Cook's Night Out

As Bob Dylan never wrote and George Harrison never sang:

  • Well, that railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it.
  • I'll have my chauffeur do it for me.
  • I'm sitting here, buttering my toasted crumpet,
  • And you forgot to bring my pot of tea
  • So is it Cook's night out, Sweet Marie?

It's "Cook's night out" for me two or three evenings a week, when I'm too busy scribbling to put in any stove time. Although my partner is a darned good cook, he'd rather go scouting for a new review destination, or, more often, some decent takeout. The latter has to be cheap as well as good, since it's on our own dime -- which turns Ms. Stainless Spoon here into Miz Plastic Knife.

It's not that easy to find this combination. We gave up on the nearby Sherman Heights Jack In The Box (with its borderline-decent entrée salads) about a year ago because they always leave out something you order but charge you for it anyway, and when you discover that the thing-you-craved-most isn't in the bag, are you going to go back and try to prove they never put it in? (And now they're taking credit cards, but do they give them back?) And my local drive-through taqueria never gets the order straight either -- they don't omit, they randomly substitute. In fact, I've given up on drive-throughs. As for my local walk-to taqueria, you're about to hear why I spurn it.

But things are looking up. Home is the hunter, with three takeout "discoveries" where the food is tasty and the price is low. These aren't drive-throughs -- you have to find parking and wait in line. But it's worth it.


734 University Avenue, Hillcrest

CHIPOTLE I often crave the luscious carne asada (grilled steak) burritos that I used to enjoy regularly at La Cumbre in San Francisco. Alas, my nearest 'Berto's offers meat-sawdust in the wraps, icky yellow fake cheese on everything, and blenderized industrial guacamole with a brown edge. Worse yet, they sell this junk from behind iron-barred takeout windows, as though their primary product weren't food, but, say, UTC pharmaceuticals.

I would never have guessed that I'd find the answer to my yearnings at a chain-restaurant subsidiary of Mickey D's. But if McDonald's bought the chain when it was still a start-up, they're rearing a child that's in full-fledged rebellion against parental McValues. Chipotle is the Anti-Mickey. I think I love it.

The biggest difference lies in the quality of the meat. Most taquerias here (including the many 'Berto's that are better than mine) buy and serve ready-marinated thin-sliced steaks, and we're not talking USDA Prime or Choice or even Select grade. These cattle come to market so skinny and unmarbled, the meat packers don't even bother to have them graded. The marinade isn't thrilling either, when you meet the same one all over town. At Chipotle, in contrast, they use naturally raised meats from small ranches, and make the marinades on-site. The food is as wholesome as it is tasty.

Then, too, Chipotle's motto might well be, "Have it your way," rather than McD's' "Here's what ya get." You start out with a tan cardboard menu that explains your options. Then you proceed cafeteria-style, with all the choices laid out behind the counter in a row, and you point-and-shoot as you walk the line. The chafing dishes and serving trays are small, guaranteeing a rapid turnover of their contents.

The choices include, first, the genre: Burrito, "fajita burrito" (with sautéed peppers and onions instead of beans), burrito "bol" (in a bowl, with no tortilla), or else soft or crisp tacos, or an entrée salad. Portions are generous, with burritos so enormous that my partner and I always share one. There's a caution, though: All the burritos start automatically with a scoop of cilantro-lime rice. If you don't want rice, you have to speak up immediately as you order. There's usually an English-speaking person taking orders at the beginning of the line, so you can say, "Without rice, I want..." If not, start with "Sin arroz, un burrito con..." After that, you can operate on nods or head-shakes.

Next you choose your meat (or lack thereof, in the vegetarian version). The marinated grilled steak isn't the standard local chew-hard stuff, but tender and tasty, with that good grill flavor. The chicken is similarly marinated and grilled. The pork carnitas are seasoned with thyme, bay leaves, and juniper, seared, and then braised until tender but still moist. To my palate, they're among the best carnitas in the county. (Only Casa Reveles up in Valley Center beats them.) The barbacoa is in the Tex-Mex mode, featuring slightly spicy shredded braised beef seasoned with garlic, oregano, and potent cumin that's been roasted and ground on the premises.

