Friday, May 29, 2009

Torta Tasting at Cook's Tortas

Awhile back, I was checking the Rants and Craves blog and came upon a posting about Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park. The descriptions and photos really had me salivating and I knew I had to check this place out for myself so I decided to set up an informal torta tasting for my dining group. Between 8 tortas and 5 sides, my group of 8 definitely got a good sampling of what Cook's Tortas had to offer. Before I talk about the food, I want to mention that they also serve a variety of agua frescas. I went with the Celery and Limon Aqua Fresca. At first, I wasn't quite sure that celery and lime would be a good match-up, but after taking a few sips, I quite enjoyed the interesting flavor combination.

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As mentioned, we shared 5 different side dishes. While I enjoyed all 5, three of them really stood out. First, there was the Caprese Salad. With its chunks of juicy tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, queso fresco and basil, all topped with a very light vinaigrette, this was a salad that was fresh and refreshing.

For those with a sweet tooth, the apples and raisins coated with a sweet cream is like having a light dessert with your meal.

Finally, their sweet potato fries better known as their Red Fries, which were crisp and flavored with a hint of chili pepper, were quite addictive with or without the aioli sauce they came with.

One thing to mention about the bread that is being used is that it's not traditional. Tortas are usually made with bolillos or teleras. The Cook's tortas are made with ciabatta bread, but that ciabatta was so good that the other breads weren't missed at all. The bread was crusty on the outside, soft in the inside and had a wonderful light texture. Perfecto!

Now it's time for serious business and I'm talking the torta business which started with the arrival of the Queso Fresco. Ingredients included fresh cheese, lettuce, avocado, tomato, lettuce and chipotle. I have to say that if this was a sign of what's to come, I knew great things were coming our way. They were certainly generous with their cheese, which came in thick slabs. All the vegetables were crisp and fresh and I liked how the chipotle sauce added a zing of flavor to ingredients that are generally pretty neutral on their own.

The next torta we sampled was the Bacalao with Spanish style cod, roasted red peppers, olives, garlic, parsley and potato. From the reactions, I think everyone was surprised at how much they liked this particular torta. I absolutely loved the boldness of the flavors, but I also liked how the red peppers added a hint of sweetness. I would have the Bacalao again without question.

Unfortunately, I wasn't too enthralled with our next torta, the Cubana. With ingredients like ham, chicken, bacon, cheese, garlic and onions, it would seem like it would be an automatic winner, but I found the ham a little salty. Considering that the ham was a healthy serving, it was hard to get away from it. One of my dining partners put in her Cook's Torta Yelp that the Cubana needed a sunny side egg as part of the ingredients. I couldn't agree more. The yolk would have done a good job cutting into that salt.

Next in the queue was the Mojito with roasted pork, garlic mojo and slow cooked onions. That pork was amazingly tender and juicy. Add that pork to a plate of rice and black beans and you'd have yourself a fabulous meal. The only small thing to point out is that either there needed to be more garlic mojo or the garlic mojo that was there needed to more garlicky. With more of a garlicky presence, the Mojito would have been better. As it was, it was missing something, although I'm not sure what.

The Pambaso, which arrived next, was easily the most colorful of all the tortas we ordered. With the bread dipped in a guajillo chile sauce and ingredients that included chorizo, potato, lettuce and crema, this was easily my favorite of the bunch. I can't even put into words how much flavor was in this torta. You'll just have to try it for yourself.

Following the Pambaso came the Milanesa with breaded steak, tomato, mayo and jalapeno. Hmmm...fried steak, what's not to like? Fried steak that was pretty tender with a light and crispy batter? What's not to love?

We're almost at the finish line and the second to the last of our 8 sandwiches was the Cochinita Torta with achiote pork, onion escabeche, black beans and cilantro. If I didn't say it before, I'm going to say it now, Cook's Tortas really knows how to prepare their meat. The slow cooked achiote pork was tender and juicy just like the roasted pork in the Mojito sandwich we had earlier and the spices that were used went perfectly with the pickled onions and jalapenos.

