"All Four Cheeses!"

The Cheesecake Dilemma: Does Size Really Matter?

I’m not usually one for big-box style restaurants. They are crowded, cacophonous, and almost always contrived. I prefer the hole-in-the-wall taqueria–one window, no decor, but delicious food. However, I do believe there is a time and place when bigger truly can be BETTER.

Take The Cheesecake Factory, for instance. It’s the size of a shopping mall. Every tourist from Beijing to Iceland is in attendance. Their decor is a flat, bastardized amalgam of Italian eatery and pre-World War II lounge restaurant. And yet, I find myself coming back for more. Why?

It’s simple. My grandmother is Jewish…and amazing, which means there is never a shortage of seconds during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. To this day, my grandmother will serve me a pound of fresh lox when I wake up in the morning. This is not an exaggeration. There’s no stopping her. It probably goes without saying that I’ve had ample opportunity to refine my tastes, AND cultivate my penchant for over-eating.

If you are a big eater like me, who enjoys having a wide variety of selections when dining out, this is your place. The size of Cheesecake’s buildings are remarkable, but dwarfed by the size of their menu. They have everything from “Fish Tacos” to “Chicken Madeira,” and of course, a dessert list that goes on for miles–my personal favorite: the Oreo Cookie Cheesecake.

My girlfriend happens to be a server at the Beverly Hills location, so in addition to hearing some fantastic server nightmares about over-aged, bourgeois customers complaining about the dim lighting and loud noises (while not tipping!), I’ve had the chance to develop a fondness for The Cheesecake Factory’s emphasis on SIZE. A personal gigantor-dish favorite is the “Four Cheese Pasta with Blackened Chicken.”

Four Cheese Pasta!

Four Cheese Pasta!

If you are hungry, and I do mean HUNGRY, go enjoy the huge portions and tell us what you think! Beware, however, of low-lighting, poser decor, and nagging rich folk. Also, please feel free to tip your servers well, especially at the Beverly Hills location…

As always, Keep Calm and Engorge on!

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Fat-Bottomed Burgers

Several nights ago, Jessica and I ate at Fat Sal’s in Hollywood. For those who are unfamiliar, this chain of urban burger joints was co-founded by none other than Entourage star, Jerry Ferrara. If Turtle co-founds a restaurant, I’m there!  Now, I’ve been there at least 3 or 4 times, but I finally had the distinct pleasure of eating their “Western Burger.”

This burger is angelic. They start with a fresh patty, then add onion rings, pastrami, breaded chicken strips and…BACON! One bite, and it’s taste bud overload. Of course no western burger is complete without BBQ sauce. Whatever formula Fat Sal’s is using works. The sauce is tangy and just the right amount of sweet.

Animal lovers need not apply. This is a serious burger for serious burger connoisseurs. If you swing by the Fountain Ave. location, hit me up and I’ll join you. Who knows? Maybe I’ll consider taking on their “Big Fat Fatty” food challenge.

Keep Calm and Burger On.

salad

Salade Lyonnaise

It was many years ago when my wife and I arrived in Paris in the early evening. We checked into our hotel, and, since it was too late to make formal reservations, we went out to find whatever convenient bistro we could discover … one of those casual places filled with locals and, in the French tradition, several of their dogs.  I can’t remember whether it was just I who ordered the first Salade Lyonnaise I had ever seen on a table or a menu, or the both of us.  Whatever, it turned out to be both attractive, more than delicious, and, for its time, really distinctive.  Since those days, however, one encounters it in French bistros all over the world, so frequently, in fact, that it is often listed simply as a “Bistro Salad.”  Its contents are seemingly simple, perhaps deceptively so for a couple of them: the inner shoots of young and tender frisée, fried lardons of bacon, a vinaigrette of one’s choosing, and two poached eggs.

The reason that I call some of these ingredients “deceptively simple,” is that  you won’t easily find that young frisée, and those lardoons will require your obtaining an uncut slab of bacon.  When I mention something like “young” or “baby” frisée to the grocers in the Pomona valley, they not only don’t carry it, they haven’t even heard of it.  Yes, it can be found in a Whole Foods produce section, and sometimes at Bristol Farms in a plastic box, but that involves some travel time.  For me, the salad is good enough to merit the trip.  Note that the relatively rarity of young frisée is doubtless why some recipes will tell you that you can substitute any other bitter greens of your choice.  I would prefer not to.Frise

So … try the following for two persons:

Separate the leaves, and wash and dry the frisée, using mostly, but not exclusively, the yellow/white interior of the head.

