Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Los Angeles 2012 - Day 2

As you might have guessed, I woke up early the following morning feeling, um, a little digestively unsettled (I blame jet lag). Lucky for me, the proprietors of the inn had some figs from the tree out back (a fruit tree in the backyard...try that in Chicago) and watermelon sliced up in the fridge that helped me right the ship. Also helping was the large bowl of birria (goat stew - see photo below) I ate for 2nd breakfast at one of Jaime's favorite local Mexican food joints, Los Equipales, just a short drive from the house in Sylmar. Very similar in flavor and presentation to the birria I had last year at Chicago's celebrated Birriera Zaragoza, the hot bowl of broth and meat was accompanied by cilantro, lime, onions, hot sauce, and corn tortillas.

Feeling rejuvenated, we made our way towards the coast to Santa Monica Pier for a spell of sightseeing. My hope was that we'd be able to see the ocean, then head back inland to get some recommended Thai food for lunch; however, Friday traffic problems prevented us from reaching the city. Undaunted, Jaime steered us back to the Valley and one of LA's most celebrated hot dog joints, Fab Hot Dogs in Receda. Longtime readers may recall that we visited Fab on the last trip, where I feasted on an LA street dog and tater tots. Not wanting to repeat myself, I opted for the Mexicali dog (char dog with guacamole, adobo sauce, grilled onions, and sour cream) and fries on this occasion. While looking good (see photo below) and tasting good, the 3 sauces made something of a sloppy mess, overwhelming the char dog a bit.

Once again, the day's heat in the Valley was beyond oppressive, so after lunch, we heeded the warnings of local officials and stayed cool indoors for the most part (except for a quick dip in the pool). Our plan for the evening was to stop by Jaime's parents again before heading to nearby San Fernando for a taco festival. Upon hearing that I'd enjoyed my shrimp ceviche the day prior, Jaime's mom decided to whip up a batch of her homemade cold shrimp soup for us as an appetizer (see photo below).

Although I sampled many different food items on this trip and I still consider myself to be nothing more than a hack when it comes to truly evaluating the quality of dishes, this shrimp soup was phenomenal x 10, quite probably the best thing I ate during my visit (sorry, Mom - I love you, but you can't cook like Mrs. Q). The textures of the chunky vegetables (cucumbers, onions) and fruits (avocados, tomatoes) melded perfectly with the cilantro, lemon juice, spices, and broth (a mixture of Clamato and a Mexican-brand tomato sauce), while the shrimp added a briny dimension to the bowl. Consuming it outside in the California heat only made it more perfect and I eagerly took a second helping, tacos be damned. Jaime's mom was kind enough to share the recipe with me on the condition that I'd be assassinated should I publish its contents. I don't think Mrs. Q has to worry - in spite of Lydia's dutiful efforts to translate her instructions from Spanish, I'm not confident I'll be able to duplicate the results back at the Commissary seeing as, like all good old-school recipes, there are no ingredient quantities, just a lot of tasting until you get the right balance of flavors.

We arrived at the taco fest (located just down the street from the church where Jaime and Lydia were married) in San Fernando as night fell, bringing some welcome cooling to the atmosphere. The fest itself wasn't quite as large as I'd imagined, more like a carnival with a few booths selling tacos and other Mexican fare.

While trying to make my dining choices, I noticed the local fire marshal having an animated discussion with one of the vendors about his propane burner setup (no doubt after seeing some equipment snafu that had the potential to blow us all to kingdom come). Clearly, this was the booth to start with before they were shut down. One the menu was something I'd had a vague notion about, but never tried, called esquites. This is a Mexican street food specialty where roasted corn kernels are mixed in a small container with butter, mayonnaise, lime, hot sauce, and grated cheese (no, it's not heart-healthy), then eaten with a spoon. I discovered that the resulting melange packs quite a wallop, and while I did enjoy the portion I ate, I wasn't able to navigate my way through the whole thing (more experienced esquite diners probably know how to tailor the amounts of individual toppings to their liking - I pretty much told the senorita to throw everything in there). I followed this up with a killer pineapple agua fresca, much better than the supercharged one I had at Tortas Frontera.

Moving on to tacos, we found a booth with a portable, propane-fueled vertical spit (presumably not running afoul of the local fire regulations) roasting a cone of pork for tacos al pastor (or shepherd-style). Atop the spit was a hunk of pineapple, with its juices dripping down onto the meat to help tenderize it (a traditional method of preparing al pastor). For just $2 each, I picked up one of the cook's tacos al pastor and another filled with some tripe meat, both topped with a mild green salsa. The al pastor taco was lean and tender, while the tripe was a little less so, not exactly my favorite (I've determined that tripe in tacos might be something of an acquired taste). More palatable was the cabeza (head) taco I bought at a different stand, featuring roasted meat from a cow's head (although I'm not entirely sure which part of the head I received, either the cheek, lips, tongue, or some combination thereof). By this time, I had had my fill of traditional Mexican food for the day and we decided to forgo dessert in lieu of extra sleep to prepare for our river rafting excursion in Bakersfield early the next morning...

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