of these were left over and we savored them for days. He changes these up frequently, and offers them on the dessert menu with a cup of coffee.

We've enjoyed several good meals at Farm House, but this one - no pun intended - really took the cake. I will always be grateful to Olivier and Rochelle for making this occasion so special. It was a wonderful experience and I can wholeheartedly recommend the restaurant as a fabulous place to throw an intimate dinner party.

More photos from the evening can be viewed here.

Farm House Cafe
2121 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116
(619) 269-9662
open for dinner Tues-Sun, and Sunday brunch, which I wrote about here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Happy 40th Birthday James!

IMG_0480
Today is my darling husband James' 40th Birthday. It's a little strange to think we've been together for a quarter of that time, we met shortly after his 30th birthday, and just before mine. In some ways it seems like a good, long time, and in other ways it feels like a blip on the radar screen. I suspect that feeling will only increase as the years go by, which makes me a little melancholy in a way. It's a strange thing to know that the best years of your life are flying by - I guess all you can do is hold on to what you can, and enjoy them the best you know how.

Last night we had a 10 hour power outage due to the Great Storm of 2009, so we spent the last night of James' 40th year sitting in front of the fire with candles all over the house, drinking beer. Altogether, it wasn't a bad way to usher in a new age - but of course we have big plans for tonight too. Stay tuned for more on that coming soon!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lotus of Siam - Las Vegas

LOS
On our last two trips to Vegas we've gone "fancy" one night with L'Atelier at Joel Robuchon, and more casual on the other with Lotus of Siam - an unassuming Thai restaurant off the strip that has become a can't miss destination for foodies. LOS, as it's known for short, owes its fame not only to word of mouth, but to a series of rave reviews from food critics that began appearing shortly after it opened. The restaurant has thoughtfully lined an entire wall of the tiny waiting area with them, giving you something to read while you wait.

I can't claim to be a connoisseur of Thai food - but I do know what I like, and the food at LOS is better than any Thai food I've encountered to date. Some people feel it's a bit overrated, but if you aren't a connoisseur yourself or an implacable Chowhound, I think you will also be pleased.
Lotus of Siam - Las Vegas
We loved the Soft Shell Crab Salad, a pile of light and crispy fried soft shell crab, tossed with slivered green apple, peanuts, cilantro and onion in a slightly sweet fish-sauce spiked vinaigrette. It's a seasonal off-menu specialty, so you'll have to ask about it. We also enjoyed the popular Northern dish Nam Khao Tod, pictured below - crisp rice and Thai sausage with chiles, mint, onion, peanut and herbs in a tart and spicy lime dressing - and one of my favorite can't-miss-it-dishes at any Thai restaurant, Som Tam, or Green Papaya Salad. The Nam Khao Tod was crunchy, savory and tart - while the Som Tam was spicy, sweet and mouth-puckering - with the perfect amount of fish sauce funk.
Lotus of Siam
After a successful run at the starters - on our first trip back in May with friends Lisa and Luis, we had a couple of minor missteps. The beef dish below was a little bland, and the calamari was a little rubberier than we'd hoped...
Lotus of Siam
But we also had a lovely Choo Chee Shrimp - a sweet and spicy red curry that is one of my favorite dishes in Thai cuisine.
Lotus of Siam
On our second visit a few months later, the four of us returned with our friend Tracy and placed our fate in the hands of our waiter, Tony, who Lisa and Luis had met before. After repeating our three favorite starters from the previous visit (and after contemplating the lobster special - a huge pile of the beasts for $125.00) we let him choose our entrees. He brought us Sweet and Sour Sea Bass, Grilled Shrimp with Lime Sauce, Green Curry Duck, Drunken Noodles with Pork, and Beef with Eggplant.
Lotus of Siam - Las Vegas
While he didn't bring us the most adventurous dishes on the menu, we ate very well. The Sweet and Sour Seabass was irresistible, with its crisp shell and flaky flesh, and the Green Curry Duck (pictured below) was a universal favorite - the best-loved dish of both our visits. The sauce on the shrimp was tart and interesting, but the shrimp themselves were a little tough, and the Pork Drunken Noodles were as good as any I've had elsewhere but not remarkably better. I have to confess I hardly remember the beef with eggplant dish, which must mean it wasn't remarkable either.
Lotus of Siam - Las Vegas
Don't get me wrong though. Even the dishes that weren't "exceptional" were delicious here, and we thoroughly enjoyed it all. I'm looking forward to a return trip to try some more of the Northern Menu and some of their specialties - maybe even that lobster. (If you go, be sure to ask about their specials and off-menu items - they seem to have a lot of them.)

