Monday, May 21, 2012

On Hamburgers

Hamburgers are perhaps the quintessential American food.  They are a staple of summer barbecues and fast food joints, they have restaurant chains devoted to them, and they can be found at “American” restaurants the world over.  Even high-end restaurants serve them.  Everyone knows what a hamburger is, but there are a million ways to make them, and everyone has their own preferences (the Husband prefers a 70%-30% mixture of ground beef and ground pork).  There's a lot to be said for the lowly hamburger: when made well, they're flavorful and moist (unless you subscribe to the theory that to be properly cooked something must be charred into shoe leather), and can carry a range of toppings and additions to create variety and excitement.  But a good hamburger can also stand on it's own.  I can't say I'm exactly a hamburger connoisseur, but I have had a few in my time.  All are different, but the following places all serve a mean hamburger and good sides.

Dick's is a small chain in Seattle, Washington.  It's been years since I've been to a Dick's, but they're open late (10:30am until 2am), they don't have indoor seating (a few tables in the parking lot; the entire building is the kitchen), and the food is always hot and fresh.  They're quite popular for post-clubbing (my visits) and post-prom/homecoming dances (encountered while there post-clubbing).  Apparently they're also quite popular during the day, when businessmen go there for lunch, at least according to those who frequent Dick's during more traditional hours (i.e. my parents).  The burgers are basic and not very big, and the bags of fries aren't either, but again, it's all hot, fresh, and tasty, and the price sure is right.  The chocolate shakes are also tasty.  Plus, if you're in Seattle for any amount of time, Dick's is one of those famous local places  you should visit.

Drive down the road a bit to Tacoma and you'll encounter Frugals, if you're crazy enough to stop in Parkland/Spanaway for some reason (or if you attend Pacific Lutheran University, which is about 5 minutes away when there's no traffic).  Apparently, Frugals is also a chain, which I just found out (three in Western Washington, one in Montana, and one in Minnesota). Frugals is even smaller than a Dick's, as it's a double drive-thru location.  As such, there's no inside area for customers, but Frugals doesn't even have it's own parking lot, and I believe the lone picnic table is for the employees when they're on break.  Frugals is a small, shiny metal hut with a drive up window on either side, and is located on Pacific Avenue and an entrance/exit ramp for Hwy 512 (convenient for road trips).  The staff is occasionally surly to each other, and the burgers can be plain or come with some nice toppings (swiss and mushroom), but nothing too outrageous.  All tasty, and their shakes are phenomenal.  I'm not sure what's in them or how they're made, but they're wonderful, and the über-sized one is great to keep you from being too bored on that 4 hour drive down to Eugene (it usually lasted to about Vancouver, which means it got me through the most boring bits of the drive, which is everything between Olympia and Vancouver).  Even melted, they're good.  Not too thick, they can be sucked through a straw immediately without too much effort, but they might even improve as they sit for a while.

The hamburger joint that truly inspired this post, however, is a place called Gott's, which has three locations, but I've only been to the one in Napa (the others are in St. Helena and San Francisco).  It's also the place that caused an $80 lunch for four people (worth it).  Napa is expensive, folks.  Located right next to the Oxbow Market, they get a line at lunch time.  It's worth your wait though, and the expense, if not every day.  I think they do basic hamburgers there, but I got suckered into one that had all my favorites on it: the Western Bacon Blue Ring.  Blue cheese, bacon, onion ring (though for me, onion straws will also suit), red onions, pickles, and barbecue sauce.  It was big, and it was hot, and it was tasty (it was also messy, which is what happens when all good and tasty things are crammed into a bun with meat).  They also serve to-die-for onion rings, great fries, and that Napa staple, sweet potato fries.  I say Napa staple because every place was serving them, but sweet potato fries are not a new thing, and not just in Napa.  If you've never had them, they're slightly healthier (just slightly) than regular french fries, and super tasty.  They make a nice change, and in my mind, might possibly be even better than regular fries.  And in a rarity—the Husband does not like ice cream (“it's cold”)—all four of us got milkshakes.  Mom got her vanilla shake, which was nice if bland in my mind (vanilla shakes always are even though I love vanilla), Dad got chocolate which was good, I got a Black and White (chocolate syrup with vanilla ice cream, which is how I make chocolate shakes anyway), and the Husband got an Espresso Bean shake.  Mine was tasty and a nice change from the usual chocolate shake, but the Espresso Bean shake was really well balanced.  Clearly coffee flavoured, but not overpowering, and still creamy and nicely, well, milkshakey.  Expensive, but all-in-all worth a stop.  They also sell fish tacos and breakfast.  And mint chip shakes, which I also wanted, but couldn't justify two milkshakes.

