Monday, July 29, 2013

"Machete don't text"

¿Ask a Mexican…in Person?

I recently had the great pleasure of sharing lunch with Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly who is also the author of two fine books, !ASK A MEXICAN! and TACO USA: HOW MEXICAN FOOD CONQUERED AMERICA. His “Ask a Mexican” column is nationally syndicated thanks to Village Voice Media. This guy is one cool homeboy.
I wanted to meet up with Gustavo because I love his Swiftian sense of self parody---and I mean that as a serious compliment. In his own words to me, “You make an idiot of yourself to make a bigger point”. He does this unflinchingly well.
But apart from the cleverness of his “Ask” column I was impressed with the very serious scholarship that went into TACO USA. And that was the real reason I wanted to meet up with him in person. Unlike Rick Bayless, Gustavo doesn’t have “people”. I simply e-mailed a request for an interview and he answered back, “Sure”!
Gustavo chose the location, Taqueria Zamora in Santa Ana which turned out to be located only a mile from my hotel. It’s in a strip center which shouldn’t scare you away as most of the best ethnic foods in SoCal are located in store fronts like this.
I arrived at Taqueria Zamora a short while ahead of Gustavo. There are two rooms with almost no decor, the one in front being a bit noisy with a juke box and then there is a larger room in back which is more quiet. When I sat down a kid who was about 3’5” tall brought over chips, salsa and a plate of refried beans. Moments later Gustavo arrived and almost the first words out of his mouth were, “this salsa is great!”

Señor Arellano has his MA in Latin American Studies from UCLA but also a BA in film studies from Chapman University. This led to a short digression on to Richard Rodriguez and his unashamed genre films, e.g. “Machete” which both of us admire. As a grad student in American Studies at USC I was following the same scholarly trails in regard to the history of California and the Southwest, combing through the library stacks for primary sources. Gustavo did that same thing for TACO USA. His food scholarship is impeccable.

Back to the food part: when our orders came out Gustavo’s face lit up in something like the ecstasy of Saint Teresa, “THIS is real Mexican food.” His order was tacos asada with a jugo naranja (this guy is a cheap date!). I went with huarache (named for an article of footwear) with lengua. I seldom get to eat cow tongue this good. Over our meals we talked some more about Mexican food and its history in the US.

The burrito plays something of a central role in Cal-Mex cooking. It’s almost metaphorical for everything that’s great about this cuisine. The exact history of the burrito is as difficult to knock down as looking for Jimmy Hoffa. Did it arrive in the 1890’s? or the 1960’s? Certainly it was bracero food in between. For you, my fellow food historians, the menu at El Cholo (1923) in LA lists the dates when certain items entered their kitchen repertoire. While I’ve always associated the burrito with California and Arizona, Gustavo insists that you can get a good burrito in El Paso (a town which he inexplicably loves---hey, I’ve been there). The El Paso burrito is on the small side. No accounting for taste.

Arellano vs the Baylessistas:

In TACO USA Mr. Arellano describes a fund raiser for the California Latino Journalists Association, where the key note speaker was Jonathan Gold who is the only food writer to ever win a Pulitzer. Apparently Gold really lit up Rick Bayless on the subject of “authentic” Mexican cooking in Southern California. As a dutiful journalist Arellano reported this on the OC Weekly blog. Bayless actually read it! But then he’s got people for that. Of course as a serious journalist, Gustavo, after a prickly reply from Señor Rick, tried to follow up and arrange an interview and was shunned like Helen Thomas at a White House press conference. That would be another case of “kill the messenger”.

When describing Mexican food in Los Estados Unidos (“so far from God”) Arellano doesn’t use words like “authentic”, rather he will say “real”. This recognizes the subtle distinctions and changes that occur when people cross borders but still try to keep it real. Cal-Mex is no less “real” than Tex-Mex, just different. “Real” is the sensibility that immigrants carry with them, not the recipe.

Gustavo described to me how things like tamales got bigger when they crossed the border. The same thing happened when Italians arrived on the East Coast. The meatball just got bigger and bigger and bigger. Welcome to “L’America…everything big in America”.

In his acknowledgment page for “Ask…” Gustavo throws a backhander at Orange County as “the most Mexican hating county in the country”. My reply was, “you know I have to disagree with that…”. He instantly said, “Maricopa” which was exactly what I was referring to; as in getting pulled over for driving while Hispanic in Arizona. Gustavo immediately cited the number of the Senate bill, SB1070, which of course was tossed out by the courts. This, after it did huge financial damage to Phoenix in lost convention business and local taxes paid by Latino owned shops in towns like Mesa and Gilbert because everyone ran and hid. Stupid. This is a state which passed a bill establishing the chimichanga (a deep fried burrito) as the official state food. Apparently these so-called lawmakers have a lot of time on their hands.

