Archive for January 7, 2012

Mala Tang’s hot-pot love

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Interactive, fun, and tasty describe my recent trip to Mala Tang for some hot-pot love.  If you don’t like the idea of cooking your own food or taking your time eating it, Mala Tang is not the place for you.  The restaurant’s real charm is in allowing its diners to catch up with their dining companions in a casual setting while eating at their own pace and getting creative with their food.  The food is simple, yet good, and didn’t leave me feeling like I had to unbutton my pants and take a nap afterwards.

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Toki Underground’s ramen may just be worth the wait

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It’s Taiwanese, not Japanese.  It’s Hakata-style, not Hakata.  I just call it — damn good.  However you describe it, the fact is that Toki Underground’s ramen hits the spot especially on those cold, winter nights.  And at $10 a bowl, it’s a deal.  The extra money in my pocket can now go to staples like wine, shoes, and my US Weekly subscription.  Oh, and bills.

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Special Edition: Forking Cancún

Hello readers.  It’s good to be back in DC after a two-and-a-half week vacation, half of which I spent in Cancún, Mexico with friends.  I still prefer Cabo (San Lucas) overall, but the ocean and beaches in Cancún do just fine.

(By the way, stay tuned for another Special Edition of Forking DC spotlighting Houston eateries!)

As for dining, I was somewhat surprised at the dearth of quality restaurants in Cancún.  I say “somewhat” surprised because Cancún evokes images of college kids during Spring Break whose top priority is getting drunk, not eating a nice meal. Because downtown Cancún wasn’t the type of walkable city we expected, we spent most of our time in the “Zona Hotelera” or Hotel Zone – a strip of resorts and hotels located southeast of downtown Cancún that bears a slight resemblance to the Vegas strip . . . if you squint.

As far as the Hotel Zone, the group favorite was an unexpected sleeper hit, Sedona Grill, located in the JW Marriott.  The least favorite and, by far the worst meal I’ve ever consumed, was at Cambalache, an Argentinian steakhouse that actually ranked quite high on Trip Advisor and was written up in Travel+Leisure.

Below, I offer you my own guide to Cancún dining which I hope will prove to be more useful than the guides I used.

Sedona Grill (Best Overall)

We walked in around 1:30 pm to find a completely empty restaurant.  For a brief moment, we doubted our selection, but all doubts disappeared once we tasted the food.  The queso fundido came with fresh white and purple corn tortillas and a poblano vinaigrette.  The vinaigrette was a nice contrast to the creamy, richness of the melted cheese.  The osso buco quesadilla, fried rock shrimp tacos, and chicken enchiladas were all great.  The first two were the clear winners, however.  Before any of our food arrived, we were given a basket filled with a selection of really tasty assorted breads and three flavored spreads – coriander, chipotle butter, and fresh chick peas.  Equally impressive as the food, the service was top notch.

We loved it so much that we decided to go again for dinner a few days later.  We were not disappointed.  This time, the restaurant was nearly empty, with only a small fraction of the tables filled.  Our salads (baby greens with shrimp, wedge salad, and caramelized gala apple salad) were solid, but nothing to gush over.  The chimichurri red snapper with chili-lemon risotto, sautéed baby vegetables and grilled pineapple salsa was flavorful and light.  It hit the spot especially since I’d been following a steady diet of tortillas, guacamole, margaritas, and lots of cheese.

The spiny lobster with pumpkin risotto and a guava “buerre blanc” was decadent and equally well-prepared and flavorful.  I also liked the contrast between the buttery lobster and slightly sweet, nutty flavor of the risotto.  One note: what they called risotto was really just rice pilaf, but I’ll overlook that for the moment.  Finally, the pork served “two ways” was solid.  It consisted of baby pork confit and pork tenderloin seasoned with jerk spices.  It came with a black mole sauce and braised cabbage.  The one criticism I have with this dish is that it’s all one color: brown.  Brown is not the best color for stimulating diners’  appetites.  Aside from that, the chef did a great job with the pork and the cabbage was fantastic.  The mole sauce was also quite good.

 

I was too full to even sniff the desserts, but my friends seemed to like the tres leches, which was a lighter and fluffier version of the traditional Mexican dessert.

If you go to Cancún, please visit Sedona Grill.  I want it to survive as a beacon in a sea of mediocrity.

Sedona Grill in JW Marriott Cancún Resort & Spa
  Blvd. Kukulkán Km 14.5
  Zona Hotelera
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico
Ph: +52 998 848 9648
Hours: Mon-Sun, 6 am - 11 pm

 

Peter’s (Best Key Lime Pie)

Located in downtown Cancún, Peter’s is a local favorite.  A family run restaurant, patriarch Peter is originally from Holland and has been living in Mexico for the last 22 years.  He mans the kitchen and makes sure to visit each table in the intimate dining room towards the end of service.  A nice touch that made us feel welcome.  We found out that the key lime pie is one of his favorites, so we had to try it.  Best Key Lime Pie Ever.  It came with a shot of tequila mixed with lime sorbet, which you should dab onto each bite of pie before eating. It is absolutely divine.

Our entrees were solid but there were no clearly outstanding ones.  My cream of mussels soup was good, but I wasn’t a fan of the potato purée that was added to the soup base.  It was a little too grainy.  My friend loved her bouillabaisse.  I thought it was quite good but too salty.  My hogfish was well-prepared.  I loved this light flaky fish prepared with lots of fresh, lightly sautéed vegetables.  The simplicity and freshness of the dish spoke to me.