I also can recommend a hamburger place in Leicester, as well (no website that I can find anymore, but the menu is here).  The burgers are nice, and in typical English takeaway style, have interesting flavor combos (look at a British takeaway pizza menu sometime).  They're also far better than the average pub or takeaway burger you'll find in the UK, which usually give me heartburn (takeaway) or are as hard and dry as hockey pucks (pubs, particularly Wetherspoons).  I believe my favorite burger from New Walk was the Chipotle BBQ Smokey, but as it's been years, I'm guessing.

I also feel that I have to include two fairly large fast-food chains in this post.  Neither one is quite as good as any of the above, but both were quite acceptable and deserve mentions.  The first is Sonic, which I've only eaten at once, and that was the day we got married.  Needing food on the drive from SFO to Napa, I tried to stop at an In-n-Out Burger because the Husband wanted to try it.  Without getting into my panicked driving through downtown San Francisco or the fact that EVERY In-n-Out Burger we passed on the highway we saw after the exit for it, we finally found a Sonic in a stripmall parking lot, and it was open until about 10 minutes after we ordered.  The food was hot, seemed to be fresh, even at that time, and pretty tasty.  It wasn't exceptional, but it was certainly better than your average fast-food burger fare.  Plus, I give points to places that still have the old drive-up order stations and people who deliver your food on roller skates.  Major win for that.

The second chain is the aforementioned In-n-Out Burger.  We finally managed that stop last year—just shy of two years from our previous attempt—in San Francisco through creative begging and my parents.  Namely, we flew into SFO late enough that a proper meal wasn't going to happen for us, but, early enough (and on a crappy enough airline) that we needed some food or homicide might happen.  And there are quite a few In-n-Outs scattered throughout the bay area, including close to the airport and our hotel.  Added bonus: there was a game or something in Candlestick, so Dad was avoiding the freeway system to avoid the traffic.  Anyway, we ended up eating those burgers cold, but they still weren't bad.  They were served to us hot, but we then had to drive to the hotel, check the Husband and I into the hotel, and  get into the room with all our crap—and the food—before we could eat, so it was close to 45 minutes before devourage commenced.  The burgers were still pretty good (mine was animal style), though the fries were somewhat lacking for being cold, which wasn't unexpected.  My fries probably suffered less from that, since I got those animal style as well.  The shakes were also good.  I know other people rave about the greatness of In-n-Out, and they certainly were fine, but I think I have more respect for some of their policies than their food.  I'm not into the whole proclaiming the religion thing, but In-n-Out does apparently do at least one very nice thing: if you cannot afford to pay for food but are hungry, they will still feed you.  I don't know the exact terms and conditions of that, but I imagine being drunk and without your wallet doesn't count.  Still, I think it's a very nice policy.

There's a lot to be said for the hamburger.  Made right, it doesn't have to be unhealthy (though it's rarely going to be the healthiest choice around), and there's a nearly infinite number of ways it can be customized to suit the individual.  I wouldn't argue that any of the above are particularly healthy, but they are all tasty, and some have good, sustainable practices in place.

So be creative with your hamburger.  Explore meat ratios and different bun types.  Try new sauces or toppings.  Get a new type of milkshake, or try something like sweet potato fries or zucchini sticks instead of (or alongside) your regular french fries.  But most of all, remember than the hamburger can be more than the sum of it's parts.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

ZuZu: Napa, California

Although it's been over two months since we ate in Napa, I do still fondly remember some of the meals we enjoyed there.  I must admit that part of why I haven't posted reviews--besides being time-consuming to write when you're not getting paid to write them--is that I got food poisoning at the end of our time in Napa, as did my father.  And, it turns out, so did my mother, she was just lucky (?) enough to wait until we got to Eugene.  Dad and I spent 9 hours in the car trying not to be sick on the drive home.  Adam lucked out, and didn't get sick.  Though we're not 100% sure where we picked up food poisoning, I promise that I will not review either of the two possible restaurants where it might have been.  The saddest bit about our getting sick is that no meal we ate tasted bad or anything.  But something went wrong somewhere . . . still, I will not write a bad review, I just won't review a place.

ZuZu is a tapas restaurant in downtown Napa, on Main Street.  According to their website "The restaurant offers a modern, California version of tapas along with some traditional offerings based on the cuisines of Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean."  However they choose to describe it, ZuZu offers excellent small plates with a variety of options and a variety of styles.  And I thought it was fantastic.

ZuZu is currently undergoing a seismic retrofit and getting (I'm assuming) a general facelift, as they've been open for about 10 years now.  Simultaneously, the owner and the chefs are touring Spain, getting new ideas for the menu, though they've said they'll keep the core menu basically the same.  But when we were there, ZuZu was small--though there is an upstairs that I didn't go see--with wood floors, and tables crammed in interesting corners.  Our table, for example, was under the stairs.  But that's not to make it sound dark or grotty.  It was cosy and friendly, casual and unpretentious, but not cheap or dirty feeling.  It's hard to explain, but while you wouldn't find men in suits in there, you're a lot more likely to see that than a guy in a tracksuit.

