Archives for June 2015

Guest Post: Panda Express Innovation Kitchen and Tea Bar

You’re all in for a massive treat today. My friend Justin, who used to write one of my favorite food blogs of all time, has shared a recent experience of his for my blog. All I can say is…come back to the interwebs, Justin. We need more good photos. We need more burger mashups. And I can say with confidence that we ALL need more orange chicken burritos: 
For a few years after my parents were first married but before I came along, they would go to parties in the Pasadena area where Chinese food was served. A young man named Andrew would show up with all the ingredients and get to work in the kitchen cooking up dinner. He had just opened up a restaurant on Foothill Blvd called Panda Inn.When my mom tells the stories, she makes it sound like she was in the kitchen helping Andrew out, maybe suggesting recipes or showing him egg roll-making tips. My dad’s memory of the parties is far more boring but much more realistic: “I don’t think Andrew even knew my name.”In 1983, Andrew came up with the idea to sell his food in quick-serve format in the Glendale Galleria. He called it Panda Express. Today, Panda Express has 1700 restaurants all over the country, in malls, airports, baseball stadiums and shopping centers.

Also today, Andrew is estimated by Forbes to be worth more than three billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. Needless to say, Andrew no longer shows up and cooks at the kind of parties my parents attend.

In an obvious play to establish a new Panda model comparable to the massive success of Chipotle, a new restaurant opened a few months ago called Panda Express Innovation Kitchen and Tea Bar. In an homage to the first Panda Inn, it’s just a few blocks down the street on Foothill. It also happens to be just four blocks from the house in which I grew up.

But I didn’t plan to visit, because here’s the thing: I am not a fan of Panda Express. I just don’t think it’s that good. Sure, it tastes okay… but so do most things if you put the amount of sugar and salt on them that Panda uses. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least six independent Chinese restaurants in Pasadena that I think are much better.

But there is one occasion for which Panda Express always hits the spot with me: A hangover. I was back in Pasadena for the Summer Solstice, visiting with some old friends, and I drank way too much. The next day I awoke with my worst hangover in years. I headed to Panda.

You can choose to get your food in a salad, in a bowl, or in a wrap (basically a scallion tortilla). I opted for the wrap. Just like at every other Panda, you select whatever you want. Except with a lot more options.
First up, I asked for lettuce, carrots and scallions.
Then orange chicken.
And Beijing beef.
And slaw, pickled cucumbers, and crispy shallots.
So how was it?
Well, it’s Panda Express. Almost every medium-size city has at least a couple Chinese joints better than Panda, but something about the orange chicken is oddly comforting. Maybe it’s a throwback to those days when my high school used to bring it in for lunch, or maybe it’s just the fact that the sugar and salt always seems to alleviate my hangover, however briefly.
I do have to say that the egg rolls with the spicy sambal sauce is a winning combination. All Panda Express locations across the country would do well to start serving this.
But as for the name “Innovation Kitchen”? I guess if throwing their ingredients into a salad or a tortilla is innovative, the name kinda makes sense. But overall it wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be.
There is, however, one thing about the place that I DO think is pretty cool:
In the back of the house is a tea and dessert bar, with some comfortable, oversized chairs and flatscreen TVs showing sports. I had an iced black tea that was delicious and a strawberry mochi that was awful.
Like I wrote earlier, I don’t really expect this format of Panda Express to take off. I could see them trying it out in a few other locations around the country, but I don’t think Chipotle needs to start worrying about losing market share.
I don’t think I’ll ever go back… well, until my next wicked hangover. So probably this coming weekend.

Summer Lovin – These Treats Will Do Nothing For Your Bikini Body

But they sure do taste great!


Barcibo Enoteca

This is such a gem, hidden in plain sight. It’s right on Broadway with a tiny but comfortable summer patio and serves delicious Italian small plates with a great selection of wines by the glass. It’s a little more expensive than it should be, but happy hour includes all glasses of wine and beer and the food isn’t good, it’s great (not the stodgy veal meatball, but everything else). The burrata crostini is especially memorable. The cheese isn’t so wet that it soaks the bread, but retains enough creaminess to put your heart into shock. It’s layered with garlicky pesto and a single juicy, perfectly roasted tomato. A fantastic accompaniment for a glass of semi-dry prosecco.


