Pork Tacos: Espita Mezcaleria or Tacos: Recipes and Provocations

To be honest I was super excited to do this challenge.  I lived in San Diego before heading out east.  It was at this point in my life when I decided that tacos should be the staple of my diet.  Whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner, I am a sucker for a fresh, homemade tortilla piled high with cilantro, fresh slaw, pico de gallo and some warm, golden brown beer battered fish. So naturally I was excited for this week’s taco challenge and food review of Espita Mezcaleria and Tacos Recipes and Provocations by chef Alex Stupak.

We started the challenge by heading over to Espita Mezcaleria.  Located in Shaw, this brand new bustling restaurant serves a breathtaking (and quite overwhelming) number of mezcal.  They even have a mezcal genius, Josh Phillips who proves that mezcal can be versatile and more than just “smoky”.   The restaurant itself has multiple murals that were painted by Mexican street artist Yescka and the overall vibe of the restaurant could be only best described as “casual cool”

Not one to shy away from house specials.  We immediately ordered a flight of mezcal.  This happens to be a great option for those new to the plant based alcoholic beverage.  The drink menu can be overwhelming due to the extensive list of mezcal.  Don’t shy away from asking for suggestions and tips since mezcal isnt for the light hearted.  After one sip the table let out a collective “woah”. That was one way to get our evening going that’s for sure. The flight came with sal de gusano and orange slices to balance the mezcal (think salt and lime to curb tequila).  However, unlike tequila I would recommend to sip and not shoot if you want to leave dinner in one piece.

Mezcal flight

Mezcal flight

Next came our tacos – the menu is quite diverse, offering different moles, sopas, ensaladas,and ceviches.  The food came from the kitchen promptly, each dish more eye catching than the last.  The grilled tilapia was light and fresh.  Drizzled in a bright, tangy chipotle mayo, the grilled tilapia was balanced perfectly with slaw, carrots, and my favorite: cilantro.  Our second plate of tacos were skirt steaks.  The steaks were perfectly cooked and drenched in a sweet and spicy salsa that delivered a sharp punch to my taste buds.

Grilled tilapia tacos

Grilled tilapia tacos

Skirt steak tacos

Skirt steak tacos

The last plate to come was our main dish.  The reason we were here: Smoked pork jowl tacos.  Pork jowl comes from pork cheeks which have been cured and smoked resulting in one knock out taco.  From the first immediate bite you’re hit with smoky and tangy taste.  The pork just melts in your mouth. The mustard oil mayo added a nice sweet balance.  It was a strong contender for this weeks challenge.

Smoked Pork Jowl

Smoked Pork Jowl

Tacos: Recipes and Provocations is a beautiful memoir of Chef Alex Stupak’s journey as he divulges into Mexican cuisine.   Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, Chef Stupak’s love affair emerged from a background that did not involve tomatillos, chicaharrones, and chiles.  The world renowned chef  first discovered Mexican cuisine while exploring the streets of Chicago (as a former chicagoan, I can attest to the amazing choices of Mexican food).

I could not have been any more excited to try this week’s recipe.  Who doesn’t love tacos?  Who doesn’t love bacon?  The Salsa Negra was intimidating.  The smell of morita chilles filling the kitchen, blended with roasted garlic and I could already feel my stomach rumbling.  The slab bacon tacos took quite awhile to make.  Total cook time hit well over three hours for me.  Granted, the majority of the time was idle (e.x roasting a bacon for well over an hour). But it is quite a tease with such delicious smells wafting out of the kitchen.  Once the bacon was ready and my salsa was cooling, we turned our attention to tortillas.  This was by far the hardest part of the challenge.  Granted, this was quite the oversight on my part.  I didn’t think that making the tortillas would be difficult, and for the most part they aren’t.  It was getting the tortilla on the pan in one piece that proved to be challenging time and time again.  After several failed attempts we finally had enough tortillas to assemble dinner.  The rest of the taco came together easily and beautifully.  The end result was nothing short of show stopping.  The smoky flavors of the salsa blended so beautifully with the bacon and to top it off, the warm tortilla added a sense of comfort with my dish.  I was amazed at the mouth watering blend of flavors came from my cooking (of course with the help of Chef Stupak).

Bacon Slab tacos

Bacon Slab tacos

One disclaimer I should add to this review of Bacon Slab tacos is that the Salsa Negra is HOT.  I’m a huge fan of spicy food but it should be noted that some people may find the dish inedible because of the heat.  Granted, the cookbook does mention only a thin layer of salsa needs to be added to the tortilla but even what I thought was a thin layer was uncomfortably hot for everyone at dinner.  Also, for those not familiar with cooking Mexican food, more photos with the recipes would help.  There were some moments when I had to guess if I was on the right track with the recipe.

