Nopalito (San Francisco, CA)

Nopalito
306 Broderick St
San Francisco, CA 94117
Dining date: 11/30/14

signage

Nopalito is the sister restaurant to ever-popular Nopa, located just a few blocks away (though there is a second location of Nopalito in the Inner Sunset). Whereas Nopa serves New American cuisine (that pork chop!), Nopalito serves up modernized Mexican fare. Tacos, quesadillas, ceviche and other Mexican flavors – they’re all here with a slight twist.

I really enjoy Nopa so naturally a visit to Nopalito was due. We came here on my last evening in SF during the Thanksgiving holiday on an evening when it was pouring rain. The rain clearly helped convince people to stay home as we had only a minimal wait for a table on this Sunday evening.

interior

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Guerrilla Tacos (Los Angeles, CA)

Guerrilla Tacos
826 E 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Dining dates: 7/12/13, 5/2/14, 5/3/14

taco stand

Guerrilla Tacos began almost two years ago and has consistently generated positive attention for its unique approach to tacos. There are so many taquerias in Los Angeles it’s difficult to stand out, but Guerrilla Tacos has done it with its upscale, modern approach to the casual taco. Chef Wes Avila went to culinary school and is classically trained; leveraging many of those principles, he’s really upped the game for the casual taco. Avila uses tortillas as a vehicle to showcase top-notch seasonal ingredients and meats in a wide variety of ways.

The menu changes constantly; I’ve seen few taquerias with such a varied menu. One day may have octopus, Proscuitto di Parma, and fresh squash tacos; the next may have lamb shank and oxtail. Diver scallops, sashimi-grade fish and live sea urchin are commonplace on the menu. Sure the tacos are more expensive than most in LA, but the quality of ingredients are clearly a differentiating factor. A meal can still be had for under $15, maybe $20 for bigger appetites.

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Mexicali Taco & Co. (Los Angeles, CA)

Mexicali Taco & Co.
702 N. Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 2/7/12

mexicali sign

I first heard about Mexicali in the early part of last year, when LA Taco was hosting a popular vote for best taco in Los Angeles. They ended up winning that competition, and I made my first visit to the taco stand (located in a parking lot at 1st & Beaudry downtown) shortly thereafter. I immediately became a convert and cursed myself for not hearing about them earlier, given I lived just a couple of blocks away.

My weekly trips (sometimes more, sometimes less) became part of a routine until, all of the sudden, the operator of the parking lot decided to end their partnership. It was a most inopportune time given their burgeoning popularity, but just a few months later it has led to this: the brick & mortar location of Mexicali Taco is set to open, a couple blocks from their original setup. What’s in store? Regular hours (lunch service!), less smoke, and the same grub many in the city have been craving during their hiatus.

The grand opening is set for Feb. 15th, but I stopped by during a soft opening for friends & family. The new restaurant is clearly a stark contrast from the old parking lot with bright lighting and ample seating. An open kitchen allows generous views of the action to anyone walking by.

mexicali front

mexicali kitchen

The menu is pretty similar to before with a few additions. Prices are nominally higher, no doubt to help cover the cost of rent and overhead.

mexicali menu

Like the old parking lot setup, a variety of salsas and other toppings are on-hand to allow customization of the tacos.

DSC_0154

DSC_0156

A few drink offerings were available too, including a pretty nice horchata (and a barley version).

drinks

In our group, cachetadas were a popular choice. The tortillas were grilled until very crisp, having the texture of a large nacho. They were then topped with a choice of meat, cheese and a chipotle aioli.

Chorizo and chicken cachetadas

cachetadas

Chorizo cachetada

chorizo cachetada

Carne asada cachetada

carne cachetada

fried egg cachetada

A new option is to top any item with a fried egg, ranchero style. What a nice touch. The texture of the tortilla was the difference-maker, being extremely crispy, while the meat, cheese and spicy aioli made for some tasty bites.

