Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

You wanna go where people know, people are all the same, you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got; taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away?

- “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (Cheers theme song) written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

Whether the song pops into your head, you faintly hear the echo of a rounding cheer calling “Norm” somewhere off in the not-so-distant past, or the reference goes flying over your head like esoteric humor occasionally does, the lyrics ring true.  It’s a good sign of any establishment for them to acknowledge and welcome regular customers; not just remembering a name, but remembering the person. 

When I think of a place that for me, IS that place, it is Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant, in Oregon City.  Mazatlan has been the home to many celebrations over the years, from prom night, to birthdays and anniversaries, to even honoring a lost loved one with a now traditional “Duck Fart”.  For me, it’s a home away from home that always can be relied upon to provide a good meal, a strong drink, and a friendly atmosphere.  

When I walk in, and a smiling employee shows me to a comfortable seat and delivers a bowl of warm, freshly made tortilla chips, homemade salsa, refried beans and menu with a wide variety of dining choices. For those not in the know, appetizers range between $5 and $11, and include choices like nachos, taquitos, flautas and Mexican pizza. Entrees range between $7 and $16 and include Mazatlan specials, soups, fajitas, burritos, chimichangas, tostadas, and salads. You can even find a delightful selection of seafood here.

It isn’t long before one or both of the owners, brothers Isidro and Vidal Sanchez, come my way with a grin, a hand shake, and a quick witted comment that remind you that it isn’t just your name that they remember.  They’re social and happy to take a moment to chat about everything from the weather, how school is going, a mutual love of pets, the high quality of their food, and boasting about the past, present, and future accomplishments of their adored L.A. Lakers.

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
After a drink has been consumed and the menu once again perused, it’s time to order.  Occasionally, I step out of my usual comfort zone of the very reasonably priced happy hour menu, which includes many of your typical happy hour menu cast members, along with a few taco and burrito values that will knock your socks off. Their entrees are tantalizing, the list featuring a number of obviously popular specials, one of which became a quick favorite of mine, the Carne Asada.

Every time I order it, I am a happy camper as I sit salivating and twiddling my thumbs in anticipation.  A huge platter arrives, crushing your notion of what a portion size should be, adorned with a beautifully cooked skirt steak, which according to their menu is “broiled in a special way” creating a savory feast of flavors that I have yet to find an accurate comparison to.  Accompanying the steak are healthy servings of rice, cheesy refried beans, a helping of guacamole, and pico de gallo (also known as salsa fresco; a fresh, uncooked salsa which like so many things on their menu, is made in house). Topping the mouthwatering presentation, the pièce de résistance, are always a few green onions, grilled whole, and a jalapeno pepper adorned with a light kiss of char.

My mom, a frequent dining companion of mine, tends to relish in Mazatlan’s briny offerings of the sea with a seafood soup.  She too percolates with giddiness as she watches the waitress nearing with her banquet in a bowl.  Served in a massive margarita glass, with a side dish of crackers to join the community swim, it is a divine cross-section of aquatic wildlife soaking in tomato based bisque.  A happy giggle often passes her lips as that glass is placed before her in presentation and she lifts her spoon for that first taste, savoring of the sapidity of it all.

I dig in with vigor and am usually quite happily surprised. Not only are the flavors oozing of that notorious umami sensation, but I ask for medium-rare, and I receive medium-rare; a good sign of any chef, let alone any restaurant.  Even the rice is a pleasant surprise, a golden brown, properly seasoned and a prime balance between too wet and too dry.

Grunts and murmurs ensue, telling of a meal too precious to interrupt with inconsequential words.  A bare plate or a full gullet is the only relief in sight, and race worth running until all you have left is the sucking of the last bit of flavor from your fingertips and a snifter glass of ice cubes sitting lonely beside your plate.

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
Speaking of an empty glass, a happy companion to the cuisine concocted within the Mazatlan walls is its beverages.  Home to a full bar, with a specialty niche consisting of a vast collection of tequilas (as you should expect from any good Mexican restaurant), bartenders are always happy to make you the cocktail of your choice or one of the many featured daily specials. 

However, something to keep in mind if you want a drink made “the right way” ask for Isidro (a self proclamation, of course) because he’ll always treat you right and serve something that is certainly worth paying for even to the extent of stocking a slightly obscure spirit like Blue Tarantula tequila, just because a single patron (my mother, to be exact) desires it, or in my case, when I order a well whiskey, I typically receive the liquid jewel that is Jim Beam at no increased cost.

The owners and staff have done a inspired job creating a warm environment while serving good food at a fair price.  They frequently visit tables of regulars and newcomers alike, and lightly socialize while never loitering to the point of intrusion, ensuring everyone is satisfied with their meals and is never in want or need of a single thing. 