Our tasting ended with the Carne Asada Torta with skirt steak, pico de gallo, avocado and lettuce. Considering how bold in flavor most of the other tortas were, the Carne Asada was bland in comparison or perhaps, the meat just needed more seasoning. Still, the steak on its own had a nice tender chew to it that was appealing.

Overall, I was really impressed with Cook's Tortas. From my housemade agua fresca to the tasty sides and to the even tastier tortas, our meal at Cook's Tortas was stellar as was the service. When I arrived and mentioned to Owner/Cook, Richard Diaz, about our group wanting to do a torta tasting, he kindly helped us see it through.

To make sure that everyone had enough, we ordered two of each sandwich. Richard would bring one sandwich out that was intact so that we could all get our photos and then he'd bring it back to the kitchen and cut both sandwiches so that each person would have their own section to sample. He did that for all 8 sandwiches.

Along the way, we also learned some tid bits of information. Did you know that he's actually a trained sushi chef? Yes, he is. Did you know that he has 500 torta recipes? In fact, when you look at the restaurant's chalkboard wall, you can see numbers beside the various tortas to represent what order they were developed.

To get some more great info about Richard and Cook's Tortas, check out the write-up that Food GPS did by clicking this link. To end, Cook's Tortas is a great place and hopefully, you'll decide to check it out for yourself.

To see all the pics, go to:

Cook's Tortas
1944 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(323) 278-3536

Cook's Tortas on Urbanspoon


Thursday, May 28, 2009

If I Could Cook...Avocado

If I could cook aka if I had the patience in general and I was in the mood for avocado, below are some recipes that might actually get me in the kitchen, courtesy of images I saw on Foodgawker!

Sweet Cream of Avocado
- Pink Bites

Avocado Gazpacho
- Spanish Recipes

Guacamole Ice Cream
- Elle's New England Kitchen

Avocado Cream Sandwich with Bresaola and Walnuts
- Lucullian Delights

Prawn and Mackerel Stuffed Avocados
- Coffee and Vanilla

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Colombian Hot Dog at Tutti Frutti - CLOSED

While watching a tv show that was all about hot dogs, there was a particular segment that caught my attention. In that segment, a Colombian-born baseball player demonstrated how to put together a Colombian hot dog. Needless to say, the ingredients were a surprising choice and ever since then, I've wanted to try one, but couldn't find any place that made them. Thanks to Jonathan Gold, it turns out that they sell them at Tutti Frutti in Pasadena. I bet you're really curious now as to what exactly is a Colombian hot dog.

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Simply, it's a Hebrew National hot dog tucked with ham and mozzarella cheese into a bun with raw onion, spackled with crushed pineapple, sprinkled with crushed potato chips and finished with a three-squeeze-bottle lattice of catsup, mustard and mayonnaise. You're either cringing or entranced right about now. According to Jonathan Gold, "It is impossible to eat the thing without smearing condiments on your nose, but it isn't bad - the pineapple serves the same basic sweet-sour function as pickle relish, and even the crushed potato chips make a certain kind of textural sense."

Once I knew where to go, I headed off to Tutti Frutti with my iron stomach and even brought a couple of friends with me. Walking into Tutti Frutti, it was more of a fruit salad, yogurt and smoothie place rather than a harbinger of this extreme hot dog, but there it was on the menu. Before ordering the hot dog, I got side tracked by something else, the Tutti Frutti Fruit Salad and decided to start with that instead. Who says you can't have dessert first?

What was interesting about the Tutti Frutti were its ingredients which were seasonal fruit topped with sweet cream, frozen yogurt, cheese, coconut and blackberry sauce. Can you guess which specific ingredient gave me pause? Yes, it was the cheese. It seemed an odd choice, but when speaking to the owners who were Colombian, cheese in their fruit salad is quite common in their country. You know what? It works. The saltiness of the cheese balanced well with the sweetness of the other ingredients while the tartness of the blackberry sauce added a complementary flavor dimension. In short, the Tutti Frutti was fun to eat.

We also ordered a couple of Colombian drinks to try. The Postobon Apple Flavored Soda tasted apple-y and fizzy, although a little sweet for my taste. On the other hand, the Pony Malta drink definitely wasn't sweet at all, but was too thick and malty for me. A couple of sips and I was done.

