I’ll just let the pictures tell this story.
Taqueria Los Gorditos, Portland, OR. (And the burritos ain’t bad, either.)
Niblets is an all-too-occasional feature on the ins and outs of the Eugene food scene. Syndicate me? You know you want to.
Get your last meals in at your faves soon: behold the imminent closure of a long-time Eugene fixture, Keystone Café, who will be shutting the doors for a long-deserved retirement; Kopi-O, on what we hope is a temporary stoppage due to the sale of the building; and the latest venture of Eugene restaurateur Sara Willis, Carmelita Spats, who has “decided to simplify and only do dinners when I can personally work every aspect of the dinner/event,” according to the Facebook page. She plans to do catering and other events, including a project slated for fall.
Catering seems to be the way to go in this town. The Party Downtown duo has put their lunch service on hiatus for the summer months due to an upswell of catering gigs. They still serve brunch on Sundays, though! Look for more changes and upgrades as the dog days saunter on. They recently celebrated their first year anniversary, I’m happy to say. And Belly is 6 years old! Congratulations to two fine establishments.
Kamitori is agonizingly no longer serving sushi, as previously reported, but the new incarnation, open Tues-Sat until 3 p.m., is actually quite lovely. And that’s saying a lot from a person who doesn’t like dining out for breakfast. Eugene so desperately needs a full service, non-greasy-spoon-diner breakfast place, and Kamitori may just be that place. It’s a rare treat to have an expertly trained, internationally experienced chef serving breakfast and lunch with an eye for quality, and the standards show it.
Our baked goods and pancakes are all hand-made from scratch, made from fresh eggs and fresh milk to make them very soft and milky. NO water added. So please stop by and try our new menu including Thick & Fluffy Pancakes and Soft & Juicy French Toast, both are served with lots of fruit toppings to your taste, French-style Omelets, Japanese style Sandwiches, and Japanese breakfast & lunch, including Tonkatsu, Curry Rice, Udon and Soba Noodles. Also please try our very creamy milk-brewed Cafe au Lait, Tea au Lait, and Matcha au Lait. We sell some Japanese style Bread, too, such as Shoku-pan (milk bread), Zenryu-pan (whole wheat milk bread), An-pan (sweet red bean filling), Jam-pan (homemade jam filling), and more.
And although I had my doubts at first, having tasted Masa’s zenryu-pan, a milk-based soft wheat bread very popular in Japan for breakfast, and melon-pan, which doesn’t include melons but is a soft cakelike bun with a crunchy slightly sweet topping that resembles the netting on a melon skin, and seeing photos of the thick & fluffy pancakes with a mountain of fruit and whipped cream, I was convinced that he has an idea that will draw not only locals but visitors from afar. They also serve some Japanese lunch set standards like curry rice and shio-saba yaki (salt-grilled mackerel) and even, if they have it, sashimi teishoku.
So listen up: this is the perfect place for brunch with a mixed crowd, as most can enjoy a great American breakfast, some can enjoy more adventurous Japanese pastries, and the freaks like me can enjoy a real Japanese breakfast set with green tea, miso soup, rice, egg, and pickles. Yes, as in a Japanese breakfast that you can only get in a U.S. restaurant in places like San Francisco or New York, and even then only in a couple hotels in Japantown. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Told ya it was going to put us on the map.
Even better: Olivo Tapas, the first solo venture of former Executive Chef of Ox & Fin and Sous Chef of Soubise Alejandro Cruz, will be operating soon out of Kamitori’s space at 1044 Willamette in the evenings. Click here for updates on opening times and a menu that’s heavy on seafood and light, sophisticated fare.
Other up-and-coming dining ventures in town are all excellent food carts: Tam’s Place Vietnamese in the former Party Cart space at 28th and Friendly, nearby Green Plow Juicery (both pictured above), across the way from a sort-of interior food cart: Red Wagon Creamery’s new ice cream scoopery at the Friendly Street Market. Two particularly good carts that service Oregon Wine Lab on various days of the week for the welcome experience of having a glass of crisp Riesling on the patio with your meal: DaNang Vietnamese Eatery and Twisted Tako, a fusion taco cart. I’ve yet to try Whapping, a Costa Rican Afro-Carribean-focused cart that looks promising. Check their pages for locations and times. Also look for Taco Next, a new venture with an excellent cook, on Main Street in Springfield soon (see details above on card!).