When I asked, Isidro proudly admitted that 90 to 95 percent of the food is prepared on site, with hopes and aspirations of gaining on those last few percent in the future including taking over production of the coveted tortillas.  The time and effort put into it, reflects in the quality of the food, service, and smiles you find once passing through those doors.  Something that, as rumor has it, can’t be found at the chain’s other locations though I can’t speak from personal experience.

All of this is proof positive that if you treat your customers’ right, they’ll come back.  Also, if those customers come back and you don’t just treat them right, you treat them special, they’ll spread the word just as I have here and just as you may do if you give them a chance.  I am constantly looking for a reason to go there, to take new people there, and to try and disprove the reputation that the other branches of this chain have attached to the Mazatlan name.  Let this be known: if I ever start a restaurant some day, I will take my first leads from Isidro and Vidal Sanchez, because they are obviously doing something right in the great wide realm that is customer service.  Good food makes it worth going; good people make it worth coming back.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lean, green, healthy bean

Originally printed in The Clackamas Print,
Volume 44, Issue 23, Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
Green beans, string beans, snap beans; whatever you want to call them, you don’t have to climb up Jack’s beanstalk to get them.

Though green beans are available year-round, their season peaks between May and September, making now the perfect time to pay special attention to the produce aisle of your local supermarket.  When selecting the perfect green bean, you’ll want to look for a long, stiff yet flexible bean that gives a nice snap sound when broken (hence the alias “snap beans”).

In addition to being quite tasty and the most popular edible pod bean in the United States, green beans have numerous nutritious factors that make them that much more appealing. The green bean is a source of many members of the vitamin alphabet (including A, B and C) as well as several antioxidants, fiber and minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium.  They’re also free of fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol. Could you really ask for a better vegetable?

Green beans are so much more versatile than your traditional Thanksgiving green bean casserole.  They are sold canned, frozen and fresh and have been battered, fried, dried, canned, pureed and even used in tempura dishes.

Boiling, steaming, baking and even microwaving are popular methods of cooking green beans; however stir-frying preserves the best qualities of the fresh and healthy bean. Green beans can be cooked whole, cut crosswise, diagonally or French-cut (lengthwise); though if you want sweet-tasting, crisp  beans, cut them as little as possible.

Blackened Garlic Green Beans
Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011


• One pound of fresh green beans
• One or two cloves of garlic
• One tablespoon of olive oil
• Salt and pepper to taste


1. Begin by rinsing the green beans under cold water and breaking off each end.

2. Bring a pan of salted water to a boil and in handful-sized batches, blanch the green beans for four to five minutes or until tender.  Drain green beans thoroughly, rinsing under cold water to halt the cooking process.  Mince the garlic.

3. Over medium heat, preheat a frying pan and pour in a tablespoon or so of olive oil, moving the pan around to coat the bottom well.

4. Add the garlic to the hot oil.  When the garlic has slightly begun to sweat and take on a little color, add the green beans to the pan.  Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring frequently until green beans begin to blacken.

5. Remove from heat and transfer your simple yet yummy creation to a serving platter. All that’s left is to stand back and enjoy the “oohs” and “aahs” that emit from your family and friends as they set their eyes and stomachs upon this beautiful side dish.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Food, Glorious Food: A Recipe Rant

“Oh, food. Wonderful food. Marvelous food. Glorious food.” –Oliver Twist

Photo by Anna Axelson, November 2010
A constant truth: people will always need food. A curious question: why can’t we enjoy it? As an amateur foodie, I am not an authority, but maybe I can be a voice of reason telling you that it may not be as difficult as you think.

Inspiration/frustration, thy name is “cookbook.” Who needs a recipe? Well, chances are, we all do, but how helpful is it really? No matter how many times we follow the directions on the back of a bag of chocolate chips, the cookies always turn out a little different. Chewy, crumbly, sweeter, saltier; it’s a bit of a crapshoot, so why not make it your own?

Truth be told, a recipe is just a list of ingredients, guidelines, a map. What does “softened butter” or “cream the sugars” even mean? Does it make a difference? Try it and find out!

The ongoing, perhaps even endless venture that is the search for perfection when it comes to recipes is addicting. Like a Lay’s potato chip (“I bet you can’t eat just one…”), time and time again we go back and do it again. A pinch of this, a dash of that, a smidgen of this other thing, all for an end result that prompts “oohs” and “aahs” from the peanut gallery. Yet, no matter how hard we try, it isn’t perfect and even if it was, who’s to say the miracle can be repeated. A blend of joy and dissatisfaction reign and we try again. 

The true recipe is more than just a list of ingredients; it’s time, effort, passion, and technique that bring everything together. The only way to exactingly recreate someone else’s culinary masterpiece is to actually BE them and have been the one to make it. Interpretation is inevitable: make the best of it. To quote a cliché (because clichés are clichés for a reason), it’s not the destination, but the journey, that is important and worth relishing in. 