Now it was time for the main event, the Colombian hot dog. When I first saw it, I was just in awe, because I had no idea where to start. There was just so much to it. I honestly wished for a knife and fork because I could already feel the ketchup-mayo-mustard smeared all over my mouth and nose. Heck, if Jonathan Gold could just bite it into, I could to and I did and yes, it was quite messy.

At one point, I just developed a strategy where I would take a bite out of the top part of the hot dog, leaving a lower ledge of hot dog and bread. That way, I could at least have some control over the condiment chaos and than I'd bite the lower part of the hot dog and just repeat. So what does a hot dog with all these interesting ingredients taste like?

With each bite, you taste sour, salty and sweet with both creamy, firm and crisp textures. It was definitely quite an experience. I couldn't even finish it. It was quite a good size dog, but I think it also had to do with the TuttiFruitti Fruit Salad I had earlier in the meal. Overall, at least I can say that I had a Colombian hot dog, but in the end, I just found the plethora of ingredients a bit overwhelming. I prefer my dog to be a little more basic - mustard, onions, hot dog and bun, but if you're willing to see what all the fuss was about, than definitely pay a visit to Tutti Frutti.

To see pics, go to:

Tutti Frutti
950 East Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91106
(626) 793-3662

Tutti Frutti on Urbanspoon


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Delicious Veggie Dishes at One World Vegetarian

As much as I enjoy eating meat, there are those days when I just want veggies. Luckily, a friend suggested that we check out what she considered to be one of the best vegetarian restaurants in town. Considering that she's Vegetarian, I figured she would know her stuff so I had no qualms about making the trek with her to West Covina to dine at One World Vegetarian Cuisine.

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Before I start talking about the specific items we ordered, there's just a couple of things I want to mention about this restaurant. First, unless otherwise specified, everything on their menu is vegan. All their dishes are prepared without meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or MSG and they cook all their food with filtered water. Second, the menu is globally influenced featuring everything from American to Hispanic to Asian to European cuisine.

Our meal that afternoon revolved around their Asian-style offerings, starting with the Summer Rolls, which had veggie ham, tofu, jicama and carrots rolled in thin rice paper and served with peanut sauce. One thing to note is that the veggie ham didn't pass for real ham as far as I was concerned; however, it had just the right amount of salty-smokiness that played well with the tofu and the jicama, which don't have strong flavor profiles on their own anyway. The juicy crunch of the jicama and the sweet crunch of the carrots also added nice textures and flavor to this spring roll.

Next to arrive was the Golden Crescent, which were crispy veggie shrimp served with sweet chili sauce. Although they were a tad over fried and the batter was a little heavy, the veggie shrimp itself actually did a good job mimicking the sweetness of real shrimp.

Time for noodles and we shared the Everlasting Unity Chow Mein, which were deep-fried chow mein topped with veggie ham, tofu, mixed vegetables in house sauce. I enjoyed the crispy chew of the noodles and compared to the Summer Rolls, I actually thought the veggie ham in this dish tasted more like the real thing. I think the difference lies in the fact that the ham in this chow mein was sauteed and perhaps, picked up a bit of carmelization from the sauce it was cooked in.

Green beans is one of my favorite vegetables so it's not surprising that we also ordered the Emerald Threaded Pearls which are green beans wok-fried with carrots and button mushrooms. By the way, aren't you loving the names of some of these dishes? Just based on the names alone, I almost felt like I was eating at a Hara Krishna temple at times. This green bean dish was straightforward in that it wasn't cooked in any fancy sauces, but I enjoyed the crispness and the freshness of everything on that plate.

The last dish, before we ordered dessert, was the Spicy Lemongrass Tofu and it was also my favorite of the entire meal. I liked that the tofu was deep-fried and the sauce was amazing. It definitely had a kick to it and so flavorful. Even after the tofu was gone, I was spooning it over rice and enjoying it that way.

Even after 5 shared dishes, there was still room for dessert and we ordered two of them. The cheesecake was wonderful. I just loved how creamy it was.