Peter's
  Av. Bonampak, between Sierra & Robalo
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico (downtown)
Email: petersrestaurante@yahoo.com
Ph: +52 998 251 9310
Hours: Tue - Fri, 2:00 pm-10:00 pm
       Sat, 6:00 pm-10:00 pm
Reservations highly recommended given limited seating

 

Yaxche (Interesting margaritas and tasty stuffed peppers)

If you’re in Playa del Carmen, stop by Yaxche (pronounced jag-shey) for a margarita and a snack.  The portions are small, but I like the atmosphere and the outdoor patio that provides great people-watching opportunities.  I also thought they had an interesting twist to the traditional margarita, the “Margarita Maya.”  Their version is an algae green color and is made with cucumber, sour orange, and a chili powdered glass rim.  It’s a little sweet for my taste, but I give them A+ for originality.

My friend and I both liked the “Pibxcatic” which consisted of hot peppers (called Xcatic) stuffed with cochinita pibil (braised pork) and topped with julienned, marinated onions. It was simple but well done.  We also had the Maya platter which came with a sample size of three of their dishes — Pakal chicken, Tikin Xic, and sautéed shrimp.  Pakal chicken was marinated in sour orange, onions, and Xcatic peppers and then broiled.  It was fine but a little dry.  The Tikin Xic consisted of fish marinated in sour orange and achiote and steamed in a banana leaf.  It had good flavor.  I just wish I’d had more of it.

Yaxche Maya Cuisine Restaurant
  5th Avenue and 22th Street
  Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Mexico
Ph: +52 984 873 3011

 

Poolside Taco Bar at the Marriott Casa Magna  (Great Value)

At just under $ 3 (USD) per taco, the taco bar offers chicken, pork, and steak tacos that come with pico de gallo, guacamole and fresh corn tortillas.  For a few more dollars you can add rice or beans.  The best part is the self-serve taco toppings bar that includes several types of salsa, cilantro, lime wedges, marinated red onions, and grilled pineapple, among other selections.  Make sure to stop by for a nice and cheap poolside lunch.

Marriott Casa Magna
  Blvd. Kukulcán Retorno Chac L-41,
  Zona Hotelera
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico
Hours: Lunch and dinner

 

Thai Lounge (Best Dirty Martini and Coolest Design)

I wish we could have stayed for more than a drink because this place looks awesome.  It sits on the water and is a maze of lounges and secluded tables.  Waiters refill beverages by stepping out onto a gazebo-like structure that sits out on the water like its own peninsula.

My dirty martini was one of the best I’ve ever had.  I’ve read good things about the food, prepared by Thailand native - Chef Supoj Thamtino.  Finally, I enjoyed checking out the “fish bowl” sushi bar — a small glass-enclosed room on the premises that contains the sushi bar complete with about 6 seats.

Thai Lounge
  Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 12.5 (La Isla Shopping Village)
  Zona Hotelera,
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico
Ph: +52 998 176 80 70
Email: reservaciones@thai.com.mx

 

MB (Most Unwelcoming)

Ok, I didn’t actually eat here, but I find it necessary to tell you to think twice about this place, especially if, like me, you’re under the mistaken impression that it’s affiliated with noted chef Michelle Bernstein.  It’s not.

Before visiting, I ran a few Google searches and found it odd that there were very few Google hits on MB and Michelle Bernstein. The menu looked great, but we were so put off by the attitude oozing from the hostess and the overly pretentious Aqua Hotel that we decided against dining there. I wondered how this place could be associated with Chef Bernstein since it didn’t quite fit her style, or at least what I perceive her style to be.  I tweeted Chef Bernstein afterwards and found out she has not been affiliated with the restaurant for two years now.  Wonder why . . .

MB in the Aqua Hotel
  Blvd. Kukulkán 12.5 km
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico
Ph: +52 998 881 7600
Walk-ins only

 

Mikado (Disappointing Sushi)

Unless you like your sushi rolls with cream cheese, steer clear of this sushi joint located in the Marriott Casa Magna.  With the exception of two rolls, all others contained cream cheese.  The upside is that you can order the rolls without cream cheese.  The downside is that the “Marriott” roll, one of the two rolls that did not originally come with cream cheese, tasted horrible.  There was some sort of spice rub on the fish that was just plain wrong.

Moving on to the lobster spring roll.  Given the overwhelming lack of lobster in our lobster spring roll, I wonder why they didn’t just call it “Essence of Lobster” spring roll.  This must be a theme at Mikado because the tempura zucchini had no flavor and I felt like I had to dig through mounds of tempura to find a strip of zucchini within.

Mikado at the Marriott Casa Magna
  Blvd. Kukulcán Retorno Chac L-41,
  Zona Hotelera
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico
Ph: +52 998 881 2000
Email: mhrs.cunjw.marketing.coordinator2@marriotthotels.com
Hours: Mon-Sun, 5:30pm - 11:00 pm
Reservations recommended

 

Cambalache (Worst Overall Experience)

I chewed for a good minute and could not break down the piece of tenderloin I’d put in my mouth.  I ended up spitting it out into my napkin because I was beginning to get nauseated by the taste of chewy rubbery meat swirling around in my mouth.  In an ironic contrast to the empty seats of Sedona Grill, this place was filled with people, who I can only surmise have tiny saws for teeth and no taste buds.   The “braised” short ribs were not braised.  They were grilled and I needed a hacksaw to remove them from the bone.  The only thing that tasted halfway decent were the “souffled” potatoes that came in an edible potato basket.  When fried potatoes are a restaurant’s best dish, they need to be shut down and seriously revamped.

In addition to dealing with horrible food, we had the pleasure of surly waiters who acted as if they would have preferred to eat the awful food they were serving than to actually have to do their jobs.

Cambalache
  Blvd. Kukulkán Km. 9 (Centro)
  Plaza Forum
  Zona Hotelera
  Quintana Roo (Cancún), Mexico
Ph: +01 998 883 0902
Hours: Mon-Sun, 1pm - 1 am