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Border Grill, Las Vegas NV

It’s hot in Las Vegas this weekend!  We are here for a short jaunt, and as we find restaurants in which to dine and beat the heat, we’ll share with you, as always, the spectacular food.  The last time we were here was for Vegas Uncork’d, and among the many chefs we met during those few days, Chef Mike Minor made a warm impression on us.  We saw him again, as well as Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, at Cooking For Solutions in Monterey, so we figured after running into them enough, it’s about time that we try the restaurant that belongs to all three: Border Grill.  Chef Mike is the executive chef, and chefs Mary Sue and Susan are the founders and creative heads.  It helps that we personally know one other member of the crew – Zach’s cousin Alex is a server’s assistant here but it was his night off, so the three of us went out to eat.

border classics

border classics

We couldn’t decide on a single appetizer, so Alex suggested that we try Border Classics, with three popular items on one plate.  Apparently some people who come here don’t know how to eat the tamales because they’ve never seen them before; being native Californians, we grew up with a distinct awareness of Mexican food so we take these kinds of things for granted.  Alex laughed about people not knowing to unwrap the tamales, freeing the naturally sweet filling from the corn husk.  The three of us really liked the tender and creamy masa, and while it was creamy, it was not blended.  There was still some corn texture in the mix.  The tacos arrived with huge dollops of creamy guacamole with the slightest bit of acidity.  The chicken in the tacos, made panucho style, was juicy and delightfully charred.  It was layered inside the slightly crispy fried tortillas with flavorful black beans.  The empanadas to the right contained plantains and black beans, with cotija cheese and a bit of chipotle salsa on top.  They were an excellent blend of sweet and savory, with a sharp bite from the cheese and still-crisp edges keeping the ingredients folded together.

watercress, jicama, and orange salad

watercress, jicama, and orange salad

Part of the philosophy at Border Grill is “good for the planet, good for you.”  Organic ingredients, hormone and antibiotic-free meats, and sustainable seafood are key elements of the menu.  Some items are made with at least 80% plant-based ingredients, like this salad.  The green mix of watercress, julienned jicama, avocado chunks, and green apple cubes was accented by toasted pine nuts and orange supremes with a toasted coriander vinaigrette.  The stars of the show, though, were the bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with chorizo and blue cheese.  The sweet creamy center was balanced by the bite from the blue cheese, and the crisp, smoky, perfectly rendered bacon rounded it out.  Overall, the best word to describe this salad is “sharp.”

chicken poblano enchiladas

chicken poblano enchiladas

A creamy but not heavy green sauce had a mild roasted chile flavor with a very slightly spicy bite, just enough to let you know it was there.  The sauce covered and formed a pool for three enchiladas with an abundance of smoked chicken, grilled corn, wild mushrooms, and charred poblano chiles.  Like everything here, the corn tortillas are scratch-made, further attesting to the glory of real, hand-made food.  The corn brought an extra sweetness to the dish, working well together with the slight bite of the poblano chile sauce.

tecate carnitas

tecate carnitas

August got her own hand-made tortilla with her entree, perfect for wiping up the dregs.  Black beans surrounded a heap of cheesy grits, piled with pork carnitas and bits of jalapeño bacon.  The pork was moist and tender (no knife needed), and while it was tasty on its own, it was best in a mouthful with the grits, which were creamy and definitely cheesy.  Mexican food is stereotypically thought of as spicy, but this plate was far from spicy.  In fact, the perceived heat came from the thinly sliced red onion, which really added more of a zing than anything.  This is a great choice for someone who doesn’t want Mexican spicy, but appreciates all the rich flavor.  Alex made a burrito once with the dish’s three main parts, and he said it was one of the best burritos “evar.”

4 halves

4 halves

Akin to the appetizers, we couldn’t make up our minds between the three of us when it came to dessert.  We were lucky, then, that we had the option to get two or even four half-sizes (and of course we went for four, the more the merrier).

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August had never before tried a flan which didn’t have that weird rubbery skin as a result of caramelization.  She was so surprised, then, when this flan was super creamy in texture throughout.  The rich vanilla custard was made more awesome by the deep caramel.  For a tres leches cake that wasn’t made by an abuelita in her own cocina, this was very, very close to authenticity.  Moist, spongy, and creamy, it was a light cake with sweet milk and the ideal amount of whipped cream.  The Mexican chocolate cream pie was basically a semisweet chocolate mousse made with Ibarra.  Ibarra is not meant to be eaten like a chocolate bar, although it can be and August did so very often growing up (and admittedly even through college).  You can imagine her delight in devouring this particular cream pie, then, with semisweet chocolate and cinnamon.  For chocolate as we’re more familiar with it, we chose the flourless cake.  It was like a slab of rich ganache on a drizzle of tart prickly pear lychee sauce, so in a word, “delicious.”

Para un sabor bastante leal a lo auténtico, no hay otro restaurante ubicado en The Strip que sirva.  You would be hard pressed to find another Mexican restaurant on The Strip that offers food that tastes so close to authenticity.