We trusted Tony to choose our wine, and he brought us a 2005 Emrich Schonleber Riesling, which was absolutely perfect. They specialize in matching appropriate wines to their dishes, so don't be shy about asking for a recommendation. The service is very friendly and the servers have very obviously worked there for years.

One of the best things about dining at Lotus of Siam is, of course, the price - especially compared to the luxury dining destinations of Vegas. Our meal for 5 - three starters, five entrees and two bottles of wine was only $160.00, and $76.00 of that was the wine.

LOS is crowded and even with a reservation we've waited twenty to thirty minutes for a table. I don't recommend going without one - or you could find yourself hanging out in that little lobby reading Jonathan Gold's fawning review from 2000 for a loooong time.

Lotus of Siam
953 E Sahara Avenue
Las Vegas, NV 89104
(702) 735-3033

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nikki McClure

nikkiseal
I've fallen in love with the work of artist and illustrator Nikki McClure. She works in papercuts, which I find impossible to resist, and I love her simple but evocative themes: family, crafts, tasks, the weather...
nikkimcclureebb
they convey such beauty and emotion ...
nikkimcclurerely
Recently, I picked up this accordion foldout postcard book at the SF MOMA. When I unfurled it in the store, a woman immediately walked up to ask me where I found it. I don't think I will ever be able to bring myself to tear any of the cards out - they look so beautiful together.
nikkitakecarecards

I've since found a great source for her merchandise online at Buy Olympia a website promoting local artists from the Northwest.
nikkiminipack
If you think her work looks familiar, she has illustrated at least two childrens' books, including "All in a Day" and she did the cover art for Slow Food Nation.

A full collection of papergoods with her illustrations can be found here on Buy Olympia
The postcard book is here
The mini gift cards pictured above are here
Buy Olympia carries goods from a number of local artists - a full list can be found here
Nikki's current portfolio can be viewed here


images from Buy Olympia and Nikki McClure.com

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two Decadent Vegan Desserts - Twix Bars and Chocolate Pudding Pie

Homemade Vegan Twix Bars

As promised, I am back with the recipe for the Vegan Twix Bars. As a bonus, I also have another decadent vegan dessert that might actually be better than the Twix. If you can believe that.
Whipped Coconut Cream

It's a pity I don't have a picture, but it was a Chocolate Pudding Pie, based on this post from Deb at Smitten Kitchen. It involves copious amounts of coconut milk - the rich, full-fat kind - so neither of these are diet recipes, but they're not meant to be. Even vegans need a little indulgence now and then.  :)

Vegan baking and dessert-making are of course hampered by the fact that no butter, cream, milk or eggs are involved. I gave myself a head start by choosing two desserts that don't include eggs and aren't baked (except for the cookie crust) so I didn't have to worry a whole lot about structure or texture - two major challenges vegan bakers face!

The Twix bars were inspired by Sherry Yard's recipe. The cookie crust seemed simple at first, just sub Earth Balance (or other trans-fat free margarine) for the butter - but it didn't quite work out that way. The margarine and sugar never quite whipped to a fluffy texture, and by the time I was done with it, the dough texture was elastic, which is not a good sign. You want a tender, crumbly dough when making short crust - a stretchy one will be tough. I threw the whole thing out and started over, changing the ratios to create a formula I hoped would work better. Luckily, it did.

