Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Filet-O-Fish Virgin

In junior high my best friend gave up watching “Simpsons” for the entire Catholic season of Lent. Translate this to 12-year-old speak and you get “Michael, for the entire month we will have nothing to talk about.” In addition to cartoon shows he was also restricted from eating meat on Friday’s, which had me even happier to be a non-Kosher keeping Jew.

Hot on the heels of religious tradition fast food chains took note and jumped into action. Taco Bell is the most popular with just about every other burger flipping fast food chain—from Arby’s to Sonic’s—following in line. However the grand fried filet of them would have to be the Filet-O-Fish sandwich at Mcdonald’s. It’s always been there hidden between more notable offerings just waiting until this time of year to take center stage. I’ve always known it was there but it didn’t interest me, until today. After all these years I just had to know what a “Filet-O-Fish” experience would be like. Call it masochism or morbid curiosity—or even just the fact that it was now seasonally discounted—but on this dreary day I walked over to a local McDonald’s thinking that by walking I was doing this the “healthy” way.

Filet-O-Fish Sign

Standing outside McDonald’s starring at an oversized image of what I was about to eat—a Filet-O-Fish overflowing with waves of tartar sauce and unnecessary cheese—made me queasy.

Seriously if the folks over at Tum’s are thinking of a way to push more product just steal this poster and replace all the text with the word “TUM’S.” Tartar sauce is for dipping not for slathering, and melted cheese on fried fish rubs me the wrong way.

At the register the cashier took my order and handed over fate in a pale blue box. In hand I oddly missed being able to unwrap a sandwich from McDonald’s. There was always something about the wrapping process and the crinkling sound of paper to reveal your burger that felt special. It was like unwrapping a present made just for me. Though I’m sure at McDonald’s this “present” was intended for anyone crazy enough to ask for it.

Filet O Fish BoxFilet O Fish Box Open

Sitting down I opened the box slowly. There it sat looking pathetic. A fish filet careless tossed on a bun, a puff of tartar sauce seeping out of one side, and no cheese was anywhere to be seen. I lifted the top and saw only what reminded me of baby vomit. Had they forgotten the cheese? Lifting the bun I found it; a half slice over-melted to the point of crustiness. What gives McDonald’s? Too cheap to give me a whole slice?

Filet O Fish Sauce

Why I continued to lift it and eat it I have no idea. I had to pretend I was about to eat a tasty éclair to fool myself into doing so.

The entire sandwich from top to bottom tasted awful. The bun was generically boring, the tartar sauce was mostly relish and mayo, the cheese was absolutely flavorless, and the fish was cold and tasted faintly like fried cardboard. If the container hadn’t remained on the table I probably would have thought I accidentally picked that up and ate it.

I poked at the rest of the sandwich, wiped off most of the tartar sauce, left half the bun in the box, and just ate the fish for protein. Then I went home and made dinner to wash away the growing sway of seasickness.

For years I’ve wondered how the Filet-O-Fish tasted and now I know; like the box. Can I interest you in some TUM’S?

(Various Locations)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Time Traveling to Saddle Peak Lodge

Raise your hand if you would enjoy chowing down on game meat sitting across from what may have been your entrée’s relative mounted to a wall? Let me add, you’ll be doing this in a Michelin starred restaurant choosing between the “New Zealand elk tenderloin” or the “Mesquite grilled Texas antelope.” Does that help you pick up the fork?

For Sunday brunch I took a detour from civilization and trekked to Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas. OK, so it’s not really in the middle of nowhere. Still you can’t help sink into the feeling that the drive through the Malibu Canyon is like a slow departure from man. Houses are replaced by wilderness, and Malibu Barbie holding a Starbucks is replaced with an equally intelligent tree. Then when you do finally pull up to the lodge, stride through the lobby with mounted antique firearms behind glass, and into one of the various dining rooms where the majority of the providing light is what’s streaming through the surrounding windows, you’ve completed your time traveling.

I’ve been to Saddle Peak several times in the past, both for brunch and for dinner service. It was pleasant to be back and find that it was still the turn of the century and nothing had been messed with. There was no horridly large television screen or modern art plastered to the walls. Such things would not belong here.

To start our meal we ordered the weekly changed muffin basket of the morning appropriately called a goode basket.

Goode Basket

Out of the apple cinnamon, the banana pecan, the orange cranberry with a bourbon glaze, and the wild blueberry, the orange cranberry and the wild blueberry were my favorites. Each contained whole berries that burst ever so slightly with every chew. The tastiest part of the apple cinnamon was the streusel top, and the banana pecan was too delicate in both flavors to really stand out.

