Monday, November 21, 2016

We Investigate: Cuban/Dominican/Puerto Rican Food

On a mission to uncover the truth and hold the bland accountable, our investigative team went deep into the trenches of Clairemont seeking fried plantains and slow-cooked meats. 

For years I've heard good things about Tropical Star Restaurant and Specialy Market on Balboa Avenue, so I was thrilled to try it with my station's I-team. Plus, I wanted to see what it'd be like to have three Asians, a mid-Westerner and a Bay Area guy-turned-San Diegan in a Latin American restaurant talking American politics.

I can't believe it's taken me so long to visit this place. What a hole-in-the-wall superstar! Probably the best spot in the entire county to experience a wide array of Latin American home-cooked food, including Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Dominican cuisine. I mean, it's no Bronx, but it's pretty stellar given it's San Diego.

Around Paul Krueger and me is the rest of the NBC 7 Investigates team: Mari Payton, Lynn Walsh and Jay Yoo. Fellow journalists and some of the most fabulous food friends. 

Don't we look angry in that picture? Don't we look like we want to troll each other's Facebook posts or storm out of the room screaming "I can't believe you voted for that person! I don't even know you anymore!" *insert dramatic ugly cry*

Haha, no. It was one of the best conversations I've had post this exhausting and wildly divisive election. Why? Because we all respect one another and, although our opinions differ on many topics, we know certain things will always bring us together.

Like foooooooood. 

Like pastel y arroz con grandules. 

Similar to a shredded pork tamale, this steamed pocket of goodness is made with mashed green bananas instead of corn masa. Delicious. So delicious that I was supposed to be on a diet and eat half, but next thing I knew it was gone. I don't know what happened. I must have blacked out for a second and it all fell into my mouth. Darn it...again

With only a few tables inside and two outside, the homey restaurant exists in a market that looks like grandma's pantry. It is as rich in color as it is in culture. 

Here's Mari with her fruit smoothie and pabellon venezuelan combo. She had the Venezuelan seasoned shredded beef, white rice, black beans and fried ripe plantains.

Without asking Mari gave me one of her plantains and took a bite of my tamale. That's my girl.

Our photographer Jay kept it simple and got the arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). 

The flavors in all these dishes are spot on. You can taste that the meat has been slow-cooked for hours flavoring the rice, beans and sauces. Sure some Maggi powder was probably used, but heck if you've traveled abroad, you know that's pretty much just salt. 

I'm a sucker for contrasting flavors. Like Batman needs Joker and Superman needs Lex Luther, flavors come alive when they have a complementing rival. 

Viola! The suicide squad of flavor villains! Hello, habanero! 

Admit it. It's really hard to eat amazing food and be in a bad mood. Like, even if you wanted to talk to me about how Kylie Jenner isn't ruining America for little girls everywhere - put some dumplings on the table. You have ten minutes...okay, five. 

Takeaway? If you're going to talk politics, try and make sure you have some bomb grub around. It helps take the edge off. More than that, I think it shows we are all more alike than we are different. It helps rip off labels and dissolve the us vs. them mentality. It's a reminder we are all human and we all like to eat!

Okay, maybe not some of you. You Soylent-drinking deviants. You scare me.

Plus, this place sells avocados the size of your head. If that doesn't bring America together, I don't know what will. #MakeAmericaEatAgain

Friday, November 18, 2016

That Thai Surprise, Baby

“Did she just call me baby?”

That had to be the quote of the night.

This was from a man who has been on assignment in Afghanistan, crawled through the underground tunnels of Saigon and has been in the aftermath of probably every natural disaster imaginable. And here he was with me in an itty bitty Thai restaurant in Chula Vista totally stunned by this older hostess who'd just called him baby.

“What can I get you, baby? The orange chicken? Okay, baby!”

I was enjoying every second of this awkwardness.

That's the thing. This was Nikki's restaurant. This was her world. We were just living in it.
This unique exchange pulled me out of work mode. It’s not every day people surprise and draw me in.

You know what, though? Her food had the same effect. What a surprise. What a GEM!
I got number #13 the Yum Woon Sen with chicken. Clear glass noodles seasoned with sour Thai herbs, carrots, red onion, green onion, celery, tomato and cilantro.

My photographer got the orange a Thai restaurant. Yeah, we're going to ignore that, but I'll post a picture anyway.

