Posts Tagged ‘Agua fresca’

interior of Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, California

interior of Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, California

Jon and I are in SoCal right now, and although I’m an East Coast girl, I must confess I’m enjoying the sea and sun around these parts.  And I’ve definitely been loving all the great Cal-Mex food.

Our fave Mexican fix so far has been at the divey Tacos Por Favor, which is just a dozen blocks east of the ritzy bits of Santa Monica.

huevos rancheros at Tacos Por Favor

huevos rancheros at Tacos Por Favor

Being jetlagged, we were counting the hours until the place opened at 8 am for breakfast.  And once in, I had a sinfully-good plate of huevos rancheros.  It doesn’t look like much, but I assure you there’s no better way to start your day than with fresh corn tortillas, smoky, spicy salsa, sour cream and an oozy poached egg.  The sides of fluffy, sweet tomato rice and creamy beans was a bit overkill at 8 am, but I’m on holiday, you know?

breakfast burrito at Tacos Por Favor

breakfast burrito at Tacos Por Favor

Jon opted for the breakfast burrito, which he felt was more 8 am appropriate, and maybe I’d be convinced he had a point if he hadn’t also wolfed down all the freshly-fried tortilla chips on the side.

The perfect accompaniment for all this heavy “I’m-ready-now-to-work-the-ranch” food were the light and refreshing watermelon agua frescas, the original flavored water.

With both our main dishes costing about $6 and all our food being made on the spot only after we’d placed our order at the cash register, I don’t know why we ate anywhere else while in Santa Monica.

Tacos Por Favor, 1406 Olympic Boulevard (14th Street), Santa Monica, CA 90404. (310) 392-5768.
Tacos Por Favor on Urbanspoon

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Fish taco at Pancho Villa, San Francisco

Next to seeing so many close friends and family in the Bay Area, I was very excited to stuff my face with as much Cal-Mex as humanly possible over 72 hours. Jon and I were lucky to have so many local experts in the area to indulge us, so though we had to move around a lot during our trip, we managed to eat Cal-Mex in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.

In San Francisco (the city proper), we ate at Pancho Villa Taqueria and Puerto Allegre. Pancho Villa started in the Mission district, which, you might already be aware, is ground zero for taquerias. But the location we tried is across the street from the posh gourmet Ferry Building, and you know, even at the fancier location, Pancho Villa feels like a dive where it’s all about the fresh, corn tortillas (that smell and taste like corn – a crazy concept if you think about the dominance of El Paso-brand, floppy yellow grossness in London groceries).

Because we went to Pancho Villa within an hour of leaving San Francisco Airport (i.e., we had been stuffed silly by the plane food you eat solely out of boredom), Jon and I were only able to scarf down one cheese-and-mushroom quesadilla and a fish taco. But wow, what a difference a quality tortilla makes – flour in the quesdadilla and corn in the fish taco. Salsas were fresh, spicy and varied. My kindgom for tomatillo salsa! Overall, I was happy with my sampling of Pancho’s offerings.

Generally, the Cal-Mex we ate tasted good, but my photos of the food didn’t come out looking so fantastic (see, for example, the photo at the top of this post. It’s of my fish taco at Pancho Villa). So there aren’t any entertaining snaps for this post, I’m afraid.

Puerto Allegre is in the Mission district, and when we dropped by on a Thursday night, our travel-exhausted selves were not amused by the 40-minute wait to get in to the restaurant. The decor is modest (think bowling-alley booths and tables), but the vibe is energetic and chatty. Margaritas are strong, and the nachos were outstanding – piled so high with spicy meat, cheese, and salsa that the server left us an extra bowl of plain nachos to get the right ratio of topping to cripsy, corn-tasting nachos.

My carnitas burrito was a little disappointing. It was enormous and slathered in a green sauce, necessitating fork and knife usage, which was too bad since I’m a big believer in foil-wrapped burrito as portable meal. I also thought the rice in the burrito was kind of damp and overly dense, but this could be my Asian bias for fluffy, dry-textured rice coming through. In any case, I’d go back to Puerto Allegre for the nachos and drinks, but I’d skip the burrito.

In Oakland, even though I wasn’t at a taqueria, I couldn’t resist ordering the huevos rancheros at the friendly, casual Somerset restaurant. My friend Margaret tells me Somerset is the place she goes for brunch, and I can see why. Our party of eight had servers who were happy to customize orders (just try asking for a customization in London!), and the menu included creative twists on brunch classics (e.g., lemon-ricotta pancakes). I was happy but not surprised that my eggs arrived fluffy and hot, spiced up with salsa and cheese, and accompanied by rich, black beans. The eggs sat on a thick corn pancake, which soaked up a tad too much oil, but no big complaints as everything tasted fresh. After ordering a separate side of avocado to complete my idea of perfect huevos rancheros, my state of well-being was complete.

