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.
We luckily did not have so very far to drive. Arrived just in time to be served a delicious (albeit tepid) fava soup-I will make this myself, once my beans grow up next spring! The soup was comforting, and was a delicious reminder of split pea soup. Only better! The ceviche was refreshing, but didn't shout 'PERU' to me. The slight bit of habanero brought a bit of warmth to the dish, which I enjoyed. The caesar salad was dressed really well. We liked it a lot. The 'parmesan' substitute was a surprise, and the presence of anchovies was appreciated. I enjoyed the beans in all their forms- on the Tinga, as well as accompaniment to the duck mole. I liked the combination of mole and duck, though breast meat would have been a little easier to eat with the plastic utensils. Arturo WAS overwhelmed, but was obviously proud of the food he was producing. I think it would definitely be worthwhile to accompany a smaller group to a more restaurant-like setting. The hot chocolate was a great ending to an interesting and pleasant experience at the mall.
First off... I was disappointed that the dining area wasn't reserved & set up for the party. They knew we were expecting 20... and should have borrowed tables & chairs before hand. Given the size of the group... and a 2 person operation... it might have made sense to close shop for the evening... the distractions of random customers didn't help service levels.
Overall... I now realize the plan was a bit ambitious. Crunching through the numbers.... 7 courses (albeit simply plated) * 20 diners = 140 things to serve in a 2 hour time frame... this alone was a bit much for a two person operation.
> I thought the Fava soup was solid. Perhaps a swirl of crumbled chorizo or the spicy red sauce, & some chopped mint or cilantro would have lifted it beyond.
> The Ceviche was blah & out of place... forgettable. My bite lacked salt.
> Cesar Salad was good... the crumbly Cotija added an interesting texture & gamey flavor that paired interestingly with the heavy anchovy feel. This dish was also out of place... given the meal's intent. But anyone who has been to Cuernavca understands why Arturo would include it - it is to Mexico City, as Napa is to San Francisco... a 1 hour drive on the weekends to one of the hundreds of spa retreats.... with just about every resort restaurant dishing up a smattering of international dishes including the ubiquitous Cesar Salad. The best variation I have eaten in the area... had little crispy chicharrones made from griddled cotija as well as fried charalitos (little 2 1/2 inch long fish)... that version would have tied in a lot better.
> Tinga Tostada... I have diverging opinions. At one level... its typical of light snacks we would make at home from leftovers... slow toast some stale tortillas on the comal, spread on some leftover beans & the guiso of the day... voila... in this respect I liked it... this is comfort food to me (I thought the heat level was fine). On the other hand... it was homey & not restaurant food. I think that some creamy white beans (instead of whole pintos), some sauteed Chorizo in the sauce... & a few slices of avocado as garnish could have met our expectations.
> Arture nailed the Duck Mole... that was outstanding... my piece of duck was one of the best I have had in the last two years... and the sauce was addictive... very nutty with layers of herbal complexity.
> The black beans with epazote were decent... but I don't think they were the best pairing for the mole. I think some kind of crispy yet luscious Tortitas (fritters / Crab Cake type dish)... of Huazontle, Chard, Marigolds or even Broccoli would have made the dish spectacular.
> The Fish "Mixiote" was my biggest disappointment of the night. It was very homey... something I wouldn't serve to guests. I was hoping for whole trout in a spicy sauce or something similar... that is what I have had at restaurants in his region. Our fish turned out to be a bit dry & the herbal juices were bitter.
> Plumb Tamale.... turned out to be ordinary & unimaginative. As a traditional food it was below average... and as a restaurant dessert it just never existed (could have used some kind of creamy sauce... maybe a sweetened Nogada)... or it could have been composed into a layers with grilled fruit etc.,
I echo your feeling almost to the letter. I wish there was more fish in the fish I could tell anything about it expect it was very moist but outside of that it was not well done. I had hope for a piece large enough for me to taste, get feeling of the texture and freshest of the fish.
I do not think the chef and staff have done a lot of serving like this and were not really aware of the work that need to be done ahead of time.
Our arriving over a hour in time would not help either. I petty sure that the staff of two could handle all of us at once either.
But I would love to try his food again but maybe at a remote location were we had a more private place for the meal.
Thank again for arranging this chowdown.
The duck definitely made it. Now I'm curious to go back and see what the regular menu is like. Is Arturo going to be there a while, or is this temporary?
I missed the chocolate; my husband couldn't stop talking about it. It inspired the most eloquent description of food I've ever heard from him. But Eat Nopal made it, not Taco Max? I'm glad he posted a recipe.
Thanks again, Eat Nopal, for organizing this.
It seems like most of the diners are pretty interested in Arturo and willing to forgive the shortcomings of the meal in a show of support for a chef who is struggling to establish his business. It would have been *great* to talk to him more about where the ingredients we were eating came from, how he plans his menu, what he'd like to do in the future...even to hear anecdotes about having his business in the mall! I can understand that he was probably overwhelmed by trying to serve 20 people from styrofoam plates in the middle of the mall! Perhaps he should have just done family-style servings.
EN: thanks for your erudite take on the meal -- can you just cook the food for the next chowdown? The gathering at Taco Max might have missed the mark but my hat is still off to you for trying to do something a little different.
Has anyone tried the tortas at Taco Max that can report? Keep us posted about Arturo's ventures -- I'd sample his eats if they were available at a farmer's market or whatnot. I might even drive back to Santa Rosa to do so (especially since then I could hit up those tortillerias in Sonoma in an effort to find a flour tortilla that rivals the ones I grew up eating in Tucson)!
Sorry for chiming in so late, but I did want to comment on this most unusual of chowdowns I've ever attended. My dear friend from Seattle had been dying to attend a chowdown for a long time, so when I saw that there was one happening the weekend she planned to be in town, I seized on it excitedly.
I didn't expect, though, that it would take us two hours to drive to Santa Rosa from Oakland! As we were battling the heavy rain and traffic, we started to think that this is what hell must be like -- knowing that there is a scrumptious feast ahead of you but stuck in snail's pace traffic fearing that the meal will be over by the time you arrive!
We ran all the way from the parking lot and were surprised to discover the hounds gathered literally in the middle of the mall. We didn't realize that Taco Max was a stand only and that it didn't have its own seating area, but no matter. In fact, I thought it was a lot of fun; I'm surprised more passersby didn't stop, though, to gawk at our group!
Our favorites of the night were the fava bean soup and the amazing green mole. I would consider driving back to Santa Rosa (on a sunny day!) just for that mole, except I think the chef said it's not available on the regular menu. We also liked the ceviche very much but wished there had been a better fish to lettuce ratio. The hot chocolate was distinctive; the memory of it on my tongue still haunts me.
It was great fun to meet a few new hounds, but I wished the table set-up had allowed us to interact with more people. Altogether, though, I think it was worth the drive. Thanks, Eat Nopal, for organizing this meal! If ever you decide to organize another event at the chef's brother's home, I would be interested!