Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dishcrawl Through The Mission

On Sunday, the missus and I took advantage of the fleeting sun to join a group of food lovers and food writers for a Mission Street Food Dishcrawl, hosted by the lovely and effervescent Tracy Lee of Battledish, a delightful little venture aimed at getting food lovers out exploring their city and taking part in exciting foodie adventures.

Our day started at sunny and windswept Precita Park in San Francisco's Bernal Heights to sample a few of the plethora of amazing street food carts our city has to offer, as well as offerings from Terra Savia Olive Oils and gluten-free baked goodies from Zest Bakery.  From there we were off, an army of foodies tromping through the Mission to our first stop:  Mission Pie

Luckily, Mission Pie was all but empty on this Sunday afternoon, so we kind of had our run of the place.  After perusing the delicacies behind the glass, the missus and I decided on the pluot frangipane tart with a little dollop of whipped cream.  So simple, so delicious.  Gone in a matter of bites.  Mission Pie has without a doubt the most delicious pies in The City, and it is always a treat to get to stop in and enjoy a slice.  Oddly enough though, on this day we ate pie before we ate anything that resembled dinner.  Oh well.

After pie, we mozied down Mission Street to Rosamunde Sausage Grill, a local favorite that somehow I had never heard of before.  The recommendation from those in the know was to get the beer sausage, so we ordered one to share with grilled onions and sweet peppers.  While one of the least exotic items on a menu that includes chicken cherry, duck, and pheasant, the beer sausage hit the spot.  A smoky spiciness from the beef and pork sausage, sweetness from the onions and peppers, and a little heat from the mustard added up to a perfect snack before moving along to our next destination deeper into the Mission.

I might have mentioned this before, but I love Mexican food.  Love it.  Cannot get enough of it.  And if you are on the hunt for great, real, uncomplicated Mexican food, the Mission is where you go.  Pretty reliably, you can walk down 24th street on any given day and be hypnotized by the wafting aromas of carnitas and carne asada, lulled in by the sounds of sizzling meats on a grill and too-loud soap operas blaring from wall mounted televisions.  This isn't your financial district fancy, sit down, cloth napkin Mexican food, my friends.  This is greasy paper plate piled with tender meat and warm tortillas, juice dripping down your hands, use ten napkins by the time you're done Mexican food.

And one of the best places to find that kind of Mexican food, the best kind in my humble opinion, is at Taqueria Vallarta, a deceptively large eatery along 24th that boasts it's own taco cart separate from the main counter.  Pull up a bench in the dining room and enjoy the colorful and whimsical murals covering the walls.  For a buck and a half per taco, you have your choice of a variety of meats, including the standard carnitas, pollo, carne asada, lengua, and al pastor that sizzle in a round bowled grill being constantly tended by the frantic cook behind the glass.  Tell the man the meats you want, he slaps them into warm tortillas, then you toss on fresh chopped onions, cilantro, radishes, a squeeze of lime, and a little salsa.  Pay the nice lady, and you are ready to chow.

I tucked into a carne asada and a carnitas taco, and honestly couldn't stop thinking about them for the rest of the afternoon.  I truly could have sat at that table stuffing my face with those tacos until closing time.  But we had a schedule to keep, and a few more stops to make before the evening was done.

Around the corner to Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream, where we all sated our sweet tooths with some of San Francisco's best and most creative ice cream.  A crowd favorite was the olive oil ice cream, a strange combination of sweet and savory that really just worked.  Some of the more original concoctions are secret breakfast (a mixture of bourbon and little flecks of corn flakes) peanut butter curry, cinnamon brittle, and the bizarre Jesus juice, a mixture of red wine and Coca-Cola.

To exacerbate the sugary caloric intake, we had a visit from Cindi Fleischer of the Anticupcake company, maker of deliciously diminutive personal sized cheesecakes.  Cindi brought along a small cooler packed with her mini cheesecakes including dulce de leche and and s'mores, two exceptionally creative flavors that wowed the group.  My one sweet weakness has always been cheesecake, and these little treats were first rate.