Gustavo Arellano’s father managed to get past “la migra” and entered the country illegally. G wears that like a chip on his shoulder. He writes affectionately about his mother’s meticulous preparation of menudo, using all four stomachs of your favorite ruminant. My own grandfather was illegal Irish, ran a speakeasy in New York. Unfortunately the Irish haven’t contributed much foodwise although we do make great bartenders. I would love to taste Gustavo’s Mami’s menudo.

If you would like to reenact my lunch with A Mexican go to:

And for the more scholarly among you Señor Arellano still occasionally teaches Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton. If you enroll now I think you get a sofa for your front yard. Otherwise just read his books which are damn fine, even if for some reason he loves El Paso.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Estrella, Home Town Heroes

A couple of months ago I finished my work shift in Paso Robles at around 3:00 p.m. and strolled over to a local dining establishment to read a newspaper and have a "happy hour" glass of wine. So, I'm sitting at the bar and I look over at the two guys sitting next to me. Both have cooking influenced tattoos on their inside forearms. I can read these symbols like they are the Rosetta Stone.

Well, I had to ask, "Hey guys, I can see from your ink that you are cooks. Where do you work?" As it turned out they both work at Estrella in the downtown food and restaurant hub adjacent to the park. It happens to be my favorite lunch place in town. The guys turned out to be executive chef Ryan Swarthout and pastry chef Mike Learned (not present in the conversation, chef de cuisine Travis Borba).

Ryan described their cooking as "Latin American and Carribean", their ads say "Latin Riviera" and their shop window say's "Spanish Carribbean Argentine". I guess it depends on who you talk to and on what day. I just call it "mighty fine".

Since talking to the lads I've revisited a number of times, dragging friends along who described the food as "spot on".

Most of the menu reads "Mexico" to me. I especially love the "Cemita Poblano" sandwich. But then I'm a porkaholic. But I also really like the grilled scallop ceviche. If you are going for lunch you can figure that most items, tapas in particular, will run from $7.00 to $12.00.

They have a smallish bar with a great staff. The one problem is that to climb into the bar chairs you need an extenstion ladder. And to get out, you need a parachute. They are that high, and no bar rail. But that doesn't deter me, I just do my ninja rope trick.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


… in French, literally means “soil”. Today it is nuanced to refer to products of a soil and more specifically those that are unique to a particular regional terroir.

This essay began simply enough but nearly spiraled out of control the more I learned about the person you are about to meet. As a writer sometimes the story finds you.

So, in August of 2012 I visited the annual Paso Robles Olive Festival. If you can get past the craft birdhouses and tarot card readers you can actually meet people who are presenting and actually selling olive products, especially olive oils. I found my way to Olio Nuevo and tasted some samples which I really liked. The guy who was selling at the booth was this very genial man named Art Kishiyama. It turns out he’s also the president of the Central Coast Olive Growers. He’s head of the class and so are his olive oils. I bought a bottle of his Extra Virgin Reserve Blend which Art autographed with a gel pen and a flourish. I’m now beginning to like this guy. I tested his oil at home and really enjoyed its buttery flavor and peppery finish which made it useful for several things.

After that I e-mailed Art and asked if I could possibly come down and visit his ranch off Hwy 41 E and he graciously invited me. He was kind enough to let me spend an entire morning with him. What I wasn’t expecting were the alpacas.

When I arrived Art gave me his brief bio; he attended Cal Poly, enlisted in the Air Force where he advanced to the rank of colonel. After twenty six years of service he became the top exec for the Disney Parks in Japan which pull in 30m visitors per year. Kind of stressful. He and his wife Lynn came back to California and in 2002 purchased their estate in Paso Robles. He began raising llamas and alpacas but eventually began planting olives. The alpacas with Italian names like Tintoretto and Valentino are still there.

After visiting with the Italians Art walked me over to his “terroir”, the ten acres where he has planted mission, manzanillo and arbequina olives. His groves slope steeply 75 feet from the top rows to the bottom ones. This affects temperature as much as 10°F. Also the soil composition seems to be different on the west side of his ranch than on the east side. All of which means the grower has to be nimble in addressing these issues. Art doesn’t use mechanical harvesting tools. Instead he goes out and tapes off the areas which he wants his guys to pick based on ripeness. This is all done by hand. After the olives are picked they are trucked a short way down the road to be pressed.

