Saturday, July 31, 2010

Heart & Soul

Love is all about timing.

You could meet the perfect person, but if the stars aren't properly aligned, no amount of effort or longing will make it work. Sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time; when the unseen hand of the universe nudges your orbit into the orbit of another and a sort of magical collision happens when you see that person and just know, sometimes against all reason, that you've met someone who will leave you forever changed. It really is a wonderful feeling, even if you have it and can share it for only a few, fleeting moments. Like the old saying goes, "Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all."

I fell in love last week as we aimlessly wandered the neighborhoods of South Sacramento last Sunday afternoon. We really had no destination as we made our way down Fruitridge Road and on to Stockton Boulevard, reminiscing about the past and lamenting about the unsure future, trying to stay in the moment as long as possible. The only real plan we had was to stop at a few thrift stores to look for some kitsch, which we did. At a place on Fruitridge, near 65th Avenue, I managed to find some cool prints to hang on my walls along with some old 78 records and she scored some cool old souvenir plates from five different states to add to her collection of travel memories from places she'd never been.

Heading towards another thrift store, we turned left instead of right on Stockton and to no avail, ended up looking for a massage, then a psychic in an Asian strip me, it made sense at the time...though it was a little funny seeing the confused reactions of the proprietors of those two places at the sight of a Mexican and blue eyed white girl asking for some deep tissue and a palm reading on a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon. We eventually made our way back north up Stockton and back across Fruitridge to Thrift Town, the place we were looking for all along. We were still giggling about our aborted efforts to see our future and have a "happy ending" when we got out of the car and headed into the store...

Then it just happened...Looking up as she walked ahead of me, toward the entrance...I fell in love with what I saw in front of me...


I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw these words and made a beeline to the little strip mall where that sign was mounted on the side of the building, next to the parking lot of the thrift store.

I called out to her, "Go ahead, I'll catch up with you..."

I think at this point, a little background is needed.

From the authors of the Harlem Renaissance to the blues and jazz artists of the 50s & 60s, so much of what I have become, at least artistically, has been influenced by Black culture. I don't know what it is, exactly, that drew me in that direction. All I do know is that it's always felt right to me and moved me in ways that are so hard to really articulate. So while all the poser hipsters try to out-obscure each other with the latest new band from the latest and hottest indie city on the map, I am stoked to find an old soul tune from Junior Parker or Little Richard.

Over the years, I've been blessed to cross paths and play with many older blues musicians who have shared their music and life stories to help make me both the person and musician I am today. Inevitably, some of those stories have occurred while sharing a meal; and on more than one occasion, it's been over a soul food meal which would inevitably unlock memories from these folks in a way only food can. So it goes without saying: I really love soul food.

I'd been looking for a soul food place for quite a while, and as it often is with love, found it by accident when I wasn't even looking for it.

It may be tiny, but look for Oh Taste & See on the top left...

The restaurant was named Oh Taste & See. I walked in and it just felt right. The place was small with a few booths and tables. I went to the counter and asked for a menu and was greeted by the owner, a small woman named Brenda. I gave her my spiel- that I was a food blogger who specialized in hood food and that I had been in search and need of a good soul food restaurant. We hit it off immediately talking about the difference between soul food joints & BBQ joints and how soul food wasn't just Black food, but any food that told a story and meant something. She went on, enthusiastically telling me how she'd just passed the six month mark of being in business, using her grandmother's recipes and working in the kitchen every day to prep and cook the food that was served. I knew, just by the way she talked about her food, that this place was the real deal. I told her I'd be back and that I couldn't wait to experience her food.

Fittingly enough, my eating companion today was my longtime friend Marina, owner and proprietor of The Torch Club, home of the blues in Sacramento. She'd been wanting to come along on one of my little jaunts down to South Sac and when I told her about this place, she absolutely committed to go.

The modest storefront

We were literally welcomed with open arms. Brenda, sure enough, was working and came outside when she saw me clicking pictures, remembering me and our conversation from the previous week. She greeted Marina and I with hugs and thanked us for coming. After they shared stories about the difficulties of being small business owners, we got in and got to the business at hand.

