Thursday, April 28, 2011

Restaurant: No Tomatoes! Food Truck

This roving restaurant has affordable Indian street fare, with some being worthy food options and some definitely not. Oh, and it DOES serve tomatoes.

 5 out of 10 Peppers = Medium

The Details: It irks me that the No Tomatoes! Indian street fare food truck serves food that has tomatoes. Why the misnomer, guys? No Tomatoes! should take a page out of the menu of The India Restaurant and just name itself what it is (No Tomatoes: Just Kidding?). For you tomato-haters out there who were considering flocking to this truck, you're actually safe except for the tikka masala.

Name notwithstanding, I love the growing Indian food truck trend. Gotta love that entrepreneurial spirit and adaptability. Service at this truck s friendly, moreso than at some of the other ones. The food was served quickly, literally less than a minute after we ordered. The only aggravating thing customer service-wise is it charges $0.50 extra for credit card payments. I had enough cash on me but didn't want to juggle with the change, so I paid with a credit card anyway. Boo to losing some laundry money.

Like most food trucks, it has a limited menu, and it's affordable. Prices range from $2 (drinks) to $6 (most items) to $8 (combos). Portions are small though, especially the samosas.

I got the Seekh Dog with lamb (also available with chicken or beef). which is meat wrapped in paratha and topped with coleslaw, red onions, cilantro, and mint chutney. I appreciated the crunch of the vegetables. This item was spicier than I expected it to be, but I'd still recommend it. The inner paper wrapping was frustrating though. I was so hungry and the paper wouldn't roll down! At one point, I was seriously considering biting into the paper--ha!

I paid $2 extra for the combo, which included two small Samosas and a drink (either a bottled water, which I got, or a soda. If you want an Indian drink, like a Mango Lassi or a Chai Tea, that's $2 on its own). The dipping sauce that comes with the samosas is a nice truck.

Now the main reason this food truck lost so many peppers in its rating. The biryani was wayyy too spicy! I mean, it was basically inedible. Nick bought this for $6, and I noticed he kept grabbing my water bottle after every bite. I asked him what was wrong. He let me taste it, and I knew we'd have to throw it away. It was so spicy -- wow. Trying my best to overlook that, the rest of the flavors taste-wise were fine, but smell-wise it had an odd, unplaceable smell. It came with chicken (no choice with the meat), though the chicken pieces were really small. I gave Nick one of my samosas, and sadly that was pretty much his dinner for the night. The line for the food truck was too long for me to be able to let them know about the biryani problem or to find out if we could replace it with something else. Bummer.

What's your favorite Indian food truck? Have you eaten No Tomatoes! biryani and did you have the same spice level issue?

No Tomatoes!, location varies.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Recipe: Coconutty Quinoa with Pistachios and Mangoes

A healthy, albeit difficult to work with, alternative to rice, this quinoa recipe is a sweet side dish offering for Indian meals.

1 cup quinoa (like Trader Joe's Organic Quinoa)
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1/2 cup light coconut milk
1/2 cup dried mango (like Trader Joe's Dried Fruit: Soft & Juicy Mango)
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut (like Bob's Red Mill Shredded Coconut)
1/2 cup dry roasted, unsalted pistachio pieces, plus more for garnish
pinch of salt

You'll Also Need:
a colander, cheesecloth

1. Place a piece of cheesecloth in the bottom of a colander. Pour in the cup of quinoa. Rinse the quinoa under cold running water.
2. While that's rinsing, chop the dried mango into bite-size pieces.
3. Add the broth and the coconut milk to a pot and bring to a boil.
4. Add the salt and the quinoa. Lower to a simmer. Cover. You're going to cook for about 10 minutes altogether.
5. After the first five minutes of cooktime, add the mango pieces and the shredded coconut to the pot. Stir.
6. Continue cooking until all the water is absorbed. Quinoa is done when it's translucent and the germ ring is visible along the outside.
7. Stir in a 1/2 cup of pistachio pieces.
8. Add more pistachio pieces on top for garnish.