"What level hot you like, baby?" she asked me. Okay now she's calling me baby. How cute.

"Um, 5 please."

"No, no? Do you want to die!? My 5 is too spicy for you. You like spicy? Yeah? Okay, 1."

What the heck? 1? I told her I liked spicy. Why would you even have a spicy scale if your spicy is 1?! 

Whatever. I'll get a spicy level 1. Lame. Then I started to look at the signage around the restaurant.  They told me to "Believe her!" Believe/don't believe mommy.

There was some weird Oedipal business going on here. I'm going to call her Nikki.

Now back to my Yum Woon Sen. The flavor was outstanding. You can tell there were no flavor enhancers. No substitutes. She didn't cut corners. Nikki used real ingredients.

She came over again to tell me she drives to a Los Angeles market every Sunday to do all her shopping. She gets produce, noodles, meats and other ingredients unique to Thai cuisine that, she says, she can't find here in San Diego.

She pointed to the trifecta of hot sauces in front of me exclaiming, "I make that and that and that!" Thumbs up, Nikki! (or whatever you're doing there with your hand).
Man, sometimes I wish I was a cow so I had four stomachs and could eat more. I want to be able to write about other dishes here, but I'm human. No number of burpees can excuse me ordering four dishes for myself. I'm not saying I haven't done it. Just wasn't appropriate and I may or may not have lied to the hostess saying "Yeah, yeah this is for my family. No this is not all just for me. That would be crazy..."

Anyway, back to the daily grind. What an incredible find in the middle of Chula Vista.

P.S. My photographer said the orange chicken here was very good.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Ja'Maican Me Crazy for that Jerk Chicken and Gravy

Holy smokes! This place is so good it caught me off guard! I wasn't ready for you, Island Spice.

After years at its Market Street location, it's moved to 6109 University Avenue. Where ever you go I.S (how does that song go?), I will follow yooouuu!

Red bean rice. Good. Jerk chicken. Brown sauce. Good. Fried plantains. Gooooood.

When it comes to Caribbean food, Island Spice has a solid act. By that, I mean, they know who they are, they know the food they serve and they do it over and over again and make it real good. Respect.

My photographer, who must not be named because he's a "vegan," got the brown stew chicken. All I can say about that is ... lol.

I got the brown stew fish which is fried red snapper with brown sauce. Both meals came with a mixed beans and rice side, greens and fried plantains. Here's the menu.

The chicken was seasoned, fried and then drenched in their brown gravy. The sauce has a homey, deep flavor that's not overpowering even the slightest. However, it is the strongest element of the dish perfectly complemented by the savory flavors from the rice/beans, greens and sweetness from the fried plantains.

Everything goes together. It just works. This is definitely one of the meals you'll thoroughly enjoy and crave randomly later, especially after some questionable nights. Makes you understand where the term soul food came from.

The red snapper dish (picture below) comes out as the whole fish, head and all. If you're squeamish about that (get over it because that's how fish looks. Yes, they have eyes), maybe opt for something else. I hope you don't though because you'd be missing out. The meat was crunchy on the outside and flaky and tender in the inside. Very flavorful. Perfect if you're wanting something lighter. I loved it.

Another must-get is the ginger beer. I've never had a drink that complemented my meal so well (well, maybe red wine with steak, but that's a whole different ballgame). Ginger beer is a great palette cleanser. It is spicy. Helps make that fifth or sixth bite as good as the first. 

The only slight downside is the service can be a tad slow. One time I arrived when the place was supposed to be open, and they weren't ready for another hour or so. Could've been a fluke. Honestly, to me, it wasn't a biggie and happened a while ago. Kind of added to the island feel haha, but if you're on-the-go and want something fast, you may want to wait until you have a comfortable amount of time to try this place.

#NomOn, my friends. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

My Inexplicable Soup Obsession

Like Anthony Bourdain is obsessed with pork, I get down-right oogley over soups. Clear/brothy soups, thick/creamy soups, seafood, chicken, vegetable, with rice, with noodles, broth all by its lonesome. I don't discriminate. It's all good. No,  it's great.

I love it. I want it. I need it. I don't give a rat's left butt cheek that it's 90 degrees out. Give it to me and no one gets hurt. 

It's pretty ridiculous how many pictures I have with soup. Like more than with some family members.

My love for soups is both inexplicable and something I can describe in painfully great detail.

