An Evening of Tiki Drinks with a Tiki Legend

Tiki culture is a state of mind, an exotic one replete with hip-shaking women in grass skirts, twanging guitars, and crashing blue surf that kisses the horizon you’re gazing out from underneath a palm tree. This state improves with a tiki drink in your hand. With a little luck, a mug with an ornate, slightly grotesque Polynesian-inspired carving holds the liquid. A flower or an umbrella sticking out the top may also be happening, which is encouraged even if you’re the kind that prefers burly drinks that kick your throat before giving your insides a warm embrace.

Without the passionate work of Sven Kirsten, the mental state that stems from tiki culture might have developed dementia. Everything about tiki – the drinks, the fashion, the paraphernalia, was headed to the island of forgotten trends before the German-born author and tiki historian literally wrote the book on the subject. His 2000 tome The Book of Tiki became the blueprint to the aesthetic’s resurrection. Eighteen years later, the movement’s exploded from niche subculture to a widely recognized expression of cool that’s easy to celebrate anyplace, anywhere – even in an office warehouse in some nondescript industrial complex.

The Orange County chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild demonstrated this at their October meeting October 22; a celebration of Kirsten’s work, the tiki culture he curated, and the joys of tiki drinks – specifically, potent potables made with Plantation Rum. When it came time to host their fete on October 22, they chose a San Clemente, CA warehouse with a boxy white exterior, surrounded by other warehouses with boxy white exteriors. If I’m being honest, I didn’t realize the shindig was going to be at a corporate park when I got the invite. Not that this mattered when I found out. By that time, I knew the host property was a place called Tiki Farm. I was in regardless of setting because of the name, which is a thoroughly justified moniker. It turns out the business specializes in creating all kinds of tiki memorabilia. A walk through the place’s compact showrooms prior to the event showcases their prowess.  I’m surrounded in each room by floor-to-ceiling displays of colorful, funky tiki mugs that would look groovy in my admittedly meager tiki collection.  The name of the business may set the relaxed tone of the evening – there is that much power in the word “tiki” – but these mugs reinforce the feeling of chill.

The evening progresses and the notion of being in a warehouse gradually disappears. The Plantation rum-based cocktails expertly made by the team from The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim help to erase the setting, but such growing ignorance of physical envelopment isn’t because the drinks are strong. All are easy-drinking and delightful. More importantly, they capture a proper sense of place. It just so happens that place is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, right around the area where the old-time cartographers would draw lurking sea creatures. It’s the state of mind needed after a long, busy day, and it’s one made possible by the event’s main draw.

More than half of the slides Sven shares in his presentation evoke a personal response, mostly gasps of air where phrases like “That’s so damn awesome!” would normally be. Other slides evoke oohs and aahs, and a few leave pause for sighs of lament (RIP Don the Beachcomber). There’s also plenty of tiki cocktail history to be seen, and Sven covers the scene’s drinkable lore from its early Hollywood roots to its Mid-Century Modern heyday. More cocktails get distributed as he talks. They were good before, but somehow, they taste better with Sven dropping knowledge.

Sven, ever the purist, shares concerns about tiki culture’s growing resurgence eventually turning into market oversaturation after the presentation wraps. Yet this isn’t something dwelled upon too much, and rightfully so. The future is seldom contemplated while clutching a tiki drink. Relaxing in the here and now, immersed in the tiki state of mind, is all that matters. We may have been in a basic office complex, but Sven’s wisdom and Plantation’s rum beverages set our minds to island time.

The Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival is Great for Food Geeks

Annual food events in their fifth year seldom look like their first. Tweaks are made. Kinks are ironed out. When these happen, the true spirit of the event emerges. This certainly happened with the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival. Since it launched in 2014, it’s evolved from a nondescript culinary fete to a fun festival where serious food and drink fans like myself can gather and nerd out. Their most recent festival was no exception. Going to the second half of their two-day Grand Tasting event afforded me the chance to hobnob with Hubert Keller, sample a couple versions of cult whiskey Whistle Pig, indulge in lumpia crafted by Terrace by Mix Mix‘s brilliant chef Ross Pangilinan, and talk viticultural history with seminal California winery Chateau Montelena. Even though I was at the event on assignment, rest assured these cool encounters weren’t influenced by credentials. Anyone in attendance could have taken the exact same path. It’s why the event is worth attending every year.

