10 of the best

Travelling for a month in Mexico and California meant that we ate (pretty much) in a different restaurant every night, so I thought trying to pick my top ten dishes out of all these meals would be difficult, but it was surprisingly easy once I sat down and started listing them.

So in no particular order…

1. Shrimp tacos at Taco Fish, Hermosillo

So so tender and fresh, and packed full of flavour, seriously the best ‘fast’ food I’ve ever had.

Shrimp tacos

2. Cheese risotto with sock eye salmon and brown butter sage sauce at Cook, St Helena

I  suggested Simon ordered this then spent the rest of the meal annoyed that he’d gotten it and not me. Hands down the best risotto I’ve ever had, incredibly cheesy but not too rich, the salmon perfectly cooked and fresh, and best of all the brown butter sage sauce. Heaven.

www.cooksthelena.com

Sockeye salmon on cheese risotto

3. Queso Fundido con Chorizo at Restaurant Palominos, Hermosillo

Seriously is anything better than a bowl full of melted cheese (chihuahua!) and melt in your mouth home-made chorizo? I think not.

www.restaurantpalominos.com

Queso Fundido

4. Jumbo shrimps, Water Grill, Downtown LA

I’m actually salivating thinking about this. Plump, juicy and tender, perfectly cooked, served with a delicious cocktail sauce and a garlicky saffron aioli. Love love love!

www.watergrill.com

Shrimp

 

5. Chocolate tart with chewy caramel & sea salt at The Slanted Door, San Francisco

Right, so chocolate tart base filled with flowing caramel, covered in solid dark chocolate and then sprinkled with sea salt? I think I might love you Charles Phan.

www.slanteddoor.com

Chocolate caramel tart

Last mouthful

6. Cinnamon roll, Alamos, Mexico.

Steaming rolls coated in freshly ground cinnamon goodness, slathered in a hot cinnamon sauce…I’d go back to Mexico just for another one of these.

www.teresitasalamos.com

Cinnamon Roll

7. Three Twins Organic Ice cream, downtown Napa/ Sweet Rose Creamery, Santa Monica

The best ice-cream I’ve ever had. Ridiculously creamy, packed full of delicious fresh ingredients. I tried the vanilla chocolate chip and Mint Confetti (mint ice cream with flecks of dark chocolate).

That is ’til we stopped by Sweet Rose Creamery in Santa Monica and tried their salty caramel ice-cream with a good sprinkle of Fleur de Sel on top – absolutely astounding. Didn’t get a photo as my camera broke minutes before this, but that just means I have to go back.

www.threetwinsicecream.com
www.sweetrosecreamery.com

Vanilla chocolate chip and mint chocolate chip organic ice cream at Three Twins

8. Rustic Canyon Burger, Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, Santa Monica

Wow. Simply the best burger I’ve ever had. Incredibly juicy beef patty, home-made burger bun that was bordering on brioche, just the right amount of melted sharp cheddar cheese, a rich onion fondue, herb remoulade and beautifully cut french fries. Wait, did I mention we added confit bacon to the mix as well? Yep. Went back on our last night in LA to have it again it was so good.

www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com

The burger at Rustic Canyon

Burger, cross section

9. Peach Crostata with Homemade Vanilla ice-cream, Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, Santa Monica

After burger bliss, we almost ordered a chocolate and salty caramel tart, but that would have been a big, big mistake. Recommended by our server, this used in-season peaches and the most buttery, rich pastry I’ve ever tried. The juice of the peaches and sugar leaked a little through the pastry, creating incredible caramelised edges. Not only did we go back and order this again but also went to their bakery for breakfast and fought over a take away strawberry and rhubarb crostata as we sat on the beach for afternoon tea. Simon said he wanted to marry the pastry chef. We could work something out, I’m sure.

www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com

Peach crostata.

10. Pretty much everything at French Laundry.

So after seeing that they had an over 6-month waiting list, we decided just to turn up at French Laundry and try our luck. And how lucky we were to get a table and experience their incredible food. A mind-blowing meal, so good I can’t say which was my favourite dish. Possibly all. But the real standouts were probably the oysters and pearls (caviar with oysters) and the butter-poached lobster tail. Awe inspiring.

www.frenchlaundry.com

Caviar and Pearls

Butter-poached lobster tails

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Soy sauce, sesame oil and tamarind margaritas

We had a leisurely breakfast with the entire family and left Alamos around 11 and headed back to Hermosillo. The rain and clouds were gone and the sun beat down on us for the entire four-hour drive through the driest looking deserts I’ve ever seen.

