Celebrating La Borinquena Mex-icatessen

  
When I first heard that La Borinquena Mex-icatessen was closing after 71 years of business in Oakland, I felt a kind of sadness. La Borinquena is a Mexican restaurant with a cafeteria style setting. Tucked in the back of the restaurant, they have a little shop selling supplies such as spices and tortillas. In general, it’s usually not good news when a business has to close down in Oakland. I view it as a retirement and became happy and excited for them. Four generations of a family have operated the business for seven decades and have earned this awesome status. I call it success.  Friday, July 31, 2015 was their final day of operation. I went over for lunch the day before with a couple of colleagues to be one of the last patrons to enjoy the food of La Borinquena. There may have been about 25 customers ahead of us. I observed a family leaving with two huge buckets of masa. Others were leaving with bags of goodies. The party ahead of us have been regulars at La Borinquena all their lives. There was definitely a sense of history and celebration as I awaited.
 After about a thirty minute wait and changing my order in my head a few times, I made a last minute decision to order what one of the people ahead of me ordered. I got the carnitas plate which came with rice, beans, and tortillas. I enjoyed it very much. It probably tasted exactly like it tasted 71 years ago. There is something to be said about good tasting, classic food with no frills.

  
A friend of mine who grew up in Oakland and now living in the South Bay was sad about this closure. She requested some tamales from La Borinquena, so I ended up with half a dozen tamales to go.  
I froze my tamale. In the weeks to come when I crave a “Tina Tamale”, I can pull mine out and celebrate again. Congratulations La Borinquena Mex-icatessen on your retirement! 

If I were a Vegetarian…Encuentro

I started my food blog about five and a half years ago and my very first post was a recipe for farro salad. It was influenced by a dish I had at the vegan/vegetarian restaurant, Encuentro in Jack London Square. A lot has changed since then, including the restaurant moving to a new location less than a mile away from the old location. I was super excited to try Encuentro again because of their social media presence, particularly Instagram followers posting and raving about dishes there.

I met a friend on a weekday evening after work. It was after 5pm, so we started with some hard cider. I had apple and my friend had pear. It was light and refreshing for this warm summer night.  
There were a lot of dishes that were recommended to me, but unfortunately with only two of us we were somewhat limited. We started with a vegan appetizer of marinated mushroom and smoked pecan pate which came with crostini, cornichon, house made fig chutney, and mustard. This dish was spectacular. The flavor of the vegan pate was wonderful and very satisfying to my palette. 
 The macadamia ricotta with heirloom tomato, summer herbs, grilled corn, and balsamic was highly recommended to me. The ricotta is a vegan option, so I chose to replace it with burrata cheese so I could get a little fat. The dish amazed me with its beautiful color. My mind is actually blown because I am now realizing the balsamic on top was freeze dried. I don’t recall a crunch from the balsamic, but I also don’t remember dressing spilling on my hand while eating this. How interesting! This appetizer is served on a toasted baguette and was fresh and delicious. I felt like I was eating pizza bread.  
 We were getting quite full already so we shared one entree. I was curious to try the Korean BBQ tempeh. It came with sautéed bok choy, sesame roasted white turnips, kimchee, and rice. Tempeh is a soy product that is used as a meat substitute. This dish reinforced to me that I don’t like meat substitutes. I really enjoyed the flavors of the dish and all the vegetables that came with it. Instead of tempeh, I would have preferred the use of tofu. Another idea I would present to Encuentro would be a vegetarian bibimbap.  

 We couldn’t leave Encuentro without trying a vegan dessert. Our waiter told us that people in the surrounding Bay Area come to Encuentro specifically for their desserts. We were both intrigued by the chocolate zucchini brownie with vanilla and chocolate coconut ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauce, coconut whipped cream, and candied walnuts. The brownie was delicious, but it was everything else on top that I could not get enough of. This was a light version of a brownie sundae that was rich in flavor.  
 I left Encuentro very pleased. The kitchen does a great job using vegetables to create unique and innovative dishes that make you feel happy and satisfied. One of the best vegetarian meals I have had, I highly recommend Encuentro.  