Now, about that assignment. I put together a recap of the event for the good folks at Sauté Magazine, which can be read here. As you read it, and if you’re the kind of person that geeks out over eating and drinking, don’t view it as an opportunity missed. Rather, take it as a call to attend the event in 2019.

Remembering Ernest Miller

Ernest Miller left us last week. The name may not sound familiar even if you profess to be a Southern California foodie. However, if you’ve ever gone to the OC Fair and spent time in the hangar-like OC Promenade, you saw his face. It was hard to miss, because it was always beaming. When you did see it, you also saw a careful arrangement of jars and cans filled with jellies, pickles, briny veggies, and other foods nearby. This was his handiwork. His forte at the fair was food preservation, and he was a master of his craft. But they were more than curated cylinders of food. They were starting points to larger, enriching conversations about the history and science behind what we eat.

They were great conversations, and they continued with great fluidity whenever I was asked to come by the fair to judge a culinary event. Oftentimes, the chance to catch up with Ernie – if you knew him well, you knew him as Ernie – outclassed the judging experience. There was always something new and fresh happening in the world of food science for him to share with me, and there was always a piece of local culinary history for me to learn about. Not once did he let his knowledge make him sound superior or condescending. He knew I loved and understood food, and he anchored everything he shared with me with that in mind. His words always left me fulfilled after the judging session was over.

It was also a pleasure to watch him work the fair, whether he was surrounded by his jars of preserved excellence, or on the OC Pavilion stage as a presenter or as a fellow judge. He brought a certain vibrancy to whatever he was doing, but it wasn’t the energy of a carnival barker or a PR pitchman. It came from a place of dude-you-gotta-see-this level of excitement, like a teenager sharing a viral video with his buddy for the first time. His passion was infectious. You may not have known anything about food preservation before sitting in on one his sessions, but you’d leave an invested believer.

When a person goes, those left behind contemplate which moments to hold dearest. When I learned that Ernie had passed at the way-too-young age of 51, one moment instantly emerged, and it’s been kicking around my bean for days. It was 2014, and I was at the OC Fair with my family. I had just finished judging an open-to-the-public food competition, and I was ready to spend the rest of the day fawning over barnyard animals and riding rides with our daughters. We stopped by Ernie’s booth before we embarked on the rest of the night. Our kids – particularly our youngest – was fascinated by the preservation process.

A little context here: My wife and I had adopted our girls in 2012. They were 8 and 9 when they moved in with us through the foster system, and they lived the McDonald’s lifestyle before they came to us. They knew about pickling thanks to their love of kosher dills, but for the most part, Ernie’s canned and preserved foods practically came from alien lands. I had previously told Ernie they were adopted, but I didn’t go into detail about their limited food exposure. I didn’t have to – Ernie picked up on that swiftly and organically. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining the importance of food preservation, the science behind fermentation, and how jelly was made, all while sneaking the girls a few choice bites of goodness. This was the first time our girls had truly been exposed to food science, and Ernie’s patient, kind lesson made it easier for us as parents to close a few culinary holes that years of excessive Happy Meal consumption had created.

I’m very grateful I was able to share the importance of that moment the next time I saw him. Now that he’s gone, I’m just very grateful that our paths crossed as often as they did. RIP, Ernie. You’ll be missed terribly.

The Start of Something Cool – Fork & Glass

If you visit my site with any amount of frequency, you probably know I contribute to a wide range of publications. If you do, it’s because I have a tendency to share my handiwork here, possibly in some vain attempt to convince you I’m not a hack. Hopefully, my nefarious strategy has worked, and will continue to do so.

I say this because I have another link to share with you today. However, this is a rather unique link, because it’s not a connection to a magazine. Rather, it’s a link to another website that you may find relevant to your interests – very relevant. The website is Fork & Glass, and it’s a site designed to promote several Orange County journalists that cover food and drink in various capacities. The stuff I post on this here site is on there, as are restaurant reviews, recipes, local food news, and the occasional podcast. Even if I wasn’t part of the site, I’d still be promoting it, just because the concept of bringing a bunch of local voices together in the name of eating and drinking is just flat-out cool.

