Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Tower Cafe

Tower Cafe is where we always take out of town guests. Why? Well, it has so much character! The entire place is covered in plants, textiles, art, ceramics, and colorful bits and pieces from various cultures and countries. I've been going there since they opened and have been probably hundreds of times, yet I can't imagine I've really seen everything on the walls.

It's also very veggie-friendly. Of ten appetizers, six are vegetarian. I especially love the poh pia, a vegetarian spring roll served hot with a plummy sweet and sour sauce. I also love their chile relleno, which comes as an entree as well. The chips and salsa are fine, but the salsa is extremely mild.

There are two vegetarian salads, the Mediterranean and Las Americas (I can't bring myself to type THE Las Americas). The Mediterranean is my clear favorite, with baby spinach, myzithra cheese, olives, onions... there are two dressing choices and I recommend the red pepper, as the herb vinaigrette is a little oily. It comes with triangles of spanikopita. Las Americas has seasonal mixed greens and vegetables, which usually are peppers, tomatoes, onions, and beans.

Tower Cafe makes its own veggie burger, the Earth burger. I have a love/hate relationship with it. It is a dense vegetable and oat patty loaded with veggies, and the fries that come as an option on the side are fantastic, especially with Thai glaze (which is extra). Unfortunately, it comes on a sad, white bun that falls apart under pressure. Such a hefty patty really requires a whole-grain bun, in my opinion.

There are two vegetarian entrees as well, the ravioli florentine and the chile relleno. I've had the raviolis only once, as they come in a pesto cream sauce, and I'm not much for cream sauces. I'll withhold judgment. The chile relleno dinner is, again, love/hate for me. The relleno itself is the best I've ever had. It is a big poblano pepper, breaded and fried until the outside is crunchy. It is entirely unlike any other relleno in that it is crunchy, not soft and eggy, and the pepper really has some heft instead of being mushy. The cheese mixture inside has currants and pine nuts in it, and I love the contrast of textures and the sweetness. But the beans and rice that accompany the dish are bland and uninspiring. I usually mix them together and add the pico de gallo to give them a little bit of extra flavor.

Two other things about Tower are of note. First, they have fantastic desserts. I am a chocaholic, so I generally get the El Diablo mountainous chocolate cake, a truffle, a chocolate "bombe," or something like that. But my husband and best friend recently tried a key lime tart and raved about it. Also, they have great breakfasts. The custard French toast has no local equal. Of course, that means that the place tends to be packed on the weekends at breakfast time, so be prepared to wait. Six or eight of the breakfast choices are vegetarian (if you don't like French toast, I recommend the Greek omelette), and the Eggs Tower can be prepared without the canadian bacon (I'm sure other items can as well, but I've seen several people order this dish vegetarian). They usually have muffins and scones in the bakery case. I'm not normally a fan of white chocolate, but I love the strawberry white chocolate scone.

The specials tend to be hit or miss. If you like the sounds of something, I say go for it. In general, I think their Asian-type dishes tend to be the least authentic and I avoid them.

They have an extensive drink menu, with a large variety of juices, tea, coffee, espresso drinks, beer, wine, Bloody Marys, hard ciders, etc.

In nice weather, the outdoor seating area is delightful. There are many more plants, creating a sort of oasis a few feet from the traffic of Broadway. Of course, most people choose to eat out there, so there can be a wait. Over the years I've heard complaints about bad service at Tower, but I've never personally had any. I think the reputation is undeserved.

My carnivorous dining companions like the Brazilian Chicken salad and the All-American burger.

I give it four of five Sackatomatoes.

