Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: The Blind Burro

A lot of deals for Restaurant Week aren't really deals, if you take the time to do the math. Try comparing the items on the prix fixe menu to the prices on the normal menu, and you start to realize that you're actually not saving anything, you're just having your options needlessly limited. Finding a good deal at a good restaurant takes a bit of research. So after some digging, I stumbled on The Blind Burro's offering: A three-course prix fixe dinner for $20? One where they don't try to up-sell you on adding truffle and lobster for another fifty bucks? Yes please; I'll take two.

Despite its location a mere block from the teeming Gaslamp Quarter, the vibe here is surprisingly subdued. Though we did go on a weekday, I got the sense that things never get too frenzied even on a busy Saturday night. The rustic-chic wood furnishings are punctuated with strings of hanging lights and black-and-white photos of donkeys (natch).

Since dinner was so cheap, how could we not order drinks? (Ahh, so that's how they get you!) Amy ordered a Michelada, which tasted more or less like a Corona with dashes of salt and other ingredients thrown in. Good if you like beer... but you could also just get a beer. My Verano Punch wasn't bad, but very much a typical Very Sweet Drink. It had a berry-like flavor, presumably from the pomegranate syrup, but lacked much of the passion fruit or basil mentioned in the ingredients.

We opted to keep it light for our appetizers—the right decision, in retrospect, as the accompanying tortilla chips were bountiful and ultra-thick. They were impressively crunchy and a bit greasy but not over-salted. The ceviche was indeed light and tart from the lime, and included boatload of shrimp plus a little scallop for good measure. The guacamole was good, nothing unusual, with plenty of onion and a welcome sprinkle of micro cilantro.

Next came the entrée course, which for Restaurant Week was necessarily the taco course. My al pastor tacos were filled with tender pork, well-spiced in their red chile adobo marinade. The sweet pineapple chunks were a welcome counterpoint to the savory elements, as was the tomatillo-avocado crema. The side of Mexican street corn was okay in small doses, but became overwhelming after a few bites due to the hot sauce and the sheer sodium overload of the cotija.

Amy's Mahi mahi tacos were also tasty, with a crisp batter and soft, flaky fish. The only downside was the overload of veggies; the pile of cabbage, onion and carrot escabeche practically smothered the mahi mahi. The side of vegetable slaw (a bit redundant in retrospect) was vinegar-tart and a bit spicy, full of peppers, carrot and corn.

By this point I was nearly full to bursting, so I was bracing myself for the churros—not traditionally a particularly light dessert. These were the softest, most delicately melt-in-your mouth churros I’ve ever had. Still crisp on the outside, but just beneath the surface? Smooth and fluffy as cotton candy. Naturally they were covered in a thick layer of that delicious cinnamon-sugar mixture (which we all know is 99% sugar). They came with a creme anglaise that added a nice element of creaminess, but wasn’t too sweet—it didn’t need to be.

In many ways, The Blind Burro is a pretty typical Mexican restaurant: casual, cheap (for the Gaslamp at least), and heavy on the tacos and tequila. Occasionally, though, as with those churros and al pastor tacos, a higher level of quality shines through. Use that potential, BB, and someday you'll achieve greatness.

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Quick Bite: Cali Banh Mi

A couple months back, Kearny Mesa staple Cali Banh Mi opened their second location in east PB. Since then I've stopped by probably three or four times, and on the whole I like what I've seen.

The interior is small but chic, with lots of natural light and a white and gold color scheme. There's also a little side patio to hang out on, which seems nice, though honestly this is more of a to-go spot for me.

I've gotten the savory BBQ pork banh mi a couple of times. It's only four bucks, and while it's not massive sandwich, it's just the right amount to fill me up. Visually, the red and green colors from the pork and veggies are bright and appealing nestled in the light and crunchy baguette. The pork is sweet and savory, with definite notes of black pepper sprinkled in and a touch of garlic aioli spread. The foliage is plentiful here: cilantro, jalapeño, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon. I would have preferred a little less cucumber, and the pickled veggies are actually pretty mild and could have used just a bit more sharpness. For the most part, though, it's a fresh and delicious lunch option.

