Burrito Hindsight is 20-20

I’ve just finished PICU, which shut down all chance at maintaining any sort of normal life. With night shifts that start at 4:30pm and day shifts that start at 5:30am and non-stop “Can you take a call from?” requests on Vocera (I actually didn’t know there was a button that allowed you to reject the incoming call…and even after I found out about it I never felt brave enough to press it), PICU induces a tiredness that I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from. Now that it’s over, I’m hoping to resume some of the things that I’ve horribly neglected in the past month–in no particular order–correspondence with friends, personal hygiene, daily nutrition, and this blog. Just ignore the fact that I haven’t posted in nine months, and pretend that it’s only been last month that I’ve failed to update you on (in reverse chronological order), the state fair, Los Angeles/Disneyland, the French Laundry, Spain and France, and Thanksgiving 2013.

First I wanted to talk about the one important current event that I’ve managed to keep up with during my time on PICU, the FiveThirtyEight Burrito Bracket. From the selection committee to the history of burritos, I’ve enjoyed reading about the aspects that make for a quality burrito (especially the distribution of ingredients…time and again I have expressed my dislike for Chipotle’s burritos because none of the ingredients ever mix in. One inevitably ends up with a gigantic glom of not-quite-cooked rice, a bulge of unmelted cheese shreds, and a pool of super salty salsa. Somewhere buried in there is the highly touted antibiotic free meat that they totally skimp on. The bowl format only partly solves these issues). Inevitably, after every new post I would feel the uncontrollable urge to go out and consume a burrito.

I was excited that the 538 crew decided to take this on, and they did get some heavy hitters to weigh in on the selection committee, but let’s be real here…we all knew it was gonna come down to California and the Mission-style burrito. In most parts of the US, if you were to ask someone to picture a burrito, the prototypical example that would come to mind is the Mission burrito, or at least something large and cylindrical wrapped in foil. If you were to cut that mental burrito open, it would be unlikely to contain potatoes/french fries unless you were from San Diego.

I was pretty confident going into the first round that one of the California-based burritos would score the highest, having eaten at 3 out of 4 of the number one seeds in El Farolito, Frontier, and Bell Street burritos. However, I did take issue with the California seeding. The VORB metric, which I honestly didn’t read into too much because PICU (<- I still really don’t understand how to use the because-noun thing…was that right?) shows how trying to glean something resembling “data” from Yelp reviews proves troublesome and ultimately futile. I don’t think I need to once again go into detail about how I feel Yelp is pretty lousy for actual reviews, as the 538 BSC aka David Chang did a fine job of that as well. As much as Nate Silver tried to Nate Silver (yeah I verb’ed him) Yelp ratings to create VORB, adjusting for region, urban area, volume of reviews etc. etc., there are some confounding factors in the California “data” that were not adjusted for which ultimately led to El Farolito’s VORB inflation:

1. Proximity to BART station entrance: La Taqueria is just down the block from El Farolito, but El Farolito is right there at 24th and Mission BART entrance/exit. The dominance of El Farolito on Yelp may have something to do with this, which brings me to my next point…

2. Drunken recall: I’m not sure if you could put a percentage on it, but I’d guess that >75%  of El Farolito burritos are eaten in an intoxicated state (100% if you sampled the author of this blog). Looking at the hours of the powerhouse burrito establishments in the mission reveals that El Farolito is open until at least 2:30am every night (3:30 on Fri/Sat). La Taqueria closes at 9pm. That’s at least 5.5 hours for people to get progressively drunker and have El Farolito to turn to when La Taqueria is closed. When you’re drunk and starving between the hours of 9pm and 3:30am, El Farolito serves the greatest burrito on earth. Need that rice to soak up the alcohol because that’s just how science works.

3. What if a place has pretty damn good burritos, but phenomenal not-burrito? This question is my way of saying, WHY WASN’T PAPALOTE IN THE BRACKET?! It has good reviews on Yelp. Maybe because the salsa is really the star of the show there. It’s so good that you could put it on a Del Taco bean and cheese burrito and that would probably blow many other burritos from across the country out of the water.

In any case, I would say El Farolito’s Yelp dominance and therefore high VORB score are due to factors that have nothing to do with the food, but the same can be said about any Yelp rating. And what was the result? El Farolito posted a relatively embarrassing 86.

I was happy to see Chando’s Tacos in the bracket. It’s the first taco place that I visited after moving to Sacramento and the only reason it isn’t my go-to is that the location is inconvenient for a quick “New burrito bracket post just went up and dammit I really want a burrito now” run (For that, it’s the al pastor burrito at La Fiesta Taqueria on Alhambra). I’ve never had a burrito at Chando’s, but since the meats are so delicious I can’t imagine a burrito wouldn’t be good, and the very respectable score of 91 reflects that. The nachos are legit, and I appreciate that they use the super fake liquidy queso ez-melt cheese. That congealed block of cheese that happens when places try to get fancy and use real cheese in their nachos is the worst. One time I was eating lunch there and a homeless guy came up and asked me for a bite of my taco, which really caught me off guard. Was he not hungry enough for an entire taco? Did he want to sample it before he committed to a whole taco? Did he think it would be more polite to just ask for one bite even though it would’ve been way less gross to ask for the whole taco?


