Sunday, December 26, 2010

Go West and Go Home

I grew up in Columbia, MD, a thriving, family-oriented suburbia. For me, one of it's downfalls is its overabundance of chain restaurants, which irked me more and more as my passion for food grew. I felt deprived of advancing my culinary horizons within my home town, and was a bit embarrassed with the lack of neighborhood eats I could take visiting friends to. Of course Columbia does have a handful of quality restaurants, but it always made me sad that on the whole, independent places often could not compete with chains.

Luckily for me, Columbia is situated right in-between two major cities: Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Going to college in D.C. awarded me the opportunity to explore Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, and many other different cuisines that are not easily accessible in Columbia. My restaurant experiences in Baltimore were always more limited however, in part because my time spent there growing up was mostly to visit my grandma, when we would usually go to a Chinese restaurant in her neighborhood (although Mr. Chan's is really tasty, I must say!).

I therefore consider myself even luckier to have discovered Golden West Cafe, located in the adorable Hamden neighborhood in Baltimore. Hamden is filled with vintage shops, boutiques, and an overwhelming choice of restaurants and cafes, all packed within a few blocks.

However I have trained myself to turn a blind eye to all other food options, and make a B line to the Golden West Cafe. Golden West offers a fun atmosphere filled with antique and whimsical Western paraphernalia (obviously not complete without a moose head). The menus are made of, and the bathrooms covered with, vintage record covers. The menu itself is composed of what they call "New Mexican," which translates to unique spins on Tex-Mex inspired plates, with plenty of vegetarian and even vegan options.

As per tradition, every visit to Golden West for me begins with their delicious sweet potato fries, dressed with rosemary salt (you can also get the sweet version with cinnamon sugar). These vibrant orange fries are always made to order (aka, you must practice patience when they arrive, in order not to burn your tongue), and are supremely delicious. Their crispy and savory exterior gives way to a fluffy and subtly sweet interior. They are delectable eaten alone or with ketchup, but I'm a fan of dips, so I like ordering their homemade lemon tahini dressing on the side for such purposes. The result? Heaven! The dressing is thick and bursting with bright citrusy notes and nutty flavors, complimenting the fries' contrasting texture and taste.

For my main course, I decided to go with one of their house specialties, Sopaipillas Enchiladas. Imagine hot and crispy sopaipillas (fried tortilla dough) amidst a mountain of beans, grilled chicken breast, jack cheese, and house-made chile sauce. Throw in guacamole, sour cream, salsa fresca, and an egg sunny side up, and you've got the Sopaipillas Enchiladas, a plate fit for man vs. food.

That's one thing I like about Golden West. The dishes and restaurant as a whole exudes an air of over-excitement. The chef, instead of picking and choosing what to put in the restaurant's dishes, simply decides to throw everything in, and because it's all delicious and well-crafted, the components work together to create a party in your mouth. Everything about this dish made me feel the passion behind its concoction, from the moist chicken and flavorful beans, to the spicy chile sauce, to the perfectly cooked egg, who's runny yolk coated the crispy sopaipillas and everything else in its path with a silky smooth blanket.

I also want to mention the dish that my mom (who served as my eating partner in crime for the evening) ordered, which, although part of the non-Mexican side of the menu, was just as inspiring. Their polenta in minestrone, which was a dinner special the night we went, was crafted using locally secured produce, resulting in an extremely flavorful and hearty stew that covered large triangles of lightly browned polenta, with freshly grated Parmesan sprinkled on top. Again, textures and flavors melded together seamlessly, as biting into the crispy outside of the polenta gave way to its creamy center, an experience heightened by the richly developed flavors of the minestrone, all finished with a slightly pungent aftertaste of the parmesan.

Needless to say, my mom and I were both more than content after our respective meals. Although I'm thrilled to be back in New York, exploring its endless food traditions and innovations, it's always nice to come back to a place unique to where I'm from. For me, the Golden West Cafe provides a guaranteed great meal, always with a friend or family member happy to share the experience with me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Eyfo HaSush?!

Where is the sushi, that is the question. Well I found it. I know, I know, I'm in New York City, where a new hip Sushi place is opening once every seven minutes.

BUT...not every one of these hip sushi places is reasonably priced, while still able to offer good quality fish, and pieces of sushi that aren't 90% rice. To find a place like that is, I think, a feat.

Before i continue, I do want to explain the title of this post. "Eyfo HaSush" nostalgically refers to my time spent abroad in Tel Aviv, Israel, where I'm pretty sure Sushi places exist even more so than in New York. So there I was in the Middle East, surrounded by plenty of places offering delicious falafal, kebabs and salads (of which I did have plenty, believe me). Yet I found myself gravitating towards the sushi restaurants on a Saturday night, since the abundance of fresh seafood available to Israel lessened the prices somewhat, making sushi an affordable (and delicious) option to my friends and me. It therefore became a running joke to ask, when seeking out a restaurant, "Eyfo HaSush???," literally translating to "where is the sush??"

Thus it was entirely appropriate that my friend Meesh, who I traveled abroad with, introduced me to this Sushi place in the East Village, called JeBon. I was expecting either really good sushi with the high prices that usually accompany it, or subpar pieces of fish at reasonable prices. I was pleasantly surprised when I was presented with beautiful pieces of carefully crafted sushi. And not only were the prices budget friendly, but the atmosphere was an interesting combination of playful and toned down.

I apologize for the poor photo quality, because it makes it hard to see the vibrant colors of these uramaki rolls (aka inside out rolls). The forefront one is a spicy tuna roll, and the one in back is shrimp tempura. The pieces were large, with the fish occupying most of the roll. The tuna was very smooth, with no fishy taste, and the spicy mayonnaise sauce atop it, while not overpowering, was flavorful and satisfying. In the tuna tempora roll, I was delighted to see how generous the shrimp portion was in each piece. The shrimp was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, indicating that the tempora had been fried moments before being prepared and delivered to me. The tempura roll also had avocado in it, which was great to have that cool, creamy texture juxtapose the warm crunch of the shrimp.

The atmosphere definitely added to pleasant dining experience. The low lighting was nice, although I should mention that the second time I went here, that wall of lights was red, and I do not recommend sitting at a table right next to blaring red beams. The music in the background, which was turned to an appropriately high, yet not deafening volume, was made up mostly of songs that one would usually hear at a club, making it a good venue on a Friday or Saturday night before continuing on to a bar or club.

I'm really happy that I've found a sushi place where I can enjoy my food and friends' company, while not having to worry about spending a fortune. That means that I can be responsible, and spend that money elsewhere, like for laundry...yeah right.