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July 30, 2009

Dorado Tacos & Cemitas

Asiatico Fish Taco Dominic Armato

Today, I'm going to do something I try very, very, very hard not to do. I'm going to jump all over a place that just opened. There's nothing even remotely fair about it. But here's the full disclosure: this afternoon, a couple of (new) pals and I hit Dorado Tacos & Cemitas less than 24 hours after it first opened its doors for business. In my defense, I couldn't help myself. I've been desperately seeking a place for great cemitas since leaving Chicago two years ago, and I've been craving a good fish taco since bailing on Los Angeles back in 2001. So when a new spot opens just ten minutes away from home featuring both of those items, how am I expected to stay away while they iron out the kinks?

For such a small place, Dorado has been met with an awful lot of fanfare. Chef Douglas Organ seems to have earned a devoted little following during his time at Cafe D, and tales of his excellent fish tacos abound online. So with a grand opening announcement from Daily Candy and Chowhound and Twitter all... um... atwitter, last night was reportedly a mob scene, with long waits and customers turned away. We arrived today at 12:30, expecting a snaking line out the door, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that it was busy, but by no means overtaxed. It's a little corner taco joint -- significantly brighter, cleaner and more modern than where I'm accustomed to acquiring my tacos -- with counters along two windows and a couple of large tables that can seat six or so. Though the menu features a number of non-fish tacos, as well as rotisserie chicken and the obligatory upscale taqueria salad, our order was never in question. Fish tacos. All of them. And a couple of cemitas. The tacos are currently taking about 15 minutes to come up, which will irritate some, but all this says to me is that the fish isn't hitting the fryer until after you order. This is a good thing, guys. Don't rush them. So after a short wait I was all too happy to endure, we dug in.

Dorado Fish TacoDominic Armato

The fish tacos come in three varieties, Ensenada, Dorado and Asiatico. They're all minor variations on a theme -- battered and crisply fried whitefish, creamy sauce and some manner of green vegetable -- and though their differences aren't quite as distinct as I'd like, they're all quite good. The Ensenada is what I've always thought of as "traditional" (only due to the fact that I was introduced to them in Southern California), with shredded cabbage, a bit of pico de gallo, a few slivers of lightly pickled onion and a rich, cool crema on top. Our first was a little wanting. Thankfully, the second helping we went back for included the slice of lime missing on the first, which made all the difference. Beautifully fried fish, hot and crisp, with cool and fresh accompaniments. The Dorado added some radish and cilantro to the mix, as well as a healthy shot of chipotle in the crema, and the Asiatico sported another manner of spicy crema with slices of daikon radish and made more of a ginger-infused slaw out of the cabbage. I didn't get as much ginger out of the Asiatico's cabbage as I would have liked, but this is a minor complaint. Though I've had better, these were pretty darn good fish tacos. Or they would have been, if not for one glaring flaw I had a really hard time getting past.

Ensenada Fish TacoDominic Armato

The tortillas are a problem. If you've ever questioned the importance of those unassuming little discs of pressed masa, these tacos could serve as Exhibit A. For starters, they're too thick. I know two tortillas is how one eats tacos, and that's certainly my usual MO, but after my first two bites, I pitched the second tortilla. The filling was just getting lost. Secondly, and more importantly, they're dry and a little rubbery. They need to be something -- fresher, moister, more oily, lightly griddled -- there are a lot of ways it could go. The menu touts them as organic white corn, and I'd trade them for light and moist and cooked up in a test tube in a heartbeat. The fish is great. The toppings are very nice. The tortillas are dragging them down. And here's where I need to point out that, hey, they've only been open for 24 hours. Maybe the previous night's rush killed their supply and these were acquired from some alternate source. I don't know. But if this is how they're intended to be served, it's a problem. I'm told that this isn't a tortilla town, and that the abundance of beautiful, fresh tortillas to which I've become accustomed simply might not be an option around these parts. Possible. And sad, if true. But I find it hard to believe that somebody, somewhere in the city isn't cranking out some good fresh ones. At least I hope somebody is.

