Cantina La Mexicana

>>  Friday, May 29, 2009

Updated Post

We first visited Cantina La Mexicana back in October when one of our Texan friends recommended this place to us. Our initial impressions were quite positive. We have since visited this restaurant quite frequently - almost once a month, if not more.

Some background, first . . .

The restaurant is called Cantina La Mexicana. The take out counter next door is called Taqueria La Mexicana. I believe the food comes out of the same kitchen, and therefore both taste equally good. The great benefit of the Cantina is that it has a liquor license, and therefore you can order Coronas ($4), margaritas ($7-$9) or sangrias ($6) to your heart's content.

What have we learned from eating there so often?

Over all, the food is excellent, and you won't go wrong in ordering most things. If you ever ask them which meat they recommend, they will almost always say "the beef." It's true - the beef is really good. They use Brandt beef, which is naturally raised, antibiotic-free beef raised by a single family owned business that serves high end restaurants, such as Grill 23. I don't even like beef that much, but I always order beef whenever I have a choice.

One of our favorite dishes is the Gorditas Mixtas ($7.95) little cornbread "tarts" topped with avocado, marinated shrimp, and meat (pork, chicken, or beef). Ha ha, my favorite gordita is actually the shrimp one . . although the beef is good too. I like the shrimp one because the addition of sour cream makes that gordita more moist. I rectify this issue for the chicken and beef gorditas by dumping a ton of the excellent free salsa on top. Yum!

Another all time favorite is the Chiles Rellenos ($3.75) with beef, of course. I am by no means an expert on Mexican food, but these are the best chiles rellenos I've had in Boston.

My third favorite, Coctel a la Campechana ($8.95), is a cold ceviche-like dish served in a martini glass. It consisted of Maine shrimp, calamari, crabmeat, and chunks of avocado tossed with a citrus dressing over avocado crema. Sorry, no picture of this.

This is definitely a place off the beaten path that's worth checking out! You can go there on your way to Target in Somerville or Costco in Everett next time.
Cantina la Mexicana on Urbanspoon

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Favorite Eats in the Boston/Cambridge area

>>  Thursday, May 28, 2009

Recently, a friend asked for a recommendation for a good restaurant in which to celebrate his anniversary with his girlfriend. Naturally, being a foodie, I sent him a list of my favorite restaurants, based largely on food and atmosphere, of course. :)

Craigie on Main (formerly Craigie Street Bistrot)
Excellent French-inspired food. If you want to splurge, you should do the chef's tasting menu, which is where you get to enjoy Tony Maws "at his best." Make sure to call ahead to confirm that they are offering it that night. They often don't offer the Chef's Tasting on Friday nights.

This is probably the best Mediterranean restaurant in Boston. It consistently makes top-ten lists for Boston food. I personally love their food because it's creative, healthy, and really flavorful. Try the Deviled Eggs with Tuna & Black Olives or the Whipped Feta with Sweet & Hot Peppers.

This is our favorite restaurant in the North End. Really good food and nice romantic atmosphere. The menu changes frequently depending on what's in season.

Monica's Ristorante
Another excellent Italian restaurant in the North End - our former favorite before we discovered Prezza.

Probably one of the best sushi restaurants in Boston, but be willing to pay for it! There's a swanky one in the South End (more expensive) and also a traditional one in Chestnut Hill. Food is creatively made, sushi is extremely fresh, and the everything is really tasty.

This new restaurant on the Somerville/Cambridge border has excellent food that's inspired by ingredients that are fresh, local, and seasonal. Keith Pooler is an incredible chef and changes up the menu very frequently. The service is exceptionally good here, and the bar is also fantastic.

Hungry Mother
This East Cambridge Southern restaurant (with French influences) serves up flavorful and perfectly executed food every single time. Every dish I've ever tried here has been incredibly good. It's a super popular restaurant, so book early!

Restaurants with excellent food with reasonable prices

Gran Gusto
This is a really good Italian restaurant off the beaten path in north Cambridge. They have one of the best and most authentic thin crust pizzas.

Mu Que Ca
Really good Brazilian style coastal seafood . They specialize in moquecas, which is a dish consisting of seafood and vegetables cooked in a clay pot. Really delicious. This restaurant is small, inexpensive, and very popular. I don't think you can make a reservation, so you often have to wait.

Hungry Mother

Southern American food with a French influence. This restaurant is wildly popular and serves up quality food at decent prices. The ambiance is festive (if not a bit loud). The food is excellent.

