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.