I also enjoyed trying what was referred to on the menu as the Divine Chocolate Cake. Divine is a pretty strong adjective and while I wouldn't classify this cake as divine, it was still pretty good and something I wouldn't mind ordering again.

Overall, I really enjoyed my meal from start to finish and considering that One World Vegetarian Cuisine is fairly close to my part of town, I would definitely return to try other dishes from their extensive menu.

To see pics, go to:

One World Vegetarian Cuisine
178 S Glendora Ave
West Covina, CA 91790
(626) 917-2727

One World Vegetarian Cuisine on Urbanspoon


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Media Events: Fleming's/Illumination and Frito Lay

Flemings and Illumination Cocktail Party

Last week, I got a nice invite in my email box to attend an advance screening of Angels and Demons on May 14 at the Arclight in Hollywood. This event was a partnership between Sony Pictures, Fleming's Steakhouse and Quintessa Winery with the focus of the evening geared towards celebrating the release of Quintessa's 2008 Illumination and 2006 Faust Wines. The Illumination is a Sauvignon Blanc that received Wine Spectator scores of 92 in 2006 and 93 in 2007 while the Faust is a Quintessa “second label” Cabernet Sauvignon. At this pre-movie cocktail reception, guests were able to sample these two wines among other wines while noshing on delicious appetizers courtesy of Fleming's Steakhouse.

So what's the connection of the movie, Angels and Demons to this wine release party? Apparently, the storyline of light and dark forces provides an appropriate tie in with the Illumination Sauvignon Blanc and Faust Cabernet Sauvignon. One a white and the other a red, but both are two Napa Valley wines from Agustin Huneeus, legendary vintner and owner of the Quintessa Estate in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district.

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Running a bit late, I did manage to grab one of Fleming's Tenderloin Crostini, which was tasty and managed to sample one glass of the Illumination before heading into the movie. I'm by no means a connoisseur nor am I frequent wine drinker, but I know what I like and I really liked this Sauvignon Blanc. It was crisp, but not sharp and there were citrusy notes that really appealed to me. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to sample the Faust, but you snooze, you lose. As for the movie, for the most part I liked it, although as with adaptations, I liked the book better.

Click the links below to find out more about Flemings and Quintessa!

Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar
Illumination Wine

Hollywood Premiere Webisode of "Only in a Woman's World"

Last February, I was invited to attend a world premiere of a webisode series called "Only in a Woman's World" presented by Frito-Lay at Coco de Ville in Los Angeles. I know I'm late in blogging about this, but as you all know, we can't always get to everything we need to get to.

The main purpose of this event was to really focus on appealing to women, a demographic that Frito-Lay has never really catered to in the past. So how does one appeal to women? First, develop a guilt-free snack line. Second, create an web-based animated cartoon series focusing on the trials and tribulations of 4 friends as a way of addressing some of our concerns as women.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt to throw a soiree for women bloggers at a swanky club and when you include signature cocktails and tasty appetizers (I totally fell in love with these mini cheeseburger sliders that were being served), you're definitely on the right track.

Scattered throughout the venue space were some of Frito Lay's new products ready to be sampled, which included a new Baked Lays flavor, the Southwestern Ranch, the Flat Earth Spicy Salsa Tortilla Chips, a new 100 Calorie Snack, which was Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips and finally, the Smart Food Popcorn Snacks. Women have a love/hate relationship with food, sometimes torn between healthy options and delicious options, with both them not always being one in the same. After trying each of the above products, I have to say, with surprise, that Frito Lay hit it out of the park.

In the past, I haven't been a fan of the Baked Lays since I found them to be dry and lacking in flavor, but that Southwestern Ranch Baked Lays was light, crispy and packed a little bit of heat. I totally fell in love with the Flat Earth Spicy Salsa Tortilla Chips. Again, it was light, crispy and also did have a kick in flavor. As for the Smart Food Popcorn, they came in multiple flavors with my favorite being the cranberry almond because of I liked the tartness of the cranberry.