A couple of new items were the Cantonese-Baja style peppers and nachos. I shied away from the potentially spicy pepper but did go for nachos, topped with a choice of meat, cheese and a salsa with peppers. Probably the easiest dish for sharing and pretty well done.

Cantonese-Baja style peppers

pepper

Chorizo nachos

nachos

Perhaps the simplest of items and also one of the ones that put Mexicali on the map – the carne asada taco features a choice of corn or flour tortilla (the flour tortilla is brought in from Mexico) topped with chopped up steak. That’s it. The salsa/topping bar offers a host of options to customize the taco to individual liking.

Carne asada taco

carne asada taco

My favorite item happens to be the vampiro, a chicken vampiro to be specific. It looks like a quesadilla on the outside; when opened up it reveals melted cheese, garlic sauce, and a wonderfully smoke-imbued chicken. So delicious.

Chicken vampiro

chicken vampiro

For dessert, there was a special appearance by The Churro Borough – I hadn’t seen these guys since Baja Night 3.0.

churro borough

Five flavors of ice cream/custard were available, sandwiched between two warm, flat churros.

churro ice cream sandwich2

churro ice cream sandwich

These babies were as good as they looked. Delicious. The textural contrast was something else, with the rich creaminess countered by the light, flaky dough. Great balance of flavors too, with the cinnamon-sugar of the churro being a good accompaniment; not overly sweet at all. Why haven’t I seen this elsewhere? So good.

Congratulations to the whole Mexicali team. The food was exactly what I remembered; comforting, full of flavor and ultimately very satisfying. The Churro Borough is not a permanent fixture here, but I hear it will pop up on occasion. If so, it can’t be missed.

Mexicali Taco is a great addition to the downtown area, and I’m hoping to make it part of my lunchtime rotation too. I expect the place to quickly be a popular destination downtown, particularly for the late-night fix (open until midnight Fri-Sat). Selfishly, I just hope it’s not too popular – I hate waiting for my chicken vampiro.

The Mexicali partners: Esdras, Javier and Paul.

mexicali team

Note: All food and drink were hosted.

Baja Night 3.0 (Los Angeles, CA)

Baja Night 3.0 – Mexicali Taco & Co., Ricky’s Fish Tacos, Churro Borough of Los Angeles
1st St & Beaudry Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 9/10/11

Street food has been spotlighted more and more in LA the last few years, largely led by the popularity of gourmet food trucks. However, two of my favorite “street food” options are not trucks at all; rather, they’re sort of pop-up food stands. This weekend, Mexicali Taco & Co. and Ricky’s Fish Tacos teamed up in downtown LA to serve their wildly popular tacos with a dessert guest – the Churro Borough. This was the third incarnation of “Baja Night,” an event that continues to grow in popularity each time.

I’m far from a taco expert, but both Mexicali and Ricky’s serve some of my favorite tacos in the city (and I know I’m not alone in that opinion). I regularly visit Mexicali due to its convenient downtown location and the fact that they serve at night. Ricky’s is a little bit further (based in Los Feliz) and pretty much only serves the lunch crowd, so my visits there are far fewer. A chance to have both side-by-side was not to be missed!

baja night

Ricky (center) and team setting up.

rickys

Mexicali grilling their meats in preparation for the crowds.

mexicali

The Churro Borough of LA setting up.

churro borough

While food wasn’t served until 6pm, dozens gathered beforehand to secure a table and ensure they would be one of the first in line. I had heard that Ricky’s sold out of the elusive lobster taco quickly last time, so I made sure to come early too.

Ricky’s Fish Tacos

rickys2

Lobster Taco, Shrimp Taco, Fish Taco

lobster tacos

fish shrimp tacos

fish shrimp tacos2

The fish and shrimp are regular options at Ricky’s, while the lobster is a special item that makes an appearance once in a while. I actually liked the fish best – the tender, flaky pieces of white fish were perfect with the light, crunchy batter. The lobster and shrimp didn’t disappoint though, with the characteristic spongy texture being a welcome change of pace from the fish. Raw cabbage, crema and a number of salsas were all available for customization. Hard to go wrong.

