Monday, November 26, 2018

Quick Bite: Mutual Friend

A friendly name for a friendly place.
It's always fun when I just stumble on a place I've researched and I get to go, "Ohhh, so that's where that is." Today I was stopping off for gas when across the street I noticed Mutual Friend, a newly-opened ice cream shop in Golden Hill, beckoning me with promises of sweet treats. I got the gas pumping and made my way over.

I sampled the Grandpa Badger's Citrus—in part because of the hilariously old-timey name. It's a zesty mix of lemon, lime and orange with a pleasant brightness. For me, though, it leaned a bit too far into orange territory, particularly in the aftertaste. Texturally, at least, all the ice cream I tried was rich and creamy—just the way it's meant to be.

I settled on two other flavors. The Roasted Banana Peanut Butter Cup was very much what it sounded like: It had a very sweet, fruity flavor almost like a one-ingredient frozen banana "ice cream". The peanut butter cup mix-in was a bit on the stingy side, authentically nutty without much in the way of chocolate.

The Happy Camper was definitely the best of the three I tried (and it's seasonal, so get it while it lasts). Essentially, it's "bourbon and s'mores" flavor. They mixed a nice milk chocolate ice cream with a generous helping of bourbon, and the result is sweet, boozy and tremendously good. The only issue, again, is that the mix-in was lacking; I only got a couple of cinnamony graham cracker bits.

For both of these flavors, in fact, a bit more mix-in would have really added some crunch and cut through the sameness of taste and texture. As it is, though, I appreciate Mutual Friend's willingness to experiment with some slightly unusual flavors without trying to completely reinvent the form. It seems they're going for a classic, friendly small-town vibe updated with a touch of modern style, and overall I'd say they've hit the mark.

Score: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Quick Bite: Poke It

Dining area at Poke It
For some reason this interior design makes
me crave watermelon. Can't imagine why.
These days, you can't walk down the street without accidentally stumbling into a poké joint. It takes some wild creativity to stand out from the literally dozens of raw fish shops lining the sidewalk like so many toppled electric scooters.

Poke It in Hillcrest has made an admirable effort, though. Billing themselves as "premium raw with a Mexican twist, they naturally offer the now-pedestrian poké bowl and nori-wrapped burrito. But they venture further, toying with the limits of seafood propriety: riceburgers (with crispy rice as the bun), ricetadas (crispy rice tostadas), and tacos made with fried, panko-crusted nori shells. When will the madness end?

Today I stopped by for the salmon al pastor tacos. They were a bit small, but four to an order. The most impressive thing about them, I think, was actually the shell. I expected them to be brittle, breaking apart and leaving behind a pile of taco debris. But no! Though crunchy, they had just the right amount of give so as not to break apart, aided by a bed of white rice acting as a shock absorber. These shells had an addictive, snacky texture; they really ought to be on store shelves for bingeing at home.

Will man's hubris ever be quenched?
When I ordered, my one concern was that when the menu described "cooked" adobo salmon, it really meant "overcooked." As it turned out, I was right to worry: The chunks of salmon had the grainy well-done texture that every seafood lover dreads. The adobo marinade was okay—it was pleasantly salty and savory, but the flavor profile didn't go much deeper than that.

Thankfully, the salmon texture was mostly masked by all the other ingredients: The tang of the pickled onion, the creamy guacamole to complement the shell, the sweet and spicy pineapple with a hint of cinnamon, and an herbaceous dash of oregano. The flavors sound a bit odd together, and are a bit strong on their own, but when combined they balance each other to form a cohesive whole.

I'm a sucker for innovation. These tacos were far from perfect, but there's a lot I can forgive when a restaurant is willing to try something different. While I'm not in a rush to return, eventually the call of ricetadas will be enough to draw me back in.

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)

Friday, November 9, 2018

Event Bites: Rum Socials at Oceana

Over the past couple of months, Amy and I went to a couple of Rum Socials put on by the Catamaran Resort in PB, in association with Malahat Spirits, a local rum distillery.

