Tomatomania at Loteria Grill (Los Angeles, CA)

For most of my life I’ve hated tomatoes. I would eat tomatoes only in their most cooked down and pureed state—aka pizza sauce. It wasn’t until the summer of 2012 when I visited Central California for the Bianco Di Napoli tomato harvest that I dared to eat an unadulterated raw tomato. Standing there in organic fields of Cliff Fong’s Farm, with the summer sun still pulsating through the red flesh, I became a tomato fan.

This past year I’ve pursued tomatoes in their best forms, learning to love this formally forbidden nightshade. I remain picky, you’ll often find the dull slabs of artificially ripened tomatoes lingering in the bottom of my salads bowls. But when a organically grown, vine ripened tomato is presented, I’m all over it!

So when I got an invite to Loteria Grill’s Tomatomania, Five Tomato Dinner, I was thrilled! The menu wasn’t published (and I have a feeling wasn’t decided) until a few days before the event, but I crossed my fingers that it would be vegetarian friendly. The 5 course dinner was curated by a slew of fabulous Los Angeles chefs: Jimmy Shaw, Evan Kleiman, Kris Morningstar, Giselle Wellman, Neal Fraser and Duff Goldman.

The final menu proved not to be vegetarian friendly. The two main courses turned out to be mostly meat with very little namesake tomato. The dishes contained such meager amounts of tomato, there wasn’t a point in plating them without the flesh. So two vegetarian items from the regular menu were substituted. But I was told that my vegetarian request provoked a poignant conversation in the kitchen. In the heat and excitement of planning, little forethought went into the vegetarian options (an important consideration since I was not the only one requesting vegetarian options). I was honored to hear I made the chefs reconsidered their offering. It’s the entire point of my blog: To enjoy existing vegetarian option, celebrate the chefs who take the time to craft delicious plant based meals and encourage others to follow suite.

The meal opened with a Cucumber Margarita with a Tajin rim. I always prefer the gentle cucumbers over the acidic lime in my libations.

The Loteria Grill kitchen offered an appetizer, Molletes con Salsa Mexicana de Colores: sliced baguettes with black beans, heirloom pico de gallo and queso. The soft baguettes tasted distinctly non-homemade, as to be expected from a taqueria. This dish didn’t stand out among the similar ones I’ve had, still, I couldn’t stop popping these bread bites.

The first course was the easiest to vegetarianize, Tomato with Burrata served in a Potato Pancake (sans caviar) by Chef Giselle Wellman. The crisp potato cake, easier to see in the non-veggie version, was fried to a deep black brown, without a smidgen of burn, and paired perfectly with the summer sweet tomato.

My favorite dish of the night, mostly because it was the only as-is vegetarian offering, was the Squash Blossom and Huitlacoche Lasagna by Chef Evan Kleiman and Jimmy Shaw. Tender leaves of pasta curled around sautéed flowers and corn smut in a mild tomato sauce.  Soft and savory, this dish brought together the best of Chef Jimmy Shaw’s Mexican and Chef Evan Kleiman Italian influences.

Chef Kris Morningstar prepared a Swordfish a la Veracruzana with sungold tomatoes… but I had the Calabacitas Tostada topped with Zucchini and Roasted Corn Succotash, Salsa Verde Cruda, Onion, Cilantro and Queso Fresco instead. The massive pile proved to be filling but relatively bland.

Chef Neal Fraser prepared an Achiote-marinated Duck Breast… but I had the Champinones con Epazote Enchiladas with Roasted Tomatillo Sauce instead. Not normally a mushroom fan, the chewy texture of the filling played nicely with the overly soft corn tortilla and tart tomatillo sauce. The ample portion felt a bit ridiculous in a five course tasting dinner, but at least I was guaranteed to not go home hungry.

The final course was the Caprese Panna Cotta by Chef Duff Goldman. It featured the most innovative use of tomato, as a gelée beneath a panna cream finished with a balsamic reduction and a fist full of pine nuts. Made with gelatin, I tried only a few spoonfuls for flavor, but devoured ALL of the pine nuts.

The event was a lot of fun! The chefs made themselves available to the diners, breathing a sigh of relief after their course had been served. This is the first of what will be an annual event and a wonderful way to try the handiwork of our city’s favorite chefs. I hope next year’s dinner takes vegetarian guests into consideration. We love tomatoes too!

Tomatomania at Loteria Grill
6627 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
loteriagrill.com/hollywood

Mario’s La Fiesta (Berkeley, CA)

The taco's look great, but I'd rather eat two burritos!

In 1999, I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, where I discovered the world of Mission-style burritos. At first I was dazzled by the baby blanket-sized tortillas stuffed with whole beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, pico, crema, guacamole… so big, so filling! But it wasn’t long before I grew weary of these overpriced behemoths pouring out of every taqueria in San Francisco (for a time, you could find me at Taqueria el Buen Sabor every weekend). That’s when I met Mario’s. Continue reading

Loading Dock (Brooklyn, NY)

Oh sweet fire, keep me warm these winter days

Although I detest these New York winters, nuzzling up in a fur-lined chair (let’s not debate over that, ok) next to the wood burning hearth at the Loading Dock is one of my few snowbound pleasures. This food cart, parked in an actual loading dock of a downtown live-work industrial loft, is flush with all the pomp of the hipster allusion (complete with an art gallery), but none of the dickery.

Makeshift greatness

The working loading dock elevator

My sensible friends let me select our downtown brunch location before embarking on the totally rad Atlantic Tunnel Tour. A perfect chance to show off my “what’s hot now” knowledge, I mean, what’s the point of obsessing over all those food blogs if I don’t get to dazzle people by dragging them to obscure industrial corners of our dismal downtown, secure in my promise of awesome Mexican breakfast!

Continue reading