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Entries in TasteFresno (8)

Wednesday
Aug292012

Fresno Tastebuds...One Step Forward

Tastebuds is a local collection of foodies in the Fresno area. An off-shoot of Taste Fresno and organized by Alisa Manjarrez (@alisa_m_) Tastebuds has become a loose confederation; semi-organized to eat together every 8 weeks or so. I use confederation specifically, because we, the independent foodies and bloggers, look to Alisa to organize and develop the program, but we are free to leave the group or not participate at any time. There are no meetings, no dues, no schedule. Each of the regulars often participates or hosts his/her own gatherings independent of Tastebuds.

While the history and organization of the group is important, the recent events of Tastebuds are more intriguing. Within the last year, Alisa organized the confederation for a brunch of dim sum, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, Breakfast for Dinner, and Russian and Spanish themed potlucks. She also, perhaps knowingly, got local foodies to talk to each other face-to-face not under the guise of blogs or twitter.

Brunch at Imperial Garden, while I did not attend, is close to my heart. Dim sum is not easy to find in Fresno. By my calculation, there might be two, maybe three places that serve well prepared dim sum in Fresno. For those that have never had dim sum for brunch, you're missing out. I lived in The Richmond District of San Francisco for 8 years where dim sum flourishes, dozens of places within blocks. I recall many a Saturday morning walking 3 blocks to Ton Kiang for deep fried whole prawns, soft shell crabs in black bean sauce, hot tea, and two Excedrin as medication for the night before. Nothing cures a hangover better than dim sum.

I have never been to Ethiopia. I have never been to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Thanks Alisa for putting the group together. There still is a grand total of one (there are two, thanks readers) Ethiopian restaurant in Fresno, Lucy's Lair. But for how long? (Before you write me hate mail, just be honest with yourself and the Fresno restaurant scene before you write me. That location is ripe for a Mexican-American restaurant, because it already has a Me N' Ed's, no lunch business, 360 degrees of residential and perfect for take-out...can anyone say Sal's, Antonio's, Don Pepe, or Robertito's? Cutting edge Ethiopian is not what Fresno families want after a long day at work and taking kids home from football and soccer practice. Kids want pizza, burritos and chicken fingers. I haven't heard the kids go cuckoo for Kosta and Doro Wat. Hey Downtown/Tower advocates, Lucy's is a natural restaurant for the scene south of Shaw, not north of Shepherd in tract home city)

Let's face it, there is no such thing as Russian food in Fresno, unless it's cooked by a Russian grandmother. Again, we have Alisa to thank for the confederation getting together to cook Russian food. I can tell you from experience after traveling to Russia, having Prussian grandparents, and living in The Richmond (huge immigrant Russian population), Russian food takes a backseat to my Italian heritage when it comes to cuisine. However, kudos to Alisa for giving it a whirl with the group and getting Fresnans to experience a cuisine they might never otherwise try.

This leads me to our last event, Tastebuds Spanish night, held just last weekend. Spanish food is nothing new to Fresno. There has (past tense) been several restaurants dedicated to hard-core Spanish cuisine. La Paella was probably the most popular of the Spanish restaurants in Fresno and I was a regular guest. But all of the Spanish restaurants have failed in Fresno. Why? Probably a combination of reasons, but most likely bad management and relatively inconsistent food and service. Bummer, because I'd love to take in more Spanish cuisine. One step backward.

Once again, I thank Alisa for arranging and giving a small group of foodies their "fix" for Spanish cuisine. Shylene, a regular participant, made two outstanding paellas directly on the grill. I saw Spanish wine and beer on the table, plenty of cheese, and a wonderful dessert made by Alisa in a Spanish-inspired style. I personally cased 6-feet of sausage for the event (with a shout out to Mike Shackleford at Trelio for giving me some hog casing) Our host for the evening, Pamela, was also very gracious allowing the confederation to come into her home. One step forward.