The place itself was nondescript, with the exception of some artwork on the walls featuring gospel music artists.

Brenda loves her gospel music!

Even Marina "got" this place when we walked in. Between my description of my initial encounter with this restaurant and her actually walking in and seeing it, she just knew we were about to experience something really special.

As if the gospel artists featured on the walls weren't a give away, the menu left no doubt- Brenda is a woman of God. Nearly all of the items on the menu featured names of biblical characters along with a page dedicated to quotes from scripture. Fitting as this place is clearly a reflection of Brenda's love of her fellow human beings. What better way to nourish the soul than with lovingly prepared food...

My personal favorite names: Adams Ribs & Abraham Gumbo

Bible food quotes...

There was so much good stuff on the menu...oxtails, neck bones, meatloaf...In a way it was overwhelming, especially since we were both starving and the menu was so appealing. After some deliberation, we had our plan. Marina ordered the chicken fried steak with a side of mac & cheese and green beans. I went for red snapper with black eyed peas and potato salad.

Here's the food:

Chicken fried steak with mac & cheese

Green beans

Red snapper with black eyed peas & potato salad


Where to begin...I'll just start out by saying this: I loved this food! So, forgive me for gushing, but sometimes when you fall in love, you just want the whole world to know.

First, Marina's food:

This was the best chicken fried steak I, or Marina, have ever tasted. This was unlike any other I had ever had. To begin with, it actually looked like pieces of fried chicken. What made it amazing was the battered outside layer. Most chicken fried steak comes with a thin layer of batter that is somewhat soggy & greasy. This, however was light and airy, and crispy, just like fried chicken. And the was actually alive...brown and juicy, unlike the gray and dead looking gravy that often accompanies most chicken fried steak. The steak itself was tender and juicy. The whole thing was great.

Her sides were just as good. The mac & cheese was creamy and actually cheesy, not some coagulated scoop of yellowish mass that resembles mac & cheese. The green beans were great as well. They seem so simple to cook, but a lot of places will serve them to you over cooked & limp. These came with some life left to them, neither over cooked, nor over seasoned.

My Plate:

This was some of the best red snapper I've ever had. Marina and I were both impressed with the fact that it wasn't greasy and soggy, as is the case with many a battered red snapper. Although the batter was different from the chicken fried steak, it shared the same quality of being light and crispy on the outside while maintaining the moisture and flavor of the meat inside. Topped with some Tabasco sauce that I drizzled on, it made me very happy.

My sides were awesome as well. I liked the potato salad because it had just a slight hint of sweet to it. And as with everything else, the black eyed peas came out not-too-soggy and actually reminded my a bit of my dad's pinto beans.

Yes Officer...I killed this plate of food...

Marina's stomach isn't as big as mine, but trust me, if she could have killed the plate, she would have...

By the end of the meal, Marina and I were totally stuffed and feeling good. Not only was this soul food, but soulful food. It was as if I'd gone to grandma's house for a nice home cooked meal...if my grandma were Black and from the south. I am aware of the latest trend toward comfort food. Let me tell you...this is serious comfort food.

Brenda Moore, the owner of Oh Taste & See in the kitchen where she works every day preparing all of her grandmother's recipes from scratch

As we were leaving and thanking Brenda for her hospitality she told us about her latest effort with the restaurant...something I just had to share in closing. On Friday and Saturday nights, she now serves a limited to-go menu from midnight to 4am. So if you're out and about partying and have a designated driver (don't drink & drive) and need something greasy to absorb all the booze you drank earlier in the night and you have the courage to venture south of Broadway on late into the early morning...go and see Brenda...seriously, the food is that good...

The late night to-go menu

So I fell in love down on Stockton Boulevard, of all places. I never thought it would happen the way it did, but it feels good and I want the world to know, no matter how cheesy it may seem...and I'm hoping this is a love that will actually last...

Go out & see Brenda. It is well worth the drive down Stockton.

Oh Taste & See is located at:
5015 Stockton Blvd (just north of Fruitridge Rd.)
Sacramento, Ca

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Mexican

I am, by no means, an expert on anything. In the words of the old jazz standard, "I know a little bit about a lot of things, but..."