So what can we take away from El Farolito’s top overall seed, highest VORB, and quick exit from the bracket? Other than the fact that any bracket system/seeding is flawed in general, I think we can say that Yelp can provide some useful information, but contains very little useful information about an establishment’s food quality, and that expert opinion often has little effect on our behavior, which holds especially true when it comes to science and healthcare, but that’s a topic for another time.

So who is the burrito bracket for? Why am I so invested in something that will have no effect on my behavior? Despite not knowing who the eventual victor will be, the reaction will be predictable: A proportion will be of the “Knew it all along, I’ve always said that place was the best…excuse me while I go delete my one star Yelp review.” There will be a “What the fuck do they think they know? I’M the expert. I have Yelp elite status 3 years running to prove it. Excuse me while I go delete my one star Yelp review.” The other proportion will say “fuck, I wish I lived in California…let’s go to Chipotle.”

Taqueria Cancun may see an uptick in business, but I doubt that the burrito bracket will sway people’s Mission burrito loyalties all that much. Perhaps the most interesting storyline will be whether Al and Bea’s will take the crown. Not only is it located in Southern California, it’s a non-Mission and non-California style burrito and will add fuel to the Northern vs. Southern California rivalry which Southern Californians quite adorably perpetuate in order to make themselves feel better about the 16 hours a day they spend sitting in traffic.

I suppose there is the scenario in which regional pride could be on the line, in the unlikely scenario that a contender from a non-California region claims victory, but those regions are so expansive that again, there would unlikely be any sort of behavioral change or lasting business impact. New Yorkers aren’t going to travel to Boston to get a burrito, nor does it seem likely Arizonans will travel to New Mexico to get a burrito…with red or green sauce. I leave out the South because it has no chance (No offense Atlanta! I love you and miss you like crazy, and Bell Street was pretty good but it never stood a chance. We here in California will trade you 3 great Mexican restaurants for just one Waffle House. Deal?)

Not that the 538 people have stated their Burrito Bracket serves any sort of purpose. It’s all supposed to be in good fun, but in that case why bother with the attempt to make it seem like there’s any sort of statistical data to back their choices up? Why even choose a best burrito? Perhaps it’s easy to say, living in California, but there’s great burritos all over the place, and you can have specific burrito joints for specific situations. I’ve now lived in a few different regions and there’s always been a burrito place available:

Lafayette, CA: The formative burrito years. I think the first mission burrito that I remember eating was actually in Oakland. I distinctly remember trying cilantro for the first time in a burrito during our lunch break on the set of the movie I was in. I also remember going to a burrito place after dentist visits, when my dad used to take me to a Korean dentist…I don’ t remember which of those came first. However, High Tech Burrito then started expanding the mission style burrito to multiple northern California locations, and I even remember they used to hand out cards with instructions on how to properly peel away the foil as you eat so that was my go-to in junior high. High school was spent at Casa Gourmet Burrito. I’m sure each new generation of Acalanes student discovers this place, meets Dave the chef/owner, and starts putting Thai sweet chili sauce on their burritos. My sophomore year of high school, Dave was driving a used mustard yellow VW golf. By the time I graduated he was in a BMW 3 series.

Amherst, MA: Bueno y Sano was the burrito place in town. Burritos were short and plump and heavy on beans, but were pretty good. I seem to recall they always had way too much liquid that would spill out onto the little silver plate they were housed on…or all over my shirt if I got them to go.

Atlanta, GA: Bell street is good but there are other more interesting things to eat in the Sweet Auburn curb market. Raging Burrito I remember more for their Sierra Nevada pitcher specials than their food, but Willy’s was always a good option. One time my buddy Dan and I were sitting down enjoying our burritos, when a woman walked in and had to get the guy behind the counter to explain to her what a burrito was. He patiently took about 5 minutes to explain the concept, which apparently worked as she was midway through the order when we hear a “Oh wait. The beans and meat go INSIDE the tortilla?” More explanation, then she continued with her order, and busts out in an appropriate accent and with a suitable amount of flair: “I would like some PICO DE GALLO.” How does one know how to pronounce pico de gallo correctly but not know what a burrito is? As we left, she was seen eating her burrito which she had flattened down and was holding with two hands like a sandwich.

Current day California – Please refer to the following decision trees:

IMG_5016IMG_4697In the end, America’s best burrito is the one that’s sitting in front of you, ready to be consumed. If there’s one thing that I hope comes out of the burrito bracket, it’s that there really shouldn’t be a need to ever go to Chipotle…ever.