Feel free to add Fork & Glass to your daily Internet habit (along with my website, natch). I think you’ll be very pleased with that decision.

Radio, Radio – My Guest Stint on the SoCal Restaurant Show

As you probably know by now, I like to use this dog and pony show to share articles and stories I’ve written for various publications. I’ve been doing the journalism thing for some time now, so I’m typically mellow about seeing my byline in print. Still, there are occasional moments that cause me to geek out, where I have to take a step back, acknowledge that something really cool happened, and revel in the moment in a state of giddiness.

I had one of those moments September 15. That’s when the good folks behind the SoCal Restaurant Show graciously had be on their program.  By “good folks,” I specifically mean program host Andy Harris, who invited me to come on to talk about some of the articles I’d recently written for Sauté magazine. This was rather humbling. Andy is one of the most astute observers of food and drink I’ve met during my career, and the show’s worth tuning into just to hear him do his thing. It’s a thrill knowing that he thinks enough of my ramblings to have me get behind the mic.

My segments are archived on the show’s website, and can be accessed here and here in case you missed tuning into AM 830 the first time. Please enjoy, and see if you can spot the moment where I nearly get Little Tokyo mixed up with Koreatown.

Let’s All Stop Panicking About Taco Bell

Last week, the results of survey produced by The Harris Poll proclaimed Taco Bell to be the favorite Mexican restaurant in the country. Predictably, people freaked out. Even people that haven’t shared a food photo in their social media lives posted with angry blood on my social media feeds. The general sentiment could be succinctly surmised with one word:  “Really?”

No, not really. Those that feel compelled to defend the honor of hole-in-the-wall taquerias everywhere can slow their roll. The poll isn’t worth getting worked up over. It’s not even worth commenting about the assumed ignorance of the pollsters, even if it’s tempting to shake your head at them in disgust.  The Harris poll that allegedly crowned Taco Bell king was brand-driven popularity contest designed to yield generic, vanilla results. Unfortunately, The Harris Poll – and subsequently, news outlets everywhere – did a terrible job of conveying this message.

The poll that caused so much fuss is the corporation’s EquiTrend poll. It’s main purpose is to gauge a known brand’s health, which is done by asking randomly chosen people questions concerning a brand familiarity, quality, and future regard. The survey’s 3,000 brands, which represent more than just food, are selected by The Harris Poll and arbitrarily whittled down to groups of forty before being presented to the survey-takers. The poll’s Mexican food category pitted Taco Bell up against chains like Chipotle, Baja Fresh, and Del Taco. None of these metrics provide indicators of the poll being an arbiter of culinary excellence. All it really does is highlight the preferred fast-casual joint to grab something when you’re in a pinch.

Besides, the poll only solicited the opinion of roughly 77,000 people nationwide. That’s a small sample size to determine an epicurean beat-all in any category regardless of how the poll was designed. It’s also safe to assume some of the pollsters that comprised this meager collective live in places where Mexican food choices are a combination of scant and lousy. Taco Bell may be the best Mexican food option for someone living in, say, southern Indiana. This may be tough for a Southern California resident to reconcile, but such a thing is possible, if not probable.

If you’re going to be upset at anyone or anything over the poll results, be upset at The Harris Poll and the news outlets for breathlessly turning the results in a vehicle to bait foodies into shuddering at perceived American culinary ignorance. Since it was a poll to measure brand vitality, all of the drummed-up ire could have been diffused by emphasizing the restaurant’s branding aspect. If the agencies simply would have tacked on the word “brand” to their headlines, people would have probably shrugged their shoulders and moved on with their day instead of frantically cobbling together Facebook posts declaring the writers of the film “Demolition Man” to be semi-prophetic, among other things.

But that didn’t happen, probably because sensationalism sells. Based on all of the social media grousing that cropped up in the story’s wake, there were plenty of buyers. To that end, what else can be said other than caveat emptor?

