Talking ’bout Tacos: Des Moines Edition

DSC_2741If were forced to pick one food to eat everyday for the rest of my life, I would pick tacos. Not hard shell “Tex-Mex” tacos filled with ground beef. Tacos I grew up eating is Los Angeles. Filled with spicy meat — carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, chorizo, lengua, chile verde —wrapped in two fresh tortillas, topped with diced onions, cilantro, a bit of lime and covered in the hottest salsa from the salsa bar.

I went to college in Grinnell, IA, and learned quickly to live without tacos. I realized this while eating at La Cabana, the town’s Mexican restaurant, when my order for “two carnitas taco and one chorizo taco” was met by a look of blank confusion on the waiter’s face. I recently moved to Des Moines to clerk for the Southside State Senator Tony Bisignano, and initially went about life not expecting authentic tacos. A few weeks ago before lunch, however, a similar exchange took place.

TONY: Lets grab some lunch. What do you want?
SAM : I’m fine with anything.
TONY: Come on! Pick anything
SAM: Really good tacos like I grew up eating in L.A.
TONY: Grab your coat, I know of a place on Grand that might satisfy you.

The outside of Raquel’s Pastry (1521 E. Grand) is non-descript; easy to walk past without knowing there are tacos inside. Upon entering, one may think they are in a pastry shop. This would be an accurate assumption: Raquel’s Pastry is in fact a Mexican bakery, as its name suggest. The only thing that that indicates otherwise is a small blackboard saying: “Tacos: Carne Asada, Carnitas, Pollo, Chorizo, Shrimp”

I ordered 3 tacos: carnitas, pastor and asada, and they did not disappoint. The carnitas was crispy and salty on the outside with a juicy and bold finish. The pastor was smoky, spicy and saucy enough to negate the need for salsa. The carne asada was perfection: minimally seasoned, Raquel’s Pastery lets the grilled beef speak for itself. Drizzled with lime and slightly charred, this is how a taco’s supposed to taste.

I find imperfections in even the most perfect dishes. After all, I started a food blog as a way to critique my parent’s cooking. Even though I had great tacos at Raquel’s, I was let down by the tortillas. A great tortilla manages to be simultaneously soft yet firm. The tortilla can then soak up the meat’s juice, while at no point seeming as if it will fall apart under the weight of the toppings. The tortillas at Raquel’s are a little too much on the crunchy side in my opinion. They seem to be fried briefly on a grill, hindering their ability to soak up the juices, leaving one with a plate full of wasted meat drippings and sauce. Overall I would say 7.8/10. At the time, I gave it an 8, because I had not had tacos in months, and I was desperate.

Yirgacheffe Beans and Cascade Hops

Yirgacheffe Beans and Cascade Hops1

Beans as fresh as they get, roasted by Ted Catanzaro of White Album Coffee.

Craft coffee and craft beer, once fringe enterprises, can today be called mainstream. For a consumer, this is both a blessing and a curse. While it is now possible to find a great mug of coffee or beer in most cities, this abundance makes it hard for a particular roaster, brewery, bar or coffee shop to stand out.

If, however, if somebody came up to me and said:

“Sam, I am forcing you to pick a favorite coffee and a favorite beer,”

I would respond

“Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”

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This answer is based on a mixture of objective facts and subjective opinions. Lets get the subjective part out of the way first so I can end my argument on solid facts.

Before I discovered Ethiopian Yirgacheffe I was under the assumption that coffee was a bitter beverage. But after hearing about The Refinery, a fancy coffee shop a few blocks from my high school, I paid a visit to this establishment and my opinion on coffee was forever changed. I asked the barista (who’s name I would later learn was Jimmy) to make me his favorite drink. What I was served was a mug of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, brewed via pourover with a Hario V60.2

Drink it black,” Jimmy told me.

