China Poblano–Las Vegas

Jose Andrés is to food and restaurants what Peyton Manning is to quarterbacks and football. He is revered in his industry and everyone tries to emulate him.

And it’s no wonder. Andrés has built a growing empire of restaurants from coast to coast and beyond. He started with Jaleo years ago, a Spanish tapas restaurant in D.C. and moved on to Zaytinya, Cafe Atlantico, America Eats,  Oyamel, and minibar, also in DC.  Jaleo has been replicated in other cities,  minibar has entered the Vegas market under the name of é by José Andrés, and he recently expanded his reach to Puerto Rico.China Poblano

I’ve eaten at most of Andrés’ DC restaurants, but I was very interested to try China Poblano, his newest concept that recently opened in Las Vegas. I had read quite a bit about it  and was delighted that we were headed to Nevada so I could check it out for myself. It sounded like fusion, but once we stepped inside, we found that it’s really two restaurants in one, with two separate menus, two separate chefs and two kitchens. Diners can order off either or both menus, and build a fun and delicious meal…which is exactly what we did:China Poblano

When Pigs Fly 4pc delicate steamed
buns/Chinese barbeque pork;steamed pork buns--China Poblano

Tacos–Langosta lobster/salsa Mexicana/ arbol chile sauce and Lengua beef tongue/salsa pasilla;Tacos--China Poblano

Dan Dan Mian hand-cut wheat noodles/spicy pork sauce/peanuts;Dan Dan noodles--China Poblano

Tuna Ceviche tuna/amaranth seeds/
soy sauce/pecans;Tuna ceviche--China Poblano

Twenty-Vegetable Fried Rice with fresh vegetables/fried rice. Delicious, but probably not worth the extensive online raves it had received;Twenty vegetable fried rice_China Poblano

Col de Bruselas– caramelized Brussels sprouts/arbol salsa/chiltate;Brussels sprouts--China Poblano

Salt and Pepper Tofu–crispy tofu with shallot/garlic/fresno chile. It was the one dish our server raved about that I didn’t love.Salt and Pepper tofu--China Poblano

China Poblano is one of a vast number of restaurants in Las Vegas where you can eat very creative food without it costing an arm and a leg.  And the list seems to be growing all the time as big name chefs develop more casual eateries up and down the strip. 

China Poblano on Urbanspoon

Port Fonda/Maza Azul Collaboration Dinner

Patrick Ryan of Port Fonda and Jonathan Zaragoza of Masa Azul in Chicago recently teamed up to prepare a goat and mezcal dinner at Port Fonda.

And what a dinner it was. Each course was an adventure in itself, made more so because we got a little education about  mezcal.  Beforehand I didn’t even know the difference between mezcal and tequila; now at least I have a working knowledge of mezcal…including the fact that crema de mezcal doesn’t have cream in it!

Here’s the menu:Aguachile

Aguachile– camarones y chicharron, with del maguey vida;

Sopes– goat carnitas, frijoles charros, salsa cacahuate, with del maguey san luis de rio azul;Sopes with goat carnitas

Ensalada Port Fonda– frisee, bacon, fried tripe, poached egg, honey-pasilla dressing, with a mezcal shandy made with Boulevard Tank 7;Mezcal shandyIMG_0589Pork belly with pineapple butter

   Al pastor– pork belly, grilled bread, pineapple butter, with pua lina, del maguey vida;

Birria estilo la barca–roasted goat, ancho mole, tomato consome, tortillas a mano, with a negroni that had been made with del maguey chichicapa;Roasted goat with ancho mole and handmade tortillasMezcal negroni

Ahogada–mexican wedding cookie semifreddo, christopher elbow spiced chocolate, del maguey creama de mezcal;Semifreddo with spiced chocolate and mezcal

The six courses were perfectly sized–not too little, not so much that we waddled out the door at the end of the evening. But that’s not to say I didn’t want seconds of everything! I’d be very happy if all of the dishes found their way on to the Port Fonda menu, especially the pork belly (awesome sauce) and the roasted goat with ancho mole. The semifreddo with Christopher Elbow spiced chocolate would be a good spoon-licking addition, too.