Let’s Talk About Texas Wine

I had my first taste of Texas wine about a year ago in New York City. The geographic formula alone was worth writing about, but I quickly discovered the wines were worthy of discussion regardless of location. I was inspired to learn more about the region Lone Star State residents dub Texas Hill Country. Since Texas wines aren’t really distributed in California, my wife and I ended up paying the region a visit in July to quench my educational thirst.

There was plenty to absorb through our Texan excursion, and the good folks at Sauté Magazine allowed me to share quite a few observations via an online article. It’s a long read, but that’s mainly because there’s a lot to talk about. I hope you have as much fun going through it as I had putting it together. At the very least, I hope you enjoy my wife’s pretty photos.

Blown Away or Blowing Smoke? Experiencing the Jalama Burger

If you’re going to go camping, you better have a plan.

This mantra fuses the backbone of our family’s annual camping trip. Normally, our plan involves hiking trails, exploring sites of natural wonder, and enjoying the company of the other family we’ve camped with the last five years. This year was different. This time around, the plans included eating a burger. It turns out this is practically mandatory when you plot to camp at Jalama Beach.

Our collective made the decision to try our hand at beach camping not too long after soaking in three days of desert weirdness at Joshua Tree National Park last October. We didn’t know where to go. All we knew is that we wanted to go north of Los Angeles. Research ensued. Jalama Beach sold us for several reasons. It’s flush against white sand and turquoise waters, a pocket of flatland whittled between dramatic rocky seaside cliffs. It’s about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara and 40 miles west of Solvang, giving us day tripping options. Its showers make it possible to enjoy said day trip without looking like a vagrant. People we know seemed to love the place. Hell, even my barber extolled its virtues between scissor snips.

Then there was this burger – the Jalama Burger, served up on the campground site at the appropriately named Jalama Beach Store. It kept revealing itself through online chatter and in-person recommendations. Some called it delicious. Others practically framed it as a near-mythical creation. The consensus tended to sway toward the latter sentiment, and the  photos some of its fans shared made such radical sentiment at least slightly plausible. We didn’t discuss the burger in great detail during the trip’s planning stage despite these ravings. We knew it would be there for the taking, and we would indeed take it at some point, but that was about all the chatter we could muster on the subject. This changed on the drive up to the campsite.

I’m riding shotgun in a cargo van. David, the other family’s patriarch, is doing the driving. Behind us is the framework of tradition. He and I always drive up to the campsite in a cargo van the day before everyone else shows up in their own rental van, partially to set up camp and partially to self-reward our hard work with a few beers. During this trek, somewhere on U.S. 101, David engages in burger theory.

“Jalama’s campsite is pretty remote,” he says. “When you’re there, they have you captive.”

“You could still drive into town, though, right?” I ask.

“You could, but town’s about 45 minutes away. Most people probably won’t want to drive that far if they’re camping unless they have to.”

“That makes sense, I suppose.”

“That may be why everyone loves the Jalama Burger. They’re the only game in town. If you’re camping for a few days, you may want a break from eating stuff you packed in your cooler. That burger is the only place nearby where you can take that break. Everything else is about an hour away. It could be a decent burger, but it’s possible that you could think it’s the greatest burger on earth because it spared you from driving into town or digging through your cooler for food again.”

My brain starts weighing his theory against the collective Jalama Burger fandom I recall from my social media feeds. Some of the biggest burger advocates I remember are friends and fellow journalists equipped with trusted palates. Their aggregate high praise makes leaves me cynical toward David’s postulation, but it doesn’t shut it out completely. I do know I’ll get the chance to put his theory to the test. We’ve scheduled to try it for lunch on Tuesday.

Eating on-site is a rarity for us. Other than taking the occasional day-long excursion to a nearby town or village, we cook when we camp. We also cook well. This year’s menu includes biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and skirt steak. We have campfire-ready hot dogs on hand, but they’re for the kids or the random late-night snack – they won’t pair that well with the bottles of wine we’re planning to kill during steak night. There would normally be no need for us to order food from an on-site restaurant. However, the burger’s lore forces an exception. My colleagues have told me it’s ridiculous, so it must be tried, lest they remind me about what I missed out on by refraining. Besides, it’s a burger. I’m genetically predisposed to like burgers, so I’ll probably enjoy eating it as long as I don’t get a charcoal briquette masquerading as a piece of meat. But why will it be enjoyed? Will David prove to be right?

