Nacho Weakness

Nachos

Gus’s BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos

I believe it is true in the case of anyone who calls him or her self a foodie that they are more often than not a lover of all foods with little exception. Perhaps an allergy keeps them away from hot spices or an early, traumatic bite of mayonnaise from an overeager sandwich-making mother might form a lifelong aversion to the spread; but these are rarities. Part of being a foodie means having an adventurous and ever-curious palate. So we eat all kinds of things considered both high and lowbrow and tend to live by the “one bite rule” of boldly trying everything once before making absolute decisions. We are more prone to continually tasting new things than we are to consistently repeat old things. But there are those special “weakness” dishes that every foodie can account for that they will eat time and again, even hunt through endless cities for, and revisit the same locations on multiple occasions for—demonstrating the kind of behaviors borrowed from addicts and hedonists. My Achilles Heel, without a doubt, remains a towering plate of nachos.

I have come a long way since my high school days when I would come home off the big orange bus and head straight to the kitchen where I would pile a paper plate with Tostito rounds, a pile of grated cheddar, a dash of garlic salt and then nuke it to oblivion. This always produced a kind of nacho Frisbee that I had to pull apart—a chewy here and crispy there disk of salt and fat with no real culinary value. But the initial lust was the same as it is today—a want for a crispy chip, a hankering for gooey cheese, and a desire to dip that all into toppings that when blended create an effortlessly delicious and creamy swath of lust. This is my comfort food of all comfort foods.

What makes a perfect plate of nachos for me? Thick house made tortilla chips with a wicked crunch are essential. I have bypassed ordering my favorite dish at many a restaurant upon hearing they use store bought chips. If they aren’t house made I will make an exception, but it better be a damn good chip befitting my description above. They can’t be flimsy or fragile in order to be able to heft up a good amount of dip and they better not get soggy before I reach the bottom of my pile. Then it is all about layering toppings in a balanced ratio so that it’s possible to get a bit of each in every bite and one ingredient better not run out faster than another. Whether it is a traditional plate of Mexican style nachos with beans, guacamole, sour cream, shredded beef or chicken and a savory chorizo cheese sauce or a gastro pub artisan plate with carne asada, queso cream and diced tomatoes, the ratio is elemental. Other than that, I am not a nacho purist.

Potato nachos

Napa Valley Burger Company Nacho Waffle Fries

Today, I don’t eat nachos much. My hips would be gargantuan and my heartbeat an erratic misfire of cardiac pulsations. But I have become a nacho connoisseur, seeking out the best from a sea of the ordinary rest, and when I find them, it’s just like unwrapping that exact thing we want on Christmas morning. So instead of a top ten nacho list, I keep mine at a manageable top three.

  1. TLT Pork Belly Nachos in Westwood, Los Angeles, California – This perfect one basket meal for the UCLA college students consists of braised chunks of tender yet crusted pork belly, pico de gallo, and a signature pinkish cheese sauce over fresh chips.
  1. Gus’s BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos in South Pasadena, California – I will sidle up to this bar again and again for a lazy Sunday afternoon cocktail and a plate of these exquisite nachos to share with the Cute Gardener. The best homemade tortilla chips hands down come topped with pulled BBQ pork, four cheese sauce, BAKED BEANS (!), smoked mozzarella, jack cheese, tomato, red onion, guacamole, pickled jalapeno and a drizzle of BBQ sauce.
  1. Nacho Waffle Fries at Napa Valley Burger Company in Sausalito, California – Perfect puffy waffle fries with airy centers and crispy nooks and crannies are piled high with shredded cheese, chopped bacon, guacamole, sour ream and house pickled, tangy jalapenos. It is like a potato skin that has gone to finishing school and returned home knowing how to salsa.

I have visions for my nacho future, too. I am always dreaming up combinations. Lately, I have been visualizing and looking out for a good plate of Peking duck nachos. I have never seen nor heard of this but imagine it as something dark and smoky, sweet chunks of hoisin-coated duck with tiny slices of green onion, a cooling white cream sauce, and those crispy Chinese noodles fried to powdery smithereens on top. Maybe this college football season while the CG and I resume our seasonal Saturday spots on the couch I will do some nacho experimentation and create a top three for the home.

