Thursday, February 19, 2009


My first encounter with Middle Eastern food was when I was a grad student attending the California State University in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a quick lunch I would often fall into a long line at the falafel stand on campus and sit at a neighboring bench or table to gobble down my order. Over the two years I spent at Cal State, I grew accustomed to Middle Eastern “fast food” – such as falafel and lentil soup – and I became intimately acquainted with new flavor combinations that tickled my palate and took me to new and exciting places. That’s what food should be about after all, right?

Eating the food at Mazza takes you on a journey through the Middle East. In one bite you can be taken to Egypt or Greece and in the next bite perhaps Israel or Lebanon. For example, a staple of Greek cuisine is the stuffed grape leaf. The vegetarian grape leaves at Mazza are wrapped around a combination of rice, herbs, lemon, and tomato and served with a yogurt sauce made of cucumber and mint. The grape leaf itself is quite savory, with hints of smokiness perhaps from a scant touch of cumin. The yogurt sauce breathes additional life into the grape leaf, brightening its flavor and bringing these tiny little fingers together into little bundles of joy.

The hummus at Mazza is silky-smooth. It is rich in flavor and gives you a subtle hint of lemon with strong chickpea and garlic overtones. The tahini rounds the hummus out nicely giving it a distinct sesame taste. Dipped through with a warm piece of pita, it is a meal in and of itself. But if you like hummus, you’ll love Mazza’s muhamara - a red colored dip composed of roasted red pepper and walnuts, sweetened with pomegranate molasses. The molasses enhances the natural sweetness of the roasted red peppers, but the use of spices in the dish provides a well-balanced savory tone. You take up each bite of muhamara using a crisp lettuce leaf. As such, with every bite you get a nice crunch from the lettuce on top of the smoothness you get from the dip. Every bite leaves you with a cool, refreshing feeling in your mouth. With each bite, you want more.

A safe bet for even the most unadventurous, the chicken mutabbak is a savory chicken and rice dish. The chicken is plated with a sweet tamarind sauce and served over basmati rice, around which beautifully roasted potatoes are circled. The dish is truly an invitation to eat. A similar dish that many will find equally approachable is the kebab platter. Mazza offers a nicely charred and flavorful kebab platter filled with grilled chicken, potatoes, and vegetables. If you hate cauliflower, you should try the grilled cauliflower off the kebab plate at Mazza – the char adds a new dimension to what you might typically equate with cauliflower.

And of course there is always the falafel – a deep fried vegetable patty consisting of fava beans, chickpeas, spices, and tahini served in a warm pita with cool lettuce and spicy, pickled turnips. I would akin a falafel sandwich to a Middle Eastern hamburger – it could be said however, that falafel might be an acquired taste. Although I’m of Filipino-American heritage, Middle Eastern cuisine has somewhat of a “comfort food” effect with me. When I bite into the falafel sandwich at Mazza, I get transported back in time. Eating falafel takes me back to my days in grad school. It makes me remember what those two years of my life were like back then and it makes me think about some people I haven’t thought about in a very long time, and this….makes me happy.

~ Salt Lake City, Utah
15th & 15th (original location) or 9th & 9th

Mazza (South 1500 East) on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cucina Deli

When you walk in the door you are greeted by a large glass deli cooler holding a variety of entrees, desserts, salads, and side dishes. On the walls behind the counters are chalk boards with the daily items written by hand in colored chalk. On their menu, you’ll find items ranging from grilled vegetable sandwiches, grilled chicken salads, salmon tortellini, meat loaf, and curry chicken to desserts such as german chocolate brownies, bread pudding, and lemon bars. The menu is very unassuming; there is something so simple and honest about being able to walk into a place, pick what you want through a glass case, pay at the end of the line, and be seated until your food comes out. It almost reminds you of a high school cafeteria.

As comforting as I’m making this sound, the experience can also be a little stressful as well. I immediately felt a twinge of panic when a line formed behind us. I took several glances at the chalkboard and then several glances at the deli case trying to make out what was what. I could tell the gentleman behind us, probably a regular of some sort, was becoming inpatient as he started breathing more heavily and increasingly louder. I was contemplating between the portobello mushroom sandwich and the Thai beef salad when in a panic I blurted out: "chicken enchiladas"! My lunchmate and I rounded our meal out with an order of cheese lasagna, two San Pellegrino Limonatas, and two Lindt dark chocolate truffles.

After the relief of the ordering trauma set in, our food was delivered promptly and happily to our table (lucky number 71). Upon first glance the food was unassuming, balanced nicely with a green salad of olives and pepporincini, and some bread. The chicken enchilada was quite satisfying. Cutting into it let out big chunks of chicken breast amidst a gooey cream sauce held together by the flour tortilla. The portion was actually manageable. Not too big or too small. It tasted much liked it looked – very unassuming; it tasted like a chicken enchilada. No stand out flavors…maybe a hint of cumin and oregano, but mostly you got this satisifying comfort from a creamy, gooey, bunch of chicken and cheese wrapped up in a bundle.