The caramel was the most nerve-wracking part. I started with a traditional method - cooking the sugar with water and a bit of corn syrup, thinking I'd add the soy milk and other ingredients after it had caramelized. But then I started to wonder - what would happen if I added soy milk all at once to hot sugar? Would the moisture content cause it to crystallize into a mass? Would it never thicken?? Panic set in. The vegan recipe I had looked at said to cook everything all at once - margarine, soy milk and all - so I went ahead and dumped everything else in there with the sugar.

I thought my pot was big enough, but once the mixture came to a rolling boil, it wanted to roll right out of the pot, so I changed to a bigger Le Creuset. Here it came again. I couldn't get the temperature over 220 with the flame at that level, so I dumped the whole thing into my 8 quart stockpot, and brought the heat back up again. It looked pathetic at first, coming only about 1/8 of the way up the pot, but when it came back to a boil, it climbed about 3/4 of the way up. I share with you here what I wish I'd known. Be patient and use a very big pot!

Here, without further ado - are the recipes. Enjoy!

Vegan Twix Bars
adaped from Desserts by the Yard by Sherry Yard, and this vegan caramel recipe from Dog Hill Kitchen

Caramel:
3 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup corn syrup
2 1/2 cups plain soy milk (almond milk should also work if you are avoiding soy)
1 stick (4 oz) Earth Balance margarine, cut into four pieces.
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp sea salt

Crust:
1 1/2 sticks (6 oz) Earth Balance margarine at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 /2 vanilla bean
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 Tablespoons ground rice
2 cups cake flour

Topping:
5 oz dark chocolate - chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
2 tsp trans fat free vegetable shortening
coarsely chopped salted peanuts

Bake the cookie crust:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9x14 inch baking pan with baking spray or vegetable oil and line with parchment paper. Oil the parchment.

To make the ground rice, grind about 1/2 a cup of white rice in a food processor until fine - sift and grind again. The texture should be like whole grain flour. Set two tablespoons aside.

In a stand mixture fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the margarine with the sugar until light and fluffy (or as light and fluffy as they will get.) Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean pod with a paring knife, and add to the mixture along with the salt. Beat until incorporated. With the mixer on low, add the rice and blend in the cake flour 1/4 cup at a time. Mix just until incorporated. Press evenly into your parchment paper-lined pan, flattening the surface with your hands. Bake at 350 for about 15-20 minutes, until set and lightly browned.

While the crust cools, make the caramel.
Put the sugar, water, corn syrup, margarine and soy milk in a tall stockpot and heat, stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly, stirring with a wooden spoon - until the mixture reaches 245 degrees on a digital thermometer. (It will bubble up a lot) Stir in the vanilla extract and salt. Pour over the crust.

For the topping, melt chocolate with shortening by heating for 20-30 second intervals on 50% power in your microwave, stirring after each round, or use a double boiler. When it's good and warm, just stir until the remaining chunks melt.  Pour over the solid but still warm caramel and spread to the edges of the pan with an offset spatula. Sprinkle the top with sea salt or chopped salted peanuts if desired. Let cool completely, or place in the refrigerator to set. To cut, lift the whole plank out of the pan using the parchment paper and cut with a chef's knife.  Keep refrigerated, as the caramel will soften at room temperature.

****************

Vegan Chocolate Pudding Pie
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Crust:
1 Keebler 9 inch graham cracker crust or a homemade one made with margarine instead of butter.

Pudding filling:
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder such as Valrhona or Scharffenberger
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups almond milk
1 cup of coconut milk - or an additional cup of almond milk if you prefer.
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not more than 60% cacao), finely chopped

Whipped Coconut Cream:
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar
2 cups chilled coconut cream (Chill 2 cans overnight, or for at least a few hours and scoop out the creamy solid part.)
Bittersweet chocolate shavings for garnish (optional)

Make pudding filling:
Whisk together cornstarch, 1/3 cup sugar, cocoa powder, and salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, then gradually whisk in almond and coconut milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly - then boil, whisking, two minutes (until mixture thickens). Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate and vanilla until smooth. If there are any lumps, press the mixture through a sieve.

