Chowdown at Taco Max (Report)
First of all, it was great to meet & chat with all of you... and thank you so much for making it out here on a rainy day, to eat in plastic tables set on a mall throughfare... particularly those who drove from the Southbay & Eastbay... that is some chow dedication!
I will abstain from submitting my own report for a few days... please be honest & forthcoming... the final menu was....
Sopa de Habas / Fava Soup
Ceviche Peruano / Peruvian Style Ceviche
Tostada de Hongos en Tinga / Tostada of Mushrooms in Tinga Guiso
Green Mole with Duck; Black Beans simmered with Epazote; Handmade Tortilla
White Fish & Vegetables in Aluminum Foil Pouch
Plumb Tamale; Aztec Style Hot Chocolate or Brewed Cinammon Tea
It was absolutely awesome to be able to meet some chowhounds over a really nice dinner put together.
I'll begin with my favorites:
>The duck in mole verde & the black beans made the night for me - period. I think what stood out for me the most in this dish was how important a full flavored meat is when pairing it with an equally full-bodied sauce. If bland factory farm chicken was utilized - I would have thought it was a merely ok entree. In regards to the black beans - some of the best I have ever consumed and I loved them with the green mole.
> My second favorite was the fava bean soup - which reminded me so much of split pea - epitome of comfort food.
"Just Ok" -
> Cebiche - I enjoyed the chili element of this dish - I thought the iceberg to be extraneous.
> Tostada > Much too tomatoey for me and pretty spicy. Tingas I have had before have been much more brothy which I prefer and much more subtle.
....I kind of got cut off.
My only criticism was that I wished the dinner had been a little better orchestrated and that eating off of stryofoam plates kind of detracted. I kind of feel a bit disspointed in this respect -mainly for the people who made the trip all the way up here to experience this - because I know I would have slightly been dissapointed had I driven an hour in rain to be met by this.
I also wished Arturo, the chef would have explained a little bit more.
This an event where the company and food made the drive in the rain and traffic worthwhile.
The Fave Bean Soup was my favorite, it had a very complex layer flavor. Now that it is again cool it will be on my list to try.
Also the Green Mole Duck was a great idea, question to those who are in the know could this be a Chili Verde Duck?
The ceviche in my opinion was too busy too many things going on. Just adding onions would have been enough. Maybe some chips would be good.
Whole fish in aluminum foil was interesting. Wish if was large serving so that I could have more fish to compare. But the fish itself was not overcooked, but that maybe do to it been cooked in a enclose pouch.
Not sure if I would ever fight the rain and traffic, but it was wonder to see old hounds and meeting new ones.
Thanks Eat Nepal for arranging this chowdown.
Fava bean soup: definitely good. Better with a little bit of the hot sauce added. Earthy, layered with flavors... I could be happy with just a big bowl of this for dinner on a cold rainy night.
Ceviche: good. Didn't seem like anything too special, but I enjoyed it. Maybe too many things in it? fish, jicama, red onion, chilis, lime juice... the lettuce didn't add much.
Cesar Salad: surprised me. The cheese was something crumbly. A queso anejo I assume... Kind of vinegary... Okay. Definitely a bit different than a standard Cesar salad.
Tostada: At the upper limits of my personal tolerance for spiciness, especially since the only beverage was water. The spice totally overpowered everything else, except a hint of earthiness from the beans and the crunch underneath it all. I don't care much for mushrooms, though, so the overpowering spiciness hiding all the mushroominess of this dish probably helped me to enjoy it more.
Green Mole with Duck: Amazing. wonderful. astounding. I often find duck to be a bit too greasy, but here the grease from the duck blended right into the sauce perfectly. Flavorful sauce and flavorful meat paired wonderfully together. Wow. The black beans were great, too; tasted like there was something else going on (lard or chicken broth), but asked the chef and he said it was just beans, epazote and water. Handmade tortilla was a great touch, too; buttery and delicious; almost like unstuffed flatter pupasas. All together: amazing in ways I can't figure out how to describe. My portion had a bit of backbone that I found myself carefully picking every last scrap of meat out of and trying to lick clean.
Fish: ehh. The two veggies I could identify were squash of some kind (light green zucchini?) and garlic. The fish seemed kinda bland.
Plum Tamale: okay. I might've liked it more with a different fruit. (not a big stone fruit fan).
The Hot Chocolate was great. Very chocolatey. Just a hint of sweet. Like a foamey version of a top-notch chocolate bar.
Chocolateninja and I talked to the chef afterwards. She'd recognized him from the Santa Rosa wednesday night market from when he'd helped out at a booth selling El Salvadoran food. It sounded like he was responsible for the amazing salvadoran style tamales we got from there.
I thought this was pretty hit and miss but put that down mostly to the chef being overwhelmed by finding chairs, trying to figure out who was on which course etc. I liked the soup the most, especially with the bright red sauce stirred in, the ceviche was good but I thought too cold, the flavors seemed muted. (Since we arrived at 4, we started earlier and maybe it was just pulled from the refrigerator.) What made it Peruvian? The salad and tinga totally underwhelmed us. I thought the duck would have been much improved with a lot of the skin removed before braising as it made the sauce oily. However, if the bone and skin were removed, there wouldn't be much left! I liked the squash with the steamed fish but the fish itself was blah. I liked the tamale and the chocolate. I appreciate the effort of the organizer and the chef but overall, the food disappointed me. For us, the best part was the company and luckily, the trip home was half the time of getting up there ~
I'd like to second the question about the "Peruvian" ceviche. I guess I wondering if we could get some explanation as to what made it Peruvian.
I would have expected perhaps some cancha, or a partial ear of corn or a boiled potato or something.
The only thing unusual I noticed about this ceviche was that there was a small amount of ginger. I did a little bit of searching it I did find recipes for or references to ceviches with ginger or ginger juice but I don't know if that is uniquely Peruvian.
Perhaps there someone out there able and willing to drop some expert ceviche knowledge!
I'm struggling here because I really don't want to say anything negative about a chef who obviously has his heart in the right place. Just the fact that there is an independent operation like this in a *mall* is reason enough to check it out if you happen to be at the Coddingtown Center in Santa Rosa. I supposed I should have tried something from the regular menu to report on as well.
Without going into the specifics of each dish, one small thing I felt was missing that could have made a huge difference: garnishes! Seems like I am the only mentioning this, but I would have liked a little more spice -- some bottles of hot sauce or bowls of chile/salsa would have been welcome. I love a healthy squirt of lime on just about anything. And a few radishes would have been nice to munch on as a palate cleanser. Even taco trucks provide these basic but, in my mind, essential accoutrements.
The hot Aztec hot chocolate made by Eat Nopales, along with his recounting of the recipe, was the thing that made the drive in the rain up from Oakland truly worthwhile ... well, that and meeting everyone and cribbing their North Bay chow notes. Obviously Eat Nopales' cocoa far surpassed the version we got at the Warm Puppy Cafe to drink as we watched kiddies skate to Bon Jovi at the Snoopy ice rink -- it came from a machine and was topped with Reddi-Whip but you could have guessed that.
Afterwards, Kare Raisu escorted my accomplice and I to Wine Spectrum so that we could wet our whistles. We had a great time tasting wines and comparing notes. I found Wine Spectrum to be a really laid-back and enjoyable place to taste -- no small feat given that this was on a Saturday night and any comparable place in Berkeley or San Francisco would likely have been uncomfortably bustling.