Serves 4.

The AHH Factor: This was my first time cooking quinoa. Well, make that second time. The first time was the night before and that was a total fail. I didn't realize how minuscule these seeds are and so didn't bother with lining my colander with cheesecloth. Yeahh...I'm sure you can imagine how that went. I lost about a quarter of the quinoa out the bottom of the colander.

Even with the cheesecloth technique, I still lost some of the quinoa -- this time due to it getting stuck on the disintegrating cheesecloth. Overall, I found quinoa to be surprisingly hard to work with. It kept sticking to my fingers and/or spilling all over the floor. I may simply be too clumsy to work with it, but quinoa has such potential for healthy eating that I really want to make it work. I have a great vision in which I replace quinoa for white rice in Indian dishes.

Many people, including whoever wrote the text on the packaging of the Trader Joe's box, think quinoa is a grain, but it's techinically a chenopod and not a grass. What that means is it has way better nutritional value than white rice, or even brown rice, which is why I want to cook with it more. One serving (1/4 cup) of the Trader Joe's kind has 5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. It also contains a balanced set of essential amino acids. It's also gluten-free. I'm not on a gluten-free diet, but it seems that more and more people are, and this entire recipe can be gluten-free as long as you buy all of the ingredients carefully. (For instance, certain brands of chicken broth contain gluten, while others are gluten-free.) It also cooks up more quickly than rice, and taste-wise I enjoy the taste slightly more than I enjoy the taste of rice.

Other than the quinoa and maybe the chicken/veggie broth (I'll have to ask my mom about that ingredient), the other ingredients are pretty typical in Indian cuisine. The quinoa really absorbs the flavors of the broth and coconut milk. In the FAIL version, I actually had less chicken broth and more coconut milk, but that made this dish way too sweet.

Anyone have any tips or tricks for how to cook with quinoa successfully?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Restaurant: Gill's Indian Restaurant, Los Angeles

 Surprisingly located inside a hotel, the quality and choice of food at Gill's Indian Restaurant is also surprising -- in a good way.

8 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy
The Details: When searching for a hotel venue for our wedding, I was surprised by one thing: even though many hotels are owned by Indians, almost none of them have an in-house chef who can make Indian cuisine. Instead, for Indian weddings, the catering has to be contracted to an outside caterer (if the hotel even lets you do that, sometimes the smaller ones won't), which is frequently more expensive than using the in-house chef and definitely more of a pain in the butt.

I certainly never expected to find an Indian restaurant inside a hotel. (The closest thing I'd seen was Bombay Tandoori & Banquet, which is next to a hotel.) But Gill's Indian Restaurant is indeed inside of the Stillwell Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Sadly, even if we hadn't booked our venue already, I still wouldn't want it here. The restaurant itself is great, but the hotel is sketchy. When I needed to use the bathroom, I was given a key to the one in the hotel lobby. That's never a good sign. Also not a good sign is the fact that I think I walked by a homeless guy to use it.

The restaurant serves traditional Indian food, but the menu includes unique takes on certain items. Of course, to me that meant I had try items I'd never seen before. (Food is my only risk-taking outlet, really. And it does occasionally backfire. In those instances I use my GPS to find a drive-through window on the way home.)

I don't get to downtown Los Angeles more than about once every few months, but I was happy to make this trip because a good friend from high school, Katie, was in town from her home in Nashville on business. Katie was totally game to eat anything on the menu, which is awesome, and it was great to have a little reunion.

As at most Indian restaurants, the Papadum is complimentary, and that is the case at Gill's too.The unusual thing is they had a different accompaniment from the standard chutneys. This dipping sauce was more like a spicy ketchup. It was interesting, though I still opted to eat most of my papadum plain, which is my typical preference anyway.