It was anything but bitter. With a fruity aroma, this cup of coffee could almost be described as warm juice3 , as the dominant flavors were blueberry and strawberry rather than bitter and more bitter4. This cup of coffee made me realize that — for lack of a better/less-cliche phrase— a cup of coffee could be more than just a cup of coffee. With each bean possessing a unique flavor profile that varies depending on brewing method, I suddenly had been sucked into the world of craft coffee.

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Sierra Nevada: there are many things that make this beer great, but for the sake of keeping both the readers attention and this post under 500 words5,  I’ll keep it short. Sierra Nevada is great because it perfectly balanced. The body is crisp like a pilsner yet substantive like a stout. The Cascade Hops give it a citrus bite and contrasted with a maltiness that is present, the final result is perfectly sweet. It will pair perfectly with most any food or any occasion that calls for beer, from  a summer afternoon to a winter evening.

Like Yirgacheffe, part of my affliation towards Sierra Nevada is in part personal. Growing up it was always the beer my dad drank with dinner if we were having burgers, tacos or pizza. And after going to college and drinking shitty beer like Keystone and Rolling Rock at parties, it was one of the first six packs I bought for myself, and it made me realize that beer, like coffee, did not have to taste bad. They could both be quite enjoyable.

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1. Or, as my girlfriend suggested upon hearing my elevator pitch of this post, “Jerking off to Elitism”.

2. From the words at the folks over at Stumptown coffee: “Nuanced and versatile, the Hario is an elegant brewer for those who want to perfect the pour. It’s great for folks who are looking for complete control over brewing extraction. The key here is to pour slow. The entire brew process for a 10oz mug takes about three minutes.” Click here for a great video if you would like an excuse to dive into the world of craft coffee. 

3. I will refrain from actually claiming it tasted like warm juice because it was not a cup of warm juice, it was a cup of warm coffee.

4. For my reaction to this cup of coffee at the time of the experience, refer to the following blog post: https://samsfoodblog.com/2012/03/25/the-world-is-a-different-place-with-a-5-50-cup-of/

5. Not including  footnotes. 

Two Chains Worth Chaining Yourself To

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I could not chain myself to one coffee shop since there are so many options out there. Nor could I chain myself to one craft beer, as again there is so much I would be missing out on. When it comes to fast food, however, give me the handcuffs and throw away the key. In-N-Out and Jimmy John’s are all I need.

I have written extensively about In-N-Out, so as an exercise I will sum up in one sentence why it’s the best fast food chain in the world. A burger that consistently melts in your mouth and lightens your mood while keeping your wallet heavy. For under $10, you can get a double-double, milkshake and fries. I love the burger’s modesty. With thin patties, it does not try to be a gourmet burger but with grilled onions, it is sure tasty. This separates it from places like Five Guys, who use thicker patties in an attempt to up their burger game, but really just end up serving an $8 pile of overcooked, dry meat. Likewise, their shakes are also modest: vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. No Oreo or Reese’s Peanut Butter shakes, but a shake that is hard to put down once the first drop hits your tongue. But this is not why I would chain myself to In-N-Out, let alone throw away they key. It is the costumer service that makes the commitment worthwhile. No matter how crowded it is, the servers somehow manage to be genuine and friendly to every costumer. What more, the food is prepared freaky fast considering the lack of freezers and microwaves in the restaurant.

Jimmy John’s is nowhere near as good as In-N-Out, but within it’s niche of cheap subs, it is perfection.  My willingness to commit to a life of Jimmy John’s servitude stems again from outstanding costumer service. Walking into a Jimmy John’s, one is greeted by friendly subristas (like a barista but who makes subs) and a welcoming environment. From start to finish, it takes no longer than a minute for them to prepare your sandwich, and while the final product may not impress Anthony Bourdain, it is made with love. On top of this, their claim of “Freaky Fast Delivery” is warranted, never taking more than 10 minutes for a sub to arrive at your door. So next time you are in the midwest, and are at a lost for what to eat, try Jimmy John’s. It may not be a meal worth writing home about, but it will be meal that satisfies the soul.