 

DIY: Dirty Rice

Exactly one year ago today, I was invited to attend an Ottolenghi dinner party. At this party, attendees cooked recipes from Chef Yotam Ottolenghi. We have been meeting regularly ever since. For me, it has evolved into a type of exclusive club where I feel honored to be able to participate. I have met great friends here and feel I have challenged myself by cooking foods that I have never made before. As of now, we are called Foodies by the Bay.
I am about a month behind as this post is about the party last month where we gorged on Cajun/Southern food. I made two dishes, but one is worth writing about and sharing the recipe.  
I found a recipe for Dirty Rice on a website called simplyrecipes.com. At the first moment that I saw the picture of the recipe, I was sold on it. It looked that delicious!

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cup long-grain rice
  • 1 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 cup chicken livers, chopped
  • 3 slices of bacon, chopped
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 jalapeños, seeded and chopped
  • 1 tbsp Cajun seasoning
  • 2 green onions, chopped

Instructions:

Wash the rice a few times through. Cook the rice as you normally do with 1 1/2 cup of chicken stock and 1 1/2 cup of water. While the rice is cooking, chop everything including the bacon, chicken livers, onions, celery, jalapeños, and green onions.

Heat up a large pan or wok at medium heat with 1 tbsp of olive oil. Add the chopped bacon and cook until crispy. Add the ground pork and increase the heat to medium high. 

 Mix in the celery, jalapeños, and onions.

 Add the minced liver (I know this looks weird, but trust me) and cook for a few minutes more. Flavor with the Cajun seasoning.  

 Combine the cooked rice and mix thoroughly.

   

Remove from heat, add the green onions, and serve.

 This version of dirty rice tastes fantastic. It is like a fried rice with bold Cajun flavors. Although it’s been about a month since I made it, I’m still thinking about it. It’s also quite easy to make so I can’t wait to make it again. I think this dish can be served as a side or even stand alone.
Here’s a collage of other dishes we had that evening.

  
Happy Anniversary , Foodies by the Bay!

British Invasion: The Growler’s Arm

The Growler’s Arm opened in October 2014 serving British fare in the Glenview neighborhood in Oakland. I have had two dinners at the Growler’s Arm in the past couple of months, getting a good sampling of the food from their daily changing menu.

  On one evening, my friends and I arrived early and previewed a few items from their happy hour menu. Above their bar, sits a line of beautiful vegetables that are in the process of being canned. For this reason alone, we had to order the pot of house pickles. I would say the pickles are fun to eat and can hold a conversation on its own.  
 The cheese board came with a selection of three cheeses – a hard cheddar, a firm goat gouda, and the Vermont Creamery Coupole, a soft aged goat cheese. They were well complimented with raw honeycomb and nuts.
 Fish and chips are also available on their bar menu so we decided to give it a try. What I look for in a good fish and chip is a crispy coating, a soft tender piece of fresh fish, and not greasy. These passed the test. I especially enjoyed the fries. Sharing this was a bit of a tease. (Note to self, come back for a pint and fish and chips.)
 We made our way to the dinner menu and shared the pan fried bubble and squeak, a traditional English dish made from leftover potatoes and vegetables. With the added smoked bacon, broad beans, and creme fraiche, this dish had elevated itself.
 I was less impressed with the warm potato salad with cracklings and soft boiled egg. Between having too many potato dishes and tasting mustard, I could forgo this dish.

 A favorite of ours was the house corned beef with Savoy cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and horseradish sauce. I scraped off most of the sauce. So if you don’t already know, I am not a fan of the mustard seed family which includes wasabi and horseradish. I’ve never had corned beef in a broth and it was excellent. The meat was moist and the flavor was well balanced.  

 We shared two deserts. One was the Growler’s Mess which is their take on the Eton Mess. I did not like the consistency of the meringue. It was hard and crunchy. For this dessert, I prefer a chewy meringue to go with the textures of the ice cream and berries.
 Our second dessert was the chocolate fondant with ice cream and chocolate sauce. It was nice to end the meal with some chocolate, but it was nothing to write home about.