Art bottles, labels and ships 7,000 bottles all by himself. Really. Mr. Kishiyama is justly proud of the awards his oils have won. His Estate Arbequina got him a Gold Medal at the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition 2012. He won Best in Class with his Reserve Blend at the Napa County Fair.

Afterward we went inside out of the heat and discussed what it means for an oil to really qualify as “extra virgin”. The key factors are taste and acidity. The International Olive Council (IOC) requires no more than .8% acidity in order to be certified. The United States is not a member of IOC so USDA handles the job. In 2010 they adopted standards close to those of IOC. Up until then they were using standards dating back to 1948 that were almost laughable. In fact they were more like those used for grading meat. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has standards that are even stricter requiring no more than .5% acidity. One of the most important retailers of olive oils in California (and I’m not talking about Trader Joe’s) won’t stock California oils that haven’t been properly certified by the lab. It’s not enough for the grower to say “I know it is extra virgin because I made it.” Nope. “Because I said so” just doesn’t cut it. For the record Mr. Kishiyama’s olive oils are COOC certified extra virgin. Anyway that’s enough acronyms for one paragraph.

Well, we shook hands and I drove off back to my office. However in the course of fact checking my story I could see that I needed to e-mail Mr. Kishiyama with some additional questions, and this is where I was thrown back a few paces. I learned some biographical things that you won’t find on his website. I rather naively asked Art if he was familiar with the Japan American National Museum in Los Angeles (I’m asking this of a very well traveled gentleman, but then you don’t know until you ask). This is one of the most beautiful museum spaces in LA, and Art has had his parents' names etched into the walls there.

Next follow up naïve question, “were your parents interned during the war?” Now I get blown back about twenty yards. During the war the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, beginning in May of 1942, were used as an "assembly center" for the internment camps. Art Kishiyama was the first baby born there. The center was closed a few months later and Art's family (along with about 5,000 other souls) was moved from Pomona to Heart Mountain in Wyoming where his brother was born. After the camps the family moved to Ogden, Utah and another brother was born. All three brothers served in different branches of the service. All were officers of rank. Now I must conclude this with Art’s own words: “My parents had a son in Vietnam almost continuously for over 3 years. Despite being interned for 3 years during the War, they never stopped being Americans – and that’s the way they raised their sons.” And this to me is what terroir means.

For more information on Olio Nuevo and where you can buy it go to and for those Italian alpacas,

Recipe suggestion:

Curried Charentais Melon Gazpacho

During the long hot summer, among the things I’m always trying to reinvent are cold soups. I wait and wait for delicious charentais melons to arrive, and now they are here (as of this writing). These melons belong to the cantaloupe family. When properly ripe they will perfume your whole house.* This is the sweetest, most desirable melon there is. Here I’ve turned it into an easy gazpacho style cold soup with the addition of a bit of curry. The two balance out perfectly. This is a tomato-less soup modeled on the original Spanish “white gazpacho” which predates the tomato version.


1 charentais melon, about 2 ½ pounds (or substitute cantaloupe or other sweet, orange/yellow fleshed melon)

2 slices day old white bread crusts removed

Slivered almonds, about 1 ounce

1 ½ tsp really good curry powder (or more to taste)

A splash of good Spanish sherry vinegar

¼ cup Olio Nuevo™ Extra Virgin Reserve Blend olive oil

2 Tbs cilantro chopped

1 lime

Sea salt


Slice your lovely melon in half. Scoop out the seeds. With your very sharp knife remove the outer hull. Cube the melon flesh into cubes (or pretend cubes) of about 2 inches.

Juice the lime and squeeze over the melon and let it rest while you go to work.
Meanwhile give the stale bread a light soak of water (preferably organic and gluten free from Portland) and then tear it up into pieces.

Heat up a dry skillet and lightly toast the almonds. Don’t let them burn. Set aside.

Place all of the ingredients into a powerful, variable speed blender. Not the wimp ass one you mix Jagermeister Red Bull margaritas in. Begin by pulsing a few times and then crank up the speed to full on liquefy. It’s fun to watch that vortex form in the center.

Strain (with a coarse mesh strainer) into a bowl (if you like you can skip this step, sometimes I do) and refrigerate for at least one to two hours. The purpose of the straining step is to remove any seeds and give you a smooth texture but there is something to be said for a little mouth feel here, I’m now convinced.

