la, sd + tus

Yup, you guessed it. Stepkids are on tour and thus, interesting food is being eaten. (These posts are beginning to start predictably, no?) This time, the (rickety, 15-passengar) van took us through Los Angeles, San Diego and Tucson, with some memorable moments both food and otherwise. The American southwest is lovely!

West Coast transplants to NYC complain endlessly about the lack of good Mexican & Asian foods in the City. We’d disagree.  Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, or Xe Lua, anyone? Still, we figured they weren’t all talk, and took our two days in LA as an opportunity to taste the hype. We turned to trusted foodie Jonathan Gold, who has LA on lock down, for advice and were well rewarded!

First, a taste of Oaxacan cuisine at Sabores Oaxaqueños on 8th street in (oddly enough) Koreatown. For us, the mark of a good, no, great, Mexican restaurant starts with horchata. (Our beloved Bushwick taqueria doesn’t serve horchata, but they’re not a ‘proper’ restaurant so we’ll overlook it.) Too often horchata is made from a powder, and it shows – chalky, overly sweet and not tasting even a little like the almonds and cinnamon its purportedly made of. Not so here. Our icy glass was intensely flavored, and, topped off with fresh cantaloupe and roasted walnuts, was the ultimate antidote to a hot LA September.

The chiles rellenos recommended to us by our server were spectacular. The chiles were stuffed with shredded chicken and raisins, breaded and (we assume) lightly fried. The resulting chiles were springy and moist, drowned in a simple, tart tomato sauce and served with rich rice & beans.

 

But really, we’d come for the mole. And wow. Our own homemade attempts pale in comparison to this one.  A lot goes in to mole – several kinds of chiles, chocolate, raisins, nuts and seeds, and it’s tough to balance the results. This one was, unlike our own attempts, deeply flavored and complex. Each bite revealed another layer of flavor, another touch of spice. And it was, also unlike our homemade attempts which are too often thin and liquid-y, dry, which made it very easy to eat and sop up with the freshly made tortillas.

Though we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, when the chef himself brought us coconut flan on the house, and a steaming pot of strong coffee laced with cardamon, we couldn’t resist a tiny taste. This wasn’t your standard, quivering, gelatinous flan. It was firm, almost creamy, and flecked with freshly shredded coconut. ¡super rico!

(Who are we kidding, we finished the whole thing.)

Here’s the thing. We still stand by our tortilleria in Bushwick. You just won’t find mole there. So it’s not that LA is better…but perhaps more diverse in its offerings?

Next, we trekked out to San Gabriel, a bit outside the LA city confines, to the Golden Deli to try “the best spring rolls in LA.” (Clara has a particular obsession with spring rolls…think of them as the skinny Asian cousin to empanadas…)

Though it was just noon on a weekday, the place was already bustling when we arrived, though the wait didn’t end up being much for two. The real time went into trying to chose just a few items from an incredibly long menu – several different waiters stopped by several times each to ask us if we were ready to order, to which we helplessly answered no and begged them for another moment. In the end, we settled on the classics, based on what looked good from what we could glean from those around us  (all Asian, and all seeming to know much much more than us what they were doing): Pho, shrimp paste vermicelli, and egg rolls. (What we know to be spring rolls, fried golden fingers of deliciousness, were actually egg rolls here, spring rolls being their fresh, rice paper-wrapped cousins.) The spring rolls were fantastic, as their reputation suggested, but it was really the pho that surprised us – a nicely balanced broth, not too star anise-y (a common complaint of ours) and tasty paper thin slices of meat.

For dinner before the show at El Rey, we walked (gasp!) over to Umami Burger and feasted on pickles, ‘smushed’ potatoes (twice fried and served with a garlicky aioli), and a ‘manly’ burger.  As great as a burgers were, we were most impressed with the variety of the pickle plate.

From LA, we were off to San Diego with a stop in Long Beach along the way, where we had (more) Vietnamese at Number Nine. Tasty Bahn Mi (lots of points for it being made with grass fed, local beef!) and a fresh papaya salad (good, though not as mouth-watering as the spicy, peanut-y Thai papaya salad at Wondee Siam…) and…coconut water! And no, we don’t mean Vita Coco or any of those other boxed brands.

Sadly, no food of note in SD. Just some pretty awful road side tacos and Starbucks tea before the show at Casbah.

On the late-late night drive through the Californian desert to Yuma, Arizona, we stopped for sustenance (potato chips and ice cream, we’re ashamed to admit) at a desolate, 24-hour gas station. Guess what they had for sale – standard fare! – by the cash register?

(drum rollllllllll)

Crickets! In sour cream and onion!

And scorpion lollipops in green apple!

Of course we promptly bought several to take home and debate sampling.

WIN.

Another day and several more hours of driving in blinding sun brought us to Tucson. We weren’t left with much time before load-in, but did manage to try tamales at the Tucson Tamale Company. The simplest was the best: masa, green peppers, a bit of cheese. Piping hot, just a little spicy and oh-so-comforting in a way corn will always be.

Tucson’s an interesting place. After an, ahem, animated evening at Plush (how’s this for a front door policy?) we were taken along to experience Saturday night Tucson style: lots of horn honking, $6 pitches of Coors light, spicy peanuts, steamed hot dogs and big bowls of tater tots. Hm. What is it with Tucson and hot dogs? And horn honking?

Anyways, we’ll be back, if only for the view:

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