Mexicali Taco & Co.

grill meats

As usual, Mexicali served three meats (chorizo, carne asada, chicken) in four different forms (taco, zuperman, cachetada, vampiro). Basically, choose the meat then choose how you want it. We got at least three of the variations on this night.

Cachetada

cachetadas

The cachetada is a tortilla grilled until crisp, with the end-product resembling a large nacho. Topped with meat, cheese and a chipotle aioli, it makes for a fun play on textures between the tender, chewy meat and crispy tortilla. I think the aioli really makes the difference though, adding a little kick in each bite.

Zuperman

zuperman

The zuperman is basically like two tacos inverted on themselves. Kind of like a Mexican burger? That might be a bit of a stretch. Personally I prefer the individual tacos as they’re easier to eat, but I think it’s fun to eat it this way once in a while.

Vampiro

vampiro

My favorite item on the menu. The vampiro is a just like a quesadilla, but with a garlicky sauce on the inside. The garlic flavor isn’t overpowering at all – there’s just enough to remind you it’s there in each bite. My favorite meat in these concoctions is chicken; the smoky, tender chunks of dark meat work wonders with the garlicky, cheese goodness. So simple, but this has to be one of my favorite items to eat in the city.

Bacon-Wrapped Cheese-Stuffed Yellow Pepper

stuffed peppers

Carne Asada Nachos

nachos

Two specials for Baja Night were the stuffed peppers and nachos. The nachos actually resembled a cachetada in a way, having many of the same flavors and textures. Unfortunately, I missed out on the stuffed pepper in the whirlwind of food.

The Churro Borough of Los Angeles

I think that this was the debut of Churro Borough, a mobile shop offering up churro-ice cream treats. I love fresh churros and ice cream, so I was eagerly anticipating what they had as well.

Churro Nuggets

churro nuggets

Small inch-long ‘nuggets’ of churros were filled with ice cream, then frozen. Three interesting ice cream flavors were on offer, including vanilla custard, spicy hot chocolate, and Spanish latte. Sounded promising, but I didn’t like these at all. The churro was soggy while the ice cream had an odd texture as I think the interior was still too frozen.

Ice Cream Sandwich

churro sandwich

churro sandwich2

On the other hand, these ice cream sandwiches were made on the spot and were delicious. The churro was warm, sweet and flaky – totally what I was looking for. The ice cream (in addition to the three nugget flavors, horchata and blueberry-port creme fraiche were available) was much more apparent here too, and pretty tasty. The churro was just light enough so that you could bite into the sandwich and not have ice cream coming out on all sides. Really well done.

I had a lot of fun at this event. I knew the food was going to be delicious and it was great to have both Ricky’s and Mexicali side-by-side. The Churro Borough was a fun addition too, adding something sweet (that churro ice cream sandwich was memorable, for sure). If there was a slight drawback, it’s that lines were on the long side. Both Ricky’s and Mexicali can draw crowds on their own, so this wasn’t a surprise at all. If there is another Baja Night, I would expect the lines to be even longer…but it’s so worth it.

LudoBites America (Redondo Beach, CA)

LudoBites America
Casa Pulido
228 Avenue I
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Dining date: 6/1/11

exterior

There’s not much more to say about the sensation that is LudoBites. In their latest venture, the Lefebvres have been traveling across the country, doing one-night pop-ups in various cities as part of their upcoming TV show on the Sundance Channel, LudoBites America. The show has taken them full-circle, with the final episode being filmed where it all started – in LA.

The meal really seemed to pop up out of nowhere. I had to do a double-take when I saw a post on Tuesday morning on the LA Times blog, announcing this one-night event. One of the core themes of LudoBites America is to merge Ludo’s style with the local cuisine – it’s fitting that the cuisine here would be “French Mex.”

interior

Given the overwhelming demand, I estimated the odds of getting a reservation to be extremely remote. However, Diana managed to get one, supposedly on her 44th calling attempt. The reservation was set – joining us were Kevin, Ryan, Kristen and Sam. Needless to say, I was very excited.