*Note to cook; when purchasing a good melon, like a charentais, don’t squeeze it. Sniff the cut blossom end.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Address to a Salame

The art and craft of salumi goes back to the Romans and Greeks; essentially stuffing animal parts into the animal's own guts. Robert Burns wrote a famous poem, "Address to a Haggis": But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread. Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He'll make it whissle I was thinking of trying to translate that from Scots into Italian but not right now. Haggis actually is a sausage; a lamb's stomach stuffed with things like lamb's "lights" and oats and so on. Actually it's damn good if you are adventurous. Andrew Zimmern could probably consume three. It's grand to see the rise of the Italian style artisan salumeria on the West Coast: Armandino Batali (Mario's dad) has Salumi in Seattle, Chris Cosentino owns Boccalone in San Francisco, Paul Bertolli, formerly of Oliveto, has Fra' Mani. All making wonderful products. A comparative newcomer is Alle-Pia out of Atascadero, CA. Originally they were known as Allesina but are transitioning out of that name because of trademark issues. The owner of this family business is Antonio Varia who owns the Buona Tavola restaurants in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. His nephew, my friend Alex Pellini, manages the plant. Recently I dropped down to get a quick tour of the facility. Here you can see some happy sausage makers at work:
Right now Alle-Pia is producing six types of dry cured salumi as well as some fresh ones. I really like the Tartuffo with truffles. Their products are available from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. To find out where you can buy them go to Good stuff!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Tin Tin Salad

Two weeks ago I read the latest Food52 challenge: canned seafood. Good! I love this stuff. So here is what I submitted.

The Tin Tin Tiffin Salade Niçoise

In a strange way this is tuna tinned twice. A tiffin walla is an Indian lunch pail, great for compartmentalizing things for your middle of the day meal. However this salad is totally French. One of the trends of the past ten or twelve years was for restaurants to serve Salad Niçoise with seared ahi tuna, which is an absolute affront to its history. This is a lunch to be carried to work or into the field and canned tuna is absolutely essential to its character. I once listened to Colman Andrews rant on this subject but I’m not going there. This is delicious on its own without some sissified New York City ahi version. Okay, sorry, I went there. Ingredients are per portion so multiply as needed.


Field greens. Don’t have a field? Well then grab an assortment of lettuces such as romaine and other colorful ones at the market. Maybe some cress. That’s up to you.

1 3.5 ounce tin of olive oil packed tuna. We really like Ortiz and As Do Mar.*

2 to 4 of your best anchovies. If you happen to have boquerones well, ooh la la.

3 or 4 small white potatoes, like creamers

A fistful of haricots vertes, that’s green beans to you buddy

3 or 4 fat radishes

1 hard cooked egg

4 or 5 luques olives or pichioline (or whatever you like; Tin Tin likes luques)

Fresh tarragon, chopped

For the dressing 2 parts best olive oil (we recommend California Olive Ranch), 1 part white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard.

Sea salt and ground pepper


Rinse the greens

Simmer the potatoes in salted water until tender and then slice in half.

Simmer the green beans until tender and then shock in a cold water bath. That sets the color. For convenience you can use the same water you cooked the potatoes in.

Thinly slice the radishes

Chop the tarragon and whisk into the dressing

Open the can of tuna (don’t cut yourself)

Assemble with greens on the bottom, followed by potatoes, radish, haricots, tuna, anchovies, egg and olives. Season with salt and pepper.

Finish with the dressing. If you are actually taking this out into the field or your cubicle you can hold this back in a separate container within your tiffin. E voila!

*Note to cook; the quality of the tuna and anchovies really matters. High quality canned tuna can excite your imagination but it can also be really expensive, although less expensive than that seared ahi on your faux Salade Niçoise

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Walnuts and Sage

So, I was challenged with this theme by some devious friends and after thinking it over here's the recipe I came up with:

