In the Dog Haus (Alhambra, CA)

I’ve been grocery shopping at the Alhambra Ralphs countless times when I’ve visited my wife’s family in the San Gabriel Valley. (As a sign of the times, this Ralphs has officially closed and construction has begun on another 99 Ranch Market in the Valley.) Across the street is Dog Haus, which I’d never patronized. Maybe it was because its name and appearance reminded me a lot of Der Wienerschnitzel, a fast-food hot dog chain that’s been in Southern California for ages. But, my wife took our grandkids to Dog Haus last year and declared their food “not bad,” a review I wasn’t expecting based on my preconceptions.

Last night, she and I decided to get a quick bite before Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” at the Edwards (fun and definitely for McCarthy fans. The fight scene with a female would-be assassin was hilarious for not only what she does with a frying pan but is a parody of all movie swordfights though no swords are used). Dog Haus was close by.

Inside were customers of all demographics: whole families, teen friends, couples, seniors, and (this being SGV) a good ethnic cross section. This is no typical fast-food restaurant interior. The dominant colors are black and red, the dining space brightened by plenty of windows along the south and east walls. Wood planks line the floor. The walk-up counter looks more like a mini food market’s than a McDonald’s, with displays of beverages, desserts, even a row of cereal boxes (to attract the kids?). A sign announces the availability of Fosselman’s ice cream. Though taro, my favorite Fosselman’s flavor, is not offered, two that are sounded tempting: Oaxacan chocolate and horchata.

Free condiments are located at a bar—mustards, a red housemade relish made with peppers, ketchup, sliced jalapeños, minced onions, mayo, crushed red peppers, celery salt, Rooster sriracha, Tapatio and more, any of which can be ladled or squeezed on your sandwich or taken to the table in little plastic tubs.

Sixteen custom hot dogs appear on the menu above the counter, special combinations of all-beef skinless dogs or sausages, plus condiments. A popular choice is Sooo Cali, which puts together wild arugula, spicy basil aioli, crispy onions, avocado, and tomato. Capitalizing on the Korean flavor craze, Tae Kwan Dog combines bulgogi glaze, kimchi, fried egg, and korean chili powder. I had to smile at Bad Mutha Clucka, just for the name alone.

If you’re not into hot dogs, there is a good selection of burgers, using black angus ground beef. For example, Freiburger comes with white American cheese, haus slaw, and fried egg, with fries.

Personally, I favor uncomplicated dogs. The only condiments that mine will see are relish, mustard and onion. Luckily, you can customize your dog by ordering just the wiener with bun, as I did for Polish kielbasa.

The “bun” is not traditional ballpark but rather grilled and split Hawaiian rolls, giving each dog an added sweet element. Because the rolls are larger than normal buns, it’s best to hold the dog from underneath. The kielbasa casing was thick enough that I had to take a careful, complete bite without tilting or pulling the sausage out of the bun. This was a superior sausage though, flavorful, nicely seasoned, grilled and snappy, not a surprise when the würstmacher is none other than Food Network celebrity Alan Gertler. While I like Hawaiian rolls, they seem more like a gimmick as a substitute for a good old-fashioned bun. And I could do without the noticeable sweetness. Otherwise, this was a very fine hot dog. (☆☆☆)

Besides customizing a dog, you can also do the same with a corn dog. Pick any of the available sausages, all-beef skinless frank or vegetarian option. While cornmeal batter is typically sweet, Dog Haus interestingly sweetens theirs with root beer soda, which does a good job of lightening the batter and hardly has the intrusiveness you’d expect. My wife’s all-beef wiener was speared with two bamboo skewers. Their thin, sharp points became more exposed with every bite, but a firm, slow push of the wiener from the other end removed the danger. A good thing about a thinly applied batter is that you don’t have to plow through much dough before reaching the sausage, but it’s also harder to keep crisped. A very good, high-quality wiener dressed in a corn dog outfit. (☆☆☆)

The sides are beyond ordinary, too. There are the standard fries, onion rings (beer-battered) and slaw (two kinds), but also “haus” chili, sweet potato fries and, to give poutine-loving Canadians pause, either fries or tater tots smothered with cheese sauce, chili, cheddar and seasoned green onions. Sweet potato fries are not as crispy as regular frying potatoes, such as Dog Haus’ Kennebecs, tending more toward mealiness though producing more interesting flavor. We discovered that dipping them in mustard is much preferred over ketchup to counterbalance the natural sweetness. The haus slaw (the other choice is Asian slaw) was exceptional for its balanced dressing and finely shredded cabbage.

