Sunday, December 27, 2009

24 Hours in Las Vegas

(This post was originally going to be called 24 Hours in LV, but I remembered Coolio made that porno ten years ago. It won 37 AVN awards.)

"My flight's in 15 minutes."
"You'll be fine."

I was standing within spitting distance of the security metal detector, watching as five of America's finest TSA officers staried at the X-ray screen, trying to figure out the contents of a bag. Seriously, this was taking minutes.

"Can't you pull the bag aside and open it up?"
"Quiet sir."
"But my flight's in ten minutes."
"You'll be fine."

Through the metal detector, I grab my bags, run to the gate, and: doors closed.

"Can I still get on the plane?"
"No, the doors are closed."
"Don't you page passengers as a courtesy so they can get through security?"
"I didn't hear it."
"You can't hear it in the security area."

Luckily LAX to LAS is a frequent flight so they got me on another one in about an hour. Not so bad--but the lack of efficiency and general myopeia of the GED-wielding TSA team was distressing.

I've never been to Las Vegas before, an assertion that is inevitably followed by an incredulous "You've never been to Vegas?" to which I respond "Nope." Usually that ends it, but sometimes it's followed by "Really?" and capped with "Really."

The shuttle from the airport to the Strip is only $7, which would prove to be the only cheap thing in Las Vegas. My previous gambling foyers having involved Reno and Tahoe, locations almost criminally cheap, the LV sticker shock was intense.

I met up with my traveling team at the Bellagio's Sports Book for a cocktail and a lament that Michael Mina was closed on Wednesday, the only day we were in town. We hopped a cab to the Hard Rock because we thought we were seeing a concert there. Turns out the concert was back at the Mandalay and we're retarded. But at least we got to have lunch at the Pink Taco, a restaurant whose name I found amusingly titillating when it first opened and I was in high school but now it's just wearisome with its faux-scandalous schoolyard snicker-inducing name. Also, three orders of carnitas and a pitcher of margaritas for $80? Christ. The carnitas were really bland. Homemade tortillas were good though.

And here's where we almost made our second fuck up of the trip--apparently the concert (Dethklok and Mastodon)--started at 5PM.

Yup, a death metal show in Las Vegas at 5PM. Back in the cab.

Given that this is a food blog I'll forego many details about the show other than it was epic and we were the only guys in the crowd not wearing black and/or a neck beard. Also, if you tip your bartender well the first time at the House of Blues you quickly get her attention on subsequent bar trips.

In what was another first for the world, after our head-banging death metal-a-thon we went for a late dinner at Aureole. A 5PM concert has its advantages.

Every one of the destination restaurants on the Strip were doing 3-course $50 prix fixe dinners so it was a no brainer, even if all these proxy versions of their NY/LA/SF originals are second-tier facsimiles--like the third or fourth iteration of Michael Keaton in Multiplicity.

Aureole is known for its epic thousand bottle wine list and its vertical wine storage skyscraper from which bottles are retrieved by wire-suspended "wine angels." The list is presented on a tablet PC which allowed for pretty quick searching and sorting by varietal, region, and/or price. When the Pinot Noirs all proved too pricey I quickly found a Beaujolais that was perfect.

The food was good but unmemorable, not really worth the price tag--even as a prix fixe. Clearly this wasn't going to be a showcase of the best they offer but it also shouldn't be an afterthought. This meal leaned toward afterthought.

As we waited at the Mandalay's cab stand, the attendant asked if we wanted to go to a strip club. As much as I appreciated the profiling (three drunk white 20-somethings), we declined and hopped a cab back to the Hard Rock (we were staying across the street). After an attempt at finding a cheaper than $10 blackjack table we gave up on gambling and crashed hard at our hotel.

Our flight out was at mid-day which gave us pretty limited lunch options and we made what would be our third and final mistake of the trip by hitting up the Hofbrauhaus. That's right, Munich's venerable tourist-trap has gone global. The only thing that kept the lunch from being a total mess was our very cute, very world-weary dirndl-sporting waitress who kept trying to get us to buy shots of Jaegermeister. The selling point? The shots come served on a paddle which she then spanks us with as a reward for our drinking, a popular activity amongst the Electors of Bavaria. We passed. My pork schnitzel was giant and greasy and the advertised "vegetable side" consisted of a single carrot slice, a solitary wedge of tomato, and one lone sprig of parsley. Inexplicably our food took 30+ minutes to get to our table, despite being the only three people in the restaurant.

After shelling out another seventy bucks for a mediocre meal, our last cab of the trip awaited. As an aside, every cabbie in Las Vegas is a late middle-aged white guy who speaks English and actually knows his way around the city. I've never experienced this with a taxi before.

We parted ways at the airport (after easily breezing through security--I swear LAS has as many security officers as LAX for a quarter of the traffic) and made the 45-minute journey home.

I'll have to give Vegas another (longer) chance--though I'm not sure how I'd afford it--but my first impression was pretty unfavorable. Since I can eat at the better versions of any Las Vegas restaurant in either SF or LA, I'd rather do my drinking and gambling in Reno where I'd have just as much fun for half the price.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

MC Rib and the Furious Five

Fast food gets a bad rap amongst the fooderati. There's a lot of value in businesses providing fast, cheap, and nutritious food to a struggling middle class.

And if you steer away from getting sodas and limit your side of fries to a small, a fast food meal isn't really all that bad for you, even nutritionally speaking. Sure there's going to be a good amount of fat and heaps of sodium, but that can be said about a lot of dining options (pork belly slider anyone?). And almost everything is raised and grown in the USA and that's something significant. Sure it's cheap factory farmed meat which is reprehensible, but also a problem that isn't, for now, going away.