Pour filling into shell and cover the surface with wax paper if you want to prevent a skin from forming. Chill until cold - at least two hours.

Just before serving, beat the coconut cream with two tablespoons powdered sugar and vanilla until it holds soft peaks. (It takes a while, but it will get there!) Spoon onto slices of pie as you serve, and top with with bittersweet chocolate shavings or a dusting of cocoa.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Homemade Twix Bars and 100 Other Vegan Delights

Homemade Vegan Twix Bars
While I can't honestly say I'm giving serious thought to going completely vegan, I am the first to admit that I think we should treat the food we eat from animals with greater reverence. It's all too easy to forget about the messy process that comes before that hunk of flesh (or butter or cheese) hits the table, and that's the way most people like it, frankly.

For those who know the truth and have given it some thought though, it's more complicated. If we can't hand feed our own pigs or milk our own cows, the best we can do is buy the most conscientiously prepared animal products we can find and make more room in our diets for non-animal based foods. I've heard Mark Bittman's personal system is to eat vegan for breakfast and lunch. Michael Pollan's tells us to "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," and Jonathan Safran Foer has a new book out called "Eating Animals," wherein he says of my generation: "We are the ones who will be asked, what did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?"

Personally, I struggle with this quite a bit. I was brought up in a family where meat was the centerpiece of every meal, three times a day. It's a hard habit to break. I keep telling myself that there are plenty of delicious things out there that don't involve animal products, but I sometimes have trouble remembering what they are. In an effort to remind myself that vegan food can be "craveable," as those terrible chain restaurants like to say, I set out to make a list of 100 Vegan foods - both dishes and ingredients, that are utterly delicious. I listed things that satisfy me in the same way that butter, cheese and burgers do. Things that I am thrilled to eat. That I, ok, crave.