From its humble beginnings in Pasadena, Dog Haus has gone on to open franchises throughout the Southwest. For me, the visit was a pleasant surprise. Did I mention I had preconceptions?

Dog Haus
410 E. Main St.
Alhambra, CA 91801

Monitor Hot Rod Café (Wenatchee, WA)

I groan on those rare occasions when my GPS fails me. Give it an address in a small town or country road, and the probability is greater than zero that the unit will not be able to find it. We tried to find Anjou Bakery in Cashmere to have lunch and to eat its legendary marionberry pie, but no dice. As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway because the bakery is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Poor planning on my part.

What to do but find the nearest diner. We saw Monitor Hot Rod Cafe across the highway. Why not? Besides, we wanted to get back on the road ASAP to Winthrop, another two hours away.

The restaurant gets points for its Route 66 ambience. Hot rod parked on the roof. Old style Texaco gas pump inside. Vintage Washington product posters lined just below the ceiling. Black-and-white “tile” linoleum on the floor.

On the surface, the menu looks no different than another roadside diner’s: burgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, fries, onion rings, fish and chips. But, look closer, and you’ll notice some modern-day tweaks, like veggie burger (called the Prius), burgers adorned with up-to-date ingredients, salad bar, garlic fries.

I admit to being a dyed-in-the-wool chilehead, which is the reason I decided to try a burger called The Burn Out. Spiciness comes from chipotle mayo and fresh halves of raw jalapeño peppers. The patty itself may have been cooked a bit too well, but the freshness of the lettuce, tomato and onion, and the tender wheat (yup, wheat, not white—either is an option) bun, with the bite from the chiles and savor from the mayo and pepper jack, was more than enough to make for an enjoyable (if much too tall) sandwich. (☆☆☆)

The Burn Out burger

The Burn Out burger

Even if the fish pieces were previously frozen, they were tender enough in my wife’s cod fish and chips, and there were a generous five pieces of them. At first, we thought the batter was extra thick, but it was quite thin and amazingly smooth. It was also too oily, or rather had a glistening sheen. (☆☆½)

The fries that accompanied them were surprising. Hand-cut, they had a nice chew with no mealiness. More than that, they were coated with something prior to frying that gave them good texture and flavor. (☆☆☆½)

Cod Fish & Chips

Cod Fish & Chips

There seems to be extra effort by the management to provide more than the usual grub that one gets at a roadside diner. Kudos to them for the effort, for the fun (and very clean) atmosphere, for the warm and friendly service. And, they serve Umpqua ice cream.

Monitor Hot Rod Cafe
2960 Easy St
Wenatchee, WA 98801

Big Robby at Mr Burger (Christchurch, NZ)

It was a spur of the moment decision. One of those times when your intention suddenly changes as a fleeting thought goes through your mind. I was on my way to Re:START Mall to buy lunch from one of the (shipping) container food businesses until I walked past a food truck stationed just east of the Worcester Blvd bridge over the Avon. I’d gone by Mr Burger several times in the past, not giving it much thought—until today. This time, I looked at the menu posted on the truck’s side for a few minutes, then continued on. But, I stopped not more than 20 feet beyond. It occurred to me that I’ll be leaving New Zealand in a few days, and I hadn’t yet had a burger, Kiwi-style, on this latest visit.

It’s an odd reality that most burgers in New Zealand are sold by fish-and-chips shops. I’m sure there’s an interesting history behind that. Anyway, no doubt because of my expectations in the U.S., I had never even considered the idea of getting a burger where the main offering was fried fish. Even my favorite fish-and-chippery in Christchurch, Coppell Place Seafoods, has one on the menu.