To accompany the meal we ordered the three game sausages. Today was (from left to right) wild bore cranberry, duck jalapeno, and pheasant cognac.


Between the three my favorites were the wild bore cranberry and the pheasant cognac. Both had a sweet taste and and a wonderful texture. The duck in the duck jalapeno was took mellow a flavor to be paired with the mildly spicy jalapeno.

Jennifer had the duck confit hash described in the menu as “served on rye toast with tomatoes, shallots, arugula, fines herbs and an egg sunny side up.”

Duck Hash

Perhaps my brain had been living to long in a Jewish deli, because I had imagined something different then what finally arrived. Plated beautifully the portion was paltry. The rye toast was more of a toast round, and the duck hash was equal in size to a short stack of poker chips. With the abundance of arugula it came across more as a salad that happened to have some hash. This would have probably been better suited on a tasting menu then as a main course. Presentation aside the duck was over salted and overshadowed by too much hash and underplayed by not enough egg.

My buffalo burger is what a real meal should look like. A specified medium-rare slab of buffalo “with Swiss cheese, avocado, mushrooms, apple wood smoked bacon” and “onion rings” replaced by sweet potato fries.

Buffalo Burger

As burger buns often do this one also fell pray to having an off “bun:burger” ratio, being unnecessarily larger then the contained meat and ingredients within. Thankfully I can deal with too much by peeling away.

I did have some worry that the naturally leaner then beef buffalo would be overcooked. Gratefully my buffalo was grilled exactly to medium-rare. It was juicier then I’m used to experiencing and much less gamey tasting then I’ve come to encounter in the past. This was the first time I’ve ever really appreciated buffalo, and it wasn’t outdone by layers and layers of lettuce leaves or powerful flavors that smother the meat. The swiss was mild and the mushrooms and avocado were sparsely included to really give the buffalo it’s time to graze my palette. The bacon added a nice bit of saltiness and bite to the burger, cooked to just under crisp the way I like it. There was certainly no mayo, ketchup, or mustard to complicate things.

The sweet potato fries that I ordered instead of onion rings made the entire dish a delicious whole. They were fried to crisp thin golden ribbons, salted just enough to yield a strong sweet potato flavor. I’ve had my fair share of sweet potato fries and I’d rank these near the top of my list. Thinking now it’s hard to remember a time I’ve enjoyed them so much.

For dessert we split the brownie “smore.”

Brownie Smore

The word “smore” was quoted in the menu because the brownie smore is not a smore at all. It was a graham cracker lava cake encased in a light marshmallow crust. When you broke the outer shell into the cake it oozed chocolate. It was a heavily sugared concoction that was a nice finish, albeit not mind blowing close the Sunday brunch. Next time I’ll give the coffee crème brûlée a try.

At Saddle Peak Lodge time moves at a crawl with Sunday brunch being an immersive and welcome addition to anyone’s brunch rotation. It’s hard to decide which I like more, brunch or dinner. Both obviously offer different menus. Brunch is the more affordable option and includes dishes like “game gravy with biscuits” and “eggs benedict.” Dinner leans more heavily on the meat dishes which do appear to be Saddle Peak’s strong suit. Whichever you do choose just prepare to fall into the experience, where the only sense of time is the passing of the sun over the rolling hills.

Saddle Peak Lodge
419 Cold Canyon Rd.
Calabasas, CA 91302

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Beginning a BBQ Journey at Rib Ranch in Woodland Hills

There are few cuisines that have as many admirers and heated debate as barbeque. The opinion on “what makes a good Q” is endless, with a laundry list of reasons why or why not one is better then the other. Whether it be region, animal choice, method of sauce application, etc., there will always be die hard BBQ fans. I have not been one of those people, though I don’t blame myself.

I blame what I and the rest of the general population have been exposed to. My family fired up the bbq plenty of times sure, but as I’m learning this isn’t barbequing this is grilling. BBQ is low and slow. What most Americans refer to as barbequing involves a lot less care and patience. My sole exposure to the terribleness that is Tony Roma’s did not help matters either.

Luckily as a foodie I am willing to try new things and have decided to be more “barbeque friendly.” I won’t automatically shoot passed messy ribs assuming I’ll hate them. I want to become an expert in all things barbeque and actually be one of the many who have a stone to throw in the “what makes a good Q” debate based on actual knowledge and not just chain restaurants or family bbq’s.

