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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Chow 101: Vinegar

There’s a range of vinegar out there. Hounds survey the options.

Rice vinegar, made from fermented rice, is mild and slightly sweet. It’s used a lot in Asian cooking.

Balsamic vinegars can be exquisite (and exquisitely expensive). The fancy ones are aged for years in barrels, and are syrupy and sweet. Industrial balsamics are good all-purpose, dark-colored vinegars.

Minus 8 vinegar is made in Canada from grapes picked at -8 degrees centigrade. It’s expensive and hard to find. You can sip this stuff alone like an aperitif, but it’s good with foie gras, and fruit. You’ll find some recipes on their web site.
Champagne, sherry, and red or white wine vinegars are very nice.

Look for “verjus”, a sour liquid made from unripe fruit (mainly grapes). It comes in red or white, and is used like vinegar. It’s light and has the advantage of not clashing with wine (as vinegars do).

Asian markets are a good source of inexpensive vinegars. Try a brown rice vinegar or one of the red vinegars. liu says they all have different personalities.

A few drops of a light vinegar will bring out the flavor of a good olive oil, notes Richard.

Board Links: Balsamic Vinegar

Man, You Know What’s Great? A Grilled Burrito

Mi Pueblo Market has a taqueria, and that taqueria has grilled burritos. And a tortilla grilled is vastly better than a tortilla merely steamed. Inside one carnitas burrito, you’ll find nice big hunks of carnitas plus the usual mix of rice, beans, cheese, guacamole, salsa, and crema. These puppies are huge, like one or two pounds per burrito, and fully half the filling is meat. A single visit made this place a candidate for ron c’s favorite taqueria. It’s certainly one of the best joints around for carnitas. tomritza reports tortas here are even better than burritos.

Several folks think Taqueria La Bamba is also great. Excellent soft tacos, great burritos. Al pastor and lengua are really good. And Peter Yee thinks carnitas here is even better than Mi Pueblo’s carnitas. Also recommended: chile colorado tacos.

Mi Pueblo Market [Peninsula]
40 S. Rengstorff Ave., Mountain View

Taqueria La Bamba [East Bay]
12345 San Pablo Ave., Richmond

Board Links: Mi Pueblo Market (Mtn View)–Burrito Report

Peri Peri Gives Everything Sizzle

Vegetable napoleon might not sound like a native African dish, but it’s tasty stuff–a tower of grilled vegetables layered with gooey mozzarella and fresh spinach, topped with tomatoes, onions, and a pomegranate dressing.

A salad featuring peppadrops (a hybrid of teardrop tomatoes and bell peppers) includes field greens and red cabbage, drizzled with a simple dressing of oil, vinegar and peri peri, a Mozambican chile pepper that’s also used in a classic hot sauce. The peppadrops are slightly spicy but exceptionally sweet–like candy.

Durban curry is a fabulous red stew with lamb and vegetables that comes with two chutneys, one hot and one sweet. Also on the side is a mixture of tomatoes, onions, and banana to cool your mouth if it gets overheated (although the curry is only medium spicy).

Rib-eye steak (18 oz, bone in) gets coated with peri peri sauce and grilled medium rare, and the kick of the pepper enhances the meat.

For dessert, white chocolate and banana bread pudding is a beautiful mixture of the pudding, fresh berries, whipped cream, and chopped macadamia nuts.

Dinner for two runs $125 with tax. Durban curry is $24, rib-eye steak $36, vegetable napoleon $8.50, salad $12 and bread pudding $8.50.

It’s a stylish place, dark and clubby inside. An interesting drink selection (there’s a full bar) includes the Drunken Elephant (vodka, Amarula fruit liqueur, and Frangelico) and the cocktails tend to be strong.

Tip: Use the valet and save yourself the stress that is trying to park in Laguna Beach. Valet is only $5.

Mozambique Restaurant [OC Beaches]
1740 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Agate, Laguna Beach

Board Links: Road Trip Review: Mozambique–Laguna Beach, CA

Cozying Up to an Italian

When it comes to romantic, cozy Italian restaurants, Pasadena dwellers are lucky enough to have two top-notch choices. Trattoria Tre Venezie is intimate and candlelit, with handmade food of the Veneto region. However–romance and regional cuisine ain’t cheap, at least here.