This was probably the longest I’ve waited for a table past the reservation time (about 80 minutes), but the food came out at a pretty good pace once we sat down.

<menu

“Salsa-Rita” salsa tomato water, lime, cilantro, REAL reposado tequila, sugar chile rim

salsa rita

We started with Ludo’s own custom-made cocktail. True to the theme, this tasted just like a salsa but in cocktail form. A little bit of heat reminded me a bit of a Bloody Mary; many of us had tortilla chips come to mind when drinking this. A tortilla chip straw would’ve been fun, though likely not practical.

Brocamole & Chips

brocamole

chips

This dish was interesting, really just like an avocado guacamole but with broccoli. I’d have to say it was a little bit weird to start, but quickly grew on me.

Ceviche, Cucumber Water, Purslane

ceviche

There was a pickled flavor to this ceviche, maybe from some type of vinegar? Celery and red onion provided a little freshness, while I thought the fish was “cooked” well.

Chilled Red Tomato Soup, Carrot, Smoked Fish

tomato soup

This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. It was balanced really well between the sweet tomatoes, crunchy carrots and tender, smoky fish. At first I thought there was bacon in this, but it was really just the fish, which had a really prominent smoky flavor. Best play on a gazpacho I’ve ever had.

Monterey Squid, Chorizo, Banana, Honey Clementine

squid

The squid was not as prominent in this dish; rather I found the clementines and pine nuts to be the strongest flavors. Still, the squid was nice and tender, and I thought the mild sweetness from the banana and honey was a welcome addition.

Among the drinks we had was a mezcal with a worm in it (on purpose, of course). I didn’t try it, though.

worm mezcal

Crispy Octopus, Smokey Chipotle, Piquillo Pepper Polenta

octopus

I found the octopus to be pretty tender, though I was missing whatever the crispy texture was. The gentle heat was balanced well by the creaminess and subtle sweetness of the piquillo polenta.

Brandade Tacos, Dandelion, Creamy Extra Virgin Olive Oil

brandade tacos

Delicious. Here Ludo integrated a French brandade with a taco. The filling was a creamy salt cod mixture with potato, which I found to be very satisfying in taco form. The crispy taco shell was a key component too, as well as the peppery arugula.

Foie Gras Quesadilla, Crispy Cabbage, Juniper Berry Oil

foie gras quesadilla

Another hit, this was one of the more anticipated menu items for me. Ludo seems to have a particular mastery over both foie gras and chicken, so I’m always excited for any dishes that feature these ingredients. I thought this was executed rather well, resulting in a tasty quesadilla with a rich, buttery foie gras filling. I also liked the cabbage, which added a little more texture and was a welcome accompaniment to the rich foie gras.

Roasted-Poached Beef in Lard, Squid Ink Risotto, Lemon Confit, Dried Mole

<beef

Diners raved about this dish while we waited in the dining room, and I could see why. The meat was really tender (pretty sure it was a tenderloin), with the bulk of the flavor coming from a crispy dried mole, accented by the citrus notes of a lemon confit. Cooked perfectly.

Guacamole Sorbet, Catalan Cream, Fruit Salsa, Tequila

guacamole sorbet

I’ve had Ludo’s guacamole sorbet before (LudoBites 5.0) and to be honest, still not a fan. I just can’t get over avocado in ice cream form, but the fruits were good, especially with a hint of tequila flavor. Very subtle, but I could taste it.

Ancho Chili Pepper Chocolate Brownie, Caramel Leche, Red Beets & Rhubarb

chili pepper brownie

The brownie had an extra dimension here, with the mild heat from the chili pepper mixing things up. The whipped cream and caramel both worked well with the brownie, with just a little more sweetness coming from the beet/rhubarb mixture.

