Grilled Corn, Mexican Style: Elote Asado

It is Memorial Day weekend and many Americans are barbecuing.  Corn is in season and made me recall a memory I had many years ago.  I was on International Blvd. in Oakland at a food stand.   At the time, I don’t even think it was called International Blvd., just E14th Street.  The name changed in 1996.  The stand was serving up elote (corn in Spanish).  The guy at the stand pulled out a corn on the cob from steaming hot water, he spread a thick amount of mayonnaise on it, sprinkled parmesan cheese, squeezed some lime juice, and topped it off with some chili powder.  I was a bit nervous about trying it, but it was pretty good.  Ever since that day, I had thoughts about how I could improve on it.  I would definitely grill the corn instead of boiling it in water, I would not add so much mayo, and I would use fresh parmesan, not the powdered stuff.  Years later, I would run into this similar treat at Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana.  They grilled it, topped it with aioli, lime, and parmesan.  Now that was also a few years ago.  Today was the day I was going to make my version with the help of my twelve year old niece.

Ingredients (I did not put amounts because this is all to taste)

Corn on the cob
Melted butter
Queso fresco
Cayenne pepper

In preparation, I covered the corn (keep husks on) in the sink with water for about thirty minutes.  This is similar to soaking bamboo skewers to avoid burning on the grill.  The corn floats so you need to turn them over about half way through the soak.

Plop the corn (keep husks on) on the grill after it has heated up.  Cover the grill to cook through and turn every few minutes. Remove the corn from the grill after it has charred about 15-20 minutes.  Pull the husks down each corn, brush melted butter on them, and replace on the grill for a few minutes to create a golden brown color. 

After removing from the grill, lightly spread mayonnaise, lightly squeeze lime, break off and sprinkle some queso fresco, and sprinkle cayenne pepper.   Now you are ready to eat.  My niece and I shared the first one.  My niece thought it was yummy.  In my humble opinion, it was oh so good.  I’m so happy it’s just the beginning of corn season and I will be having more elote asado all summer long.


Amber India on Santana Row

I heart Santana Row in San Jose.  It’s like Disneyland for those that love to shop and eat.  The weather is generally great and reminds you that you are definitely in sunny California.  I’ve enjoyed dining in this area throughout the years –  From Pinkberry, Pluto’s, and Pizza Antica to Village California Bistro, Blowfish Sushi to Die For, and Straits Restaurant. The restaurants on Santana Row are great.

I’ve heard about Amber India for a long time and finally got a chance to try this place.   This is a high end Indian restaurant.  I was having dinner with two colleagues and the three of us each ordered a dish to share – chicken tikka masala, chili eggplant, and a lamb dish called safri gosht.  We ordered a variety of naan and rice to complement our entrees. 

The server brought all of the dishes at once and helped plate them for us which is part of the fine dining experience (only bummer is that you don’t get to see individual photos of the entrees.)  The chicken tikka masala was good.  They used quality white meat chicken and the flavors were abundant in the chunky sauce and offered a bit of a kick.  I am used to this dish being saucier so I can dip my rice and naan in it.  I was able to spoon the chicken on top of the naan. 

The chili eggplant is something unique to me for an Indian restaurant.  Although it tasted like a Szechuan dish, it was really delicious.  It appeared to have been stir fried in really hot oil, leaving a crisp and shiny skin and a soft texture inside.  This dish also had a nice kick. 

I am not a big fan of lamb because of the strong flavor that it leaves in my mouth which is sometimes gamey.  We ordered safri gosht which is chunks of lamb cooked with spinach.  The spinach added a soft and delicateness to the dish.  The meat was tender as if it had been stewed for a long time.  I was pleasantly surprised with this dish.  It was amazing and one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever had. 

The rice and naan fell flat for me.  This is a bit of a surprise to me because those are staples and I expect it to be great.   I love basmati rice but this one expanded so much I think it was overcooked.  The naan on the other hand was very thin, not chewy and crispy like I hoped for.  When you leave naan on the table, that is very telling.

Amber’s dessert selection was the most expansive I’ve ever seen for Indian cuisine.  We shared an interesting crème brulee for dessert.  Amber’s version was infused with Indian coffee.  The coffee flavor was excellent.  The texture was like a pudding and overall it was a good selection.

It’s a trek to get to Amber, but worth a visit if you are in the area.  Family style is recommended.

Fish in Sausalito. Don’t forget to bring cash.