Join Facebook and friend me there for updates about many more local events than I can post here on the blog.
We eat bean-and-greens tacos about once a week at home, but because I always have fermented hot sauce or summer salsa hanging around in the refrigerator, I haven’t experimented much with all the peppers I dried last year. When I saw an experimental recipe for dried pepper ferments in the fabulous preservation blog Well Preserved, I remembered that I (1) grew a bunch of Central American chiles this year instead of the Hungarian ones I’ve been growing for years; and (2) dried a bunch of ripe pasillas (which grow very well here, by the way) and other peppers that were languishing in my cupboard.
So red chile sauce it was. Relying on a Diana Kennedy classic recipe, I knew I couldn’t buy fresh tomatoes at this point in the dead of winter, so I used up my last jar of canned tomato sauce, the frozen tomato sauce having been long depleted. Because I wouldn’t be able to char the sauce as I’d char the skin of fresh tomatoes for more flavor, I decided to throw in a pretty little ice-cubed block of tomato paste that I managed to put up last fall. It turns out the tomato paste is crucial for body in the salsa, so don’t omit, even if you’re using fresh tomatoes. If you’re purchasing your tomato products, you might want to buy a can of tomato puree instead of diced tomatoes, because it’s thicker and sweeter.
I was less interested in authentic flavors than in just getting rid of my chiles, so an Ethiopian brown, scorchingly hot beriberi pepper and I’m sure a Hungarian pepper or two snuck in there. You will probably be more discriminating. Also, note that you won’t be able to get the silky smooth texture without a blender, so don’t even try it. A good local bean for the tacos? Brighstone, a hearty pinto-like bean, which is a new discovery by Adaptive Seeds/Open Oak Farm this year.
And if you’re interested in farming, Central America, or how things grow in places involving the word Willamette, you’ll most definitely want to check out our radio show, Food for Thought on KLCC Sunday at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations in Oregon, or live on the web. Boris and I are trying something new, an interview with farmer/musician Joshua James, who is performing songs from his new album, From the Top of Willamette Mountain, at Sam Bonds tonight. We’ll also be joined by someone we’ve wanted to have on the show for a long time: Sarah Cantril, Executive Director of Huerto de la Familia, an agriculture and micro-business educational non-profit that teaches community integration, economic self-sufficiency, and organic farming skills to Latino families in Lane County. Listen in or be square!
Red Chile Sauce
Toast peppers and sliced garlic, being careful not to let the peppers burn. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium heat, then add the dried peppers and garlic, pressing them down and turning them over every few seconds until the peppers can be crumbled and you can smell the toasted smell.
Remove from heat. Let peppers and garlic cool until easy to handle.
If you are using fresh tomatoes, char the skins over a gas burner or on the same hot cast-iron skillet, then peel off most of the blackened parts, before dicing.
Place tomatoes, tomato paste, and optional water in a blender. Add garlic. Remove stems and seeds from chiles, then crumble pepper shells into blender. Blend for a few minutes on high, until the sauce is very integrated and smooth. Add salt to taste.
Refrigerate and use within a few days on anything that could use a nice kick of red sauce.
Tacos with arugula from my garden and Open Oak Farm purple barley and ‘Marfax Swedish Brown’ beans sauced in a rich deep mole poblano from Barcelona Sauces out of Bend, OR. I love these beans. They’re beautifully plump and round, and they hold their shape well for recipes like frijoles de olla or baked beans.
A short tale, considering I gobbled them down as fast as can be. One of the highlights of my week is my grading session at Belly Taco Night. It always puts me in a good mood, which one needs when one is grading. Held just once a week on Mondays (5:30-9 pm), Belly Taco Night is usually quite busy, so prepare to wait just a bit. And don’t mind the lady with the stack of papers in the corner.
This week, I didn’t have grading to do, so I actually read a book while eating (top to bottom) carnitas taco, carne asada special taco with habanero and cilantro salsas, and a shrimp tostada. What a pleasure. The nice thing was I was sitting at the bar, which has great light for photos, so I can finally share some photographic love.