There I was, in front of Mr Burger, a “real” burger enterprise (albeit a mobile one), considering my options. I studied the menu to look for a quintessentially Kiwi sandwich with fried egg and beet slice (called beetroot here). The Big Robby came closest, also including onion, cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon and double patties but no beetroot. Predictably, I got a monstrous sandwich, fully 4” high, a blow to sensible portion sizes. That’s not all. A stiff wind from the east made it hard to have a pleasant al fresco experience. Sea gulls were gathering around me, including one that alighted on my table, waiting for handouts. Cheeky, as Kiwis would say.

The first bite was comical, the fillings pooching out at the other end, sauce running down my fingers and hands, lettuce and tomato hanging out of my mouth. Every bite was no less messy. I must’ve gone through a half dozen napkins. The patties were tender and high-quality New Zealand grass-fed beef. Kiwis like their bacon flabby instead of crispy as most Americans would prefer. A better bun I would be hard pressed to recall, soft and with enough gluten to resist falling apart. Rather than a Thousand Island-like sauce, a sweetish barbecue sauce lent an interesting smokiness. In summary, the Big Robby was a fine burger sandwich (☆☆☆), messy to the end, over-the-top maybe but culturally fitting. I couldn’t finish a quarter of it. Maybe I should’ve fed it to the gull.

Mr Burger
Worcester Bridge
Christchurch, NZ

Godzilla Invades Bellevue: Katsu Burger

Godzilla 2014 (image from

Godzilla 2014 (image from

The reaction wasn’t nearly on the same scale as Paseo’s passing, but the sudden closure last August of Katsu Burger in Seattle’s Georgetown district triggered waves of lamentation among followers. The word was that owner Kajime Sato was stretched too thin between the burger operation and Mashiko, his sushi restaurant in West Seattle. The concept was to add Japanese flavors to the American burger, in the same vein as the Japanification of the hot dog (Gourmet Dog Japon in Seattle, Japadog in Vancouver). A big fan, Stephanie Kang, who also has restaurant credentials, rescued Katsu Burger, re-opened the Georgetown operation in October of last year, and subsequently opened an Eastside branch in the Factoria area of Bellevue a month later, replacing her previous Kimchi Amigos. It happens to be right next door to Shanghai Cafe, my favorite Chinese restaurant on the Eastside, which is how I noticed its imminent opening.

How can so many tables and chairs be crammed into their minuscule space? If you eat your meal at one of the interior tables along the south wall, other patrons have to move out of the way for you to exit. One wonders how this arrangement doesn’t violate a fire code.

Cramped space aside, the interior design is whimsical, with an eclectic mix of Japanese pop culture artwork, anime, woodblock prints and ninja throwing stars (shuriken) partially embedded in the walls. A collage of Godzilla images is mounted on the south wall.

The whimsy extends to the menu, where some burgers take on humorous names. The word katsu refers to coating some sort of seasoned meat with panko and deep-frying it. Pork katsu (tonkatsu) is the most common at Japanese restaurants and appears in the Ninja Deluxe and Katsu Curry burgers. There is also a chicken katsu that shows up in the Teriyaki Chicken burger and, for vegetarians, the Miso Honey Tofu. But, burgers are usually about ground beef. It is the main ingredient in the Tokyo ClassicOhayou Gozaimasu and Samurai Select. And the beef is grass-fed, at that. They vary in their accompaniments. It also is the protein in the one I ordered, the Godzilla Attack burger. I’d never had a beef katsu before, let alone in a burger, but the idea of battering and frying it held great promise for keeping the meat moist, which would address the biggest problem of burgers these days.

Godzilla Attach with nori fries

The burger was attractively wrapped in red-and-white checkerboard parchment paper. Unwrapping it divulged a big sandwich piled high with tomato, onion, sweet pickles, a generous hank of shredded cabbage that stuck out like Godzilla’s fins. and sliced jalapeño peppers, 12 spice blend, pepper jack cheese and spicy mayo that roared his fiery breath. One bite revealed a superior bun that had a sheen of egg wash. Sure enough, the beef patty was juicy, helped by the fact that it was generously sized, about 3/4″ thick, its crispy panko batter crackling with every bite. But, it wasn’t strongly beefy in flavor. Tonkatsu sauce, which pairs nicely with pork, seemed out-of-sync with the beef, a bit too assertive perhaps, and the spicy mayo reminded me that I prefer my burgers without sweet flavors, the reason I’m not a big fan of de rigueur thousand island dressing and many ‘secret’ sauces. These quibbles aside, Godzilla Attack is a fine sandwich (☆☆☆) with superior ingredients.

