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.
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.
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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Au Revoir, Gourmet

Ruth Reichl in her office at Gourmet Magazine

Last Monday, October 5, 2009 - just two years shy of its 70th birthday - Conde Nast announced the shuttering of Gourmet Magazine. I was devastated. Gourmet was indulgent, yes, but also thoughtful and intelligent - creative and erudite. Everyone in the food world recognized and revered it like no other food publication for that reason.

Much has been said in the last week about why this happened and what it means for food journalism. I did my own mourning, worked through my grief, read the multitude of eulogies and op-ed pieces out there and have come to my own conclusion.

We've been robbed.
Gourmet Recipe Editor Ian Knauer talking about cuts of meat

We, the readers, have been robbed of the most thoughtful, creative and educated food writing being produced - but as a society, we've lost something even more important. Sure there are other outlets for food writing out there, but Gourmet was more than that - it was a cornerstone of food literature and journalism. As Tony Bourdain put it shortly after the announcement, "It's the center of gravity, a major planet that's just disappearing." In the space of a week, it went up in a puff of smoke. Employees were given one week to clear their desks. Entire issues, completed for months, will never be produced.
Grant flaming oak leaves

There are cultural institutions that we support as a society, despite the fact that they wouldn't survive in a purely profit-based world. Museums, historical sites and national parks fall into this category. Perhaps it's time for some of our institutions of print journalism to join them.

The days when advertising and subscription revenues could support them are clearly over. Tycoons who once reaped profits from their publications are now keeping their papers alive through infusions of their own cash. SI Newhouse of Conde Nast is reportedly one of these people. Conde Nast is a privately held company, and SI holds the purse strings. Faced with the decision to spend his own personal fortune to keep the magazine alive - he made the only decision he could be expected to make. (If you read the reports carefully, McKinsey wasn't even asked to look at Gourmet - the plug had likely already been pulled based on Gourmet's comparisons to Bon Appetit's numbers.) SI also owns the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and several other prominent magazines. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times is in bankruptcy, and other families such as the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Grahams of the Washington Post must also see the writing on the wall.

I have a hard time imagining literature without the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, or news without the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune. Self-produced content, blogs and the like, can't replace these institutions. It's not just an issue of entertainment value. Think about the role muck-raking investigative journalism has played in our recent history. Should we have to rely on these entities to be profitable for their owners in order to perform this critical function?

Some people believe the failure of the publishing houses to understand how the internet works and update accordingly is responsible for their demise, but I'm not so sure. Could Gourmet really drive enough page views and sell enough online advertising to support its staff salaries, test kitchens, travel expenses and overhead? Even if it could, it doesn't matter if the bosses aren't interested. The old guard media companies (including Conde Nast) are shockingly old fashioned and haven't shown much interest in changing their business models. Assuming that pattern continues - at some point all of the print-ad supported publications will lose enough money that their owners will be forced to pull the plug. When that happens, the readers will lose the publications we've relied upon for decades, the employees will lose their jobs, and our culture will lose a body of work that cannot be replaced - just as happened with Gourmet a week ago.

Can we bail out these cultural institutions like we bailed out our financial institutions? Should we? If so, how should we go about it? A state run newspaper would understandably make a lot of people nervous - but foundations could be set up, congressional grants, the kind of funding that keeps our other cultural institutions alive such as public radio, the Smithsonian museums, our public parks and wildlife preserves.

I've just started to see discussions about these issues in the last few weeks, but they didn't hit home for me until I realized how much we have to lose, and how quickly. Seeing Gourmet dismantled in the space of a week at the whim of an 81 year old tycoon was enough of a shock for me.

(photos from the Gourmet Institute at Conde Nast headquarters in NYC, October 2007 and 2008. Top: Ruth Reichl in her office; Middle: Food Editor Ian Knauer in his test kitchen, and Bottom, Grant Achatz doing a demonstration.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Sweet Afternoon in San Francisco

