y4pcT1JaIwGptQJPO6l_mZmgv34 tiffin unboxed: January 2012

Cacao Mexicatessen - Weekly Specials Menu

Cacao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock has been a regular go-to place for me when I'm in the mood for a quick but homemade tasting bite.

When people ask me what I like there, I only have to say two words before I find them writing it down or entering the name into their smart phone - DUCK CARNITAS. As Food Critic Jonathan Gold described it, it's a cross between carnitas and confit. Intense and delicicous.

In this brightly colored, always busy family-run restaurant, beside Trader Joe's in Eagle Rock, that everybody should be lucky to have in their neighborhood, hardly anything on the menu disappoints. The Hecho en Eagle Rock signs and t-shirts always amuse me as do the deli offerings that you can take to go.

They have all the Mexican specialties, a great assortment of tacos, guacamole, aguas frescas, solid coffee, Mexican hot chocolate, a kids' menu. After ordering at the counter and looking for a seat, I personally enjoy their cajeta latte and cajeta flan, cajeta being goat's milk caramel that has a bit more bite then super sweet, regular caramel.

Probably a year ago or more, I met a long time dear friend here simply because they offer a full vegetarian menu. And by vegetarian I don't mean a few side veges and green salad. They serve squash blossom tacos and quesadillas, squash, hibiscus, wild mushrooms, huitlachoche (corn truffle) and panko breaded avocados!

With breakfast, lunch, dinner, happy hour and more, there are numerous things to try on their menu.

Recently I met a friend there and tried out two of their specials. Their weekly specials, which they post at the counter and will email to you every week, come to my inbox. And I suggest you subscribe as well. They even include discount coupons in the weekly mailers.

These in particular were well worth the trip, and I'm even scouring the emails for their return.

Cacao Jan12_sea urchin blackened sea scallop taco b

Taco of the Week - Sea Urchin & Blackened Sea Scallop

At $6.75 each, this seems somewhat pricey for a taco, however given the ingredients and flavor, they are worth it.

The scallops are fairly large and blackened with chile arbol. The scallops sit on a small pool of serrano chile-soy salsa, all on top of a tortilla de jicama taco shell! That crunch and freshness adds so much to the very fresh seafood. The jicama is already pliable like a tortilla, but the salsa makes it even more yielding.

Cacao Jan12_sea urchin blackened sea scallop taco a

The generous helping of Santa Barbara sea urchin tops the scallops and a topping of micro-cilantro and a slice of lime garnishes it all.

Cacao Jan12_pescado encacahuatado Icelandic Arctic char

Next, we shared the other special - Pescado Encachahuatado

This flavorful, satisfying dish consisted of crispy skinned Icelandic Arctic Char, topped with Crema de Cacahuate, a creamy peanut sauce. The fish sits on top of a light and fluffy cilantro lime rice and cebolliatas, or grilled scallions.

On top of the sauce, a generous portion of pico de gallo, a tomato, jicama, cilantro, onion, chile and lime salsa adds appropriate acidity to the well balanced plate.

Cacao Jan12_elote de la calle a

Finally, we wrapped up the delightful meal with elote de la calle - steamed white corn coated with a thick spread of queso cotija (Mexican cheese), crema and powdered chili. All served up on a stick.

As creamy as it is, the corn still retains its crunch and sweetness. This dish is one of my favorite Mexican street foods and Cacao's version is spot on.

Cacao Jan12_elote de la calle b

I enjoy taking shots of the table after eating or the empty dishes. AS you can see, this corn was devoured and fully enjoyed.

These dishes inspired me so much, I tried to emulate their Arctic Char a few days later. My version swapped the creamy sauce for fresh lemon, dill, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Sides included crimini mushrooms and an avocado salad.

It's always great to thoroughly enjoy a meal, then get inspired to cook something like it.Thanks to Cacao for the delicious choices!

Cacao Mexicatessen on Urbanspoon

Garden Lifecycle - A Fresh Start After Storm Cleanup

It has been quite a while that I've been out of the groove of writing posts. All I can say is that December was an extremely difficult month, and January consisted mostly of the cleanup and aftermath.

There were multiple deaths of a close relative, a lovely neighbor and others. A fair amount of business travel. More family gatherings. Less sleep. And more.

