Friday, September 30, 2011

Santa Monica Breakfast Burritos

The breakfast burrito: quick, convenient, and quintessential. While the burrito is inherently Mexican, the bacon, egg, cheese variety is as American as the hard shell taco, or the sizzling fajita platter. Not necessarily authentic as Huevos Rancheros, the ‘gringo’ variation, as it is often referred to as, is probably the most popular. The breakfast burrito is by no means the most sensible morning offering, but more a first meal treat. So I guess I treated myself across the west side trying to find the best of the best. I covered many miles on the bike, went to a variety of restaurants, and of course ate my fair share of breakfast burritos. Rome was not built in a day and neither was my mass consumption of breakfast burritos. These are my findings...
Thoma’s on Lincoln and Rose had a decent offering but with a high flow of vagrant traffic the dining experience is somewhat sketchy. Right next door the Whole Foods has a breakfast burrito with premium ingredients but the price tag can set you back. Staying on Lincoln, Pancho’s breakfast burrito was hitting on all cylinders, but not being able to discern their salsa from tomato juice marred the experience. I enjoyed the Original Tommy’s variety on Lincoln and Pico, but it is tough to bounce back on the day after a chili injected breakfast burrito. Tom’s Family Restaurant’s breakfast burrito was all show and no go. It was humungous and rather cheap, but the the potato was too plentiful and the bacon was scarce.

Traversing Santa Monica trying to find the best breakfast burrito is admittedly daunting.  I did my best sampling a variety of different restaurants that hand some real merits as well as some pitfalls. There were a few surprises and few places that excelled in atmosphere and of course the food.
The best tasting breakfast burrito may have been from Tacos Por Favor situated on Olympic Blvd. Tacos Por Favor is the Mexican version of Bay Cities Deli in the sense that everything on the menu is very good, dare I say exceptional? With seemingly fresh ingredients, crisp bacon, and a fantastic salsa bar, the Tacos Por Favor breakfast burrito was on point. The only stipulation is that everything at Tacos Por Favor is a bit pricy, including the breakfast burrito.

The Bagel Nosh, on 17th and Wilshire, offers a pretty pedestrian breakfast burrito at best. Served up with a small bowl of El Paso, Tostitos, or some other store bought ‘jug-o-salsa’ solidified the meals mediocrity. But the Bagel Nosh gets five stars, two thumbs up and the blue ribbon for ambiance. The dining room is clean, comfortable, and inviting. The Bagel Nosh is certainly a fine dining experience, even if the burrito was just so so.  

The biggest surprise came from D.K.’s Donuts on Santa Monica and 16th. The eggs are not scrambled but over-hard, which was a first. The burrito also contains a preformed deep-fried hash brown patty. The kicker is they throw the hash brown patty in the donut frier. Each bite has a sweet donutty accent making this version one of the more unique breakfast burritos I have had. Not making the breakfast burritos fresh to order are set backs but understandable coming from a donut shop.  

So many breakfast burritos, so little time. All of them found their way to my stomach. And some of that bacon grease found a little place in my heart. All the more reason to  keep biking, and keep exploring what Santa Monica has to offer.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Firehouse

In an area jam packed with restaurants it is easy for a simple diner to get overlooked, even if that diner is the biggest brightest building on the block. I have rode my bike past The Firehouse on the cusp of Venice and Santa Monica on Main Street countless times but never really gave it much more than a glance.  Little did I know that the Firehouse was full of all sorts of surprises. 
Confirmed from what I presumed by owner Lekio Hamada this restaurant was indeed originally a firehouse dating back to 1902-1907 depending on who you ask. It was not until the mid 50’s that it ceased to be a firehouse and it was not until 1986 that Leiko purchased the property. One of the keys to owning a former firehouse is finding a good painter. Leiko went through three different painters until she found one who was able to give The Firehouse a deep red coat that could stand the sands of time and not fade away into an unappealing pink. The enormous building truly has a tale of two halves. It is essentially two different restaurants under one roof.  
They made a name for themselves back in the mid to late eighties when the area was a body building mecca. Golds Gym being blocks away attracted many body builders asking for an egg white breakfast. While the The Firehouse offers up your standard omelets, breakfast sandwiches and from what I hear a very good eggs benedict on the weekends, the diner developed a menu catering the body builders palate. The Bodybuilder Breakfast consists of 8 oz. scrambled egg whites, 3 pancakes or oatmeal, and a choice of 6 oz. chicken breast, steak, or other meat ranging from $8.95-14.95 in price. Ask any strongman and they will tell you that is a lot of protein bang for your buck. 
While the back area serves up food to regulars and bodybuilders alike, the front of the house is a different story. In 1993 director James Cameron opened a post production company blocks away from the Firehouse. In uncanny timing the restaurant just received their liquor license and subsequently opened their bar up front. Alcohol to editors is like egg whites to body builders. It is not a rare occurrence to see post production people discussing their projects over rounds of beers at The Firehouse.  Along with a solid selection of beers and wines, the kitchen offers up an eclectic mix of salads, entrees, and of course fireman’s chili. The Firehouse has a pretty enticing happy hour menu as well. From 4:30-7:00 p.m. they offer up $3 domestics and $4-5 imports, and an assortment of $5 appetizers. In another twist, the front area also has a sushi bar. While usually this would be out of place in such an establishment, the fact that Lekio used to own a sushi restaurant before The Firehouse gives it merit. Plus how could you complain with $5 rolls during happy hour?
With the Google offices moving in down the street things may get even more hectic in the area. Certainly good for business, but Leiko confessed she did enjoy things when they were quieter years back. The Firehouse attracts a variety of different customers but locals and families are still their solid base.  The menu at first glance may seem completely random, but once you know a little of the history of the 100 plus year old firehouse, you start to realize everything is there for a reason. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Umami Burger