Fries are extra. I would highly recommend getting them because they’re perfectly fried, not in the least mealy or too crunchy. Katsu Burger’s riffs include a sprinkling of sea salt, curry, 12 spice blend or nori. The last has just enough of a dusting of aonori to give it outstanding flavor (☆☆☆☆).

As a practical joke, Sato (the original owner) put the Mt. Fuji burger on the menu. It is a super-sized sandwich with the trifecta of meats (beef, pork and chicken), American and pepper jack cheeses, fried egg, wasabi and spicy mayos and tonkatsu sauce, not to mention the fresh vegetables. Even (currently) priced at $18.95, patrons do buy it, proving once again that it’s possible to sell anything if it’s outrageous enough.

Katsu Burger
12700 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006

Cheeseburger at BUNS

It’s a welcome shift in the industry that more burgerias are starting to offer grass-fed beef on their menus. I’ve been on the lookout for grass-fed beef burgers. I haven’t found an outstanding one yet. It isn’t that grass-fed beef doesn’t taste good. I’ve used Costco’s organic GFB in meat loaves with wonderful results.

At the Issaquah Farmers Market over two weeks ago, the BUNS food truck appeared alongside Maximus/Minimus. And wouldn’t you know that BUNS uses only “natural” grass-fed beef for their burgers?

The menu is short. For the beef-averse, there are chicken and salmon burgers. At the head of the list though are beef burgers with (“The Cheesy”) and without (“The Classy”) a slice of white cheddar cheese from Beecher’s (a local, nationally renown cheese maker), accompanied by a tomato slice, lettuce, red onions, pickles and a housemade sauce. Other variations include a burger with bacon and pineapple (“The Maui”), a New Mexican-style one with mild green chiles (“The Easy Hottie”) and a spicy one for chileheads (“The Flamethrower Hottie”).

The equipment in the truck includes a commercial charbroiler and deep fryer. You can see the flames lapping up through the grates. Everything is made-to-order, which translates to a wait time of approximately ten minutes, a good thing knowing that nothing is made ahead of time other than condiments.

I root for vendors who have the commitment to feed the masses without CAFO beef. Could BUNS deliver on excellence? It’s almost impossible not to overcook ground beef over a very hot broiler. More to the point, purveyors have to comply (by default) with health-code standards to cook patties to the well-done stage. BUNS, like any food vendor serving ground beef (grass-fed or not), is forced to conform because the large-scale, mechanized slaughterhouse industry that by its very scale and feed practices could not guarantee food safety. Our “Cheesy” burger partly suffered an overcooked fate even if its flavor was beefy and lightly smoky. Beyond that, the patty harbored bits of gristle that was off-putting. The sandwich was wrapped in an excellent, light Kaiser roll-like bun, made by local Grand Central Bakery. Despite the (required) warning of undercooked beef, you can request that BUNS cook your burger to any degree of doneness, I discovered later. I like my patty to be on the medium-rare side. So, while BUNS’ burger (☆☆½) represents an admirable step forward toward a healthier burger, I will continue in search of the great grass-fed example.

Happy Hour at Purple Café and Wine Bar (Woodinville, WA)

Smack dab in the middle of Woodinville’s “wine country” is Purple, a wine bar and café that had its start here and since expanded into three other local venues (Seattle, Kirkland and Bellevue). The dining menus are not the same among all four locations, though a few items are shared. For instance, on Wednesday nights, only the Woodinville location has the buttermilk fried rosemary chicken. Within walking distance are over 30 wine tasting rooms, most of which have wineries in eastern Washington. Purple has a prime location.

We were in time for its popular happy hour (3-6pm, weekdays), which has more variety in its snack list than in beverages. Beer in a can, for example, consisted today only of Amstel Lite and Bitburger Pilsner. Selections under Wine are a daily red, wine and sparkling. A wine bar should have a more expansive beverage menu for happy hour, in my opinion.