To Cook or Book?

I can’t say this wasn’t one of my favorite challenges thus far.  If I had to choose my top 5 dishes, tacos would definitely be on it.  Espita Mezcaleria’s tacos were delicious, perfectly proportioned and left me feeling satisfied.  Chef Stupak’s taco’s were incredible (once I figured out how much salsa to add) and I was very impressed such complex flavors could develop from someone like me.  I had such a hard time choosing.  I don’t think you could go wrong with either one.  I must say that this week I would have to cook and book it.

Do you have any to cook or book experiences?  Or do you have any challenges that you would like to see us try? Leave me a comment. I would love to hear from you!

Tacos: Recipes and Provocations
Author:  Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: ClarksonPotter
Language: English
ISBN-10: 553447297

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Korean Fried Chicken: Koreatown: A cookbook or BUL

love Korean food. The spices, the attitude, and bold flavors that hit your tastebuds with the first bite. However, coming in to this week’s To cook or book challenge I was quite nervous.  Sure I can appreciate Korean food but could I actually cook it?  In fact I almost wanted to back out of this challenge and go with something I’ve cooked time and time again.

IMG_1122This week’s restaurant  we went to BUL in Adam’s Morgan. Boasting “Korean comfort food”, BUL comes off as an unassuming restaurant in the center of insanity that is known as  Adam’s Morgan (In fact we accidentally walked past the restaurant).  Inside was a cozy restaurant with a full service bar and a second floor loft.  We were quickly seated and given an extensive menu.  Offered as tapas style, the food rolled out in several waves straight from the kitchen.  With grumbling belly’s and huge eyes we started ordering as much food as we could.

The service was fairly quick, even as the customers started steadily filling the restaurant.  Our first dish was the O-crab puffs.  As I started salivating over the crabmeat filled wontons, I had a sinking feeling that I had a bitten of more than I could chew with this cooking challenge on my hands.  The wonton was deep fried to a perfect golden brown, crispy shell and the first bite explodes into your mouth with cream cheese goodness.

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Then came the Bulgogi tacos.  The tacos were soft and warm.  The bulgogi itself was overpowered by the taco filling.  I felt that the meat should be center stage especially since bulgogi has such a distinct flavor that defines Korean cuisine.   The taco dressing delivered a hot punch and brought the dish to life. Then came the headliner, the dish I was here for: Korean Fried Chicken.  We foolishly ordered the full plate thinking we could eat everything we had previously ordered plus what looked like 5 lbs of fried chicken.  The first bite resulted in a resounding “mmmm” from our table.  The batter was light  and the chicken inside cooked perfectly.  With just the right amount of seasoning, each bite released juicy, flavorful chicken in a golden crispy shell.  Each bite had me sweating with nerves, all I could think about was how in the world was I going to compete?

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Korean Fried Chicken

At this point I was very skeptical that I was capable of making any dish comparable to BUL. Flipping through Koreatown: A Cookbook, I became even more and more apprehensive.  Koreatown: A Cookbook embodies Korean culture, from the vibrant neonlights, to the fresh scents of scallions, kimchi,  and the sizzling of barbecued meat.  The book starts with an introduction to common Korean ingredients,  I particularly enjoyed the resources for finding products that may be harder to find.   The recipes are seemingly endless with varying levels of experience (some of which I refuse to go near as of right now).

Koreatown_book_cover

I must confess that I have a secret love affair with my deep fryer so I jump at any chance to use it.  I was so eager to try my hand at my very own Korean fried chicken.  Using soju to keep the batter light and crispy, the ingredients were simple and so were the instructions.  There were two separate sauces as a glaze for the chicken and we went with the soy garlic (Disclaimer: BUL also offers soy garlic KFC which we did not order so I must compare the dishes based solely off the fried chicken)IMG_0711

The prep time was minimal and the instructions were clear and concise (even offering a recommendation in frying options if you have the extra time).   Cook time was appropriate. The outcome was fried chicken that even I was surprised with.  The batter was light and a beautiful golden brown color.  It did not feel as “deep fried” or “greasy” as the restaurant version.  The garlic soy was a show stopper, it added a fresh quality to the dish and added an extra deep component in flavor and texture.  I was so shocked to know I had managed to cook a Korean style dish.

The final product from Koreatown: A cookbook

The final product from Koreatown: A cookbook

To cook or book it ??