So here I am, chained without a key to these two chains and perfectly content. This does not mean, however, that a chain-cutter is out of the question. The reason I discovered In-N-Out and Jimmy John’s was my willingness to break out of the I-Only-Eat-Gourmet-Food prison. So if a better option for cheap burgers and subs arrives, by all means send me some chain-cutters but until then, this inmate is staying in prison.

 

 

Milk for Dummies

IMG_7927I have a pretty refined palate. When I was thirteen, my parents blindfolded me and I successfully identified various types of water (tap, Evian, Dasani) and ketchup (Heinz, Whole Food, Hunts). Fast-forward to this morning in my kitchen. With the sun out, the fridge door open and my palate ready, I am about to see if I can taste the difference between “gourmet” and “normal” milk.

The cup on the left is Whole Foods whole milk, which is like any other whole milk only it’s from Whole Foods and therefore is expensive. This is the normal milk. The milk to the right is Fairlife whole ultra-filtered milk. This is the gourmet milk. As they write on their website, ultra-filtered milk “is a new twist on a classic favorite. Deliciously creamy and full flavored but now with 50% more protein, 30% more calcium and 50% less sugar than typically found in milk.This is achieved via a state of the art filtration system in which milk scientists at Fairlife can keep the desirable things like protein, calcium and vitamins in the milk while filtering away bad things like sugar and lactose. My job, as the fella with the refined palate, is to see if I can taste a difference between the two.

I close my eyes and my mom hands me a cup of milk. I take a sip and swish the milk around in my mouth. It tastes like milk. I have my mom hand me the other cup of milk. I again swish it around in my mouth. Hmm. This one tastes sweet. This could very well be the “special” milk. I swallow and immediately take a sip of the first milk again. This time it come across as watery and bitter. This must be the Whole Foods “normal” milk. I open my eyes and find out my palate has served me well again. The first milk was in fact normal and the second milk was gourmet.

“It has a good, smooth and rich taste,” said my nine-year old brother Simon of the ultra-filtered milk. This is a pretty accurate description of Fairlife milk and this wonderful tastes stays in your mouth for awhile after a sip. The Whole Foods milk leaves an aftertaste, but it is not a pleasant one, coming across as artificial and processed. Drinking Fairlife is like drinking milk fresh from the udder, if milk fresh from the udder came in hip and colorful packaging.

I have never actually had udder-fresh milk, so I’ll make a more appropriate comparison. Fairlife milk is like an In-N-Out milkshake and Whole Foods milk is like a McDonalds milkshake. Shakes from both of these places taste good since they are milkshakes and milkshakes by nature are tasty. Upon closer inspection, however, a McDonalds milkshake begins to tastes artificial and gross, much like the Whole Foods milk. An In-N-Out shake, however, no matter how much it is scrutinized, will always taste like ice-cream and milk and in a similar fashion, Fairlife milk when analyzed tastes like milk and nothing else. So next time you are in the dairy section of the market ask yourself do I want to drink milk or do I want to drink something that vaguely tastes like milk? If you pick the former, buy Fairlife and if you pick the latter, well…I have some more convincing to do.

Ode to Courier

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I have been trying to find a font that suited all my needs ever since I began using a computer. Wingdings were the first font I fell in love with. Then  I learned how to read/write and realized I needed to find a font with letters and numbers. I went through a brief Comic Sans phase which lasted until high school, where I was given the “Times New Roman, one-inch margin” mantra. I have stuck with Times New Roman ever since, as most professors in college swear by it. The issue is that Times New Roman just doesn’t feel like that one font I will spend the rest of my life with. There are so many other options out there, and choosing a font for life is a daunting task. But I think I have found “the one.” Meet Courier. I met Courier in a word processor and set it as my default font for my computer. The way things are looking, it will remain that way for a long time.

Courier was developed in 1955 for IMB as a monospaced slab serif. This is a fancy way of saying that each character takes up the same amount of space and is constructed with even stroke widths. Because of this, when used in a screenplay format, it can be estimated that one page of 12 point Courier will equal one minute of screen time. It was also the official font of the State Department until 2004 when it was replaced by Times New Roman, which is said to offer a “crisper, cleaner, more modern look.” This is the worst decision the U.S. has ever made. Courier is in every way crisper, cleaner and more modern that Times New Roman can ever dream of being.