I thought someone else wondering about or struggling with the same thing might want to see it, so here it is:
  1. Granola with Almond Milk
  2. Fried Zucchini
  3. Watermelon
  4. Crusty French Bread
  5. A pot of Rancho Gordo Beans
  6. Ma Po Tofu (made with mushrooms)
  7. Caramelized Roasted Root Vegetables
  8. Fried Shallots
  9. Avocado Sandwiches
  10. Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
  11. Dark Chocolate
  12. Garbanzo Bean Curry
  13. Jasmine Rice
  14. French Potato Salad
  15. Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches
  16. Humphry Slocombe Jesus Juice sorbet
  17. Alesmith Old Numbskull Barleywine
  18. Eggplant Stir Fried with Garlic, Ginger, Soy and Mirin
  19. Falafel
  20. Pico de Gallo
  21. Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce
  22. Lucques olives
  23. Tapenade
  24. Roasted Garlic
  25. Pickled Vegetables
  26. Hummus
  27. Tortillas and Tortilla Chips
  28. Patatas Bravas
  29. Daal
  30. Tomatillo Salsa
  31. Corn on the Cob
  32. Steel Cut Oatmeal with brown sugar, golden raisins and cashew or almond milk
  33. Dried Mango Slices
  34. Oven Dried Tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and basil
  35. Champagne
  36. Mary Jane candies (molasses taffy filled with peanut butter)
  37. Black Truffles
  38. Maitake Mushrooms
  39. Black Trumpet Mushrooms
  40. Curried Pumpkin (or any other squash) Soup
  41. Caramel Corn (most is without butter)
  42. Braised Kale with Garlic, Pine Nuts and Raisins
  43. Pommes Frites with ketchup
  44. Peanut Coleslaw with Asian Vinaigrette
  45. French Lentil Soup
  46. Roasted Chestnuts
  47. Forked Avocado on Toast
  48. Peppadew peppers
  49. Radishes with olive oil and salt
  50. Arugula Salad with Grilled Peaches and Balsamic Vinaigrette
  51. Hot Chocolate made with dark chocolate, coconut milk and almond milk
  52. Churros
  53. Fried green tomatoes
  54. Spiced pecans
  55. Polenta
  56. Risotto (made with vegetable broth)
  57. Lentil Berbere stew
  58. Edamame
  59. Baba Ghanouj
  60. Roasted Chickpeas
  61. Braised Leeks
  62. Carrot Ginger Soup
  63. Preserved Lemons
  64. Crisp, Juicy Apples
  65. Orange Blossom Honey
  66. A Perfect Espresso
  67. Cold Sesame (or Peanut) Noodles
  68. Lotus Root Chips
  69. Smoothies made with soy protein, frozen banana, almond milk and almond butter
  70. Panzanella salad
  71. Fried Sage Leaves
  72. Spicy Pan-Roasted Cauliflower
  73. Asian Grilled Green Beans
  74. Chimichurri Sauce
  75. Poached Pears
  76. A glass of Tokaji
  77. Carrot and Edamame salad
  78. Pan-roasted Brussel Sprouts
  79. An Ice Cold Vodka Tonic with Lime
  80. Pomegranate seeds
  81. Mint Chutney
  82. Dark chocolate covered frozen bananas rolled in chopped peanuts
  83. Chocolate Pudding pie made with almond milk in a graham cracker crust, topped with Whipped Coconut Cream
  84. Roasted Beets with olive oil, thyme, garlic and orange zest.
  85. Thick Cut Potato Chips
  86. Sangria loaded with fruit
  87. Glenmorangie Scotch - aged in port barrels
  88. Green Papaya salad (made with vegetarian fish sauce)
  89. Cippolini Onions
  90. African Peanut Soup
  91. Warm Chickpea Salad on a bed of Arugula
  92. Kettle Corn
  93. Japanese Hot Pot with Mushrooms
  94. Fava Beans
  95. Pea Tendrils
  96. Oreos
  97. Sweet Potato Fries
  98. Biscuits (made with shortening)
  99. Fresh-squeezed lemonade
  100. Heirloom tomataoes off the vine


The Twix bars are not on the list, but they certainly could be. Some good friends of ours recently went vegan, and I was challenged with making an indulgent dessert when we had them over for dinner last week - on Halloween to be exact. (Hence the candy - get it?)

I bastardized the recipe based on Sherry Yard's recipe in her cookbook and a vegan caramel recipe I found online. They wouldn't fool you for the real thing, but they were very, very, good. There is quite a bit to be said about the recipe, so I will post it separately.

Sorry to be such a tease, but you won't have to wait long. I promise!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Koffi Coffee - Palm Springs

Seeing this fabulous Design Sponge city guide for Palm Springs the other day reminded me that I have been meaning to tell you about Koffi in Palm Springs for a while now.
Koffi - Palm Springs
My job takes me out to the desert a few times a year for early morning court appearances. Whenever I have the time, I turn it into a little mini vacation - spending the night before and cruising through Palm Springs for a quick peek through the some of the best thrift and vintage stores to be found. I'm not one of those people who would NEVER go to a Starbucks, but I do like to frequent the local joints when I can, and Koffi makes this easy.
Koffi - Palm Springs
It's every bit as serious a coffee bar as you will find in San Francisco or Los Angeles - and the happening heart of the town's social scene in the mornings - when everyone, it seems, is parked on their courtyard lawn out back sipping their morning joe.
Koffi - Palm Springs
They make their own pastries and a few decent pre-made panini sandwices - they're nothing to write home about, but they'll keep you going. The real draw though is the coffee. They brew ground coffee by the cup, and their baristas pull shots to rival the best I've had anywhere.
Koffi - Palm Springs
I'm heading out there again in a couple of weeks, with Grace's list in hand. I'm hoping for another breakfast at the Parker, but if I can't quite swing that, or decide to spend all my time at the Angel View Thrift Mart and Revivals (the Palm Springs AIDS project thrift stores) - I know I'll be perfectly content with my morning cup of Koffi!