$65 for all six courses and the drink pairings. As much as I love the standard Port Fonda menu, this was a fun change of pace, one which I hope Patrick repeats with another chef and another concept.

 

Taco Republic

I was very excited to try the new Taco Republic restaurant when it finally opened after the usual construction delays. Beautifully positioned to capture the overflow from its across-the-street neighbor Oklahoma Joe’s, I had watched its transformation from a former gas station and was intrigued by the new setup. Part indoors, part out, this place is made for hanging out and enjoying a beer at happy hour. The ambiance the restaurateurs have created is oh-so-very-cool. Brilliant, really. When it’s nice out the whole space is open, but that space can still be utilized when the temperatures dip. It’s the latest in a growing line of successful restaurants developed by bread & butter concepts, the group that also owns Urban Table, Gram & Dun and BRGR.Taco RepublicTaco Republic patioTaco Republic

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I stopped by for lunch one afternoon.  It was a chilly day, so the soft walls on the outdoor area were down and the heat lamps were full throttle. My friend and I started with guacamole which came with a huge basket of chips. We ordered salsa verde on the side. There’s a squeeze bottle of rojo salsa at every table which reminded me of the big bottles of barbecue sauce that grace the tables across the street. The red salsa was a bit sweet, but it had way more flavor than the green, which needed a major shot of hot sauce to give it heat and a reason to eat it. The chipotle salsa, I noted on a subsequent visit, packs some heat though it doesn’t have a ton of chipotle smokiness.Guacamole and salsa verde--Taco RepublicChicken taco and pork mole taco--Taco RepublicBeans and rice at Taco Republic

The menu consists of cheese dips, tacos, tortas and even tamales. Tacos are categorized by meat, chicken or veggie; I tried  the Puerco Rojos with shredded pork, black beans, sautéed onions and peppers, as well as one with grilled chicken, mole and chipotle slaw. In both cases I thought the sauce and fillings were better than the actual meat, with both the chicken and pork being a bit on the dry side. If they could find a way to keep the meats moist, those tacos would be flying out of the kitchen. I had sampled several tacos at the Taco Republic truck that roams around town and was more impressed with those offerings, perhaps because the tacos were churned out on a smaller scale.Queso Fundido--Taco RepublicTortilla Soup--Taco RepublicHalf-Roasted Chicken with Charro Beans--Taco RepublicFrito Pie--Taco RepublicTaco RepublicTaco RepublicTaco Republic

On another visit, we started with a decadent queso fundido with melted Chihuahua cheese, roasted poblano peppers and chorizo, served with flour tortillas for scooping. We resisted the temptation to eat the whole cazuela lest we ruin our appetites; it would not be difficult to make a meal of it. It made great leftovers the next day. We followed that up with a rich and satisfying tortilla soup, the kind that is thick, not brothy.  Each dip into the cute crock produces a spoonful of avocado, chicken, cheese and, of course, strips of tortilla.

Upon seeing Frito pie on the menu, we couldn’t resist ordering it since it’s a rarity outside of New Mexico where the unusual dish was invented. It typically consists of Fritos that have been smothered with a beef, bean and cheese topping, but we chose Taco Republic’s chicken chili version instead. It was served the traditional way, on top of Fritos still in the bag. If you like sweet and salt, this dish is for you.

The wood-fired chicken was originally a carry-out order only, but now it’s a menu item in a half-chicken size. It was served with Charro beans and rice, and corn tortillas for making mini-tacos. The chicken was smoked and very moist, creating a nice option for those who might want a healthy menu option.

Next I hope to swing by and grab some street tacos to-go for breakfast; the menu is short but looks very sweet.

Taco Republic is a work in progress, but one with a huge upside. Though the food doesn’t yet hit on all cylinders all the time, for the most part each of my meals were satisfying and I’ve left wanting to return. And the way the restaurant was devised is just SO inventive. It’s the sort of joint I would imagine you’d find in Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas, two big food destinations that are full of fun and unique venues. And it’s important to note that this restaurant is in capable hands with the Gaylins at the helm. I suspect that next spring, it will be THE patio of choice for lazy afternoons and Happy Hours. There’s no question we have plenty of Mexican restaurants around town, but how many score so high on the cool factor scale?