Want beans in your burrito or burrito bol? You can choose between pintos or vegetarian black beans. (Tacos and the fajita burrito are beanless.) The black beans are strongly seasoned with roasted cumin, like the barbacoa. You also have a choice of four good salsas, ranging from mild to spicy, although the Hillcrest location that I frequent hasn't had any salsa verde on hand at my visits; they seem to have substituted a chipotle salsa. Finally, you can get cheese or sour cream, and/or guacamole. The latter, hand-mashed from Hass avocados ripened in-house, costs $1.40 extra -- except if you're having the vegetarian burrito or burrito bol, where it's free. The ingredients are classic, without the nasty off taste of cheap overripe avocados.

The backstory: Chipotle was founded by an idealistic chef-entrepreneur named Steve Ellis, who began with a small storefront burrito shop in the Denver area and ended up with a nationwide company. He wanted to bring full-flavored, eco-conscious cooking to the mass market -- "fast food cooked like slow food." Even though Ellis sold Chipotle to McDonald's, he still steers it. The meats Chipotle uses are, as much as possible, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and naturally raised on family ranches. Most of the pork, for instance, comes from Niman Ranch (which is actually a group of small Midwestern piggeries raising veggie-eating unpenned hogs specifically for that label). On Chipotle's delightful interactive website (see above), you can view a video of happy stoats gamboling in a field of greens.

Then, too, the company supplies raw ingredients, not corporate MREs. Each shop marinates the meats and chickens on premises, makes the salsas, mashes the guacamole, and braises the stewing meats (carnitas and barbacoa) until they're falling apart.

Every branch of the chain has its own unique decor and art, and the sound systems play world beat music. The Hillcrest location includes a pleasant outdoor patio as well as indoor seating. For drinks, there's a wine margarita, foreign and domestic beers, and an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages, all at rock-bottom prices. Do you wonder why I'm in love?

SLUGGER'S SPORTS GRILL Slugger's is a brightly lighted sports pub next to the trolley tracks, with big TVs playing loudly on more than one wall, a jukebox on another, and a lunch crowd of the hard-hats who are currently reconstructing the East Village mingling with hard-bitten residents not yet displaced by redevelopment. Facing the door is an order counter and a long open kitchen. After a recent change of ownership, the shop doesn't yet have printed menus; you order from a four-panel overhead board behind the counter and tacked-up paper signs advertising specials. Then you sit down to watch ESPN, cracking up over phoofs, along with the hard-hats, until the cook calls you to pick up your food. The new owners are East Indian, but the cook is still a big, tough black guy who looks like a linebacker and whips up a mean barbecue sauce. He's Slugger's secret weapon, and I understand (and hope) he will remain.

The number-one item here is the "Chicago dog." The hot dog in a bun first gained fame in America at the Chicago World's Fair/Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was specifically the same elaborate sandwich that Slugger's sells — a coarse-ground, hickory-smoked all-beef frankfurter in a steamed bun with yellow mustard, sweet relish dyed the brilliant green of fake emeralds, chopped onions, tomato wedges, a mild pickle spear or slice, semi-hot marinated "sport peppers," and a dash of celery salt. The two young immigrants from Austria who created the sandwich went on to found the Vienna Beef Company. Slugger's rendition includes all the favorite Chicago brands: Vienna Beef franks, barrel-cured pickles from a related Chicago company, and Gonilla poppy-seed frankfurter buns.

But I'm not from Chicago and not that crazy for dogs, so my favorite item on the menu is the barbecue plate. This isn't genuine smoked barbecue, merely grilled, but the sauce is dark and Southern-tasting, with a wicked little sting that lasts and lasts on the palate. Sometimes the kitchen has BBQ ribs on hand, but not when I've been there. The alternative is a grilled chicken breast -- not my favorite meat, but at least they don't overcook it. The plate includes a deliciously creamy Southern-style potato salad (with egg yolks mashed into the mayo, and a touch of pickle relish), rich, molassesy baked beans, and a "dinner roll" that's actually a toasted burger bun, to sop every drop of the sauce.