Garden at the Cellar
This local restaurant focuses on fresh, local ingredients and has the best French fries I've ever had anywhere (rosemary truffle fries). The food is delicious here, and the prices are reasonable. It's a great value for the quality of the food.


If you like steak, Bryan's favorite place in Boston is Grill 23, partly because they have more interesting options (like Kobe beef!). Smith & Wollensky, Ruth's Chris, or Capital Grille are all pretty solid choices as well.

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Ice Monster

>>  Monday, May 25, 2009


Shaved ice is a classic Taiwanese dessert in the summer. One of the best known places in Taipei is called Ice Monster.

For around $5-$6, you get a HUGE bowl of shaved ice with your choice of toppings. I heard the mango one was incredible (with chunks of sweet, fresh mango on top). I did not hear of this until after I had visited Ice Monster, so I did not order that dish. If I ever go again, I would definitely try it. The Taipei Times has an interesting article here that talks about how the owner, under the pressure of difficult business and tough financial times, developed the mango shaved ice that shot business off the ground.

Anyway, I didn't try the mango. Instead, I ordered the mochi shaced ice.

It was still incredible! It had mochi balls of all different shapes and sizes, and even a huge flat mochi pancake on top. The dish also had sweet red bean topping (azuki) and condensed milk. It was really good! The various mochis had subtly different texture and flavors, so it was fun to try them all. Some were really chewy ("Q" in Taiwanese), while others were softer and sweeter. Over all, they complemented the azuki and condensed milk perfectly. The portion size is generous, and I shared one with my mom. We could have easily shared with a third person.

Ice Monster is located at 15 Yongkang street. Right off of Ding Tai Fung (original), not too far from other good places to eat. Apparently, one of the famous beef noodle restaurants is also on this street. The original Ding Tai Fung is also nearby.

Ice Monster
15 Yong Kang St., Da'an
hours: 11am-11pm

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Aoba (Chin Yeh)

>>  Sunday, May 24, 2009

My mom told me that Aoba ("Chinyeh" in Chinese) was better than Shin Yeh, which everyone on the web seems to rave about. Shin Yeh is a large chain, and recently opened a nice classy outpost on the top of Taipei 101. Since my relatives all said Aoba was better, we went there instead.

The food was definitely solid, but we were not blown away. The 3 cup chicken (pictured above) was tasty, and better than any version we'd ever had in Boston.

The Taiwanese lumpia (pictured below) was interesting, but not that yummy. I think I liked the one I had at a Singapore food stall better.

I loved the rice noodle soup (only $3!). It was tasty with strong umami without being too salty, and it was satisfying to eat.

It reminded Bryan of those rice noodle ramen packages that they sell.

Finally, we ordered the special, sauteed livers. I'm not a fan of liver, so I didn't like it that much. Bryan only thought it was OK.

All in all, it's a nice place to try some traditional Taiwanese food, but if you think your stomach can handle it, you can probably get just as good food on the street for a lot less money.

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Yonghe Soy Bean Milk / Sheraton Taipei

>>  Saturday, May 23, 2009

When we were in Taiwan, we had breakfast included at our hotel every morning. Actually, the breakfast at the Sheraton Taipei is pretty good. Here is a picture below of a typical breakfast. It was a buffet, and I typically would get congee with a bunch of sides (chili bamboo shoots, pickled cucumbers, gluten, fermented tofu) and of course topped with a good heaping of pork sung.

There was also you tiao (fried oil stick) with soy bean milk (not pictured), which we sometimes had.

As a result of the included breakfast, we did not get a chance to venture out and eat Taiwanese street breakfast until the last day!

And oh, how good it was! And cheap! Why didn't we come earlier???

We walked down the street that the Sheraton was on (ZhongXiao East Rd) away from Taipei Main Station for about 15 minutes. We then went to this hole in the wall traditional Taiwanese breakfast place.

Yummmm . . it was so good. This is everything we ordered.

Dan pi is an egg burrito of sorts. The freshly handmade pancake is cooked with a fried egg and then rolled up. It was delicious here, and probably cost around $1. In fact, most items cost around $1 or less. I think the entire meal was less than $5.

Pictured below is a shaobing youtiao. Essentially, it is a fried dough stick inside a sesame pastry. You dip the "sandwich" into the sweet soy milk (kind of like a French Dip).

Salty soy milk is fresh soy milk that had curdled due to the addition of vinegar. The remaining product looks a bit like very soft tofu in soup. Salty soy milk typically includes chopped up "you tiao" (yes, the fried dough sticks from before), za tsai (chopped pickled mustard greens), scallions, and hot oil. If the soy milk is not good quality thick soy milk, the salty soy milk won't curdle as thickly.