This was a tough decision.  I went back and forth (even contemplated making a list of pros and cons). At the end of the day however I must decide solely on the fried chicken.  Both dishes delivered juicy, tender chicken.  However, the crispy batter from BUL really took it to another level.  The dish didn’t require a glaze because each bite left me wanting more.  So for this week I would have to say I’d book a restaurant.

Koreatown:  A cookbook
Author:  Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: ClarksonPotter
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0804186138

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Cacio e Pepe: Cravings or Lupo Verde

I”m so excited to be writing my first post!  If you ever want to know why I decided to blog my cooking/eating adventures you can read it here.  Almost as excited as the prospect of eating Cacio e Pepe for dinner.  I first came across this dish last spring, traveling around Italy.  We came across a bustling restaurant in Trastevere, Rome whose most popular dish according to our server was their Cacio e Pepe.  Now I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, where the restaurant was, or basically anything else that was on the menu.  That’s how mind blowing this dish was.  Before Cacio e Pepe slurped it’s way into my life, I had a severe cheese aversion.  Now I sneak slices of Parmesano Reggiano as “snacks” throughout the day.  That’s how life altering Cacio e Pepe is for me.

The first recipe is from Chrissy Tiegen’s newest endeavour, Cravings.   I’ve been looking forward to this book for quite awhile now.  Mostly because Chrissy Teigen is the supermodel that you envy but would love to be BFFs with.   Mind you however, Cravings is not for those hoping to learn Teigen’s bombshell bod secrets.  It’s exactly as it is titled: it’s all about craving those delicious foods that really hit the spot.  The photos are nothing short of beautiful and mouth watering.  The recipes are rich and decadent, to a point in which I find myself constantly saying “I want to try that”.  As soon as I saw a recipe for Cacio e Pepe I asked my boyfriend if he was in the mood for the dish tonight and was answered with an unfaltering “of course”.CRAVINGS_ChrissyTeigen_highres.0

Slight disclaimer though, we decided to make our on pasta from scratch.  Part of our time in Italy was spent learning to cook and soaking up the culinary culture.  Since then, whenever we have pasta we try to make fresh noodles if we have the time.

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The recipe itself was simple and straightforward.  The ingredients are easy to find and the instructions were clear and concise.  The predicted cook time is pretty accurate to the actual cook time (sans pasta making).  The results were incredible.  Chrissy adds fresh lemon juice giving the dish a lighter feel (regardless of the TONS of delicious Parmesano Reggiano I grated on to my noodles) and the mixed greens added some depth both in flavor and aesthetics.  There was some kick to the dish which was also different from the Cacio e Pepe that I’m used to  but paired nicely with the parmesan cheese.  We devoured our dish within minutes of plating, even sneaking in seconds (guess we won’t need food for lunch tomorrow).  First recipe was a success.

Final product

Final product

Now forgive me for not actually taking a photo of the restaurant take on Cacio e Pepe (rookie mistake I know – I promise it’ll never happen again).  We decided to go to Lupo Verde along the 14th St corridor.  Located in a previous row home, Lupo Verde popped up in the neighborhood two years ago.

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With a great little outdoor seating area that is perfect for people watching, Lupo Verde provides a cozy, rustic Italian atmosphere seating up to 100 people.  There is a bar on each floor of the two story row home and is surrounded by beautiful exposed brick and dim, romantic lighting. The staff are pleasant, even during the insane Saturday dinner rush going on.  We could tell our server was spread too thin but she nevertheless checked in on us regularly and made sure we were always satisfied.

We ordered the Cacio e Pepe.  Decently proportioned, though slightly steep in price.  The dish however fell flat compared to our homemade version.  The pasta was fresh and quite tender.  The taste on the other hand was bland and unimaginative.  Maybe it’s because I prefer my Cacio e Pepe smothered in Parmesan Cheese (and who wouldn’t?), the dish didn’t make me jump up and sing to the pasta gods.  It also lacked in the pepper department and could have used a couple of more turns of the pepper grinder.

To cook it or book it??

Another celebrity cookbook can and will cause eyes to roll but Tiegen’s Cacio e Pepe knocks it out of the park.  Unfortunately, there was no creativity or uniqueness in Lupo Verde’s version.  Easy to make with wonderful results, Cravings brings a fresh, lighter twist to an Italian classic.  When you have to tell your boyfriend to stop picking at the leftovers  you know you have a winner.  This time around, I’d choose to cook it.

Cravings
Author:  Chrissy Teigen
Hardcover: 197 pages
Publisher: ClarksonPotter/Publishers (2016)
Language: English
ISBN-ebook:9781101903926

 

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