Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hugo's, Studio City, Los Angeles, CA

Today I write of a subject I thought I would never tackle, eating healthy. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! I, who have indulged and overindulged in the most glorious of foods: ribs so tender that one could eat them with a spoon, chocolate cake so decadent a single slice could ruin a diet… forever, and who could forget the pizza large enough for a small child to use as trampoline (see review of Lefty’s Chicago Pizza). I, who have tasted of the greatest of delicacies have fallen, and fallen hard, brought down by the need to be health conscious. Let me relate to you of my downfall.
It was Sunday at around noon. I had just played a good three hours of basketball before a pulled groin took me out of the game. Sweat glistened off my body, I walked with a limp, and the air ran harshly through my lungs as I fought to slow my breathing. I sipped an overly salt and sugar filled energy drink and stumbled into my friend’s car, and wondered where we would eat today.
On previous occasions we have partaken of a great variety of unhealthy fare: the aforementioned ribs above, sweetened Hawaiian royals (concoctions of rice, egg, and a variety of meats to which I will usually add a healthy dose of teriyaki and hot sauce), La Monica pizza (of which I will review in a future installment), and real steak sandwiches, the kind that would put the poor fare of Steak Escape, Togo’s, and every mall based steak sandwich outlet to shame. Where, I wondered, would we end up this time? The answer to my query was Hugo’s
Hugo’s is located in a very non-spectacular building in Studio City that upon arriving reminded me of a glorified Denny’s. Entering the premises I continued this viewpoint, a Denny’s with nicer swag on the walls, but still with the diner feel to it. As my friends and I waited for our names to be called I noticed something about the people who were coming in to the restaurant. As opposed to the slightly opulent figures that strode into Denny’s, the people entering Hugo’s appeared fit and healthy, often sporting tight fitting yoga clothes, or running gear. Even the older women who entered betrayed a healthy glow to their aged and slightly wrinkled skin. Perhaps, I let the thought enter my head, this place was more than just another greasy spoon with a few fresh ingredients (organic Heinz ketchup!), perhaps this was my path to inner enlightenment and health. Perhaps the “healthy” food they served here-in would actually taste good. Oh what a poor demented fool was I.
My friends and I got a table pretty quickly and I set about perusing the menu. On it was a cornucopia of tasty sounding delights, a majority of which either contained many healthy ingredients, or were lacking in an unhealthy ingredient that I had previously found necessary to add flavor to a dish. K. a good friend of a friend and a stand up guy informed us that the burger was great here, so great that one could actually ask for it rare. Upon hearing this, my heart beat faster, and I wondered how much sooner they could get it to me if I asked for it in such a state. Then I glanced over at the people around me in their sweats, and tight tops and had a very strange thought, “Why don’t you order something healthy here?” At first I looked around to see if someone else had whispered the words into my ears, then I realized that everything was fine except that I was becoming delusional, most likely brought on by dehydration and pain from my injury.
Delusional though I might have been I thought maybe I would listen to the voices in my head this time, and so I took the idea under consideration. After a few moments I decided I would try something different, something… healthy. I decided on the Go Green Frittata, which was composed of egg whites, chard, beat greens, kale, spinach puree, broccolini, zucchini, asparagus, quinoa (a type of grain), and extra virgin olive oil, topped with bean sprouts, and an apple-mango mint sauce. Yes, I was definitely stepping way outside my comfort zone. My friends all got the Hugo Burger with a variety of extras (up to four before they started charging you) such as bacon (the best of all additives) regular, turkey, or vegetarian, various cheeses (the second best but perhaps my favorite topping) both vegan and natural, guacamole, mushrooms, grilled chilies, as well as the usual lettuce, onion, and tomato toppings. The waiter then collected the menus and I was left to stew over my choice of food.

Thankfully, I was happily distracted by a plate of Garlic-Parmesan Cheese bread that was indeed a great deal tastier than the norm, with the cheese crusted to the top, and bits of garlic baked into the bread, and a glass of iced tea (which apparently was so good that they could not refill it for free, the cheap bastards). As I consumed these little pieces of bready goodness I thought that if they put so much effort into the appetizer, then what I had ordered was bound to be good. Could I have been any more wrong?
About 15 minutes later I had a plate of something round and green covered in bean sprouts placed in front of me. As I eyed the impressively large burgers my friends had ordered I took my first bite of frittata. It tasted healthy, which is not to say it tasted bad. There was the barest hint of egg in the dish. The taste was more an interesting melody of mixed greens, but to my disappointment the apple-mango mint sauce was barely discernable, leaving me no relief from the overpowering greenness of the dish. So while not horrible, the concoction came off as being ambivalent in flavor. I quickly remedied the situation with a heavy dose of hot sauce, but the damage had been done.

K, perhaps seeing my initial reaction to my food offered me a bite of his. Unlike the others at the table he had chosen to get his burger medium, covered in bacon, cheese, tomato, and lettuce. He cut a small portion off of it, and I took a bite. I almost wished I had not. The burger, while not the usual fatty grease dripping concoction I was used to, was delicious, and perhaps even better for having been made with fresh ingredients. The inside was barely pink, and the wheat Ciabatta bread held the entire burger in place as opposed to the usual white bread the disintegrates into a gooey paste upon picking it up. I would highly recommend the Hugo Burger to anyone searching for a compromise between a tasty and a not incredibly unhealthy burger.