Dig the bubbly guitar...

In all reality, I think I know just enough about many things to hurt myself, though you'd think I'd have learned enough about enough not to hurt myself. I'd like to think I've been leaning that way more often, but I'm such a glutton for metaphysical punishment, that I think on some sort of subconscious level I actually seek out the pain to feel more alive. It's kind of twisted, I know, but I've been more mentally healthy with that pain. It means I'm alive, as opposed to a period where I felt nothing...which isn't a good thing, because that inevitably leads to more self-abuse.

OK...I know this isn't a therapy session, but I'm trying a stream of consciousness thing in my writing, for better or worse.

So back the concept of expertise:

As I've been the first to readily admit, I'm no expert on Mexican food, despite being Mexican all of my life. Actually, if you want to get down to it, I'm not really an expert on being Mexican. My Spanish is a few steps above "tourist quality". I don't make annual pilgrimages down to the Motherland to visit la familia. I listen to, and play, black music. My favorite cuisine is Asian. I do what I can, however, and leave the rest to the "experts". With my parents being in Arizona, the responsibility of expert on all things Mexican has fallen to my friend and co-worker Ariana.

Ariana is a real Mexican. Hailing from Jalisco, Guadalajara to be specific, she is a wealth of knowledge on the all things Mexican. To be honest, I get a little nervous when I go to work the morning after I post some writing about an eating experience about Mexican food, out of fear that I have somehow gotten something horribly wrong. Fortunately, I have not completely embarrassed myself with my writing. In fact, she has been supportive of my writing in the sense that she appreciates me getting in touch with my Mexicanness through my writing about the food. For a while now, she'd been wanting to accompany me on a jaunt out to the hood to go eat some Mexican food. Since she lives in Davis, she's not really familiar with the restaurants that inhabit the Franklin Boulevard corridor and had been wanting to sample some of the food down there to see if it passes her test of authenticity. I was kind of nervous at the prospect of having her come along for fear that she would be disappointed in my choice of eatery. I felt as though I was on the spot and had to really deliver.

After some thought, I knew where we'd be going. It was a place I'd been before, and really liked, but not written about as my initial visit to the place was pre-blog. Deep down Franklin, outside of the city limits, past Fruitridge and across the street from the Campbell Soup factory was where we were Carniceria Lopez #2.

Hm...Now where can I go and have a taco while I wait for my taxes to get done?

There's the Campbell Soup factory, a reoccurring landmark in this blog

It certainly looks innocent enough

It was an early Wednesday evening when we walked in. The place was empty except for two men speaking in Spanish as they watched banda videos on a large flat screen television. Now for those who aren't familiar with it, banda is a type of Mexican music that typically hails from the northern border states and has strong polka influences as a result of the many Germans who settled in Texas and Northern Mexico, bringing their music and their instruments with them. Rather than try to explain it, feel the banda for yourselves:

Their outfits are kind of awesome!

I had to rib Ariana a bit, because banda is not her favorite kind of music. Being from Guadalajara, her musical blood flows with the sounds of mariachi music, which originated in her home state of Jalisco. We did, however, have a fun time sitting in awe of the huge belt buckles and loudly colored, gaudy outfits worn by the musicians in the videos. Some of the music was so bad it was good in the way that bad casino lounge bands are sometimes so bad they're good.

Random cheesetastic art on the wall

After getting settled in and being washed over by the banda, the very friendly waitress came by with menus, chips, and salsa. I deferred to Ariana to do all the talking as the default language being used here was Spanish, and I get enough of a hard time from her at work about my bad accent. I sat nervously as I could tell she was sizing the place up. I had actually talked this place up a bit before we came and felt like my credibility was somewhat on the line. I was relieved when Ariana opened up the menu and began to sing the praises of what she saw, ticking off the origins of this dish or that dish, impressed by the mere presence of certain menu items. With so many choices, I thought she would pick something obscure, but she took the route of simplicity, opting for a simple plate of flautas with rice and beans with agua de jamaica (hibiscus flavored drink).

