There’s Something Shrimpy About Fresno’s Don Pepe Taqueria


I had my doubts that I could find a shrimp dish to equal the ones from Fumi’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. Their shrimp is reason enough to trek out to the North Shore of Oahu. My favored combination of garlic, butter and sriracha (optional) sauce is a heaven-sent recipe.

That was before I found Don Pepe Taqueria, an institution in Fresno since 1995. You could order standard Mexican fare (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas) but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed on their specialty: shrimp. The location on N Blackstone has drawn so many loyal customers over the years that two more outlets opened to satisfy growing popularity. Pick any day of the week, any hour, and you’re likely to find the place packed. To be heard over the noise inside, you may have to shout out your order at the counter. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll feel rushed to decide when people line up behind you. If dining in, you might have to wait for a table to free up. But service is fast and you’ll be eating soon enough.

At the top of the seafood menu is Shrimp Botana, served ‘regular’ or spicy. A full dozen poached crustaceans, butterflied along the underside and in-shell, are piled on top of a cabbage-avocado-tomato slaw. There’s no way to eat these gracefully; it’s best to use your fingers. Besides, you’ll not want to waste time with decorum in getting these babies in your mouth.

I ordered mine spicy (top image). The shrimp were smothered in a glorious, bright reddish-orange hot sauce, reminding me in no small way of Fumi’s. The shells pulled off easily if messily. After polishing off the meat, I sucked on the shells to vacuum up every last drop of sauce, using a ton of napkins to wipe mouth and hands.

My wife’s Tostada Ceviche was unusual in the sense that the topping was a minced paste of raw fish, lime juice and cilantro, topped with two poached shrimp and avocado. Both fish and shrimp were very fresh. This too was an excellent dish.

I personally know of no other place that serves ice cold bottled beer with rim flecked with salt and plugged with shrimp and lime. A very nice touch.

Other ways to enjoy their shrimp are the tacos, burritos and shrimp cocktail.

I have relatives who live in Fresno. For you, Don Pepe is reason enough to stop.

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Don Pepe Taqueria (original location)
4582 N Blackstone Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 224-1431

Don Pepe Taqueria
4950 N Woodrow Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 292-3188

Don Pepe Taqueria
7029 N Ingram Ave #108
Fresno, CA 93650
(559) 261-9744

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Shizuku, Portland’s Significant Japanese Restaurant


Four years ago, I lunched at Chef Naoko Bento Café, a Japanese restaurant on the edge of Portland’s downtown district. The storefront was unremarkable like the surroundings. Interstate 405 was practically its western border. On my visit, a semi-truck parked just outside blocked sunlight from lighting the interior. The atmosphere inside was a lot more pleasant. The interior was cramped though. Customers sat at the few tables spaced close to each other. At one of them, a diner sat near enough to my wife and me to be almost sitting at ours; we wound up having a nice conversation with her. But the food sang, made by the creative mind and skillful hands of owner and chef Naoko Tamura using organic and natural, mostly locally sourced ingredients. It was here I had my first taste of food (chicken) marinated in shio koji.

In 2016 Tamura-san engaged the services of world-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to redesign and expand the interior to something more formal. The result was a complete transformation. Officially opened in December 2016, the restaurant was renamed Shizuku. Gone is the feel of a neighborhood cafe. There is a minimalist makeover, the most striking additions being ceiling hangings made to look like sudare (bamboo screens) and a raised platform with a table where diners could sit seiza-style (legs folded under one’s thighs), surrounded on two sides by a rock garden (top image).

‘Sudare’ ceiling hangings

With renovation came menu changes. Dinner is now prix fixe omakase-style, Thursdays-Saturdays only. The makunouchi (bento box) meals that used to be served at Chef Naoko for lunch and dinner are no more, replaced by lunch trays, donburi and udon, served at lunch only, Wednesdays-Saturdays.

My wife and I were in Portland for three days for family reasons. One of our dining stops had to include Shizuku. We chose lunch over dinner because of economy.

The quality has not changed. Popularly a chicken dish, Shizuku’s tatsuta-age was made with battered and fried Oregon rock cod. The fish, tasty enough from marinade, perked up with an untraditional dipping sauce of bird’s-eye chiles and lemon juice.