Tickets were $35 a person—not bad considering events like this often cost double or triple that. Located on the back patio of Oceana Coastal Kitchen, they both featured live music, a rum tasting, two signature cocktails and a seemingly endless supply of hors d'oeuvres. (I dream of one day being able to spell "hors d'oeuvres" on my first try.)

Let's get all the drinks outta the way first. To be honest, I'm not as discerning about alcohol as I am about food, but I do still think rums we tasted were excellent. The Malahat co-founder stressed to us how, unlike most other rums, theirs are designed for sipping neat, and though I can't see myself doing that, these were definitely much smoother. First was a cabernet-barrel-aged rum, simple and lightly sweet. The second was clean and bright with light citrus notes. Finally, my personal favorite was the spiced rum, full of vanilla and cinnamon flavors.

Cannibal coladas at Catamaran Rum SocialOur mojitos at the first event featured the barrel-aged rum. They were sweet, fresh and deliciously strong. The "cannibal coladas" at the second event were equally tasty and a bit more interesting. It was a piña colada using the spiced rum and mango purée. The result was tasted tropical and sweet but also pumpkin-spiced, which sounds bizarre, but somehow it worked out great.

Phew. Now that those pesky drinks are dealt with, we can get to the food.

(I know, I'm weird. I just like food I guess.)

Balsamic bacon fig endive at Catamaran Rum Social
The first event back in August was probably the better of the two. It featured a table with charcuterie board and smoked trout hand rolls. Both delicious, and I'm not even a big smoked fish fan. My favorite passed bite of the evening was probably the endive with bacon-wrapped fig, topped with balsamic and creme fraiche. There's a reason this type of hors d'eouvre is popular to the point of being cliché: They work really well. The salt of the bacon plus the fruitiness of the fig and the tang of the toppings are swept up in the fresh crunch of the endive to create a mini masterpiece.

(Fun fact: "hors d'eouvre" is not pronounced "horse dover." French is dumb.)

Dessert was a fantastic array of petit fours, but there were a couple of highlights for me. The pyramid of chocolate mousse was rich in its chocolate shell, coated with finely chopped nuts. The macaron was perfectly packed with sweet, toasty vanilla and a hint of coconut.

The second social was a bit less impressive, but still a good time. It was pirate themed, so each table had a sprinkle of chocolate coins and a sugar skull centerpiece.

The table setup served sliders with roasted suckling pig, pickled onion and sweet chili sauce. The meat was tender and moist, but the golden-crisp skin was the real star: full of melty, collagenous textures and savory flavors. The passed bites were a little less varied but still tasty. The salmon puffs may have been the best, filled with cream cheese and garnished chives, like a posh, fluffy lox and bagel. The andouille crostini was a bit dull and one-note, as the sausage was the only prominent flavor. I did like the vegetables with crisped rice, which had a nice vinegar component and a pleasing crunch from the crisped rice.

Sadly, there were no dessert bites this time (aside from the coins, which we eagerly plundered)—probably because our tickets came with a Mission Bay cocktail cruise, and they didn't want to spoil us too much. It was a weeknight, though, so we cut out early like the wet blankets that we are.

I've gotten more than a few culinary event emails hawking tickets for several hundred dollars a pop. These Rum Socials weren't exactly black tie galas, but they still let you enjoy some great food and drink while feeling fancy for a relative bargain. I certainly hope the Catamaran decides to put on a few more next year.

Score: 7.5 out of 10 (Great)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Happy Hour Bite: Dirty Birds

Chicken wings are the pinnacle of bar food: You can eat them with your hands, they're shareable and they're great with a beer. But there's one place in San Diego that has taken that pinnacle and airlifted some extra soil on top to create (*gasp*) an even higher pinnacle. That place is Dirty Birds.

Thirty-seven flavors. Take that in for a minute. Dirty Birds has thirty-seven discrete flavors of wings. I've been here many times, and I still haven't even tried half of them. (The ones I have tried, I've catalogued in a spreadsheet like the insufferable nerd that I am.) They're also half off during happy hour (weekdays 3–6pm), meaning you can get 10 wings for a very reasonable $7.50.