I decided to get a little more adventurous. I've had their tacos. I've had tacos at a lot of places. In fact, a lot of people have had a lot of tacos at a lot of different places....and many of those same people have written about said tacos, many of them much better than me. So I'll say this, their tacos are good...seriously good, but who wants to read another description of a taco? There are only so many adjectives in my little brain to describe tacos. I mean, I will probably write about tacos again, but with so many choices on the menu, I opted to take the route less traveled...and you'll have to keep reading to get there...

Yes, I ordered both a Coke and a Sidral

Ariana kind of looked at me like I was crazy when I ordered both a Coke and a Sidral. Alas, there was a method behind my madness. See, the salsa here is addictively painful, but in a good way.

It looks innocuous enough, but it will cut you

Heated with glorious little jalapeƱo seeds, this salsa is a gift that keeps on giving if you like spicy like I do. I went through a whole basket of chips and two of these mini bowls of salsa (I hadn't eaten all day and I was effing hungry). The reason for the two drinks was simple. The Coke was to wash down the salsa. The Sidral was to wash down the...nope, not going to tell you yet...

So, out came the food:

Flautas topped with crema fresca and rice &beans

The earlier nervousness that had subsided about Ariana's take on the menu quickly returned. It was the moment of truth. What would I do if the Mexican didn't like the Mexican food I had been singing the praises of? Would she revoke my Mexican Card? Would she cut me? There was this odd moment of silence as we both understood what was on the line here.

nom nom nom...

"This is actually really good..."

That sound you're not hearing is the sigh of relief I let out when she actually liked the food. She was impressed that the flautas came with crema fresca (literally, sweet cream) instead of the usual sour cream that tops many a Mexican meal. Even more importantly, she liked the rice and beans. It may seem to be a no-brainer to many, but much like haiku, rice and beans are easy to do, but also very easy to make bad or mediocre. There is a lot more bad haiku written than great haiku.

After Ariana's food arrived, mine soon followed:

Taco al pastor...served on a Chinese plate??? Huh??? I know I went on earlier about how I wasn't going to eat tacos and that I was going to take the road less travelled, but the tacos here are really good and it's al pastor. How could I pass up the opportunity to have one? A little lime juice and I'm in a state of mini-bliss. Besides, I needed to stretch me stomach a little bit to accomodate the real meal...

Still wondering?

I'll bet you want to know what is so damn out of the ordinary that I haven't mentioned it yet...

Well...prepare yourself...

Parental Discretion is Advised...


Yes...that is a whole fish (side one)

I couldn't resist. It looked so good pictured on the menu and it looked even better in person. Behold...whole deep fried tilapia!

[A little side note here...maybe it's just me, but I think it's kind of awesome that all of the plates are mismatched. If you look at all of the food, it all comes served on different styles of plates (including the previously noted Chinese plate). It's like going to your abuelita's house...a little funky, but with a lot of soul.]

...and the b-side

So, let me begin by saying this: Yes, it is as good as it looks.

Now I know most people are used to "nice" fish. I mean this in the sense that it's prepared as a nice filet, presented nice and white and clean looking. Not to say that this is dirty, but you won't find this at a high end least the ones I've been to.

The preparation was simple and amazing. The scales were removed from the edible parts of the fish and the whole thing seemed to be lightly sprinkled with what I would guess is a simple dusting of flour, salt and pepper. After that, it's just a matter of frying.

I loved this fish. Though simple in it's preparation, there was more going on here than the sight of it would let on. What struck me most was the texures involved. The skin was left on and absorbed the salt and pepper flavor, getting crispy in the fryer. This provided a nice contrast to the light and surprisingly not-too-greasy meat of the fish. Even better, the meat still had that fishy taste to it, which some may not like, but I think is awesome. I love tasting the ocean. As good as the whole thing was, the best part was the meat from the head of the fish. A bit more greasy than the rest, it had a bit stronger taste of salty and peppery and just melted on my tongue. This was truly some epic seafood, even more so when you consider where it was served. Most people woudn't think to go down to Franklin Boulevard for a great fish plate.

Remains of the day...

Mr. Fish saying goodbye!!!

All and all, this mission was a resounding success. We got out of there with all of that food and drink for under $30, leaving stuffed and satisfied. More importantly, the place got the Mexican's seal of approval and my Mexican food credibility remains least for now. If you do decide to go here, seriously, try the tilapia. So good!