Pictured: Jalama Beach. Not pictured: the wind.

The Jalama Beach campsite briefly materializes past a ridge as the road weaves left and downward. It reveals a tantalizing glimpse of deep blue water crashing white sand, several feet past grounds packed with cars and RVs. The railroad tracks we cross as we descend adds instant rusticness, especially when the first passenger train rolls by on a wooden bridge just north of the about an hour later. We notice two payphones steps from the camp’s main entrance when we arrive at its gate. They’re essential according to the gatekeeper – cellular service is indeed as bad as our research led us to believe. A rotation of young surfers, grizzled camping vets, and the occasional skateboarding teen block our path as we inch toward our campsites, but we don’t mind. The ocean is enveloping our senses. We’ve landed in a slice of paradise. This is good. This also ends up being a highlight of the trip.

The wind starts whipping around a few minutes after camp gets established. We were warned Jalama Beach was subject to strong gusts. These warnings undersold things. It’s a powerful wind. A vengeful wind. The kind of wind that makes you feel like doom is eminent. It delivers a “holy crap” moment roughly every 20 minutes, where we literally looked at each other and said “holy crap.” (We may have said something else, but let’s just go with the PG version). It bends the frame of David’s shade canopy in two places before we take it down. It shreds the protective, privacy-bestowing covering on my tent. It picks up a prep table we set up and chucks it twenty feet, missing us by about a foot. We need solace. In this case, “solace” comes in the form of French fries and onion rings we order from the Jalama Beach Store’s compact, crowded quarters. Rather than waiting for a table in the store’s dining area, we seek shelter in our rental cargo van, where we get rocked like a cradle. We’re supposed to set up other tents for our wives and kids sometime before sundown, but this would be pointless. This turns out to be a wise decision. When the rest of the crew arrives, most of them immediately claim sleeping spots in our respective rental rides.

Temperatures in the high ‘80s accompany the nasty winds on day two, effectively turning our campsite into the business end of a blow-dryer. We take turns huddling in the meager shade cast by the vehicle, following its dark beam as it shifts like a sundial. The fried chicken we’re planning on making later that evening is declared a dangerous impossibility. We also call another food audible. We’re getting Jalama Burgers for lunch. We practically head there the moment the wives and kids step out of their rental van. It’s evidently time for some food philosophy.

The Jalama Burger in All Its Glory.

 

The Jalama Burger is good. Damn good. The beef has the perfect char and juiciness that can only come from a grill that’s been operational for decades, where you can practically taste the souls of the burgers grilled long before yours. There’s an ideal level of cheese melt going on, allowing it to merge with the buns’ edges. Its secret weapon, though, is its shredded lettuce topping, which functions as a sort of alternate universe version of cole slaw. The zippy sauce binding the ribbons together exists in the space between thousand island dressing and freshly made hollandaise sauce, and it slowly oozes out of the bun and into the burger’s waxy wrapping with each bite. The residual splatter makes an excellent dipping sauce for fries. In that fifteen minute space where lunch is consumed, every “holy crap” camping mishap experienced in the last 24 hours feels irrelevant. The burger makes me happy, as a good burger should.

We step outside afterward and step into a blast of hot, powerful wind. My moment of Zen is gone, replaced by nature’s harsh realities. Talk of leaving the campsite a day early start to happen. By the next day, we agree to turn such talk into action. I think about David’s Jalama Burger theory that night, after the warm winds transform into mighty blows of cold discomfort. Its deliciousness justified its cult following. More importantly, it delivered a brief yet succulent respite from the trip’s wind-blown, weather-blasted chaos one bite at a time. I spend the rest of the trip tempted to get another one, although temptation is ultimately resisted.

I come to a conclusion as we pack up and leave. It doesn’t matter why the Jalama Burger is so popular. When you have that juicy burger with its melted cheese and tangy slather of sauce-soaked lettuce wrapped in your hands, all theories and hypotheses fly away, apparently like a prep table caught up in a particularly concentrated wind bluster. It provides a moment of blissful joy even in the face of quasi-apocalyptical conditions. That’s the only thing that counts, and it’s the primary takeaway from my Jalama Beach experience. Of course, the secondary takeaway is that if I ever return, I’ll be in an RV.