Foodies in Love

IMG_8273This elegant little block of tofu doused with a perfect amount of soy and striped with tender piles of meticulously placed chives represents the Cute Gardener. He is neat, ordered, minimal and aesthetically clean.

IMG_8274This chaotic bowl of ramen with awkwardly large noodles trying to elbow for room amongst the greens and wobbly eggs punctuated by strands of fatty pork represents me. I am messy, cluttered, rich and juicy.

Together these dishes make one of our favorite at home meals – food being the common denominator in our sea of differences that have always fueled our relationship with curiosity, wonder and mutual adventure. As we celebrate our third anniversary I thought I would pay homage to some of the best things I’ve learned or come to understand about our foodie life together.

  1. The CG will never share my love of white foods, i.e. bananas, coconut, etc.
  2. I will never share his love of sucking the goo from a crab head.
  3. When it comes to a bird, he likes stripping the carcass whereas I like digging the marrow from the bones.
  4. The CG received the gene that makes a person hate cilantro. I did not.
  5. If you want a cake or cookie in this household, you better ask the CG otherwise you may get something resembling rabbit food and granola without proper fat and termed raw.
  6. I make better homemade pizzas but his look prettier.
  7. Cooking the entire Dorie Greenspan Around My French Table is taking me a lot longer than I had envisioned when I gifted the book to him for our first Christmas together.
  8. Whereas the flavor of peppermint is like garlic and the sign of the cross to the CG, my kryptonite remains any form of poultry skin not fried to a non-flabby crisp.
  9. I am in charge of the baked salmon and other things in the oven; he is the king of the stove top.
  10. Rye bread doesn’t last in our household, especially if it’s from Diamond Bakery on Fairfax. He prefers it lighter without seeds and I crave dark loaves with seeds. Sometimes we get marbled.
  11. I am most assuredly spoiled because I get dinner cooked for me at least five days a week but I don’t take it for granted.
  12. Backyard produce has made grocery store produce unbearable to me.
  13. Bourbon is to be respected.
  14. For red wines, he likes his complex and balanced while I prefer funky, dark and big.
  15. We have found that there are very few restaurants that make us want to return more than once and so many good ones to choose from that it seems normally silly to do so. But there are exceptions that include Asenabo for simple yet sophisticated Japanese, Hatfield’s for buttery agnolotti, Scarpetta for scrumptious spaghetti, Papilles for Chef Tim Carey’s new-nightly dinner menu,  Il Fico for belly comforting pastas, Osteria and Pizza Mozza, Brent’s for the best pastrami in Los Angeles, El Faro for dollar fifty pastor tacos, TLT for pork belly nachos and Kokekokko because we will never tire of skewered chicken parts and cursing, beer slinging cooks.
  16. We will always enjoy non-American food for the Fourth of July.
  17. We will never eat out on Valentine’s Day preferring to whip up a feast at home.
  18. He was right when he told me I should ban dessert at restaurants because I would forever be disappointed.
  19. I was right when I told him he should do the same with BBQ anywhere on the West Coast.
  20. It is mutually understood at this point that we will never meet a pork belly we don’t like.
  21. You don’t have to like the same foods to be compatible but you have to be a foodie to be in love with a foodie.
  22. We are very lucky.

I say that last one, “We are lucky,” while knocking on wood because when you find your food soul mate you never want to lose him.

Taking Tips from Bourdain’s Book of the Bold

IMG_2262Pork belly nachos

I have been a die hard Anthony Bourdain fan for a decade now. Over that time, I have seen many other food personalities come and go but he’s remained my favorite due to a few key traits. He is actually a literary person so he narrates his travels with a serious wordsmith’s flair. He genuinely cares about places and people in the world beyond the semi-shallow layer of life foodies dwell in. I am one of those foodies but I always appreciate when people show me more than the thick slab of foie, but also the life and times that surround it. When Bourdain delves into politically harsh geographies that aren’t necessarily pretty for television and manages to do so with sensitivity while also showcasing authentic local cuisines, I feel bloated by a well-told and relevant story and not just the copious amounts of food. Lastly, he’s not afraid to dive into the funky stuff, unveil his non-political correctness in a world sterilized by it (especially in food circles) or belly up to the bar fully soaked in his particular vices for all the world to see. That’s human, and oftentimes also leads to being humane.