I do not write screenplays, I do not work for the government but I love Courier. It is such an inviting, readable and cool looking font. Times New Roman single spaced makes a document look daunting. The characters are close together causing confusion to ensue before I have even started reading the document at hand.  Courier, by contrast, makes a document look clean. It is slightly larger than Times New Roman meaning there are less words per page which naturally shortens the time it takes to read a page. This means that anything you read in Courier becomes a page turner when compared to reading that same document in Times New Roman. There may be the same amount of words, but the reading process feels quicker when pages are frequently being turned. In truth, however, I like Courier for its looks. It is such a sleek, industrious looking font that makes any document look official without looking boring. I could be caring around a print out of all my blog posts, and people will think that I am carrying around transcripts from a congressional hearing, or a draft for the next Oscar winning screenplay I am not working on. The point I am trying to get at is that if you want to be cool, use Courier.

How a Coffee Shop Can Stand Out

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Ten years ago I was under the impression that Pete’s Coffee & Tea was the definition of a good coffee shop. This was because L.A.’s gourmet coffee scene had not been established yet.  [1] When fancier options first began popping up [2], their relatively scarcity lowered the standard. This did not mean that they were making subpar coffee, but rather that it took less to be impressive and stand out. Today, however, gourmet coffee shops litter the streets of not only LA but most major U.S. cities. As a result, a shop or cafe really has to offer something unique to make it worth coming back to.

As I argued in my previous post, bean quality is the most important factor in making a good cup of coffee. When it comes to coffee shops, however, bean quality matters less since every gourmet shop is going to use quality beans. [3] Rather, in no particular order, I find that barista competence, ambiance and brewing method are the most important things a coffee shop needs to do well in order to stand out. Demitasse in Santa Monica and Balconi Coffee Company in West L.A. are two shops that excel in all three of these categories, and to no surprise are my two favorite coffee shops.

Barista competence is important as it justifies paying $4 or $5 for a cup of coffee. After all, it is more economic to buy quality beans and brew your own coffee rather than going to a coffee shop and buying a cup. A barista that knows what they are doing, however, gives the impression that the coffee you are emptying you wallet for is better than anything you could make on your own. [4] Demitasse and Balconi stand out in this regard due not only to their competence when it comes to brewing coffee, but also in their extremely knowledgeable baristas. Ask them for a description of a particular bean, and they will give you more than the synopsis written on the menu. They will tell you how it compares to other beans, information on the roast of the bean and even negative characteristics a bean may have. The end result is not only a cup of coffee that tastes good, but a coffee shops that has grounds (no pun intended) for charging over $3 for 12 ounces of coffee.

A welcoming ambiance is important not only because it makes a coffee sippin’ experience enjoyable, but also because it reflects a shop’s approach to business. A coffee shop that appears to occupied with churning out cups of coffee creates an environment that is not suited for enjoying your coffee how it should be enjoyed: sitting down and in ceramic mug. In addition to their comfy benches and inviting bar, Demitasse does this by via their excellent presentation. Many of their offerings are served on a bamboo tray and are hard to refrain from snapping a picture of. Balconi’s collection of books and trinkets that litter the shop create an atmosphere that invites the costumer in. [5] These shops do not ignore costumer who want their coffee to-go but rather standout in their ability to make you want to stay in the shop and drink your coffee.

Brewing method is important as it is the most concrete way a shop can stand out. While there is something to be said about a quality pour over, every gourmet coffee shop seems to do it and it gets boring after awhile. Balconi and Demitasse stand out in this regard as they use coffee machines that are rarely seen. Demitasse, in addition to their aesthetically pleasing slow dippers that line the windows, brews coffee primarily via a Steampunk. This is a $20,000 machine that allows baristas precisely control  brew temperature, time, volume, agitation cycles and extraction, allowing for the exploration of a wide range of flavor profiles. [6] Balconi brews with a siphon, a technique that has been around for over 50 years, but is rarely seen in coffee shops. The resulting cup has the flavor profile of a french press but without all the sediment. In addition to this, both of these places pull top-notch espresso shots, something that cannot be said for most coffee shops.