Trim and cut some slab bacon into lardoons, about ½ inch square and fry them until the outsides are browned and crisp.  Drain the lardons and set them aside on a paper towel.  You will want something like eight lardons per serving.

Make a vinaigrette of salt, crushed garlic, sherry wine vinegar, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce, and olive oil, extra-virgin or pure.  I’ll say something further about vinaigrettes in a future blog.

In a small salad bowl, toss the frisée with the vinaigrette and bacon, and a generous handful of chopped chives, and arrange on two salad plates.

Now, poach four eggs until just lightly done (because you will want the yolks rich but runny(, and place two of them atop each of the frisée servings.  A light grind or two of fresh pepper and you’re done.

Each diner can now break the eggs so that those yolks run over the dressed frisée, both tempering and enriching the acidity of the vinaigrette.  Ah, bacon and eggs never tasted this good.

 

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Fish like you won’t believe!…Phil’s Fish Market, Moss Landing, CA

My wife and I were visiting our older son and his family in Sunnyvale last weekend, and, on Friday they took us to Moss Landing, a wetlands/wharf/inlet mélange on the coast highway about fifteen miles north of Monterey,  It’s home to several marine research centers, a hotel or two, several hundred fishing vessels, and a few restaurants.  It began its modern life as a whaling port sometime in the 19th century, and its general look is somewhere between funky and unkempt depending, I suppose, on the generation of the viewer.   I wish we’d had more time to explore its many curiosities, but our destination was Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, an altogether remarkable restaurant and fish market.

Oh the Oysters!

Oh the Oysters!

The road to it is not very well marked, parking is sparse at best, its look is as funky and unkempt as that of Moss Landing itself, and lines of customers can be long … but … the menu offerings go on and on and every one of them features fish and seafood so fresh they can only have come from those Moss Landing fishing boats within the last couple of hours or so.   You grab a menu from a stack of them that awaits you as you enter, decide what you want to eat as you stand in line reading that menu or one of the many blackboards offering still more daily specials, give your order to the person at the cash register, pay up, and take your table number to wherever you’re going to sit and await the arrival of whatever you ordered.  For starters I ordered a special the of four large Pacific oysters gently poached in a Champagne and cream sauce.  It was little short of glorious, as were my fresh halibut tacos to follow.  What is truly dispiriting is that there are so many other dishes on that menu you just have to try but cannot  … portion sizes are beyond generous and you have only one stomach. Oh,  Phil’s is famous for its Cioppino and, if you call ahead by a hour or so, you can bring your own pot and have them fill it to take home.  I believe that Phil’s Cioppino bested Bobby Flay’s in his one-season TV show “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown.” 

Halibut Tacos!

Halibut Tacos!

 

There’s a bar there for beer and wine with your meal or anything else you have in mind, and the adjacent fish market is but another adventure in freshness.  Yes, this place is out of the way, but, if any eatery ever deserved to be known as a “destination” restaurant, this is it.

A local trick: when you get to Phil’s, have one of your party decide what to eat while still in line, and then nail down a table while the rest of you make your way toward the cash register.  However long the wait … just wait.

greekwine

Greek Wines – Try Something COMPLETELY Different

When, in 1959, I was a budding young archaeologist bustling around Greece for the first time, I quickly became aware of Greece’s wines and of the strange (to me at least) grapes peculiar to the country.  Ever heard of, say, Xynomavro, or Assyrtiko, or Moschophilero?  Neither had I, and the wines I tasted made from those and others like them were somewhere between undistinguished and unpleasant.  And yet … every now and then, I stumbled across something that was not only good, but nearly sensational … say a well-aged Xynomavro from the Boutari label.  It didn’t happen often, but, when it did, it suggested that the problem with Greek wines of those days didn’t lie with the grapes themselves, which were obviously capable of great things, but with the winemakers.  It took about 25 or 30 more years before those winemakers either passed or retired and their places were taken by their descendants, most of whom had studied oenology, perhaps in Bordeaux or in California or any of the many others there and elsewhere that were born at that time.  As a result, the potential of earlier years became fully realized  – something true of southern Mediterranean wines in general – and you can now buy, at knowledgeable wine stores, some very nice stuff.  So … I was at Bev Mo the other day, looking around for bargains, and my wife, who had been roaming the wine aisles on her own, came up to me brandishing a bottle of Boutari Moschophilero (the label spells it phonetically: Moschofilero), which was on clearance sale for about six bucks.  Note that the word “Moschophilero” literally means “fly-loving,” and there was that time decades ago when flies were just about the only forms of life that could abide the wine.  That’s no longer true, I’m delighted to report, and this “Moschofilero “ is now a lovely, well-balanced and gently fragrant white, just awaiting your summer afternoons on the patio.  Give it a try and perhaps you’ll be emboldened to try many of those other grapes that are out there that you’ve never sampled or even heard of before.greekwine2

