Saturday, 30 November 2013

On the road in California

Driving all around California you realise how much local life and food culture revolves around the road. A whole discipline of marketing and architecture developed around luring drivers in off the road, and new iterations sit alongside original Googies all along the roads.

Household name chains - like Denny's, Wendy's, Taco Bell - all seem to mostly exist out in the middle of nowhere, on a cross-section, where its convenient for people to meet and, crucially, parking is free. Nobody likes to pay for parking.

The ultimate Californian roadside eating experience is the cult SW chain In-n-Out, serving up affordable and delicious burgers, fries and shakes decades before muppets like us were standing in the cold, queuing to get into MeatEasy. This is the real deal, and there's not a carefully-crafted beard in sight. Just regular families getting served by super efficient, politely scripted staff in pristine uniforms.

The official menu is short and simple - one burger or two (their Double-Double is the inspiration for MeatLiquor's Double Bubble), cheese or not, fries.

But their cult status rests on the loyalty of their customers who know about their "not so" secret menu. It's basically the same core ingredients, but varied up. You could have a triple burger, a grilled cheese (extra cheese, no meat - their veggie option), grilled onions instead of fried, or their Animal Fries - which is fries with their sachet sauce, topped with melted cheese and grilled onions.

We ate twice on the road, and once, late at night, we drove through the In-n-Out in central Hollywood for a surreal LA experience. It was packed at 1.30am, and we enjoyed their faultlessly polite and efficient service while teens hung by their cars slurping down milkshakes.

Motels are a big part of the scene too - outside the big cities and picturesque lodges in the countryside, tourist accommodation is centred on the idea that you're just passing through on your way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The same chintzy accommodation could cost you £200 a night in ritzy-parochial Carmel-by-the-Sea but £60 100 miles down the coast in San Simeon. But the most famous of all lodgings is the incredibly kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, midway between California's most famous cities.

It's like something from a Disney-drenched dream of fibreglass seashells, grottos and caves, swirly carpets, winding staircases, turrets and lots and lots of parking for people coming in off the motorway roaring past outside.

We stopped for lunch and had fittingly kitschy pineapple and chicken sandwiches, prawn salad with copious volumes of thousand island dressing, and pink champagne cake.

Fellow diners were retro roadtrip fans, local ladies doing birthday lunch, all served by vintage tattooed ladies. One of those "only in California" places.

Our final roadtrippin' destination was Santa Barbara, which is a well-heeled university town 100 miles north of LA. We shunned its fancy seafood, yachty seafood restaurants, for Los Agaves,  the city's top Mexican taqueira, by the coastal highway.

We had the best Mexican food we've ever ever ever had - mine was a shrimp and halibut enchilada, topped with pineapple, served with a mango salsa, red rice and local cheese. All for $13. Venture a little bit off the highway and you can avoid the dull chains and have some really good food at a very good price.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Eating Mission

Hackney is a great place to live as a food lover, because it offers such variety. As a neighbourhood in transition, there are so many parts to its history and culture that lead to tasty food - Vietnamese, Turkish and Caribbean restaurants from waves of people who settled here, fancy innovative restaurants, greasy spoon cafes, greasy luxe junk food. It's all here.

So when I stay in other big cities I seek out neighbourhoods that have similar characteristic. The Mission is San Francisco's neighbourhood in transition. A veritable multicultural hub where people from all walks of life seem to rub along just fine. Happily, it has one of San Francisco's best micro-climates: it is often sunny while other parts of the city are shrouded in fog and drizzle.

The Mission did us very well for eating, and here are some of my favourite spots. See also my street food post for more Mission treats.

Taqueria Cancun
It's no shadow of a lie that you can't move in Mission for amazing Mexican food. Mission Street in particular is home to dozens of brilliant taqueiras, some open 24 hours a day, serving up fresh and authentic Mexican food that would have Londoners queueing around the block and throwing money at. We ended up at Cancun on our first night in a jetlagged fug, and had shrimp burrito, pork carnita super tacos, and the veggie equivalents.

It was good honest Mexican comfort food at its best, incredible ingredients, creamy thick slices of avocado, punchy home made salsas and constantly replenishing taco chips. This is probably bog standard as far as Mission taqueiras are concerned, but it was lovely, warm, fresh and filling.

It's a concept screaming out for wider adoption - ramshackle DIY vibe, innovative and punky spins on Chinese food. We had cumin rubbed pungent lamb ribs, thrice cooked bacon and rice cakes, curried fried rice with pork, crab and pineapple, and some small plates with different coloured potatoes, pickles and heirloom tomatoes, pickled peanuts, pickles. All very on trend locally sourced, seasonal, old cuts meets Asian spices and flavours.

As you might expect, it's walk-ins only, but works a bit better than London because there's a list and you get a well approximated waiting time, so it's enough time to get a drink somewhere warm while you wait. Although maybe we have queues in London because we like queueing?

Limon Rotisserie
"It's our version of Nando's" a San Franciscan very incorrectly told me. No, it's so much better. Sure, it's a mid-range mini chain serving up (rotisserie, in this case) chicken. But Limon is renowned for it's affordable, tasty ceviche. We had their mixed cold ceviche (prawns, calamari, white fish), their mixed hot ceviche (all of the same ingredients, but FRIED, and served with a spicy, aromatic dippy dressing.  Some of the best I've had, and at a fair price.

The chicken was tasty, as were the sides of fried yucca, sweet potato fries, truffled mac and cheese, and a so so San Franciscan deconstructed Russian salad with purple potatoes, local beetroot, shredded carrot, avo and aioli. We also enjoyed expertly mixed, frothy pisco sours. If only Nando's Dalston mixed up a good pisco sours. If only.

Bar Tartine
San Francisco is famous for being the birthplace of California cuisine, which is all about eating locally and seasonally, but blending the influences of indiginous and incomer. It tends to be pretty pricey, but there's good value to be found. We opted for Bar Tartine for our final meal in San Francisco, following a recommendation from a trusted foodie.

The combinations were so complex and specific that I've long forgotten them. The pictures speak for themselves, really, but some of the highlights included: salmon three ways in buttermilk; seedy, herby flatbread with amazing hummus and dukkah; assortments of pickles in jars; kale with seeds and homemade yoghurt (so so SF); tripe in a paprika broth; and cheese dumplings in a chanterelle stew.

The waiting staff were incredibly knowledgeable, the vibe jovial, the winelist very nicely put together with lots of local Californian wines. It was the perfect place to experience San Francisco's haute cuisine without breaking the bank.