As the LudoBites fan base continues to grow, it’s clearly getting harder and harder to be able to experience these meals; as such, I feel exceedingly lucky to have been able to enjoy it. Ludo continues to work with familiar ingredients in new ways, continually experimenting and testing flavor profiles. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but most of the time it does. Tonight I especially enjoyed the tomato soup, brandade taco (genius!) and foie gras quesadilla. It was just a quick glimpse into another LudoBites, but I already look forward to LudoBites 7.0 coming in August.

Our gracious hosts.

ludokrissy

China Poblano (Las Vegas, NV)

China Poblano
The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas
3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Dining date: 3/27/11

China Poblano is probably Jose Andres’ most unexpected concept. When I first heard about this place, I thought he was going to be creating Chinese-Mexican fusion. Dude. Weird. However, that’s not the case. The cuisines are kept separate here, just presented together. That means Chinese noodles, dim sum and other small plates served side-by-side with Mexican tacos, ceviches and guacamole. How would this work?

Andres is shooting for authenticity here – I’m sure I’m not the only Asian person really skeptical about this. He’s got help though; Andres has hired (imported) chefs from Mexico and China to help him out.

We started with the “cold tea.”

Cold “Tea” for Two a punch-like creation of green tea, tequila, and beer

I thought the tequila was rather strong in this. It just wasn’t noteworthy at all.

Happy Buddha Vegetable Spring Roll cucumber, carrot, zucchini, water chestnuts

We started with these vegetarian imperial rolls. These were okay, nothing special.

Shrimp Mojo shrimp, sweet black garlic, roasted poblano peppers

The shrimp here were cooked well, with a  nice depth of flavor from the garlic. The poblano was a tasty accompaniment as well.

Like Water for Chocolate fried quail, dragon fruit, rose petals, chestnut, dragon fruit sauce

This was one of the strongest dishes of the evening. The skin of the quail was quite crispy, while the meat was juicy and flavorful. The dragon fruit added a refreshing sweetness, which went really well with the quail.

Swallow a Cloud Hong Kong wonton, shrimp/pork, bok choy

Next was our $16 wonton noodle soup. I thought the filling of the wonton was soft like it was pureed to a very smooth texture – I would’ve preferred to still have a little bit of density. However, the flavors were there and the noodles were pretty good. The light chicken broth was the perfect soup.

Dan Dan Mien hand-cut wheat noodles, spicy pork sauce

I haven’t had a dan dan noodle dish since Lukshon’s highly controversial one. I found the noodles to be fairly mushy, and the flavors of the sauce to be muddled. I didn’t get a lot of pork flavor, nor was there any spice really. Odd.

We also ordered up a few orders of tacos at $9 a pair.

Pescado Frito fried fish, Mexican salsa

The fish of the day was mahi mahi. The fish was fried perfectly – delicately crispy with light, moist flesh. There was a little bit of heat here too, which I thought was a nice touch.

Pollo a la Parrilla grilled chicken, mole sauce

Next was this chicken taco. The mole was pretty good, though the chicken wasn’t too moist…I wouldn’t quite call it dry though.

Barbacoa del Res Oaxacan-style barbecue beef, guajillo chile, pickled cactus paddle

The barbacoa taco (shredded beef) taco was quite good, though a bit on the oily side.  I thought the onions and poblano added some welcome flavor, though.

Carnitas braised baby pig, pork rinds, spicy salsa verde cruda

This was easily my favorite taco, and one of the best I’ve had in the recent past.  Tender, moist pork was topped with crunchy chicharrones and a salsa verde. Everything here was executed well – extra flavor and crunch from the chicharrones, as well as from the salsa verde made for some delicious bites.

There were misses, but in all, I was pleasantly surprised with the food. I don’t consider myself anywhere near an authority for Chinese or Mexican food. Anyone who is looking for really authentic Asian or Mexican – look off the strip. The food here was tasty, and for the most part, had the Chinese and Mexican flavors I was looking for. It was on the expensive side, but I understand there is a premium for being on the strip, as well as for having Jose Andres’ name on it…even if this isn’t the type of food people typically associate him with.