Tower Cafe
1518 Broadway, Sacramento

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon

I thought I'd better kick this off with one of my favorite local restaurants. When I tell a friend I have a favorite Lebanese restaurant, they always respond with "Oh, my favorite is Maalouf's." Mine, too. I'll get to the food in a moment, but first I'll explain why, even when we've cut back on our eating-out expenses, we never cut out Maalouf's: they are the nicest people around. To make a VERY long story short, they catered our wedding and threw in so many extras that we swore eternal fealty on the spot. The jovial owner, Abdul, always greets my husband with a hearty "Hey, Boss!" and usually a pat on the shoulder and a misogynist joke (you can tell he doesn't mean it). Rita, his wife, always chats with me and even gave our new baby girl a gift when we came in. Their daughter Layal, who works there on the weekends, is also kind and funny. They're such nice people that even if the food sucked, we'd go back.

But the food is great! I tend to get one of two items, the falafel sandwich and the spinach pie. The falafel sandwich is a huge, messy sandwich that I often can't finish. It contains several hot, well-spiced falafel patties wrapped inside a large pita with lettuce, tomatoes, pickle spears, and tahini sauce. I usually also add a few drops of the hot sauce they keep in squeeze bottles on the table (don't mistake if for ketchup). It also comes with a side of hummus, which is very creamy and smooth. The spinach pie tempts me slightly more often. It is a fresh-baked hot pastry with a a delicious dough that smells buttery, and the smell often hits me before it reaches the table. It is served as two large triangles with half a lemon to squeeze on it. I usually cut it into wedges and use the lemon liberally. Inside it's filled with cooked spinach and spices. I happen to love their labneh, a garlicky thick yogurt dip, so I always order it. Once, Rita showed me the trick of scooping some labneh into the pie, and I was in heaven. I highly recommend it.

Other vegetarian options include the mujadarra, a lentil and rice mixture topped with fried onions. I'm used to a version in which the rice and lentils are a little more al dente, still easily distinguishable from one another. Maalouf's version is more cooked together, and I'm not a huge fan. The portion, incidentally, is about enough for four. There is also a moussaka with ample eggplant and chickpeas.

I haven't tried the new cheese pie, as I'm too fond of the spinach. I would recommend against the cheese tomato, though, an anemic, flaky flatbread sprinkled with feta and (usually out of season) tomatoes.

I like Rita's lentil soup, but avail myself of the salt and of the lemon wedge it is served with for a little extra flavor.

If you can't decide, try the mezze platter. It comes with baba ghanoush, hummus, tabouli, falafel, pickles, olives, incredible hot dolmas, and kibbe, which is beef, but they'll happily substitute something else.

The stuffed falafel is to die for, filled with pine nuts and fairly spicy. You'd want to split it with a friend or order only a salad for dinner with it. The falafel salad is tasty, but has about twenty falafel balls on it, which is just about 16 more than I can eat.

Pita bread, pickles and olives accompany every dinner, and a small salad with feta and tomatoes accompanies most dinners. The salad dressing is tart and refreshing. (Just a note: the spinach pie is an appetizer and the falafel sandwich is a lunch item that can be ordered at dinner, so neither comes with salad.)

They offer several varieties of beer and wine but weather permitting, I recommend the mint tea, which comes with fresh mint leaves in the pot.

In terms of atmosphere, it's clean and freshly painted, but not fancy, decorated primarily with large pictures of Lebanon. Check out the belly dancing on Friday and Saturday evenings.

My meat-eating companion loves the lamb shish kebab, another generous portion with tomatoes and onions over a large bed of seasoned rice served with a spicy sauce.

For dessert, pick up some house made baklava. We always take ours home because we're too full! I also like the aish al sariah, a custard dessert sprinkled with pistachios and scented with rosewater.

So there's my first review. I highly recommend Maalouf's, both because of the fantastic food and the nature of the owners.

On a scale of five Sackatomatoes, I give it 4.

Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon
1433 Fulton Ave

Monday, 28 April 2008

Welcome, and who the Hell am I?