Oregon red rock cod tatsuta-age lunch tray (shredded cabbage, wakame and green onions)

Udon has always been one of Chef Naoko’s specialties. It’s probable that the then Chef Naoko Café and now Shizuku has the best in the city. The noodles are freshly made with perfect substance and chew. Chicken, dried bonito and kombu form the basis of the broth. The one that filled Prawn Tempura Udon was subtly flavored with hints of lemon peel. A superb batter, light, crispy and not in the least greasy, coated the tempura, served on the side.

Prawn tempura udon with kale, wakame and green onions

It’s gratifying to experience firsthand that Tamura-san is still at the top of her game. Based on the menu changes for Shizuku, she has the opportunity to demonstrate her creativity and skill even more, especially with omakase. Her calling card is the imaginative and deliberate use of fresh, unadulterated, untreated and vetted local ingredients in traditional Japanese cooking (for example, visible rolled oats from Bob’s Red Mill, based in nearby Milwaukie, fleck the tonkatsu batter). She’s a bold experimenter, like when she makes miso from ingredients other than white soy beans. Aside from Ota Farms tofu (also in Portland), she makes her own from hazelnuts. Tamura-san reminds me of our own local Japanese chef, Mutsuko Soma, who’s made quite a reputation for herself in Seattle, not to mention being named a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Her soba is the stuff of legend.

As for that lone raised platform and table in the corner, you won’t find me sitting there, beautiful as it is in its Japanese austerity, not only because I can’t sit with my feet beneath my butt for very long but more importantly, I don’t like to stand out as if sitting on a pedestal. Still, I’ll be back at Shizuku again whenever I’m in town.

Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 227-4136

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Nue: The World’s Street Food


It’s the thing nowadays to have street food at restaurants. Many of us have gone traveling abroad that noshing on things foreign is not the hesitation it once was. International food is now within easy reach, a cookbook, restaurant or food truck away. These are exciting times if your palate runs far and wide. 

In Seattle, up until now, street food has been relegated to a specific national cuisine. Three years ago, Nue opened in the Capitol Hill neighborhood with a dedication to global street food, bites from all parts of the world, a result of the food finds of co-owners Chris Cvetkovich and Uyen Nguyen when they go traveling abroad. An ambitious agenda, to be sure. The name nue is based on a mythical Japanese chimera whose body is composed of different animals. One manifestation combines monkey, snake, tiger and tanuki, a metaphor for the culinary variety one should expect to find inside.

Take Filipino Tosilog for instance, a popular breakfast item in the Philippines. I personally like fried rice and eggs in the morning, so this combination along with tocino (cured pork meat) sounded like a winner. The meat is a marriage of sweet and savory from straightforward ingredients of salt, sugar, spices and lots of garlic and sticky from caramelization. The fried rice (sinangag) is prepared with nothing more than soy sauce, green onions and bits of fried garlic, served alongside two sunny-side-up eggs. I only wish Nue was closer to me for breakfast. 

Filipino Tosilog

Chengdu Chicken Wings Tower (top image) has quite the following. This is quite understandable. It can be ordered by themselves or paired with waffles. The presentation is spectacular, about a half dozen fried wings stacked vertically, pinned together by two bamboo skewers and underlain by a pool of bracing dipping sauce. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the batter their characteristic bite and numbing sensation. Dipped in the sauce of red bird’s-eye chiles, mint, basil, lime juice and fish sauce, the wings took me to heaven. 

Sunny Bunny is a curry dish based on bunny chow from South Africa. Truly street food, kind of like a bread bowl, it was a staple of East Indian laborers who worked in and around Durban but now popular all over South Africa. Nue uses a partial Pullman bread loaf hollowed out in the middle and filled with a thick, bold masala curry of chicken and vegetables and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. If the original bunny was made to be portable for migrant workers and the torn-off bread pieces used for dipping, Nue nixes all that by generously ladling the curry to overflowing, obliging you to use fork and knife. 

South African Sunny Bunny

How do the chefs at Nue make those perfect fried eggs?

I’m usually indifferent to cornbread. This changed a bit when I had Nue’s based on a Caribbean recipe that includes pineapple and shredded coconut. It’s moist, slightly sweet and buttery, that competes with another terrific cornbread that I had at the Turquoise Room (La Posada Inn, Winslow, AZ). 

Cornbread with Whipped Butter and Maple Syrup

Others in my dining group had Puerto Rican Mofongo (plantain mash, smoked chicken and fried eggs) and Mexican Desayuno Michoacana (chorizo, sweet potato, pasilla pepper, avocado crema, fried tortillas and eggs). 