Nasturtiums - one of the many storm casualties
I often tell people I'm a "happy eater", which is just as it sounds. When things go badly I lose interest in food, as crazy as that sounds. So I've cut way back on the fun experiences that normally fill up my time.

In this case, my go to stress reliever of gardening also went bye-bye in December due to thousands of leaves, debris and dried out plants to clean up both outside and even inside the house. They blew in through the tiny gaps under doors and around windows.

My whole yard got completely wiped out in the L.A. area windstorms in late November, and I mean completely in the sense of having a blank slate to begin with in the Spring.

So let me illustrate what 2 months can do.

aOriginal House Nov09_yard oak trees

The California oaks growing all over my neighborhood and in the back slope used to look like this. In fact they grew so tall last year that they began blocking my view completely.

You might have seen on this post about the storm damage how the largest, middle tree toppled and looked like this. Even on it's side, it reached up to the upper level deck.

It took me almost 6 weeks to even accept and process this enough to start calling for quotes to clean it up. The good thing is that although I was expecting sky high prices and lack of availability, some very fair rates came through.

Winds Jan12 house_yard tree a

Eventually, the once majestic tree starting getting chopped up. It took less than half a day for it to look like this on the slope.

Winds Jan12 house_yard tree b

My desire was to somehow keep that tree around as mulch, but the wood chippers much like the chainsaws, were hard to come by in town after the storm, so they disposed of it for me.

Winds Jan12 house_yard tree e

And the view? Well let's say, I can peek in between the smaller trees that still stand and see right through to the Colorado Bridge and Rose Bowl Stadium. Be careful what you wish for, right?

Winds Jan12 house_yard tree d

Winds Jan12 house_yard tree c

Rest assured, the remains of the trees serve a great purpose as firewood, and the stack looks quite   cozy as well. Some of the wider trunks may get re-purposed as outdoor plant tables.

That brings us to the vegetable component of the story. I've blogged before about my beloved bitter melons.

These nutritious veges get eaten more in Asian cultures, a weekly staple in my family. Many people buy them from Asian markets, so the chance to grow them at home cut out the middle man for me.

Like most of my plants, this one started as a baby plant with about 3 leaves last June, as shown in my previous garden post about summer edibles.

The graceful leaves and blossoms grew so quickly until they reached a point where they were ready to be picked.

The prolific plant yielded so much fruit that I passed them on to my mother, aunts and others several times.

Fully ready to cook they look shiny and green with white seeds inside
bitter melon sliced and sauteed in a pan on the stove

If left on the vine too long, they'd over-ripen and turn a crazy, bright orange and the seeds turned blood red! My mother still found some way to cook them at this stage.

It's always a bit of a battle figure out the point (in a super small window of time) to let them grow bigger, or harvest them before they turn orange and mush.

For a long season this potted plant, almost as tall as I am, yielded a bounty of luscious veges that I'd sound crazy complaining about.

Winds Dec11 house_bittermelon

Sadly after the wind storm, literally overnight, the plant shriveled up to this sad state. It compounded my already mellow feelings after so much loss and upheaval the previous weeks.

There was no choice but to pull it out of the soil and throw it into the compost bin.

This coming spring, it's time to start fresh.

The Spice Table Still Going Strong

The Spice Table, in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, offers a unique Southeast Asian experience in a cozy, stylish, unique setting with birdcages and dim lighting.

I was intrigued about experiencing Chef Bryant Ng's Singaporean and his wife Kim's, Vietnamese food knowledge and walking into this gorgeous brick building, getting a whiff of their specialty satay grilling on the wood burning hearth. Chef Ng, former Chef de Cuisine at Pizzeria Mozza, definitely knows his way cooking in a wood burning fire.

The Spice Table Apr11
Spice Table - exterior
I'd heard the warnings and read blog posts about how spicy the food was and that didn't really turn me off. My tolerance for heat ranks high and I often add chili to dishes when available.

So upon dining there last summer, a couple of months after its opening, I had mixed feelings. Some dishes wowed me and others had a bit too much heat to fully enjoy, because it overtook the more subtle flavors of the food.

Spice Table Dec11_d dining room
Spice Table - dining room
I vowed not to come back, yet eventually craved some of the dishes and wanted to try more of the Indonesian and Malaysian dishes that are harder to find elsewhere.