While at the recent Spanish themed Tastebuds, I spoke with several foodies about the next Tastebuds dinner and of course, gastronomic pursuits in Fresno. Some were pissed off that the tri-tip cookoff wasn't happening, while at the same time were looking forward to this week and the Taco Truck Throwdown. One step backward, one step forward.

The Greek Festival, happening that same night as Tastebuds Spanish, has been a fixture in Fresno for years. Name one Greek restaurant in Fresno? You can't. You can however name several Armenian restaurants, but they're not the same. One step forward, one step back.

We spoke about Limon, the one and only Peruvian restaurant in town. Are their days numbered? How much in rent do they pay? Do Fresnans understand what Peruvian food is and do they care? One step forward...for now.

Wassabi. Great marketing but how many rolls on the menu contain spicy sauce and have some deep fried element to them? The sushi purist at the table Matt (@custom_drywall) rolled his eyes in disgust at the Americanization of sushi at Wassabi. I tend to agree with Matt. If the fish is fresh, it doesn't need spicy sauces, breading, and 18 other ingredients to taste good. The step forward is a greater supply of fresh fish in Fresno, the perverted step backward...I can't taste the freshness over all that f'ing sriracha mayo!

What about The Venue? Nighclub yet?

The Schoolhouse? Worth the drive?

Lela's where Parma used to be on Herndon and Marks...what's the story there?

Cosmo's...when are they open for dinner?

What happened to those Kickstarter campaigns? Is there a timeline for those trucks coming on-line?

We discussed what Alisa is going to do next with Tastebuds (after she left of course). Luckily, Alisa's surrogate Oliver (@bitterasianguy) was there to take notes (NOT).

While I have enjoyed the Tastebuds food, I'm beginning to enjoy the conversation more and I hope it continues. Keep it up Alisa, we appreciate it...Tastebuds is taking one step forward.

Monday
Jun042012

The Cured Ham's Three-Part Series: Tri-Tip

The articles I wrote a couple weeks back about Keith's Box Car and Dusty Buns generated some discussion on-line. One thread that I started thinking more about was started by a fellow foodie and friend Chuck aka, Fresno Bites. The topic was further explored on twitter with various players in the Fresno area. The thread? Tri-tip.

Tri-tip is revered among native Fresnans and transplants to Fresno alike. Tri-tip seems to be a ubiquitous and The Most Holy menu item among deli's, catering companies, and counter-type restaurants in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. However, tri-tip generally, is never served at steak houses or higher-end restaurants. That trend may be changing, based upon a recent Wall Street Journal article.

There have been tri-tip cookoffs, declarations by many of "the best tri-tip" in Fresno or The Valley, and vigorous demands from consumers, pointed out authoritatively by @TopsBBQ on twitter, for more and more tri-tip served at parties, banquets, and large functions. 

The point of my three-part series is not to highlight individual restaurants or catering companies. So if readers are looking for me to pick on some restaurant, you're in for a disappointment. 

Rather, I look to Fresno and Fresnans collectively engaged in discovering, promoting, and eventually destroying the tri-tip. I'm titling the series, Sacred Cows: The Tri-Tip and Fresno’s Love Affair.

Part 1: Tri-Tip, Exotic Meat from Santa Maria

Part 2: The Bulldog Tailgate and the Rise of Tri-Tip

Part 3: Tri-Tip…Perverted Flesh

I'm going to release my posts over the next three days. 

Some may declare my writings blasphemous or denounce me as a heretic, as tri-tip has risen to the level of a religion in Fresno. Many believe that our local tri-tip cooks and restaurants are some of the best in the state. They're not. Many are horrible, not all, but many. Fresnans regularly commit culinary sins of omission, eating what's offered, politely chewing their food; only to "cheat" on Fresno by going away for a weekend tryst to Paso Robles for an indulgent escapade eating properly cooked tri-tip.

If you like your tri-tip grilled "well-done", pre-seasoned, tumbled, vacuum packed, cooked at 9am for dinner at 6pm, pre-sliced, or think The Meat Market has the best tri-tip sandwich in Fresno, don't bother reading. Go read an article on unicorns and pixie dust and continue to politely chew your food and keep your mouth shut. 