Stay tuned for news from Belly…I hear it’s expanding, just like my own belly.
I’m very pleased to report I took the advice of friends and ate at Luis’ Taqueria in Woodburn as I was on my way to Portland.
Woodburn is a old town with a large wart. I hope the gigantic outlet mall on the west side of I-5 brings in dividends for the townspeople, I really do. I’m sure it provides many jobs. And truthfully, the shops aren’t bad. But after watching hordes of bargain-hunters with glazed eyes and children grasping hungrily at the latest North Face jacket, I was feeling a bit claustrophobic.
So I went across the bridge into downtown Woodburn, which like many small Oregon towns, fronts the railroad tracks and has a line of wood-and-brick front late-19th century shops which have seen better days. Unlike many Oregon towns, though, it has a highly visible Hispanic population, and all those shops are Mexican restaurants and markets!
The 2000 census put Woodburn’s population at around 50% Hispanic, but if that area is any indication, I’d put it at about 80%. I noticed that there is a Hispanic culture festival of some sort each year, dating back at least to 1964, so the community has been around for at least that long, and surely longer. And you can see it in the restaurants. It was so nice to be in a vibrant taqueria with so many non-white faces eating very delicious food happily. I think a taqueria is one of the most joyful places on earth.
The downtown area is depressed, make no mistake. On 1st Street, there’s an abandoned movie theatre that was once probably pretty cool. I saw some aimless men wandering around that area and slow moving patrol cruisers, never a good sign. The internets also show some longstanding racial tensions in the community. But you can also see civic pride initiatives at work, too, including a spit-shined locomotive engine that is on an Oregon historical register and, I think, open to visitors.
By the way, the town websites also tell me that there’s a sizable Russian population in Woodburn. The Chamber of Commerce has a rather pastoral description of the Russian community, and puts the population at about 11% (2003). I looked for Russian restaurants/markets in Woodburn, but couldn’t find any. It could be that the community is, from the looks of it, ultra-Orthodox and not very open to outsiders. I’m not sure. But any leads would be appreciated.
I’ll be sure to check out some lovely churches the next time I go:
To view Woodburn’s Russian churches, take Highway 99E south from Woodburn 2 miles to Howell-Praire Road NE. Turn left (east) and travel 1/4 mile to Monitor-McKee Road. Turn left and travel 1/2 mile to Bethlehem Drive NE. The churches are all located in the area.
But back to the taqueria. You have to eat at least one seafood ceviche tostada (left in picture). Ceviche, of course, is that lime-juice cured mix of fish and shrimp with tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, and cilantro. Don’t make the mistake I did and omit the order of tortilla chips, though. The wet marinade makes the tostada sloppy eating with your hands (who has time for a fork, thought I).
And the carnitas taco was absolutely delicious, too. You really can’t go wrong with fried pork. You might be more adventurous and try the cabeza (pig head, which became a theme of the trip, as you shall see in future posts), adobada (stewed beef), chorizo (spicy sausage) or chicharrones (pork rinds in a spicy sauce). You can get your sopes (little boats made out of masa dough) fix or tamales (and even buy sweet or plain masa to make your own). On the weekends, they have menudo and pozole soups.
The prices are great, the restaurant is family-friendly (but not obnoxiously so) and very clean. I was warned in Spanish by the cleaning lady in the ladies room not to wash my hands until she had wiped down the sink that had been sprayed with “clor.” The food is simple and comfortable — nothing fancy. But make no mistake: they don’t cut corners. All the tortillas are handmade as you wait, and the salsas and toppings are fresh and yummy.
I note with some sadness that a popular bakery on the strip has gone out of business, but a pristine and very well stocked butcher/grocer is still hawking its wares. I noticed tubs of homemade dark red molé paste on the shelves, and I really regret not taking one home. Next time!
Remember how excited I was about the street tacos I ate in LA? Well, Eugene, you now have a pretty wonderful taco scene. Starting last weekend, Belly has started their long-awaited taco nights on Sundays and Mondays, from 5:30 onward.