Towards the end, we all got to see the premiere episode of "Only in a Woman's World", which is in effect, a much tamer version of Sex and the City. Since that premiere webisode, 7 more have been created and posted on the "Only in a Woman's World" website. I just watched them right now. Some are funnier than others, but there are definitely kernels of truth in every one of them that any woman could relate to.

There were also a couple of celebrities in attendance. Brooke Burke and Mel B looked just as gorgeous in person as on tv and it was definitely fun being a part of the celebrisphere even if only for a brief time. It was definitely a fun, "posh" kind of evening and I definitely appreciated being a part of it.

Click Here to Check Out "Only In a Woman's World".

Mel B and Brooke Burke Photo Credit: The Daily Stab


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Upcoming Pleasure Palate Events

For those of you who are or are not regular readers of my blog, you may not realize that I run a very active dining group that also goes by the name, Pleasure Palate. If you're in the LA area or even visiting the LA area and would like to join me and other food lovers, please check out my group by clicking here! While there's a variety of events currently on the calendar, I'd like to highlight some below.

May 17 - Gelato and Sorbet Tasting at Paciugo Gelato Caffe
Summer is just around the corner and what better way to get in the spirit than enjoying delicious ice cream by the beach. But we're not talking just any old ice cream. Instead, I've set up a tasting of exotic and unique gelatos and sorbets with Paciugo Gelato in Hermosa Beach. Flavors will include Violet Chocolate Chip, Beer Chill, Black Pepper Olive Oil and so much more. Click Here For More Info!

May 24 - Sausage Tasting with Beer at Wurstkuche
Join us for a sampling of 14 different sausages and when paired with beer, this is a meat lover event not to be missed. Click Here For More Info!

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May 31 - Beer Ranch Tour and Honey Tasting
This event will include a tour of the Bee Ranch where we'll get the opportunity to learn more about the production and uses of honey from Beekeeper Bill Lewis. We'll get to look inside a beehive as well as observe a small colony behind a glass partition and if that isn't enough, we'll even get to see honey extracted. To end the experience, we'll be able sample some of the honeys produced on the ranch itself. Click Here For More Info!

June 14 - Private Sushi Class with Chef Jay Terauchi
Do you love eating sushi, but have always wanted to play Sushi Chef and learn the ins and outs of making it yourself? If so, than this class is just for you. Taught by Chef Jay Terauchi who has taught sushi at the California Sushi Academy, this is going to be a fun 3 hours hands-on class. Click Here For More Info!

June 20 - Chef's Tour and Brunch at La Casita
This event is quite special because it'll include a tour of a local Mexican market led by Chefs Jaime and Ramiro of La Casita. Both of these chefs are known for their cooking segments on Univison, being nominated for James Beards awards last year and more recently, were featured in a Throwdown episode with Bobby Flay. This tour will be followed by a brunch that will be utilizing the fresh produce from that market back at La Casita. Click Here For More Info!

June 27 - Food in the Hood Series: Bigmista's BBQ
Time for some down home BBQ that is currently the talk of the town! So join us for delicious BBQ at Bigmista's BBQ. Click Here For More Info!


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Xinjiang Skewers and More at 818 JN Kitchen

In northwest China, there is a region known as Xinjiang and although lamb is rarely eaten in other parts of China, Xinjiang is known for its barbecue lamb or mutton. In fact, the Mongolian tribes who inhabited these areas were the ones who introduced lamb to the rest of China. Due to its geographical location, the food of north western China has been influenced by both Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, which can be seen in the use of cumin in their cooking.

One of the most popular ways to prepare and eat the lamb or mutton is cut them in chunks, do a dry cumin/chili pepper spice rub on them, pierce with wooden skewers and then grill on a coal-fired barbecue. Considering how compact these skewers are, they have become a popular street-food staple in Beijing and now can be found in the city of San Gabriel.

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Open for more than a year, 818 JN Kitchen is tiny. Their dining room can probably only fit 14 to 16 people at one time and part of the kitchen where all the grilling happens is the size of a phone booth. What it lacks in size, 818 makes up for in a variety of tasty skewers and other foods that will definitely not break the bank. In fact, most of the menu items were priced at $6.99 or lower with skewers that range from $1.20 to $5.00 a piece. This is recession dining at its best. After my group settled down and checked the menu, we placed our skewer orders and decided to share some other dishes as well.