Monday
Apr232012

Dear Dusty Buns Bistro and Bus



April 23, 2012

An Open Letter to Dusty Buns Bus and Bistro:

As a regular watcher of financial markets, when the cover of Time Magazine asks the question “What’s Next, Dow 15,000?”, it probably means we’re at a market top.

Recently, the Fresnobeehive.com reported “What’s the best grilled cheese in the Valley?” with words like “wow factor” used to describe Le Grilled Cheese from Dusty Buns. I basically thought “Oh S!!T, Dusty Buns is no longer the underdog story we’ve followed since they began rolling." Dusty Buns has made it to the big time in Fresno!

But it’s not just the media coverage that legitimizes Dusty Buns; it’s the brick and mortar location. Fresno has seen this before; plenty of local coverage, legitimacy, good food and a second location.

Lately, the foodie vacuum has sucked all the energy away from Dusty Buns and toward Tako, the latest “serious” food truck in town. I went to witness the attention at the Manchester Farmer’s Market. I didn’t want to wait in the Tako line, so I ate at the La Mexicana truck next door. Every foodie in town has re-tweeted, pimped, or reviewed Tako. To be perfectly blunt, there is no “serious” food truck scene in Fresno. There are two gourmet trucks and everyone knows it, the rest serve really good Mexican tacos.

Guess who didn’t have a line at Manchester? Dusty Buns. I suppose Dusty Buns got all “special” and “fancy” and found a concrete pad, employees and a lease. The Bus was ‘cool’ when it was Dustin and Kristin making a hard-scrabble living from a catering truck in 110 degree heat, fighting City Hall, parking where they shouldn’t to make a buck; a great underdog story. But what happens when the underdog becomes the front runner? As any boxer, political candidate, or high school quarterback will tell you; everyone is gunning for you.

How many days, how many more months will it take for Fresno to get tired of Le Grilled Cheese from Dusty Buns? After all, Le Grilled Cheese is available at the Bus and the Bistro every day. It’s ok to have fried calamari and horrible tri-tip on every menu in Fresno (and most of them are crap), but if Dusty Buns makes a bad grilled cheese more than once, Fresno will come down on them like a load of bricks. Then whispers will start. 

When will you hear from a friend that the Bus is “not as good” because Dustin isn’t making every single grilled cheese anymore, now the “nameless B-Team” is making them on the truck. Because Dusty Buns has “faces” like Dustin and Kristin, the mere fact another face is cooking Le Grilled Cheese out of the Bus, people will question the quality. Faceless works fine in most restaurants. Who’s the Chef at Yosemite Ranch? No one cares. Dusty Buns needs to have Elena’s reputation at Parma. Everyone knows Elena rarely cooks at night, she’s on the floor, but her standards are in every dish that’s served.

What happens if Le Grilled Cheese becomes the benchmark grilled cheese sandwich of Fresno, similar to the below average tri-tip sandwich at The Meat Market? How long will it take for Le Grilled Cheese to go down hill? When will a careless Dusty Buns staff member begin putting too much or not enough cheese on the sandwich? Or under cook the bacon or just plain not do it right? Again, we get back to high standards and reputation.

If you don’t innovate and keep pushing, Fresnans simply settle for 500 menu items at Cheesecake Factory, horrible American Chinese at PF Chang’s, or another mediocre burger or burrito from one of the chains. Mass-Produced Food is easy, filling, and generally consistent. Name Franchise Here always has “my favorite, mass produced, average crap meal” from where I can bring home left-overs and they even take my credit card. Ho-Hum it’s Fresno, all we have is chains where I get a buzzer to wait in line. And if I have to wait, it must be good. Oh look, twinkle lights and a water feature. Maybe I’ll have an oversized PBR or Coors Light at happy hour. Ho-Hum it’s Fresno. I hope they have a mist maker on the patio that will make me feel better about wilted lettuce, three day old bread and a dry meat patty.