What is there left to possibly say about the most critically reviewed, dissected, and highly acclaimed burger in Los Angeles? A mouthful, if you are one of the people like myself that are late in the game to scratch this contemporary hotspot off your burger bucket list. Yes I do have a list and Umami Burger was at the top of it. After encountering a few gasps, arm grabs and cries of “You’ve never had Umami Burger!?”, I found it my duty more than anything to give it a go.  
Umami Burger is listed at 500 Broadway although countless bike rides up and down this street show nothing more than the ivy facade of the Fred Segal. The Umami Burger is actually tucked away on Fifth Street right next to the high end retailer.  Like Fred Segal, Umami Burger is trendy, contemporary, and quite chic. The two certainly go hand in hand. And while I am not necessarily going to use my rent check to purchase a spiffy little hand bag, I can be enticed to penny up for a super fancy fine dining experience at Umami Burger.
My server was very friendly, prompt, and I had no issues in being seated.  However, with its cramped dining area and large crowds I could imagine a party of four could run into some problems. Space is certainly at a premium but since I was dining alone, there were no worries.  
With a relatively long list of burgers to choose from, making a final decision could have been a challenge. Ultimately going with the restaurants namesake, ‘The Umami Burger’ seemed most appropriate.  While ‘The Umami Burger’ obviously is the standard at no other place than Umami Burger, it is anything but conventional. It is the details that make this burger a new L.A. staple. The parmesan disk for example adds great flavor, texture, and a certain level of fanciness. And I never thought I would be praising catsup, but Umami’s version transcends your standard Heinz 57. The meaty greasiness of the burger, added to the salty crisp parmesan disk, along with the rich flavors of their house catsup, grilled onions and mushroom, meld together, absorbed perfectly in their signature bun.
Not to be outdone or over looked by the burger are the Umami sides. The sweet potato fries are indeed sweet, savory, and delicious. And the tempura onion rings were great too. (although I believe you could deep fry a car tire in tempura batter and I would like it) The standout side was definitely the smooshed potatoes. The geniuses at Umami take Dutch yellow creamer potatoes, fry them, smashed them down, and fry them again. They are like really big thick potato chips.    
I have heard people criticize Umami for having burgers too small in size. Others think they are perfectly proportioned. I suppose it is a matter of preference. I am usually all about gluttonous burgers, but sometimes its nice to walk away from a meal without the meat sweats. I must say I felt pretty good about my first experience at Umami Burger.
It is admittedly a bit tough to review the most critically acclaimed burger in L.A. Part of me wants to go against the grain and pan the burger just to stir up some controversy. But alas I cannot. Bowing down to the gastronomic trends and succumbing to its popularity, I too love this burger as much as the masses. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Big Dean's

The passing of Labor Day here in Santa Monica means many changes but no more noticeable than down by The Pier. The Twilight Dance Series is over, the beaches are much less crowded, and the leaves on the palm trees start to turn (well not really). With the unofficial end of summer amongst us, the droves of tourists seem to subside, but never completely dissipate from The Santa Monica Pier. With less crowd congestion, post Labor Day is a great time for us locals to see what is happening at The Pier or in this case, below it. At the base of the Pier situated on Ocean Front walkway, underneath most of the street musicians, gyrating silver mimes, and other hoopla, is a hotspot for both tourist and locals alike, Big Dean’s “Muscle Inn” Cafe. Before Big Dean’s, it was Sidney’s Cafe back in the 70’s, and it has been running as a cafe since 1901 making it older than the Pier itself.

