Come All to Comal

A comal defined by Wikipedia is a smooth, flat griddle typically used in Mexico and Central America to cook tortillas, toast spices, sear meat, and generally prepare food. Comal is also the name of a Mexican restaurant located in downtown Berkeley. I met some friends at Comal for dinner last week. The space is beautiful with two dining areas that lead to a third space for drinks.

We started with some house margaritas while we perused the menu. There were four of us and although we had a few different things in mind, we easily agreed to share a bunch of items. The appetizers and sides were much more appealing to us which is great for sharing.

If I see chicharrones on the menu, I gotta have them. I just love the lightness and crispiness of pork rinds. These house-made ones met my expectations as I added hot sauce and salsa to them. And yes, I did share.
The “chips” we ordered came guacamole and three different salsas and they all had great flavor. The freshly made tortilla chips were also crisp and light and disappeared pretty quickly.
Originally I thought it was a mistake to order the chips and salsa when we also ordered the sikil pak because it also came with chips and salsa. This was my first time having sikil pak which is a dip made of toasted pumpkin seeds, grilled eggplant, and habanero. I enjoyed this especially with more delicious chips. It didn’t seem to be a mistake after all, since we ate up all the chips. Let’s just say one order of chips feeds no more than two.
We ordered a salad made of bitter greens, persimmons, pomegranates, spiced pepitas, and Manchego cheese. Welcome Fall! I’m always thinking of what could go into a Fall salad so now I have some ideas.
We got an order of beef & pork albóndigas en adobo. This was pretty amazing with the tenderness of the meatball and the smokiness of the adobo sauce. The meatballs come with fresh hand made tortillas made on-site. Reminds me of Old Town San Diego. This was my favorite plate.
The enchiladas of the day were duck. The plate comes with two enchiladas so we had two orders. We also got a side of black beans de olla. I enjoyed these as well and they were perfect for sharing.
Another side we ordered were the Brussels sprouts and autumn squash with pequin chiles and pepitas. This side was good, but my least favorite item. The flavors just couldn’t match up to everything else.
Comal also does family style plates of meats and vegetables cooked in their wood fired oven and comes with traditional sides of beans, rice, and tortillas. We didn’t try it this time, but I am pretty sure I would enjoy it.

We shared two desserts. The first was arroz con leche or rice pudding with plums and toasted pistachios. I really liked it especially with the additional texture that the pistachios added.
Our second dessert was flan with raspberries. It was really creamy and tasted more like a creme brûlée. Still delicious, but if you are looking for more density and caramelization in a traditional flan, that wasn’t there.
Overall, Comal was a great dining experience. Living in California especially the Bay Area, I feel fortunate to have access to such amazing Mexican cuisine.

Spooning Up Korean Brunch in Berkeley

Every time I make my way to Berkeley Bowl West to go grocery shopping, I pass by a restaurant called Spoon Korean Bistro. Each time I pass it, I become intrigued. Today I asked my sister and BFF if they wanted to have brunch at Spoon and then go grocery shopping. They both agreed.

The menu at Spoon was interesting because it had items that I had never experienced at other Korean restaurants. For instance, I have never had Korean porridge. Spoon’s version is made with rice, quinoa, mung bean, and milk. If you order porridge, you get the side dishes or banchan and you get a choice of an add-on that gets cooked into the porridge. We chose mushrooms. The porridge was thick and creamy, a cross between jook or Chinese rice porridge and oatmeal. It felt very comforting to eat and the mushrooms added a distinct flavor and texture.
Another “new to me” dish were the kimchi pancakes. They were mild in spice and crispy. I thought these were really good and a great choice for a brunch item.
My BFF requested we get the glazed potatoes which were deep fried potatoes in a sweet glaze. If you order these potatoes, you are warned there is a 7 minute wait. These came out piping hot and were both crisp and sweet on the outside. It almost felt like I was having a dessert.
We also ordered the appetizer size veggie jhap chae. Jhap chae is a dish made up of sweet potato glass noodles stir fried with vegetables including mushrooms, carrots, onions, and sesame oil. I always enjoy eating jhap chae and this one was not any different.
We didn’t order anything with meat, so decided to go with the Korean BBQ beef short ribs. We devoured these as well. The BBQ flavor was tasty and they were grilled well.
We enjoyed Spoon very much. We got to eat outside and enjoy the nice weather, the service was great, and the food was authentic and delicious.

At the end of our meal, I learned from our waiter that Spoon has several sister restaurants including Ohgane in Oakland. Ohgane is actually my favorite Korean restaurant so it was nice to discover this little bistro where I could enjoy brunch and then do some grocery shopping. It’s always best to not go grocery shopping when you are hungry.

Chino: Chinese Transformed

The word for Chinese in Spanish is Chino. That may or may not be apropos for the name of a Chinese restaurant located in the Mission district of San Francisco. My BFF and I went there for lunch a few months ago. I got a good energetic vibe as I walked into Chino. It was bright, hip, and not a typical Chinese restaurant (host is not a young Chinese female).