Cemita MilanesaDominic Armato

Simultaneously buoyed by lovely fillings and frustrated by mediocre tortillas, we moved onto the cemitas. And here, to be fair, I'm kind of begging for disappointment. The first cemita I ever tasted was at Cemitas Puebla in Chicago. I really enjoyed their cemita milanesa the first time I tried it, and my love and appreciation for it only grew with each subsequent visit. Really, it's an impossible standard. So with that in mind, let me say that I was greatly disappointed by Dorado's cemita milanesa. Between a toasted sesame roll there was avocado, a bit of Oaxaca cheese (could've used more, actually), fresh cilantro and a very thin layer of beans that accompanied the main attraction, a fried pork cutlet that, while nicely seasoned, probably needed to be thinner and definitely needed to be crisper. The glaring omission, however, were the chipotles en adobo, common on cemitas and referred to on the menu but not present in any form I could discern. The sandwich desperately needed precisely what they would provide: smoky heat and a little vinegar. I even asked one of the fellows about it, to see if I could acquire a little more (or any, really), and was told in puzzling fashion that the adobo was "kind of an all-together thing" before being directed to a bottle of Cholula... no substitute. Again, perhaps they were tapped out after the previous night's madness. But surely that would have been a better reply than the sort-of-no I received. Without, it was an okay sandwich, if somewhat flat, but a mere shadow of what I knew it could be. With the chorizo cemita, we fared a little better, given that the chorizo had some heat and sourness built in. Still, though, nothing I could get excited about.

Perhaps these are all issues that will be ironed out. They could certainly all be attributed to opening jitters. And even if they aren't, I'll be back. The fish tacos are craveworthy even on a substandard platform and far better than anything I've tasted in a long time. To be clear, this is the kind of criticism borne of frustration that they're juuuust missing. With some good chipotles, either pickled or in adobo, the cemitas could be very good. The fish tacos are already good, and with some better tortillas, they could be great. I'm hoping they get there, and I'll be back to find out. Expect an update.

Dorado Tacos & Cemitas
401 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 10:00 PM

July 23, 2009

Boston Meetup?

Taiwanese Style Fish at Grace Garden Dominic Armato

Any Boston-area folks interested in a little Taiwanese this Saturday?

Short notice, I know, but I'm meeting a friend at JoJo Tai Pei for dinner at 9:00 on Saturday. I'd love to meet some local food nerds, and these types of outings are always better with a crowd.

Standard chow gathering rules apply. We show up, we order way too much food, everybody shares and we split the bill. Drop me a line if you're interested!

(NOTE: Taiwanese fish pictured above not actually from JoJo Tai Pei. Haven't been there yet, so no photos!)

UPDATE: A tasty dinner (post soon), but more importantly, great company and a warm welcome to Boston. Thanks to the folks who came out, and for anybody else in the area who wasn't able to make it tonight, we'll do this again... soon!

July 22, 2009

Top Chef Masters Episode 6 - Postmortem

Awwww... Christmas for everybody except Michael Cimarusti, and the old battleship is the only one who can't fully embrace the spirit of giving. And bearing in mind that no fish for the seafood specialist is as nefarious as our secret shoppers got this evening, can you imagine the train wreck this challenge would be with the usual field of Top Chef contestants? *shudder*

And thusly, all of Hubert Keller's dashing silhouettes are filled and we move onto the finals, with Chicago representing a third of the finalists, which I'd feel better about if Art Smith didn't rub me the wrong way. The guy could be the sweetest fella in the world. But every time I see him on television, whether by virtue of his words or the edit, I find myself saying, you know, Art, I'd like to hear a lot less about who you've cooked for and a lot more about what you've cooked.

So let's review:

  • Hubert Keller
  • Suzanne Tracht
  • Rick Bayless
  • Anita Lo
  • Michael Chiarello
  • Art Smith

My money's on Keller or Lo. Lo beacuse she totally smoked the opening round. Keller because I can't say no to that radiant silver mane. Plus: ability to use dorm shower for good rather than evil. Dark horse? Tracht. Critics love them some understated brilliance.

Whaddya think?