The image to the right is from those LA tacos, but you can expect to find something similar in the delicious carnitas tacos on the Belly menu. The restaurant is transformed into a cantina, with tables decked out with pickled jalapeños, and a full specials menu of Mexican drinks. Salsa and chips (or guacamole) can be had, but I was scolded by owner Brendan when I indulged in the former instead of one of the more interesting appetizers.
He had a point. I could have spent the whole evening buried in a bowl of “queso y chorizo flameado,” an oozy cheese and spicy sausage dip that arrives at the table licked by blue flames. Or even a Caesar salad, another one of my fave indulgences when it’s made right. Yes, he had a point.
It’s worth it, though, even if you want to sup on perfectly fried chips and a few margaritas or a Michelada. They’re that good. The salsa isn’t nearly spicy enough for me, but it’s fresh and tasty and balanced well with tomato and dark chile, and I would have been happy. Dayenu.
But why stop there?
Now you’re asking the tough questions. I had come from a talk on campus and had to finish some work, so I thought I’d pop in and check out the scene, but after I saw the menu, I realized there was no way that was going to happen. I ordered two tacos and a tostada, with some difficulty choosing, but then the wonderfully sweet new bartender recommended the bean dip, which had been on the menu the night before. She asked in the back for me if there was any left, and sure enough…
The. Bean. Dip. It was the best bean dip I’ve ever had, fruity-hot with habanero and made rich and silken with pepitas. It was so delicious I asked if there was lard in it (answer: no). It was so good, I gave it to another table (where a friend of mine was sitting) so they could try it, and so it wouldn’t be wasted.
I regret this. I should have taken it home in a napkin, smuggled into my purse, just like my grandma used to do with Sweden House chicken.
Ah, grandma, when will I learn? But the problem was *everything* I tried was delicious. The tostada (shrimp, pineapple, and salsa fresca) was fresh and light. Pescaterians: there’s also a camarones (spiced shrimp) taco and a deep-fried scallop taco, both of which I’ll be trying soon. The adovada taco (pork braised in New Mexican chile sauce) was good, but I have to admit I liked both the carnitas and the lengua (beef tongue stewed with tomatillos and onions), which Brendan brought for me to taste in little cups, better. He said the menu was bound to change and be streamlined, so I felt a real obligation to taste everything I could.
Yes, things were getting out of control.
So I thought I’d go veg with a verduras taco (seasonal greens, black beans and mushrooms). If I were a vegetarian, I’d be pretty psyched about this taco. The mushrooms really make it filling and provide a good contrast to the milder bean-and-green combo. If you add pickled onions and some green salsa, available on a little table near the front door, it’s a party in your mouth. Other vegetarian options included a simple jack cheese quesadilla and another with poblanos, black beans, habanero crema and those same delicious pink pickled onions.
I’m assuming you’re seeing my terrible condition by this point. Stuffed to the gills with tacos, barely able to move, wanting MORE TACOS. I was like that old battleaxe with a cigarette voice in a ratty fur coat nursing a drink alone at a divebar on Sunday afternoon. But it was Monday at 6:00, and I was nursing a tray of tortilla chips alone, my place littered with the remnants of tacos. Too much, too much. O how much can a gal handle in a town that only has awesome tacos twice a week?
Belly taco nights. Check ’em out. Share the love.
I spent the long weekend in L. A. at a conference, which turned out to be delightful. It’s a notoriously miserable annual affair, this gigantic conference, where everyone in my discipline who is interviewing for jobs (on either side of the table), seeking career advice, giving a talk, or just wanting to hear distinguished individuals rail on about the state of the field, come together in one, tense, ill-fitting suit-wearing weekend.
But I had a blast! They used to hold the conference between Christmas and New Year’s, which would ruin both holidays, and always seem to hold it in places like Chicago or Boston to torture the Westcoasters. This year, they switched the date to after Jan. 1, and held it in L.A. Mood instantly improved. For me, the conference was illumined not by L.A. neon or the cascading crystal light blankets that draped down over the J. W. Marriott lobby, but by all the friends and colleagues who were there. I attended graduate school in Southern California, so many of my pals showed up for interviews, talks, and parties.
But we don’t care about interviews, talks, parties, or even friends here at Culinaria Eugenius, where we go to conferences to get our EAT on.
Exhibit A: street tacos. A gigantic roast of pork al pastor in a taco truck caught my eye as I was headed home from a party.
