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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tales From The City



San Francisco is my favourite place on Earth. The expression you see above is one of a very happy chappy. A man who is in a city full to the brim with some of the finest eateries surely to have ever graced the face of the planet. A decade ago now I spent a 3 month period working there, and can honestly say not once had a meal that was sub par.

Back in the year 2000, I visited SF for the third time with friend Claire. Much as I had come to expect, each meal we had was of  the highest quality, but nothing could quite prepare me for the wonderment that would end up in my digestive system on the final day of this trip.

I had become quite curious about this foodstuff know as the 'burrito' that I had seen and heard of on this trip. Sure I had tried out standard tex-mex back in the UK (fajitas, etc, or anything drowned in salsa and cheese) but had yet to get my lips around one of these tasty looking bad boys. Friend and US resident (our 'girl in the know') Tamora  took us to her favourite takeria in the downtown area of San Francisco, near Union Square. I ordered my chilli beef burrito, with avacado, cheese, sour cream and the spiciest salsa.

We stood outside the place and Tamora and Claire began to chat about our trip, what had been the highlights, when we would be back. When I think back on it their voices seemed to fade with every mouthful of Mexican meaty goodness that I gobbled down. Pretty soon, around the time the heat from the spicy salsa kicked in, I was having a food epiphany:

This was truly the most amazing thing I'd ever eaten! Seriously where had these things been all my life? Why oh why had I left it until the LAST DAY of my trip to try one? I had truly opened a door that could never be closed. 

'James, James?Are you OK?'

Voices seemingly in the distance (as if being shouted down a manhole) reached my ears. I snapped out of my trance-like state and responded 'this is incredible!'. I had not prepared myself for the inevitable 'food coma' that can result from a burrito. After getting through about half of the thing I felt like I had eaten two Christmas dinners. In a move that I regret to this day, and with our cab to the airport about to arrive, I discarded of it and threw it in the bin.

Cut to about two hours later. Claire and I are seated on a British Airways flight back to London, and are trying to decided on what entertainment to watch. I was debating between Disney's 'Tarzan' and old episodes of 'The Young Ones'. Out of nostalgia I plump for the latter, but as the episode begins (the one where Neil can't stop sneezing) a chilling realization crept over me. When would I eat something so glorious again? This was the butt end of the nineties, when Mexican dining in London meant Chiquitos or a plate of nachos in a pub (if you were lucky). Not only would I have trouble tracking them down at home, but WHY OH WHY did I throw that thing away?

This is America -  they're 100% cool with you bringing leftover food onto planes! (At least they were back then, this may have changed now). Having recovered from my food coma I was now jonesing for that burrito like there was no tomorrow - and I just had images of my dear, wonderful bundle of food joy crumpled up and decaying in that San Francisco trash can. I learnt a valuable lesson - a burrito is for (at least) a day, not just for lunchtime.

This story has a happy ending. I returned to SF many times and never again did I waste a meal with such reckless abandon. Not only that but since 2006 burrito places have been springing up around London like Gremlins multiplying in an ocean. Good times!

This is just one of many great food memories I have of San Francisco. Below are some pictures and details of some other great places you should hit up if you ever lucky enough to set foot in this fine city:


The Cubana Sandwich, That's It Liquors, 2699 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone number

From the outside this may appear to be simply an (admittedly awesome looking) off license. However the place also does food - and the near legendary Cubana sandwich. This thing was quite the talking point when I visited back in 2010 so I had to go and see what the fuss was about. Combining tons of avacado, egg, frankfurter, ham and mayo, it was damn tasty. Just so you know the above pic is of just one half of this mighty sarnie (I had to share it with a friend).