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Sacramento is the self-proclaimed Farm-to-Fork capital of the world, and while this sounds nice, it’s not as if we have much in the way of competition. We’re surrounded by farmland in the state of California. If anyone in the US who lived outside of California wanted to limit their agricultural intake to those products grown exclusively within their home state, they could say goodbye to eating artichokes, almonds, pomegranates, and walnuts. Only 3% of US citizens would be able to eat kiwis, and only 5% could eat celery and garlic. Farm-to-fork restaurants in a whole lot of other states would only be able to list corn and soybeans as vegetable sides. Eating local is great and all, but even Californians eat a good deal of imported produce, from both domestic and international sources.

The problem I have with the idea of farm-to-fork or table or whatever you want to call it, is that the idea has been co-opted into the anti-scientific-sensationalist-facebook-posts-as-evidence-health-food movement. Yes…there are political/ethical/moral/sustainability issues to be debated about things such as organic foods and GMOs and food preparation methods. Unfortunately, the people who strongly believe in these things will often play the health card. It’s a pretty good strategy…nothing gets your attention quite like a link-baity “eat this corporate sponsored  mass-produced pesticide-ridden GMO and you’ll immediately develop cancer and twelve kittens will be murdered” story on your news feed.

The problem is that these health arguments are rarely based in scientific fact. GMOs causing cancer? The scientific study that “demonstrated” this was not peer-reviewed, plagued with statistical inconsistencies, and performed in a strain of rats known to spontaneously develop tumors (check out Slate and this KSJ Tracker post). Organic food is healthier for you and contains more nutrition than non-organics? So far, the evidence we have can’t back that claim. Again, I’m only speaking to the health aspect of the debate here…the evidence just isn’t there to support one view or the other.

Does local and organic non-GMO stuff taste better? Well there’s the big question…and one that warrants rigorous scientific study. Let’s run a little experiment here:

DSC03575These Japanese eggplants

DSC03579…along with these squash blossoms (and some chiles not included in this study) were grown on a very small family estate (a.k.a my girlfriend’s parents’ backyard garden) in Bakersfield, CA. They were then transported the ~280 miles to Sacramento via a 2008 Honda Accord Coupe operated by a private courier (a.k.a my girlfriend). This car has an EPA-estimated 24 MPG combined, but we’ll give it 28 MPG as a large chunk was freeway driving. That’s 10 gallons in fuel costs alone to get those veggies up here, and using the EPA average of CO2 emissions per gallon of gas burned, that corresponds to about 89 kilograms of CO2 or ~196 pounds of CO2 emitted to transport about a pound of produce. Does that sound like a lot? I can’t tell. Let’s just assume it’s a big carbon footprint, and find out if it all that distance it had to travel and all that greenhouse gas it belched out along the way makes the food taste terrible:

DSC03577The eggplants were breaded in freshly made Italian-style breadcrumbs using some leftover Shoku-pan I had in my freezer (local Japanese bakery to counteract the distance the eggplant had to travel).

DSC03587That tomato sauce? Made with canned tomatoes from Italy.

The squash blossoms were used in a total rip-off of Pizzeria Mozza’s squash blossom pie:

DSC03583At this time I’d like to point out that I used a pizza peel made from recycled particle board instead of Earth-destroying virgin wood…and it sucks. The pizza sticks no matter how well floured it is, and it smells like ass when you wash it.

DSC03590Topped with burrata after cooking in a gas oven set to 550F for an hour to heat up the pizza steel, and I have an in-oven gas broiler which made for some great crust. This used about 1 therm of natural gas, so add that to the carbon whatsit.

All this tasted pretty damn good I have to say, so the conclusion of my experiment is that the bigger the carbon footprint, the more delicious the food. People should post this to facebook as irrefutable evidence that big carbon means big flavor, because if one person runs a totally unscientific “experiment,” and writes about it online, it HAS to be true (just like the microwave water plant thing). Just don’t let any of my chemistry teachers, math teachers who told me to “show your work,” or epidemiology/biostatistics professors see it, because it would surely kill them a little inside. At the very least they’d be well fed?


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Sous-vide 1.01

It’s been about two months since the sous-vide cooking experiments started, (even though I only posted about it earlier today). Over that time, the projects have gotten a bit more ambitious, and I’ve started to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what’s worth the time that sous-viding will require. A wider variety of home sous-vide options are also trickling out (apparently the first couple of Nomikus are already on their way, Sansaire should be shipping in November, and my Polyscience model has another lab-grade competitor in Anova).

Multiple steaks do lend themselves well to sous-viding like I said before, however if not everyone is on board with medium-rare steak, you either have to compromise on a midway temperature, or over-sear/cook in the finishing stages. However, if everyone is smart enough to go with appropriately cooked meat, sous-vide was amazing for scaling things up to an entire rib roast…

DSC03412I coated this 5 pound ribeye with smoked sea salt, mustard, garlic, herbs, and such. 8 hours later my guests arrived, and all that was needed was a little sear and a torching:

DSC03413Edge to edge medium rare throughout the entire roast. I’ve made some pretty decent roasts before, but none cooked as perfectly as this one.