1. I also did not drink coffee ten years ago, so I would not have been aware of any coffee scene that existed.
2. The first fancy coffee I shop remember opening up is Caffe Luxxe on Montana in Santa Monica. As the write on their website, Cafe Luxxe was  “Unlike anything in LA before, we were one of the first in the city to launch the ‘3rd Wave’ of coffee; a move towards hand-crafted artisanal espresso.” It is still a great place to get coffee if you can get over the lines and somewhat steep prices.
3. The exception to this being coffee shops that roast their own beans in shop. Coffee Tomo in West LA is an example of this.
4.This may be due entirely to placebo, but nonetheless, the experience having a great barista make your coffee is well worth the money, even if you could make something comparable at home.
5. Books are especially important, as provide something to do while you drink your coffee other than dick around on your phone.
6. In other words, using this one machine you can make a cup of coffee that tastes like French press brew or a pour over.

Bean There, Done That: The Importance of Quality Beans

Beans as fresh as they get, roasted by Ted Catanzaro of White Album Coffee.
Beans as fresh as they get, roasted by Ted Catanzaro of White Album Coffee.

First of all, I want to welcome Gabe Lehman of Spoiled Giants Fan to the blogosphere. I hadn’t been writing in awhile, but reading his posts on the woes of the Giants, prompted me to write here again. It’s a great source for understanding what it is like to be a fan a team that fluctuates between winning the World Series and winning nothing. What I have to say in this post has nothing to do with baseball, but rather about something else I am equally as passionate about: coffee.

My coffee preparation process used to be a science. Literally. I had a notebook in which I would record comprehensive notes about every cup of coffee I brewed. First I would record my water-to-bean ratio. Then I would record my grind size. Then I would record the immersion time (i.e. how long the grounds were in contact with the water) and finally would evaluate the quality of the cup of coffee. For this I would note the aroma, body (whether coffee was “heavy” or light”), initial taste, after taste, and how the flavor changed in respect to a change in temperature. Many coffees I found became more citrusy (acidic) as they cooled off. After every entry I would note what needed to be tweaked in the next cup of coffee I made. This process was driven by a desire to make the perfect cup of coffee, something that never happened.

As can be imagined, this laboratory-like process took a long time. To put things into perspective, even though I did not have class until 9, I would wake up at 7 to make sure I had time to make coffee “properly.” This was all during my first-year in college and by the beginning of my second-year, I realized that this was ridiculous and stopped making coffee in general. Recently, however, in the midst of my third-year, I began to miss making coffee and asked my dad to send me some of his home roasted beans. This time, instead of treating it like a science, I took coffee making less seriously. I lost my scale meaning I could no longer weigh my beans out, so I had to eyeball everything. Not only did the process take a fraction of the time, but the coffee tasted just as good.

There are many factors that influence the quality of a cup of coffee: the grind size, immersion time, water temperature and agitation (i.e. how much you stir the coffee while it is brewing). But all of these factors are insignificant when compared to the bean quality. It is quite simple: if you are using good beans, you will have good coffee. If you are using bad beans, you will have bad coffee. Nothing, not even a perfect brewing technique will make bad beans taste good. A great example of this is Starbucks and their use of the Clover coffee machine. This is a machine that allows for great control over the variables that determine the quality of the brew but since Starbucks uses terrible beans this just becomes an expensive machine that makes cheap tasting coffee. The moral of this post (yes, all blog posts have morals) should be quite obvious, but in case you did not catch it I’ll reiterate. USE GOOD BEANS! This doesn’t mean that care should not be put into the brewing process, but rather that you should not bother trying to make a good cup of coffee if you’re using sub-par beans.