Taco Republic on Urbanspoon

Latin Bistro Express: First Taste

Latin Bistro Express is the fast casual concept created by Chef Tito of Latin Bistro in North Kansas City. While the man himself was in the house the day I went through the food line, it was not as pleasant an experience as my visits to his bistro have been. And I’m talking just about the food; obviously getting your meal Chipotle-style is completely different than dining at a full-service restaurant, though the chef’s personality was on display here as well.Chef Tito--Latin Bistro ExpressLatin Bistro ExpressBurrito--Latin Bistro Express

The menu is displayed on a big sign above where the food prep takes place. It features the typical taco, burrito and tamale presentation. Beans, rice and salsa are all extra. I was surprised that even the tacos were served sans salsa;  I understand the labor and costs involved in offering salsa when prices are already so low, but even a bottle of hot sauce on the table would have made the experience more hospitable…and tasty.pork tacos--Latin Bistro Express

My husband thought the tamales were fine–flavorful, but not light. We also had one burrito and one pork taco. Even without salsa, the pork taco with salsa verde (pork is prepared two ways here, either braised with red or green chili sauce) was the better of the two.Tamales--Latin Bistro Express

The small shop is a block from KU Med Center, and is open for lunch only.

Latin Bistro Express on Urbanspoon

Latin Bistro Express

La Choza in Santa Fe

La Choza is one of those restaurants I go to whenever I visit Santa Fe.  Sister restaurant to The Shed, it serves more locals because of its off Plaza location near the Railyard District.  The red chile sauce is some of the best in town, often considered second only to Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque. It looks more like a typical Mexican restaurant than most of the Santa Fe restaurants we frequent. It has a very basic menu but it covers all the bases; enchiladas, burritos, tacos and even sopapillas instead of tortillas on the side. They also make a wonderfully spicy carne adovado–with chunky, not pulled pork like at Tecolote.

Another bonus is that the enchiladas are made with blue corn tortillas, and they are stacked not rolled. Pinto beans are cooked whole rather than being refried, and you can’t beat the chips, salsa and guacamole. It has a big outdoor patio for dining in nice weather.

If you have an ounce of room in your stomach, don’t leave without trying the famous Mocha Cake, a frozen block of dense goodness that is not to be missed.

Can you tell I like the joint??!!

La Choza Restaurant on Urbanspoon

First Taste: Frida’s Taqueria

Many of you are familiar with Frida’s Contemporary Mexican Restaurant. If you’re not, you should be.  Owner Ivan Marquez has a hit on his hands there, with cuisine that makes you smile with every bite. Not content to simply move the original restaurant to 119th St. from 149th St. in Stanley ( which has done wonders to increase his foot traffic), Marquez and his family recently opened Frida’s Taqueria. The fast-casual concept offers a pared-down menu of tacos, burritos, tamales and empanadas, as well as the standard chips, salsa and guacamole.

On a recent visit, I sampled two tacos: one stuffed with Chile Verde (pork with tomatillo sauce) and the other with Cochinita Pibil (pork with Yucatan sauce). They were served with rice and a choice of black or refried beans, which came in tiny plastic cups that also serve as the vessel for salsas. My husband ordered a burrito, which came with the rice and beans wrapped up in the tortilla rather than on the side.

Though we ended up with a pork tamale despite ordering one with cheese and chiles, we had no complaints. The masa was light and moist.

Going through the line is not as easy an experience as it is at Chipotle. A language barrier or lack of hospitality made it difficult to complete the order. The salsas aren’t marked, and the people behind the counter weren’t particularly forthcoming, so I was left to point at each container of food to determine its contents and ask for various sauces or veggies to be added.

The final product was worth that bit of awkwardness. The pork was tender and juicy, with terrific flavor shining through in each bite. I also enjoyed the salsas, which I’d bet were the same as those served in the main restaurant.

The taqueria is new and I fully expect service issues to be resolved. Since the food is so good and the prices so reasonable, tweaking that aspect of the operation is all it will take to make this a successful venture.

