Chilaquiles in Culver City: El Rio Bravo & Kay ‘N Dave’s

Remember when I was going to review chilaquiles at local restaurants like El Chavo reviews huevos rancheros? No? That’s probably because I’ve only done two reviews. Anyway, today I decided that my new mission (also known as gimmick) should be eating chilaquiles at all the Mexican restaurants in LA and then writing about it. I have two reviews for this week, which is the same amount of reviews since I first mentioned this project back in July 2007.

On Wednesday night, I went out with a new blog friend (hi, Faster Bunny) for a late dinner and drinks at Kay ‘n Dave’s in Culver City. I chose the chilaquiles since I love Mexican breakfast at any hour of the day. I didn’t get a photo, but that’s okay.

The chilaquiles at Kay ‘N Dave’s were made with a mild red salsa and scrambled with eggs. The jack and cheddar cheese mix on top (I think) was plentiful, but clumped up. They served it with a side of corn or flour tortillas — weird I know — pinto or black beans and rice. I never touched the tortillas, seriously did they expect me to make a taco de chilaquiles? The black beans were decent. The chilaquiles were okay, but I wouldn’t get them a second time. I didn’t really like the way the cheese clumped up and would prefer the eggs on the side. I was much more impressed with the tamarindo mezcal margarita. I’ll definitely get that again.

Tortilla chips

Today I visited El Rio Bravo, a newish restaurant in Culver City. Sean and I have been there a few times, but mainly for dinner. As soon as we sat down, they brought us the typical chips and salsa. Well, not typical as the chips are better than I’ve tasted at most local restaurants. They taste as if they just came out of the fryer and are perfectly salted.

Chips & salsa

Along with the chips, the waitress brought out two bowls of salsa. One is a very mild tomato salsa. It would be boring if the tomatoes didn’t taste so fresh. The second is a spicier tomatillo salsa. I’m a fan of both.

Chilaquiles at el Rio Bravo

If I was going to rank the chilaquiles by chips, El Rio Bravo would get a 3.5 (5 chips being the best I’ve had, the ones from my mom’s kitchen). The cook used the same chips as those brought out to all the guests. The salsa poured over the chips was good, but not enough. The chips were way too dry and when I finished some of the chips were still crunchy. I did like that the chilaquiles were not too cheesy. I ate barely half my plate at Kay ‘N Dave’s but finished all of my chilaquiles, plus the beans and scrambled eggs. I was hungry.

I can’t complain much about El Rio Bravo. The chilaquiles are not amazing, but the other meals I’ve had there have been great. The service is great and even though we said we’re too full for dessert, our servers still brought out a complimentary dessert. Last time we went for dinner, our server brought out fried ice cream. Today, it was a plate full of fresh pineapple, watermelon, melon and grapes.

Chilaquiles chip review (out of 5 chips)
Kay ‘N Dave’s: 3
El Rio Bravo: 3.5


Coctel de camarón (shrimp cocktail)

My go-to potluck or summer cookout contribution: shrimp cocktail

Shrimp cocktail (or coctel de camarón) is my go-to dish for potlucks and summer cookouts. It’s always a hit. Who doesn’t love shrimp and avocado?!

I took it to my cousin’s pool party on Sunday and came home with an empty container. My cousin Juan (the host) was sad he didn’t get any. That was probably because my mom was trying to hide it behind the tostadas and bowls of tortilla chips.

When I posted the photo on Instagram, a friend asked if I’d share the recipe. I obliged. There’s several ways to prepare coctel de camarón,

I learned it from my mom years ago.

1 lb shrimp (I use frozen deveined shrimp, thawed of course)
1 avocado, diced
1/2 lb imitation crab (optional)
1/2 red onion, diced
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
Cilantro, chopped (about a handful)
8 oz can of tomato sauce
1/2 cup of water
2 tbsp ketchup (I’m guessing here, I never measure)
1 tbsp Tapatio (see above)
2-3 limes, juiced

Mix all of the ingredients except for avocado in a large bowl and let chill for about an hour. Add avocado when ready to serve. If you do it too early, it might get mushy or turn brownish. Add as much avocado as you like. One is usually enough unless you really love avocado. I added 3 small avocados to the dish this time around and no one complained. Well, my cousin Chrissy did, but she’s allergic.

Serve on tostadas or in a bowl with a side of corn chips. Keep a bottle of Tapatio or other salsa on hand for those who prefer something spicier. Recipe serves 6-8, if serving size is ~1 cup. Beer is optional.

Note: The cocktail could be more soupy if you like, just add more liquids. Omitting the imitation crab would do the trick too.

Comida, Mexico

Reviewing “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

Reading from his new book, Orange County: A Personal History.