The first to arrive was the Special Home Guoba Soup. It was the least popular dish of the table. The soup seemed more like a gravy than broth and no one knew what to make of the torn pieces of what seemed like crepes that filled the bowl. I was pretty ambivalent about it myself. I didn't dislike it, but I was fine with just having a small sampling before moving on to the next dish.

A plate of Oil Pancakes soon arrived. Another thing that Northern Chinese cuisine is known for is their breads, which is why this made it to our table. Unfortunately, I would have been fine without it. It was very dense and dry. Perhaps, this oil pancake wasn't meant to be eaten alone, but torn in pieces and dipped in a stew or hot pot? Whatever the case may be, the oil pancakes were disappointing.

The next two dishes turned everything around. First, there was the Beef Pancake, which was a Pac-Man looking sandwich and one definitely worth chasing and devouring. Basically, you had something like a roast beef with cilantro and green onions between a toasted sesame bread. One is a snack, but two or three of them could be dinner. What are sliders again?

Then there was the Cucumber Salad with a sesame paste. It was so refreshing and I loved that the cucumbers were so crunchy and juicy. Our table loved it so much, we ordered a second plate just so everyone could get second helpings.

The last two dishes we shared arrived in between the skewers. One was the Pork and Leek Dumplings. The dumpling wrapper was thicker than I would have liked and although the filling was a bit oily, it still had good flavor.

The second one was a plate of pickled mixed vegetables, which was also both refreshing and crunchy. These vegetables acted as the perfect foil for the highly seasoned skewers, almost like a palate cleanser.

So now let's talk about the skewers. While I did mention that Xinjiang is known for their lamb skewers, there's actually quite a variety of other grilled meats offered at 818 JN Kitchen. Along with lamb, there were organ meats like lamb kidneys and chicken hearts as well as chicken, shrimp, quail eggs, corn and even yellow grouper.

The first skewer that hit my plate was the lamb. Considering the meat had a dry rub of cumin and chili peppers, the flavors were intense. One of my dining partners created a mixture of soy sauce and chili sauce in a plate to dip her skewers in and I soon followed suit. It added even more zing to the meat. As for the lamb itself, it erred more on the dry and chewy side, but that worked for me.

My next two skewers were the Chinese sausage and quail eggs. Although the Chinese sausage was a bit salty, I would order it again. Like the lamb, it was both chewy and also bold in flavor. It was actually almost cute seeing the little quail eggs on the skewer. They were a bit over boiled, but I still enjoyed them.

The grilled steak wasn't on skewers and the meat was a bit tough, almost like jerky, but still no complaints from me.

Next to last was the grilled corn, which wasn't seasoned at all, but perhaps, it's not meant to be.

Last, but not least, was the grilled yellow croaker fish. Of all the skewers, this was the mildest in flavor. I'm not sure whether they forgot to crust it with the cumin and chili pepper or they did, but the cumin and chili just did not adhere well to the fish skin, but in the end, it was crispy and the fish meat was quite delicate.

To end, there are a couple of things I do want to point out. One, the quality of the meat may not be up to par for some. As long as you don't expect tender cuts of meat and are fine with the meat being grilled to the point of being chewy, you'll be good. It's really all about the bold seasoning that make the skewers the stars of the show.

Also, since the same cumin and chili pepper seasoning is used and depending on how many skewers you eat, they all may start tasting the same. I think ordering the cucumber salad and/or the mixed vegetables and eating them in between the meats can give your tastebuds a rest in between bites. Finally, English is pretty limited at this restaurant, but the menu is in English, so there shouldn't be a problem pointing out what you'd like to order.

Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at 818 JN Kitchen and I didn't even have to sell my car to pay for my share of the meal. One thing I also learned while I was there was that the owners are all friends who are actually from Xinjiang and decided to open this restaurant together, which definitely tells me that this restaurant really does know its Xianjiang skewers.

To see pics, go to:

818 JN Kitchen
818 E. Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 307-5128

 818 (JN Kitchen) on Urbanspoon