July 21, 2009


Whipped Ricotta with Fig Preserves Dominic Armato

Consider it official. We've landed in Boston, our stuff is here, our cars are here, our kids are here, we've had our first night out on the town and we're a couple of drivers' licenses away from full-on state recognition. And in a shocking development, in our first two weeks in our new town, we've managed as many kidless nights on the town as we did our entire first year in Baltimore. I don't think I'm exaggerating. With an unexpected last-minute opportunity to jump into Boston's dining scene last weekend, I found myself scurrying. I hadn't yet done any research or sought any suggestions. I knew enough to know that O Ya will be our first special night out excursion, but where to go late on a Saturday when you aren't looking for a big production but still want to do something a little exciting? Enter Sportello. The first thing that popped into my head was a Saveur article from a couple of months prior, "12 Restaurants That Matter", that described Barbara Lynch's newish trendy pasta joint in rather glowing terms. Casual, open late, comfort (for us) food... perfect.

Sunchoke SoupDominic Armato

Despite expecting casual, I was a little taken aback by just how casual it was. Half of the tiny restaurant's seats are along its snaking counter, with most of the rest along one long, communal table in the window. The interior actually struck me as sort of Japanese, in that it's very small, very cramped, very clean, and very design-conscious. It's gleaming white above and chocolate brown below with ultramodern furniture, a cramped Jetsons diner where the kitchen, dining room and small retail bakery all share space. The late hour (and our late arrival -- if you accidentally get on the Mass Pike downtown, you're not getting off until you hit Cambridge, apparently) meant that we didn't get much of a look at the bakery, even though the only way for me to reach my seat was to be led behind the counter. The menu's fairly small and largely pasta-centric, with a smattering of starters and a few entrees that are mysteriously mislabeled "primi" on the website. No matter. So long as the food's delicious, they can call the dishes whatever they want. We had a little wine, smeared our rosemary-raisin bread with some whipped ricotta and fig preserves, and settled in for dinner.

Pork TonnatoDominic Armato

My ladylove's starter was a sunchoke soup with brown butter and truffle. Upon first taste, the most we could say was that it was hot. Really hot. Like, McDonald's coffee lawsuit hot. Some might consider this a positive -- it certainly beats cold -- but different flavors come out at different temperatures, and at this temperature it just came across as watery. After letting it sit for a good 10-15 minutes, it was not only more approachable but more tasty as well. Still, I found it a little lacking. I wasn't looking for a bowl of sunchoke-flavored cream, but either a little more richness or a little more intensity would have been appreciated. I was completely unable to resist the Pork Tonnato. Vitello Tonnato is one of my favorite dishes, where a mayonnaisey tuna sauce tops chilled slices of cooked veal. Here, the sauce was smeared alongside a few tangles of chilled pork and topped with tiny croutons, shaved fennel and some manner of microgreen. The pork was lovely, tender, moist and slightly pink. The accompaniments lacked the pungency of the traditional version, which worked for me, but the tuna sauce had taken a back seat, which didn't. Underutilized tuna aside, however, fine dish -- light and refreshing.

Corn Risotto with ChanterellesDominic Armato

After my ladylove selected the pasta dish that had most piqued my interest, I deferred to Plan B, a seasonal special not listed on the online menu. My corn risotto with chanterelles, pancetta and parmesan, however, was a lot more exciting to the eye than it was to the tongue. It's a great combination of flavors and most of the components were executed with the utmost precision (I'd like to know how they achieved those paper-thin, perfectly crisp ribbons of pancetta -- it's something I've been trying to do myself), but I had two major points of contention here. First, the texture struck me as all wrong. I don't expect risotto to be a thick, cheesy mess, but this felt more like wet rice. More importantly, like the soup, it was extremely lightweight on flavor -- even more so. I try very hard to avoid hyperbole, but I really had to stop for a moment and wonder if they'd prepared the risotto with water. I can only conclude that they used an incredibly light vegetable stock. Had it been something like a really intense corn stock this dish might have been a winner. But as it was served, it was a huge disappointment -- a bowl of rice with some flavorful garnish on top, saved from complete disaster by the fantastic texture imparted by the pop of fresh kernels of corn and the crisp pancetta.

