Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dish Spotlight: Carne Cruda Asada at Juniper & Ivy

Little Italy's Juniper & Ivy is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It ticks a lot of boxes for me: A wide array of unique small plates, a great cocktail list, an inventive menu that changes throughout the year—and most importantly, a few permanent menu items that are among my favorite dishes, period. One of those is the carne cruda asada.

Not-so-quick aside: Leading up to our recent visit, I'd planned to profile a different one of their mainstays, the incredible yodel cake. Its wild combination of textures (crunch! powder! ice cream!) and flavors (coffee! chocolate! strawberry!) mingle and combine in wonderful ways. It's a perfect dessert... but on our visit they'd ruined it, tampering with the flavor profile to create a far-inferior apple and matcha version. When we told the waiter as much, he confided: "You're preaching to the choir." Turns out much of the staff is lobbying to get the original back. Fingers crossed!

Now, back to the topic at hand.

The carne cruda asada has no right be as good as it is—not with ingredients that are so seemingly simple. It's just toast stacked with steak tartare, jalapeño, cotija cheese, quail egg and scallion, sliced into four pieces for sharing. And yet...

Flashback: The year is 2014. We're visiting J&I for the first time, soon after its grand opening, and I spot an odd and intriguing tartare toast on the menu. We order. I grab a slice. The toast is thick-cut, hardy enough to support a huge helping of tartare, so tender it's creamy, infused with jalapeño heat. The adorably tiny sunny-side-up quail eggs amplify that luscious texture. It's like the perfect savory breakfast, but I'm having it for dinner. A smattering of scallions and hint of lime and provide the springiness needed to lighten the heavy steak-and-eggs combo. And finally, the cotija supplies the critical salt element that unites the rest into a Mexican-influenced masterpiece. Months after this first encounter, I continue to think back on it longingly.

Here in 2018, the cruda asada is still one of the best dishes in San Diego. No outrageous flavors, just subtle, hearty and satisfying. It's the first dish to make me really love steak tartare, the kind of dish where every ingredient has an essential role to play. A true instant classic—let's just hope they don't go adding apples and matcha powder.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Happy Hour Bite: Trade Winds Tavern

Most gastropubs are, let's face it, a little drab. Stepping into one, you can generally muddled brownish-gray tones, a few kegs, maybe some industrial design touches—and that's on a good day. Trade Winds Tavern, though, has a certain artistic flair. Driving by on Balboa in Kearny Mesa, the colorful punk mural outside catches your eye instantly, drawing you in through raw curiosity. Inside the theme continues: a wall painted with cyclops jellyfish, a giant game table, and... okay, some industrial decor.

I come after work for their food happy hour with surprising frequency. The other day I got the elote and the salt and pepper chicken wings. The corn, though a bit on the puny side, was sweet and pleasingly charred, doused in mayo, cotija and a little citrus. The cheese made it satisfyingly salty and funky. Adding some chili powder, though, would've brought an authentic spicy edge.

The wings were thickly battered and crunchy, as any good salt and pepper wing should be. The main flavor I got was most definitely salt, though the red pepper flakes and scallions occasionally asserted themselves. So while the texture was on point, I was thankful for the accompanying hot sauce to add some heat and flavor variation.

To be frank, the food at Trade Winds isn't mind-blowing. In fact, they've taken a couple of my preferred items off the happy hour menu. Yet I still find myself stopping by. I think it comes down to a combination of convenience, some interesting comfort food, and an offbeat vibe. A little creativity goes a long way.

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Review: North Italia

As the family's restaurant concierge for Sunday lunches, I always find it hard to pick places that balance everyone's preferences: Somewhere interesting, not far away, a sit-down place, reasonably priced, not too brunchy... and, of course, somewhere with great food. When places like North Italia open up, it makes my job just a little bit easier.

Walking into the place felt immediately comfortable; tons of natural light pours in to illuminate the warm wood tones. We ordered drinks right away. Amy's Julietta was a light fun cocktail, bright and floral from the elderflower liqueur and slightly fizzy from the prosecco. There was a hint of ginger infused in the vodka, but nothing too assertive. My dad and I both gravitated to the apple bourbon sour—he takes after me, I guess. It was tart and delicious, an apple-cinnamon treat with a light bourbon bite. I savored every drop.

To start we shared what turned out to be a very elegant take on calamari. The thick crispy batter would make it a heavy appetizer, but it was tossed with peppery arugula and lightened considerably by the grilled lemon and vinaigrette. It was almost more like a citrusy salad punctuated with rings of tasty crunch. A definite winner.