A couple weeks ago I RSVP’ed to attend a book talk and signing to coincide with the release of Gustavo Arellano’s new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at UCLA. I was looking forward to it as I enjoyed Gustavo’s two previous books (Ask A Mexican and Orange County: A Personal History) and couldn’t wait to read the results of his research on the popularity of Mexican food across the US. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook and he’d been dropping hints about his research and trips on both and in articles on the OC Weekly. Plus, is there any topic better than Mexican food and drink?

The quietness of El Cargadero makes me think of Rulfo's Comala

Anyway, I also like Gustavo. He’s a funny, entertaining and opinionated writer covering topics a lot of other journalists ignore. I’m also a fan because we share similar roots. Our mothers were both born in El Cargadero, a pueblito outside of Jerez, Zacatecas. His more autobiographical books felt like I was reading my own familiy’s history.

I never went to the book signing. That afternoon, my Dodger loyalty trumped my Cargaderense roots and pride. Who says Mexican immigrants and their children don’t acculturate or assimilate? Sorry, Gustavo. I ditched your reading but I did buy and read Taco USA. I went the e-book route since I didn’t want to wait for it to ship and didn’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America Review

Taco USA is a must read and worth the money you would have spent on dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant or a couple of meals from your favorite taco truck. I read slowly, wanting to savor — sorry for the pun — the descriptions of a lot of new-to-me takes on Mexican food outside of Southern California. I was also disgusted by some of the many culinary crimes committed in the name of making Mexican food palatable to white Americans’ taste (see: canned tortillas… guácala!).

I always start with 4 tacos when I go to Martha and Emilio's
Back to the book, the first two thirds are a chronological history of Mexican food in the US. Gustavo recounts the heyday of chili queens in Santa Fe and tamale men from San Francisco to Chicago at the turn of the century. Even back then, ambulantes (street vendors) were a big part of the Mexican food culture, or what passed as Mexican food. I had no clue why cartoon characters crowed about “hot tamaleeees!” Now I know. Other things I learned: the taco (hard, fried style not the ones above) didn’t become popular nationwide until the 1950s-60s; why non-Mexicans are the most popular Mexican food writers and chefs; the origin of nachos; and why chicken, shrimp or veggie fajitas is a misnomer.

Tepeyac's Manuel Special

My favorite chapters were about the burrito and Mexican food cooked by and for Mexican people. I attribute that to my LA and California bias. Gustavo begins the chapter on the burrito by describing the Manuel’s Special giant burrito at El Tepeyac Café in Boyle Heights (East LA, for the LA outsiders).

El Tepeyac Café

I have a particular affinity for El Tepeyac even though a lot of people don’t think the food is all that great. My grandparents, Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni used to live right around the corner from El Tepeyac. Literally. During parties, we used to peek over the wall into the El Tepeyac parking lot. My parents met when they were part of the youth group at Assumption Church, which is across the street from El Tepeyac. It’s where they got married. My siblings and I were baptized there and several other aunts and uncles married there. My roots run deep.

how to make burritos - step 5: enjoy (or save in baggies for lunch the next day)

I started the burrito chapter, “What took the burrito so long to become popular”, with warm fuzzies. And then Gustavo went on to the Mission style burritos in San Francisco (my favorite burritos) and how they inspired chains like Chipotle. I’ve had two Chipotle burritos, both bought by someone else. I don’t get the hype. He also answered a baffling question about the origin of San Diego -berto suffixed chain restaurants. My favorite is the Adalberto’s by my tío Beto’s house in Chula Vista. Their carne asada nachos are amazing.

Chilaquiles at la Juquila (they made me cry)

Gustavo’s chapter on the rise of Mexican food made by and for Mexicans made me hungry and sad that my favorite Mexican restaurant on the westside shut down a couple years ago. I was introduced to Oaxacan food in the late ‘90s by friends and quickly grew to love their moles, enchiladas and chilaquiles. I didn’t know at the time that Oaxacan restaurants were still relatively new in LA. The westside outpost of La Guelaguetza closed down recently. It bummed me out. That was my go-to spot for taking friends from out-of-town for Mexican food they couldn’t get elsewhere. Sadly, I never tried the chapulines (grasshoppers).

Tapatío at a Cuban restaurant

The latter third of Taco USA focuses on Mexican food products and drinks in US stores. This was less interesting to me, except when Gustavo discussed the history of brands like salsa El Tapatio. I was used to seeing it on the table at home, but was surprised when I started to see it as a condiment in restaurants or as a flavor for Doritos. I also got confused by all the entrepreneurs making money off Americans’ tastes for tortillas, salsa, tequila and more.