As I watched the tacos being assembled, I noticed the women patting the tortillas between their hands, and saw the dough. OMG, they were making fresh tortillas right there and then! I gobbled down my tacos, wishing I had bought more. (Eugene note: this would be a great cart — concentrate on tacos only. A few kinds of meat, maybe one bean option, fresh vegetables (radish slices, cilantro, pico de gallo), pickled peppers and salsa line the condiment bar. Work with Plaza Latina for masa dough or use their fresh tortillas).
Even better, if that’s possible? The french-dipped beef sandwich at Philippe The Original, near Union Station. The “original” part means that Philippe invented the French Dip (with some argument from Cole’s, a recently renovated downtown classic). The restaurant has been open for over 100 years, and they still throw sawdust on the floors and operate the candy counter. The restaurant has been integrated into the neighborhood patois over the years, too. The French original owner’s name is now pronounced, even by the new owners, as Filipe’s. When I asked at the train station how to get there, all the women behind the desk corrected my pronunciation, then gave me their orders. It’s that kind of place.
I love me some French Dip, always have. And I had never made my pilgrimage to the birthplace of this humble sandwich. Unlike the French Dip we know and love, the original french-dipped is made by dipping the insides of both halves of a sandwich roll into au jus, then placing the meat in between. The meat gets juicy, the outside crust of the roll stays firm. This is not for everyone, I know. An admirer on Chowhound summed it up perfectly: “If you like the soggy, squishy sort of salty tasteless denture-friendly texture of the french dip, then you’ll love Philippe’s. If you don’t, move on. Life’s too short.”
I’m a rather obsessive (as you know) food photographer, but even I sized up the sandwich and deemed it more appropriate for eating than photographing. (But if you must see it, go here.) Indeed, it looks downright unappetizing, unless you have the ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable, singular love for the French Dip. The side of coleslaw — spiceless, watery, limp — looked awful, too. But I knew, just knew, that it would be sensational.
And it was. The best cole slaw I’ve ever had. I was so absorbed in the sandwich (and the perfect, vinegar-punchy, pure cole slaw) that I forgot to add Philippe’s famous mustard until my very last bite.
The picture at the very top of this post chronicles my experience. Gone before I knew it. Sigh. And I wasn’t able to return to Philippe’s for the double-dipped, highly recommended by my enthusiastic colleagues. The bun gets dipped twice, for even more squishy, soggy beef jus goodness. Double sigh. (Eugene note: restaurants — You Can Do This. Bland meat, white bun. Gravy. It’s so Eugene I can’t even stand it. And yet, the French Dips I eat in this town are almost universally awful. I’ve given up ordering them, in particular, at Cornucopia, because the jus is so salty it is inedible (coming from someone who likes salt, this is a serious red light, folks).)
We also made our way to Little Tokyo, where we snacked on mitarashi dango (rice cake dumplings with a sweet sauce, below, by the green tongs) that I spied through the window of a dorayaki (sweet bean pancake) operation.
There were still many New Year’s specialties in the grocery store, including these giant daikon. The size brings good luck. I pondered smuggling one home in my suitcase, but opted instead for needle thin dried squid “somen” for snacking; a faux-healthy, undoubtedly trendy, dried ramen product made with some magic green vegetable powder; seasoned wakame in a little paper boat; shiso and kabocha squash seeds; and mousepads printed with one of the Japanese alphabets for my nephews.
We had planned to go to one of the noodle houses, but as we walked by Suehiro Café, I was overwhelmingly awash with nostalgia for my Japanese home cooking past, and had to eat at this humble little diner that features Japanese comfort food. The diner has an awesome pegboard for specials that has, according to the owner, been in operation for 37 years.
Many of the menu items I had never seen on a menu before. It was very difficult to choose, but we ended up getting my favorite tamago donburi, a big bowl of mixed tsukemono pickles, gyoza vegetable dumplings, and saba shioyaki, pictured below. Saba is mackerel. The oily, full-flavored fish is grilled on a bed of salt and served with a mound of grated daikon. You squeeze the lemon and add a little soy to the radish, and it provides a nice contrast to the oily fish. One of my absolute favorite Japanese dishes. (Eugene note: there’s no chance in hell we can do this here. Sakura, the Japanese restaurant near campus with the weird vibe that closed in the fall used to have it as part of a Japanese breakfast, though. I regret never having the chance to try it, as the breakfast was only available for a limited time — 2 hours at the most. Oh well. But if someone is enterprising and masochistic, they could try a Japanese breakfast cart. I’d be there, but I might be the only one.)