Koffi
(near Trina Turk and downtown PS on Palm Canyon)
515 North Palm Canyon Drive at Alejo
Open 5:30 a.m to 8:00 p.m.
760.416.2244

2nd location (across the street from the Ace Hotel)
1700 South Camino Real at East Palm Canyon Drive
Open 5:30 a.m to 8:00 p.m.
760.322.7776

Other Palm Springs posts:
A Weekend in the Inferno
P.S. I Love You Part I - the Viceroy and Palm Canyon Drive
P.S. I Love You Part II - the Parker Palm Springs

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tortilleria Salsa Market - El Cajon

Salsa Market in El Cajon

Over the many years I've lived in San Diego, It seems I've moved steadily to the East. I grew up in University City, lived in bachelorette apartments in Bankers Hill and Mission Hills and vintage houses in Normal Heights and Kensington, and finally settled on a 3/4 acre plot in Mt. Helix, on the far side of La Mesa.
Salsa Market in El Cajon
Though the East County has definitely grown on me, it's a tough place for a foodie to call home. I thought I had done a pretty good job of scouting out the gems, but I was delighted to find a new one in El Cajon recently on a recommendation from my friend Jora. A small Mexican grocery store and tortilleria with a takeout counter called Tortilleria Salsa Market.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

I'd heard her mention the place before, but my fire was really lit when her husband brought some food home when I happened to be visiting a few weeks ago. The chips, salsas and ceviche were so good that I went looking for the place myself the very next day. I found it on Chase, just a few blocks West of Avocado.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

Since then, the ceviche has become a staple in this household, and we've been making regular runs for their chips and salsa too (the verde is especially good.)
Salsa Market in El Cajon

They have a full carniceria - Jora sometimes buys their carne asada to grill for parties.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

The bags of chips are kind of hard to find - look for them stacked on top of the produce on the back wall. They're fresh, crisp and not too greasy. El Indio's might have the edge, but just barely.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

Their tortillas are perfection - made daily so they're ultra fresh. These were still warm. They make their own carnitas and chicharrones, and different guisados each day.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

The produce is inexpensive and includes pomegranates, quince, Mexican limes and finger bananas in addition to the usual suspects - potatoes, onions, avocados, sweet potatoes and citrus.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

Pinatas for children's birthday parties hang from the ceiling. They also have just about every Mexican grocery item you could want and some you might not necessarily expect. I needed ginger and soy sauce for a recipe and was able to find them here.
Salsa Market in El Cajon

I haven't had a chance to make my way through the rest of their menu yet because I'm still stuck on the ceviche and their carne asada burrito. The ceviche is a perfectly balanced sweet-tart blend of tomato, onion, lime and shrimp, and the burrito is are a cut above the usual taco shop fare - stuffed with juicy meat, fresh pico de gallo and guacamole. A burrito, a bag of chips, some ceviche and salsas make a delightful feast for two, with plenty of leftovers for around $20. You can trust me on this, I speak from experience!

Tortilleria Salsa Market
480 W. Chase Avenue
El Cajon, CA 92020
(619) 588-5217

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Neon Sign Boneyard and Luv It Frozen Custard - Las Vegas