At the end of a meal of a quarter-pounder with cheese and a small fries (that's enough food for a meal, it really is) you've consumed 750 calories, 38 grams of fat, 1360 milligrams of sodium, along with 6 grams of fiber and 32 grams of protein. Is that ideal? Not really. Is it bad for you? Not really. Is it good for you? It's better than a soda and potato chips.

What I'm saying is this: fast food once or twice a week is fine if you order smart and control your portions. Hell, skip the fucking fries and get a side salad or fruit (standard options at some fast food-eries now).

Which is a long way of saying that I had a McRib last week.

I hadn't had the McRib in ages, not since the early 90's I imagine. The McRib is sometimes described as the most dubious of all fast food items, largely due to its absurd shape: ground pork formed into a reasonable approximation of a rack of ribs, but ingredient-wise it's actually pretty straightforward. The patty is pork, water, a little dextrose, and a few standard preservatives (BHA, BHT, Sodium Benzoate).

The McRib sauce is a bit more dubious: Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor, food starch-modified, salt, sugar, spices, soybean oil, xanthan gum, onion powder, garlic powder, chili pepper, sodium benzoate, caramel color, beet powder. But really, other than a few texturizers and preservatives, it's pretty quotidian by most processed food standards.

Notice something? No added "natural" or artificial flavors other than the smoke flavor, no extenders, no autolyzed yeast extracts, meat broths, or souces of backdoor MSG (my porn star name)--just the straight-vanilla preservatives and texturizers.

Compare the McRib to the McDonald's Angus Beef Patty: 100% Angus beef prepared with Grill Seasoning: Salt, Pepper, Angus Burger Seasoning: Salt, sugar, onion powder, natural and artificial flavors, maltodextrin, natural beef flavor [beef broth, yeast extract, maltodextrin, salt, lactic acid, natural flavor, beef fat, citric acid], spice, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, garlic powder, dried beef extract, sunflower oil, caramel color, worcestershire sauce powder [distilled vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor], spice extractives, annatto and turmeric, calcium silicate and soybean oil added to prevent caking.

And we won't even begin to get into the McChicken ingredients.

The McRib, despite it's shape, seems to be the least Frankenfoodie of all the McDonald's proteins. Is it good for you? It's got a lot of sugar thanks to the sweet sauce, but I would give it a solid "kinda."

And does it taste good? Also a solid kinda. The texture is pleasant--surprisingly similar to really tender pork ribs--and the sauce isn't cloyingly sweet. The McRib is nominally topped with two pickles and maybe eight pieces of chopped onion and the impact of either is nominal. If I were making a similar sandwich at home, I'd throw a lot of onions on there, especially since the flavor of the pork itself is really bland. That happens when you have inexpensive processed meat and don't re-add meat flavor to it (as McDonald's does with its beef and chicken).

Fast food's not good, but it's not bad. I don't recommend it but I don't judge if you partake and try a McRib, even just ironically.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Great Pizza--Found!

I've been decrying the lack of quality pizza in LA for a while now but, to be fair, I hadn't been to perhaps the two most lauded local dough tossers: Pizzeria Mozza and Tomato Pie. I doubt I'll go to Pizzeria Mozza, at least not on my dime, as it appears to be exactly like A16 or Pizzeria Delfina and I bet dollars to doughnuts that Mozza will be no better and probably worse. High-profile restaurant openings and food quality tend to be inversely related. But if someone wants to change my mind and buy me a Mozza pizza, hit me up. I ain't hidin'.

I did hit up Tomato Pie last weekend with Brother Noah who, contrary to how his name sounds, is not in the Nation of Islam nor does he brew beer in Belgium.

Tomato Pie, for those who don't know, was one of only two LA pizza parlors to make it on GQ editor Alan Richman's list of the nation's best. I wasn't able to get a full pie, so this isn't a full evaluation, but the two slices I got were easily the best I've had in LA. Most notably, the crust was crisp without being burnt, holding its shape despite being New York thin. I'll be curious to see if this holds up on a full pie, as the second cooking that pizza by the slice undergoes can go a long way to crisp up the crust.

First slice was the signature "Grandma," the same pizza Richman swooned over (didn't know that at the time). Hot, fresh-tasting crushed tomatoes and fresh garlic topped with a fistful of Italian herbs and pecorino cheese. Simple but still flavorful and full-bodied.

Second slice was the "Syracuse," a sort of "hot wing" pizza with grilled chicken, wing sauce, spices, red onion, and ranch. This one rocked. The spicy sauce set off the slightly bland crust well and the chicken was amazingly not overcooked. The crust was pooled with olive oil (in a good way) that didn't soak through the crisp crust. I don't like greasy pizzas, but I love oily ones if the oil's good. This slice really kicked the ass of its Two Boots analogue, the "Bird."

I was impressed by the balance of toppings, quality of the crust, and Buddhist Middle-Way distribution of cheese. From a menu standpoint, the mix of traditional pizzas like the "Grandma" with more adventurous options was refreshing. It was neither the uber-refined pretention of a high-end Mozza rip-off or the hipster pretention of a Two Boots; it was simply good honest pizza at a fair $3 a slice (cheaper than Two Boots).

Complaints? Yes. Still not enough salt in the crust (the edge tasted a bit like an Italian restaurant breadstick) and I could even go with something a little froofy in the crust like a tiny bit of red pepper or oregano. But that wouldn't be very New York.

It's too bad they don't deliver to my neighborhood as they're a good step above the (still quite tasty) Purgatory Pizza and a whole lot better than Rocket Pizza.

So there we have it, Tomato Pie is the first pizzeria in LA to get the full 100% HFF Seal of Approval. I'll have the seals printed up right quick.

Tomato Pie
2457 Hyperion Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90027