Dough Loco

After my girl Sarah told me how amazing this place was, I had to check it out. Hot damn, she was right – this place is on point! Though the prize for best yeast doughnut still belongs to Doughnut Plant, these donuts are legit, especially the incredibly tender crumbed, light cake doughnuts. The best ones are the ones where light and bright countered heavy and fried. The Creamsicle and blood orange doughnuts are especially memorable with thick, sugary, citrus-shocked glaze.


The City Bakery

A damned good chocolate chip cookie. Thin but still chewy and gooey on the inside – warm when I ate it. The cookie’s genius lays in its size – it’s large enough to be a small breakfast but small enough to be a large dessert. Love it.

Sanctuary at Camelback: Beauty in the Desert

Okay, headed back out of NYC for one quick post.


I spent some time at Sanctuary on Camelback, which is lauded as one of Scottsdale’s finest resorts. Click on the below link to take a little look:



It was a great trip to be sure. My only small issue does not have to do not with the facilities, the room appointments, or the truly fabulous spa (the reflexology treatment is a dream). The location is ideal, the rooms are spacious, and the bar at nighttime is gorgeous. My only issue with the hotel is an intangible and small issue with the service. Everyone was extremely kind and accommodating, but we had to ask for so many things that I felt should come naturally (same day steaming, stamps and enevelopes acquired if necessary, quicker action to quiet a rowdy room, etc) at a resort that charges this much per room. Look, this was a very good hotel – great, even. But for the prices they charge, I feel that there should be a few more intangible services that are offered at the highest level of hotels. That said, if you get a great deal on a hotel room here, you should stay here. The staff is wonderful, the surroundings are beautiful, and the room service is impeccable. Just brush up on those few services and it will be a hotel for the ages.

*I stayed at this hotel on a media rate. All of the opinions expressed are my own and unbiased.*

Jane, The Fourth, and Beyoglu: Hit ‘Em Up!

Where you should eat and why:

20150621_102727 Where: Jane

Why: Avocado goat cheese sandwich

Avocado toast is so passe, don’t you think? This avocado toast is layered with ripe tomato, sprouts dressed in a tangy, mustardy vinaigrette, and a slab of somewhat funky, ripe goat cheese. The goat cheese sounds like it would be overkill, but it’s really sensational. It livens up the avocado, adds a meaty taste, and – well – it’s goat cheese. What’s not to love?! If you come here with the family, ask to be seated in the large, quiet downstairs room. It’s a hidden gem.
20150619_093133 Where: The Fourth

Why: Gluten free banana pecan muffin

I’m more of a gluten-full girl than a gluten-free girl. I get giddy at the mere mention of sourdough. But this muffin is really da bomb (do cool kids still say that?). It’s incredibly moist and studded with toasty, crunchy pecans. The banana taste is sweet, and vaguely floral without being over the top banana-y (which, trust me, I HATE). It’s not too sweet, so it can handle a swipe of butter and sticky-sweet blackberry jam. The surroundings are lovely and that muffin is really damned good. A great space for a breakfast meeting.

20150616_123500 Where: Beyoglu

What: Mezze sampler

This Turkish spot is a favorite among foodies and city dwellers of all sorts and I can see why. It’s a lovely, airy restaurant with a huge menu. The lunch specials are well priced, the service is quick, and the portions are good. The food is downright delicious. Fluffy, fresh bread and some flaky sigar borkei are warm, flaky, and cheesy. That mezze platter is just fabulous – loaded with garlicky hummus, creamy yogurt cacik, smoky babaganoush, and a host of other dips. It’s big enough for a light lunch between friends that will leave you satisfied but not stuffed or uncomfortable. Total win.

GG’s NYC – I Dream of GG’s

Get to GG’s ASAP for the burger. Like, really.

20150601_181856 Don’t bother coming for the atmosphere…well, I guess it is pretty cute. Quaint, ideal for a meal alone at the bar or with a friend.
20150601_181906 It would make a good double date spot but might be a bit too cozy with other tables for a first date. The backyard looks fun for a crew, though.  20150601_190056 Burrata with greens, romesco, and garlic chips
Okay, you can come for this, too. The burrata is wonderfully creamy and paired with more strong, savory flavors than it usually is. I though that those flavors would overwhelm the burrata, but the crispy, pungent garlic chops, earthy romesco, and soft greens just accent the burrata’s creamy, milky taste. Recommended.

