Good Eats & Not-so-good Eats

7 09 2008

The first couple of weeks of school usually find us dining out quite a bit more than we usually do.  I come home after 10 hour days not quite ready for facing the kitchen.  If I can set myself up fairly well with things that work well together, I manage to get meals to the table.  Then there are those “other” nights.  I’m ever so grateful Trader Joe’s is now in Chico.  I can start with something frozen and go the “Semi-Homemade” route. One of my favorites is their “Penne Arrabito.”  This frozen pasta entreé is sauce and pasta, nothing more.  But…add 1/2 pound of fancy ready-to-eat sausage (Aidell’s or similar), sliced veggies that you’ve sauteéd (we like mushrooms and zucchini) and you’ve got a great entreé.  Add a salad, and you’re done.

We went to the Farmers’ Market on Thursday night.  I didn’t get home until 5:30 (I’m off at 4…), Farmers’ Market started at 6, so there wasn’t a lot of down time between getting home and getting on the road (Farmers’ Market is 20 miles north of us).  As we drove, we discussed where to have dinner…Chico has so many options available!  One week we had pizza at Woodstocks…truly wonderful!  This week sushi sounded particularly good.

Chico has more sushi options than most towns of it’s size…even college towns.  There’s the original, Gen Kai, who started it all, and has changed hands 4 or 5 times since the inception.  I’m not up-to-date on the menu or quality right now.  I’ve had good, bad, and GREAT meals there.  Katsuo’s is out on Nord Ave.  It has a cafeteria style atmosphere, but the food was good last time we were there; s-l-o-w but good.  Then, the nouveau Rawbar opened… Very non-traditional Japanese in decor and mannerisms, they offer sushi, both traditional and inventive.  Other Pacific-Rim delights decorate their broad-spectrum menu.  Pricey, vibrant, and wonderful.  Our favorite nights were Mondays when the Master Itabi-sama was there.  Mike was fabulous, and I’d love to have his recipe for Slam Sauce.  There’s just nothing like it anywhere.  Viable competition opened on the north end of Esplanade…Japanese Blossom.  We had lunch there and were happily surprised to find our Itabi-san from Gen Kai there!  Ahhh…that change of ownership thing.  I see.  Other types of competition have risen up with Rice Bowl offering sushi on their buffet, and another place on Mangrove offering sushi on their buffet as well.  I can’t put a name to that place just now, but it was passably good, and reasonably priced.  If…you can tolerate buffets.  Which leads us to our Thursday night find…

We hadn’t had an opportunity to try 33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz.  We didn’t even know for sure where it was until Thursday night.  I had parked a few blocks away (you can’t park in close…there’s just NO room!), and we walked in on 3rd this week.  The previous trip, we’d come in on 2nd to visit Woodstock’s on the way out.  As we approached 3rd & Main, there was 33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz…and what was in their window??  A sign proclaiming SUSHI!  How fortuitous!  Decision made!

33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz is decorated in black and maroon…very deep colors.  It has the look of fine dining crossed with college crowd hangout.  The menu is somewhat sparse, but the choices are right up there.  They offer filet mignon in a number of applications…Oscar (has my eye), Blackened (why? why? why?), Chicken Picatta, Marsala and Cordon Bleu, to name a few items.  We were interested in sushi this night.  We were not disappointed.  The menu is tight…many rolls feature the same items over and over in different applications, but the saucing and accessory items that go into the rolls made everything a little different from the next.  No nigiri sushi.  Only rolls, but nicely sized rolls that a woman can put into her mouth without choking on the bite.  I really like that.  And the prices were so moderate! The rolls ranged from $5 to $11 – and each made at least 8 nice bites.  We had about 6 different rolls, which was plenty, and the total for food was $32.  Not at all bad.  Alcohol was a little more up there in price, but we ordered call-liquors and specialty drinks, so not that bad in comparison.  Hubster had a 3-Mile Island…a twisted Long Island concoction that was pretty powerful and tasty…I opted for a Ruby Red Martini-Cosmo style.  I’m hooked on those at the moment, and since it’s a call liquor, they’re more than my usual Sierra Nevada on tap.  LOL!  Sushi dinner usually runs us $120-150-ish.  We were out the door, food, drinks and tip, under $90.  Ok…not much under $90, but still.  And we were gloriously happy.  See???  I can be happy after a restaurant experience!

And then…there was Saturday…

Oroville boasts a new Mexican restaurant on the West end of town…Los Compadres.  This has been one of those “hopeful” things.  This is a restaurant that we watched come along from the first hand-lettered sign on the side of the road.  We watched the lot being cleared, and the brand new building went up…typical southwestern design, no question this is Mexican in the making.  A year or so later, their doors opened.  We noticed they were open last weekend, and were packed, so declined to check it out.  We thought we’d give it a week or so and see how things progressed.  And then, I got hungry for chile rellenos.

Los Compadres has a broad expansive front, with lots of parking just off Oro Dam Blvd. west of the freeway.  It’s brand new, so it’s sparkling clean, inside and out.  As you walk in, you’re greeted by a hand-lettered sign on a white board welcoming you, and a table just below full of menus and wrapped utensils.  Immediately to the left of the menu table is the door for the servers to go in/out of the kitchen. The hostess station/cashier is left of that.  It felt awkward.  There are booths along the front wall of the restaurant, and tables along the near inner wall.  There’s enough room between the booths and the near-inner wall to put a line of tables, should they need more dining area.  There appears to be additional seating on either end of the restaurant beyond the near-inner wall.  There are entry-ways, but we were seated so that I couldn’t see what was beyond them.

