Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review: Ambrogio15 and the Quest for the Perfect Pizza

The trouble with perfecting something simple is there are only a few factors under your control, and only so far you can go with them. Pizza, at its heart, is three things: dough, sauce, cheese. Sure, you can add to that base formula, but at a certain point you're just gilding the lily. So how do you hone and refine this handful of ingredients to create a pizza that will stand above all others? Not many pizza joints even try to tackle this question. Ambrogio15 in PB is one of the few places that might just have an answer.

Let's ignore our carpaccio appetizer. Sure, beef and parmesan has no right to be this light and fresh, brightened by citrus, bitter arugula and the salty pop of capers. But it's just a sideshow. A tantalizing distraction.

Let's forget the tiramisu en coppa. Yes it's tasty, with lots of sweet mascarpone cream, Nutella and crunchy coffee-infused ladyfingers, but small enough to keep you craving more. But it's not why you're here.

You want pizza. You demand it. Milan-style, razor thin, with top-shelf ingredients hauled across the globe from Italy.

How about the burrata e prosciutto crudo? The crust is impossibly thin, deserving of an architectural award for standing up to the ingredients with only minor flopping. San Marzano tomato sauce that's sweet, almost fruity. A layer of mozzarella fior di latte—literally, "flower of milk"—that's just as sumptuous as it sounds. A lush, creamy expanse of burrata from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. And an authentic 20-month-aged prosciutto di Parma, salty and intense. It's every region's specialty—what generations have put their heart and soul into. Put it together on one pizza, and you feel like a kid stealing from the cookie jar: Am I really allowed to eat this?

Amy ordered the salamino piccante pizza, which is its own revelation. Despite the name, it's really not spicy, but the salame is delicious, thickly sliced and satisfying. The rosemary is a perfect touch of piney herbaceousness that could easily have been overpowering, but instead is perfectly balanced. I was tempted to have more, but that would've meant trading away more of my own.

Have I found the pinnacle of pizza? There are other contenders, of course. There's the remarkable BIGA downtown, farmer's market dark horse Cucina Caprese, and undoubtedly others I haven't discovered. But in truth, maybe I'm too fixated on perfection. For now, I can rest easy knowing there's at at least one place I can turn to satisfy even my strongest pizza cravings.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Quick Bite: Pho Cow Cali Is the World's Fastest Decent Sit-Down Restaurant

Sorry, no time for a better photo.
15 minutes, remember?
Sometimes, there's just no time in the day for a decent meal—or so I thought, until Mira Mesa's Pho Cow Cali proved otherwise.

There are days when I only have a half hour between appointments for a late lunch. Factor in driving, and it seems like an impossibly narrow sliver of time—yet Cali makes it happen. The logistics of it are a thing of beauty. Let's walk through a meal together (with some recommended musical accompaniment):

2:26pm: I'm in and seated. I'm handed a menu, but I already know what I want: the #44, rice vermicelli with egg rolls and BBQ pork. I double-check the menu to confirm the number.

2:27: The waiter is back with a glass of water. I order and take a quick restroom break.

2:29: I return just as lunch arrives, a steaming bowl of noodles, meat and veggies. I ask for the check right away, then quickly slather the vermicelli in red chili sauce and dig in.

2:35: My check is paid, the entire transaction complete in under ten minutes. The only limiting factor is my slow eating.

2:41: I get up to leave. As exit, I check my phone, then double-take in disbelief: It's been 15 minutes since I walked in.

The kicker is that the food is really quite good. The bowl is piping hot, filled to the brim. Rice noodles are hard to get wrong, sure—especially not with a half gallon of chili sauce. The pork, though, is savory with a hint of sweetness, fat expertly rendered into tenderness and topped with scallions. Only a couple of slightly chewy pieces keep it from being perfect. The egg roll has that delicious, subtle tangy funk that egg rolls often have. It's satisfying and crisp, though the outer layer could do with a little more crunch. The sweet pickled carrot and daikon is a punchy contrasting flavor.

Pho Cow Cali is remarkable not just for speed and relative quality, but its consistency, too. If I go in on a mission, I'll be out in 15 minutes every time like clockwork. Who says you can't eat well on your lunch break?

Score: 7 out of 10

Friday, February 1, 2019

Dish Spotlight: Spicy Sesame Ramen at Tajima

Spicy sesame tonkotsu ramen at Tajima Ramen
A rainy day in a bowl.
Has it really been four months since I've been to a Tajima? It's a fixture of San Diego's landscape now, with so many locations that you'd practically think they were Starbucks.

The North Park location was bustling even on a Thursday afternoon. It started to pour shortly after I got in, as if the weather were anticipating my meal. Shortly after being seated, I got what I always get: the spicy sesame tonkotsu ramen with added pork chashu.

This is not a bowl designed for everyday eating. The broth is so creamy and rich, it almost makes you feel guilty. It's piled with so many toppings you have to work to break through to the noodles. It's packed with so much sodium you'll have to swear off salt for a week.

And still, it's all so worth it.

Every ingredient is beautifully calibrated. Pork bones are boiled for twelve straight hours and combined with sesame and chile to create a broth that's spicy, unctuous and satisfying. The noodles are delicate but still retain a robust springiness. The half egg is always cooked medium—never too runny or too solid. The garlic chips are crunchy but never burnt-tasting, as they often are elsewhere. Now and then the occasional note of toasted sesame shines through. The ground pork is savory, heavy on salt but not overwhelmingly. There are just enough veggies to trick your brain into thinking there's some nutritional value here: Buttery bok choy, ocean-infused nori, crisp green onion, lightly bitter sprouts.

And then there's the chashu. Theoretically, it's an optional add-on, but in practice it's an absolute requirement. Pork belly is the star of many a ramen bowl, but this incarnation is just unreal. It offers no resistance as you bite in. Time stops. The world falls away. And you're left with only the dark, deep, rich, meaty, golden caramelized flavor.

When you combine all these ingredients, you have the perfect meal to brood over on a cold, dark day. You can listen to the rain patter on the roof as you let the warmth flow through your body, banishing the chill from your toes. Just sit, relax, and eat your fill. This is a big bowl, so there's no shame in getting a to-go container—chances are, you'll be keen to savor every drop.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)