 

Frida's Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Port Fonda

Before it even opened, the buzz was all about Port Fonda. Aside from being one of the most exciting-sounding restaurants to open in more than a year, Chef/owner Patrick Ryan has an impressive pedigree. He worked with Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill in Chicago, one of the country’s most highly acclaimed Mexican restaurants, and Ryan’s Port Fonda food truck experience received the only four star review by the Kansas City Star to be bestowed in recent memory.

The truck has been sidelined for now so Ryan can concentrate on getting his brick-and-mortar restaurant up and running.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but based on the awesome and memorable fare Ryan served up in the food truck, my first couple of visits were underwhelming (though he has since gone on to excite every time). Everything I sampled was very good, but there was nothing I just had to have again, except for the awesome chips and salsa. The carnitas tacos were good, but nothing special. Same goes for the Sopa Port Fonda. In fairness, I stayed away from the dishes I loved in the truck, preferring to focus on Patrick’s newer creations.

I persevered because I love Patrick’s food, and my next and all subsequent forays were much more in line with what I had anticipated and hoped for…creative as all get out, and every bite of every dish was mouth-watering.

The grilled sweet corn, one of my favorite dishes in the truck, is incredible. Epazote, cotija, habañero mayonnaise, chile, and lime top the bowl of corn (which has been taken off the cobb), so this is a much more complex and substantial dish than one may think at first glance.

If I didn’t make a meal out of the corn, I certainly could out of the chilaquiles. What makes these chilaquiles better than all others I have had (including in Mexico) is that the thick tortillas have been bathed but not soaked in salsa verde, so the tortillas retain some crunch and aren’t a mushy mess. The stack would have stood on its own without the fried egg, but of course the combination of fried egg, salsa, chorizo verde, crema, cilantro and lime really sends this dish into the stratosphere.

There are several other starters and salads, including tempura fried vegetables with the same spicy mayo that graces the corn dish, pig tails in a hot sauce, and a Rancho Gordo bean salad that can be had with or without a fried egg on top.

Tacos are reasonable priced, at 2 for $6 or $7 and, if you’ve never had a fried oyster taco, Port Fonda is the place to give it a whirl. Tortas seem to be a popular item, especially the sandwich with fried pork loin.

The flasks of green and red hot sauce on each table to use to your heart’s content is a nice touch.

If you are willing to forgo one of the interesting cocktails and stick to beer, Port Fonda offers a sweet deal called the 2 x 4. It’s a 24 ounce can of Tecate for $3. While my husband was unhappy with the $8 guacamole for a small ice cream scoop, he was over the moon about the cost of that can of beer.

Many dishes on the menu are cazuelitas, so defined because they come in a casserole dish. They range from queso fundido (melted cheese dip), which could be considered an appetizer, to wood-roasted mussels or braised octopus, grilled shrimp with green peanut mole and the Panza, which we devoured: rich pork belly with salsa negro, Rancho Gordo beans and pickled tomatillo. It was decadent, but scooping all of the ingredients into a warm corn tortilla was heaven.

I’ve also been to Port Fonda for brunch when the menu is abbreviated and obviously more breakfast focused.

In addition to the chilaquiles, which I must get every time I go to Port Fonda, we also ordered the Tostada de Carnitas and the Burnt Ends, with pork belly, Rancho Gordo beans, grilled green onions, a fried egg and chorizo hollandaise. Pork belly is by definition fatty, but this hunk was shy on meat. Nevertheless, wrapping all the ingredients into another one of those warm tortillas made for a satisfying treat.

Going on a Saturday or Sunday morning has the decided advantage of not being as loud. And the music was more to my liking with tunes from the 70′s(at least the day we were there). Typically the music is thumping, despite putting baffling under the tables and an intention by management to lower the volume in response to complaints from all ages. Though I’m not into the hard rock that blasts through later in the evening, Patrick’s symphony of flavors will keep me going back. I just wouldn’t suggest going with a big group when you have to resort to shouting, or on an occasion that calls for serious conversation.

I’m definitely on board now and in full agreement with those who think Port Fonda is the most intoxicating restaurant in town right now.

Port Fonda on Urbanspoon

El Dorado

El Dorado is a tiny little Mexican restaurant in Greenwood, east of Hwy 291 on Hwy 150.