Philly Cheesesteak, Busters, 366 Columbus ave, San Francisco, CA94133Bus

Busters is a wonderful little cheesesteak place located in the bustling heart of  the North Beach area. The yellow and black stylings of this deli  are adorned with images of old movie stars (chief among the Buster Crabbe) and there are plenty of guides and flyers so you can read up on what sights to see on your trip to the city. Prior to visiting Busters I had only had a cheesesteak from Subway. This was the real deal. Succulent streak piled high and drowned in delicious melted jack cheese, spiced up with the addition of jalapenos and peppers. Walking home from work this was a great meal to pick up on the go. It tasted even better after a pub crawl on Haight Street ;)

They have a rather splendid website, check it out:




The Super Burrito - La Cumbre, 515 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA94110

Having sampled it elsewhere, I still believe that no-where does Mexican cuisine as good as SF. The Mission is like mexican munch Disneyland, from what I've experience it's actually pretty difficult to get a bad burrito in these parts. Hence I am going to highlight the last one I visited, La Cumbre - as featured on 'Man Vs Food'. Like Adam Richman I sampled their 'super burrito', a real big daddy of tortilla wrapped goodness. The chicken contained was fresh and succulent, the rice was soft, and the guacamole acted as a good cooling counterpoint to the spicy salsa. Whilst being inferno level heat you can also really taste the flavour of the salsa, it doesn't just act as paint stripper for your mouth. Last, and by no means least - it passes the ultimate burrito wrapping test, it stands on it's own:



The Milf - Ike's Place, 3489 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94114


'Ike's Place' is kind of a sandwich place on Steroids. Located towards the Castro District, this deli serves up subs of legendary proportions. Ike also has gone the distance and given the sarnies names as colourful as the many fillings of the subs themselves. Here are some examples:

Brutus
Captain Kirk
Al Bundy
Backstabber
Fat Bastard
Green Goblin
Hot Momma Huda
Jessica Rabbit
Lizzy's Lips
Lex Luthor 
Doomsday

For more of their awesome names head over to http://ilikeikesplace.com/

On my visit I went for the Milf - chicken escalope, spinach, ham and mayo. It took awhile for them to serve it up (I think as the couple next to me had ordered the giant mofo that is the 'Doomsday') but when it did it didn't disappoint. The perfect way to fuel up before a day of squandering money on clothes, movie tickets and coffee in the Castro!


Za Pizza, 1919 Hyde Street@Green, San Francisco CA 94109

Za Pizza is the perfect place to stroll on down to when cooking is out of the question and a great spot to just hang out and people watch. It's a stone's throw from my normal place of residence in 'Frisco so I became quite the regular there for a period. Check out the pic above - that's just one slice! About the same size as a regular pizza in the UK and for a very reasonable price. So reasonable in fact that after getting through it when the waitress asked 'would you like another sir' I went for it. Hence:


This was an olive and mushroom slice. Really tasty and helped soak up the two pints of Sierra-Nevada I had in there (there's a great range of beers on tap). If it's your bag they show sports on the TV, overall a great little establishment to hang out. More info on their website: http://zapizzasf.com/

These are just a few examples of some places to check out in this glorious city. Every time I go I seem to discover a new aspect to the city, it really is the gift that keeps on giving. I'm hoping to make my 11th visit in 2014 so be ready for more posts on Californian cuisine adventures!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Making Airline Food Look Good - Case#1 Pret-A-Manger

I hate it when TV show 'jump the shark'. That point when you can tell the creative team has simply run dry of ideas and you're now being subjected to ideas that are so clearly scraping the barrel that you can almost feel the splinters digging into your skin.

I'd wager that the same can be said of food chains. They spring up, lure you in with some kind of USP and then after a few years of good business begin slumming it like no tomorrow, apparently safe in the knowledge that they have enough of a customer base to stay afoot.

That in mind I present you with my own 'List of Shame' - some places that used to be cool but now are now crap: Pret A Manger:

Remember when Pret first sprung up way back when? In the days when options for a fast quick lunch in a high street were either your standard fast food of McDonalds, KFC or a sausage roll from 'Chav-feeder' Gregs?

Here was a chain that down from the name, to the nicely thought out colours and style of their branding, seemed to be emphasing quality - fresh sandwiches (allegedly made that morning) and coffee, all for the working person on the move.

(True we all knew they were owned by McDonalds, and their sandwiches fattier than a Big Mac, but we kept that quiet ;)

Recently on my way out for the evening I needed something quick so dived into my nearest Pret branch. They were offering a new 'Halloumi Wrap' - being a huge halloumi fan this seemed ideal.