On those days where I feel like I deserve the royal treatment, the surf & turf banh mi (for the kingly sum of eight dollars) is another way to go. The other fixings are the same, but the pork is swapped for ribeye and black pepper shrimp. The savory, meaty flavors from the ribeye and the sweet, buttery seafood are a great combination. The ribeye could benefit from a lighter cook, but that's my only real gripe.

Though Cali Banh Mi is near one of the busiest intersections of San Diego, it's in a slightly odd location without much else around it to attract business. At least Muscle Mill, the previous fast casual joint to occupy the space, had the advantage of catering to the nearby gym. Hopefully it manages to do well there, since it's a simple, dependable lunch choice for days on the go.

Score: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Review: La Catrina

It's kind of scary how often restaurants close—even great ones. North Park's La Catrina recently opened in what was once the lively and inventive casual spot Tostadas... which was previously the incredible mad science dessert lab Swoon. When I spotted a new and interesting Mexican place opening, I knew I had to come out in a show of support.

The were seated at a corner table in the brightly colored, Catrina-themed space. The two waitresses were highly attentive—probably because we were the only ones in the whole joint. I got a traditional lime margarita, which was eye-poppingly intense, not just from the alcohol but also the sugar and tartness. That plus the salt and Tajin spice on the rim created a broad spectrum of flavor which, while delicious, could actually have benefitted from some watering down. Amy enjoyed her Mexican Mule, which had plenty of carbonation and a nice light infusion of ginger.

We ordered four small plates to share, all of which were wonderful. I want to pause for a minute, though, to talk about salt, because this is a place that knows how to use it. Salt enhances other flavors, and in my experience the more of it you add, the better—until suddenly it crosses a threshold and overpowers everything else. I asked Amy after the meal whether anything had seemed especially salty. She said it hadn't—and that's exactly as it should be. All four dishes had tons of salt, but you won't notice unless you're looking for it, because La Catrina sneaks it in to deepen and amplify their flavors without ever crossing the line.

We started off with a duo of meat-heavy plates and a pile of tortillas. The carnitas and octopus was an unusual combo that worked. Both were tender in their own ways, the carnitas savory with crunchy edges and the octopus smoky and satisfying. It was topped with hearty mushrooms, cheese and pickled onion which made for a great stick-to-your-bones taco. The plates also came with two lovely salsas, a creamy jalapeño salsa and a hot and garlicky chile de árbol that thankfully lacked the bitter burnt taste árbol salsas often have.

The other plate, the gringa, was full of crisp bits of al pastor complete with big sweet chunks of pineapple. The cheese and silky guacamole rounded out a delicious if heavy first round of food (which probably should have come after the seafood dishes).

The tostada de atún azul was piled high atop a thick, sturdy wonton-style tortilla shell. The crunch from the wonton and fried veggies played nicely off the tenderness of the fresh bluefin tuna. The whole stack was infused with citrus, herbs and a tangy red wine vinaigrette, with the ever-present undertone of salt completing the profile.

Best of all may have been the salmon tiradito, consisting of delicate salmon sashimi tossed in soy and and citrus and topped with fried onion. It was mouthwatering and savory, the cucumber and avocado serving as lighter counterpoints to the crispy onion.

I worry about La Catrina, as I did its predecessors. Granted, Wednesdays aren't typically busy nights for dining, but it's still alarming that not a single other patron came in during our entire meal. With only a few small missteps and a lot to rave about, I'll certainly be stopping by after work for a Taco Tuesday or their 3-to-6 happy hour. I may not be able to keep places like this afloat on my own, but at least I can do my part.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Some Resolutions

Happy... 201g, I guess?
Seeing as it's a new year and all, I thought I'd pause and reflect on how things are going, and how I'd like to improve going forward. Here are some of my food year's resolutions. (Resolution #1: Fewer lazy food puns.)

100 posts. As long as I have time and stay motivated, this seems like a reasonable goal. This averages to just under two a week. That's extremely doable!

More Mexican. To my eternal shame, I really don't know all that much about San Diego's impressive array of Mexican restaurants, especially the hole in the wall spots. I have never been to Lolita's! Nary a single "Berto's"! If I am to protect my world-renowned (er... would you believe "house-renowned"?) reputation, all this must change.