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 Crab grilled cheese

This past weekend I discovered his show Parts Unknown on my streaming Netflix so I binged on four in a row. I quickly realized that he has also influenced some of my habits and rules surrounding foods, particularly the following:

  1. When in a new territory that you may only visit once, order a bunch of dishes that you want to try without regard to strategy or hunger and try it all.
  2. If you are intrigued by something, then by all means try it no matter what you’ve heard or what stereotype or cultural biases create a conflict upon your table.
  3. Sometimes you hit eureka with a dish you think you will love and sometimes you miss it but the potential delicious discovery around the corner always makes the trying worthwhile.
  4. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, eat what you want to eat and enjoy the heck out of life while you still have it.
  5. A meal just isn’t a meal without a great glass of wine, compatible cocktail or indigenous liquor and every nation in the world has a distinct version of this.
  6. Don’t always believe the hype but go with your gut when it comes to finding good food.
  7. Never be a snob – real good food can be found just about anywhere.

Never have these rules applied more to me than when it comes to Thai and Thai-fusion style food. Although I love all types of cuisine, Thai food brings out the adventurer in me. Whereas I know what fishes I like with sashimi or general types of pasta and sauce for my Italian restaurant sojourns or the spice mixes in my Indian dishes, etc. when it comes to Thai, I honestly never know what I am going to order until I read the menu.

IMG_2255Fish kidney curry

Two recent examples I tried that ran from one end of the Thai spectrum to the other were the notorious Jitlada in Los Angeles and TLT in Westwood.

IMG_8611Shrine in Jitlada’s restroom

Jitlada has been around for a while and boasts a traditional Thai restaurant environment with the ambience you expect from Thai restaurants: dingy interiors full of ornate ritual tchoctkes on the walls, loads of hipsters sharing steaming pots of Tom Ka Gai, lots of wooden mirrors, and candle and toy shrines in the restrooms. A menu that goes on for days offers anything you could possibly want from traditional pad thai noodles to exotic and strange silkworms to famous, spicy curries that are known for their flame-ability. I chose a chicken pad thai because the Cute Gardener is not a fan of the overly spicy and then I went gonzo by ordering the kidney fish curry which Jonathon Gold touts as one of the top dishes you need to eat before you die. I also picked a simple salad of blanched watercress and braised pork belly. The kidney fish curry definitely stood out with a murky briny funk richened with ground shrimp and red snapper but the egg omelet that accompanied it was too salty to help me relieve my tongue from the all-consuming heat.

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Leftover kidney fish curry on brown rice

Of course, all-consuming heat aside, I still managed to eat the rest of the curry at home the next day atop organic brown rice over a period of two hours so that each bite’s heat would fade before the next. I am one of those people who truly is a glutton for spice punishment, craving its addictive tang when it is done right in dishes like this one.

IMG_2263Chimmy bowl

This past weekend, the CG and I visited TLT after a trek through an exhibition at the Hammer. TLT used to be The Lime Truck, rolling through the streets of L.A. dispersing over-the-top stoner and comfort food to the masses. It became so popular that a brick and mortar was opened, very organic-fast food-style in its streamlined graphics and communal dining room set atmosphere, yet highly impressive with a menu that does a roster of things extremely well and just packs in the customers because of this. The menu is actually more representative of a Thai and street food fusion place with items like pork belly sliders, crab grilled cheese, chimmy (churri) noodles with peanuts and sambal and even chorizo laced breakfast burritos. All of that tasted great, but the coup d’etat for me lay in the pork belly nachos, in which I found my own nacho nirvana. Number one now in my book reigns this basket of on-the-spot fried chips that are puffed and crisped perfectly with no sogginess by the bottom of the pile. These chips come smothered in a luscious sweet cheese sauce, pico de gallo and generous chunks of pork belly cooked tender and juicy with a caramelized bite. A complete surprise.

IMG_2256Thai omelet

Perhaps, these forays into exploratory eating will open up my horizons with other cuisines I love—inspiring me to follow my mental book of Bourdain rules in the French bistro or the gastropub. The taste buds are now itching for the new, the brave, the bold, and the out of the ordinary.