My only criticism is that Gustavo doesn’t discuss one popular critique or fear of Mexican food: it’s unhealthy and fattening. He does discuss the xenophobic fears, e.g., Mexican food is dirty, too spicy, or it’s going to cause some unfortunate digestive issues. This one got to me when I was losing weight and would read “Going out for Mexican, help!” on the Weight Watchers message boards as if Mexican food needed to be feared. Yes, I know, there are a lot of popular Mexican dishes that are fried and/or very cheesy. I love some of those, but it’s just one type of Mexican food. I lost a bunch of weight without ever giving up my beloved tortillas, (both corn and flour, not the cardboard like whole wheat kind either), tortas and tamales.

A life without tortillas would just be sad. I think Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, said it best:

What value is a life without booze and Mexican food?

Gustavo is currently on a media and book tour. Check out his schedule here. For more on the book, you can find a short interview with Arellano on LA Bloga and an excerpt in the LA Weekly. He also was on NPR this week discussing the rise of tacos and the origin of Taco Bell.

Edited: The NYT reviewed Taco USA in the Dining & Wine section this week. It’s a great review and gives you more of an overview of the book and about Gustavo’s career as a food critic and expert on all things Mexican American. If you haven’t exceeded your 10 pages/month limit, go read it.

Comida, Familia

V-day dinner by Chef Danny

Lori's balloons were the centerpiece

My brother, Danny, invited Sean and I to a Valentine’s dinner over the weekend. I know V-Day isn’t a family oriented holiday, but Danny’s a trained chef and it’s kinda rare that I get to eat anything he makes. Whenever I see him he’s usually exhausted from work. Sean liked the idea of a home-cooked gourmet meal rather than going out to a restaurant.

Traffic from LA to Hacienda Heights was horrible, but it was worth it. Danny made a delicious dinner with a little help from me, Lori and Costco. I like helping him out, it actually makes me feel like I know something about cooking.

We sat down to dinner a little late, but it was fine with me and accommodated my parents’ schedule.

Green salad

Green salad

Shrimp in a cayenne butter sauce with garlic asparagus

Shrimp in a delicious cayenne sauce

Filet mignon with a mushroom sauce, shrimp, roasted potatoes, asparagus and carrots (not pictured: garlic bread from the grocery store)

The main course

Apple pie a la mode (from Costco)

Apple pie & vanilla bean ice cream

I was so stuffed.

My favorites were definitely the cayenne shrimp and the mushroom sauce.

V.R. breaks out the sad puppy dog eyes for a chance at some steak

As or VR, he was really working the puppy dog eyes angle to get some steak.

Comida, Los Angeles

Burger Week recap

Some time in the spring, Sean emailed me a list of the best burgers in LA compiled by LAist. Even though Sean wanted to start working through the list, we never got around to it, at least not intentionally. We crossed off The Apple Pan as it was across the street from the theater where we saw Thor.

Earlier this month, LA Weekly posted another best burgers in LA list. Sean nudged me about it. We decided to make a dent in the list this week since we both are on vacation.

Thus, began Burger Week. After the second day, we made a spreadsheet in Google Docs and included any spot on LAist’s 2010 best burger list, 2011 list or LA Weekly’s 2011 list. Yeah, the spreadsheet is nerdy, but it made picking the next spot easier. We based our choices on type (“gourmet” vs “basic”) and location. Most of the high end burger spots are located on the Westside so we didn’t ever travel more than 6 miles.


Father's Office burger

Father’s Office Burger @ Father’s Office
Los Angeles (near Culver City)

FO is a familiar spot. It’s less than a mile away, but I don’t go very often as I’m not much of a drinker and it’s pricey for a burger. Still, after a few visits over the last few years, it’s easy to see why the FO burger is consistently listed as one of the best burgers in LA.

Father's Office sweet potato fries

In short, it’s delicious. We both had the Father’s Office burger: Kobe beef, Gruyere, caramelized onions, applewood bacon compote, maytag blue cheese and arugula on a roll. I love the combination of Gruyere, arugula and caramelized onions. We passed on the shoestring fries (they’re good) and split a basket of sweet potato fries with garlic aioli on the side for dipping. The burger is great, but the sweet potato fries with garlic aioli are my favorite menu item. Since FO is a gastropub known for a wide beer selection, we paired our burgers with Unibroue Fin du Monde.

Heads up:
It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for. The burger can easily feed two people with smaller appetites. FO does not do substitutions and does not have ketchup in house. This has never bugged me. The LA location gets very crowded at peak hours and you might have to stand around waiting for a table or spot at the bar to open up before ordering food. Be patient.

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