The Caesar was one of the best I've tasted. A combination of romaine and pleasingly bitter radicchio was tossed in garlicky dressing that didn't shy away from its anchovy pungency. Best of all were the croutons, which managed to remain light and crunchy despite being soaked in the dressing. It was topped a liberal shaving of grana padano to drive home the richness of the salad.

I got the prosciutto pizza as my entree, which had a fig base as its "sauce," and was topped with arugula, goat cheese, mission figs and a bit of parmesan. All of this made for a lot of delicious sweet and salty elements. The goat cheese had a creamy, almost burrata-like consistency, and the prosciutto... well, prosciutto is always great. However, the double dose of fig did make the pizza a little too sweet; either the sauce or the topping would have sufficed. I also missed the acidity that comes from something like a classic tomato sauce.

Dad's bacon and egg pizza was the quintessential great breakfast pizza. Though though the bacon could have been crisped up a bit, it was pleasantly creamy, with some nice earthy asparagus to make everything officially Healthy. Others at the table concluded this was the best entree of the four; I'm hesitant to give it that title when there's pasta in the running.

On that front: My mom got the radiatori—so named because they literally resemble miniature radiators. The shape, it turns out, was perfect for capturing the delicious parmesan cream sauce, which was rich but tempered a touch of citrus. It came with tender short rib meat to round out a wonderfully comforting dish. Amy's chicken pesto was also very tasty, though not too unusual. Although it was cream-based, the taste of the basil, herbs and toasted pine nuts easily shined through. The chicken would have been a bit dry were it not for the extra sauce to smother it in.

There were a lot of successful dishes here, and only a few missteps. Maybe the most telling detail, though, is that my dad—the choosiest member of our Sunday posse—gave it his blessing. With that crucial endorsement, I've officially added North Italia to the Sunday rotation. Maybe I should send them a plaque or something.

Score: 8 out of 10 (Superior)

Monday, December 3, 2018

Quick Bite: Monkey King

What exactly is Monkey King? A lot of things, it seems: A cocktail bar, a dim sum spot, and a pan-Asian restaurant. It's cool, trendy, and just about the least authentic place you can go for some Chinese food. Amy and I decided to venture into the wilds of the Gaslamp Quarter this past week to try it out.

The interior is decorated in a funky jungle theme, complete with mock trees above the central bar and a "no evil" monkeys motif. Since it was a quiet Wednesday, we were immediately seated in a comfy side booth without any problem.

The most exciting culinary flourish of the night came right at the beginning. They put down a plate of crispy fried wonton skins and what looked from the texture like one of those cloyingly sweet chile sauces. I was surprised, though, to find that a bright and unusual blend of flavors somewhere between a sweet red chile sauce and a salsa. It sounds bizarre, but it was actually the perfect balance of tangy and slightly sweet with a spicy kick. When I inquired, the waiter explained that it was their house mézé (?) sauce, a pomegranate base blended with herbs, Fresno chiles and white wine vinegar. Weird, yet wonderful.

Our drinks were tasty though not too unusual. Amy's Salt Collins was, as advertised, a bit salty from the salted plum-infused rum, but was otherwise very much a Tom Collins, right down to the touches of citrus. The Mai Tai I had was tropical and classic, with a tinge of almondy orgeat in the aftertaste.

Since we changed our appetizer order from calamari to hamachi sashimi. The tender slices were laid in a base of ginger soy and topped with a basic seaweed salad and red chiles. It was fairly simple yet mouthwateringly good, layered with toasted sesame and a heaping dose of heat.

Cashew chicken isn't exciting to look at
so here's hamachi instead.
The entrées weren't bad, but seemed to be stuck in a creative rut. My cashew chicken was lightly spicy and a little sweet, with cashews toasted to bring out their nutty flavor. I appreciated the delicately sautéed scallions and the fresh crunch of water chestnut. Nothing much to complain about, but then, nothing to rave about either. Amy's honey lemongrass chicken was, in a word, boring. That's not to say it was flavorless—it was mildly honey-sweet with strong onion overtones—just that it was lacking in complexity. Even the lemongrass was MIA.

There are certainly dishes to like at Monkey King, but it seems the optimal strategy is to skip the too-conventional entrées and double down on the drinks and dim sum (which, really, is just their word for appetizers). And put that sauce on everything, because why not?

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)