As for my food, I quickly finished it while hiding my distaste. There is a great deal of healthy food that also tastes good, I just haven’t found it yet. Until I do, I will chalk this attempt at expanding my pallet up to an interesting experience, and an excuse to get Korean BBQ for dinner.

Special thanks to K for letting me try the Hugo Burger. Also to Pleasure Palate ( for the pic of the front of Hugo's.

12851 Rivierside Drive
Studio City, CA
(818) 761-8985

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lucha Libre Taco Shop, Mission Hills, San Diego, CA

It was a beautiful day in Mission Hills, the sun was bright, there was a slight breeze coming from the ocean, and I felt the need for some tasty Mexican food. My first thought was to stop by Mama Testa, really good but a bit pricey for me at the moment , and who can forget El Indio where everything is dripping with grease but after the first bite you don’t care. No what I wanted was somewhere between those two. I wanted tasty and just a little bit bad for me. I wanted something different a little out of the norm. So there I was coming back from the grocery store off Washington when what should I see on my right but the words, “Lucha Libre” and “Taco”.

My eyes lit up, they had had me at Lucha.

Now I’ve walked into my share of trendy/gimmicky eateries in my time. Ninjas, pirates, medieval wenches (by the way they hate being called that, they prefer pre-enlightened serving maids), but I had never been to a place that so thoroughly screamed luchadore in my entire life, outside of the wrestling rings of Mexico. Upon entering I saw a TV, no plasma for this place but an old fashioned square box, playing classic Lucha films, starring my favorite Lucha actor, El Santo. I glanced at the nearest seat only to find myself staring at a luchadore mask sown into the cushion. To my right I saw a large painting of a luchadore posing triumphantly, looking down at me as if to question if I was man enough to enter this establishment. Putting on my best swagger I approached the counter and looked at the menu.

I was happy to see some of the old favorites on the board, including all manner of taco and burrito with chicken, steak, or shrimp. I’ll admit the surf and turf appealed to me, and it was nice to see a vegetarian option on the board as well, a rarity in a taco shop outside of a bean and cheese burrito. I finally settled on the California burrito with marinated steak, while my guinea pi… I mean good friend who I had brought along to offer a contrasting opinion got a Carne Asada burrito. I usually go for more exotic fare like adobo, but I’ve found many of the smaller Mexican eateries tend to overcook the steak until it is like chewy rubber, and I really wanted to test this place out. I also ordered a TJ dog, wondering if it would be as good as the ones I’d bought in, well, TJ.

While I waited for the food to finish cooking my friend and I wandered around the restaurant taking in the atmosphere. The atmosphere consisted of many pictures of famous and some not so famous masked wrestlers that adorned the walls, a collection of lucha libre masks hanging along the far wall over the window, and a disco ball. I could understand the rest but not the disco ball, unless the place doubled as some kind of 70’s night club after it closed down for the night. Most impressive of all the luchedore swag was the seat in the corner reserved for “The Champion.” As you can see in the pictures it is roped off from the public, and, like a little kid, as soon as I saw it I wondered how I could get my butt into that little polished seat and eat off the gaudy gold utensils there-in. I guess that was for another day though because just after I had taken a picture of it the food was ready.

I collected my order from the counter, this is not the type of place where they deliver the food to you, and brought it back to my friend, but not before stopping at the salsa bar, with a fair selection from red hot to verde mild, where I selected some that were sure to leave me sweating for the rest of the day. First we tried the TJ dogs, which were not bad but would take a little bit of work to be classified as great. The overall taste was good, a combination of onions, peppers, and every condiment in the book except relish. There was also bacon wrapped around it, but it was difficult to see, which my friend pointed out to me, as it was wrapped so tightly and was so thin that it could easily be mistaken for the charred outer layer of the hot dog itself. Other than that it was small, about the size of a 99 cent dog from Weinerschnichel. Despite these minor drawbacks I would define it as a good appetizer to the main course.

My California Burrito was filled with French fries, pico de gallo, cheese, sour cream, and steak. I haven’t had French fries stuffed into my food since I was a kid, but they added just the right consistency and heft to my burrito. The ingredients tasted fresh, and the steak was marinated perfectly. As with all food I enjoy I found myself having to slow down so I wouldn’t wolf it down in six or seven bits. I say six or seven but this burrito was pretty hefty and it actually took me more around 20 bites to get through it, more than worth the price I had paid for it. My friend liked his burrito, which had the same ingredients as mine minus the sour cream and fries but with guacamole.

After dumping our trash I took one last look at the place and smiled. It was gimmicky and very tacky, but there was an undercurrent of respect and tradition, much like lucha libre. The food was tasty, the day bright, and I had found a new shade of Mexican food in which to indulge. Once again, life was good, until later that night when my stomach started bouncing around like a cruiserweight jockeying for the belt.

Lucha Libre Taco Shop

1810 West Washington Street
San Diego, CA 92103
(619) 296-8226