Still, my wife and I didn’t come here for drinks but to have something to eat after a movie. The HH Snacks include some interesting items, like gorgonzola stuffed dates, house made spreads, bruschetta, crab cakes and a cheese flight. We decided to share grilled broccolini and two sliders (BLTA and burger, both with shoestring fries).

Burger sliders are tricky beasts. The smaller patties make it difficult to keep the ground beef moist, even harder if restaurants want to cook it past the e. coli threshold. Rarely, if ever, does one get a ‘medium’ burger, let alone a ‘medium-rare’ one, to one’s liking. In fact, the waitress didn’t give us a choice. Purple’s patty was almost vulcanized, an unfortunate end result for meat sourced from the much-ballyhooed beef consortium of eastern Oregon’s Painted Hills. Condiments of grilled red onions, lettuce, tomato, sherry vinaigrette and spicy aioli didn’t improve the situation (☆☆). It cost $5. Aah, but the shoestring fries! Those were divine (☆☆☆½), if a bit over-salted.

Painted Hills beef burger with shoestring potatoes

Painted Hills beef burger with shoestring fries

BLTA (BLT with the addition of avocado) fared better. The bacon was nicely crisped between small, seeded burger buns. Again, it’s difficult for a slider to have the same impact as a full-sized BLT between slices of toasted bread, which can support more lettuce and a thicker slice of tomato, even more mayo. Still, for what you get and the price ($4), it is a very good and tasty sandwich (☆☆☆), worthy of ordering again. It too was coupled with those fantastic fries.

BLTA with shoestring potatoes

BLTA with shoestring fries

Also very good (☆☆☆) was the grilled broccolini. It was served after the sliders were almost finished, a reflection of the generally slow and uneven service here. We had to remind them that the vegetables had not yet arrived and (earlier) that we needed catsup for the BLTA fries. The broccolini were perfectly cooked, dressed with olive oil, chile flakes and red onions brightened with vinegar.

Grilled broccolini

Grilled broccolini

Purple Café and Wine Bar
14459 Woodinville Redmond Rd. NE
Woodinville, WA 98072

Eating Solo in Ballard on Pooch Duty

While my daughter has gone out-of-town to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday, I volunteered to do the dog-sitting at her (and the dog’s) home. Though I like to cook, I don’t always do it for myself, less so when I’m away from home. As I’ve written before, my daughter lives in Ballard (a neighborhood of Seattle), a dining mecca where one doesn’t see a single franchise fast-food restaurant in the main commercial district roughly centered on Market St and Ballard Ave. My meals have been restricted to places within walking distance (except once). A lot less hassle.

I decided to consolidate my reviews into this one post because really I’ve ordered just single items from every menu. If I had thought of it earlier, I could have included Wednesday’s lunch at Pestle Rock here, too.

I’ll start off with dinner at Señor Moose on Wednesday night (Oct 30). Inspired by my wife’s order of pescado veracruzana at Black Cat Cantina in Portland recently, I ordered the same at this Ballard favorite, a Mexican restaurant that had apparently been serving molé even before La Carta de Oaxaca did, only a few blocks away. Señor Moose’s rockfish had previously been frozen, so it was not as moist and flaky as I would’ve liked. Still, it wasn’t bad. The sauce was made with the usual tomatoes, capers and green olives, but also a plethora of minced onions that diminished the sauce. Add to this that the tomatoes themselves were lackluster. I was not overly impressed (☆☆½).

For lunch on Thursday (Oct 31), I stopped at La Isla, supposedly the first Puerto Rican restaurant in Seattle. The lunch menu included one of their specialties, Puerto Rican pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder. A standard recipe calls for marinating the shoulder for a long time (La Isla does this over a period of days) in lots of garlic (sometimes a whole head), olive oil, black pepper, oregano (fresh or dried) and vinegar, though the server said the chef also uses a secret ingredient or two. To render it fork-tender, shoulder benefits from a slow roast over several hours, all the better if some fat is left on to baste the meat. La Isla surely must because their’s was unctuous. In the pernil bowl for lunch, it was shredded (like ropa vieja, which La Isla also serves) and piled on top of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), stained orange from achiote and tomato sauce, overall a fine entrée (☆☆☆½). The tostones (☆☆) that came as a side was starchy and firm from green plantains. I’ve had better in Puerto Rico, but the mojito sauce (☆☆☆½) for the tostones was a killer, a mayonnaise of garlic, onion and citric acid (lemon, lime, orange or a combination), a garlic lover’s dream. I saved half the lunch for dinner later on.