Yes, we all like the grilled cheese. Yes, we all appreciate your struggle. Yes, you’ve been blazing trail. Yes, people praise you for your food; the Original Dusty Bun and Le Grilled Cheese. Here’s the thing: 

  1. You don’t serve $1.50 carnitas out of a nameless white truck or mis-spell Takos for $2.
  2. You don’t serve a dreadful $8 dollar Panini, have “cheesy bread”, or pre-seasoned fries
  3. You don’t serve a $3.15“Animal Style” burger or a 3lb burrito for $6.49

   Dusty Buns is:

  • You’ve got the training.
  • You’ve got the spirit.
  • You’ve got the following.
  • You’ve got legitimacy (because you have a restaurant now, which means you’re not an underdog)

I’m asking, I’m BEGGING you to innovate and push your staff to be the best. Remind your staff they work for the “FIRST gourmet food truck in Fresno” and your standards have to be higher than most restaurants or Fresno will kick you to the curb. Fresnan’s have a habit of eating “consistent food”, which translates into “calculated mediocrity”, the afore mentioned tri-tip, fried calamari, and franchise food.

Create the next great Fresno sandwich, appetizer, and main dish. I want the next headline to be “What’s next for Dusty Buns?” or “Dusty Buns Bistro Still on Top After 20 years”. Accept the fact your main stream, with a cool edge, like snowboarding. Snowboarding has been around 20 years and it’s still edgy.

And start accepting Visa, you’re not a catering truck anymore. Hipsters like Visa and so do parents in a hurry looking to buy 4 sandwiches and don’t like to pay ATM fees or add one more step to get cash to their already hectic day.

Dustin, Kristin, don’t give Fresno an excuse to talk about how great you “were” or an “I remember when” story. Because Fresno will talk about you that way as they eat their meal combo at Chipotle, all the while talking about Le Grilled Cheese.

Warm Regards,

The Cured Ham

P.S. While you’re at it, can I have an organic soda or craft root beer or something? How about fair-trade coffee? Or a bottle of Pellegrino? All of them are sustainable products (that happen to be great margin for the restaurant too). North Fresno and various hipsters driving to Fresno High want more options than water and tea. Sodas, like bacon, aren’t unhealthy when people consume them in moderation. And since it’s going to be 100 degrees soon, the timing will be perfect. Besides the really cool hipsters drink their Acai out of BPA Free Nalgene bottles from REI.

Wednesday
Mar282012

Health Inspections, Fresno County and the 5 Second Rule

The story in the Fresno Bee , March 26, "How clean are Fresno County restaurants, and why are inspection reports tough to find?" seemed to capture the attention of several food bloggers in Fresno. I noticed several tweets linking to the article and to the County's website for information on the restaurant reports.

I browsed the report, noticed restaurants that I've eaten at and scrolled through the County database of restaurant inspections. I concluded that while the reports were interesting, I could care less. Why?

A few Cured Ham Facts: 

  • Cousin Jeff's recent deer or wild boar kill from early that morning somewhere in the D7 CA Zone won't pass inspection and you cannot sell a hunting kill at a Restaurant. I've been eating Cousin Jeff's deer meat for years and I'm alive.
  • Aunt's Celia's canned tomatoes. Aunt C doesn't have a commercial kitchen, but she's been doing canning since she was 7 years old and she's 88 now. Can't Serve home crafted product in a Restaurant because it's not made commercially under supervision. I'm alive and so is my 88 year old Aunt.
  • September 1 every year is Dove Season opening day. I might shoot a dove at 3pm, clean it at 6pm and eat it at 8pm. Can't serve that at a restaurant.
  • My own cultivated vinegar that is NOT Pasteurized. No Chance anything unpasteurized makes it into a restaurant. I love it on my salads.
  • Roadside taco stands in Fresno County... No health inspection. Guess what? Local bloggers check into these below the radar spots all the time, The Cured Ham included. In fact, a story was written about it by James Collier, joined by Fresno's aficionado of tacos Mike Oz. I loved this story AND THEY'RE STILL ALIVE!
  • Bus station in Peru, street vendor in Morocco, guinea pig in Ecuador, campground in Russia, tacos in Mexico. Just as long as we don't drink the water, we don't care about the health inspector because we're on vacation, right?
  • Oh, I confess that I've eaten leftovers from a BBQ Party at Millerton Lake in the middle of summertime even after the ice in the ice chest melted 8 hours ago.