For instance, I love the way clear broth tastes "clean." Like the Food Gods magically extracted the essence of a chicken, piece of beef or fish, mixed it in warm water and sprinkled glittery dots of animal fat on the top for bitty flavor boosts. I love its ability to give you that savory satisfaction all while remaining light and fresh. And, when perfectly cooked rice or noodles, meat and leafy greens are in the mix, you get a theme park of textures. Plus, the soup adopts an entirely new character. The same but different. Like if an already amazing friend studied abroad for a year and came back all spicy and cultured. Weird analogy, but I think it works.

(FYI, don't get my friend Amanda and I started about this new "bone broth movement." You'll see it in places like trendy grocery stores and on TV. Don't get sucked into that Columbus-y silliness folks. Typical, take-something-that's-been-done-forever-by-other-people-and-sell-it-yourself-to-make-it-trendy crap going on. How else do you make proper broth, I want to know? With bones! Yes, my grandma made soup by going to the butcher, asking for cheap bones and boiling the living daylights out of them. "Bone broth" shouldn't be sold like a cold-pressed juice for goodness sake! Okay, I'm done here. This was supposed to be a quick aside. See! I told you not to get me started. Read more.) 

But, why soup? I can describe any food. A haiku about fried chicken. A sonnet about burritos. But, soup...

Maybe it's because it reminds me of growing up. As a single parent working two full-time jobs, my mom didn't have a lot of time to cook. So, she threw a bunch of bones and meat into a crock pot to make broth. Then throughout the week, we'd throw in veggies and meat that would cook in minutes and voila, a meal!

Then there's my grandma who'd make us drink a whole bowl of Chinese soupy something before we could eat. Believe me, most of the time it was not good, but it was healthy (she claimed...). Three words at which most Chinese kids shudder: bitter melon soup. The horror! It was something my brother and cousin and I tortured through, sometimes making jokes like "I'm going to put as much as I can in my mouth then go to the bathroom and spit it out." We'd try and then see chopsticks come flailing towards our temples followed by angry threats from my grandma I didn't understand. Well, I did. Not the words because I don't know Chinese, but the gist. Something along the lines of "I'm going hit you! When I was your age, I was 90 pounds! Fine, get sick. See if I care!" Oh man, I love my grandma. Isn't she cute and cuddly? (If she knew I wrote this, she'd glare at me with a five pound cleaver in her hand. She was a cook, so she usually had a cleaver handy. Oh, the love.)

Finally, there's college. I lived off soup because I was broke and it was cheap and easy to make. Safe to say, I did not gain the freshman fifteen.

Also safe to say, I have a soft spot for soup. Soupy McSouperson, you've been a good friend. Always there to warm me up, make me laugh, make me cry....what? This is getting weird? Sorry.

Alright, here's the moment of truth. My favorite places to get soup in San Diego.

1.  Clam Chowder @ Ironside Fish & Oyster (Little Italy)

2. Pho @ Pho Hoa (City Heights), Pho Cow Cali Express (Mira Mesa), Pho T Cali (Kearny Mesa), Phuong Trang (Kearny Mesa), Pho-Ever  (Vista)- I know my pho.

3. Wonton Noodle Soup @ Minh Ky Chinese Restaurant (City Heights)- This has egg noodles, ground pork wontons (Chinese meat dumplings), BBQ pork and green onions swimming in a clear broth. To...die...for. Make sure you have the chili oil on hand!

4. Pozole @ where ever you can get it. It's a very traditional Mexican soup made up of tender pork chunks and hominy. Think of menudo but without tripe. Comfort food to the max. The Waterfront Bar and Grill (Little Italy) serves some and it's received good reviews. I've had pozole at random restaurants throughout the county. I love getting it at Northgate Gonzalez Markets (countywide), which is a gem in itself.

5. Soon du boo @ Convoy Tofu House or Grandma's Tofu and BBQ (both in Kearny Mesa).

6. Souplantation (uh...err where)-  Don't hate. I'm no food snob. I get my soup where I can get it. I mean, the flavor lacks sometimes, but add a little salt and hot sauce...BAM! The best ten bucks you'll spend on all-you-can-eat soup.

7. Ramen @ Izakaya Masa (Mission Hills) and Santouka (Kearny Mesa).

8. Sinigang - I need help with this one! It's one of my favorite soups of all time. Sour Filipino soup made with either pork or seafood. Problem is, the only time I've had really good sinigang was at someone's house.