I’ve still been chasing after the farm egg style that’s exemplified by places like Empire State South (see the picture from the last post). The problem I kept running into was perfectly cooked yolks, and very tasty but ass-ugly whites. I had tried some of the strategies mentioned in the previous post, with pre-boiling, post-poaching, but the only real fix is to get eggs before the whites start to liquefy in the shell. I hit up the Sunday farmer’s market in Sacramento and bought eggs that were just out of the chicken. Eggs so fresh that they didn’t even bother to stamp a Julian date on the box they came in. $4 a dozen which is a littttle crazy…but I suppose I won’t be sous-viding eggs every day.

DSC03438Boom. Whites that hold their shape, and a smudge of liquid white that could definitely get rid of if you were presenting them for guests. I sous-vided a few and kept them in the fridge.

DSC03442If you thought this was just instant ramen fancied up with a perfect sous-vide egg on top, you’d be absolutely right. To be fair…it is Shin Ramen Black.

DSC03444It’s nice to have a perfectly cooked egg just waiting to be cracked open, though I wonder how long they keep once they’ve been cooked.

But eggs, roasts, proteins, all that is pretty well worn territory. I had yet to try vegetables:

DSC03428Honestly…I’m not certain that sous-viding eggplant made a huge difference, though I suppose eggplant is inherently a bit mushy when it gets cooked. It also required some scary high temperatures to start breaking things down and softening them up.

One other application that I figured sous-vide may be useful for was traditional Korean dishes. Immersion circulation techniques have done some pretty great things for other pork belly preparations, and I thought I’d try applying it to bo ssam. Lots of people are familiar with David Chang’s bo ssam, which involves roasting pork shoulder, and some have even tried his method sous vide. However, Chang’s food, as much as I admire it (and despite the fact that the NY Times propagated the misconception), is KINO a.k.a. Korean in name only. Real bo ssam is a steamed/boiled/braised preparaton of pork belly, usually neatly sliced and served with a bit of salted shrimp sauce, kimchi, and lightly pickled napa cabbage.

Most marinades use ginger, Korean fermented soy bean paste, and sometimes green tea to remove that really porky smell.

DSC03339I started with a slab of pork belly and vacuum sealed it with a mix of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, green tea powder, and soy bean paste.

DSC03340Yes…the green tea powder makes things look pretty foul, but it probably wouldn’t matter after 24 hours in the sous vide bath:

DSC03350There were some strange discolored areas on the external surface, but on the inside:

DSC03353Nice clean pig…the other white meat indeed.

To finish up the outside a bit, I tried:

DSC03356Deep frying. Never do this. I feared for my life. There was a shower of hot peanut oil that took me days to recover and clean up. It did look pretty though…

DSC03357And the finished preparation:

DSC03360Perfectly cooked pork belly, tender meat, fat that was devoid of raw pork smell but had structure, and a rich texture without feeling overwhelming or greasy. For a fleeting moment, the thought went through my head that I had maybe created the best bo ssam in the world…that years of traditional Korean preparations couldn’t even come close. But then, I realized it had very little to do with me and more to do with a leap in culinary technology that wouldn’t have even been dreamed of when bo ssam first was prepared. Just as David Chang’s liberal interpretation relies on the use of an oven…pretty much non-existent in Korean cooking…sous-vide is kinda cheating.

So after two months of use, do I feel that sous vide is for everyone? Should home cooks universally adopt sous-vide like they did the microwave? Absolutely not. Even with low cost options coming to the market, the buy-in is too much for most people. In the past two months, I’ve used my circulator maybe a dozen times. To be fair, I’ve used it more than my microwave, but I use my stove daily, and I feel like a good number of people out there (even those who consider themselves “foodies” (ugh I hate that word)) don’t know how to properly use one of those. The non-stove cooking methods that home cooks love and use…microwaves, slow cookers, and to a lesser degree pressure cookers and induction heating elements, are more about convenience and speed. Immersion circulators may create convenience in very specific contexts, but the focus is on accuracy and consistency, not speed.

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The future is now…

But it almost wasn’t. It almost got delayed until sometime in the fall.

Rewind to June 28th, 2012. The headline on a Serious Eats blog post reads “Is the Nomiku Portable Sous-Vide Cooker the Solution We’ve Been Looking For?” The Nomiku, created by some techies in the Bay Area, a Kickstarter/Blogger/Home cook phenomenon that is a pretty cool story about a DIY sous vide solution that turned into the highest-grossing food project on Kickstarter. There’s been constant press about this thing…but one year later and no one actually has a Nomiku. I pre-ordered mine when it was announced that it would arrive in March. That date came and went. Next it was July, now it’s “Fall.” As much as I’d love to support a start-up passion project like this, as soon as the delay was announced, I jumped ship and got my $1 deposit refunded.