Mustard Leaf AgnolottiDominic Armato

And with that, I would have permanently crossed Sportello off the list if not for my ladylove's pasta. The mustard leaf agnolotti with lamb, favas and rapini was absolutely dynamite. A lovely stuffed pasta was piled in a bowl along with braised greens, shaved parmesan, bright green favas, huge chunks of tender lamb and large slivers of garlic, but what made the dish was the inch of lamb jus in the bottom. Here was the intensity of flavor that we were missing earlier. The dish was still exceptionally light, but the flavor was big, and that made all the difference. Ironically, you could ditch the pasta altogether, grab a huge chunk of crusty bread and the dish would be almost as successful. What this says about Lynch's pasta chops, I'm not sure, but who cares? I'll come back for this dish alone, if for no other reason than so I can have a bowl to myself.

Reading around the 'net, Sportello has some seriously mixed reviews, and even based on one meal, it's not hard to see why. If I'd only had the soup and risotto, I'd have felt the place was a total waste of time and money. If I'd stopped in for lunch and just had the agnolotti with lamb, I'd be vowing to come back and try every single dish on the menu. At this price point ($20+ for pastas), you should expect some level of consistency and on that basis it's hard not to criticize. But any kitchen that can turn out that agnolotti deserves some attention, even if you have to wade through the menu to find the items that hit. I say start there, branch out... and then let me know what else hits so I can order that on MY next visit.

348 Congress Street
Boston, MA 02210
Mon - Sat11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM

July 19, 2009

Farewell to Baltimore

Little Italy Dominic Armato

Two years is a frustrating amount of time to spend someplace. It's a little too long to treat it as temporary, but long enough that you start to feel at home just about the time you're packing up to leave. Such was the case with Baltimore, which treated us pretty darn well for the couple of years we spent there. There are a lot of things we'll miss -- our neighbors and friends foremost -- but there are some foods that will be difficult to replace as well.

Steamed CrabsDominic Armato

Naturally, I'm going to miss Maryland's signature steamed blue crabs, so beloved that they appear (less steamed) on my driver's license. There's truly nothing like attacking a pile of sweet, steaming hot crabs and leaving nothing but chitinous carnage and empty beer bottles behind. I consumed them at tourist meccas like Obrycki's and sleepy little dockside joints like the Hard Yacht Club, but my go-to place became Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn, for its old-school charm, always fresh (if rarely local) crabs and house spice blend that is similar to but smoother and mellower than Old Bay. It's a tattered but beloved Barcalounger of a restaurant, helmed by Mr. Bill's son and a waitstaff that's been there forever, and even if the crabs could be duplicated outside of Maryland (doubtful), the scene definitely could not. When family and friends came to visit, this is where we took them for crabs. Next time, whenever that may be, we'll be the visitors.

Attman's PastramiDominic Armato

Deli isn't exactly a signature Baltimore food, but Baltimore has a helluva good one in Attman's. My arteries may have been cursed, but I still feel blessed to have had this third-generation joint around the corner for the past two years. Their corned beef was one of the first meats my son ever tried, and the fellas behind the counter practically watched him grow up, slipping him more smiles and free cookies than I can count. Most of the deli staples are there, but Attman's is most notable for the fact that they know their way around a brisket -- roasted, corned or smoked. I loved the intense, smoky pastrami on anything. I could eat piles of their smooth, mellow chopped liver, especially with corned beef, mustard and onions as part of the Gay Liveration sandwich. At one point, I settled into the Nosh on Rye as a favorite, which combined the excellent corned beef with the lush, satiny brisket plus cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing. But as much as the great sandwiches -- if not more -- I loved that it was a true neighborhood joint, stuffed with people sucking in their guts as they tried to squeeze their way to the back of the very, very long line during the lunch rush. This was another place that was home, and I'll miss being waited on, waited on, waited on.