One more stop just another block up 24th street to La Victoria Panaderia.  A great neighborhood bakery that has been a part of the Mission for over 60 years makes some of the most delicious pan dulce in The City.  The hour was getting late and our appetites were flagging, but a walk through the Mission is never complete without a stop at La Victoria.  While the remaining members of our Dishcrawl group waited patiently for an empanada, the missus and I grabbed a few delicious looking pastries for the road and left to nurse our food comas.

The Dishcrawl was a great day out and about, enjoying the sun, great food, and fantastic company.  It was fun to see some familiar faces and to get introduced to new ones.  Thanks to Tracy Lee for setting up this Sunday afternoon foodie adventure, we cannot wait for the next one.  For more info on the next Dishcrawl and whatever mouth-watering adventures Tracy has planned next, visit the Battledish website and sign up!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Simple Ingredients

I am not a good cook.  And I am not saying that out of humility, fishing for a compliment.  I say that because I am not learned in the refined techniques of turning raw ingredients into perfectly crafted dishes, or pairing delicate flavors together to dazzle the pallet.  I have, for the most part, learned what little I do know by watching, by reading, and of course by making mistakes.

One thing that I know for sure though is that it does not take much to make something that tastes absolutely amazing.  It certainly doesn't take much to turn a few ingredients into a mess of tasteless mush, either, but that typically happens when we try just a little too hard.  The most important thing I have learned is that cooking is applying a certain amount of heat for a certain amount of time to raw ingredients.  Sure, there is some chopping and stirring and seasoning involved, but what gives the dish it's flavor, what causes it to succeed or fail, are the ingredients.

I think so often we are either so snobbishly aloof or so brazenly indifferent to the food we eat that we forget exactly what causes that particular emotional (or lack thereof) connection.  But believe me, the reason so many people seek out the best restaurants while others simply disregard food as anything but fuel will boil down every time to the quality of the ingredients in the food they eat.  The greatest chefs in the world will tell you that any menu begins and ends with the freshest, highest quality ingredients.  As a contrast to that, the lowliest fry cook at any fast food joint in the world will tell you that they don't know where tomatoes come from or when they are in season, they just know a slice of one is supposed to go on top of the patty.

The basic, raw ingredients come from somewhere, and it can't hurt to know where they came from and how many people have handled them along the way.  Obviously, the fresher the ingredient, the more honest and vibrant the flavor, and the fewer hands an ingredient passes through to get to your kitchen, the fresher it will be.  And whatever your ingredient, whether it is fiddleheads or flank steak, the fresher and more flavorful the ingredient, the less preparation needed to turn it into a spectacular meal.

I have never been particularly impressed with dishes that try far too hard to be something they are not; those precariously balanced towers of unnaturally shaped food or the modernist deconstruction of grandma's meatballs seem more like an ode to the chef's ego than real food.  I realize there is a time and a place for a dish prepared with such meticulous and single-minded precision.  But for me food is not precise or scientific; food is warm and organic, heartfelt, and not just a little messy.  The elegance and pleasure of a meal comes not from it's artistic design and presentation, but from it's simplicity; a dish that relies on the quality of just a few exceptional ingredients.

 Those ingredients, the raw materials of your dinner, are what make your meal delicious.  So often the meals I make for my wife and I on a weeknight after a long day at work are made with the least amount of fuss and preparation.  And more often than not, dinner is pretty darn good.  I won't lie; we've had some disasters.  But occasionally, we surprise ourselves and throw together something out of this world delicious.

But not once has it been because I am a good cook.  When you rely on the exquisit flavors of a few exceptional ingredients, you don't need to be.  Pasta with Chanterelle mushrooms and early girl tomatoes, Quinoa with fresh asparagus, sauteed green beans and garlic, or slices of fresh tomato with olive oil.  A few fresh, simple ingredients, prepared with minimal fuss, letting the flavors of your ingredients shine through.  Just add the heat.