Back when the Nomiku was announced, the next closest competitor price-wise was the SousVide Supreme demi-oven, which has a limited capacity and no circulator. The cheapest immersion circulator available? PolyScience’s professional model at $799. Quietly, PolyScience introduced a $499 “creative” series model designed for the home user, but when Nomiku announced it’s retail price of $359, price won out even though PolyScience is perhaps the heaviest hitter in this arena. Then, July hits and Nomiku announces yet another delay. The project has been plagued with design issues, production delays, and certification woes. To their credit, they have apparently addressed all these issues and loyal backers of their project will eventually get to cook sous vide. But I’m impatient, and once the delay hit, I checked out the Williams-Sonoma website to find that the PolyScience model was on sale for $399 (with a Cambro thrown in…so if you count the price of that, it’s more like $379). $40 extra dollars would get me a more powerful heater, more precise temperature control (0.1 degree vs. the Nomiku’s 0.2), and a product made by one of the most trusted names in the small but growing sous vide industry? All a pretty good deal. Available immediately? Done and done. Let’s get cooking.

(But first I should mention that on 8/7/13 Serious Eats pretty much answered its own question about the Nomiku from 6/28/12 with the headline “The New $199 Sansaire Sous-Vide Circulator is the Solution We’ve Been Waiting For.” My sister actually helped fund this one and barring any delays, it seems like it’ll ship almost at the same time as the Nomiku. The apparent specs are comparable to my PolyScience, adding further insult to injury to Nomiku backers.)

So what would be the inaugural meal cooked sous vide? Well, steak is probably the application most people are familiar with, but I’m usually pretty happy with my five to ten minute cooking method in a hot cast-iron pan and a nice accurate thermometer. What got me most excited about sous vide is a much humbler protein:


There it is, the first thing I ever cooked sous vide. An egg. The complex interplay of time and temperature that goes in to perfecting an egg yolk is discussed ad nauseum on blogs that are far more excellent and technical than mine. All I knew was that I wanted 62 degrees Celsius for about an hour.

DSC03323My two test subjects, cooking away at exactly 62C.

The result is a yolk that is custardy, and whites that almost disappear on the tongue. It takes some getting used to…not only does the texture of the yolk depend on the temperature “history,” egg whites like these are something that were previously impossible by conventional cooking methods…frying, boiling, poaching etc.

DSC03336This shapeless cloud of egg white might even appear raw, but there is absolutely no raw flavor (and having tried the raw egg in a glass, a la Rocky, I’m all too familiar with what that flavor is). It tastes wonderful, but from a presentation standpoint, not so great. There are some fixes to this, with a 62 or 62.5 degree egg that actually holds the shape of an egg. One could pre-boil the egg for a few minutes to set the white, while avoiding cooking the yolk. There’s also the option of giving a slow-cooked egg a quick poach afterwards to set up an outer skin.


But I went with a different strategy, by dropping it into a hole cut out of some excellent shokupan from the Mahorobu Japanese bakery in Sacramento and toasting it in butter. In order to make it a complete and balanced meal, there’s a spoonful of chow chow for some veggie intake.

DSC03328This help set up the white, but it really isn’t necessary. The 62C egg is described as “the perfect egg to put on toast” by Dave Arnold on the Cooking Issues blog. I think another thing that might help is getting fresher eggs, which would help with avoiding the liquidy part of yolks that end up forming the stringy ugliness of poached eggs. For hard-boiled, eggs that are older are much easier to peel. But for other preparations, especially slow-cooked eggs, the fresher the better. This may be why this preparation is commonly seen in restaurants using a farm egg, which I would assume implies uber-freshness.

DSC02600The farm egg at Empire State South in Atlanta is a good example of a slow cooked egg that has held its shape, and it’s a dish that I will relentlessly and shamelessly attempt to copy. In the future if I am entertaining, I will seek out the exorbitantly expensive farm eggs at the local markets, but for my own purposes I’ll just look for eggs with the highest Julian date I can find at the store.

So for eggs, sous vide cooking makes for results that can’t really be obtained otherwise, in addition to repeatability and predictability. With steak, as I said before, a 5 minute cook in a hot-ass pan and an accurate thermometer can pretty reliably get delicious medium rare results. Occasionally, there will be a screw-up (for example…the giant steak I had in Texas which I ordered medium rare and was fired more along the lines of steak a point or bleu). In the end I eat steaks infrequently enough that if it’s a little under or a little over I’m still okay with it. If I were to cook more than one steak and wanted them perfect and ready at the same time, sous vide would be perfect. Or…if I actually had some incentive to not tolerate failure even on a single steak, just for myself:

DSC03266Yeah I think that’ll just about do it. The most expensive single serving of protein I’ve ever purchased. It’s not often you’ll find that Niman Ranch is the CHEAPEST option out of your ribeyes, but this 35 day dry-aged prime cut was actually less expensive than the Wagyu ($34.99/lb), and the certified Kobe ($99/lb). At the very least, they actually trim the cut down to only the useable part before weighing it. So yes…that is a 20+ ounce steak.