Sin City
On this trip to Vegas, I had something I've never had before...
City Center Motel
A ride. On one of his recent trips, James connected with Tracy, a friend of a friend with a kick ass Mini Cooper convertible. It really doesn't get much better than that for tooling around Vegas.
Stardust
I'd read about the neon sign graveyard, and Tracy was game for the trip - but I wasn't sure how to go about visiting. After a little research, I discovered that they have a website, and are in the process of setting up a real honest to goodness museum that will be open round the clock in the near future. For the time being though, you have to make an appointment in advance and pay $15. for the tours which are given at least twice a day.
Golden Nugget
We weren't sure if we could get into one of the tours (I didn't receive a response to my email inquiry and they didn't answer the phone) but we decided to take our chances and just show up. We got lucky, but I would not recommend this approach. The people we replaced showed up after the tour started - so if they'd been on time I think we would have been out of luck.
Vegas Neon Sign Boneyard
When I did receive an email from them later that afternoon (on Friday) they were booked until Wednesday, so definitely make your appointments as far in advance as possible. They're staffed with volunteers, so it may take them a day or two to respond to your inquiry. At $15. though, it's well worth the wait and the price of admission.
Binion's Horseshoe
The sign "boneyard" as they call it consists of two fenced in areas chock full of enormous old signs in various states of disrepair. It's a very popular spot for fashion and wedding photo shoots, and some of the areas are sort of "arranged" with that in mind. It's a lot of fun to photograph, but it wasn't easy to get shots without people in them during the tour. We kept falling behind and missing the commentary for the sake of a good picture, but the tour included lots of interesting Las Vegas history.
Neon Museum Sign Boneyard
I love how the signs look juxtaposed against the dirt and weeds growing right around them. It has this great air of decaying grandeur about it.
Neon Museum Sign Boneyard
This W shows the rungs maintenance workers used to have to climb to replace the bulbs in the signs. Apparently this sign appeared in an episode of CSI Las Vegas - with a dead body hanging on it.
W
This El Cortez sign was one of my favorites - not as flashy as some, but I love the script and the washed out turquoise color.
El Cortez
Some Stardust stars - I remember these...
Stardust Stars
This turned out to be one of my favorite photos with all the shadows and colors. Brad Pitt was supposedly photographed in this spot.
Las Vegas Neon Museum Sign Boneyard
The plan, ultimately, is to have visitor's center housed in the La Concha lobby, a distinctive modern curvilinear concrete structure which has been moved to the corner near the sign lots. They're also restoring several of the most iconic signs and objects and installing them on posts in the median above North Las Vegas Boulevard. The Silver Slipper has been installed just in front of the museum, and the waving cowboy is just down the street, near downtown. It's great to see these icons restored as decorative objects and it's exciting to see such passion about a modern decorative art form in the staff. When it's open, I think the museum will really be something to see.
Neon Museum Sign Boneyard
After the almost two hour tour, it was hot and we were parched and hungry - so I persuaded Tracy to help me find the Luv It Frozen Custard stand. It's actually about halfway between the Strip and the boneyard, just off Las Vegas Boulevard near the Stratosphere.
Luv It Frozen Custard in Las Vegas
They have a huge list of rotating flavors, but make only a few each day. On the day of our visit, Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry, Lemon and Pumpkin were available. After tasting almost all of them, I chose Vanilla and Lemon, and Tracy chose Chocolate and Pumpkin. Their frozen custard is made fresh daily, and it's softer, creamier and a little bit richer tasting than ice cream - but has less fat and sugar. It's not quite as soft as soft serve, but close. It has no air whipped into it and no ice crystals, making it fantastically smooth. It's actually a little bit unusual in this part of the country (it's more common in the Northern Midwest) which makes it worth a trip if you're in the area. They also make sundaes - the most popular of which is the "Western" - fresh custard covered with warm caramel and hot fudge, topped with salted pecans and a maraschino cherry.

Vanilla and Lemon Luv It Frozen Custard in Vegas
The Lemon Custard was a delight, with that bright yellow color and distinctive flavor I remembered from childhood. (I used to get it at Baskin Robbins ages ago, but I haven't seen it in a while.) The Vanilla was also a perfect specimen, creamy and rich with true vanilla flavor.

We already have another trip planned next year - we're driving to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and stopping in Vegas both coming and going. Don't think it hasn't already occurred to me that with our own car, the possibilities for off-strip dining are limitless. I may very well eat nothing but frozen custard and Thai food the whole time!

The Neon Museum - Sign Graveyard
821 Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 387-6366

Luv It Frozen Custard
505 E Oakey Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89104
(702) 384-6452