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Instead of a smoothie that I made for myself on Thursday morning, I picked up a couple of pastries from Café Besalu right after it opened on Friday (Nov 1). The magnificent plum danish (which I reviewed before) I saved for later, but for breakfast, I savored onion and Gruyère pastry (☆☆☆½) which was up to their usual high standards. It crackled and let loose shards of puff pastry in my mouth, gluten-y in the center and tasted of savory Gruyère cheese, gently sweetened by the roasted onions.

Sweet onion and gruyère croissant

Onion and gruyère pastry

It was lunch at Kimchi House on Friday. The kalbi plate includes a big scoop of rice, salad and banchan. The salad of romaine lettuce and shredded carrots was dressed with a soy sauce vinaigrette, spiced up with just a little kochujang and dried chile peppers to add a distinctly Korean touch. Kalbi has an inherent problem. While unmistakably beefy in flavor (it is unapologetically fatty), pumped up by the garlicky teriyaki marinade, it can be resiliently chewy, which is one reason it is sliced thinly. Even so, without a knife (and the restaurant does not have any in the utensil tray or at the table), you have to eat them with chopsticks, which is what Koreans do. Some cooks have figured out a way to tenderize kalbi, but Kimchi House hasn’t or doesn’t bother. I had to ask for a knife. It was sure tasty though (☆☆½).

Kalbi plate

Kalbi plate

Across the street from the Ballard Locks on NW 54th St is Red Mill Totem House, the third Red Mill Burger restaurant to (re)open locally. This was the only time I got into my car. One of the old-time burger diners in Seattle, it was a destination for lunch on Saturday (Nov 2). Why is it called Red Mill Totem House and not Red Mill Burgers? A popular fish-and-chips restaurant called Totem House used to occupy this building until it closed in 2010 after a 65-year run. Red Mill thoughtfully was mindful of the past, incorporated the name, with a restored totem out front, and kept the fish-and-chips menu.

The Deluxe Cheeseburger is a quarter-pounder with American cheese, tomato, pickles and Mill sauce, sandwiched between a sesame bun, with a slice of red onion if requested (I did). This was a messy sandwich. Without the foiled wrapper folded over one half, the cheese and sauce would act as lubricants to send the fillings shooting out with the first bite. My ideal burger does not include any sort of sweet dressing (Mill Sauce is kind of like Thousand Island) because it literally masks the beef’s flavor. It’s even debatable if I really need lettuce, tomato and pickles, though it depends on their quality. The best burger, which Red Mill gets voted for annually by Seattle Weekly, should not equate to being the most adorned. All this said, the burger was pretty good (☆☆☆), the sesame bun being supportively soft and slightly doughy, though not sturdy. Rather than fries, I had Babe’s Onion Rings (☆☆½), about a half dozen thickly cut rings. The batter, cornmeal-based, was so super-crunchy and loud that I had to remove by hearing aids. Kidding aside, it was more to lessen the aural assault by loud piped-in music that really sends this message to customers: hurry up and eat and get out. I would gladly have sat outside on one of the picnic tables if it weren’t so windy and threatening to rain.

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe's onion rings

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe’s onion rings

The lunch repast stayed with me longer than I wanted, so for dinner it was just a bowl of tai nam pho (eye-of-round steak and well-done flank) at Than Brothers (a previous review here), though for the first time ever, the noodles were too soft.

Tai nam pho

Tai nam pho

With the resetting of the clock back to standard time, my eyes opened on Sunday (Nov 3) morning an hour earlier. Other than Starbucks, the only other place I could find open for breakfast before 8am was Café Besalu. So, back I went for the second time in three days. My daughter raves about their almond croissant. I understand why. Made only on Sundays, the croissant is studded on the outside with sliced almonds. Inside is a generous filling of divine marzipan, intensely flavored and not too sweet. And, of course, there is the legendary croissant itself. This is a pastry worth going some distance for (☆☆☆☆).