A friend and I met there for dinner and much to our delight, they have toned down the spice level on several of the dishes, making them much more palatable. The fact that they responded to feedback also says a lot and not surprisingly, they are still packed. We grabbed seats at the bar, that and outside being the only available spots.

Spice Table Dec11_e fried cauliflower with fish sauce
fried cauliflower with fish sauce
The fried cauliflower with fish sauce, simple as it sounds, was my favorite dish the first time and it did not disappoint on second tasting. These whole florets come light and crispy on the outside and steaming yet somewhat firm on the inside.

It reminded me a bit of Japanese tempura, but more of Indian style vege pakoras which are veges battered in a spicy chick pea flour batter and fried. And adding to that my favorite condiment of Thai chilies in fish sauce, it's a no brainer.

The server also accommodated us very well. My friend has an allergy to fish and he crossed out every dish on the men containing fish. The cauliflower dish came with a Thai veggie sauce for her. Just as a note, he mentioned that for those with shellfish allergies, it would be hard to find enough food on their menu not containing it.

Spice Table Dec11_f grill
wood fired grill with our order of marrow bones
As many of my friends and perhaps a few readers know, I love marrow. Part of the desire to come back to Spice Table was after reading food critic Jonathan Gold's 10 Best Dishes of 2011, which included their Grilled Bone Marrow.

One look at photographer Anne Fishbein's mouth-watering photos and it was on.

Spice Table Dec11_g griled bone marrow with prawn sambal
grilled marrow bone with prawn sambal
Watching the marrow bones grilling induced much anticipation. The grilled marrow bones are smeared with prawn sambal paste (fermented shrimp with ground chillies), then grilled to a crunchy shell.

At first we tried the marrow and sambal on it's own with the French baguette bread. The prawn slightly funky flavor seemed to overtake the milder marrow flavor.

However, when combined with the other condiments of red pickled onions, rau ram leaves and sea salt, it all melded beautifully and melted on the tongue.

Spice Table Dec11_i lamb belly satay cumin turmeric galangal
lamb belly satay
Another encore dish and must-try was this lamb belly satay, marinated with galangal, turmeric and cumin and served with the traditional peanut sauce. Surprisingly, the heat level stayed quite low on this dish, which did not need much seasoning to stand out.

The lamb melted in the mouth like meat cotton candy! The cut is more on the fatty side which makes it incredibly rich and juicy.

Spice Table Dec11_c plants
planters on the counter
This post contains almost as many shots of the decor as the food, because they both work together to create that exotic yet comforting experience. The succulent planters scattered throughout always caught my eye.

Spice Table Dec11_h kaya toast
kaya toast

We mellowed things out with a milder, although also rich, dish of Kaya toast. If you haven't tried this comfort food dish, also known as a hangover cure in Singapore and Malaysia, I recommend it highly.

Kaya is a spread of creamy pandan scented coconut jam on buttered toast with a side of a slow cooked runny egg, soy sauce and white pepper for dipping. It doesn't sound like it would work, but it does.

This version contained a tiny, thin swipe of coconut jam, barely discernible from the butter. I would have preferred more or at least have more on the side. Although it's a solid effort, it doesn't quite reach the heights of the kaya toast at Susan Feniger's Street, which you can see by clicking on the link.

Spice Table Dec11_j black pepper crab toast crab tomalley oyster sauce butter

We tried a couple of other dishes but the only other one I would like to highlight here as a "must try" is the Black pepper crab toast.

Served with insanely large house made toast points comes the most delectable stew of luscious crab meat, cracked black pepper, crab tomalley (the innards, mushy parts), oyster sauce and butter, garnished with fresh herbs and slice of lime.

The result was simply a party in the mouth. I love shrimp toast, but this takes that genre to a new level. Perfect ratio to the sweet crab meat and levels of chili and funk of the tomalley, nicely mellowed out with the toast.

Spice Table Dec11_b interior
It was definitely worth coming back for another try.

Even with so many new dishes I wanted to try, such as their version of the classic Malaysian delicacy of beef randang, I'd be hard pressed to not re-order some of these classics upon future visits.

The Spice Table on Urbanspoon