Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Hungry Cat, Santa Barbara, CA

Sometimes food reminds you of happier times, times when you were care free, and adventurous. I call this vacation food. On a vacation you don’t count calories, or worry about nitrates, or ponder the ramifications of dining upon non-renewable forms of seafood. You simply point to something on a menu, and enjoy. On my last vacation I went up the coast, and on my way back I stopped at a little restaurant in Santa Barbara called The Hungry Cat, where I had some of the best vacation food of my life.
It was on the advice of my boss that I made the reservation, she had gone on and on about how amazing the food was there, and this was a woman who knew her food. So the last day of my vacation I asked my girlfriend, who was coming down with a cold, if she felt up to dinner. Being the amazing woman she is, she dressed warmly, took some cold medication, and asked what time our reservation was for. Yup, she’s a keeper.

Later that night, we walked into a small, intimate, and very trendy restaurant a street away from the main drag. On the wall was a chalkboard with a list of wine, local seafood, and specials (not that you were going to save any money on them, but that didn’t matter to me because I was still on vacation.) Looking around I was happy I had made reservations ahead of time, the place was packed with a fair amount of people, a combination of locals and tourists, usually a sign of good food, or at least a pleasant atmosphere. Very quickly we were greeted by a pretty man with a large smile who showed us to a comfortable seat by the window.
I made a pretense of looking at the menu, but I already knew what I wanted, the chorizo and clams, the perfect combination of spicy and sea food. My girlfriend, who is not a big fan of seafood choose the burger. We passed the time reminiscing on the last few days, and watching the sun set quickly replaced by a light drizzle as the night descended. I stared passionately into her eyes, and then our food arrived, and for a short amount of time I forgot all about her.
My chorizo and clams, with shell beans, sofrito(very small aromatic ingredients braised in cooking oil), black kale (fancy cabbage), and a side of grilled toast was one of the best things I’ve ever put into my mouth. Everything was cooked perfectly, the chorizo was spicy, but not unbearably hot, the clams were soft and not rubbery, even the beans, which I thought I would not like, were full of flavor. I slowly devoured my meal and had just enough room left to taste a bite of the burger. It was cooked medium, with bacon, avocado, and blue cheese, and was one of the better burgers I’d eaten. Still I stopped at a bite, because I did not want to lose the taste of my own meal.

After that we finished our cocktails (don’t ask me to remember them, I’m not a mixologist, but they were good) and went back to our hotel. I fell asleep to the sound of rain hitting the windows, the smell of the sea on my skin, and the sound of the TV on the Food channel, and I dreamt of my beautiful girlfriend and my tasty tasty vacation food. Two things that still bring a smile to my face.

P.S.: For the life of me I can’t find a picture of the front, which is too bad because the Hungry Cat is a bit hard to find by car. We eventually just stumbled onto it.

The Hungry Cat
1134 Chapala
Santa Barbara, CA
(805) 884-4701‎

Gaglione Bros., Point Loma, San Diego, CA

Philadelphia has created a lot of great things over the years: revolutionaries, the Liberty Bell, and some pretty damn good Stromboli. Still, there is always one word that echoes throughout the halls of food history whenever you mention the city of brotherly love, cheesesteak. Whether you spell it as one word or two, the image always pops into your head of a long loaf of bread, cut down the middle, and stuffed with mouthwatering mounds of meat and cheese, but that is where the commonality ends. Over time this once great monument to unhealthy dining has been perverted by fast food conglomerates, mall outlets, and pseudo Philly restaurants that promise the most authentic replication of the cheese steak outside of Philly. I’ve seen and tasted a variety of combinations, from Steak Escape with its thin slips of steak and layers of American cheese, to Jack in the Box’s semi-long slices of wet bread with large sautéed onion slices and tasteless white goo. Still, I’m not here to condemn or even define what a cheese steak should be, they have enough trouble doing that in Philly. No, I’m here to tell you about the best cheese steak I’ve had a chance to eat, so save the hate mail, especially from you Philadelphians, for another day, like when I complain about the Stromboli.
The place, Gaglione Bros., the time, a few weeks ago, and the food, some of the best cheese steak I’ve ever had. My girlfriend and I pulled up to this very unassuming shop a couple of blocks away from the Sports Arena. At first I thought it was another hole in the wall eatery, and the inside did little to dispel my notion of that, white walls, with the occasional menu and placard depicting a write up in the local paper. A counter, behind which stood a single woman manning (womanning?) the cash register, and behind her five or six people running around putting together cheese steaks and other tasty looking sandwiches. The one thing I did not notice, and was very happy to see absent, was a heating lamp. When the Gaglione Bros. say they make everything fresh, they really do it. Though they also say you can watch them prepare everything fresh, but the counters are a little high for that so watching them put together your food is not really feasible. Still, if I wanted to watch somebody put my food together I would have gone to Subway or stayed at home.
Pulling up to the counter, my girlfriend ordered a Chicken Ranch Sandwich, while I resisted the urge to give her a dirty look for not ordering cheese steak. I ordered the Baja Cheese Steak, and we decided to split an order of cheese garlic fries. I gave my name and then found a seat outside where we sat and sipped on carbonated beverages until our order was ready. I went through two cups of root beer before they yelled my name, but when I took that first bite I knew it had been worth the wait.

My cheese steak was delicious. Not that you can see it, but the Baja Cheese Steak has the usual ingredients, cheese wiz included, along with jalapenos and onions. Now, I was expecting the usual big honking jalapenos you find in most Mexican restaurants, but instead I took a bite and found that the fine people at Gaglione Bros. actually minced the jalapenos and onions into itsy bitsy pieces before adding it to the cheese steak. It was different, and definitely in a good way. No more unexpected pieces of spiciness, instead there was heat and flavor in every bite. After wolfing down my cheese steak I hesitantly took a bite of my girlfriend’s sandwiches.
Now, I’m not a big fan of ranch, but for some reason I couldn’t stop sneaking a bite every few minutes. The Chicken Ranch has chicken, bacon, white American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing, and something about the combination was just magical. I mean, I liked my food better, but not by a whole lot. The only slight downside was the cheese garlic fries. If you look at the picture you will notice that there is a lot of garlic “clusters”, for lack of better words, on the fries, which is delicious at first, but can get a bit excessive before you finish them, besides that everything was perfect.

So ends another sunny day in San Diego, my stomach full of cheese steak, my girlfriend by my side, and thoughts of Philadelphia on my mind. For if the food at this fine eatery was any indication of what could be had there, was that not a land I was destined to travel to? So ran my thoughts as I sipped on root beer and wondered to how to convince my girlfriend that Philadelphia and not New York was the new mecca of rising culture and fashion in America, or at least see if we could stop there on the way over.

Gaglione Bros. Famous Steaks and Subs
3944 W. Point Loma, CA 92110
(619) 758-0646