It was agreed that we’d all meet at another of Luis’ favourite restaurants, El Farallon, on the north side of Hermosillo for a late lunch. We all arrived around 3.30pm, famished and hot, and quickly sat and ordered drinks. I decided to try a tamarind margarita since the one I’d had a few nights ago was so good. This one was even better – much less sugar so the sour tamarind flavour really stood out. I had two as we ate tortilla chips with a lovely roasted salsa that was much darker in colour than usual and was packed with chili seeds.

Tamarind margarita. Amazing.

Salsa, lime and chips

The first dish to arrive was the inspiration for a dish we made a few weeks ago for the magazine – crispy baby calamari with buttered corn tortillas. The calamari was chopped up into small pieces, coated in batter and deep-fried with spring onions. My first thought was that it tasted very much like a Chinese dish – Luis and I stared at each trying to identify the different flavours. It seems the recipe has changed since he was last there and they’ve started adding both soya sauce and sesame oil – the latter being especially apparent. The calamari was very crispy, almost to the point of being overdone, but underneath the batter is was still very tender.

Crispy calamari with spring onions

Buttered corn tortilla

Close up of calamari

We ordered a couple of seafood platters to share as well as plate of assorted quesadillas -a mix of shredded crab, prawn and smoked marlin. The platters were huge and included around six different items. My favourite was the tempura battered prawns that had a really unusual flavour- when we asked what it was we were told it was Sriracha sauce, which was a bit of a surprise! There was also shrimp cooked with sweet chilli skin (in the metal bowl), battered pomfret, fried fish fillet, fried rice with shrimps and vegetables, which had been cooked with chicken stock and very generous amounts of butter. Overall there was a lot of Asian influence in this food, I would almost call it fusion, but Luis would probably kill me.

Seafood platter. We had two of these.

Assorted seafood quesadillas

The nieces and nephew also ordered some sushi, which is apparently the newest and most popular food in Mexico at the moment. There’s no raw fish involved though, and a lot of alternatives are used such as chicken instead of fish, and adding sauces like chipotle to the rolls.

Mexican style sushi with chipotle sauce and mango

Tempura battered prawns

Fried fish fillet

The wine cart in the restaurant

El Farallon

www.restaurantelfarallon.com

Mexican hot dogs

After our lunch at Teresita’s, we were all so full we decided not to go anywhere for dinner. Then we heard that the whole town congregates in the main square in the evenings, along with many food and drink hawkers and couldn’t resist going to have a look.

Luis’ mum was craving some corn on the corn, so we walked a couple of streets over to the square to see what we could find. The first few corn sellers were all sold out of corn (obviously popular, it was only 8pm and most people here eat a lot later in the evening) so we ended up at a hot dog stall.  Luis insisted we all try one, so we crowded around watching the sausages and onions being fried.

One corner of the town square

The hot dog stand

The sausages are wrapped in bacon and served in a light bun that has a slit cut into it, where the meat is placed. This is topped with fried onions and then your choice of 10 different condiments. I added tomato sauce, chipotle mayonnaise, cilantro sauce, salsa and chopped mushrooms to mine. The bread was really light and soft unlike the normal hot dog buns you get in the US. The sausage was a little too smooth and soft for my liking, I prefer ones that are packed with (real) meat, and I could barely tell that it was wrapped in bacon. All in all though, it was a great hot dog, full of different rich flavours and not too heavy or greasy.

Sausage wrapped in bacon

Alexia's hot dog with cilantro sauce, chopped mushrooms, cheese, salsa and American mustard

Sergio's hot dog with lardons, salsa verde, chili sauce and American mustard

In the meanwhile, Reyna, Aloysus and Paola had been hunting for corn and found some in the next square. They brought back several cups of it, off the husk and piping hot in a mixture of cream, butter and lime. The corn was very chewy (it’s white corn, which has a very different texture to the yellow corn I’m used to) and the sauce seemed like an odd combination but seemed to work well, though was a bit too heavy with all the cream in it.

I handed the cup over to Luis, who happily finished it off for me.