Big Dean’s claims on their menu that The Big Dean’s Burger is ‘The burger that made Santa Monica famous.’ Could it be possible that Santa Monica gets its world acclaim not from the beach, Pier, or city itself, but from a burger? The answer is no. Big Dean’s sarcastically coined their burger ‘world famous’ in a way to play with tourists as well as poke fun at the idea that nowadays almost everything and anything is historic and or famous. World famous or not, locals and regulars know that the Big Dean’s burger is a goodie. Double the meat, double the cheese, and grilled onions makes for one fantastic burger. The only problem with the burger was its height to width ratio. Let’s just say it is a tall burger and problematic like an SUV on a curvy road. The high center of gravity, melted cheese, and slick onions made it a tough burger to hold onto. Thankfully the 32oz. beer special washed away any control issues I may have been experiencing. One thing that should be noted about the burger and beer is that they are very reasonably priced, especially being in such a prime location where everything seems to be jacked up.

“You have to cater to your regulars, you can’t jack up the price just because tourists are in town.” explains General Manager T.J. Sorady.

T.J. realizes that if you gouge your customers then Big Dean’s becomes just another tourist trap along the boardwalk. Big Dean’s prime sightseeing location juxtaposed to its local customer base is what makes it so unique, and a fun place to hang out. It is a place to go with your friends as well meet some random couple from Sandusky, Ohio. It is an embassy that serves cold beer and from what I learned a really good hot wing. T.J. went to college in Buffalo and brought his wing sauce recipe here to the West Coast.

“I’ve had people from Buffalo in here eating our wings telling me that these are the best wings that they have had outside of Buffalo” Said T.J.      

The wings are indeed meaty, have a decent crunch, and have a fantastically tangy and spicy sauce. Leave it up to the guy from Buffalo to bring some kick butt wings to the party.

Big Deans offers up good deals on beer, has a ‘world class’ burger, and makes some of the best wings outside of Buffalo, and all just in time for the start of football season. Some general food and beer for thought if you decide to venture out to The Santa Monica Pier.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sonny McLean's

Sonny Mclean’s serves food? That was my initial reaction as I bellied up to the bar for a cold one. The barkeep enthusiastically showed me a menu and pointed to a bunch of cooking trophies behind the bar won by their head chef. A new menu, bigger selection of beers, and a burger claiming to be the best on the West Side were compelling enough reasons to see what this new look Sonny’s had to offer.

Originally McGinties, then Red Setter, and as of not so recent, Sonny’s McLeans, this establishment has always been an Irish Pub at heart. Recently purchased by New Zealander and restauranteur Grant Woods, the main goal was to improve upon what needed to be improved, as well as preserve what makes Sonny’s Sonny’s. Revamping the menu and beer selection were necessary changes but the traditional Irish Pub food needed to stay. Executive Chef Joseph Feldmann had other plans bringing in his own inspired menu. The final compromise, a bigger menu with both schools of thought. This did not mean adding to the existing menu but rather an entire overhaul. Subsequently, Chef Joe had to start from scratch, literally and figuratively. This means almost everything is made in-house, and not plucked out of the freezer and thrown into the deep frier.

“Before I got here everything was deep fried. Everything was frozen. Nothing was fresh.” says Chef Joe

Originally brought on as a food consultant, Chef Joe took the title as executive chef and has been trying to get the word out that Sonny’s is more than jalapeno popper’s and mozzarella sticks. Freeing up freezer space by reducing Sonny’s frozen items to peas, french fries, and gelato was his first step to taking a fresher approach in Sonny McLean’s kitchen.

“It’s all about freshness and people think it’s cheaper to go the other way, but it is just as cheap to go fresh”

Chef Joe practices what he preaches by making frequent stops at the 3rd street farmers market. With a blend of Mediterranean influences, traditional Irish Pub food, as well as your jalapeno poppers and mozzarella sticks (which are both house-made) the menu has made a dramatic turnaround.  With a larger selection of beers and wines, Sonny’s has taken things to a new level.

Watering hole turned gastropub, Sonny’s has the ammo to rival some of the best bar food in the area. The Chef’s Burger with caramelized onions, honey bacon, chipotle aioli, tomato confit, gruyere, a bed of baby arugula, on a brioche roll is a prime example of the menu’s makeover.  While it is though to anoint any one burger as the the best in town, Chef Joe’s creation is on point with any of the other high end burger places in the area.  Sonny McLeans has achieved a good balance of high class food without a hint of pretentiousness. It is still a neighborhood place to have a pint and watch a game. They just have some seriously good grub, if you’re into that kind of thing. When asked if infamous Boston gangster and recent Santa Monica resident Whitey Bulger used to drink at Sonny’s, Chef Joe could not confirm nor deny such claims. And we will just leave it at that.