We were almost promptly greeted and seated by a young Latina woman who was old enough to work, but not old enough to serve a drink.  She appeared to be between 18 and 20, and was pleasant enough, but not the brightest – use your favorite cliché.  When seated, you are presented your wrapped utensils and your menu.  Chips and salsa arrived shortly thereafter.  The chips were crisp, fresh, a little greasy…but not bad at all.  They were just greasy enough for us to be sure they were cooked on site.  The salsa was tasty…pureed tomatoes and tomatoes, chiles, seasonings, onion, garlic, cilantro…all in good balance with a good residual heat.  It might be too hot for some, but it worked for us.

One thing there seemed to be plenty of at Los Compadres was time.  We had more than adequate time to peruse the menu, the entire menu, front-to-back, twice.  Then there was a lovely period of time between our decision and being able to share that information.  All the while, there’s still no water, nor an offer for beverages.  But…we do have chips and salsa.  There was more time here and there too, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves!

Our young waitress arrived, set water glasses on the table, poised her pen and offered to take our order…  Hubster didn’t bat an eye, nor miss a beat when he turned to her and explained that it’s customary to offer customers an opportunity to slake their thirsts by offering beverages first.  Oh yes, he did.  He’s just that quick witted and sharp tongued.  He has kind of a samurai sword tongue…you don’t realize your head has been separated from your neck until it falls from your shoulders.  We’ve been married 26 years.  In that time, I’ve tipped some servers abundantly for catching their heads in their hands.

With beverages attended to, we place our food order.  He chooses the lunch combo of chile relleno and enchilada, shredded beef.  I chose the same, ‘but make mine shredded chicken.”  The waitress apologetically told me there was no shredded chicken.  I selected the two chile relleno meal instead.  Then, we waited.

We had plenty of time to analyze the situation.  Too many servers on deck, not enough help in the kitchen.  We didn’t see any food except chips & salsa come out of the kitchen for a very long time.  We hoped this was a good sign…that they were working from fresh…and wondered about the chicken…  Was there no chicken, or was there no shredded chicken?  Interesting.  I took it to mean there was no chicken.  However, strictly speaking the chicken isn’t shredded (it is however, de-boned at some point), so she didn’t misspeak.  Ok.  They have chicken items and I didn’t order it right.  So be it.  More authentic?  There’s a lot of chit-chat going on.  It’s easy…they have a code language.  We’re mainly anglos, and we’re not a bi-lingual bunch, so they can say whatever they like.  Is the chicken thing a mini-language barrier thing?  Hmmm…

At long last food arrives…it looks fine.  It’s typical in appearance.  Rice and beans down the center, each item on either side, add cheese, melt and serve.  Don’t warn the patron.  They should know the plate is going to be hot.  Is this their first time in a Mexican food place?  Oh.  The plates arrived nice and hot!  The plates looked pretty much the same.  I couldn’t tell his enchilada from his relleno, except that I could see the edge of a tortilla.  Ranchero sauce appeared to be the universal top sauce.  To their credit, both plates came out of the kitchen at the same time.

Mexican food is a quirky thing…a lot depends on which region of Mexico, or southern CA, AZ, NM or TX that you live in, you’ll find Mexican food is slightly different.  That’s not to say it’s not authentic, it’s just different.  San Diego taqueria food in the 70’s was heavenly.  I loved watching them create it, and I loved eating it.  Tex-Mex came to my little town, and was different, but it had that fabulous right-on no questions taste (back then anyway).  AZ Mexican is a little different even yet, but still…it’s there, underlying everything, that little whiff of “yeah.”  And I even like Taco Bell…for it’s purpose and ease; you can’t seriously call that Mexican food…until Los Compadres.

It was difficult to understand what I was eating.  I knew what it was supposed to be, but what was this really??? Chile Relleno translates out to stuffed chile.  That’s easy enough.  I can’t speak well at all in any other language, but I can read menus in five languages.  The item on my plate was no more a stuffed chile than I was a stuffed turkey.  This was by any other definition an omelet.  It was mixed eggs, cooked and tri-folded, then sauced.  Nothing more.  Oh.  Wait.  There is a bit of cheese.  Where is the stuffed chile?  Ok…chile rellenos are a bit of a pain, but I’m not the one who put it on the menu, y’know?  I just ordered the thing.  Things.  I got two of these.  Oh yippee.

Okay, I can understand, maybe, that making chile rellenos is a bit much for a starter chef.  That’s why it’s almost impossible to get a good, fresh chile relleno.  They make them ahead and reheat them.  In that regard, I found this method a little ingenious.  However, the real work is in peeling the chiles, so doing the eggs right is no big deal after that.  Still…canned chiles are routinely used in a lot of places, so a chile relleno omelet isn’t a bad idea, but don’t pass it off as the real-deal. Aha!  There is a chile (piece) in the other relleno.  At least there’s an effort at something with all the components.  My first impression (which will last and last), wasn’t how things are supposed to be.  It’s nice to know what they really intended.

In the end, I don’t think time will change much of anything here.  This is a family owned place…what looks to be a legacy…and I don’t hold out much hope for it.  It’s Taco Bell sit-down, dine-in style.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that their ranchero sauce was Taco Bell sauce.  It had that kind of quality to it.  Not bad tasting, but…a texture that’s hard to imagine being made fresh.  The beans tasted like the usual canned brand.  Their salsa was fresh enough.  There was at least fresh cilantro in it.  The rice was interesting.  I’m not sure what the difference was, but that’s one thing that intrigued me.  Don’t get me wrong, the food wasn’t bad.  It just wasn’t impressive enough to break old habits and favorite places.  It’s not going to get on my map as a place I think positively of when I think of Mexican food.  It’s on my avoid list…unless I’m at work.  It’s one of the closest places to where I work.  I can see lunch there over Taco Bell.  If they can get the food out fast enough for my hour long lunch!

So…there we are.  A GREAT find and a road-bump.

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