Because ZuZu serves tapas, that means that everyone can order multiple things off the menu.  This is why I like tapas, as I've probably mentioned before.  You can be piggy without being a pig.  For some reason, Adam isn't so big a fan of tapas, but he can cope with my occasional need to order four different things off the menu and have that be perfectly acceptable.  Since we were with Mom and Dad, we were able to order a multitude of dishes, and the server brought the dishes out as they were ready, and as we were ready.  It is rather nice, if perhaps a bit gluttonous, to have people continually bring you food as you finish what's in front of you.  And, in that aspect, both the kitchen and the waitstaff shone; their timing was impeccable.  The food was hot and fresh, and we weren't overburdened with too many choices at once.  The service really was exceptional.

Though the sangria at ZuZu is supposed to be excellent (I believe Mom and Dad had it before), we decided on a couple of bottles of the house tempranillo.  I love a good tempranillo, and "house" wine notwithstanding, this was excellent, and much more reasonably priced because it was the house wine.  I have to admit that it depends on where I'm at as to whether or not I'll trust the house wines.  Some places sewage water would be preferable, and other places the house wine is both affordable and excellent.  Given than little in Napa is truly "affordable," their house wines are much more reasonably priced, and still usually excellent.

Though we all chose our "own" dishes to order, we shared everything, and consulted with each other so that we all got something different.  Maximizing our choice, if you will.  We got a dish of olives--a must, between my husband and my father, and Mom and I never object to olives--and a plate of boquerones as our first selections.  Boquerones, or anchovies, are one of my favorites (though not on pizza), and these came with boiled egg and a remoulade on grilled bread (yes, I'm copying from the menu here).  There were two pieces of bread, each with at least two anchovies, and they were easily large enough to share.  Think bruschetta with an attitude.  The bread was artisan, a lovely crunch from the grilling, yet still soft in the middle, and the anchovies were beautifully complemented by the egg, with a lovely remoulade.  I desperately wanted more, but given how much more we had to come, it was good we didn't get more.

One of Dad's (unsurprising) contributions to the evening was jamon ibérico.  If my father sees pig on the menu, there's a good chance he'll order it, and lord knows none of us will object.  There's really not much to say about it; pretty much any Spanish ham is amazing, and ZuZu's was top-notch.  Simply served, the jamon came with some bread and a bit of a spread (again, the menu has changed), and the only reason any of it lasted as long as it did is because some of us were saving it for a last bite.

Mom ordered a scallop ceviche, which saved me the trouble, and it was one of the specials for the evening.  It too was exceptional, light and fresh.  Sadly, I can't tell you more about it, because there were two different ceviche specials that night, and though we only ordered one, I can't remember the exact preparation of it.  Still, the execution tells me that anything "ceviche" at ZuZu will be excellent.

I ordered us a plate of queso frito, which is something that can rarely go wrong in my mind (though it can, and when it does, oh dear).  Fried cheese is an unholy treat in my world, and they did it beautifully, although looking at the current menu, it appears that the preparation has changed.  Still, it was warm and gooey and all those wonderful unhealthy things that good fried cheese is.  

Someone ordered the spaghetti squash, which is something I've never had before, and I've been actively looking for again.  I'm not a big squash fan, though I make a pretty rockin' stuffed butternut (it has lardons in it, so it can't be bad).  Spaghetti squash has two things going for it; first, it's tasty, and second, the texture is really unique.  It's called spaghetti squash because the flesh shreds out like pieces of spaghetti.  If you've ever cleaned a squash or pumpkin and found those threads around the seeds, this is similar, except that it's larger and not gross, and all the flesh does it, not just the seed area.  ZuZu's preparation of it treated it almost like a pasta, and served it with a fantastic tomato sauce.  For me, it was definitely the surprise treat of the evening.

Our last two tapas were in the form of dessert.  I thought the apple empanada sounded delicious, but I also thought the tres leches cake sounded fantastic.  Unsurprisingly (especially at this point), I was right.  The apple empanada was very nice, nothing fancy (though it had a lovely burnt caramel sauce with it), but the pastry was spot on, and the apples had texture and flavor, and were slightly tart.  The tres leches cake was fantastic, and hard to describe.  It was light--far lighter than any of us expected--and came with a mango-lime chutney, which helped to lighten it and cut through the sweetness.  A wonderful end to the meal.

All in all, I really loved ZuZu.  Not having to pay for it helped tremendously, I can't deny, but even if Adam and I had paid, it would not have been unreasonable.  The service was excellent, the food and wine superb, and I personally liked the atmosphere, though others have described it as noisy (I suppose it probably was, but we were sheltered a bit by the stairs).  ZuZu is a great place to go if you don't want a lot of food, or you want a variety of things to sample, or you want something not too expensive.  It also seems to be a place where a lot of locals go, which is always a good sign.