The first unique item I opted for was the Masala Lassi, which I think some other restaurants do offer but usually under the name of Salted Lassi, Original Lassi, or just Lassi. I knew I probably wouldn't like it -- I tend to only like sweet lassis -- but I was wondering if the restaurant used unusual spices to make its "masala" since it specifically mentioned "masala" in the name. But that wasn't really the case. It tasted like Indian yogurt to me; I couldn't taste any spices. Katie commented that it tasted like buttermilk. It was super frothy (as shown in the right photo). The restaurant also offers a Rose Lassi and a Mango Lassi (what I usually order). Katie ordered a Shiraz from California from the wine list and noted that the wine menu could be improved with more California-grown wine selections.

The "pork" section of the menu caught my eye. Not because I'm a huge pork fan (though I do like it), but because I've never seen pork on an Indian menu before. Gill's offers Pork Curry, Pork Korma, Pork Saag, Pork Vindaloo, Pork Karahi, and Pork Masala. The server says the restaurant has a demand for both pork and beef items (also unusual, though not as much so), and he said if I like pork, he'd recommend it. I opted for the Pork Saag (pork cooked in creamed spinach), because I figured if the pork was too weird I'd likely at least eat the spinach. Katie and I both really liked this dish. Katie noted that the spinach was nice and creamy, and I appreciated that the pork was cooked just the right amount. It wasn't too tough, and it really didn't stick out as "unusual" while we were eating it.

Katie thought the Shrimp Coconut sounded good, and she was definitely right about that. It was a curry dish made with shrimp marinated in coconut milk with tomatoes and spiced with fenugreek and saffron. She's braver than I am and got it "medium" not "mild," but even with the extra spice it was so tasty that I couldn't stop eating it.

Rice must be ordered separately, so we got the standard white basmati rice for $2.95, which was enough for both of us.

Despite the sketch factor of the hotel, the atmosphere in the restaurant was nice. There were Bollywood music videos playing on the TV, which is always a fun touch. I wouldn't take a first date here, but other than that it's a solid choice for lunch or dinner. Based on the restaurant's website, it has a busy take-out business, and you can place your order online. The lunch buffet (weekdays only, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) is only $7.95 plus tax, which is one of the least expensive Indian buffets I've seen in Los Angeles.

For parking, I parked in a paid garage a block away (there are some street spots that might not be metered at night, but they were all full), but we noticed on the way out that there's a small lot right next to the restaurant that says it validates for Gill's. So I'd recommend parking there instead -- it's on the same side of the street as the hotel and is a small surface lot.

What's your favorite downtown Los Angeles Indian food find?

Gill's Indian Restaurant, 838 S. Grand Ave. (inside the Stillwell Hotel), Los Angeles 90017. (213) 623-1050.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Restaurant: Susan Feniger's Street, Los Angeles

Top notch flavorful food awaits you at Susan Feniger's Street, which features street foods from around the world, including some Indian favorites.

9 out of 10 Peppers = Extra Spicy

The Details: Susan Feniger's Street isn't an Indian restaurant. Its niche is street food from all over the globe, but Indian food is well represented. And I'd be remiss if I didn't review it for saagAHH -- my lunch here was one of the best meals I've ever had. Plus, the menu (for dinner anyway) includes Saag Paneer & Dal, and you know I'll check out any place that offers the blog's namesake dish.

The restaurant was introduced to me by my friend Amishi, who's also Indian. We first tried to go about a month before this visit, but alas a private party was in progress. But even then I was impressed because Susan Feniger herself -- celebrity chef and founder of several famed restaurants -- emerged from the doors with an apology when she saw our disappointed faces.

This time, we planned ahead (which as anyone who knows me knows is more my style anyway). We made a reservation for lunch. The menu slightly differs from lunch to dinner to brunch (only on Sundays, I believe).

