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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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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Lunch: The Gringo Taco Gamble (and Win) at Nick’s Place

Fish tacos on the brain. I was on my way deeper into Midtown when I decided I actually didn’t have enough time. (Lunch is always a weird algorithm of hunger x time you can carve away from the office x cravings/impulses.)

En route toward my backup plan — oddly, Schnipper’s Quality Kitchen has fish tacos on its menu — the clapboard for Nick’s Place caught my eye. One of the specials posted was tacos, beef or chicken.

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Hmmm … why not? I’ve always been curious about this restaurant oddity, tucked away at the end of a hallway off the service entrance of a giant Midtown building that’s home to Donna Karan — I went for it.

The verdict? No carnitas tacos from Las Poblanitas these, in terms of price point or authenticity, but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Nick’s chicken tacos.

photo(4)There’s something good-familiar about them, these gringo, Tex-Mex style chicken tacos ($7). For starters: the chicken has been slow-cooked, Crock-Pot style (I’d wager) with a blend of spices not entirely unlike Lawry’s taco seasoning. Not spicy to taste, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a residual heat builds up slowly. (The tacos would be killer with some pickled jalapenos.) Soft, cooked white onion bits are threaded through the chicken.

I hate when chicken cooked this style makes your tacos liquidy and soppy. Nick’s are not. The chicken is nestled into three corn tortillas, warm and browned from the griddle, topped with shredded cheddar cheese that’s properly melted and stringy, by the time the tacos are served up. Only other garnishes are some chunky guacamole and sour cream.

Not done properly, Mexican food can be both incredibly bland (bad) and so over-spiced, over-flavored, it’s abrasive (also bad). The sweet spot, in my opinion, tends towards the big, bold flavor profiles, but the tacos at Nick’s were a pleasant reminder of the potential for the fare to be understated and modest, without loosing personality.

TIP: The address on the menu is 550 7th Avenue, but enter through the service entrance on the north side of W. 39th Street. Look for the clapboard and the big double doors.

Photos inside Nick’s Place, and some delicious looking cookies, after the jump: Continue reading “Lunch: The Gringo Taco Gamble (and Win) at Nick’s Place”

Saturday: Tacos at Red Hook (The “Yes, They Are That Good” Post)

Making it down to the Red Hook soccer fields to check out the food vendors that set up adjacent the soccer fields each weekend has been on my “to-do in New York” list for way too long.

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So I’m happy to report that I finally made it! There were about a dozen vendors set up on Saturday, selling everything from tacos and agua frescas to pupusas and cerviche. 

photoThis was just an exploratory adventure — plus, it’s pretty impossible to do a serious tour of all the vendors in a single day — so we started with the basics: A variety of tacos from one of the simplest looking trucks in the row (top left), and a couple of agua frescas and a horchata, the milky, sweet, rice-based drink, from a fruit and juice truck, that was irresistibly colorful (top right). 

photo(4)The tacos were beautiful: Chicken, goat and steak, folded into large corn tortillas, each topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and your choice of a half-dozen homemade salsas that stood in buckets on a table adjacent to the truck. 

Tacos are a deceptively simple food: Easy to make but nearly impossible to make in the traditional, home-style way these tacos epitomize; these tacos taste as if they’ve been made by the hands of cooks who have made hundreds, thousands of tacos in their lifetime, which is just right, in an immeasurable way.