Nue’s plan is to change the menu periodically based on exciting culinary finds throughout the world. These have appeared in the past or are now on the menu: Israeli Shakshuka, Syrian salad, Dutch Patat Oorlog, Egyptian ‘Eggs Basyounadict,’ United Nations Fried Rice, East Indies Brussels Sprouts, Ecuadorian Biche de Pescado, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and so on. With all this variety, there is one potential drawback. For sharing, an eclectic mix poses the risk of choosing food with no complementary flavors. In fact they can compete, as I and dining companions have found on two separate occasions. The Sunny Bunny fought the chicken wings and tosilog for dominance, for example. That’s not to say that the dishes in themselves weren’t good. The three just mentioned were outstanding, in fact. Don’t let that stop you from dropping in. Nowhere else in Seattle can you find such a culturally diverse menu of high quality. Like the Japanese monster, Nue boldly embodies its mixed bag of diverse elements.

Nue
1519 14th Ave
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 257-0312

What Is a Berber Pizza?


“You want to eat something different?”

This is a thorny question that depends on who’s asking and why. Mustapha, who’d been driving us throughout Morocco, found out early that my wife and I were willing eaters. Maybe not willing so much as open to trying local food. To a point. We’re not Andrew Zimmern after all. In researching Moroccan food before the trip, I drew the line at eating sheep’s head in Marrakech.

“Like what?” The question was pregnant with doubt.

“Berber pizza.”

“What’s in it?” Again, hesitation. Crap, why can’t I just go with the flow? Carpe diem.

“You’ll find out.” This was not the answer I was hoping for.

We were in the Ziz Valley on the edge of the Erg Chebbi desert. Towns here are spread out among wind-blown sand dunes and palm trees. The entire area is famous for its Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils. We had just completed an overnighter in the Sahara.

I said to my wife out of earshot, “It’s probably camel.” She nodded hesitantly. Even our local tour guide in Fes (Idriss) didn’t like the taste.

We had just finished visiting the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif and the 17th-century ksar in Rissani. It was time for lunch.

Mustapha led us past restaurants along the main street and into an alley. “Rissani is known for its Berber pizza.”

Upon entering, he seemed to know the proprietor of La Baraka and introduced us. The dining room was hung with Arab carpets, the columns wrapped in Berber fabric. Some of the diners, probably guides, had on Tuareg robes and turbans.

La Baraka in Rissani

We ordered a Moroccan salad and the ‘pizza’ (called medfouna or madfouna), which is more like a calzone but filled with minced beef, onion and aromatic spices. The yeasty crust was crispy and chewy, like a traditional pizza, a combination of semolina and regular flours. In all, a tasty meal.

“What did you think of the pizza?” asked Mustapha. We told him we enjoyed it. “It doesn’t have cheese and tomato sauce. I hope you didn’t mind. I like it better,” he said.

Then it struck me. He wasn’t trying to be coy about the meat filling but was concerned we’d be disappointed with the lack of Italian flavors. We breathed a sigh of relief that the “something different” wasn’t camel.

Brilliant Cooking at Riad Boussa and How It Made Me Re-imagine Fruit Ingredients


It consisted of simply orange juice and shredded cucumbers. This unlikely pairing, a combination I’d ordinarily skip over in a cookbook, made a sublime cold soup, the beginning of a superb three-course dinner at Riad Boussa in Marrakech.

Cucumber and orange juice soup

In keeping with Moroccan tradition of having it on Fridays, the next course was a couscous. The riad’s was served in a tajine. Its talented young cook presented hers fringed with carrot, squash, eggplant, zucchini, turnip and fava beans (pictured above). Tucked underneath a compote of sultanas and onions were chicken and lamb that together with the vegetables flavored the incredible sauce, served separately in a bowl to spoon over everything. Real couscous takes time to make that requires triple-steaming; it doesn’t come in a box with 15-minute instructions. The grains were fluffy and tender. I’ve had couscous at home many times but I never imagined it could be this wonderful.

Dessert was another unexpected combination. Shaped as a five-sided rosette (which intentionally or not conjures up the star of Islam’s five pillars), sliced avocado crescents sprinkled with sugar were filled in the middle with strawberries. The dish changed how I now look at avocados—as a healthful way with a touch of sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Only two nights previously, the kitchen produced the best tajine I had on the trip, chicken with dried apricots and walnuts, and a trio of cold vegetable salads among which was to-die-for zaalouk (made with eggplant and tomato).