DSC03290127 would be the goal internal temperature before a final sear, torch, and baste would bring it all up to just about 130. Either my Thermapen or my PolyScience is off by 0.1 degrees C…which I’m not gonna lie…kinda bothered me a bit though 0.1C is technically within the advertised specs. I dropped it in and left the house for 2 hours. When I got back:

DSC03302A quick two minute sear.

DSC03296A frico to use up some leftover cheese.

DSC03308And a pat of beurre maitre d’hotel.

DSC03311Sous vide certainly makes for flawless execution. Edge-to-edge medium rare, and the funky, beefy, almost blue-cheese-like aroma flavor of dry-aged beef. It was verging on too much…almost exhausting to eat. I mean I finished it, but you know, I probably wouldn’t do it again (for about a week…until one of my co-interns brought over ribeyes that needed sous-viding).

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What happened?

The last time I posted anything on this blog, I was a brash young 28 year old student, living in Atlanta without a care in the world. Now? Where to begin…?

First off, I’m 29. Seems like a pretty small distinction, but I woke up this morning without any alarms or any pressing place to be at 8am. 8am?! What the hell is the point?! If I had been in this situation when I was 28, I would still be asleep with another few hours to go at this moment. (Note regarding the last sentence: I was thinking about specifying what time it is now as I’m typing this up, but really, no matter what time you end up reading this, that statement applies).

What else is new? I’m living in California now. Sacramento to be more specific. Probably not as exciting of a restaurant town as Atlanta, but being surrounded by farmland means I’ve got access to some of the best products one could hope to cook with. I’ve got a really nice new kitchen too:

DSC03255DSC03253There’s actual counter space! Cabinets and drawers! These are things that I could only dream of in my old Atlanta kitchen. Sadly, It’s been difficult finding the time to cook anything legitimate. Indeed, the very first thing I turned my stove on to make was this:

DSC03258Pre-packaged naeng myun during the 108 degree heat spell Sacramento had. Does it make it a little less pathetic that I boiled the eggs and cooked the beef before I boiled the pre-packaged noodles? I would certainly like to think so, but it doesn’t really.

So how exactly did I end up on the other side of the country? Yes, I’m well aware of the existence of air travel, but I’m a single dude with a car to my name which we all know means…solo road trip!

I think it would be most useful to tell you about the food I ate on this trip in reverse order with one exception…Las Vegas. There are things I still need to contemplate about Vegas before I post about it.

There also isn’t much to say about Arizona, except that there’s some beautiful desert to drive through, the petrified forest was impressive, and fry bread is delicious:

DSC02976 DSC02980Let’s talk about New Mexico. I actually spent a couple of days in Albuquerque, having powered through most of the other time zones on my road trip, and this was a strategic choice as New Mexico was definitely scheduled to be the most interesting food state on my tour. I ate some fantastic barbecue in Memphis and a big-ass steak in Texas, but Mexican food will win out any day of the week, and New Mexico has a style all its own. Of course, New Mexican cuisine (and by that I mean both Mexican food and non-Mexican food in New Mexico) centers around the Hatch chile, which will find its way into just about any food item. Similar to an Anaheim, but earthier, a little bit more bitter, and definitely with more heat. They’re immensely popular on cheeseburgers, and of course a ton of different restaurants offer their fancy takes on the green chile cheeseburger, but for my first meal in Breaking Bad land, I was more inclined to check out the most accessible and popular version at Blake’s Lotaburger, a regional fast food chain that locals will defend as fiercely as Californians will defend In-n-Out (which I should add really doesn’t need defending, as anyone who believes In-n-Out isn’t good obviously will not respond to logic or reason).

DSC02911The burger itself was pretty decent. Cooked fresh after ordering, but roasted green chiles cost a little extra though they are generous with the amount. The meat itself suffers from gray burger syndrome, which I think happens when a flat-top isn’t hot enough and a burger steams instead of sears.

Next up…the red or green debate. Chile seems to be interchangeably used to refer to both the pepper and the sauce made from it. Green uses fresh roasted chiles. Red is made from the dried pods, which are hanging up just about everywhere for tourists like myself to take pictures of.

DSC02913The green vs. red (or for the indecisive: Christmas) question is one where Dr. Goodman’s advice (epidemiology instructor for the non-RSPH kids) works beautifully…”it depends” is an applicable answer in most situations. For example, at the James Beard foundation award-winning Mary and Tito’s cafe, the carne adobada is the signature item, which is pork stewed in red sauce. I decided to sample it stuffed into a sopapilla along with cheese and smothered with more red sauce:

DSC02915 DSC02918I honestly don’t understand how they manage to keep the sopapilla crispy, but it’s fantastic. Red is mild, with a mole-like cocoa-y dried chile flavor. Green is bright and spicy…a little more straightforward. Green is great to wake up with…like say in a breakfast burrito from Frontier:

DSC02959Yeah I realize that it looks like there’s just more red on the plate, but that’s actually salsa which is not the same thing. I have a suspicion that the salsa at Frontier is made with plenty of Hatch chiles, given the heat level. Where else could I get my chile fix? I literally googled “best sopapillas in Albuquerque” and came up with Padilla’s Mexican kitchen. A small spot in an anonymous strip mall, but packed with people who seemed to be regulars.