20150601_191836 The Grandma Pie 20150601_192009 Thick, buttery crust. Sweet, none-too-fancy tomato sauce. Stretchy, bubbly mozzarella and crispy, spicy discs of pepperoni that curl up and harbor wonderful porky oil. The pie is soft and layered with the flavors of your favorite childhood pie with high end ingredients. If you love Sicilian pie, you will be crazy for this. For my tastes, it’s a little doughy but still worth trying.  20150601_192345 Pan seared burger with white cheddar, melted onions, secreto sauce, and fries

Yep. This is why you come here. This burger is as good as the one at Brindle Room in a totally different way. It has a squishy bun, a thin blanket of sharp cheese, and sweet, pleasantly sticky caramelized onions. Then there is the meat…wow, that meat. It’s juicy and beefy without too much funk or highfalutin taste. It’s not like eating a steak – it’s like eating the best burger you ever had.  20150601_192444 Perfectly pink and juicy, with a swatch of creamy, tangy secreto sauce and a crunchy pickle…this is perfection on a bun. For the price and how substantial it is, it’s currently my favorite burger in town.  20150601_195132

Morgenstern’s raw milk ice cream sandwich

Fabulous! Okay, come for this, too. Thsi ice cream is DYNAMITE! It’s creamy, rich, and clean tasting – almost the burrata of ice cream. The cookies are dark and thick enough to absorb the ice cream’s moisture without getting too soggy.

GG’s is really well priced, has an inviting atmosphere, and serves – for my money – the most satisfying burger in the city. Plus pizza. And some awesome ice cream sandwiches. I guess there is reason besides the burger to come here. But still…the burger is the best reason.

These Woulda Been Great Father’s Day Gifts

I’m always a day late and a dollar short, right?

Father’s Day was never a big deal growing up, because my mom always said that if every day wasn’t Father’s Day, one day a year wasn’t going to help. However, my husband and his family are huge on it – so, now I do the whole Father’s Day shebang. Brunch. Cards. Gifts.

About those gifts…mine are usually 2 weeks early or 3 days late. If you are like me and still need a present for the foodie dads in your life, here is what I would choose:


Chiriboga Blue Cheese

This is the best blue cheese I have ever had in America. It’s beauty lies in its subtlety – this doesn’t punch you in the nose with its taste or texture, it gently seduces you into loving blue cheese. It’s incredibly creamy and buttery. Though there are obvious blue flecks in it, it isn’t overly funky or mushroomy. It just has pops of tart, tangy, savory flavor amidst the wonderfully creamy texture and mild flavor. It’s pricey, but hey – it’s for dad, right? Serve it with some fig jam and a cranberry-nut bread and you will be in for a massive treat.


Johnnie Walker Platinum

My husband’s favorite whisky – he loves it even more than the far pricier Johnnie Walker Blue. I find it to be smooth as far as whiskey goes, which is still too strong for me. However, he swears that it’s all vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch, especially when you serve it with one gigantic ice cube. Maybe the dad in your life would love it, too!


Fuego Box

I was sent this as a press gift and OMG I LOVE IT!!!! You get 3 different types of hot sauce in each monthly shipment, complete with tasting notes. These are hot sauces that I have never tried before and some of them I like to eat plain, some I like to use as ingredients when I cook, and some I drink with a straw. It’s incredibly cool to get deliveries of hot sauces from small batch producers all over the country – I’m now addicted to one I would never have tried (Frankie V’s Spooky White is ACTUALLY insane). Thos is an amazing gift for the chile head in your life.

Any other great food gift ideas, for Father’s Day or any other time?