Sign Outside Rib Ranch

Rib Ranch in Woodland Hills was my first stop and it’s conveniently located in Woodland Hills. Just head south on Topanga passed the row of suburban homes and stop at the little house that looks like a log cabin. If that’s not enough of a clue for you the large black smoker on their small front patch of lawn makes passing by idiot-proof.

Outside Rib Ranch

On this breezy and cool Sunday Jenn and I took a seat at one of the few patio tables. They do have dining inside as part of a somewhat larger wood-to-wood dining area but eating BBQ outdoors felt right on this lazy day.

The Menu at Rib Ranch

The menu is broken into BBQ sandwiches (I’m morbidly curious about the pastrami), salads, and “deluxe” sections that involve the reason why I came; just BBQ and none of this bread or lettuce business. I have read good things about their BBQ tri-tip sandwich, even their hotdog, but I was on a mission. For me it was either the Eastern Baby Back Pork Ribs, the Black Angus Beef Ribs, the BBQ Chicken, or the BBQ Tri-Tip.

Jenn and I split the “Rib Ranch Two-Step” ($16.95) that allows you to choose two of those plus two sides. Since I'm middle of the road when it comes to pork or beef we decided to compare and contrast the baby back and the beef ribs. For sides we randomly picked baked beans and the steak fries. I wasn't there for the sides.

Knowing that real BBQ takes time I was wondering how long a wait it would be from ordering to table. For us it took about fifteen or so minutes. Was the quickness of delivery a bad sign? Looking at the two thick beef ribs, dark red pork ribs, scoop of BBQ beans and handful of fries I sure hoped not.

Rib Ranch The Two Step

Before jumping in I squirted some of their signature sauce on one of the fries to get a taste. It was sweet and slightly peppered. I enjoyed the sauce but Jenn didn’t care for the sweetness. The steak fry was cooked crisp on the outside and soft within. This is the way I ordinarily like my fries but eaten without the sauce they were just unsalted potatoes. For me the fries were only meant for sauce transportation. Still they were better then the overly sugared baked beans that left me reaching for water.

Now on to the actual solid stuff I started with the pork ribs on top of the meat pile. For most of the experience they were tender and pulled off the bone easily though I did encounter some unevenness. There was a faint taste of smokiness and a more dominant sweet flavor that was only a step above in intensity. These were fine, better then Tony Roma’s, but nothing to fall out of chair into a pool of BBQ smiles for.

Next I moved onto the beef. If Rib Ranch bills itself as more “Texas Style” where beef grazes in just about everyone’s hearts these should be good right? Sorry to burst your Texas bubble but these were not so fabulous.

Difficult to pull off the bone, tough, and way too chewy, it was obvious that our ribs were not cooked long enough. Had these been slowly cooked over a long period of time they would have been tender fall off the bone. I left my bland beef rib unfinished and polished off the better pork ribs.

I don’t think “Rib Ranch” will win any contests for BBQ ribs (maybe BBQ sauce), but as a first stop as part of my BBQ education it was great at setting the bar. I have an opinion now! The service was attentive and the pricing was about right, but if the best part of a BBQ joint is the sauce then something is amiss. The experience wasn’t a total wash though. I know I will be back to try the sandwiches, the tri-tip, and the chicken only because I’m willing to keep trying. If ribs aren’t the “Rib Ranch” strong suit then maybe their other options will fair better. In the very least I walked away knowing that if someone asked me where to go, between here or Tony Roma’s, I’d say here quicker then you can say grilling.

Rib Ranch Bar-B-Que
4923 Topanga Canyon Blvd
Woodland Hills, CA 91364
(818) 884-7776

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Latest Chick in the Zankou Coop

There are people who are carb crazy. They eat oodles and oodles of noodles, baskets and baskets of bread, and look at the dessert menu before even cracking open the entree section. I am not one of these people. Maybe it was the endless amounts of meat based dishes I grew up on or just my body chemistry, but when I put together a meal I always have a heaping portion of dead animal. It's a lucky thing for my arteries that what I always crave is anything fowl: turkey, duck, hen, chicken etc.. If it had wings I probably ate it at some point along the way. I'm very grateful to live in a world that offers me endless options of eateries focused around this meat staple, like the California Chicken Cafe or Koo Koo Roo's.