A visit to my friend who recently moved to Sausalito meant a visit to Fish.  This restaurant overlooks the marina.  The restaurant is casual where you go to the counter, order your food, pay by cash, get a placard with a number, pick up your own silverware, find a seat, and someone delivers your food.  I was just taken aback when the cost for two of us was $100.  Let’s get to the review of the food before we start judging. 

We were having an early dinner on this beautiful sunny day.  We came to Fish so we could enjoy the outdoor seating, which are filled with picnic tables and benches.  I was happy to see the “Marin Organics” sign.  This means this restaurant supports and uses local and sustainable foods. 

We each had a glass of white wine which came in mason jars.  Being new to this place, we ordered half a dozen bbq oysters.  These local oysters were from Cove Oyster Company and were delicious.  They were bbq cooked and then had a dab of bbq sauce on top of them.  I loved the taste of the sweet and smoky sauce with oyster juice running around the oyster.  To me this means they were cooked perfectly. 

My Food Companion (FC) ordered the tomato garlic basil soup and in his words “had a great blend of flavors.”  This vegan soup was also surprisingly creamy.  I am stumped at what kind of substitute could have been used in place of heavy cream.   

I had the fish and chips.  Three fairly decent sized fried halibut came on top of a mound of steak fries.  The batter was golden and crispy and the fish was delicate and fresh.  I found two areas that need improvement on the fish.  It could have used less batter.   I tore off one big chunk of fried batter which I left on the plate.  The fish also needed seasoning.  I had the salt in one hand and malt vinegar in the other.  I still enjoyed my fish and chips very much.

My FC had one of the specials which was grilled salmon with roasted potatoes and veggies.  The salmon was also well prepared.  It was fresh, soft, and the flavors from the creamy sauce balanced the entire dish. 

Since strawberries are in season, it’s hard for me to ignore anything on the menu that has strawberries.  My FC and I shared the strawberry shortcake for dessert.  From each ingredient – the biscuit, the strawberries, the sauce, and the whipped cream, it was definitely high quality.  It wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it met my expectations. 

The food at Fish is great and the view at Fish is awesome.  There are two things that I don’t like about Fish.  It should not be cash only.  Who carries that much cash?  Good thing my FC had cash.  The other thing is that they really need a bathroom inside the restaurant.  I didn’t end up using it because I didn’t want to feel like if I was at a gas station, needing to go outside and around the back.  Yeah, maybe their prices are a bit steep.

Dim Sum: A Small Piece of Heart

Today is Mother’s Day and I wanted to write about Dim Sum.  Dim Sum is a Cantonese cuisine that is typically eaten as weekend brunch.  There are countless varieties of bite sized food that are either sweet or savory and steamed or fried.  Another way to say dim sum in Chinese is “yum cha” which means drink tea.  It’s similar to having English high tea.  To help digest all the food and keep the conversations alive, tables maintain a bottomless pot of tea. 

Dim Sum has changed a lot since my early memories of it.  Middle-aged Chinese women would push food carts around the restaurant stopping at every table to sell their items.   Many of these women would be very pushy.  As a customer, you would have to repeatedly say no.  I always had the silly idea growing up that the “boss” would yell at them if they didn’t sell all their items. 

Some dim sum restaurants have completely rid of food carts.  Now you get a list of dim sum on a piece of paper and you mark which ones you want and how many.  One nice thing about this is that they bring your food selections out which are piping hot which may not always be the case if the food on the carts have been sitting around for a while.  In general, there are definitely less food carts these days, but some restaurants fortunately have kept this tradition alive.  It also keeps you wondering what is coming around the corner in those carts.

As palettes have become much more sophisticated and people have more money, chefs have been given opportunities to be more inventive.  This is true at dim sum restaurants as well.  Chefs will use more delicacies in their dishes and the middle-aged Chinese women walk around carrying trays of Chinese broccoli, noodles with xo sauce, and other interesting Chef specialties. 

There are two categories of dim sum in my eyes– there is the high end dim sum and the inexpensive to midrange dim sum.  I like both.  Depending on how much money I have in my wallet, I can choose accordingly.  The high end restaurants I recommend are the Koi Restaurants (a few around the Bay Area), Yank Sing (SF), and Hong Kong East Ocean (Emeryville).  These restaurants never disappoint in food or service because their employees are educated about customer service.  The inexpensive to midrange restaurants I recommend are East Ocean (Alameda), The Old Place (Oakland), King of King (Oakland).  The food is good and about one half  to one third of the price of the high end restaurants.  As I made my list of recommendations, I realized that none of my recommendations are in a Chinatown and this is not because I don’t go to Chinatown. My theory is that a large population who like dim sum including myself avoid Chinatown for dim sum because it’s a hard place to meet others as parking is usually difficult. 

