Hard Rock Hotel, Juniper & Ivy, Bracero Cocina (aka the ‘Check Out San Diego, All Grown Up’) Post

There was a period in my early 20s when I spent a significant amount of time in San Diego, and golden years were those indeed. Bar hopping after dinner out with friends in the Gaslamp Quarter; gloriously long days on beach cruisers winding through San Diego’s beach towns and around Mission Bay itself; the omnipresence of Mexican fare, which in terms of quality and variety, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Ordering Mexican food in San Diego
December 26, 2015: Dude in flip flops and trench coat picking up an order he phoned in. Probably a carne asada burrito.

Back in ’04-’06, shiny new Petco Park was already causing a ripple effect, pushing development and “revitalization” beyond downtown’s historic core. San Diego’s “East Village” neighborhood as it stands today, with its luxury high rises, upscale grocers and fully realized urban lifestyle, was but a figment in some enterprising developer’s imagination. All 12-ish blocks of Little Italy collectively counted less than a handful of Italian anything, with taquerias and dive bars perpetually encroaching.

But I digress: It’s been a minute since I’ve been on the ground in America’s Finest City and so the chance to spend 24 hours downtown — an overnight getaway to celebrate our wedding anniversary — was very much a welcome reunion. We had a triple date lined up for the restaurant du jour, Richard Blais’ Juniper & Ivy, in Little Italy. (Side note: That Little Italy would be the trending, cool neighborhood in San Diego? I did not see that coming.)

We booked a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel, quintessential San Diego new-ish school cool with it’s Nobu outpost and terrace pool and lounge — alas, no daytime pool party in December. When the hotel opened about eight years ago, it was a trailblazer in San Diego’s recent development. I’ve always been a fan of the Hard Rock brand and it did not disappoint. The front desk (aka “Ground Control” — RIP David Bowie) even sent up a complimentary bottle of bubbles for the occasion.

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After a quick stop in the aforementioned “East Village” neighborhood — I’m sorry, after almost 10 years of living in New York, I can’t think of San Diego’s so-called “East Village” without a sense of irony. Like, who plucked that name out of the sky? — we were off to Juniper & Ivy for the best triple date ever: two of my longest, dearest friends, including one who officiated our wedding on the beach three years ago, and their wonderful spouses.

Here, a sampling of what we ordered:

Juniper & IvyEverything was absolutely delicious — if a bit disjointed. There was a Southern-ish element, a Pacific vibe, a trio of pastas, many small plates, a few cheeky nods to American “classics” a la corn dogs, General Tso’s, sweet potatoes and marshmallows and “Lamburger Helper.” I didn’t see a through line to the menu other than that it emerged from the depths of Richard Blais’ wildly creative culinary dreams. (Not that that’s a bad thing.) Impressive, still, that a nationally-known chef like Blais picked San Diego to open his first West Coast outpost over big sibs LA and SF. Strategically, it’s brilliant — he’s the first chef of that stratosphere to stake a claim here, and residents have welcomed him with open arms.

On point water conservation messaging.
On point water conservation messaging via @HardRockSD

The next day: Fully in vacation mode, we’re back in Little Italy (of course we are) for lunch at Bracero Cocina de Raiz. So secretly full of anticipation: This is the kind of restaurant that did not exist in all in San Diego or anywhere in Southern California as I knew it for all of my formative years. Not in San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County; not even when I lived in East LA and Antonio Villaraigosa was our City Council member (prior to his mayoral term ’05-’13).

The difference being chef Javier Placencia — a Tijuana, Mexico, born chef who has traveled the world — is bringing his cuisine to California. Specifically, it’s ‘Baja Mediterranean’ cuisine. Beguiling? Sure. But it’s also fucking brilliant.

Bracero Cocina

We only had lunch, which meant sticking to the House Guacamole (crispy beluga lentils / avocado / chickpeas / blackbean hummus / zaåtar & sea salt chips, pictured above) and the “TJ style” fish ceviche tostada (above right), followed by an order of tacos … and another order of tacos. Sharing was not enough when you’re working with options like these:

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Placencia is a culinary ambassador and an innovator, and Bracero Cocina is a superlative love letter to the rich heritage of Mexican cuisine — and a nod to its future. Bravo to Placencia, Luis Pena and their entire outstanding team. Sitting underneath a giant, suspended farming plow, we watched a woman make tortillas by hand with a wooden tortilla press that is well loved and going strong — you can’t do better than that. The cocina doesn’t work without all of its moving parts.

San Diego: Apparently we’ve both grown up a bit. I’m impressed by the flourishes of sophistication and actual urbane cool. And your laid back, sunny, beach hair and flip flops vibe? Don’t worry, you’ve still got it. It’s in your DNA — and it’s why I’ll keep coming back, always. Thank you for the warm embrace!