Dirty Blue and Seoul Wing, plus token veggies.
I paid a visit the other day and got two of my favorites. First was the Dirty Blue, a mix of a classic buffalo sauce and house-made blue cheese dressing. This is the most brilliant innovation in wing technology since the airfoil. Blue cheese already goes great with wings, so why not bake it in (literally) from the get-go? The result has both the spicy vinegar kick of the buffalo and the creamy pungency of the blue cheese. Every bite makes you crave the next.

I should note that they've also come up with a couple of other wonderfully balanced sauce blends. The Dirty Ranch uses ranch dressing for something a little less sharp and more creamy. The Flaming Honey Mustard's combination is a bit sweeter and also slightly spicier, probably due to a slight bite from the mustard.

My other choice, the Seoul Wing, is one of the more interesting flavors on the menu. It's a distinctly Asian-influenced sauce with notes of garlic, soy sauce, teriyaki and sesame, plus a firm but tempered dose of chile. It all comes together in an awesome amalgam of sweet, savory and spicy.

There aren't many restaurants that do one thing as thoroughly and as successfully as Dirty Birds does wings. While not every sauce is a winner, most of them are—and the absurd number of options ensures that just about anyone can find several that suit their taste.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

Friday, November 2, 2018

Quick Bite: Garlic Shack

Chimichurri fries at Garlic Shack
[Insert vampire joke here]
The restaurant business is tough—and arguably the toughest part to nail is consistency. To maintain a fully stocked inventory, professional customer service and top-notch food quality is an incredible feat of logistics, one that most diners seldom stop to think about.

That's because when a restaurant is run well, they shouldn't have to. Unfortunately Garlic Shack, unfortunately, broke that cardinal rule on the two occasions I tried it.

I walk though the door of the Shack for the first time. It has a funky, grungy aesthetic that matches its name: Wooden picnic-table style seating, corrugated metal sheeting as an accent wall. The words "GARLIC SHACK" are stenciled everywhere. I can kinda dig it.

When I go to order the spicy belly banh mi (#sorrynotsorry), the friendly teen behind the counter informs me they just ran out—like, the minute before I came in. Oops. I reluctantly scan the menu and order the chimichurri steak fries.

They're delicious. The fries themselves are crunchy, greasy and wonderful, topped with a great chimichurri packed full of herbs and vinegar tang. The cheese has that satisfyingly gooey, stretchy consistency. Oh, and of course, there are eleven metric tons of garlic—almost enough to counteract the negative health effects I'm sustaining by consuming a pile of cheese, meat and fried potato. The steak is well-seasoned—even the thyme comes through—but it's cooked nearly well done rather than medium as I asked for. Still, I depart from the Shack contented, with garlic on my breath and optimism in my heart.

I return the next week for another banh mi attempt. Incredibly, it's the same story: They're still out of the pork belly. I ask if there's a specific time this item is available, but the chef apologetically explains through the ticket window that no, this is "just the way it goes," because "everything is made to order." Since this is true of any decent restaurant, I find this rationale... confusing. And anyway, shouldn't you be sure to have enough of any ingredient that's key to three of your menu items?

Korean beef noodle bowl at Garlic Shack
It's not as good as it looks. Curse my photography skills.
Halfheartedly, I ask for Korean beef noodle bowl. It's... well, it's not great. The tiny spoon I'm given is comically insufficient for the enormous bowl of soup. The noodles are clumped together. The broth is okay, meaty and spicy but quite salty. The bowl feels like it's missing something, and looking back over the menu I realize why: The enoki mushrooms, bamboo shoots and garlic chips are all mysteriously absent.

I don't bother asking about them. I know what the answer will be.

Believe or not, I wouldn't be surprised if I had a good time at Garlic Shack if I ever returned—it's just that the experience is just too hit and miss to know for sure. Their problem isn't that they're incapable of making good food. It's that they haven't learned how to be a restaurant.

Score: 4 out of 10 (Mediocre)