We were seated and I was excited by the decor and the fun environment. I loved the colorful plastic chopsticks. If xiao lung bao, Shanghai soup dumplings are on a menu, there is no question that I have to order them. The ones at Chino were pretty good. The dumpling skin was a little on the thick side, but sometimes they have to be in order to ensure the dumpling doesn’t get punctured and the soup spills out.
One of my BFF’s favorite type of dumpling are the wontons in chili oil so we ordered them. These were filled with shrimp and they were quite good. The little bit of heat elevates these dumplings immensely. Although I didn’t see any Chinese employees, their dumpling master is a native of Shanghai.
If you go to a typical dumpling house, you will not find bao de chicharon, aka pork belly sliders with avocado salsa and pickled onions. You will definitely find it on the Chino menu and they were delicious.
When I saw cold sesame noodles on the menu, I was immediately reminded of the popular dish eaten by New Yorkers. This is not something I have seen on Bay Area menus. This version had cucumber, mushrooms, and summer squash. It didn’t quite meet my expectations, but I did enjoy the vegetables.
We shared a matcha green tea soft serve for dessert. The soft serve is made using Straus Cream and was topped with fruity pebbles. The colors defined the restaurant. I actually loved the smoothness of the soft serve and the matcha flavor was awesome. This was my favorite thing at Chino.
Chino just screams fun and I’d like to go back with a few more people in order to try a larger variety of food. I would also want to make it dinner and see what their cocktail menu is all about.

Chino is located at 3198 – 16th Street (cross street is Guerrero Street) in San Francisco.

DIY: Kettle Corn

Yesterday was my grandmother’s 97th birthday dinner and at the last minute I decided to make party favors. Last minute meant going shopping for materials after 3pm for a 6:30pm dinner. I was thinking I might need to resort to buying candy. The farmer’s market already closed or I could have bought kettle corn. Who doesn’t like the sweet and salty flavor of kettle corn? My grandma sure does. There are few English words my grandma knows and one of them is popcorn. I became disappointed that I didn’t think of the kettle corn idea earlier, but then I thought why not try to make kettle corn. I already had all the ingredients at home so all I needed were the bags. $1.99 for twenty-five clear bags at Michael’s.

I reviewed a few recipes online and decided to just go for it one batch at a time.

1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 tsp salt
Add vegetable oil and 3 popcorn kernels in a large non-stick pot over medium-high heat. Cover the pot with a tight lid. Once you have heard the three kernels pop, remove the 3 pieces of popcorn.
The oil is at the correct temperature so pour the rest of the kernels and sugar into the pot. Place the lid back on and shake the pot a few times forward and backward to get the oil, kernels, and sugar to blend. When the kernels begin popping, shake the pot every few seconds. When the popping slows down between 2-3 seconds apart, remove from heat and pour into a large bowl quickly. Sprinkle salt over the popped corn.
Mix the popcorn and try to separate any clumps. After cooling off for a few minutes, it’s ready to eat or in my case put into bags. I ended up making four batches in order to fill the twenty-five bags. A simple and inexpensive party favor that came out pretty cute. Friends and family were able to enjoy the snack, pre-dinner and were surprised it was home made and wanted the recipe. Some even thought it tasted better than the Farmer’s Market!
I have a couple of secrets. The first is letting the popcorn cool off a bit before serving. It starts out soft and needs a few minutes to harden. If you eat it right away or put it in the bag too early, it won’t be crispy like it should be. The other secret is using Pop Secret Jumbo Popping Corn.

You can now try this at home. Don’t forget the movie!

Manti: A Turkish Delight

Last night I was at a cooking party and the theme was Turkish food. When I learned of the theme, I immediately thought of making manti or meat filled dumplings. I found a recipe online and winged the instructions as I was making them. I had some trouble rolling out the dough, the manti needed more salt, and it seemed to have taken a very long time. Although everyone seemed to have enjoyed the dumplings, I wanted to improve my skills. Since I still had meat filling, I decided to give myself a manti mulligan and have a do over this evening.

2 cups flour
2 eggs
1/4 cup of water
1/2 cup of ground beef
1/2 cup of finely chopped onions
8 oz of plain yogurt
1 clove minced garlic
salt and pepper
2 tbsp of your favorite chili oil

1. To make the dough, pour two cups of flour and 1/2 tsp salt in a mixing bowl. Add 2 eggs and blend together with your hands. Once eggs are mixed in you, will need to add approximately 1/4 of water to get the dough to form a ball and not stick to your hands. If it gets too wet, add a little more flour. If it gets too dry, add a little more water. Once you get the dough to the correct consistency, cover your bowl with Saran Wrap and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
2. Using a cheesecloth or a lot of paper towels, squeeze out the water content from the finely chopped onions. In a bowl, mix the onions to your ground beef and then season with salt and pepper.
3. With some practice with my friend’s late father’s pasta maker last night, I did not have to pull out a rolling pin this evening. Divide the dough into four pieces using one piece at a time. Put the remaining dough back in the bowl covered with the Saran Wrap. This keeps the dough from drying out. Roll out the dough in a pasta maker on a thin setting or as thin as you can get with a rolling pin.
4. On a floured surface, using a pastry cutter or a knife, cut the sheets into 1 x 1 inch squares.
5. Fill each pasta square with a small dab of the meat filling.
6. One at a time, take a meat filled square and pull each of the four corners diagonally to the center and squeeze the four sides closed. Place it on a floured baking sheet and repeat until done.
Now that you’ve made 1/4 of your dumplings, repeat steps 3, 4, 5, and 6 until you’ve made all the dumplings.