Celestino boasts gnocchi that haunts the dreams of ipse dixit, they’re’s so rich and creamy. But it’s the rapini pasta with sausage that’s out of this world, says petra: a creamy, vibrant green sauce with tiny morsels of pork on strozzapreti. Not a dish you’ll find often, if anywhere in this town.

Chowhound fave La Buca is small (VERY small) and romantic–if you don’t need a lot of elbow or leg room.

La Luna is consistently tasty as well as romantic and very comfortable, says JJ, who’s never had a bad meal there.

Il Buco has a real Italian feel about it, and offers a good selection of pastas, gnocchi, and mains.

Less romantic, but a great neighborhood place, is Il Forno. There are some duds on the menu, but when you get the good stuff it’s like hitting a home run. Start with the tomato-garlic bruschetta–the bread is nothing special, but the crazy garlicky-vinegary flavor really makes it.

Radicchio-romaine salad with pecans, balsamic vinegar and a stellar dry-aged ricotta is lovely, and the house Caesar (with anchovies) is super. Minestrone soup is just okay.

If you spot veal ravioli with creamy tomato sauce on the specials menu, pounce. It’s too good to get away. Spinach-ricotta ravioli are fluffy and delectable; so are gnocchi with pesto and vegetables. But rigatoni with tomato-meat sauce is good-not-great, and capellini with scampi is an outright dud–puny shrimp and not much flavor.

Note to wine lovers and bargain hunters: if you buy a bottle of wine at Wine Expo, there’s no corkage at Il Forno.

Trattoria Tre Venezie [Pasadena-ish]
119 W. Green St., DeLacey Ave., Pasadena

Celestino [Pasadena-ish]
141 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena

La Buca [Hollywood]
5210 1/2 Melrose Ave., West of Wilton, Los Angeles

La Luna Ristorante [Larchmont Village]
113 N. Larchmont Blvd., 1st St., Los Angeles

Il Buco Pizzeria Restaurant [Beverly Hills]
107 N. Robertson Blvd., Wilshire, Beverly Hills

Il Forno Caffe & Pizzeria [Beaches]
2901 Ocean Park Blvd. #109, 29th St., Santa Monica

Board Links: La Buca.
Celestino–PK’s Review

Alleva Dairy: In Little Italy, An Unsung Hero

For most fans of Alleva, it’s about the cheese. But the venerable Little Italy latticini (established 1892) also makes nice, hefty sandwiches with good cured meats and cheeses (its own and others’) on tasty sesame rolls. They top out at $7 for the Italian combo (prosciutto, soppressata, cheese), plus a buck or so for add-ons like sun-dried tomato or roasted peppers. If your timing is right, you can peer through the window on Mulberry and watch a guy pulling mozzarella by hand.

Alleva’s food and service have won over stuartlafonda, a 20-year devotee of neighboring Italian Food Center. But the other reason he defected was a troubling downhill trend at his onetime favorite across Mulberry Street. For example, stuart reports, peppers are straight from the bottle, not roasted in-house, and the default prosciutto is a cheaper Canadian substitute, not the real prosciutto di Parma (which commands a premium of a couple bucks). If that weren’t enough, he adds, Italian Food Center now advertises that it serves sushi. “That is sad,” he laments.

Alleva Dairy [Little Italy]
188 Grand St., at Mulberry, Manhattan

Italian Food Center [Little Italy]
186 Grand St., at Mulberry, Manhattan

Board Links: Best Italian Heros in Manhattan

Cranberry-Walnut Rapture at New Rochelle’s Bread Factory

New Rochelle’s Bread Factory, already on hound radar for its crusty-chewy onion baguettes, among other things, scores again with its scrumptious cranberry-walnut bread. “The best stuff!” exclaims Pat Hammond, who recommends it in either loaves or baguettes, but favors the latter for its cheese-friendly size. “The whole place has sort of an old-time feel to it. It’s such fun going in there…bread piled up everywhere! And you smell the fragrance as you approach.” Also recommended: croissants (plain or almond) and breadsticks, chewy outside and agreeably soft inside.

The Bread Factory [Westchester County]
30 Grove Ave., near Warren St., New Rochelle

Board Links: The Bread Factory, New Rochelle

The Perfect Lemon and Lime Squeezer

You must buy yourself a hand-held enameled cast aluminum citrus squeezer, say hounds. These things are quick, efficient, handy, inexpensive…everything you’d want from a kitchen gadget.

