Tortas Sinaloa – Santa Ana, CA

OC TOP 100: DISH #23 – AGUAS FRESCAS

Translated, aguas frescas, literally means fresh waters.  They are punch-like drinks usually made with fresh fruit that can be quite refreshing.  Many places that sell them will have large jars displayed in a colorful array from which the liquid is ladled out of as you order it.  I imagine it is like drinking from a rainbow. On the left, is the Cantaloupe, which is quite refreshing since there aren’t many other drinks with that flavor. In the middle is Jamaica, a Hibiscus based punch that tastes like fruit punch. On the right is Horchata, a milky creamy cinnamony delight made from rice.  There are many other flavors such as Mamey, Strawberry with Milk, Orange, Pineapple, Lime, and Fruit with Milk. But I would tend to veer away from the Pineapple and Orange, as they tend to resemble watered down versions of the juices. Just don’t get the medium sized as you get almost twice the amount in large for about 25 cents more. And since they are made with real fruits, it doesn’t have a cloyingly artificial taste.

But tortas are the true specialty here.  It’s a good thing that the Sinaloa region is known for something more than their drug cartels. I decided to be brave and tried their Picosito. It is filled with carne asada, cheese, tomatoes, and avocado. They warned me that it would be super spicy. My first few bites into it definitely proved to have some good heat, but then I noticed that the heat level kept getting stronger and stronger.  I lifted up the bread to see what could possibly be so freaking hot, and then realized that what I had thought were grilled onions were actually grilled habanero peppers. Holy Mother of God! The pain was unbearable. At this point tears were streaming down my face and I had fluid coming out from nearly every orifice in my body. I paid my bill in a rush and ran to the Baskin Robbins across the parking lot to get some ice cream to alleviate the burn. It took a full 30 min before the heat subsided to more manageable levels. Needless to say, Part Two hit me later on that night.  The lesson here is simple…don’t order this torta unless you are some kind of masochist.IMG_0241

The Vegetarian torta is by far more innocuous. With tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese it is much better when doused with their spicy red salsa.IMG_0242

There are also Tacos here if you are not in the mood for tortas. They are pretty decent street cart tacos.IMG_0278

I was only able to get a small sampling of their tortas, as there are many many more in various combinations of different meats and fillings.

Website: www.tortassinaloa.net

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Empanada’s Place – Costa Mesa, CA

OC TOP 100: DISH #22 – EMPANADAS

Although I have never visited Argentina, I imagine it as a place awash in chimichurri sauce, slabs of beef, empanadas, and the soundtrack from Evita blaring out loudly on every block. Though I exaggerate a bit, I’m pretty sure empanadas are served everywhere in the country.  It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume it is their national dish.  It’s not just limited to Argentina…any Spanish or Portuguese speaking country has their own version.

If you have ever had one, it’s easy to understand why.  I think of it as the inspiration for Hot Pockets. Who can resist a Hot Pocket? No one can.  People walk out with dozens of them at a time.  I am by far, no expert in empanadas, but was fortunate enough to bring along a friend who was.  A good empanada is supposed to have a crisp exterior shell that reveals a hot flavorful interior.  If you don’t burn the inside of your mouth eating one, it is a clear signal that something is amiss.  Argentinean cuisine is not really spicy in the sense of heat, but it packs a lot of flavor.  A mediocre empanada will taste and feel a bit pasty, as the majority served in other places are. The most common misconception by many people used to Mexican cuisine is their expectation for any food from a Spanish speaking country to be spicy or full of chile flavor.  Most of the food from South America tends to be comparatively bland, albeit garlicky.  The central theme is not to drown the food but rather enhance it in a subtle fashion.DSC_0874

The most popular empanada here is the Criolla, which is a more traditional filling comprised of ground beef, raisins, green onions, and various spices.  Good alone, but even more splendid when paired with the chimichurri sauce which is very garlicky and is Argentina’s equivalent to pesto.DSC_0873

The Cheesy Spicy Beef is also delicious with ground beef, peas, carrots, potatoes, and mozzarella cheese.  The heat level is very mild, and the cheese comes out piping hot. The use of mozzarella may not be completely traditional but its ability to ooze out really enhances the experience.DSC_0872

Sadly, we were only here for a quick bite and I was only able to hit 2 flavors.  But I will definitely be back and possibly add more photos. They offer almost 20 different varieties so there is a bit of something for everyone including vegetarian options. At about $3 a piece, they are a pretty good bargain as each is about 6 inches in length.

I can’t understand why I waited this long to try this place since I used to live a few blocks away from their original location in Culver City. That was almost 20 years ago, and their longevity alone should be a testament to how good they really are.

Website: www.empanadasplace.com

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R&G Lounge – San Francisco, CA

I don’t really know what the “R” and “G” stand for at R&G Lounge.  My guess is that it means “Really Good”.  Not quite the name you would expect for a Chinese restaurant located in Chinatown. Whenever friends ask me for a recommendation to a good Chinese place in SF I tell them to come here.  Why? Because it captures the quintessential Chinese cuisine that they imagine when they think about SF.  It probably isn’t the best Chinese food around, and I am hardly qualified to make this judgement because I haven’t eaten at more than a handful of Chinese places.  But it is still damn good.