I wish I still had the list of ingredients that had gone into this thing. I could list them here and mark and 'X' next to them as I was barely able to discern what was present in this monstrosity.

The wrap itself had that hard, cardboad feel I associate from early noughties-attempts to create burritos from chains like Chiquitos and various supermarkets. The taste of the worst kind of ready meal.

As I bit into this wrap, and the it more or snapped and crumbled, I got to taste the halloumi itself. Or should I say what halloumi? I could barely taste anything resembling cheese let alone the lip-smacking yummy goodness I think of when I think of that wonderful cheesy treat.

Instead I got a flavour-free mush. A veritable 'taste-free paste' inserted into a hardboard wrap.

The coffee was OK but that's not saying much - the damage was done! If this is the best new stuff they can serve up then it will take me a lot of convincing to darken the door of Pret again.

More in the list of shame to follow as and when!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bad Ass Coffee (The Blue Danube San Francisco)

San Francisco:



Easily my favourite city in the world. I've been visiting there since the age of 3, and every time I go I seem to discover some new aspect to it, some new cool area or food outlet. In much the same way I feel you can 'stumble upon' the weird and wonderful in the big smoke of London, SF itself is a city of cool colourful places.

One of the best of these is the Blue Danube, located on the lively Clement Street:


Located just a stones throw from the truly awesome Green Apple bookstore, this is the perfect place to stop and put you feet up with hot cup of coffee before embarking on a day of shopping (something my bro and I do on almost each visit). Inside you'll find a warm inviting atmosphere, decor adorned with renaissance art, and - MOST IMPORTANLY, an incredible sandwich menu!


When I mean sandwiches I mean proper sandwiches. Not a pathetic triangular, white bread sans crusts - cut with cucumber and maybe some ham. I mean proper, home made subs. Bread so fresh it feels it was just baked, filled with cooked to perfection turkey breast and topped with avacado.

Upon my last visit there I more or less headed straight to the Danube, and was still tuned into 'UK mode'. After ordering the fear of not being satisfied by a mere sandwich gripped me, but when this truly heroic sub was put on my table I knew there was zip to worry about (put it this way - it doubled as dinner!).

Lastly - and by no means least the coffee. What coffee it is - my bro and I ordered Mocha's. These things had a smooth, creamy taste, and managed that fine balance of not being too strong a taste but being sweet enough so that no sugar was required. Truly the best 'pick me up' to have before an afternoon of shopping until dropping.

Be warned - do not add sugar. The coffee here is pretty powerful, below is a pretty good reconstruction of what we were experiencing on the bus after:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CglvOos2bA

The Blue Danube can be found at:

06 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118, United States

Opening hours: 


Monday7:00 am – 10:00 pm
Tuesday7:00 am – 10:00 pm
Wednesday7:00 am – 10:00 pm
Thursday7:00 am – 10:00 pm
Friday7:00 am – 11:00 pm
Saturday7:00 am – 11:00 pm
Sunday7:00 am – 10:00 pm

Telephone: +1 415-221-9041

The Sky Canteen Playlist

These are the songs I hear in my head upon entering my work canteen....





Monday, September 23, 2013

Legend of comedy, not of lunchtime...



They say you should never meet your heroes. I'd go one further and say you should never find out their culinary tastes. It can lead to crushing disappointment.

Rik Mayall is my hero (OK I've got a lot of heroes, but there's articles reserved for Bowie, former BBC controller Alan Yentob and Zippy from Rainbow for later on).

I grew up on repeats of the 'Young Ones', his 'Jackanory' recounting of 'George's Marvellous Medicine' (so good he filmed it twice!), watched 'Bottom' on repeat and even quite enjoyed his Nintendo adverts.

Much of my working (hence adult life) has been spent in Soho, where the only thing you're more likely to see than overweight pigeons trying to rip off tourist's food is actors from stage and screen. I was lucky enough to pass by Mr Mayall twice.

The second occasion he was having lunch with a colleague (maybe his agent?) in a pigeon-infested Soho square, and whilst animatedly chatting to said colleague was chowing down on some form of sandwich.