Carniceria Lopez #2 is located at
6201 Franklin Blvd

Sacramento, CA 95824
(916) 393-5957

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Undercover in Mazatlan

I always thought it was cool when there were crossover episodes of TV shows when I was growing up. I mean, how cool was it when the Jetsons met the Flinstones or when Mork from Ork found himself hanging out with The Fonz in Milwaukee? Granted, it was nothing but a cynical ploy by TV executives to increase viewership, but I was a naive kid and it didn't matter. It was always a big deal to me. In honor of that great tradition of the crossover episode (minus the cynicism, of course), I am honored to present my own...

I am a nascent foodie at best. I know nothing about the real nitty-gritty of the art of food and cooking, though I wish I did and hope to some day. I am, however, blessed to know some real foodies. One of them is my friend Sarah, who happens to be a great cook and great writer who brings a real working knowledge about food to her fantastic blog Undercover Caterer. If you haven't already done so, go check out her site. Not only does she talk about food, but she also has a plethora of great recipes- many of them inspired by her Nana (and we all know they have the best recipes). I've had the pleasure of eating her food. She's the real deal.

Since she found out I started writing about food we'd made a plan to one day go somewhere and share a meal to write about on our perspective sites. After a few rainchecks, we finally got our schedules right and were able to connect to make that wonderful trip down a mutual memory lane that is Franklin Boulevard...

Destination- Mazatlan

As with most places on Franklin, Mazatlan is one of those places you drive past and point at, saying to yourself or anyone you happen to be with, "I've always wanted to check that place out." Well, we were a part of that club for too long. Accompanied by her husband Guido, we made that trip...and we didn't need to deal with long lines at the airport and customs to tell people we were going to Mazatlan.

Dig the redone exterior...It wasn't always that nice on the outside

As with most of the wonderful places down Franklin, Mazatlan is in a relatively nondescript location. Then again, as with most of those same places, it sits next to another business that makes you just scratch your head and say, "huh?"

Here's what I mean:

OK...all together now..."Huh? French Bakery on Franklin? WTF?"

Yes, maybe take a few moments to let the cognitive dissonance wash over you and pass. That is indeed a french bakery with plywood replacing the glass on the windows and doors...

...or is it?

Clearly not a french bakery, but what is it and why are the doors wide open? Alas the enigma that is Franklin Boulevard. Perhaps some questions are left unanswered.

Nope, not a french bakery. Not even a bakery, for that matter. Just a storefront filled with a bunch of random palates and assorted crap. We actually tried to figure out what it was all about, but something didn't seem quite right. Rather than stand around an ogle, we thought it would be best if we just got inside the restaurant before some malcontent came out and asked us what the fuck we were doing snooping around their place. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

We were bummed because we just missed happy hour. Can't go wrong with those prices!

So after trying in vain to assign meaning to the abandoned french bakery, we finally arrived in Mazatlan. We really didn't know what to expect on the inside, since the outside was recently upgraded and the reflective mirrors offered no glimpse of what awaited us within.

Yes! Another cheesetastic wall sized mural!

The place was smaller on the inside that we had imagined. I think cozy is the right word, actually. I was absolutely stoked at the sight of the wall sized mural. This seems to be a reoccurring theme in these restaurants in the hood. They had the same thing at the Vietnamese joint I visited on Stockton Boulevard (well, not the same thing of course...same as in a representation of home). I mean, it's cheesy, but I get it. The murals are almost like a prologue to the story about to be told by the food. They provide a context, creating a sense of place or a sense of longing for a place. After all, food is supposed to tell the story of where we came from...

So when the sign out front said "Tacos y Mariscos", (oh yeah...remember, mariscos is basically seafood) they were serious.

As you can see, the menu is 90% seafood

We did, after all, plan to get our grub on with various sorts of seafood. Our mission was simple: ceviche, shrimp, and squid...oh yeah, and a couple of tacos, because at $1.25 a pop, how can you not?