The soy milk here was excellent, and the salty soy milk was nice and thickly tofu-like.

If you go to Taiwan, I would definitely recommend you have traditional Taiwanese breakfast at least once!

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>>  Friday, May 22, 2009

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese dish that I seldom see in the US. I first learned about it when I spent a summer in Japan working at Hitachi Chemical. A family I had met invited me over to their house. They had a special Okonomiyaki-making griddle on which they made these large, pancake-like patties.

The base of an okonomiyaki is flour, eggs, grated yam, and shredded cabbage. The ingredients are mixed together and then cooked on a flat griddle. Oftentimes, the flattened pancake is topped with a savoury and sweet brown sauce (okonomiyaki sauce), and mayonnaise. You can order ones with meat, veggies, seafood, or various other combinations.

We went to a delicious okonomiyaki restaurant titled "Sometaro" with my Japanese friend and her family while in Asakusa, a popular tourist area.

We started with a refreshing salad made from a certain type of green that you never see in the US. It's got a pungent, peppery taste, sort of like arugula. This salad was just a simple mixture of the local greens, bonito flakes, and a light dressing. It was delicious.

The waitress then brought over several okonomiyakis. You can see the striped mayonnaise in the picture. It was very tasty.

Finally, we enjoyed some really good oven-steamed wild mushrooms. It seems like they take fresh mushrooms and butter and wrap the whole thing in foil. Then, they"bake" the wrapped mushrooms in the oven. Very fragrant, flavorful, and a perfect way to end the meal.

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Microwave Steam Fish (Chilean Sea Bass)

>>  Thursday, May 21, 2009

Don't you love steamed fish at Chinese restaurants? I don't have a steamer, but you can easily steam fish in the microwave! It's surprisingly good and super easy.

I've used Chilean Sea Bass in this case (purchased from Whole Foods Market, who only sells MSC certified sustainable Chilean Sea Bass).
Lay the filets out in a microwave safe bowl. Cover with sliced ginger, scallions, and fermented black bean sauce (see picture below for approximate amounts).
Cover and cook on high. I find that 5-7 minutes is enough to cook the Chilean sea bass. Be careful when removing the cover. The steam coming out is very hot!

Add soy sauce to taste and serve!

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Daikon Pork bone soup

>>  Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I was in Chinatown the other day buying ground pork when I noticed pork neck bones in the counter. They were *really* cheap - I think the package in the picture below was a little over $1. I had a hunch that the neck bones could be used for soup, so I bought a daikon and also some cilantro.

In order to get a clear broth, it's important to quickly boil the bones for a few minutes and then dump the water out. The initial boiling releases blood bits and other unsightly particles that would appear in your soup later. Rinse the bones with some water to make sure all particles have been washed off.

Next, put the quick-boiled bones back into some more clean water (I put in enough to cover the bones). Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 30 minutes. Add sliced daikon to the mix and let simmer for another 45 minutes or so. (This is all very flexible. When I did this one night after dinner and, honestly, I didn't really keep track of time. This type of soup can only taste better if it simmers longer, I think).

Finally, salt to taste and serve with cilantro garnish (optional). You can also refrigerate the soup overnight. This intensifies the flavor a bit. Plus, you have the added bonus being able to scrape off any fat off the top, thus making it a really healthy soup.

I think pork neck bones vary a lot in fat. The first time I made this soup, I hardly scraped off any fat. The next time, I scraped off this much fat!


So, if your bones look fatty - do not fear! You can always scrape off the fat if you refrigerate the soup overnight.

Enjoy the flavorful, virtually fat-free, healthy soup!

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Super Easy Pan Fried Vermicelli

>>  Monday, May 18, 2009

This is one of those dishes that is super easy to make, takes almost no time, and is pretty tasty and cheap.

I made this with what I had on hand, so it's a bit simple. You can definitely add more vegetables, or meat too if you want. It's a really flexible dish.

If you do add meat, I would slice the meat into thin strips, marinate in soy sauce, cornstarch, sesame oil, and a little rice wine for at least 5-10 minutes)

Soak shitake mushrooms in hot water for about 10 minutes (or until soft). Soak the rice vermicelli in water (or soften according to the instructions on the package). Slice up the mushrooms. You can also chop the other vegetables you want to add. I had celery on hand. Carrots would work well too.

Heat the wok with vegetable oil (~ 1 T) until the oil is hot. Saute mushrooms in oil.

Add veggies (in my case, just celery) and stir fry until soft.

Add vermicelli.