Similarly, I would also not call the cheese lasagna a masterpiece of modern gastronomy. It was – well - a piece of cheese lasagna. Pasta layered between dollops of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, and ricotta baked into a yummy goo. Again, like the enchiladas, there was no real defined flavor profile, but just a comfortable feeling from a whole lot of pasta, red sauce, and melted cheese. I find that you can’t always eat super chic, gourmet meals, all day every day. But I do think you can and should eat good food all day every day. Cucina Deli uses fresh, good quality ingredients and prepares its food with the respect it should be given. The result? Unassuming food that satisfies the soul. Now how bad can that be?

Cucina Deli ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
The Avenues

Cucina Deli on Urbanspoon


“Tempura fried-braised short ribs?”, I asked our waiter Steve skeptically. Steve then proceeded to launch into an overly enthusiastic recommendation of the menu item citing that you just couldn’t go wrong with this – a comfort food dish made extreme by battering it up in tempura and deep frying it. Mmmm…deep-fried braised meat? Is that like a deep fried snicker’s bar?

I would call the menu at Wahso contemporary, eclectic pan-Asian. You glance down at the menu items and see influences from Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, China, and Japan. The menu immediately grabs your attention with appetizers and salads with interesting ingredients such as chiles, curries, and exotic fruit. As you look around the restaurant, the pan-Asian décor matches the pan-Asian menu. The space seems quite chic with table tops scattered between two sizable floors. Private booths separable by drape partitions are also available for an intimate dining experience. However, the walls are decorated with various items bordering the gawdy like dragons, fans, buddhas, and time-piece memorabilia from different countries. At first glance you might find these elegant but after spending a couple of hours staring at the walls, they become cheap-looking – almost like being in a pan-Asian themed TGIFs whose walls are decorated in an excess of “flair”.

We started our meal off with an amuse bouche compliments of the chef : a cracker topped with an Indian-inspired carrot slaw. The amuse was quite lovely having a mild curry flavor and slightly creamy texture, along with some crunch provided by the carrots and crackers - a delightful way to start off the night. We continued our meal with two appetizers: Spicy Malaysian Potstickers served over pickled cucumber and a pureed Tomato and Coconut soup. The potstickers were sticky with a crunchy exterior. Biting into a potsticker ignited an explosion in my mouth. Spicy, sticky, savory, sweet, crunchy…made ever so amazing by the tartness you got from the pickled cucumber. Talk about comfort. I started forgetting about the gawdy décor and focused in on the food. Unfortunately, the soup, however, left something to be desired. Simply put, the soup tasted like tomato paste with a little bit of coconut milk. It did have a nice coconut flavor, but the tomato background was overpoweringly heavy and a touch too sweet. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t that offensive - but after the succulence of the potstickers, I wanted my palate to be taken to a new place. All I got after eating the soup was a big, fat slap in the face saying, “You’re still in Utah bitch!”

Excitement silenced the table when our entrees arrived. We tasted between two items: the Korean BBQ Salmon and, of course, the Tempura Kobe Short Ribs. The plating on the salmon dish was just beautiful. A shallow pool of a yellow-pepper coulis coated the bottom of the plate, above which was a ring-mold of black forbidden rice topped off with a ginger-braised spinach - which in turn, held up a thick slice of salmon fillet. The salmon had a nice crust on top and was cooked perfectly. Every bite melted in your mouth like butter and the subtle savory elements of soy and sesame within the salmon paired well with the accoutrements. The spinach had a nice creamy consistency and it was topped with crushed walnuts for some crunch. I could barely taste the ginger in it, but somehow I think it better that way. The black rice was visually stunning. It was seemingly tasteless but the presentation it added was great. Even the yellow-pepper coulis had a very mild curry flavor. But it all worked beautifully together – elevating the star of the dish…the salmon…to new heights.

And what of the deep-friend short ribs? Well to be honest it was a neat concept but the execution wasn’t perfect. I found the plating a little boring and off-center. The food was plated all in one quadrant of the plate, which I found off putting. I’m wondering if it just slid to the side when the waiter was walking over from the kitchen to our table? Moreover, the meat was a beige/brown color and it was served with mushrooms and sautéed potatoes, alongside a creamy wasabi spinach. The food was all so very dark. To me, a splash of color would've made the food pop. Instead, it sort of just sat there looking lifeless. Not surprisingly though, the food was quite good once we dug into it. The flavor combinations were similar to the salmon in the sense that the co-starring side dishes played second fiddle to the savory ribs. The ribs were good, but I didn’t find them to be quite as stunning as I had hoped. The tempura wasn’t as crisp as it could have been, leading to a slightly doughy effect on top of the braised beef. The beef itself was lovely…obviously the chef had put in many hours treating this beef with love. But considering the anticipation of this dish, it was a slight disappointment.

We finished our meal with a sample course of chocolate. A creamy hot chocolate, a chocolate-orange tart, dark chocolate truffle, a macaroon, and crème brulee. All miniature in size. The desserts were good but nothing too surprising. Apparently the pan-Asian theme flew out the window with this course. No hint of curry or coconut or any interesting Asian-inspired notes in dessert. No mochi, no custards or red-bean cakes, not even green tea ice cream. Oh wait…but two chocolate covered fortune cookies came out with the bill. That’s like Asian isn’t it?

Wahso ~ Park City, Utah
Executive Chef: Chris Griffin

Wahso on Urbanspoon