Miette Confiserie
After leaving Bar Jules, the first stop on our sweets tour was just down the street, at Miette Confiserie - on Octavia, just off of Hayes.
Miette Confiserie
It's like a 1950's Parisian fantasy of a candy shop, with the wrapped and unwrapped wares displayed in glass apothecary jars, baskets and bowls on tables - and a case filled with their meticulously decorated cupcakes and cakes in the back.
Miette Confiserie
I picked up some beautifully wrapped Italian candies, a few house made caramels (not so hot, actually) and some Poco Dolce tiles. I love the individually wrapped ones - they're not easy to find.
Poco Dolce tiles at Miette Confiserie
Next up was Paulette Macarons. I have been a sucker for these little things ever since I tried them for the first time at the Bay Bread La Boulange in the Fillmore a couple of years ago. Those first ones I tasted are still the best in my memory - but Paulette's come very close. They're sweet, chewy and flavorful, with a jam, buttercream or ganache filling - depending on the flavor. The caramel pecan was filled with a buttery, salty caramel.
Paulette Macarons
I ordered a six piece box with raspberry, lemon, violet cassis, pistachio, passionfruit and chocolate, as well as couple to try on the fly. I liked them all, but the lemon with lemon curd, the chocolate with ganache and the caramel pecan were my favorites. It might be heresy, but I like them best cold, straight out of the fridge, when they're a little chewy. It dulls their toothaching sweetness a bit.
Macarons at Paulette
Our next stop was just down the street at Christopher Elbow, a chocolatier with two locations, one here, and one in Kansas City, of all places. The chocolates are molded rather than cut, and include a lot of exotic caramel flavors. I also bought a can of the hot chocolate, since I'm such a fan of Recchiuti's - but haven't had a chance to try it yet. (I sense a future post...)
Chocolates at Christopher Elbow
After Christopher Elbow, we walked to Citizen Cake, not far away. I bought a couple of chocolate chip cookies to bring home to Tommy, but I wasn't tempted by anything else in the case, and as I looked at my watch, I realized this was probably my last chance on this trip to squeeze in a visit to Humphry Slocombe. We were close to the Civic Center Bart station, so we bid Amy adieu, and Caron and I boarded the train to go two stops, to the 24th Street in the Mission. A short walk down 24th Street to Harrison, and we were there.
Humphry Slocombe
Humphry Slocombe is famous for their exotic flavors with cute names - Jesus Juice sorbet (Coca Cola and red wine), Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with corn flakes), and Boccalone (tasty, salted pig parts like prosciutto, etc.) I thought it might be a little too precious, or even pretentious, but I was totally won over by their cleverness, not to mention the ice cream itself. The Secret Breakfast had me at hello, and Caron felt the same way about the Balsamic Caramel, which was a close second. (Yes, for those of you keeping track, this was our second frozen dessert in one day. What about it?) They also had some fabulous sounding sundaes, featuring the likes of Amarena cherries.
Humphry Slocombe
I really wanted to take Caron to Dynamo Donuts nearby, which has apparently opened their indoor seating area - but we just didn't have it in us that day. It is a great double-visit though if you're in the mood for some doughnuts and ice cream - it's just a little further down on 24th.

Just do me a favor, would you please? Don't double up on the maple bacon donut and the Boccalone ice cream in one day. If you do, I take no responsibility for what might result!

449 Octavia Street
San Francisco, CA 94101
(415) 626-6221

437 A Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 864-2400

401 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 355-1105

399 Grove St
San Francisco, CA 94102-4418
(415) 861-2228

2790 Harrison St.
San Francisco, CA 94080
(415) 550-6971

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Lunch at Bar Jules - San Francisco

Bar Jules - San Francisco
After our morning at the museum, Caron and I met our mutual friend Amy for lunch at Bar Jules and a walking tour of the many pastry and dessert shops of Hayes Valley. The plan started with my desire to visit Paulette - the French macaron shop on Hayes Street that is an offshoot of the Beverly Hills store. Amy also guided us to Miette Confiserie, Christopher Elbow Chocolates, Citizen Cake and - after a short Bart ride - Humphry Slocombe.
Bar Jules - San Francisco
Bar Jules is the kind of place you'd want to visit because it's in such a fun neighborhood - with an appropriately cute and quirky sensibility and decor - but thankfully it's more than just a pretty face.
Bar Jules - San Francisco
The daily-changing menu is written on these enormous blackboards (I couldn't help but wonder, whatever will they do if the person with the cool handwriting ever quits their job?) and is available online in the morning. We were tempted by the duck breast panini with white bean puree and salsa verde, a wood-grilled shrimp salad with radishes, green beans and chervil dressing, and the Marin Sun Farms burger with a little salad. I also have it on good authority that their soups are fabulous, but it was a little too warm for soup that day.
Bar Jules - San Francisco
The burger was served on thin toasted levain bread, a somewhat odd choice - but the grassfed meat was perfectly cooked and juicy, so we let that slide. They might have served it with a little more interesting side than the tangle of lightly dressed greens though - a little tomato or pickle or similar would have been a welcome addition.
Bar Jules - San Francisco
The duck on the duck breast panini was a little tough and it could have used a little more of the salsa verde and white been puree - but the flavors that were there were good. It probably wasn't a very good choice with the burger since the bread and the accompaniment were identical, but we didn't know that when we ordered.
Bar Jules - San Francisco

Truth be told, I wasn't sure if I was sold on Bar Jules' food until I tasted this salad. A good friend of mine evaluates restaurants on the basis of whether they make their own salad dressings and whether they're any good - I poke fun, but just like sauces and soups - dressings really are a telling indicator of a cook's abilities. This little salad of butter lettuce with crisp vegetables, grilled shrimp and a creamy chervil-spiked dressing was perfectly balanced, and really brought me around to thinking this place is something special. A bit of service confusion led to my being served an elderflower presse instead of the sparkling water I ordered, but I wasn't sorry when I tasted it. Caron even ordered one for herself when she tried it.
Bar Jules - San Francisco

The daily changing menu, the locally focused ingredients and quirky, intelligent style of the place were enough to sell me on a return visit despite the small problems and slightly slow service we encountered. Based on conversations I've had with others and the reviews I've read online, it sounds like they serve a bit more interesting food at dinner than lunch - which might make that a better choice.
Bar Jules - San Francisco
They serve only one dessert (at least at lunch) known as the "Chocolate Nemesis." I am always intrigued by the solo dessert option - the assumption being it must be good - but with a full afternoon of sweets planned, we weren't able to try it on this visit.

Stay tuned for the rest of our afternoon, coming soon!

Bar Jules
609 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94199
(415) 621-5482
Open for lunch and dinner Wed-Sat.
Dinner only on Tuesday and lunch/brunch only on Sunday.
Closed Mondays.