I'm pleased that the County of Fresno is doing their job and they absolutely should crack down on restaurants that are in violation of the health code. Not my point.

Most homes wouldn't pass a health inspection because we don't have a Triple Wash Station sink, our refrigerators don't have a precise temperature control, and our cutting board might be made of the finest walnut that we just purchased at Sur la Table and would therefore not pass inspection because it's made of a porous material that I can't wash with bleach for 8 minutes at 220 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Let's not get too worked up about this Fresno, chances are we've eaten at several of the places that had a violation and lived to tell the tale. Just remember to wash your hands after you've used the toilet you filthy pig.

 

Friday
Jul152011

Max's Bistro, Fresno

What's it like?

I’m just going to jump into this one, Max’s Bistro was a night of extremes.

Horrible: Pathetically pale olive oil for the table that resembled vegetable oil with dry herbs. Whatever poor excuse for an olive oil is being used to dip a high quality bread in, please either remove it or pay the extra money to provide a reasonable product.

Delicious: Crispy, well-seasoned truffled potato fries and standard sweet potato fries. Positively wonderful. The truffle fries are some of the best I’ve ever had.

Horrible: Undercooked beets for my beet salad. Undercooked means that it took about the same amount of force to pierce the side of the beet as it would a raw potato.

Horrible: Old, brown romaine lettuce for the Caesar salad and 3 home-made croutons. There must have been ‘crouton rationing” and a lettuce surplus in the pantry. 

Delicious: Gorgonzola mashed potatoes.

Good: Rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare as requested, but under-seasoned. 

Horrible: Mixed vegetables that included over cooked squash (read mooshy)and brownish tinged green beans. Oh, I tried the vegetables. Luckily, we eat with our eyes first.

Outstanding: Savory amaranth bread pudding. This might have been better than the fries frankly. I would love to cook this for Thanksgiving one year. Brilliant.

Good: Lamb chops and cooked medium rare.

Fine: Commercial Andouille sausage that was awfully spicy. Don’t know if a really spicy sausage makes sense in this mixed grill. It kills the wine your drinking and seems to clash with a delicate quail.

Horrible: Quail. Dry as a bone.

Lazy: Penne with house-made Bolognese. The Bolognese was loose, real loose, near liquid with no viscous consistency to stick to the pasta. The pasta was cooked fine, but the sauce was a disappointment. Awfully sweet sauce as well. Not a classic Italian sauce by any stretch and yes, I’m hyper critical about this sauce.

Highlight of the Night: Halibut with potato cake and spinach. Overall, this one dish was the highlight of the night. Each aspect of the dish was well constructed and prepared. The fish had a lovely golden color to the outside top and was moist in the center. The potato cake was well seasoned and finished with a golden brown and crispy top. The spinach was simply wilted and brightened up the plate.

Service was friendly. The real hitch came near the end of the evening and the obvious closing and side-work period around 9:30. Our table wasn’t completely cleared when all parties had finished their meals. Lights started shutting off and some tables are left without being bussed in our section. I know servers what to go home, but don’t shut the lights out in the main dining room please, until we decide to get up and leave.

So the final analysis is about as confused as the outcomes that evening. The “fry guy” should get a raise. Whoever is preparing salads might need to take a refresher course on how long it takes to cook beets and what the color brown indicates on lettuce. Quail is not cooked like a chicken wing. Finally, who cooked the halibut and where was this person when the other dishes were being prepared?

I just don’t know. I’d like to go back. I ate some really great stuff. But will I get the fry guy or the salad guy who prepares my next meal?