Yet another even more popular and notable one of these chicken-centric destinations in LA is Zankou Chicken, which just opened up a new location closer to me then the one on Sepulveda in Van Nuys. For die hard Zankou fiends this new location will be a blessing. For me it didn't raise much of an eyebrow. I've only been to Zankou once before and to be frank I found it truly overrated. The chicken was drier then reported and they forgot to give me the holy grail garlic sauce. Half way through I was saying, "shouldn't I be tasting garlic?" I inquired at the counter and they handed me a pre-packaged and sealed quarter cup. It did improve the chicken but not enough to draw me back.

Even so I decided to give them another go at their newest outpost located in Tarzana in a stripmall along Ventura Blvd.

Outside Zankou

Compared to the Van Nuys location this has a much better parking situation. I'm sure their business neighbors won't be too pleased with the sudden loss of available spaces, but those headed to this Zankou will be not having to deal with the same tiny parking lot headache they did in Van Nuys. This one is also quite different in restaurant design and seating.

In Van Nuys you have a small space with a cluster of booths and a crowded order/pick-up counter. Here you have tables and chairs in a much more comfortable and well ordered atmosphere along with patio seating. Overall the place feels less claustrophobic and welcoming then their dirtier cousin. They even have a plasma TV and serve alcohol!

This time round I ordered the Chicken Tarna sandwich ($4.99).

Chicken Tarna Sandwich

Talk about doing a 180 degree from my last visit. The chicken tarna was a blend of juicy dark and white chicken wrapped inside a pita smeared generously with garlic paste. The entire sandwich was great and I enjoyed every greasy garlic mouthful. The sandwich also comes with a side of pickled turnips and chilies. As I normally do I tried mixing the flavors with a few bites of the sandwich. I liked the added zip and heat but the texture of the turnips was not a nice compliment. Perhaps next time just using the chilies would be better suited.  

Chicken Tarna Sandwich Revealed

I did notice while picking out pieces of chicken tarna the dark meat was much more flavorful then the white. At my one other visit I noticed this as well which leads me to assume that Zankou is not a place to order white meat. The grease factor didn't bother me so much although it was very greasy. Don't do what I did and unwrap the thing to peak inside. The grease softens the pita to a fragile state and the only thing holding it precariously together is that shiny wrapping of tinfoil. Believe in the tin foil and you'll have greaseless hands and not be forced to reconstruct.

However, perhaps even the more important factor to cover here is the garlic paste. I wasn't sure why it tasted better until I saw that my girlfriends plate that came with a side of paste wasn't pre-packaged. It was in a clear plastic container with a removable top.

Holy Grail Garlic Paste

Then I looked past the cashier and noticed behind her a tin vat with a ladle. Turns out Tarzana mixes it up on the premises. The taste difference is undeniable. It's richer and more pleasing, fresher and more satisfying. This is a garlic paste to stand behind.

Leave Van Nuys behind and head over to this newest bird in Tarzana. Parking is easier, tables are many, and the food will have you saying it's about time Van Nuy's Zankou was taken out of the coop and served to the dog.


Zankou Chicken
19598 Ventura Blvd
Tarzana, CA 91356
(818) 345-1200

Monday, January 5, 2009

IKEA Has Balls

With the economy in the crapper bargain bites are starting to become societies life blood. Fast food chains are citing an increase in sales, the 99.99 Cent Store is seeing brand new shoppers from all walks of life, and more and more people are even (gasp!) cooking at home. Meanwhile restaurants that are known for carrying a heftier price tag are reducing those $15 pizzas a few dollars just to stay afloat. Score for us! Reflecting today after all of last month's Christmas gift spending I was certainly out to get the most bang for my buck lunch. I wanted something exotic, something that would warm my chilled bones, and of course something tasty. Hmmmm... where oh where could I get such a meal? I've got it. IKEA!

The Swedish furniture store offering bargain priced furniture with little innovative quirks and designs is also known for their marketplace stocked with Swedish specialty items and their ridiculously cheap cafe food. You can find American standards like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, even a pretty decent breakfast for under a buck, but the real star for those not in the know is the Swedish meatballs.

IKEA - Carson, CA

For $5 you get 15 tasty balls smothered in a slightly heavy gravy, an ice cream scoop serving of standard potatoes covered in the same, and a helping of sweet lingonberry sauce. This is glorified Swedish comfort food that'll please any greedy palate looking for a meal light on the wallet.

True it's not pretty or perfect and can do with a bit more spicing in the meatballs, but once you play mad scientist mixing potatoes with a meatball, lingonberry with meatball, or even all three who really cares it still tastes delicious.


20700 Avalon Blvd 
Carson, CA 90746
(Various Locations)