Our server brought out complimentary Millet Puffs, which he described as "like a spiced Rice Krispies Treat." It was puffed millet with marshmallow, cardamom, and other Indian spices. Even with his explanation of the spices, I was a little surprised that this ball that looked so much like a Rice Krispies treat tasted savory, not sweet. But I dug right in. These were good! (And doesn't the metal serving dish really give it that India vibe?)

Both Amishi and I got a Tamarind Ginger Cooler for our beverage, which the menu described as "sweet and tart with homemade ginger syrup." It was literally like the beverage of my dreams -- just moments before in the car I'd been trying to come up with a recipe for a ginger-infused beverage, albeit I was thinking more along the lines of a cocktail. This drink was truly excellent. I'm sure that next time I have a stomachache (perhaps blogging-provoked) I'll be wishing I could get my hands on this beverage instead of a now-boring gingerale. The restaurant also has a Mango Lassi on its menu, and I just noticed that its brunch menu has a Indian Lime Soda on it, described as "a grown-up version of a summertime street favorite: chilled gin, fresh lime juice, celery salt, cumin." Honestly, that all sounds gross to me -- I don't like gin, plus I like my drinks sweet, not salty, but knowing my foodie curiosity I'll likely wind up ordering it just so I can take one sip and discuss its merits and flaws for the next week.

Wanting to try an Indian entree, I ordered the Bhel Puri Salad. It's vegetarian and, at $8 is one of the cheapest items on the lunch menu. However, the server warned me that the portion size was small and I might want to add a side. That brought my total up to $14 (for food only), which is more typical for a lunch here. I was thankful that he mentioned the salad size, because if he hadn't I would have been annoyed when I got my food.  However, with the heads-up, I was totally happy with my salad. It included sweet potatoes (yay for those instead of regular potatoes!), chickpeas, puffed rice, Indian, all mixed with a light tamarind cilantro dressing that kept it from being too dry. Amishi commented that the dish had a lot of chickpeas, as opposed to just being filled with a bunch of puffed rice. She was a bummed though that the restaurant no longer had Pani Puri, which it offered when it opened two years ago and which was featured on a Food Network show. Our server said Susan took the Pani Puri and transformed it into this salad instead.

These last two items aren't Indian, but they were soo good that I have to mention them. Amishi got what I would have ordered had I not gone down the Indian route: the Vietnamese Pulled Pork Sandwich. She must have seen me salivating over it, because she wound up giving me one of the two little sandwiches. (Thank you!) Street food definitely tastes better when it's shared! It was so juicy and so good -- wow. Amishi commented she could really taste the keffir lime. It was served with some plantains, which, since they had sour cream and coconut on them, Amishi said tasted "a little exotic."

For that side I mentioned earlier, I got the Spaghetti Squash. This was the best thing ever. It wasn't spicy but it was seasoned with a chipotle honey butter, and if I look at this photo reminder any more I will probably short-circuit my computer with my drool. If you're a vegetable fan like I am, you must try this. It's sweet and savory all at once and delicious. Plus, the texture is terrific and the strands stay separated. (And the presentation is a little bit better than in this pic. I forgot to snap a pic before I dug into it.) Yum.

Oh, and as it turns out, that first visit when we Susan  was no coincidence. She's frequently at the restaurant going from table to table checking in on customers or talking to foodie tour groups. TOURific Escapes is there pretty much every Saturday.

So why not the full on 10 Peppers? The food definitely is top notch, but I subtracted a pepper mostly for the parking situation. At lunch, you'll be able to find free street parking, but for dinner it's pretty much valet or bust, and I hear the valet is $8. Bummer as that could have been another order of that spaghetti squash! Also, while I actually would argue that the food quality is worth the price, the small portion sizes (Amishi's sandwiches were small too) will probably turn some people off.

So back to that Tamarind Ginger Cooler, what Indian-inspired cocktail or mocktail would you bring to life?

Susan Feniger's Street, 742 North Highland, Los Angeles (neighborhood: Hollywood). (323) 203-0500.
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