I couldn’t resist getting the ham and Swiss cheese pastry (☆☆☆½) again, with the intention of eating it later. Yes, well, the road to personal hell is paved with good intentions. I swiftly polished it off with a double tall order of Besalu’s wonderful Americano (☆☆☆), which is a sight better than its drip coffee.

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Ballard hosts one of the very few farmers markets in the Seattle area that are open year-round. Even as the summer produce has all but disappeared, at least the late fall and winter vegetables will still be around, not to mention the bakeries, dairies, meat and seafood stands, and food vendors. Among the latter is Los Chilangos that not only offers food at a number of farmers markets (including Issaquah, the closest one to me) but also operates a food truck in Bellevue. With their catering business, they are easily the most ambitious mobile Mexican food operation in the area. For a food stand, there is a good-sized menu, including three soft tacos that I decided to have for lunch. You can mix and match among four fillings: al pastor, chupa cabras, carnitas and carne asada, the first three of which I tried. Each taco is wrapped in the traditional two soft corn tortillas, with chopped onion and cilantro and choice of mild or spicy salsa with each filling. No, chupa cabras (chupacabras) is the not the flesh of the mythical goat-sucking cryptid of Latin and southern American legend, but rather a combination of chorizo and carne asada. The house-made chorizo (☆☆☆) is good, while the asada was gristly (☆☆½). Ditto for the al pastor (☆☆½), whose origin has an interesting historical origin (involving Lebanon), described on Los Chilangos’ website. The carnitas taco (☆☆☆) was my favorite, succulent shreds of tender pork.

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

My brief stay in Ballard ended with having dinner with my daughter, whom I picked up from Sea-Tac, at Cafe Munir—speaking of Lebanese connections—which I will review in a future post.

Burgers at Li’l Woody’s (Seattle, WA)

Li’l Woody’s has been a celebrity of sorts. It appeared on the Travel Network’s Feed the Beast show, which highlights America’s best late-night grub. The burger and shake restaurant opened its first operation in Capitol Hill in 2011. Its popularity was great enough that it opened a second location in Ballard two months ago. More to follow? All their meat is sourced from Painted Hills Natural Beef in Oregon. Is there room for yet another burger joint? I guess that’s like asking if we need more pizza places, pretty much an irrelevant question when we’re talking about an American food obsession.

A new burger restaurant has to have at least one unique offering, a signature sandwich that distinguishes it from one down the street. Li’l Woody’s has seven on its menu, including a popular one called The Fig and the Pig, made up of pickled figs, bacon, mayo and crumbled gorgonzola cheese. There is also The New Mexican that uses genuine Hatch chiles, dressed with its own proprietary cheese (queso) sauce. These are worth trying if you want to evaluate how successfully a restaurant can come up with an interesting and tasty creation, because otherwise all that’s left is a burger that would have to stand on its own: ground beef, bun and a few condiments. Which is the way I prefer it when I order a burger, essentially unadorned except for a sliced raw onion, cheese, lettuce and maybe tomato. No sauce. No catsup. When you can taste the beef in all its glory—or defects. I recall with great fondness the ground sirloin sandwich that was served by Petrelli’s in Culver City (California) many blue moons ago that majestically stood on its own with only bun, burger and onion.

Which brings up another way you can order at Li’l Woody’s—customizing your own—by starting with a ⅓-lb charbroiled beef patty and building the sandwich with your choice of an array of ingredients (including peanut butter!!!) at extra cost. Mine? Tomato, American cheese, chopped onions and mayo on the side.

The patty had very good beef flavor. Even though the beef is 80-20, it was a tad overcooked, which probably has more to do with a restaurant’s grilling the meat nowadays beyond medium to avoid e coli problems as well as how thin the patty is. The bun was big, like a towering dome, and also a little dry, too large for the meat in between. The American cheese brought its gooeyness and a touch of sweetness to add interest. Overall, it was a good burger (☆☆☆).

Custom burger: American cheese, tomato, onions

Custom burger: American cheese, tomato, onions

The fries were thinly cut, a tad greasy and a little sparing of salt, but good (☆☆½). An option is one called Crack. Yep, Crack, fries served with milk shake dip. And, not any milk shake, but one made with Molly Moon ice cream, that purveyor of arguably Seattle’s best, sporting a butterfat content of 19%. You can also purchase ice cream here, by the way.