Chewy corn in a cup

Next stop, Alamos!

Last night, after sleeping off our huge lunch, we decided to go and try some more tacos – this time, beef. It was raining (which is a rare occurrence, especially in this part of Mexico) as we dashed from the car into Luis’ favourite taco restaurant – this is normally his first stop from the airport when he arrives in Hermosillo.

Inside the taqueria

Some queso fundido as a starter

Luis ordered us some queso fundido to keep us going while we waited for the tacos to arrive. This version was a lot runnier and softer than the one we had before – a lesser quality cheese.

We each ordered 2 skirt steak tacos and went and chose from a big condiment station in the middle of the restaurant what we wanted to eat with them.

Steak tacos

I chose fresh salsa, cilantro mayonnaise, 3 kinds of chile sauce and salsa verde, which was a great accompaniment to the steak. It was simply grilled, still very pink and incredibly tender.

Adding condiments to our tacos

The condiment station

We washed it all down with a jug of horchata, which is made from rice milk, cinnamon and sugar. I found it a bit too sweet but it was quite refreshing.

After a night of tacos, we found ourselves back at Taco Fish this morning. This time we stuck to shrimp and I had three orders. Luis only had 2 as we had a 4 and a half hour drive ahead of us so he didn’t want to fall asleep. I have to say, I could get used to having tacos for breakfast.

The whole family set off for Álamos, a colonial town south of Hermosillo, near the state border, around 10 and arrived at our hotel, Hacienda de los Santos, (the house of the saints) a series of heritage buildings lovingly restored by it’s American owners, by 2.30.

Since every day seems to revolve around food (and rightfully so!) we immediately found the hotel restaurant, Agave café, and ordered lunch. The guacamole was served in a huge black lava bowl and we had a huge plate of nachos for the table. Simon and I shared a bowl of tortilla soup (which Luis told us he had put on the menu at Agave in Hong Kong) – a chicken broth base, chock full of tortilla chips, chicken, vegetables and avocado.  I ordered a beef salad, trying to opt for something a bit lighter, but it was huge and contained peppers, corn, beans, avocado, carrots and lots of rare beef all coated in a tangy chipotle and lime dressing.

Big bowl of salsa

Chicken fajita with peppers and beans

Beef salad

Tortilla soup

Collection of cowboy paraphernalia outside the restaurant

I heart Rolles de Canela

Simon and I went for an early breakfast, around 7am, and sat outside as it was still quite cool (well around 35 degrees or so). They brought us honeydew melon, papaya, watermelon and orange with a little bit of lime to squeeze over them. We ordered an omelette stuffed with sweet peppers, served with bacon, frijoles, potatoes and tortilla chips, and granola with natural fruit yoghurt and a freshly baked banana muffin that I smothered in homemade marmalade. It was sweet and rich, not the usual bitter flavour I normally associate with this kind of jam.

Early morning breakfast at Agave cafe in Hacienda

Omelette with bacon, frijoles and potatoes

After a walk up a nearby hill for a panoramic view of Alamos, we wandered around the town for an hour or so – we walked past cows, chickens, sleeping dogs, orchards of fruit and vegetable patches. We saw tortilla dough in one place being shaped and created by machine, and a few shops down being rolled out by hand. It’s a lovely little town full of colonial buildings and is remarkably well preserved because of all the Americans who holiday there.

Teresita's courtyard

We ended up having a late lunch and strolled in the baking sun to the other side of town, to a charming little bistro and bakery, Teresita’s. Behind the door, which doubled up as blackboard menu, was a small courtyard with a pond and a few outdoor tables. Inside, the walls were white washed, the ground was cement with hand painted carpet patterns on it, and stone boar’s head hung over a huge stone fireplace. The kitchen was entirely open and the wall at the end of it was covered in blue and white tiles.

We started with some freshly baked bread and whipped butter – a welcome change to the usual chips and salsa, and some fresh limonada.

The open kitchen - love the tiled walls

The first dishes to arrive were a gazpacho, a cold soup made from fresh tomatoes, chopped vegetables and herbs and copious amount of garlic and a Tarascan bean soup, a spicy pureed bean soup that was topped with avocado, cheese and croutons. The gazpacho was lovely and light, incredibly garlicky and had large chunks of avocado floating on top. It was a real contrast to the bean soup, which was incredibly rich and heavy and could have easily been a main course.