But whichever category of dim sum I choose, I always go back to the core old school favorites – pork dumplings, egg tarts, chicken feet, pork spareribs, steamed bbq pork buns, and fried taro balls, but a plate of Chinese broccoli always helps to balance out the meal.

Here are some photos of the dim sum that I brought home for my family this mother’s day.  For a holiday, this was a great idea because waiting for a table could cost you over an hour of your time.  I arrived at The Old Place a little before 11am and there was already a wait.  I told the host I wanted some dim sum to go and they told me to go to the back.  They pulled a tray asking me what I wanted out of the cart.  It took about 5 minutes and I was on my merry way.

Taste of the Nation, San Francisco

This past week I attended Taste of the Nation in San Francisco.  This event travels nationwide to raise money for Share Our Strength, an organization to end childhood hunger.  A ticket costs $85 or $140 and gives you access to unlimited tastings of food and drinks from local restaurants, wineries, and mixologists.  Although I find this to be a great cause, it is a bit ironic how attendees can eat and drink until their hearts content while trying to end childhood hunger.  

My friend and I arrived at AT&T Ballpark hungry.  The vendors were set up all around the Club Level.   I was wide eyed and ready to try a bite of everything.  There were over 50 restaurants, 20 wineries, and 6 taste bars (they were making up interesting cocktails).   There were definitely some stations I was looking forward to such as  Jardiniere, A16, Aziza, Waterbar, and the Ahwahnee Hotel. 

We just followed the circular club level of the ballpark hopping from one station to the next, sampling all that was being offered.  Unfortunately, I was getting full quickly, even before we got to the central area.  The food seemed very mediocre.  There was not much wow factor in most of it.  If this is partly a marketing tool for restaurants, which I think it was because restaurant menus adorned the tables, it failed.  I should be impressed enough to want to go to a bunch of these restaurants, especially ones I heard of but haven’t gotten a chance to try.  If I was a judge and this was Top Chef, I would be highly disappointed.  

The Ahwanhee Hotel in Yosemite is where I had the best grass fed steak a few years ago for my birthday and this was another disappointment.  They served a chevre with prosciutto, asparagus, and almonds tossed in olive oil.  It was beautifully presented, but not very flavorful.  I don’t mean to signal them out.  They were much better than some of the restaurants that were serving foods on toast. 

This was a huge event and there were a handful of winners.  We all know and love Out the Door, the high end Vietnamese Restaurant that never seems to disappoint.  This was true here as well.  They served a random sticky rice with yummy ingredients served on a cone shaped paper.  This was great presentation and tasted like moms. 

I also discovered one unknown restaurant that was great in the midst of a lot of mediocrity.  Mavericks surprised me with their pulled pork on a potato chip.  Two of my favorite things made a great combo.  The tender pork had a sweet barbeque flavor and the chip held it together and gave it a salty crunch.  I went back to the table to let them know they had one of the best samples.  From there, I took a good look at their menu and I noticed that they have a fried chicken dinner on their menu giving me good reason to try them out in the near future.

There were two restaurants that I would give an award for great effort.  One was Delfina, famous for its thin crust pizza.  They served a fennel sausage wrapped with a pastry dough.  It was like having a gourmet bageldog which was cute, fun, and tasty. 

The other restaurant was Paragon.  They served a hot smoked cod and sweet corn chowder.  This was delicious and I appreciated that they weren’t trying to get away with a gazpacho like a few other restaurants that was there.

I saved the best for last…at least the best story.  Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake/Orson made assorted flavored macaroons.  They looked and tasted great.  The flavors included dulce de leche, chocolate coffee, citrus, and basil.  I was star struck and obviously had to get a photo in there.  This actually was the only booth that I noticed ran out of food early, so I don’t think that the rest of the audience would disagree that this was a winner.

To sum it up, there were a few highlight from the huge amounts of effort that went into this event.  But there’s still something that didn’t make me feel good when I left the event.  It appeared that there was a lot of food that was unconsumed and wasted.  But it wasn’t just the food alone that bothered me, it was all the plates and utensils that got tossed after a small sampling.  Yes, most of it was compostable and biodegradable, but there was so much of it.  I’m not saying it was an unsuccessful event, this event has raised over $73 million nationwide over the years, but I wish it would do a little more to reduce waste.