Don’t Call It BROOSHETTA!!! (Bruschetta with fromage blanc, pear, walnuts and sage)
“Bruschetta” (hard ch in Italian) loosely translated means “something burned”. In this case it is bread that has been grilled and scorched. It’s the big brother of the crostini. You can use a ridged grill pan or better still, an outdoor wood fired grill, such as your Weber.
The topping for this bruschetta is easy to make. While I would like to use a stracchino cheese for this, unless you live close to DiPalo in Incredible Shrinking Little Itay or Batali’s Eataly it’s going to be hard to find because it doesn’t travel well. So I’m using fromage blanc but you might substitute a farmer’s cheese. Stracchino, a cheese from Lombardia, gets its name from supposedly tired cows coming down from Alpine pasture lands.
5 to 6 thick slices of country style bread or boule, each slice halved
1 bunch fresh sage
8 ounces fromage blanc or farmers cheese
½ cup walnut pieces, broken up
1 ripe comice pear or other pear of your choice (peeled and cored)
2 tablespoons butter
In a dry pan toast your walnut pieces and set aside.
Cut up your pear into small dice.
Turn out your cheese into a medium sized bowl and work in the pears and walnuts with a fork.
Separate out between 10 to 12 sage leaves* and spread them on a plate or pan so that you can dust them lightly with the Wondra flour.
In a skillet lightly brown your better (beurre noir).
Fry the sage leaves until slightly crisp and lay them out on paper towel.
Heat up a ridged grill pan (dry).** When it’s hot, grill and turn the bread once on each side so that it’s toasted and burn marks show.
As the slices come off lay one or two sage leaves on each followed by a smear of cheese mixture while the bread is still warm.
*Note to cook; if your sage leaves are small you might want to add two or more to each slice. The idea is to deliver a little surprise note of herb to the bite.
** Better still if weather permits, fire up a wood grill using lump charcoal for more flavor. Do NOT use briquettes or your bread will taste lake motor oil.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke Grill roasted Santa Maria Tri Tip
When you cook this your neighbors might think the college of cardinals have selected a new Pope because white smoke will be wafting over the hood. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! This is a California Central Coast specialty. If you are driving from Ventura County to the top of San Luis Obispo County you’ll see these medieval looking grill rigs set up in farmers markets, liquor store parking lots and many other places off Hwy 101. If you smell smoldering oak in the air someone is probably grilling tri tip nearby.
The seasonings here are mostly traditional, primarily salt and pepper. But I like to add a little more spice to it in the form of good Spanish pimenton. You can buy some pretty okay commercial rubs but they do contain things like “flowing agents” which don’t improve the flavor.
Two untraditional things I do are to use an internal brine, and then to serve it up with an Argentine Chimichurri sauce on the side. The brine idea I picked up from butcher Tom Mylan as described in the book PRIMAL CUTS by Marissa Guggiana. He uses an internal brine for prime rib. I’ve used it for that with great success and thought that tri tip was the next outrage I could pull off and indeed it worked. You will, however, need an injector for this but they are cheap. The meat remains moist while you still get that kind of burnt crusty exterior that we love here.
The other untraditional aspect to this yippee-ay-o classic is chimichurri. The Argentines are the masters of the grill and I bow down to them (but only so far) and their chimichurri goes so well with grilled meat that I resort to it all the time as a homemade table condiment.
Wood. Like real oak or else oak lump charcoal. If you resort to briquettes you are a total weenie and have no business getting anywhere near a real grilling station, anywhere ever.
3 ½ pounds tri tip, intact
1 cup water
¼ cup sea salt for the brine, plus ¼ cup additional for the rub
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Spanish pimenton de la vera or piment d’Esplette
For the chimichurri
1 bunch parsley
½ of one bunch cilantro
8 to 10 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ cup good extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon (or so) white vinegar
Large pinch of salt
One day ahead of cooking prepare the brine by bringing water to a boil and dissolving the sea salt into it. It may not dissolve completely but don’t worry about that part. Using your Frankenstein like injector squirt a good shot into the thickest part of the meat. Wrap it and refrigerate overnight.
Make the chimichurri ahead so that it’s there and finished when you need it
Stem and chop the parsley and cilantro
Combine the parsley and cilantro into the bowl of a food processor with the other ingredients except for the olive oil. Pulse a couple of times. Then with the motor running on low gradually drizzle in the olive oil. Let it rest.
Start your fire, preferably using the chimney method
In a pie pan or something similar mix up the ingredients for the rub; the remaining salt, the pepper and the pimenton. Rub all over the tri tip and don’t skimp on the salt part.
When your fire is hot enough grill the meat, turning only once*, until it hits an internal temperature of 130F. Take it off and transfer to a platter and let it rest covered in foil for ten minutes.
Carve and serve along with the chimi as a condiment.
*Note to cooks; it drives me ‘effing nuts to watch amateur patio daddy-o’s constantly flipping steaks and burgers. It only slows down the cooking process to where you just end up with road kill. My own dad was a master at that.