Sunday, October 31, 2010

Crab Cakes!

Dear anonymous restaurant in Arlington, VA:

A pile of canned crab on a bun is not a crab cake sandwich. It's a pile of fucking crab on a bun. Here I was trying to relive a love of my childhood, the Mid-Atlantic crab cake sandwich, and you give me a pile of (admittedly lump) crab meat on a crappy role with some jarred tartare sauce on the side. Lame.

Your onion rings were good though.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Food Trucks: Starry Kitchen LA

Do we need dedicated food trucks? Meaning, that is, do we need a truck that is 100% devoted to one business and one concept?

Food trucks have a lot more overhead than you might initially think--a tricked out modern truck can cost will north of $100K, sometimes as much as $200K or more. Plus there's gas, insurance--not to mention the actual food cost itself. Permitting is a little bit easier than a restaurant, but that's about it.

And competition is steeper, not only because you're competing with dozens of other high-end trucks, you're competing against the myriad lonchero trucks and street corner food stands. With most high-end trucks serving food in the $7-$10 range, they're also competing with hole-in-the-wall restaurants offering a sit-down experience for the same price. You're better off saving a bit more money, picking a good spot and opening up a brick and mortar restaurant. The food truck bubble will burst and it will burst soon.

So what, then, is the appropriate role of high-end food trucks in our ever-changing food world?

I think the Mandoline Truck and Starry Kitchen are on to something. Starry Kitchen, the modern Vietnamese restaurant that started as an illegal underground restaurant and has now gone semi-legit on Bunker Hill in Downtown LA, is taking a "residency" in Mandoline's slick Vietnamese food wagon for a few weeks. They're cruising around LA, slinging their specialties and promoting the hell out of their business.

A brick and mortar restaurant using food trucks as a promotional tool is genius, I think. If the restaurant is in business then the truck just needs to break even and if it brings even one new diner to the restaurant, it's a success. There's money to be made in someone investing in a small fleet of food trucks that he or she then leases out to restaurants and/or pop-up chefs (think Ludo) for short or medium term leases. Bring the restaurant to the people, promote your business and gather new customers.

The Starry Kitchen has some rockstar food and its food truck model was excellent. Like most successful trucks, they offer limited options in a couple different combinations. At the truck you have the choice of pork belly, curry chicken or fried tofu balls served either in a banh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) or over coconut rice. And unlike almost every other food truck, the food came up very quickly.

I had the pork belly banh mi. The meat was delicious, flavorful, sweet and spicy, and sliced thin. The vegetables were interesting: sauteed more fajita-like than the fresh veggies I've had on past sandwiches. The only hiccup was the baguette, which was a little stale. I was envious of the chicken curry banh mi eaters dipping their sandwiches in the curry sauce. I also had an a la carte side of tofu balls. They're on to something here-- the balls are formed pretty small and then fried so they're crispy all the way through, not soggy in the middle like larger pieces of fried tofu.

I enjoyed the food quite a bit and the vibe even better--the Starry Kitchen team has a lot of fun and doesn't take itself to seriously--and I'll make a point to check out the restaurant itself. I guess you'd call that food truck a success.

LA only needs about 20 non-lonchero food trucks and just let a couple hundred restaurants use them over the course of a year. Those that do well can keep leasing them, those that do really well can buy their own, and those that only do okay will at least have gained a little extra business.

Starry Kitchen
350 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90071
Twitter: @StarryKitchen

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

HFF Quickie: LudoTruck

I had a rather lukewarm response to LudoBites' first pop-up at Breadbar a couple years ago, but I was intrigued by the many good reports on Ludovic Lefebvre's fried chicken truck.

My ongoing complaint about food trucks is not that the lines to order are long (that happens) but it's that the food takes too long to prepare and you're then forced to wait in an amorphous blob that slowly bleeds back into the line that others are standing in to order for 15 minutes or more. LudoTruck fixes this problem by having a very small menu of three different chicken options (wings, strips, balls) either alone or in combination with cole slaw and fries (sides are also available a la carte). By sticking to just a few things, the food is always cooking and my order came up promptly--two or three minutes.

I ordered the Provencal chicken balls and they were delicious. The classiest chicken nuggets on the planet, they're made from thigh meat that has been marinated for several days in herbes de Provence, then rolled in seasoned breading and fried. They're perfectly moist and permeated with herbal flavor.

The accompanying "perfect" fries are quite good, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. I also liked the piquillo pepper sauce for the chicken. I wasn't crazy about the slaw, which was very vinegar-y and uneven with alternating cabbage-y blandness and jalapeno spiciness. Small complaint.

Avoid the truck at food truck festivals since the lines will no doubt be long. In fact, avoid food truck festivals in general, but seek LudoTurck out on its many one-off outings throughout Los Angeles.

The LudoTruck

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Really Good Tomato Sauce

Here's my recipe for a really good tomato sauce. It's something I make about once a month and it typically lasts me a week or so. Sometimes I'll freeze half of it for later. It's simple, easy and delicious. It's also way better than any store-bought tomato sauce you can get. The steps:

1. In a large pot (I use my Le Creuset French Oven) heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom.

2. While the oil heats, dice a medium onion. Add the diced onion to the pot and saute for a few minutes.

3. Chop 3 cloves of garlic and add to the pot. I cut corners here and use Dorsot frozen chopped garlic cubes from Trader Joe's. Authentic? Nah. But I'm not Italian and this is a lot easier and gives a good result.

4. Chop about two tablespoons of fresh basil. Add to the pot. Here I also use two cubes of Dorsot frozen chopped basil.

5. Add one pound Italian sausage (casing removed). Break it up with a wooden spoon. Eliminate this step for a vegetarian sauce.

6. Add a healthy dose of salt (about a tablespoon), about a tablespoon each of dried oregano and dried basil as well as several cranks of fresh ground pepper. For a spicy sauce, add a teaspoon or two of crushed red pepper. Stir the contents of the pot to coat the sausage with the herbs and oil.

7. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes.

8. Add a quarter cup of dry white wine, deglazing the pan if necessary. Let the wine simmer with the meat for another 5 minutes.

9. Add one large (28 oz) can of either tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes. Add two medium (14 oz) cans of ready-cut tomatoes. I like to do one can each of fire-roasted and "Italian-style". Add one can (6 oz) of tomato paste. Stir.

10. Let the sauce simmer for at least 30 minutes or as long as 90+ minutes. The longer the better. Taste before serving and adjust seasoning as necessary.

11. Optional additions: 1/4 cup chopped olives; 3-4 chopped anchovy fillets; 1 can cannellini beans; 1/4 cup chopped parsley.

The beauty of this sauce is that it's hearty enough to stand on its own with just a little pasta. It's also excellent with rice or quinoa or as an accompaniment to grilled chicken or pork. You're welcome.