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Pickled Carrots, Onion, Jalapeño (aka the “Homage to Humble Taqueria Carrots” Post)

Those spicy carrots. As ubiquitous as fresh chopped cilantro, lime wedges, and an assortment of salsas at any hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Southern California worthy of its Mexican stripes. 

Approaching 10 years of living in NYC, and spicy, pickled taqueria-style carrots are one of the food memories that haunts this California expat yet, go figure.

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I’ve dabbled with pickling jalapeños, pickling carrots and the sum of these parts before. I highly recommend Momofuku’s pickled carrots — the brine has a sweetness thanks to rice vinegar and sugar, and just about anything else you have on hand can go into it, in addition to carrots.

This time, though, I was on a hunt for auténtico. When I discovered a post on Tasting Table for “Taqueria-Style Pickled Carrots,” adapted from Kevin West, a Los Angeles-based blogger and author of “Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving” — I knew I was on the right track.

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I stayed mostly true to the recipe, skipping the sterilization step as these carrots will live in the fridge for the duration of their short life (they’re already quickly disappearing) and also amping up the spice quotient. I used a mishmash of carrots that we had in the fridge and rough-chopped them to approximately the same size. I also used a white onion.

The brilliance of West’s technique lies in toasting the cumin seeds and crushing the peppercorns, two simple steps that really open up the spices and cause them to bloom, so to speak, in the brine.

Here’s the recipe, simplified and slightly modified:

Taqueria-Style Pickled Carrots
(Adapted from Kevin West via TastingTable)
Makes 2 quarts

2 lb. (approx. ) raw carrots, use whatever you have on hand, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
4 to 6 jalapeños, sliced thinly
8 cloves garlic

2 c. water
2 c. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. peppercorns, lightly crushed (mortar with pestle)
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. cumin seeds

1) Toast cumin seeds in a small skillet until lightly browned and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

2) Combine water, vinegar, kosher salt, oregano and peppercorns in a saucepan; bring to a boil at high heat. Add onion and jalapeño and turn off heat.

3) Separately, bring salted water to boil, add carrots and cook until al dente, about 3 minutes. Drain in colander and add to onion and jalapeño in brine; return to a boil and then turn off the heat.

4) Divide cumin seeds and garlic cloves between empty jars. With a slotted spoon, divide carrots, onion, jalapeño between jars. Top off with brine and let cool to room temp before fastening lids and storing in the fridge.

**Pickled carrots will be ready to eat in 24 hours and will take on greater intensity the longer they are in the brine — but good luck keeping them around!**

Now, bring on the tacos… 

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Notes to a Young Taco Apprentice (aka the “Amazing Korean Tacos!” Post)

[Overheard at the bar at Duck’s Eatery @SPiN — while contemplating my own Korean tacos, which are built of tender, braised short ribs, housemade oyster kimchi and piled high with crunchy bean sprouts and fresh cilantro.]

Q: Damn, these tacos are good.

A: Yes.

Q:  So at what point should one be concerned when one encounters a taco that results in meaty, taco-y, drips-running-down-chin flavor?

A. My  young taco apprentice, you have much yet to learn. It is best to accept your fate.

Q: And then?

A: Well, if you are experiencing this condition and suede boots are involved — it’s time to reposition your bar stance.

Q: And then?

A: Take a moment to collect ones thoughts with a sip of Sam Adams’ seasonal Nobel Pils. (Ed. note: which pairs beautifully with these tacos.) Take in the soundtrack: the pleasant “ping-pong, ping-pong” sound of the many balls volleying across tables, overlaid by the Pogues, the Velvet Underground, Nirvana, Radiohead. Your next bite will come to you when you are ready.

Q: I am beginning to understand. And how do I convey my appreciation?

A: My young taco apprentice, you may have heard of the expression, “licking the fingers.” This will appropriately convey your feelings.

Duck’s Eatery at SPiN, 48 E. 23rd St., at Park Avenue South, 212-980-1404. If you exit the Downtown-bound 6 Train at 23rd Street you can get a preview via a large, underground picture window.

Sunday: How To Make a Perfectly Crispy Quesadilla (the Secret’s in the Water)

Damn, it’s been a long since I bought a package of tortillas. Way, way too long — because I made a seriously good quesadilla.

photo-6It’s a matter of market demand: The average grocery store here (in Manhattan, at least) is more likely to stock great, locally-made pita or lavash bread than tortillas, and not to be a snob about it, but I haven’t touched Mission brand tortillas in years.