After all that, though, I have to say that the nicest way to end the conference was to curl up in bed and chat with my roomie, an old friend, with a bottle of Oregon pinot noir. See, I’m not ready to defect yet.
Mexican food in Eugene is not the greatest of our culinary problems, but you still can do well by yourself making delicious Mexican food at home. The next Master Food Preservers class is this Saturday, May 30, from 9-3 at the Extension building. For a mere $30 you will have a full day of instruction and lunch with Alejandra Bernal de Mendez, a Jalísco native, and the Master Food Preservers. This class has been in preparation for months, and I would strongly urge you to take it if you have any interest in learning how to cook Mexican food.
I haven’t been involved in the planning, but I understand that dishes to be made include a regional enchilada, tamales, and a tres leches (moist, milky caramel) cake. I think they also are planning to teach simple cheese-making (queso fresco). Give a call asap to reserve your spot and let the instructors know how many people to expect. More information about registration is available here.
Please note this class is the last for the summer, as the June dehydration class has been changed to a Down to Earth demo.
I also wanted to remind everyone that June 1 is the postmark date for strawberry orders through the Emerald Empire Kiwanis Club. This charitable organization arranges for local strawberry picking, cleaning, slicing, and delivery to Eugene. It’s the easiest way to get fresh strawberries in season that are ready to be used in all your fresh desserts, transformed into scrumptious jams, or frozen for use all year ’round. The proceeds go to local charities and programs that help children. Deliveries are made to Valley River Center on June 18, and you can pre-purchase 15- or 30-lb. pails. Frozen blueberries, strawberries, and marionberries (for pickup in August) can also be ordered at this time.
These are some gradin’ nachos. I’m fortunate since I didn’t have many final projects to grade this term, but the nachos made it easier. Although I still have a few jars of homemade salsa in the pantry, I thought I’d try something new. Everyone and their brother is trying to get rid of frozen corn, right? I noticed I had a drooping bunch of cilantro and a red onion, so thought I’d throw together a salsa. Winter tomatoes didn’t exactly appeal, hm…
And then, inspiration struck.
When I was an undergraduate in Berkeley, I’d almost exclusively shop at the old Berkeley Bowl, showing up on an odd weekday or first thing in the morning on a weekend to avoid some of the foot traffic. One of the only prepared items I’d buy was a delicious, bright red, zingy corn salsa made by a local company that also (if I remember correctly) made tamales. They’d sample the salsas on a little table on the weekends. I’d buy a pint and a bag of corn chips, then rush home and devour half the container for lunch.
It was that good.
So as I was mulling over my corn salsa possibilities, the remembrance of times past filled me with the holy recipe ghost, and it occurred to me that my decades of experimentation to recreate this salsa were misguided. I had never been able to capture the texture and slightly bitter flavor of the red pepper purée.
But lo! I had a jar of ajvar in the ‘fridge, and my long struggles were over.
This summer, I’m planning to make my own ajvar, but until then, I use the stuff in a jar, available at any Middle Eastern grocery store and many plain ol’ American ones, too. In Orange County, I could buy it at the Safeway, but I’m not so sure about Eugene. They’d probably have it at Market of Choice. It’s bright red and fortified with vegetables, such as carrots and onions and eggplants. The eggplants are the key: they lend the smoky bitterness to the spread that I had been missing when I tried to recreate the corn salsa from Berkeley Bowl.
Did the original recipe use ajvar? Hard to tell, but it sure tastes like it. In any case, the salsa is easy, pretty, and vegetable-y. More importantly, it uses up your freezer corn. Enjoy.
Red and Yellow Winter Salsa
Mix all ingredients together and let sit in the refrigerator until corn defrosts and the corny juice blends with the flavors in the salsa. Serves as an all-in-one nacho topping, quesadilla insert, or taco fiesta.