Among the sides are "slips" ($1.45), large, skin-on, made-to-order potato chips that are purposely not quite crisp. They're very salty and greasy, but the grease is "healthy" canola oil, if that makes a difference. Another possibility is skin-on French fries, which I haven't tried.

Other choices include a chili dog, a Comiskey Park Pole (a Vienna Beef Polish sausage), sub sandwiches of Italian sausage or beef, or a combo. At the bottom of a list of burgers you'll find a Grand Slam steak sandwich ($6), a slightly low-rent version of a Philly steak, with sautéed peppers and onions and melted cheddar or Swiss on a hot dog bun. It's not the best local version, but it's not bad. Some day I hope to try the Babe Ruth lobster roll ($9) or the Ted Williams fried clam strips roll. But I doubt that I'll ever get around to sampling the "pizza puffs," whatever they may be — I've got a great pizza place just a few blocks from home.

Pizzeria Luigi

1137 25th Street, Golden Hill

PIZZERIA LUIGI It's a little red storefront in the heart of Golden Hill. The guys who painted it red planned to open an art gallery, but just before the grand opening, all the art was stolen. (I didn't realize that the local thieves were such aesthetes.) So the building instead became home to a place that the neighborhood desperately needed, a pizzeria — and not just any pizzeria. Luigi's big draw is real New York-style pizza, with a thin crust that's crisp but not hard: You can fold it nearly in half to eat on the fly, like you're on a Seinfeld rerun. One of the owners is an Italian-American from Brooklyn, who used to work at Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest. (I like Luigi's better.) The other is from New Jersey — or Joisey, if you prefer. Mozzarella is mother's milk to them both.

Once again, you line up at the counter to place your order. There are only a few cramped tables if you want to eat inside, but in fair weather, the umbrella-shaded patio to the side is a neighborhood gathering spot for the nicest folks in Golden Hill. (The maybe not-so-nice ones hang out at the iron-barred 'Berto's or at the 7-Eleven, which is well-stocked with beer and porn mags but chancy on milk and bread.) Since Luigi's beverage selection is confined to soft drinks, there's a lot of rapid jaywalking across 25th Street to the Jaroco liquor store for beer or chilled Japanese fizzy water (unfiltered sake, popular in the neighborhood). Evenings, Turf Supper Club patrons who don't want cook-it-yourself steak often stop by Luigi's for a pre-pub fill-up.

If you want to buy just a slice or two, you'll have to take whatever's on hand. Most often, one of the slicer pies has sausage and pepperoni and the other has spinach and ricotta. Some days, the sausage is excellent, other days it tastes a little stale and greasy -- obviously a matter of age. The spinach-ricotta pizza is always terrific because the greens are consistently fresh and tender and the cheeses are fine -- naturally sweet ricotta and good, gooey mozzarella.

If you're getting a whole pie (as in New York City, the only size option is 18" — pizza-sized), you can choose from a typical range of toppings, including the dastardly pineapple and the wretched anchovy. In my experience (extensive by now), the veggies are better than the meats. Or for half the price, you can go for one of the pizza-dough sandwiches, huge in size and oozing with cheeses. The "meatball roll," for instance, is shaped like a loaf of Italian bread slashed crossways along the top, bubbling over with mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, pizza sauce (with more on the side), and Luigi's version of meatballs, which are more like mildly seasoned meatloaf, but with so much cheese surrounding it, the meat's a mere bit player in the mixture.

The sole side dish is a house salad ($3.75), which is large, fresh, and terrific when naked. It comes with a choice of packaged dressings — Italian, ranch, or blue cheese — from a company called Rod's. To my taste, these run a gamut from appalling to inedible, 'cause I don't think corn syrup belongs in salad dressings, least of all near the top of the ingredients list. But since I'm getting takeout, I dump the Rod's packages and use a Bernstein's from the fridge.

Legal parking isn't easy to find, but if you're getting more than a slice, your remedy is the phone — you can call in your order, and they'll have it ready for you when you come. If you live nearby, they'll even deliver, so long as your order totals $12.50 or more. Buon appetito!

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