So I was intrigued to discover these La Tortilla Factory Smart & Delicious Tortillas at a health food store in my neighborhood. Sure, I’d take a large, white, almost-devoid-of-nutritional-value, giant burrito-sized tortilla over this low-carb, high fiber, whole wheat option, given the choice, but at least these tortillas are from a smallish company based in California. Read: Potential.

photo-5This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but the secret to a lovely, golden-crisped quesadilla, I was taught years and years ago, is to run the tortilla under a light stream of water just for a few seconds on each side, so the tortilla is damp. I don’t know the science of why this works, but it works.

photo-4A quesadilla can really be a kitchen sink dish — leftover chicken, spinach, fresh vegetables, etc. You can really throw in anything so long as its diced small enough and there’s enough cheese to bind it all together. In addition to cheese, I added some diced onion and tomato, a light smear of beans and wilted spinach. On top, I finished it off with a dollop of plain yogurt (sour cream alternative that was already in the fridge) and an excess of simple guacamole, which goes something like this:

Simple Guacamole

Ripe avocado, check.
Lemon juice squeeze, check.
Salt and pepper shake, check.

Mash, mash, mash.

Thursday: Móle, Móle, Móle! (aka the “Margarita/Guacamole/Carnitas Nirvana” Post)

This is how I remember Mexican food: The margaritas are strong but balanced, easy on the sweet and sour; the guacamole fresh and vibrant, with a heat that sneaks up on you; the carnitas tender, glistening and … [insert guttural noises] excellent.

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Carnitas is my barometer. More precisely, the crispy carnitas as I remember it from Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego is my barometer: Pulls-apart-with-your-fork hunks o’ pork, browned and crispy on the edges, accompanied by a basket of hot, just-made tortillas (a couple of women make fresh tortillas all day long in a kitchen with large, street-facing windows), and a plate of simple, fresh, DIY taco fillings: sliced onion and tomato, avocado, fresh cilantro, lime wedges. (For photo, see here.)

When in doubt, just order the carnitas. And that’s exactly what I did at Móle, the utterly charming, seats 25ish Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side that I’d previously blown off because of the sort of obtuse neon sign they’ve hung out front.

After a lovely, bubbly happy hour at the Living Room bar at The W Hotel in Union Square, after an all-star appetizer lineup of not one, but two orders of guacamole prepared tableside; an order of queso fundido, that molten, cheesey, chorizo-y, goodness, and an order of flame-grilled asparagus topped with melty sheaths of manchego cheese…

…I was stuck in an infinite loop of indecision. Do I order:

a.) The diver scallop tacos special. Hands-down the most intriguing item on the special board, I just couldn’t commit. Too many sketchy scallops have made me skittish about eating any that aren’t seriously vetted. (I’m sure I’ll come around again.)

b.) The fish tacos. My friend was looking to share an order of her favorite tacos — Baja-style battered-and-fried tilapia fillets, topped off with a creamy sauce and some serious lettuce plumage (they were beautiful). Yes, we had all consumed our fair share of guac, fundido, and more guac, and cheesy asparagus (not to mention tequilla) — but would it be enough? I couldn’t commit.

and c.) The conchinita pibil? The pollo en mole poblano? Camarones al mojo de ajo? One of the other, “fancier” items from the especialidades de la casa list that I ordinarily wouldn’t order, except that it was a special occasion? But which one? What if I got this fish Veracruz … and then realized that all I really wanted was …

“Um, I’ll have the carnitas plate, please. With corn tortillas.”
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BLD Minnesota Edition: Must… Find… Taco Smell… (aka the “En Route to LaGuardia/Jackson Heights Discovery” Post)

“I have to be at the airport by 6 o’clock. It’s a weekday. What time should I grab a cab?” / “It’ll take at least an hour this time of day. Why don’t you take the subway to Queens?”

photo-1What. I knew about the bus to LaGuardia Airport from Harlem, but subway to Queens, and then either cheap taxi ride or city bus transfer to LGA? What?! And it’s so easy. Just follow the signs from the subway marked with a yellow airplane symbol, in a yellow circle, to the bus boarding zone. (If I can justify the time, which is essentially the same as a cab or bus at rush hour, I’m never going back.)

Because: Halfway up the stairs I could smell a taco truck’s grill sizzling — that heady combination of meat, peppers and cheese. Oh, yes. I want. Now. Checked my watch. There’s no way I wasn’t detouring toward the pair of food trucks parked right outside the station.

photo-3photo-2And the rest, as they say, is history. A pair of carnitas tacos, plus a hongos quesadilla (I meant to order the huitlacoche), $6.50. Some of the plumpest carnitas tacos I’ve ever had, plus a quesadilla, the flour tortilla grilled crispy-golden, stuffed with cheese and savory marinated mushrooms that lit up the rows around me on my flight to Minneapolis … I didn’t make friends this trip, and I didn’t really care. My food was that good.

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