IMG_4299And the sopapillas definitely delivered.

IMG_4302I ended up taking one back to my hotel for dessert, because I also was busy eating:

IMG_4298A chile relleno, blue corn enchilada, rice, beans, chips, and salsa (also there was a Tecate in there). While my sister has a fierce love of blue corn pancakes, in tortilla/enchilada form, smothered with green, there’s not a lot to distinguish it from normal yellow corn. The chile relleno? I will go for a relleno anytime anywhere, and of course this was made with a Hatch. Certainly not as friendly to stuff as the larger poblano, but clearly a superior choice. In fact…I seem to recall that a young and handsome home cook/med student in Atlanta had that very idea when he shrugged off the trendy devotion to locally sourced ingredients and got his hands on Hatch chiles all the way out in the South.

I did enjoy the things I ate in New Mexico, and as I was leaving town had a chance to check out the Downtown grower’s market. Up until that point, I don’t recall having seen any attractive women in Albuquerque, but it seems like they were all in hiding until the market. It does, however, beg the question as to whether the hotness of women at farmer’s markets (including the women behind the table) is purely contextual. Would these women be just as attractive if they weren’t picking up a few handfuls of garlic scapes and placing them into their hand-woven reusable shopping bags? If they’re at the farmer’s market, does it imply that they’re going to have batshit delusions about other things like vaccination and the benefits of drinking ionized water? In any case…I decided to buy a jar of red and green from an elderly couple after sampling their products, and it led to both:

DSC03228This Christmas pizza at home. Red and green sauce, chicken, scallions, queso fresco.

And this green chile cheeseburger:

DSC03248In-n-Out double double animal style with whole grilled instead, green chile sauce.

More than 2 months after the conclusion of my road trip, and I’ve finally posted something about it. What am I doing here in Sacramento? I finally graduated from medical school after the 5-year plan, and have come out to start residency. It turns out being a doctor is a time-consuming and pretty tough gig. My first month of internship was spent on inpatient wards. GI rounds? That actually referred to rounding on GI patients and is not just code for sneaking off and eating. Be very very glad that I am not changing the content of this blog to reflect the more realistic GI rounding. Still, I’ll do my best to keep this blog up for the loyal fan base (a.k.a. my mom…who in her retirement will need something to read on the iPad). In the meantime, I think I’ve earned a nap.

Posted in That Thing I Ate | 1 Comment

And three months later…

As predicted, all the resolutions in the previous post have been abandoned/put on indefinite hold…I think. I actually can’t remember all of them because it’s been too long.

I do distinctly remember saying that I should update more often because I had a fancy new camera. It was a nice sentiment, and I certainly have been using the camera as much as possible, but have once again found myself with a backlog of potential posts that I will condense into lazy CliffsNotes versions.

Once I upgraded my photo capturing thingy, the next thing I decided to do was upgrade my thermometer game.

DSC00206Boom…got the famous Thermapen on an open-box sale. Naturally, I wanted to perform a real-world test, and the importance of an accurate instant-read thermometer is usually mentioned in the context of cooking meats.

Sure it wasn’t the best thing for my cholesterol or my wallet, but in the interest of thorough equipment testing I was willing to buy that three pack of ribeyes at Costco.

DSC00222Using the age-old pan-seared and butter-basted method:

DSC00223Steak came off at 126 and rose up to 130.8. The steak?

DSC00258Medium rare…almost from edge to edge. What else could I do with my thermometer?

DSC00300How about a faux sous-vide setup? Turns out my hot tap water, if dribbled out at just slow enough a rate, maintains a temp of 130F.

DSC00304Yeah so it comes out a little weird looking, and just slightly under-temp, but nothing that a crazy hot sear-after-the-fact can’t fix.

DSC00306Cooked evenly, tastes good, but nothing that can’t be achieved cooking it on the stove. If you’re only gonna be making steak for one, sous-vide is a waste. If you’re cooking life isn’t quite so depressing, sous-vide could be a great way to bring multiple steaks up to perfect temp with little effort. Either way, a Thermapen is a solid investment. My oven-safe probe thermometer is (was…RIP) great for a lot of things and has its uses on long roasts and the like, but it is cumbersome and quite slow for other purposes…also it didn’t come in British Racing Green.

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Better late than never?

There were a bunch of things I was working on in 2012 that I was way too lazy to write about. At some point, these may be expanded into larger posts because some of them are still in progress, but I doubt it…because I’m lazy. Also, that laziness will just roll these projects into 2013 resolutions.