Rinconcito Peruano's CevicheDominic Armato

I'm also going to miss some neighborhood haunts that are less thought of as Baltimore institutions. Among them is Rinconcito Peruano, a humble little family-run joint that brought me back to my whirlwind trip to South America. I'll miss sitting down to salty cancha and sweet, refreshing chicha morada. Succulent Pollo alla Brasa with fried yuca, tangy Lomo Saltado and the occasional Cuy Frito were all favorites, but the dish I'll really miss is the always outstanding fish ceviche, fresh, clean and spicy with onions, corn, sweet potatoes and crunchy cancha strewn throughout. A place worth supporting on the food alone, it was made more so by Luz, and impossibly friendly and welcoming woman who would constantly shuttle between the kitchen and dining room with a huge grin and recommendations for anybody anxious to explore a cuisine unfamiliar to many. And when she sensed that I needed a break from the little fella, she'd set him down with her grandson's toy truck, or slap him on her hip and carry him around while taking orders and serving food, insisting, despite my protestations, that I should take a few minutes to enjoy my lunch.

Tortilleria Sinaloa's TortillasDominic Armato

Tortilleria Sinaloa is, on the other hand, almost universally beloved in Baltimore. I was actually in the minority when it came to their tacos, preferring the succulent stewed meats of Palomino's across the street, the griddled tortillas and salty meats of Il Taquito to the East, and the lightly crisped tongue and vibrant salsa verde of Las Palmas to the West. But what was unimpeachable was the tortillas, freshly made on site every morning, sold in paper-wrapped bundles no smaller than a kilo, hot and steamy and impossible to resist on the way home. No less outstanding are the chips -- made from the same -- light and crisp and layered like a fine pastry. They were a regular stop on nights I cooked Mexican food and those light, fluffy tortillas have spoiled me. Going back will be a major adjustment.

Faidley's Haddock SandwichDominic Armato

I was also surprised and thrilled by Baltimore's markets, permanent and temporary. Lexington Market is the oldest and grandest of Baltimore's public markets, and in addition to the typical produce, meat and specialty foods, it's home to such iconic foods as Pollock Johnny's, Berger's Bakery and Faidley's, the last of which is the purveyor of one of my favorite foods. The crabcakes? No. I dig 'em, and as my first Baltimore crabcakes they were a revelation at the time, but there's better to be had. The first time I went to Faidley's, I asked the woman behind the counter what she liked best. "Fish," she told me. At the time, I thought this was incredibly -- perhaps intentionally -- unhelpful, since Faidley's serves seafood almost exclusively. But as I'd later discover, she was probably genuinely trying to steer me in the right direction. There's crab, clams, shrimp, sure, and most of these are good... but the fried fish sandwiches, especially the haddock sandwich, are second to none. Nothing fancy, it's just a huge slab of hot and crisp on the outside, tender and moist on the inside fried haddock served between a couple slices of white bread. The cole slaw and hot sauce are my own modifications. It's a sandwich the thought of which inspires sudden, intense cravings, and the fact that it's served in a market steeped in history and an integral part of its neighborhood makes it even tastier.

JFX Farmer's MarketDominic Armato

Even dearer to my heart, however, is the JFX farmers market. The world is full of many fine open-air markets, but this is one of the best I've encountered. Tucked under the highway every Sunday for eight months out of the year, what makes this market so special isn't its selection (extensive) or its quality (exceptional), but its patrons. These aren't tiny tables with limited stock priced sky high for people who can afford to spend $5 on a tomato (not that there's anything wrong with that). This is a market that the entire city enjoys -- one where people of diverse backgrounds do real shopping, carting away piles of food to get them through the week. It's one of the most bustling, energetic farmers markets I've seen, and it's given me such delights as dynamite fried mushrooms, bushels of soft shell crabs, piles of heirloom tomatoes of every variety and some darn good coffee, just for starters. I haven't yet explored Boston's farmers market scene, but I'll be shocked if it can provide anything on par with Baltimore's JFX market.