Time for a Talk with Jet Tila

If you’re a food geek – particularly a Southern California food geek – you know the name Jet Tila. If you don’t, well, you should. He’s all kinds of awesome. So is his cookbook, 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die.

This is the part of the narrative where I may say something along the lines of “but don’t take my word for it.” Not this time. You’re going to have to take me at my word, because I interviewed him for Sauté Magazine. You can check it out here. When you’re done, you should check out the rest of Sauté‘s Fall 2018 issue. It’s chock full of goodness. But don’t take my word for it

Raising a Glass to the San Diego Spirits Festival

There’s a rhythm to San Diego Spirits Festival. You pick up on the rhythm rather quickly, even if you haven’t been to the annual August fete before. It starts with a leisurely stroll through the city, either down its bustling Embarcadero or through its downtown depending on where you’re staying. Doing so gives you the proper seasoning needed before you enter the the hangar-like Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier where the event’s always held. This is important. San Diego is a unapologetically chill town during the day, and its municipal salt puts you in the right mindframe by the time your ticket gets taken. You’re not here for the amateur hour sloppiness you saw on various corners of the Gaslamp District the night before. You’re here for a fun, relaxed time.

After you walk through a corridor of sports memorabilia oddly yet appropriately devoid of San Diego Chargers ephemera, the Pavilion opens up to a cavalcade of liquor kiosks and displays. After you grab a cocktail – you will likely have the opportunity to do so straightaway – take the time to walk through the space as you sip. You’ll see brands you recognize, and you’ll see others completely new to your consciousness. Take note of the spirit categories you like, but don’t discount the ones you’re not into – now’s not the time to have your opinion on a category colored by the demons of collegiate misadventure. Once this circle is complete, discover as many as you want as often as you’d like, as long as you do so at a judicious, deliberate pace. Snap phone photos of what you enjoy. Engage in discussion with the pourers, who in some cases may also be the brand ambassadors or even the distillers. At some time during the shindig, step outside to the back of the pier and wrangle up some food. Check out the event’s live music as you take advantage of the grub’s absorption properties, or simply indulge in the bright, maritime scenery. If you’re feeling cheeky, stick around and wait for the burlesque show. Yep, they have a burlesque show.

This rhythm partially exists because SDSF has been around for a while. 2018 marked the 10th anniversary of the two-day gathering. It also exists because nobody comes here with the express mission to get wasted, which is why the event can get away with rolling out sexy dance numbers from women and men in the midst of the proceedings. Sure, you may see a few patrons that are a little happier than normal by the event’s end – such behavior would be impossible to fully rule out at an event offering unlimited pours. But that’s the extent of the raucousness. Spectacles of embarrassment and danger have no quarter here. Doing so would defeat the core purpose of attending the festival, anyway. A huge part of the good time to be had at SDSF is to get turned on to new or new-to-them product. This loses its pop if the room is spinning.

You will discover something new at the San Diego Spirits Festival, no matter the esoteric nature of your home liquor cabinet.. There are always a few recognizable brands scattered about the place to ease you into things, but they serve as a prelude for the great unknowns. This year is no exception. We kick things off with a visit to the Tito’s Handmade Vodka kiosk, who are serving cocktails from a booth designed to look like a VW Bus. It takes us a while to return to a brand we’re familiar with, simply because of the sheer volume of newness. There are mind-bending finds. We discover a bourbon whose smoky essence evokes camping in the California woodlands. We imbibe in a vodka more neutral than Switzerland. Another vodka is infused with a smooch of desert sage, creating an equally good yet totally different experience than the clean vodka. We indulge in a show-stopping extra anejo tequila that’s just starting to hit select U.S. shelves. All seem destined for our liquor cabinet in the near future, probably as soon as we find them available for purchase.

These are our highlights. Yours may have been different if you were here. They probably would have, and that’s fine. There are no right or wrong answers at the San Diego Spirits Festival. Just lots of great potent product paired with a great deal of tremendous fun. There’s also a rhythm, one that will be pulsing strongly next year. You should follow its beat.

All Photos Courtesy San Diego Spirits Festival.