Spying this sandwich, my heart sank.

This thin, lifeless foodstuff looked like something he had just grabbed from the nearby Tescos express (re-heated mystery meat drowned in sauce with about as much taste as Peter Stringfellow at a Bingo night).

What about the nearby wonderous focaccias and ciabatta's of the near legendary Make Mine deli? The much missed veggie burgers of Red Veg, or the delicious falafel's of Maoz?

Nope - Rik plumped for something along these lines:



Surely a comedian of such legendary status would be a bit more adventurous than this? At least it wasn't one of those ones that proudly boasts 'no mayo' (again another article to follow on that later). I probably would have burnt my copy of 'Drop Dead Fred' right there and then.

There are many great places to eat in Soho. Just don't consult any 80s comedy legends before trying one out.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mama (Stands for Comfort Food!)


Dalston's 'Street Feast' has become quite the weekend hot spot for East London's resident foodies (such as yours truly!). Hoping to make the most of what has easily been the most glorious summers in the UK for years, GLAC swung along to the feast last weekend, to it's location neslted in Dalston Yard.

This is behind the building now most recognised from the 'Rudimental' album:


The scene depicted here is very akin to a night at the Feast ending at the Dolphin pub. Not sure where I maybe I'm the guy in the scary skull mask!

Making it's debut at SF was 'Burrito Mama'. Adding to what has become something of a burrito chain explosion in London over the past seven or so years, they will soon be opening up a store proper in the One New Change shopping centre near St Pauls.

I was immediately stuck by the incredible smell wafting across from this place. Ordering a pork burrito, I was struck by the speed with which it was expertly prepared - wrapped perfectly and with a minimum of fuss. Standing in the sun and sipping on an american beer from the nearby craft beer stall, felt like I could be standing in a Mission street Taqueria.


The pork burrito was of the Californian style that is the most commonly known here but with something of a twist. In addition to the usual filling of meat, rice, beans and salsa Burrito Mama subsitute lettuce for coleslaw. The affect of this susbsitution is quite something! The crunch and coolness of the coleslaw perfectly offsets the (still delicious) strong, spicy flavour of the pork. With the best burritos you taste something new with each bite. Given the fact that coleslaw beats lettuce hands down in the flavour department means that a whole new dimension has been added to this eating experience. They also toast the tortilla, bringing out all the potential flavour in every element of the wrap. It also took the ultimate burrito wrap test - it could be stood upright perfectly!

On occasion I have encountered those unfortunate enough to have not yet experienced the sheer meaty wonder that is the burrito, and sometimes have heard some excuses as to why they have avoided them so far. 

Two choice quotes are 'they've got too much food in them' and 'I don't like rice'.
(the former quote's source shall remain nameless as they would never live down the shame were I to reveal their identity here).

Well for those who go along with the latter quote you can now join in the fun with the rest of us! If you were to try an authentic, mexican style burrito these are usually meat, guacamole, salsa and cilantro. The rice, beans, cheese etc combo is a US invention, and both types are avaialble at Burrito Mama. I was lucky enough to be given a 'Mama Burrito' style steak burrito sans rice, with more slaw, salsa and beans. The steak was succulent and tender, falling apart with every bite.There was no sense of this as lacking anything, it was simply a different experience to the usual rice version.

These are quality burritos - clearly fresh ingredients and wrapped perfectly (I managed to make both stand upright perfectly). These guys and girls know their stuff  - the upper tier 1 burrito chains 'Benito's Hat' and 'Daddy Donkey' can now add 'Burrito Mama' to their ranks.

I'm going to be going to One New Change a lot!






Monday, April 15, 2013

A Taste Of The Mission In North London

Amigos, 171 Holloway Rd, London, Greater London N7 8LX
Phone: 020 7700 7111




My period of mourning is over.....I have discovered a burrito place that comes close to filling the tortilla shaped hole in my heart left by 'Big Burrito'.

Amigos is located on Holloway Road in North London, a short walk from Highbury and Islington Station. It was recommended to me by a friend, so this past sunny Sunday seemed a good opportunity to go and check it out.