Li’l Woody’s
2040 NW Market St
Seattle, WA 98107

What’s Up with Happy Hour at Ruth’s Chris?

A meal at Ruth’s Chris can be a king’s ransom, as it is at many steakhouses these days. (Incidentally, where did they get that name that just doesn’t roll off the tongue?) By all accounts, you can expect to pay even more dearly at the nearby John Howie Steak at the Bravern. I doubt that I’ll ever indulge in a steak at these places, certainly not at the stratospheric prices they command. That’s why it was a surprise to me when I discovered that happy hour at Ruth’s Chris was such a bargain. I’d been coming here just for that reason since 2007, most of the time to enjoy what I considered to be a very good cheeseburger—and at only $6 for a half pounder (which used to be $5). The accompanying fries have always been ordinary. The “prime” bites, as the restaurant calls its HH noshes, has changed slightly over the years, but the burger was always on the menu and the item I would most often choose, even when the other selections elicited praise from fellow diners, including myself when I rarely ventured beyond the sandwich.

Which brings me to my current beef. The burger (☆☆) today was an aberration, a big disappointment. While the beefy flavor was there, the patty was dry. Combined with the over-toasted bun, it was all I could do to swallow without quaffing it down with the Red Hook Wise Cracker. There should be no excuse for this at a premium steakhouse, even if the kitchen has to satisfy the crush of orders from all the diners who flock here.

But this isn’t my only carp. My wife used to love the seared ahi tuna. She complained that the last two times she ordered it, the tuna was excessively salty. This time, the waitress suggested that the rub be lightly applied, but the ahi (☆☆½) was still saltier than it needed to be. The mustard and soy sauce seasoning didn’t help matters either.

What’s up with happy hour at Ruth’s Chris? Their standards have been slipping. It may not be a total disaster, as our friends commented that their chicken wings and shrimp appetizers were more than satisfactory. Maybe it’s time for me to switch gears and order something else.

Cheeseburger with fries

Cheeseburger with fries

Seared ahi tuna

Seared ahi tuna

Ruth’s Chris Steak House
565 Bellevue Square
Bellevue, WA 98004

The Goat Tavern (Mt. Shasta, CA)

VIA magazine pointed us to a gem of a diner, Nancy’s Airport Cafe, in Willows, and also highly recommended the The Goat Tavern in Mt Shasta, 150 miles north. According to the article’s writer, a food critic for San Francisco magazine, “I found spiritual uplift less than a mile off the highway in a juicy burger.” These endorsements were part of an article about the great finds along I-5 between Sacramento and Portland. My wife and I stopped in Mt Shasta for the night because we wanted to visit the namesake mountain on the following day.

The tavern is a local watering hole, sort of an oddity in a town known more for its New Age commercial district of crystal shops, yoga studios, alternative bookstores, and the like. Entry was confusing, not through what looked like the front door on the corner of Mt Shasta Blvd and Chestnut Street, but rather on the side of the building through an outdoor eating area. The place was dark on the inside with customers standing along the bar that had several beers on tap. A picture of the Mona Lisa was on the side. The atmosphere was convivial, loud and laid back. I ordered the aforementioned burger with cheese and fried onions rings, my wife the fish tacos. As it turned out, my sandwich was a full half-pound Angus cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, red onions and basil mayo. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to finish it.

To my disappointment, the burger (☆☆½) was not the transcendent experience that the food critic had, but rather just a good enough one. The patty was lean and therefore a little dense, the bun a tad dry. The onion rings were great, coated in a fine crispy batter.

The grilled fish in the tacos (☆☆½) seemed a bit past its prime with a slight fishiness that announced it wasn’t absolutely fresh. Otherwise they too were tasty enough with seasoned cabbage and guacamole.

Angus cheeseburger with onion rings

Angus cheeseburger with onion rings

Grilled fish tacos

Grilled fish tacos

On the ceiling were mounts for all the draft beer handles, which the bartender could unscrew as needed to use when the beer selection changes. Nice touch.

Draft beer handles mounted on the ceiling

Draft beer handles mounted on the ceiling