The restaurant itself is not much to look at, but that’s rarely the point when you’re looking for some satisfying Mexican fare. It does have a cozy bar with a full array of liquor and there are two large flat screen TVs in the dining room.

The bowl of chips were served warm with a traditional salsa that had a bit of a kick to it, but not enough that I didn’t ask for a hot version as well. The hot salsa was made with a different chile and had a brown tint to it. It was loaded with flavor, but wasn’t so hot that it couldn’t be eaten on its own.

I had two small burritos, one with pork carnitas smothered in salsa verde, a thick tomatillo sauce. The other burrito had a chicken filling and was topped with El Dorado’s special red sauce that usually accompanies the Chile Colorado, so I’m guessing it was a chile de arbol.  I ordered black beans on the side, soupy enough to need a spoon.

My husband had enchiladas with mole. The sauce was outstanding–it had the proper hint of chocolate and cinnamon, with just the right  thickness. (I had a disappointingly thin mole sauce at Paparico’s last week and this was far superior.)

He also had a chunky pork tamale that was light and moist.

El Dorado may not be in your neck of the woods, but if it were on Southwest Blvd,  I predict people would be lined up to get in. As it is, if you’re in Lee’s Summit or Raymore, you might consider making the trek.

 

El Dorado Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Topolobampo–Chicago

I’ve been a fan of Frontera Grill for as long as it’s been open. But I’d never tried its more upscale neighbor Topolobampo–I just couldn’t believe it would captivate me in the same way. And the menu is meat-oriented, which can be problematic when traveling with my sister, who is not a carnivore (otherwise she’s the perfect travel companion–she’s lets me do all the restaurant picking!).

On a recent trip to Chicago, we perused the menu and decided to take the plunge. There were plenty of options from which to create an adventurous meal.

Walking to the front desk that services both restaurants, one can’t help but feel sorry for the people keeping track of reservations and waiting lists. The pace is frenetic and the crush of humanity around them must be stressful. We only waited 10 minutes (because we had a reservation, which is a major advantage over Frontera Grill’s policy of only taking them for large parties), but it was enough to witness the skill and tact required to make the operation run smoothly.

Unlike Frontera Grill’s dining room, Topolobampo’s is calm, lovely and filled with flowers. (Also dark, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood by using a flash.) The music is loud, but the patrons are not. Our server did an excellent job of helping us navigate the menu and, before even taking a bite,  we marveled at each dish placed before us. Each of the items we ordered had  ingredients in the bowl or on the plate, and then the server poured a sauce or broth over to complete the presentation. I’m sure plenty of dishes don’t require that extra touch, but it so happened that the dishes we ordered that night did.

One caveat–the portions are small. We had eaten a big lunch so that was fine with us, and we didn’t order a full dinner. There are several tasting menus offered that are designed to expose diners to the complete array of Chef Rick Bayless’ creations. Most include meat in at least one course so we ordered a la carte.

The server brought a complimentary bowl of guacamole to the table, ingeniously served with slices of cucumber and turnip rather than the ubiquitous tortilla chip.

We started with an item on the Ensaladas and Entradas list, Acamayas y Callos al Guajillo. The description reads as Pan-roasted North Sea langoustine and Baja bay scallops, red guajillo chile broth, velvety Nichols Farm parsnips, butterball potatoes, and roasted knob onions. But just looking at the dish, I wouldn’t have been able to identify all the ingredients had I not known what was in the bowl. The potatoes were diced to tiny, tiny cube size, and the parsnips were pureed and smeared as paint on a palette.

Next up was Pozole de Hongos, Mole Amarillo: Chanterelle and maitake mushroom pozole in Oaxacan yellow mole (guajillo chile, tomatillo, hoja santa), “oozy” quesillo cheese, meaty heirloom hominy, creamy field corn, crunchy popcorn, crispy tostadita. Heirloom hominy tastes nothing like the the typical bag found in the grocery; rather it is soft, and redolent of corn. The quesillo cheese looked like a light colored egg yolk and oozed on puncture, which was amazing to see from a cheese. And the popcorn was a fun touch that added another layer of texture.