In Berkeley, I went with another party of eight to Cancun Taqueria, a super-lively place near the Cal campus. The place is large and the seating is canteen style. When we arrived, a Cal football game had just ended, so the place was packed with crowds of students and Cal fans wearing college paraphernalia. The noise and cheery enthusiasm were a little too much for boring, old me, but we managed to snag eight seats at a long table, and then I happily guzzled down several flavors of agua fresca, which never ceases to amaze me with its “essence of fruit” tastiness. The nachos were good, though not as yummy as the ones at Pancho Villa, and my shrimp taco cost a rather pricey $5 for a single taco housing four overcooked shrimp. I was also thrown off by the black beans in the taco. I won’t pretend to be a Cal-Mex expert, but I’ve never had a taco that included black beans. If I go back to Cancun, I’ll just focus on drinking all the agua fresca flavors and maybe try a burrito.

It’s amazing how quickly I get spoiled. Any one of my Cal-Mex meals in the Bay Area would have kicked ass in London, but of course, being in the land of taquerias meant that I got pretty picky. I’m most likely to return to Pancho Villa before visiting Puerto Allegre and Cancun again, but they were all pretty good.

Despite the fact that I ate Cal-Mex for four out of six restaurant meals during my weekend in the Bay Area, I’m still craving more. I saw an article in the Times recently about the revamped test for naturalization, and there was, of course, some analysis of what it means to be an American. Given how my mild, occasional homesickness takes the form of craving Mexican food, it seems obvious to me that the test should include a question or two about tacos and burritos.

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Tacos at Wahaca

Ask any American expat what cuisine she misses most, and the answer is usually Mexican. So you can imagine the excitement when word gets out that a new Mexican restaurant has opened in London!

On the plus side, Wahaca is named after a city that prides itself on being the Kitchen of Mexico (and high-quality cooking classes that Jon and I took in Oaxaca seemed to confirm this reputation). On the minus side, the restaurant didn’t have enough faith in people’s ability to pronounce Oaxaca, I suppose, and hence, Wahaca.

The place is also located in the centre of tourist hell (halfway between Covent Garden and Leiceister Square), which you could argue is needed because success depends on high-volume foot traffic, except that the excellent Green and Red seems to do just fine in its inconvenient, grungy locale in east London.

Anyway, I read an early review of Wahaca by a blogger duo who’d pasted their link on the Chowhound board, so away went Jon and I on Saturday night to check things out for ourselves.

Overall, the food was good, prices were reasonable (£18 a person, with drinks), drinks were outstanding, and the service was good enough, which adds up to: Jon and I will likely try it again. Soon, before the tourists take over (seriously, there’s a ginormous TGIF across the street).

Wahaca’s menu is divided into starters, sides, main courses, desserts, and “street dishes.” Street dishes are what we were craving, and on offer were tacos (3 for £4), quesadillas, taquitos and tostadas. No tamales, but I’ll try to keep the glass half full here.

Jon and I ordered up a storm, and the tacos were the best of the bunch, even though the fish taco (photo at top of post) wasn’t what I’d expected. Not battered and deep fried – a travesty! – but still a deliciously-strong fish taste and creatively served with chunks of mango.

The pork pibil taco was a little dry but overall flavorful, and the meat in the steak chipotle taco was served perfectly rare. It just needed some more salt, a pinch bowl of which sits on every table.

My major complaint about the tacos is that the corn tortillas were oily enough that even I (the lover of all things fried) noticed it.

The guacamole and pork scratchings were disappointing. The scratchings were stale and flavorless, and the guacamole tasted fresh but had the gloppy texture of something that had been pureed to death. Look at how shiny it was:

Guacamole and pork scratchings at Wahaca, London

Our side of black beans suffered from the same over-pureed-texture problem. I just kept wondering why you’d go to the trouble of using great ingredients and making things fresh, and then ruin it all by dumping it in a Cuisinart or blender.

The summer vegetable quasadilla was lukewarm (and it’s just not tasty to bite into cheese that has cooled and congealed), but our chorizo quesadilla was wonderfully smoky and meaty. So the key to the tasty food is whether or not it makes it to your table soon after it’s cooked. Which makes sense – street food is about immediate service.

The drinks deserve a special mention, since I think the restaurant put a lot of effort into preparing each cocktail and agua fresca. For just £1.25, you get a tall glass of said agua fresca, and mine was a terrific mix of hibiscus and cranberry juice.

Service ranged from hostile and super-slow to extremely attentive and smart. The latter kind came from two men who had the air of people who own the place, so I’m pretty sure the only two people who are doing a good serving job right now at Wahaca are the co-owners. Otherwise, it took almost 20 minutes after we were seated for someone to ask if we’d like to order anything, and another 20 minutes after we’d finished eating to be able to ask someone for the bill.Wahaca restaurant interior, London

Still, the dining room is casual and sleek, not too noisy, and the tables are roomy and spaced wide apart. A large group could easily eat together at Wahaca, and so the next time Jon and I go, we’ll round up the posse. This place kicks the Taqueria’s ass any day of the week, and I support anyone who’s continuing to raise the standards of Mexican food in London.

Wahaca on Urbanspoon

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