We ordered and watched World Cup highlights in spanish on the tiny television set in the upper corner of the room. While the place was empty when we arrived, save for one other person waiting for an order to go, the room began to fill with a couple of families, small kids in tow, along with some teenage boys looking for sustenance before doing a summer evening cruise on their bikes looking for girls and/or know, typical teenager stuff.

The wait gave us a chance to reminisce about our own misspent (only sometimes though) youth. All three of us, having spent some of our younger days in and around South Sac, exchanged Franklin Boulevard stories and marveled at the mini-renaissance that has happened over the last 5 years or so.

To those who have never had the pleasure to spend a lot of time down of Franklin, it may seem poor and run down at first glance. But let me tell you, if you've been a frequent visitor over the last 10 to 15 years, the difference is amazing- new grocery stores, dilapidated store fronts and mini-strip malls given shiny new make-overs, new businesses thriving, a police substation...It's like night and day. All of the improvements notwithstanding, it is still our Franklin Boulevard. It just feels right and safe. So I'll spare you the rest of the Proustian rap on the remembrances of things past and get down to business...

My tacos came first:

Taco de Carnitas (Pork)

Taco de Lengua (Toungue...yes, Beef Tongue!)

I swear, if Taco Hell ditched the genetically modified corn taco shells and mystery ground beef and served REAL tacos like these, I'd marry it! I mean, it's probably easier to make tacos like these than the sorry excuse for tacos they schlep over at The Bell. Just heat the little corn tortillas, put a spoonful of meat on it, slap a dollop of salsa on top, garnish with cilantro...and VOILA! You have the perfect taco! It's not rocket science. A taco shouldn't be needlessly stuffed with flaccid lettuce. A taco needn't be crunchy. A taco should not have shredded cheese product melting it's chemicals everywhere. A taco should just be what you see above- simple and to the point. And these tacos aren't hollow calories. They get inside of you and actually nourish you, unlike the fast food tacos that leave you hungry in an hour or so. Besides, at $1.25 a piece (and $1 during happy hour!!!), how can you be anything but a taco winner?

Next came the moment we had all been waiting for. The arrival of the mariscos.

mm...Tostada de Ceviche!

Not just Shrimp Cocktail, but Shrimp AND Squid Cocktail!

Oh look. It's my friend Sr. Tapatio Sombrero Guy and his friend Sr. Huichol along with the white stuff! They really know how to party...

Now, if you're from California, it's a given (I hope) that you've all had mexican style shrimp cocktail. However, unless you've been to a real, down home, mexican place, it's unlikely that you've had said cocktail with little squid. If you haven't, you've been missing out. All I would ask, is that you keep an open mind about it. I mean, you could go to a restaurant in Midtown and order the fried calamari appetizer and say you had squid, but there's something more awesome to say that you've had what is essentially raw squid, which is what I got in this concoction. I think what I liked best about it was it's presentation. It came in a big styrofoam cup. Simple. No nonsense. Ready to take home. This also says a lot about the food itself. That it does not come is a fancy vessel with a grand presentation screams, "We don't give a fuck about what it looks like. We only give a fuck about how it tastes, so enjoy!" Straight up chutzpah. And it was good. As with everything, I added some Tapatio to spice things up and was well on my way to eating all of my little shrimpies and squid. I was a happy camper.

The ceviche tostada wasn't bad either. I will agree with Sarah's assessment in that it was fresh, but it was a little too chopped up and seemed more like a sort of paste. This is not to say it didn't taste good, but sometimes texture plays a role as much as taste does. All in all, it was refreshing and great for a hot Sacramento evening. Plus as all mexicans know, you just drown something in lime and it can't help but be yummy.

Observe the wreckage...

In the end we had a great time. How can you not when you're reminiscing about old adventures while eating seafood? If anything, I would go back for the happy hour just to gorge myself on $1 street tacos and stare at the mural on the wall. If you do go, I will give you just one piece of advice- steer clear of the oysters. Just trust me on this...

For the other side of the crossover episode, go see Sarah's chronicle of the same evening here: A Quick Trip to Mazatlan. More pics there. I guess you could look at it as bonus footage.

4800 Franklin Blvd
Sacramento, CA 95820
(916) 451-4149