Be frugal. This dovetails nicely with the previous goal. Other oft-cheap cuisine categories like Chinese and ramen will be a big help. Groupon will also be my friend here, as well as the Passport Dining card I got for Christmas. Of course, that's not to say I won't splurge when the situation demands it!

Tell a story. Food descriptions are undoubtedly pretty important. What I've been trying to do, and will continue to try, is to embed them in a narrative. People like food, but they get invested in stories. Even one as simple as a hole-in-the-wall joint exceeding all expectations creates an underdog to root for.

Get meaner. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But I do have a tendency to give restaurants a bit too much benefit of the doubt. I often find myself hoping I've found a new favorite, when of course that will seldom be true. While I haven't done a formal statistical analysis, I strongly suspect that the quality of restaurants would fit a bell curve distribution—that is, most restaurants are average, with a few bad ones and a few great ones on the margins. Sure, even average restaurant food is pretty good, and my research leads me to better places than if I were to choose at random. Still, I'm pledging to tell it like it is when a restaurant doesn't live up to expectations.

...And there we have it. Now I just need to avoid breaking these in the first two weeks like everybody else. Happy 2019!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Review: Coin Haus

Why the dog, you ask? The better question is why not?
Coin Haus isn't about food. In fact, it's so not about food that nearly half the menu comes from its next-door neighbor, Bo-Beau. Instead, this inventive concept from the ubiquitous Cohn Group revolves around two other staples of life: beer and arcade games.

The centerpiece of Coin Haus is a safety-orange shipping container housing fifty (yes, fifty) self-serve taps—mostly beer, but also a few wines and even cocktails. Each tap has a screen with a description of the drink and the price per ounce. Just grab a glass, place your tab-tracking card on the screen, and pour.

The system is clever and seamless—it's like small plates, but for beer. (Small glasses?) We sampled probably fifteen different drinks between the two of us. Some of the highlights, bearing in mind that I'm not necessarily a beer snob (er, connoisseur):

  • Karl Strauss' peanut butter cup porter had a good peanut butter scent and wasn't as bitter as I've found a lot of porters to be.
  • The chocolate coffee stout was pleasantly bittersweet with a coffee aftertaste.
  • I usually enjoy the berry flavors of lambics, but their blueberry lambic was mouth-puckeringly sour and had an unpleasant aftertaste reminiscent of a barnyard.
  • I tried one of their three featured cocktails, the Sabe bourbon cinnamon maple old fashioned. It was oddly carbonated and had a very sweet foretaste with the cinnamon coming on later and the maple almost an afterthought. Aggressively festive but good in small enough doses.
  • Superfood Coffee Co.'s Norwegian Cold Brew was very tasty, creamy and not too strong—maybe even a little fruity.

The range of games is relatively small compared to a full arcade, but they do have a healthy selection of essentials like Frogger, Joust and Contra. They were a blast to play—sometimes literally: I tried out the legendary light gun shooter Duck Hunt for the first time ever. We played two-player Super Mario Bros—significantly harder on an arcade setup! We even snuck in a round of foosball (which, in case you're wondering, I dominated).

They're, uh... not much to look at. But good!
Since this is a food blog, I should probably mention the food at some point. (Novel, I know!) The fried chicken sliders (courtesy of Bo-Beau) were absolutely delicious—and not just delicious "for a pub." They nailed the essential crispy exterior, while the chicken itself was steamy and moist. It was all slathered in a tangy and herbaceous sauce that I wished there was even more of.

Amy's reuben on rye was just adequate, probably because it was made in-house and not next door. The sandwich was crisply thin-pressed with some good salty pastrami, but it literally came with a packet of Newman's Own thousand island dressing and a bag of Lay's. Pretty underwhelming to say the least.

If you want to eat well here, you definitely need to order off the Bo-Beau section of the menu—or maybe even just eat at Bo-Beau first and come for drinks and games after. But though the food is a bit of an afterthought, it's almost justifiable when the other attractions are this entertaining.

Score: 8 out of 10 (Superior)