So here are my works-in-progress of 2012 / resolutions for 2013:

1. Develop the ability to cook Chinese food

Cooking Chinese food at home is never quite the same as what you get in the best (or even mediocre) Chinese restaurants/delivery joints. It’s not necessarily a problem of access to the same ingredients, but the fact that the home kitchen doesn’t quite have the same capabilities as a restaurant’s flaming wok-ring inferno to get that nice wok-hei. My previous attempts to season a nice carbon-steel wok and use it failed miserably…to the point that I thought about just throwing the damn thing away because it was taking up space. But after watching countless of hours of Chen Kenichi on Iron Chef, I think I’ve figured out how to maximize wok usage.

IMG_3221Seasoning was much more straightforward than you’re led to believe. Just scrub the protective coating off (a step that is absolutely necessary for most Chinese-made carbon steel woks but did not come with the seasoning instructions from the vendor), and burn the sucker until it turns black. None of that crap with salt and coating with oil and stuff. Dry. Burn. Spray with a little oil. Wipe dry. Repeat.

IMG_3296Works for stir-fries.


IMG_3370And some light deep-fry tasks.

I will likely continue to explore this subject and write a larger post later. There are too many wok-related puns that would go unused if I don’t.

2. Perfect a home pizza dough

This started really late in the year. My sister ordered a pizza steel and while I was at home for interviews (more on that later), I started learning how to use it. The pizza steel makes the cooking of a pizza practically foolproof, but getting an adequate dough that’s easy to work with in the first place is the tricky part. Ideally, it’d be relatively straightforward, easy to work with, and not require too much advanced planning.

IMG_3782Crust should have a good hole structure and nice texture/flavor.

IMG_3785Undercrust is all thanks to the pizza steel.

3. Figure out my food future

Four months from now I’ll actually be a doctor (if all goes well). The training wheels won’t quite come off though. I’ll have to fight my way into a residency program. Although there are many very important factors to consider when choosing a residency program, my most important criteria are listed below:

a. Proximity to Costco
b. Proximity to Trader Joe’s
c. Proximity to Asian markets
d. Availability of good Mexican food
e. Proximity to In n’ Out (or other quality fast burger)
f. Quality/Price of Banh Mi in the area.
Bonus: Real Japanese Ramen availability

The interview trail gave me a chance to try both Pizzeria Mozza:

IMG_3755and Ippudo Ramen in NYC:

IMG_3615More on the food of the residency trail later, but for now allow me to discuss the Northeast’s beloved Shake shack:


Inevitably, Shake Shack draws comparisons to In n’ Out due to the limited regional nature, the fact that they serve burgers, and that they are examples of what fast food should aspire to and be.

However, it’s the labeling as “fast food” where Shake Shack runs into some big problems. Read any reviews of Shake Shack and it will say something along the lines of “wow I never knew fast food could be this good…why would anyone go to McDonald’s? Blah Blah Blah.” I won’t deny that the burger is high quality. Well cooked, well seasoned, etc. The fries are your standard crinkle cut frozen food-service type, but do the trick (In n’ Out fries, despite their fresh cut nature, are poor). The namesake shakes were unbelievable. But fast? Not a chance. I went on a particularly cold day where the line at the Hell’s Kitchen location was not bad at all (it wasn’t quite out the door). Still…from the moment I arrived in the door to my order was 35 minutes. Afterwards it took my order with no special requests 15 minutes to be ready. As someone who’s been one of those guys who is hired to secretly evaluate McDonald’s timing and quality, these numbers are unheard of in fast food. Fast food it is not. Nor are the prices fast-food-like. A place like In n’ Out has to deal with crazy special requests constantly, and deals with way more volume than Shake Shack but does it much more quickly, consistently, and at a fraction of the price. No contest. People also cite shack sauce as the most unbelievable experience ever. It’s very good yes, and I agree it’s like nothing you’ve ever tried before…unless you’ve tasted aioli a.k.a. fancy mayonnaise cuz that’s basically what it is, with maybe some smoky flavor from paprika or chipotle in it. But it is well known that white people love aioli so that definitely explains the hype.

4. Lose weight while eating delicious food


I lost about 30 pounds last year and it’s for the most part stayed off (being home for the holidays was a bit of a setback). However, the initial stages required eating the most boring, un-delicious, un-blog worthy food. Lean Cuisines, plain salad, plain grilled chicken breast etc. etc. Now that the weight is down I get to eat a few more calories each day then when I was actively trying to lose it, so hopefully I’ll actually have more things to write about and photograph, which brings me to:

6. Update the blog more often, now that I’ve obtained a real camera

If you look at most food blogs out there, many of them are simply picture-driven. Yes…it’s a superficial and expensive world where we equate beauty with quality, money with sophistication, expensive ingredients with cooking skill, etc. etc. I suppose I have to get with the times and stop blogging with photos from my cell phone camera.

Here’s a picture taken with my iPhone.

IMG_3911And here’s with my brand new compact system camera:

DSC00093Yup…it’s better. I just need to learn how to use it properly.


So for 2013, I’ll be relocating someplace, eating real food again, and taking (marginally) better pictures along the way. Either that or this post may go the way of every other New Year’s resolution…and will end up being the last time you hear from this blog.

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