Stir around until well mixed. Add a few table spoons of Chinese BBQ sauce (Sa-Tsa). Stir around until well mixed.

Enjoy! You can eat with hot sauce for a nice spicy touch.

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Formosa (In the Howard Plaza Hotel)

>>  Friday, May 15, 2009

Formosa restaurant is at the basement of the Howard Plaza Hotel near Ren-Ai Road. I think it's a popular place for people to take their relatives since there are large banquet style tables and they serve a lot of authentic and solid Taiwanese food.

It's like eating night market food in a clean, banquet style atmosphere and paying a premium for that privilege.

My entire family (myself included!) thought that the food was really good. Here's some pictures of the dishes we had:

Stewed Pork belly. This is quintessential Taiwanese, and they made it well here. Yum.

I'd never had these local greens before, but they were good. They curled at the ends, not unlike fiddleheads.

Three-cup chicken. Another Taiwanese classic. This is a super fragrant dish where bone-in chicken pieces are stewed with soy sauce, sugar, wine, and basil.

I had never had this before - some sort of flavored crab rice. It was good.

I love how all these Taiwanese restaurants give you peanut-powder covered mochi balls as a free dessert after the meal. I absolutely love these balls. I might try to make some soon. I'll definitely post my experiments in that arena if I go there. :)

Over all, this was a solid, Taiwanese restaurant that is great for large family gatherings. The service was fast, and the food was very good.

Formosa Restaurant
No. 160 Ren Ai Rd Sec 3
Taipei 106 Taiwan

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Southern California Favorites

>>  Thursday, May 14, 2009

A friend of mine is going to California for a wedding and asked me for food recommendations in Southern California. We go to California at least once a year since Bryan is a native Californian. However, most of our eating is centered in Orange County, since that is where his family lives.

I don't claim to be anywhere close to an expert on Southern California's best eats. However, I would like to share with you some of our favorite places. I can attest that these places are excellent.

Peking Restaurant
8566 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA
Excellent Northern style Chinese food - I would definitely order the homemade noodles, the niu ro jia bing (beef slices rolled in a scallion pancake with hoisin sauce and cilantro - incredible! -- see picture above), pan fried dumplings, and boiled dumplings. It's cheap, delicious, and totally authentic. Be prepared to wait if you go on a weekend during lunch.

Ding Tai Fung
1108 South Baldwin Avenue
If you read this blog, you probably know that this is one of my all time favorite restaurants. Even though it's a 45 minute drive from Bryan's home, we drive there almost every time we are in California. My favorites are the vegetable pork dumplings and the soup dumplings. Be prepared to wait no matter when you go. The last time we went, they had expanded and had taken over another space within walking distance of the original restaurant. We went to this other space and didn't have to wait.

Sushi Gen

422 E 2nd St (Little Tokyo)
Los Angeles, CA
I actually have not been to this restaurant in Little Tokyo, but it's widely regarded as one of the best and freshest sushi places for a reasonable price. My mom told me that all the Taiwanese people know about this place. I definitely want to try it the next time I go to LA!

In & Out
All over Southern California
This hamburger place is classic - with everything made from scratch and to order. Order off the "sceret" menu by asking for a "two by two" burger (2 patties / 2 buns) and "animal style" (with grilled onions and special sauce). I really love the burgers here, and the prices are cheap too.

Tea Station

11688 South St #101
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 860-7089

This tea shop totally reminds me of Taiwan. Not only does it serve excellent tea (Ten Ren brand plus many others), it serves a host of Taiwanese late night eats, such as noodle soups, tea eggs, popcorn chicken, tofu, and Taiwanese sausages. The ambiance is relaxed, friendly, and nice. When we were in California, we came here almost every night to sip tea, enjoy snacks, and play board games.

Happy Nest (Formerly Little Bean)

18902 Norwalk Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 860-8843

This is also another fun Taiwanese place that serves shaved ice, boba tea, and Taiwanese snacks, similar to Tea Station. The store is brightly lit with fluorescent lights. I have not been here too many times, so unfortunately I can't comment as extensively on the menu. Everything I've had there has been good, and it appears to get excellent reviews on various food sites.

Above I've listed our favorite haunts. We've tried other restaurants only once, such as celebrity chef Tom Colicchio's Craft or various other ethnic restaurants (e.g., Peruvian, Italian, Szechuan, and Japanese places). However, we are really not that familiar with the LA foodie scene. I would welcome other suggestions for great places to eat so I can try them the next time we are out there!

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you can contact me at: jen[at]tinyurbankitchen[dot]com
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