Here’s how they work: there’s a cup into which you fit a half lemon or lime, and two long handles which push together with a lever action, pressing a reamer down on the fruit and literally turning it inside out, extracting every bit of juice, while leaving seeds and pulp behind.

These gizmos are sold in color-coded sizes (i.e., a small green ones for limes, larger yellow for lemons), but chowhounds overwhelmingly agree that the yellow version is all that’s needed for both fruits (indeed, some limes are too big to fit the lime-sized squeezer).

They’re sold at many cookware and housewares stores for around $11-13. Mexican grocers often sell less-expensive, non-enameled versions.

Link to buy.

Board Links: Cast iron citrus squeezer -do they work?

Orange Flower Water

Orange flower water is an intoxicatingly aromatic infusion of–you guessed it–orange blossoms in water. It’s produced largely in Lebanon and France. Used judiciously, it adds a wonderful je ne sais quois to food and drinks. Here are some ideas for how to use it.

Try adding a little orange blossom water to your favorite iced tea, for a lovely aroma, suggests Jupiter. Jim Leff notes that orange blossoms are an essential ingredient in Moroccan-style mint tea.

Marsha shares her recipe for a version of Ramos Gin Fizz with orange flower water: For 2 drinks, mix 1.5 oz fresh lemon juice, 2 tsp powdered sugar, and 2 tsp bar sugar well in a shaker. Add cracked ice, and the following, in this order: 3 oz gin, 1 egg white, 4 oz milk, and 10-12 drops orange flower water. Shake very thoroughly, and serve in fizz glasses.

Orange flower water goes wonderfully with fresh fruit. Splash a little on a citrus salad (along with some fresh mint), or add to simple syrup for drizzling over fruit.

Orange flower water also lends a subtle, haunting flavor to custards–try adding a couple teaspoons to ice cream, panna cotta, or rice pudding recipes.

In baking, orange flower water is especially good added to the syrup for baklava (Jupiter); and in brownies with orange zest and cinnamon (eaters will never guess the “mystery” ingredient, says Fleur).

Claudia Roden’s “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food,” includes a wonderfully refreshing salad of green lettuce and sliced oranges, simply dressed with olive oil, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juices, and a bit of orange flower water.

Orange flower water can often be found at specialty and Middle Eastern groceries, or order online.

Board Links: Orange Blossom Water

New Dumpling Contenders

Having eaten xiao long bau (also known as soup dumplings) all over China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, Eric Stone agrees with the hounds who love those at Din Tai Fung. But the xlb at Q Noodle House, a Taiwanese place in San Gabriel Square, he says, are his new favorite. The key: an excellent balance of dough, filling and juice.

Sadly, other stuff isn’t as good–noodle soup with shredded pork and preserved vegetable is good-not-great, and the potstickers “can’t make up their mind if they want to be gyoza or Shanghainese fried dumplings.” And if you want vegetables with your xlb, nothing compares to Din Tai Fung’s green beans.

A new place inside the San Gabriel Superstore offers excellent chicken potstickers, usually native to the Americanized Chinese restaurants of the Westside or San Fernando Valley. “Up to this point in time the designation of best chicken potstickers and fried dumplings in Los Angeles is akin to winning the title of the tallest midget in the circus,” says Chandavkl. The ones at Yum Cha, though, have super-tasty filling, good wrappers and come four for $1.50.

For regular potstickers (and very good xlb), Mei Long Village is a good spot.

Q Noodle House [San Gabriel Valley]
140 W. Valley Blvd., in 99 Ranch Market plaza, San Gabriel

Q Noodle House [Inland of LA]
18930 Gale Ave., Rowland Heights

Q Noodle House [Pasadena-ish]
148 E. Duarte Rd., Arcadia

Yum Cha [San Gabriel Valley]
inside San Gabriel Superstore
1635 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel

Mei Long Village Restaurant
301 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel
626-284 4769

Board Links: Dumpling Contender
Best Chicken Potstickers

Q Up for Chicken and Kabobs

Inside Q Market are two meat departments, kosher and halal, and a tempting kabob stand. The halal side’s chicken is the best Smiling Ed says he’s found. They’ve also got lamb brains. In general, it’s a Persian market (stock up on saffron from Iran), and worth exploring.

Q Market & Produce Market [East San Fernando Valley]
17259 Vanowen St., between Balboa and White Oak, Van Nuys

Board Links: Q Market