Please note that the Greek grapes to which I have referred above have nothing to do with the famous/infamous Retsinas or resinated wines of Greece.  Those sui generis beverages constitute another story altogether.

fourkegs

Four Kegs – Las Vegas, Nevada

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is still the #1 show on Food Network.  As one of the original ‘restaurant visitation’ shows, it has its place in the pantheon of ‘food TV’.  Some like Guy Fieri, some don’t – but the show continues to thrive.  AND, many of the restaurants featured on the show tend to show large increases in their business…some find it even life-changing.

For one of those spots, it even has the distinct honor of being a former employer of the young Fieri when he was a student at UNLV.  However, I really don’t think much has changed over the years there.  As Guy would say…”This is Four Kegs.”

Four Kegs is a dive sports bar in the seedier part of Northwest vegas, off of Jones at the 95 as you head towards the greener pastures of Summerlin.  If you want to smoke, drink, watch sports and eat bar food, it’s your place!  And for those of you that know me, other than the smoking part, that works!

The house specialty is the Stromboli – sort of a NY version of Calzone but with a sports bar feel.  Get the ‘Original’ and always order the ‘small’ one – it’s big enough!  Get a side of marinara sauce for a buck extra and use it to dip every yummy bite.  Get a salad on the side or some Mac and Cheese bites and you’ll be paying the price the rest of the evening – in a good way of course.  They have just about every cool bar appetizer known to man – and some you’ve never heard of.  Some day I’ll work my way through the entire app list…stromboli

Since it’s Vegas, the place is open all hours, so go any time.  If you’re there after midnight, you have to go in through the bar so be prepared for smoke – it’s actually glassed in to prevent smoke in the other parts of the restaurant during the day which is a cool idea.

Football, NASCAR – whatever sport you’re in to, forget a fancy sports book on the strip and go to Four Kegs and hang out with the locals and have a Stromboli.  Maybe I’ll see you there!

hussongs

Hussongs Las Vegas

For any of you that have ventured into Baja, California, Mexico, then you probably know Hussongs Cantina.  Well, now a couple of the cantina’s best customers have opened branches of the famous dive bar in both Las Vegas and Reno.

While I was in Las Vegas for the Licensing Expo, my friends at SCORE International – the folks who put on the famous Baja 1000 desert race – threw a little party there and I was lucky enough to tag along.

After a few pomegranate margaritas and some of their famous fish tacos, I was good to go!

fishtacosWhen you need a bit of Baja in Vegas, check out Hussongs – they’ll take good care of you, and you won’t remember a thing!  Ole!

TrueNorth_0303

True North – Northpark, San Diego, CA

Whenever I head down to San Diego to visit my son Dustin, we always stop at True North.  It’s a great combination of sports bar, craft beer bar and gourmet comfort food joint.  On my last visit, we sat at the bar to a packed house watching the England v. Italy World Cup match, downed a few Manzanita Riverwalk Blonde and Sculpin IPAs, and feasted on one of the best bar plates ever – Loaded Tots!

truenorthtotsNow, these are not your everyday frozen Ore Ida tots – these are freshly made tots, smothered in a plethora of choices.  On this day, it was the Carne Asada and Avocado tots – dripping with a spicy chipotle mayo sauce, pico de gallo, fresh avo slices and some really well seasoned grilled carne.  This one was a winner – even if England wasn’t.

TrueNorthNext time your in hipsterville – a.k.a. Northpark, hit up True North.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

oscars-exterior

Oscar’s Mexican Seafood – Pacific Beach / San Diego, CA – Memorial Day Weekend

On Saturday, Barb and I headed down to San Diego to visit our son Dustin…yep, that big handsome guy on our home page, and the Glass family representative of the food kingdom in San Diego.  We were thrilled to find out that he and his roommate John had made plans to drive us from Northpark to Pacific Beach to hit a little Mexican seafood taco stand known as Oscar’s.

For those of you who’ve been to this mecca, enjoy the memories.  For those of you that haven’t, simply drool on the photos and plan your trip – it’s well worth it.

Oscar’s is first and foremost a taco stand.  The only place to sit is out in front on a long bench with a bar/type table.