Piedigrotta's Meat PieDominic Armato

Of course, nothing's more special than a restaurant where the proprietors become true friends, and the two places I'll miss the most fall squarely into that category. When we first moved into the neighborhood, I decided to make it policy not to write about the restaurants of Little Italy until after we left. So it's with great pleasure that I can finally break my silence on Piedigrotta. My family's first experience with Piedigrotta was a quick cookie stop, when half of the husband/wife team, Bruna Iannacone, made my son laugh like I'd never heard before and have only rarely heard since. During our tenure in Baltimore, they moved around the corner into a bigger, incredibly cute space where customers can linger over their sweets and savories in a cozy atmosphere. Their claim to fame is the tiramisu, which Bruna's husband Carminantonio is reputed to have invented (it's a long story, but let's just say I don't doubt it for a second). But as dynamite as the cakes and cookies may be, I always found myself enjoying Bruna's savories just as much, if not more. It's homey, comforting Italian counter fare that's far more delicious than most of the full-service restaurants that surround it. Eggplant parmesan is luscious and tomatoey. Stuffed pastas like the spinach manicotti are among my son's favorites, grilled panini are simple and delicious and the spinach fritatta is hit with just a hint of jalapeno, making it non-canonically delicious. But I have a soft spot for the meat pie, a gooey mess of prosciutto cotto, mortadella and sausage suspended in a melty mix of cheeses and stuffed in a flaky crust that's actually fairly sweet -- a very welcome surprise. I ate it so much that Bruna finally stopped serving it to me, insisting I have something else, which is a good thing because otherwise I would have missed so many other great items. Most of the dishes are served up with a little bit of fruit, and when my son finished the strawberries on his plate, it wasn't uncommon for an entire pint to suddenly show up on the table, shortly before he was smothered with hugs and kisses from the Italian grandmother serving him. This is a true family place, run by a couple of absolutely wonderful people. The food is homey, comforting and wonderful, and we'll miss it almost as much as we'll miss the Iannacones.

Grace Garden's Fish NoodlesDominic Armato

The other Baltimore food family that will always be special to me are the Lis, Chun and Mei and their two kids, of Grace Garden down in Odenton. When my friends and I first walked into Grace Garden, it was an unknown little strip mall joint serving Sweet Sour Pork and Kung Pao Chicken carryout to the denizens of Fort Meade across the street. But it also boasted an ambitious menu of traditional Cantonese and Sichuan cuisine, and thanks to Frequent Crasher (who first outed them on Chowhound), we quickly discovered that this was not only the real deal, but an example thereof that would have impressed me if I'd eaten it on the other side of the Pacific. What followed was a meteoric rise to local culinary acclaim that couldn't have happened to more deserving folks. I've already filled two long posts with the fabulous foods of Chun's wok, and I could easily fill four more. Despite hailing from Hong Kong, Chef Li is incredibly well-versed in Sichuan cuisine, and I found myself amazed by Sichuan pork belly with rice powder, steamed in a lotus leaf and bursting with flavor. I crave fiery Sichuan fish fillets with the citrusy buzz of Sichuan peppercorns, the comforting spice of his Ma Po Dofu, the spicy, vinegary tang of the Peacock Chicken or the bold and balanced aggressiveness of what we lovingly named the Triple T -- chilled tongue, tendon and tripe in a Sichuan sauce. But while popular opinion seems to be that his Sichuan preparations comprise the more interesting potion of his menu, I'm of the opinion that his Cantonese dishes, though more subtle in flavor, are every bit their equal. Smoked Tea Duck, braised pork belly with mui choy, velvety Hong Kong style curry, simple steamed fish, dynamite all. But the best example of Chef Li's formidable technique and remarkable ability to balance flavors is probably the now famous fish noodles, tender and spongy with ginger, mushroom and slivered Chinese sausage for punch. It's been an amazing year for the Lis, but even more heartwarming than their food has been the looks on their faces as people have flocked to their tiny restaurant, not for the Americanized dishes, but for the traditional menu that they have so painstakingly crafted. The boost in business is wonderful, to be sure, but it seems that Chef Li derives even more joy simply from knowing that people are now coming for his food, his work, and that his talents are being appreciated in a way they weren't before. The Lis are kind and gracious folks, it's truly my honor to have played a small part in their recent success, and not only will I be pining for their creations, but I'll miss them terribly, too.

So consider this my love letter to the foods of Baltimore. There are many ways to experience a city, and I suppose it's only fitting that I met most of the people I'll miss through its foods, both those who prepared it for me and those -- like so many from Charm City Hounds and Don Rockwell -- who shared it with me. Leaving your hometown is never easy. But the places I mention above, and the people who frequented them with me, are what made Baltimore feel like home if only for a little while.

Thanks, guys. We'll come back to visit whenever we can.