Taquería Los Dos Gallos, Oakland CA

Looking online for reliable restaurant information in Oakland is limited.  Searching for “taquería oakland” gave us literally nothing in our neighborhood within 4 miles.  But driving around Oakland, one can find many restaurants, sometimes almost a dozen on a single block.  A lack of an online presence seems untrustworthy nowadays, as we rely so much on that fallible resource, yet taking a shot in the dark can prove fruitful.  On a whim around lunch time, we pulled into the back parking lot of Taquería Los Dos Gallos at 5901 International Blvd, and we don’t regret it in the slightest.

chilaquiles rojos

chilaquiles rojos

Almost half of the menu here has breakfast items, with a mix of Mexican dishes, omelettes, and even waffles and pancakes.  We were well past craving breakfast for ourselves, being a late lunch as it was, but we got the chilaquiles rojos so that we could try something off the expansive breakfast selection and write about it here.  Essentially tortilla chips, eggs, cheese, and salsa, it’s a scramble with bright flavors and many layers of texture.  The red sauce was very bold with chilies, garlic, and onion.  It melded with the crispy chips, gooey cheese, and velvety eggs.  With sides of sour cream, rice, beans, and freshly chopped onions and avocado, this is part of a complete, savory, and international breakfast.

torta de carnitas

torta de carnitas

The word torta changes meaning depending on where you are and who you’re talking with.  For Mexico, torta is a delicious sandwich with fresh vegetables, mayonnaise, avocado, and your choice of meat.  Carnitas are little fried bits of pork, and here they were riquísimas in this torta with a grilled and buttery soft roll.  Tender, rich, and flavor-packed, carnitas has always been one of our favorite styles of Mexican meat preparation.  Thick tomato, crispy lettuce, and creamy avocado added to the enjoyment.

3 tipos de tacos

3 tipos de tacos

We got three types of tacos; there were enough different kinds of meat, we had to try a few.  Each one was loaded with fresh meat, cilantro, and white onion.  One was al pastor which is a style of pork you can find most places.  The meat was grilled and crispy, and only mildly spicy with a tiny bit of tanginess from the pineapple with which it was roasted.  Because we’re adventurous, we also tried one cabeza and one lengua (that’s head and tongue, respectively).  The cabeza was nice and tender with a mild marinade so the flavor of the meat was the star.  The tongue was just as tender with more of a gamey flavor, but it was mild and pleasant.  While the two meats came from the same region of the body, the tastes were very different.

Don’t get sucked into limiting yourself to restaurants with an online presence, focusing on the stars given by someone who doesn’t know good food.  There are restaurants which have yet to be discovered, and it only takes a hint of courage to break away from the chatter on the ‘Net and try somewhere new.

Flipside, Oakland CA

It’s National Hamburger Day!  Clearly a celebration was in order.  Zach did the research to find Flipside, a comfortable joint serving burgers, fries, shakes, and more.  Besides beef on your burger you can also choose chicken, turkey, garden burger, and portabella, and the three meats are all natural and hormone free.  However, despite the tasty patty selection, we came here in honor of the day and just had to get traditional beef burgers.  The beef is Certified Angus and never frozen, and the quality is noticeable.  Next time, though, we’ll try some other varieties (and yes, there will be a next time).

chili cheese fries

chili cheese fries

Zach is picky about chili.  Very picky.  It’s a “he’s won a couple of cookoffs” kind of picky.  The chili cheese fries were a special today, and Zach asked to try a bite before ordering.  We were happy when he nodded his head in approval!  The fries may be frozen, but the chili makes up for them.  The cheese whiz complemented the rich, meaty, beanless chili, which was very bold in spices but not overly spice-y.

the hangover

the hangover

All burgers are served on one of three breads: Texas toast, 9-grain, or signature classic.  We both stuck with the signature which is a giant, soft brioche that held together through the end of the meal.  For his burger, Zach chose the “Hangover” for its combination of toppings including a fried egg, American cheese, applewood smoked bacon, french fries, and tabasco mayonnaise.  To this he also added jalapeño jack cheese and grilled ham, calling it a “Zachover.”  The fried egg provided a nice richness when the yolk was broken, blending with the spicy tanginess of the tabasco mayonnaise.  We agreed that the beef on both our burgers was thick, well seasoned, and tasty, and Zach’s particular pile of toppings made his burger memorable.  He says, “Meaty, cheesy, extremely filling, and all-in-one, this burger is hard to beat.”

the california sensation

the california sensation

The burgers come with choice of french fries or a house salad, and for a small upcharge you can switch to sides like sweet potato fries, garlic fries, curly fries, and beer battered onion rings.  The rings, like the french fries, are frozen, but the person at the fryer really knows what (s)he’s doing to make these taste fresh and maintain great texture.  August enjoyed her onion rings with the “Californian Sensation” burger, featuring avocado, Swiss cheese, sprouts, and “flip sauce” (the house’s version of thousand island).  She’s always liked sprouts but has rarely had them on a burger, so this was a nice change of pace from standard lettuce.  The green taste was deep and earthy.  Having an extensive history with avocado (it was her first food, after all), August appreciates more than anyone can know the importance of fresh, ripe avocado.  She was very happy here with how the avocado was ripe enough to spread itself out and be a part of nearly every bite of the burger

Like we said, we had burgers today because it’s National Hamburger Day, but there’s plenty of other items to try from Flipside’s menu.  Salads, a “kids’ corner,” and fountain-style shakes and malts, plus vegetarian options, make this a place suitable for all ages and all tastes.