OscarsTorta

The Fisherman’s Torta

Step up to the counter and order.  We had five people, so we ordered lots.  If you’re prepared to chow down on the finest seafood sandwich on the planet, then order the Fisherman’s Torta – filled with Spicy Shrimp, Scallops, Grilled & Smoked Fish, Cabbage, Onion, Tomato, Cilantro and Avocado.  Yes – it is as good as you are imagining it to be right now!

OscarsOctopusTaco

The Octopus Taco!

As far as the tacos – order up a few.  Our table had a sampling of shrimp, fish, octopus and steak.  The fish taco was stuffed with sea bass and so fresh and delicious.  The shrimp was good as well.  But the octopus taco was really something unique – very tender, smoky, chewy – just perfect!  The tortillas were fresh, thick and filled with yellow corn.  They have several salsas to squeeze on – all of which are hot and good.

There are three (3) locations in all, although this PB location is sort of traditional.  Go, stand in line, bring cash (no CC accepted) and a big appetite.  This was a real treat and I will be back for another Torta soon!  Thanks John and Dustin for opening our eyes to something quite special.

EASTER EGG: if you walk back through a small storage hallway behind the soda machine, you’ll find a large picnic table behind the restaurant!  Dustin and John call it the VIP room!  It was a great place to sit and eat – and the chef even brought us some cups of fish stock/soup to drink before the meal, AND delivered us the food.  If you go, check out the VIP room!

greeksalad

A Greek Salad

The Greek Salad, as it is usually called, can be found on countless menus these days from luncheon counters to serious dinner spots.  Except mostly for Greek restaurants, who take their roots seriously, It’s usually an Americanized version of the original Mediterranean dish the Greeks call a “choriatiki salata” or χωριάτικησαλάτα, if you’re being philologically serious.  It translates as “village” or “country salad.” In any case, it’s one of the great culinary triumphs of the Mediterranean in summer, which is the only time of the year that the salad is made.  That’s because the most important ingredient in the dish is the tomato at the height of its summertime Mediterranean glory, and which doesn’t exist in any form at all in Greece during other seasons of the year.  It’s also interesting to note that, during that same time of year, Greek lettuce really doesn’t exist, so a “Greek Salad” with lettuce, an almost standard phenomenon in the U.S. is a kind of combination that Greece would never even contemplate.

The ingredients of a true Greek Salad are simple enough:  gloriously ripe and sweet tomatoes, cucumber, green bell pepper, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives.  I like to peel the cucumber first, slice it lengthwise, and, with the tip of a teaspoon, remove the seeds and pulp.  This keeps the salad from becoming overly watery.  Cut 1/3 inch-thick slices from the block of feta, and reserve.  The Greeks never remove the pits from their Kalamata olives, so I don’t either.  Some cooks, including me, like to add small cuts of purple onion to the salad. If you’re worried about guests who don’t particularly like the onion’s strong acids, just soak the pieces of red onion in some ice water for about 1 hour, before squeezing them dry in a paper towel prior to their inclusion in the salad.

When ready to assemble and serve the salad, just gently mix all of the ingredients except the olives and feta cheese and array them, thus mixed, on a flat dish or platter … the Greeks never serve this salad in a bowl.  Now … drizzle the salad with a good extra-virgin olive oil.  It would be reasonable to use a Greek oil, but, if you don’t have one on hand, it’s no big deal.  The only kind of olive oil I would avoid is the Tuscan, slightly greenish variety … you know … the kind that sort of burns the back of your throat.  Leave that oil for other purposes.  Note, because this is really important: this salad is never to be dressed with a vinaigrette.  The inherent piquancy of the cheese, the tomatoes, and the olives are all the salad needs to merge with the olive oil … no vinegars, please.  Now, lightly salt the ingredients you’ve just oiled, scatter the Kalamata olives generously around and atop the salad.  Then take those slices of feta and scatter them around as well, breaking them into smaller pieces, if you like.  Do not crumble them.  Now, and as a final step, sprinkle everything with a light dusting of dried oregano flakes and serve.  No need to toss.

During my years in the Greek Mediterranean I have occasionally encountered a chef who like to add a few anchovies to the final assemblage, but, while I like anchovies, their addition is somewhat unorthodox, and there are lots of folk out there who despise those fishes, so enquire first if you are minded to make this variation.

You know … it strikes me that I should write something further about feta cheese, but I’ll save that for another time.  Meanwhile, as the Greeks like to say:

καλὴ ὂρεξη … bon appétit.