Greetings Sacramentans and interested others! A couple years ago, the News and Review was looking for a new food reviewer, and I gave it some serious consideration. Unfortunately, I had no previous published work. I still might have applied were it not for one other hang-up: I'm a vegetarian. I realized that a major publication, even an alternative weekly, probably wants its food reviews to cater to a bit less of a niche crowd. But that's why we have the internets! I can be as niche as I want (see the group yogurt blog I contribute to, Live Active Cultures).

Years ago, the only vegetarian restaurants in town were Mum's (delicious but expensive), The Good Earth (fantastic in every way), Eat Your Vegetables (the Fresh Choice of local, vegetarian places -- I still miss the river bottom chili), and Sunflower Cafe (great, but I never go to Fair Oaks). Of those, only Sunflower is still in existence. Andy Nguyen's is now vegetarian, but I rarely go there. Why? Well, because fifteen years ago, I found myself ordering salads or sides at most restaurants or asking for substitutions. But now it's 2008 in California, and it is a rare restaurant that doesn't have more than one vegetarian option on the menu. My goal is to review mainstream restaurants on their vegetarian options. I promise you it's not all pasta anymore!

What are my qualifications? Almost none. I've been a vegetarian since 1990, I love eating out, I love food, and I love cooking. I also love writing. And that's that.

Who am I? Well, my name is Kara, and I'm a lifelong Sacramentan. I grew up in Tahoe Park, and I've lived downtown, in midtown, in Land Park, Colonial Park, and East Sac, where I live now with my husband and newborn daughter. Years ago, I was "Your Mama": I had a web site devoted to local music, and I am still an enormous fan, although I don't get out as much (I'm old and tired, and there's that newborn daughter thing). These days, I'm Count Mockula. I also write about cooking at Count Broccula, although I've let that one lapse a bit. There are only so many blog posts you can do about stir-fry.

Why am I a vegetarian? Well, in 1990 at Sac High, where I was a freshman, all the super-cool mod and punk girls I admired had "Meat is Murder" pins on their backpacks. My friend Fiona was the coolest ever, and she was a vegetarian, so naturally I wanted to be one, too. Don't you wish this story was about my compassion for animals or my devotion to preserving the environment? Well, I became more devoted to those ideals as I learned more about them, but I can't lie -- at first it was about fitting in. Anyway, I asked my mom if I could be a vegetarian and she said no. I researched it at length and wrote a persuasive essay (note: I am a nerd). She read it and said I could, but only after we had dinner that night, as we were having chicken. Now it's a habit that I don't even have to think about. A benefit is that I felt healthier almost right away, and my cholesterol, which was borderline when I was in my early teens and first went veggie, is now very good. My whole family has high cholesterol, so I suspect the veggie thing is the tipping point for me.

What kind of veggie am I? Well, I'm a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I was vegan for about three weeks in 1997, but did you know if you're vegan you can't have cheese or ice cream? Yeah, that sucks. Pizza with no cheese? No Ben and Jerry's? That blew. I still don't drink milk and I try to limit the cheese and ice cream, because milk makes my asthma worse (the reason I went vegan to begin with). But I thoroughly enjoy the occasional chile relleno, so if you're hoping for vegan suggestions, you're in the wrong place.

How strict am I? Pretty strict, although I make two occasional exceptions -- Rice Krispie treats about once a year (marshmallows have gelatin in them) and miso soup with bonito flakes in it while I was pregnant.

Other notes? I am not a proselytizing vegetarian, so this blog isn't to make anyone feel bad for killing the pretty cows/destroying the environment/whatever. I also am not grossed out by people eating meat with me, so I may sometimes include notes in my review about what my meat-eating companions liked or didn't like at the restaurant.

Okay, I suppose that's it! Nope, one more thing. I am an English teacher, so I try hard to use proper grammar/spelling/whatnot, but my daughter is a boob-a-holic, so I am usually typing one-handed over a baby. I hereby apologize for any errors you might find, as I will probably not be proofreading. And that's the last I have to say on that subject. Welcome aboard!!

--Count Mockula