Moroccan salad, pickled green peppers, zaalouk (clockwise from top)

Chicken, apricot and walnut tajine

Dessert was poached pear with a cinnamon-infused syrup.

Pear compote with cinnamon syrup

My tour operator (Experience It Tours) believes that the best meals in Morocco are served in riads. After having spent 17 days throughout the country, eating in many dining establishments, I agree. My wife and I ate our finest meals in riads. As a bonus, they have the most pleasant ambience.

And so it was during our journey, a completely vegan dinner at Riad the Repose in Rabat and organic dinner at Dar Jnan Tiouria in Skoura where the proprietor is his own chef. And I’ll not soon forget the chicken pastilla at Dar Hatim in Fes. They were all gems.

Unlike restaurants that regularly serve scores of people every day, riads only have a handful of guests who may or may not choose to eat there. I suspect this is the reason why some riads welcome diners who are not lodgers. You won’t usually find professional chefs in riads but rather talented locals. So it’s all the more extraordinary and fortunate to come across great cooks in these ranks. Riad Boussa has one of them and, as exceptional as it is in every other respect, shines even more brightly for the cook who runs the kitchen.

Eggslut, More Than a Fatuous Name


It’s pretty much a sure thing that where there is a line out a restaurant’s door, therein lies good food. The first two times I walked past Eggslut in L.A.’s Grand Central Market (GCM), the queue was astonishingly long. No other food establishment in the Market came close to being as popular. I’m not particularly keen to wait in long lines for food, so I just made a mental note, check this place out.

As a restaurant name, Eggslut is a touch bawdy, provoking curious stares and skeptical ears. It isn’t so unusual anymore when expletives litter social media and words like ass, bitch and bastard now appear in business names. Eggslut didn’t have its beginning in the Market but as a food truck, a genre crossover no longer rare. After the ‘crash’ of 2008, vacancies at GCM went up. When owner Alvin Cailan saw the empty space facing Broadway, he jumped at the chance to set up a brick-and-mortar, recognizing the similarity of the new venture to his food truck operation: serving eager customers while facing the street in a semi-enclosed space. It opened in 2013 and was an immediate hit.

I went back to GCM with my wife and sister-in-law on a weekday morning. We got there at opening (8am) when the Eggslut crowds don’t yet materialize like they do on weekends when 1,000 eggs typically get served.

The Slut is the eponymous menu item. Picture a mason jar filled with puréed potatoes and topped with an egg, which gets coddled when the jar is immersed in hot water. What’s recommended is that you stir the whole thing together, then scoop out with the accompanying buttered baguette toasts. Quite a unique preparation, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The potatoes are nicely seasoned and buttered. The egg is barely cooked, white and yolk still jiggly, sprinkled with chives and sea salt. If you’re averse to barely cooked eggs, you likely will pass on this. For the rest of us, the Slut is a revelation, an inspired, luscious combination of simple ingredients.

The Slut partially stirred

Though the Slut is the signature dish, what might have become more popular since the transformation from food truck to Grand Central Market stand is the morning breakfast sandwich known as the Fairfax, presumably named after the street in L.A. where the truck used to ply its trade. It’s not the usual sausage, cheese and egg in an English muffin but a glorious mess of soft-scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelized onions and chives billeted in a brioche bun. The sandwich gets zing from sriracha mayo. Optional (and extra cost) is bacon. Unless preference or dietary laws prevent it, add the bacon. The mess factor is high. After the first bite, breakfast starts to fall apart: bits of egg drop, a slurry of mayo and cooked onion liquid pools in the hand and dribbles down the arm, bacon pulls out. I saw suits with ties flipped over their shoulder. The sandwich wrap does its valiant best to stem the tide. Eyes closed, I shifted into an alternate reality that I was sad to leave when breakfast was over. Sublime.

The Fairfax

If you insist on more familiar grub, also on the menu are bacon or turkey sausage sandwiches with medium-fried egg and cheddar. There’s also a cheeseburger.

Angelinos no longer have a monopoly on such goodness. If you live in Las Vegas or NYC, there’s an Eggslut near you, too.

Eggslut
317 S. Broadway, Stall D-1
Los Angeles, CA 90013
213.625.0292

Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013