Upland: Justin Smille’s Restaurant Now Delivers Big Time

20150606_175140 So, we went back to Upland. It’s still pricey but the growing pains are over. Wow, is it sensational.  20150606_175457 Every cocktail we tried was extraordinary. This one, made with chartreuse and summer sugar snap peas, is verdant, fresh, and a little savory. Appetizing, not too strong, and beautiful to boot.  20150606_182712 Meyer lemon with stracciatella, anchovy, and spring garlic

Sensational. Crispy, yeasty, airy crust topped with milky, stretchy stracciatella. It’s layered with slices of burnished, tangy lemon and notes of savory spring garlic. The anchovy is undetectable, but the pie is so addictive that you know that the anchovy’s umami powers must be at work. Don’t miss this sensational pizza.  20150606_184432 Cacio e pepe and chicken liver pastas

Both unforgettable. I am still dreaming of that cacio e pepe. I had never had this traditional Roman dish and I was shocked at how satisfying it was. Creamy, al dente, spicy, toothsome…incredible. The chicken liver pasta is meaty and fragrant with hints of woodsy rosemary and sharp Parmesan cheese. The pasta here looks like it came out of a play-doh machine and is undeniably fun and cute. Big win.  20150606_190335 Short rib with black olives, celery, and horseradish

Chef Smillie’s signature dish and one of some controversy. I can see why – this is damned good. Not overseasoned or aggressibely prepared – it has a heavy, pleasant char and lets the meat’s flavor and tender texture shine. The horseradish is applied sparinly and provides a zip and zing to the crispy celery salad and soft, meaty short rib.

Upland offered a great night. The service is excellent, the bread is still fabulous, and all of the food is now up to par for the prices. A lovely special occasion or date restaurant – I can’t wait to return. 

48 Hours in Milan: The Rest of It

Here’s what I did on the rest of  my whirwind tour of Milan:

IMG_1551 Drank an espresso.
IMG_1582 Ate a piece of foccacia.

20150611_055725 Gawked at a tower of pots that is plated in actual gold. 
IMG_1695 Visited the world expo (way too short a time, but it was like a real-life EPCOT).  IMG_1709 Ate the MOST fabulous cheese  – that Gorgonzola was the sweetest and creamiest that I had ever tried.  IMG_1712 Visited the pavilion of a country that I will likely never see in person.  IMG_1716 More hanging gardens of Babylon than Shahs of Sunset.

IMG_1726 Wished that I had room for this pizza.

20150612_122659 Took a little bus dive to the incredibly beautiful Lake Como. No, I didn’t see George Clooney.
IMG_1744 Ate dinner at this SICK villa.

20150612_122942 In said villa, admired Napoleon Bonaparte’s bed, complete with original linens…

20150612_123027 and Empress Josephine’s dress.
20150612_123059 Embroidered in PLATINUM. I KNOW. 
IMG_1748 Cooked with some of these beautiful ingredients – I swear, the food tastes about am million times better on that side of the Atlantic.

20150613_050532 Saw these stools that look like macarons.  20150613_043017 Learned that Jack Daniels is totally expensive and way cooler to drink than single malt Irish whiskey.
IMG_1843 Took what seems to be a quintessentially Italian photograph.

Don’t worry…I slept when I got home. Next week, I finally return to blogging about good ole NYC!

48 Hours in Milan: How to Hack Your Economy Flight

I went to Milan on a press trip for 48 hours and it was kind of insane. I mean, 48 hours isn’t even enough time to get jet lag, let alone eat all the kinds of cheese on my list. But since I only had 48 hours and lots of them were taken up with work, I had to make my free time count.

That meant getting sleep on the red-eye. And no, this wasn’t an uber fabulous trip with my globe-trotting dad, this was a work trip in coach. For 8 hours.

Here’s how I do trips like this:


1) Check in early to the best seat you can

Most airlines let you check in for free 24 hours ahead of time. This means that you can grab the bulkhead for extra leg room, the window in case you like to lean against it, or any other seat that isn’t bought ahead of time. In my case, it let me choose the smaller economy cabin which meant that I was served food first, got my choice of overhead space, and didn’t have any crying babies in my section. Win all the way.


2) Embrace the neck pillow

They look dumb. They are bulky. They are often covered in hideous fabric. But on an 8 hour flight with 2 inches of leg room and one Jennifer Lopez movie playing on repeat the whole time? It’s a LIFESAVER. You want a really good, on-the-pricier side pillow to help you sleep – memory foam is awesome. Wear it with the opening adjusted to just in front of your shoulder. This helps you lean to the side or drop back your head with total support. Best of all, it lets you have the best of all worlds – use it instead of a window to lean against and you have support PLUS an aisle seat to stretch your legs and have more wiggle room.