The dish that everyone seems to get here, or any Chinese seafood  place for that matter, is the Salt and Pepper Crab.  They may no be the only place that serves live crab, but they sure know how to season and cook it. It is battered in flour rather than corn starch which makes it a bit greasier, but tends to provide better flavor for the seasonings.IMG_0777

Steamed Egg with Clams is another fantastic dish.  The eggs come out in a velvety custard-like texture which are wonderful to eat with the clams.  Although the egg itself is rather plain, it pairs well with the rich umami of the clams.IMG_0778Seafood Chow Mein is pretty standard and similar to that served in many other places.IMG_0779

There are many many more dishes to be had at R&G Lounge, but if you are tourist you may be disappointed with the fact that the decor is modern rather than decorated in red lanterns everywhere.  I don’t know why people have come to expect Chinese restaurants to look like brothels, even if they are in Chinatown.

Website: www.rnglounge.com

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Badmaash – Downtown, Los Angeles, CA

Finally a decent Bombay style cafe has come to LA. But this one comes with a touch of rebellious attitude that makes it a bit more hip. Part Bollywood, part hipster, if Quentin Tarantino were to frequent an Indian place, this would be it. It’s hard not to like a place that has a food porn section of the menu as well as incorporating the use of expletives.  Tradition be damned.

The food follows accordingly and is slightly different than what you would come to expect of a typical Indian restaurant.  Here you will see the absence of food swimming in a cesspool of ghee, the Indian clarified butter, and spices are toned down so they do not overpower the dishes and wreak havoc upon your digestive system.  But you will have some difficulty in classifying this place – fusion, tapas, organic, farm to table…whatever it may be, quality of ingredients are high and portion sizes are individualized rather than for sharing with the entire table.

Take for instance their Canadian-Indian dish of Chicken Tikka Poutine, which is an Indian twist on a Canadian national dish.  Having just come back from a recent trip to Canada, I can vouch that it is up there with the best poutine that they have to offer with crispy fries, rich gravy, cheese curds, and some chicken tikka on top.DSC_0018

Butter Chicken Samosas were also tasty. It is hard not to like anything that is wrapped in a pastry shell and then deep fried.DSC_0016

But my favorite was the Ghost Chili Lamb Vindaloo.  Using one of the hottest chiles in the world, the bhut jolokia, it was mildly spicy.  I use this term comparatively since anything with the ghost chile pepper in it tends to be painfully hot.  This one was at a perfect spice level where it created a good amount of heat without having to endure the pain that usually follows afterward.DSC_0017

Graciously, we were offered some of their Bombay Cutting Chai which is one of the best chai teas that I have had with a nice balance of cardamom and spices. Unfortunately I was only came for lunch so I was not able to enjoy their full dinner menu or be able to pig out. Other items that seem to stand out and are popular include their Chili Cheese Naan, Dad’s Carlsbad Mussels, Punjabi Pork Confit, Spiced Mango Pork Belly, and Spiced Lamb Burger.  It’s been a while since I have seen an Indian restaurant that offers pork on the menu! They also have the popular Indian cola, Thums Up, which is as much a part of Indian culture as is outsourced IT labor.  I can say that I was pleased enough to warrant a future dinner trip here, especially considering their decent selection of craft beers.

Bill total = 3 lunch entrees, 2 beverages, 2 appetizers, tax, tip = $72 ($36 per person)

Website: www.badmaashla.com

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Langer’s Deli – Westlake, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Langer’s…what the hell is nippy cheese? Apparently it is a sharp tasting cheese, but seriously, there needs to be some sort of nomenclature update.  But everything else is fine the way it is. Although some may argue that the prices have become somewhat exorbitantly high, it is what it is.  But then again, it seems to keep the crowds down. Such are the economics of  demand based pricing.

Langer’s pastrami seems to always be compared to Katz’s in NYC as to which is better.  Food critics usually put Langer’s on top. There is no arguing that their pastrami is a marvel of human ingenuity, and goes by the adage, if it ain’t broke why fix it.  Pastrami you would get at any other place tends to be a bit of a salty chewfest, but here it falls apart.  The rye bread that you can opt for as the carrier has a nice chewy crust, but is as supple as a mother’s bosom on the inside.  On this occasion I opted for the #44 which has sauerkraut and nippy cheese – variation on the Reuben.DSC_0005

The most popular version is the one with coleslaw in it, but that seemed a bit too healthy for me.  I decided to pile on the decadence with an order of Pastrami  Chili Fries instead. If you are going down, you might as well go down in a burst of glory.DSC_0001

A warm Apple Pie with some ice cream completed our dining adventure, but I was too gluttonous to take a photo.  Service is extremely efficient and your food arrives before you know it. They also have curbside service in case you want to take things to-go or if our employer only allows 30 min lunch breaks.  Langer’s closes around 4 pm and not open at all on Sundays.  That’s sort of a good thing s you probably don’t want to be in the neighborhood at night.

Bill total = 2 beverages, 1 side, 2 entrees, 1 dessert, tax, tip = $70 ($35 per person)

Website: www.langersdeli.com

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