Walking along Holloway Road with it's wide variety of cafes and various eateries in the sun I was reminded of visits to my favourite city, San Francisco. Walking into Amigo's with it's colourful decor and the smell of meat on the grill and freshly prepared salsa I was mentally transported to San Francisco's Mission area - or as I like to think of it 'Burrito Heaven'.

I went for the chicken burrito (usually my standard filling when assessing a burrito place). Whilst this was being prepared I was struck by the great customer service - instead of trying to skirt over giving me the options of extras such as jalapenos these were all offered to me first. Plus I was even offered an option on how the jalapenos were prepared! Great stuff.

The burrito (with all the trimmings) and a can of soft drink came to a total of 6 pounds - great value for money!


The food itself was delicious. The wrap had that slight crisp, warm taste that characterises a good tortilla, the chicken was clearly fresh and flavorsome. Generous helpings of guacamole bursting with freshness and spicy refried beans.

It also passed the 'standing on it's own' test, so was clearly well wrapped:







Other options on the menu include beef, pork and prawns (the latter I've only seen offered at Chilangos in the UK so I will definitely be checking that out soon).

If you're on a night out in this neck of the woods, or looking for an economical and tasty lunch on a sunny Sunday afternoon, you will be hard pressed to find a better option than Amigos.

Check out their website here:

http://www.amigos.co.uk/

This is what I sung upon leaving:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1m-8PvpSBw

Big thanks to Graham Holiday for notifying me of Amigos - UEA!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

R.I.P. Big Burrito

I am a man in mourning. Just recently I took a walk over Blackfriars Bridge to find that my favourite burrito joint, 'The Big Burrito Company' was no more.

Working in the Farringdon road area means being at something of an epicenter of burrito choice. Two branches of Chilangos within walking distance, a stones throw from the mighty Daddy Donkey Leather Lane, the varied fillings of Mexicana, and the popular Adobo.

However, a few months back deciding to venture away from the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street I ventured over Blackfriars Bridge deciding to see what was going down in Southwark. Beneath a bridge near the station I discovered this wondrous hole in the wall - like a pot of Mexican gold at the end of the rainbow.

On first glance I wasn't sure what to make of it. Everything about the place screamed 'put together over night' from to the chalk board menus adorning it's front down to the completely ramshackle interior. The there was the staff:


A random pairing lookalikes of actors Peter Capaldi and Danny Dyer. I always got the impression these two had only just met - and whenever the Malcolm Tucker type went to make a burrito he had to be talked through it by Dyer. Given the randomness of this coupling I wondered if they were on the run, and had just turned over a shipment of mexican ingredients on route elsewhere.

Which brings GLAC to the crowning glory of Big Burrito.... the food. Check out this bad boy:

A unique touch of this place was the vaiery of sizes - burritos could be bought as small, medium and large. The largest burrito, with guacamole as an extra, would come to close to around 6 pounds, the smallest around 4. Great value compared to almost every other chain I can name. The meat was always fresh, tasty and disitinctive, the guacamole bursting with freshness, and the hot sauce was sizzling!

Around the same time I came across this place I ventured with mates to 'Death By Burrito', another newly opened mexican place in Shoreditch. The decor was great, giving the feel of a San Francisco dive bar. It had a great range of beers on tap. However, the burritos themselves were the size of an iPhone. True they had some imaginative fillings, (duck and fish amongst them) but this didn't make up for the wraps which were like biting into cardboard. Oh and that vital ingredient of the burrito guacamole? That came as a side, for dipping.

The the bill - along with a drink this came close to 12 pound a head. All for an average burrito and coke. My nose twitched at the stench of 'style over substance'. Death by hipster-baiting.

The Big Burrito company did what it said on the tin. It was a cool, ramshackle hole in the wall where all that mattered was the food. There are some great chains out there now. Chilango's especially. But for ever Chilango\s there will be a Death By Burrito, ready and waiting to drag the name of my favourite meal through the dirt.

I loved this little underdog of a place, it will be missed. I hope somewhere Peter Capaldi and Danny Dyer are setting up another hole in the wall and giving the chains a serious run for their money.

This is what I sung the night I found it had closed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2dY2l4zO8c