3) Prepare with good booze and food

There ain’t no caviar on these flights and the Krug ain’t exactly flowing. As such, you need to come prepared. I would recommend an awesome vegetarian sandwich on the crustiest bread you can find (so it doesn’t get too soggy), some potato chips, and candy. Candy is the best because you don’t need any more carbs and it won’t get too smushy in your carry on – no chance of it melting in a frigid airline cabin. I prefer one bag of gummy candy and one of chocolate candy. And booze…don’t rely on free booze on board. And even the for sale stuff might not be great. Hit up duty-free for a mini split of prosecco or even a couple of these cans of sparkling wine. It’s not the greatest stuff in the world but it does the trick and will help you drift off to sleep if you prefer.


4) Treat yourself like you’re in first class

What does that mean? That means come prepared. Bring pajamas and fluffy socks to change into the second that you come on board. Come armed with moisturizer, the best headphones that you have, an eye mask, earplugs, and a personal entertainment device filled to the brim with great stuff. Don’t forget a sleeping aid, tissues, and a pen for filling out immigration forms. Go on Expert Flyer and see what the best seat is, research the plane and find out what the electric situation is (ie, this plane had no outlets but did have a usb charging port), and see what the meal offering(s) are. You want to feel like you are in as much luxury as possible.


5) Don’t be a jerkhole

It’s a long flight. You’re cranky and tired and hot and achey and whiney. I get it. I TOTALLY get it. But don’t be a jerkhole. Don’t quickly jerk your seat back all the way the second you take off. Ease into it, do it gracefully, and only recline it as far as you need to. Don’t harangue the flight attendants for extra water and soda when they are halfway down the aisle – order extra when they come to you and keep it in your seatback for when you need it. Do be proactive if the person in front of you is reclined too far during mealtime – wait until the flight attendant comes to you and then ask her/him to ask the person in front of you to raise his/her seatback. If you are in an aisle seat, try not to lean on the person next to you and if you are in the window seat, keep restroom trips to when the person next to you wakes up or gets up to use the restroom. Don’t be rude, don’t push, and don’t yell. Basic kindergarten rules that might seem like common sense but are often forgotten on long flights. Do well and reap good karma.

Look, it’s never going to be the glories of flying first class. But with these tips, a sleeping aid, and some good luck, I managed to get some sleep, drink some wine, and be relatively entertained on my medium haul flights.

Next up: Milano memories.

48 Hours in Milan: Milan’s Greatest Hits

On this whirlwind trip I didn’t have a ton of time to eat in Milan, but what I did eat was really pretty great. Here are some of Milan’s greatest hits:


Risotto Milanese

If you don’t like saffron, this might not be for you. If you have even the slightest affinity for it, this is the greatest use of it since Joel Robuchon’s bread. It’s a little floral, a little savory, and very aromatic. The rice is al dente and the color is a beautiful golden hue. It’s served in a small enough portion to be an appetizer but it can be a light main course as well. If you don’t like saffron, any risotto in Milan is excellent – I had a gorgonzola one that I still dream about.

20150613_061418 Spaghetti Bolognese

I was shocked to discover that pasta is not on every menu in Italy. But Milan, the center of cheese, beef, and rice, is shockingly pasta-light. However, I did manage to have a couple of plates of pasta and they were excellent. This one, at New Art Cafe, is excellent. The spaghetti is al dente and chewy and the sauce is really rich. It’s not that bright, tangy tomato sauce with a few grainy clumps of meat. It’s deep, meaty, and incredibly savory. It’s about all of the pasta, most of the beef, and just a tiny bit of tomato taste in the sauce. It isn’t overly sauced or cheesed. And the mushroom pappardelle is no slouch either.


Movenpick ice cream

Movenpick ice cream is where it’s AT! I actually enjoyed this on the Swiss flight home, but if you find some in Italy and want to compare ice cream to gelato, this is the brand that you want. It’s soft but still dense, with pure, creamy flavor. This flavor, Carmelita, also has a ribbon of sweet, slightly bitter caramel and pieces of chewy, crunchy caramel candy. The ice cream is the real deal – it kicks Haagen Daz’s ass.

As it made mine larger.

Next up: Let’s hack our economy flight.