Photo by Anna Axelson, November 2010
While there are very few things that can top the perfection that is a classic chocolate chip cookie, I typically find it hard to resist taking some of my own liberties with the recipe. Cocoa powder, oats, peanut butter, orange extract, pretzels, cereal, every kind of baking chip under the sun, even a can of pumpkin: the list of things I have tossed into that simple batter for the sake of experimentation goes on and on. Taking a slight risk resulted in a touch that made it mine and if nothing else, interesting. 

Take this lesson to heart: just because the recipe tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it. My challenge to you is this: take that recipe and make it yours. When it comes to baking, some things have to be more precise, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with the flavor. Even if we never find out how to make the ideal chocolate chip cookie, we can rest assured that the quest will be a worthwhile and tasty one.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Italian-French" Bread

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian, wine and tarragon make it French, sour cream makes it Russian, lemon and cinnamon make it Greek, soy sauce makes it Chinese, garlic makes it good.” - Alice May Brock

What makes French bread, “French”?  Considering the Italian ciabatta bread encompasses essentially the same ingredients, I can’t say it’s the ingredients.  Also, while technique may differ in some French kitchens between some recipes and others, technique differs some in ALL kitchens simply because naturally, people do things differently; so I can’t say it’s the technique.  Again, I just have to ask: what is the definitive answer to my oh so simple question? 

After a healthy amount of research, scowering recipe after recipe, opinion after opinion, not to mention a few sleepless nights, I can confidently say with the utmost certainty… that I have absolutely no clue other than to say that French bread is French because it was initially made in France.  (This begs the question of course as to whether or not it should be called “American bread” when it is made in America, but then again, that opens its own can of worms and I digress.)

I once dreaded yeast breads, having the patience of a flea, but somewhere along the line the desire to find grander fields then that in which quick breads offered and I entered this wonderful world and was welcomed within its “poofy” embrace.  This is my own recipe, a labor of love, named “Italian” for its flavors and “French” because, as they say, “don’t fix something that ain’t broke.”  

1 tbsp sugar
2¼ cups warm water
1 tsp table salt
(or 2 tsp kosher salt)
1¼ tbsp dry active yeast
1 tbsp olive oil (or vegetable oil)
Garlic powder
Fresh ground pepper
Oregano flakes
Parsley flakes
1-3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
6¼ cups flour

Begin by dissolving the sugar in the warm water; a few moments of stirring should do the trick.  Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and let sit for 5-8 minutes or until yeast has “poofed,” creating a layer of foam.  Gently stir in the salt, olive oil and then seasoning to taste add the garlic, garlic powder, pepper, oregano, and parsley flakes.  Add 2 cups of the flour and mix well.  

Commit to getting a little messy, forgo the spoon and gradually add the rest of the flour.  Knead with the fervor of a purring kitten until you end up with a smooth ball of dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers and bounces back when given a gentle “Pillsbury Doughboy” poke.  Coat the inside of a bowl with olive oil  (or vegetable oil) and drop in your ball of dough, rolling it around and flipping it over to coat.  Cover with a dish towel and let rise in a warm, dark place for an hour and a half.

"Pioneer Women," I Love Lucy. March 31, 1952.
It’s at this point that I always pause and picture that episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel, during one of their famous bets, bake a loaf of bread.  If you remember the episode, you’ll also remember that they completely misjudged how much yeast the recipe called for and end up in a scene worthy of any 1950s sci-fi thriller.  This mental image always causes me to think back and reevaluate just how much yeast I used.

After passing the time as you so please (three whole episodes of “I Love Lucy” will do the trick) the dough should have doubled in size and you are ready to work with it.  Separate the dough into two pieces and shape roughly into “loaf” shape (this is pretty much up to you; want round, go round, want long, go long). Place each loaf a few inches apart on a lightly greased or cornmeal dusted cookie sheet.  Once again cover with a dish towel and set aside to rise for another tedious 45 minutes (or another episode and a half).

Again the dough will have grown, a science experiment in action, and you will next need to pre-heat your oven to a toasty 425 degrees.  With a sharp knife, lightly slash diagonal lines across the top of each loaf (room to grow, so to say).  Place an oven safe ramekin with water on the cookie sheet or another rack to help prevent the bread from drying out while baking.  Bake for thirty minutes or until golden brown.

In my experience, a bread knife creates more mess than it’s worth, so I rely on my trusted and preferable chef’s knife to slice the heat kissed goodness that is a fresh, home baked loaf of bread.  So after what seems like another long, but last eternity (at least fifteen to twenty minutes) the bread is ready to slice, so do just that and serve how you please.  Bon appétit!