We split an entrée called Chilpachole de Mariscos: Maine lobster, wood-grilled octopus, chilpachole (ancho and chipotle, epazote and velvety rich lobster broth), Nichols Farm sunchokes two ways, Bayless Garden mizuna, sunflower “sand.” It was a thing of beauty. And the “sand” was just that–sunflower seeds had been ground and mounded on the plate to resemble sand on a beach. Each bite was a revelation and tasted as fabulous as it looked.

As an example of other items on the menu, meat lovers would undoubtedly love the Carne Asada y Barbacoa en Chichilo: Seared Premier Wagyu ribeye and slow-cooked Crawford Farm lamb barbacoa in chichilo mole (dark chiles, almonds, raisins, tomato, garlic, avocado leaf, spices), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, pickly vegetables (chayote, green beans, guero chiles), unctuous black beans.

I wasn’t yet ready to stop the hit parade; it was just so fun to watch these amazing dishes come to our table. So we ordered one dessert. “Taza” de Chocolate Oaxaqueno con Manchamanteles was a “cup” of layered frozen chocolate espumas (bittersweet, Oaxacan, turron, bubbly), toasted plantain brioche with cinnamon & sugar…and warm, fruity, chocolatey manchamanteles mole. Mole for dessert? Seems like a no-brainer really, when you consider that one of its key ingredients is chocolate. This was another “pour over” dish and, though it wasn’t my favorite of the night, it was another masterpiece.

It was such a memorable evening that I may never go back to Frontera again…unless I strike out getting a reservation at Topolobampo.

Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

Westport Street Fare

Aaron Confessori and Richard Wiles are busy men. They own Westport Cafe and Bar, the recently opened Boot, and they are operating the Westport Street Fare, a food truck parked at the corner of Westport and Pennsylvania in the parking lot just to the west of Harry’s Bar and Tables.

The truck serves up mostly Mexican fare with a bit of a global flair. The menu is very straight forward. There are five fillings–spicy pork, chicken confit, Korean short rib meat, seared mahi-mahi and crispy tofu, and four vessels for enjoying them–in a burrito (with rice), as a quesadilla (with cheese), as a torta (with avocado, mayo, Pico de Gallo, lettuce and chipotle crema), or in a corn tortilla to make a taco.

The mahi is marinated in soy and pineapple, and topped with sliced cabbage, avocado, pico de gallo and chipotle crema. The short ribs are crispy chunks of meat, marinated with Korean seasonings, including sake and pear. The pork is marinated with three types of dried chiles including chipotle, guajillo and pasilla. The chicken filling combines confit chicken (which they use for their hash at brunch at the Westport Cafe) with hash browns and roasted tomato vinaigrette.

I have sampled all of the offerings and loved everything I ate, in every format. However,  I am especially partial to the pork torta; it has to be one of the best sandwiches in town. The rolls as well as the tortillas are made at Carniceria y Tortilleria San Antonio and are still warm when delivered. The Korean short rib tacos are special, too,  and the flavors will really grab you.

There’s typically a ramen special with housemade noodles, pork belly and short rib. You’ll need the chopsticks they give you to pick up the big pieces of pork belly and short rib that are floating in the soup.  It’s all very soothing on a chilly night, but it might not stay on the menu in the heat of the summer.

Richard and Aaron wanted to keep the menu simple and it works beautifully.  The one addition I would make is to add chips and salsa.  The fiery red salsa and smooth avocado tomatillo salsa that accompany each item are homemade and, while the offerings don’t need embellishment, I really wanted  some chips to dip into those little containers.  It was really hard to throw out even one drop, because the heat and texture of both have me thinking the salsas are as fine as you’ll find in Kansas City.

The little courtyard is strung with lights that make the area festive, and there’s a ledge that goes around the fence so after you pick up your food there’s a place to land while you eat it. Rich said that at some point they may add stools for outdoor dining. At the moment, no beer is served, but they make their own sodas. I sampled the lemon lime and it was perfect for putting out the fire in my mouth from the salsas.

The Westport Street Fare is open Thursdays-Saturday nights, from 7 pm to 3 am. Yes, you read that right. Aaron says a big wave of customers come in the wee hours of the morning, undoubtedly after rolling out of one of the nearby bars. But those of us who aren’t up that late can grab a bite during its more civilized hours of operation. It really doesn’t matter when you go…just go.