7. Add the dumplings to a large pot of boiling water. Add 1/2 tsp salt. When all the dumplings float to the top, cook for another minute and then remove them from the water onto a large platter.
8. Mix the minced garlic into the plain yogurt before spooning on the manti.

9. Drizzle your favorite hot chili oil on the manti.

10. Enjoy!
The second time was a charm! The making of them was much smoother than last night. They were better seasoned as well. I love these little dumplings. I have been to a few Turkish restaurants in my life, but never had them as good as these homemade ones I made myself. I guess I’ll have to travel to Turkey to find better.

Love Our Lake Day

My wifi is down so I have no choice but to write this blog post directly from my iPhone 4S. Boy, I can’t wait for the iPhone 6 to come out! The City of Oakland was all about walking and biking today. Love Our Lake Day is an event sponsored by WOBO (Walk Oakland Bike Oakland) which took over many streets down Lakeshore Avenue of Lake Merritt and through Downtown Oakland. My friend and I started on foot from Glenview through Trestle Glen until we got to the Lake. It was still early where the festivities were still being set up so we decided to walk on the Grand Avenue side of Lake Merritt and start from Downtown. Latham Square was the location of one end of the event. To be honest there wasn’t a lot going on there. There was a band playing, one food truck (Docs of the Bay) an ice cream cart, and a table set up by Oaklandish. I got my temporary tattoo and moved on.
We walked down 17th Street to get to Latham Square so we took 14th Street to get back to the Lake. The part of the lake with the footbridge was another area with festivities. There were a handful of food trucks and vendors, tables promoting different mayoral candidates, and a very cool stage completely powered by bikes. The best thing in this area was seeing the completion of an art installment located under the bridge. “Undercurrent” is 20 steel columns of light and movement.
We made our way up Lakeshore Avenue to El Embarcadero for the end of the festivities. There was another stage powered by bikes, ethnic dancers, and more food trucks and vendors. We were quite hungry now having walked six miles already. I noticed that the food vendor/caterer Marus Kitchen was frying up empanadas to order. I ordered one of the combination plates which had a chicken empanada, beef empanada, and arroz con gandules (a Puerto Rican style rice). It was actually quite good and reasonable for $10 which includes a drink.
Today was a beautiful day with perfect Oakland weather. I didn’t feel like it was a crowded event and I’m not sure it was because there truly wasn’t a lot of people or because the event covered so much distance and people were moving. It was great to have the streets closed off for pedestrians on foot and bicyclists young and old. I was pleasantly surprised by the bands as well. I had a nice time at Love Our Lake Day. My only recommendation is to have a lot more food trucks and food vendors at this event in the future. After all this walking or biking, people need sustenance.

Taro Root Ice Cream: Western Flare to an Eastern Celebration

Tonight my family had a traditional Chinese dinner to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Taro, a root vegetable grown in various parts of the world is a typical ingredient that is eaten for this occasion.
Taro is said to bring good luck and wealth. I can always use both luck and fortune so I decided to make something with taro. My friend let me borrow me her ice cream maker a couple of months ago. I was unsuccessful in trying to make a basil sorbet so here was my opportunity to redeem myself. I looked up a recipe for taro ice cream.

2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups grated taro
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 can coconut milk
3/4 cup sugar
salt to taste
Melt butter in a medium saucepan under low heat. Add taro and blend, stirring for a few minutes. Next add whipping cream, coconut milk, and sugar. Turn up heat to medium high. Stir continuously. When the mixture has a low boil, turn the heat down to low. Cover pan and continue to cook the taro down, stirring occasionally for approximately 20 minutes. Turn off heat and add some salt to taste.
Pour contents into a blender and turn on high speed until smooth, about a minute.
Transfer contents into a container and put into fridge for a few hours. I was under time constraints so I put mine in the freezer for about 90 minutes.

Pour into an ice cream machine and follow directions of the machine. (You would have needed to freeze your ice cream cylinder the night before.)
I transferred my ice cream back into a container and placed it back into the freezer for another 90 minutes to harden.

I also whipped up some taro chips. I thinly sliced some taro.
When my deep fryer (another borrowed appliance) reached 375 degrees, I placed a handful of taro in the hot oil. They are ready when they turn translucent, approximately 2-3 minutes.
Pour over paper towels to soak oil and then salt them.
So how’d it all turn out?
My family enjoyed it. For me, the chips came out awesome and it was so easy. The flavor of my ice cream was delicious, but it was too thick for my taste. Well, I can say my ice cream skills are improving. Maybe it’s time to try a more traditional flavor – like strawberry. But what’s the fun in that?