  I went back to The Growler’s Arm and tried some different things with a side of chips. Did I mention they serve yummy fries?  This time we ordered the house cured meats and terrines. It came with pork liver, potted duck and fig jam, pork head terrine, and air dry-cured sausages with pickles. I may have enjoyed these more than my friends so it was plentiful. If I had a choice of these or the cheese platter, I would probably pick the cheese.

 We ordered a salad of grilled peach, blue cheese, honey, and sweet lettuces that was delicious. Although everything was placed separately, it came together in a harmonious way.

 It happened to be Tasty Tuesday so we ordered their 3 course meal. We started with a sweet corn soup. With some of the best corn in the world from Brentwood, California, I can’t imagine a tastier version of this soup anywhere.
 The main entrée was a flat iron steak with corn fritters, cherry tomatoes, and peppers. It was perfectly cooked to a medium rare in their wood fire oven.  
 The dessert was a summer berry trifle. Again, their desserts could use some improvement.  
 The additional entree we ordered that I enjoyed was the wood oven roasted half chicken with a frisée salad, roasted spring onions, cucumbers, and a pickled cucumber dressing. This was a fantastic chicken dish and great for sharing. It was moist and flavorful.  
 The Growler’s Arm is described as charming pub meets elegant restaurant. I agree that it is somewhere in between. If you are looking to try something different, I would recommend The Growler’s Arm. They serve quality food in a friendly environment.  The restaurant gives you different opportunities to try them out. (i.e. Happy hour, Tasty Tuesday)  And for your convenience, you can make a reservation through Open Table.

Post Backpacking Meal: The Farm Table in Placerville

I just got back from a four day backpacking trip on a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) starting from Sonora Pass to Ebbetts Pass, which is roughly 31 miles. My fitbit tells me I hiked about 40 miles!  

  
This was a daunting experience as I am coming back super tired. This time my injuries included a lot more mosquito bites including one above my eyelid and a blister on my hand from using tree branches as hiking sticks. It was totally worth the blister and I am now considering getting some real poles. I had three sleepless nights. I realize I am just not used to sleeping in a tent in the great outdoors. On day two, we endured a thunderstorm that included hail. It lasted roughly three hours where we had to hide under trees. Much of my items got soaked which meant a really rough night of sogginess. 

So what’s great about backpacking? Well, I do like a challenge! I love hiking in general and got to see such amazing scenery which some of would be impossible to reach in half a day. I got to see the mountains change colors in front of my eyes according to the sun. I enjoyed waking up in the mornings to breathtaking views with a cup of coffee in hand and having the warm sun beam down on me. 
 We counted nearly 100 varietals of wildflowers this time around.  
 We didn’t have gourmet food on this backpacking trip, but our first meal back absolutely was. On our drive home, we stopped for a late lunch/early dinner at The Farm Table in the town of Placerville.  The Farm Table is a restaurant and a market that specializes in house-made sausages and charcuterie. The lunch menu mostly consists of sandwiches. We each ordered a sandwich and a side.

 There is a daily sausage sandwich and today’s was an Andouille sausage with roasted peppers with their homemade ketchup and bun. My friend ordered it with a side of potato salad.  
 Another friend had a caprese sandwich with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. She added a cup of cold cucumber soup.
 I got a BLT which came with their homemade dry cured bacon. In addition, I requested a side of roasted vegetables with romesco sauce.  
 We shared a slice of almond torte which came with an apricot jam.  
 Everything at The Farm Table was fresh and delicious. We each thoroughly enjoyed our meal. I even bought some of their packaged items – bacon and duck confit. 

 Their dinner menu makes my mouth water.  If you have to drive through Placerville, take the opportunity to stop at The Farm Table for some awesome food.

DIY: Cooking Copper River Salmon

My first experience with Copper River Salmon was about three years ago at a sushi restaurant. This very seasonal salmon is filled with Omega 3’s and is very tasty. My understanding is that the adult Sockeye Salmon are ready to spawn and head to the fresh waters of the Copper River in Alaska and fatten up during the upstream swim. This bright orange, almost red salmon is delicious.

A few weeks ago, I was noticing one of my colleagues heating up her lunch. I commented on what a nice lunch she had. She said it was Copper River Salmon she picked up from Costco. It took me a a few seconds before I recognized the variety.  

I was cooking a lot last week and decided I wanted to get a hold of the Copper River Salmon from Costco. My colleague told me she got it from the San Leandro store. I called to make sure it was still available and the representative assured me they were carrying it. I don’t have a Costco card, so I convinced a friend to take me.

 I picked some of the reasonably priced salmon for $10.99 per pound. My only question now was how to prepare this delightful fish. I wanted a simple recipe so I could really taste the fish. After reviewing various online recipes, I ended up listening to my friend who said olive oil, salt, pepper, orange juice, and orange rind.  

  Mind you, I haven’t cooked salmon in awhile. I wanted to make sure to get the results of a tender, medium rare cook with a crispy salmon skin. After careful thought, I decided on using my cast iron skillet in order to get the pan really hot and enough oil so the skin would not stick. My intuition was correct. Let’s say I succeeded and was thrilled with my accomplishment.  

Here’s my instructions on how to cook the perfect salmon:

  • Salmon filet (preferably Copper River)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, additional 2 tbsp olive oil for cooking
  • 3 tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tbsp orange rind

Marinate the salmon with all the ingredients above for a few hours. Can also marinate overnight.  Heat a cast iron skillet on medium high. Heat enough olive oil to cover the pan, approximately 2 tbsp. When hot, place your salmon, skin side down in pan. 

  After a couple of minutes, use a spatula and ensure your salmon is not sticking to the pan. If it does, add additional oil. Let salmon sear for about 4-5 minutes. Turn the pan down to medium heat and cover the pan with a lid. Cook for an additional 3-4 minutes.  Remove from pan and serve.  

  The fish was tender and flavorful and I ate all of the crispy salmon skin. This was the best salmon I have ever cooked and a lot better than most salmon I have eaten at restaurants. After this experience, I feel much more comfortable cooking fish. If you like salmon, it’s time to run to the Costco in San Leandro and pick up the Copper River Salmon before it runs out.  

Taiwan Bento: Uptown Lunch Spot

I remember walking by Taiwan Bento in the Uptown District of Oakland with a coworker many months ago. The restaurant was not open at the time and there was a sign at the door indicating they were having soft openings. I peaked through the window to check out their menu board. It was a very small menu and it didn’t sound too interesting to me.   

I pretty much forgot about Taiwan Bento until I read Eddie Huang’s “Fresh off the Boat.” He kept talking about the foods he grew up with and I felt like I wanted to experience that. I don’t yet have immediate plans to visit New York City to try his restaurant Baohaus. For the time being, I had to try something more local. Taiwan Bento!

I went with a few coworkers to give this lunchtime spot a try. We each ordered our own bento box, but we shared. The bento boxes come with rice, pickled vegetables, edamame, and a tea egg. As I mentioned before, their menu is a bit limited. Each day of the week, Taiwan Bento features a daily bento lunch special which is slightly discounted.  
 Monday’s special is the roasted chicken bento. I liked the crispiness of the skin and the tossed sesame seeds.  
 The braised pork bento is Tuesday’s special. From reading Huang’s biography, it sounded like this is one of the most popular dishes in Taiwan and one his grandma makes best.  
 The fried pork chop is Friday’s special. The pork chop is battered and deep fried to a crisp.  
 Taiwanese sausage is Wednesday’s special. My friend ordered a side of the sausage. Leaner than the Chinese sausage that I am used to, it was really tasty. The generous amount of green onions and the gravy added a lot of good flavor.

 Although not a bento, Taiwan Bento serves beef noodle soup, another popular Taiwanese dish. I found this dish to be very familiar tasting because it’s common in Cantonese cuisine. The star anise is prevalent.  
 We also tried some hand made pork buns. The soft bun and the tender pork filling makes this melt in your mouth. In my opinion, this is the healthier version of the BBQ pork bun.
 Taiwan Bento is simple food, but different. I enjoy the concept of a bento box. In addition to your main course, you get a few fun bonus items. I imagine myself eating similarly to the millions of people in Taiwan. I think Taiwan Bento provides a good glimpse into Taiwanese lunchtime food.