After this we tried an open face tartine sandwich – thick slices of ham and cheese over sun-dried tomatoes, a salad of chicken and artichoke soufflé and fresh crab cakes with tartar sauce.

The heavy bean soup - a meal all on it's own

Crab cakes

Deliciously refreshing gazpacho

Open face tartine sandwich

Chicken salad with artichoke souffle

We’d all been waiting for the end of the meal as the counter was lined with so many incredible looking desserts and baked goods. We ordered a few to share. First up was a flourless chocolate and almond torte, which was dense, moist, and surprisingly slightly bitter; following that was a dark chocolate mousse with a hint of cointreau and placed in a crunchy brown sugar bowl, which reminded me of brandy snaps you find in New Zealand that are piped with fresh cream. There was also a mango version of the mousse and this was incredibly light and fluffy, packed full of chunks of mango – this reminded me of mango puddings in Hong Kong and was a better pairing with the brown sugar bowl than the chocolate version.

We also tried a triangular shaped scone with clotted cream and homemade jam. The real star of the show however, was the Rolles de Canela or cinnamon roll. The first one was polished off in and under a minute so a second was quickly ordered. It was perfectly warm, the dough light and airy, drenched in a sticky cinnamon sugar sauce.

I want another one of these Rolles de Canela right now!

Dark chocolate and almond torte

Dark chocolate mousse

Lovely vintage cutlery

Luis and I agreed that when we were back in Hong Kong we’d spend an afternoon trying to make these rolls, and that we’d try variations on them as well – chocolate and almonds, salt caramel and milk chocolate, cranberry, nutmeg and cinnamon! Can’t wait to start experimenting!

Limonada

Baguettes on sale in the bakery

Tequila!

I was woken up by a call from Luis at around 9.30am, saying we were going out for fish tacos – another typical Mexican breakfast.

We drove about 5 minutes down the road to Taco Fish, a small and colorful open-air roadside taqueria. There were just two items on the menu – fish or shrimp tacos  – so we had one of each.

Fish and shrimp tacos fresh from the fryer

The shrimp and fish are lightly coated in batter and flash fried. We topped them with fresh coleslaw and salsa drizzled jalapeno sauce and cilantro mayonnaise over both.

Covered in coleslaw and salsa

Shrimp taco with red onions and chipotle mayonnaise

They were piping hot – simple yet stunning, slightly spicy and crispy, with tender shrimp and fish hidden within.  I tried all the chili sauces on the table. None were very spicy- in northern Mexico they use chiles for flavour rather than for heat. They even had soy sauce, which apparently is very popular and used in a lot of cooking.

Simon and Sergio enjoyed them so much they both ordered another shrimp taco- this time Simon smothered his with pickled red onions and jalapeno sauce.

Open air dining at Taco Fish

After breakfast, we drove around the town centre for an hour or two, did a bit of shopping and ended up in the supermarket on the way over to Luis’ sisters place to stock up on alcohol.

Chile pork cooked in claypot

Luis’ mum prepared lunch for us- chile con carne with pork instead of the usual beef. The bright red fiery looking sauce  had a lovely warmth to it, not what I was expecting based on the colour (the chiles it was made from are actually green but are sun-dried til they turn dark red). This was accompanied by what I can only term as Mexican fried rice, and some homemade frijoles. We ate this with giant flour tortillas and green chile filled tamales that were made by a family friend, which were a lot smoother than the ones we had for breakfast yesterday.

A very full plate of home-cooked food

Stuffed pepper tamale

Frosty tequila bottle

Trying to pour out the frozen tequila

Aloysus, Luis’ brother in law, brought out a chilled bottle of Reposado tequila after lunch. Infact it was so cold it was almost frozen so he had to shake it for some time until it was pourable. He served it with a  chaser of a small snifter of sangrita and a plate of lime wedges and salt  Tequila, especially good quality Reposado, should be sipped like brandy, not taken as a shot.

Some cousins arrived around 5 with some sweet snacks – some ‘bow ties’ or thin dough dipped in a sugar syrup and deep-fried until they are beautifully glossy and brown, and some flat unleavened cakes that were filled with brown sugar. Both were incredibly sweet and rich but were the first dessert we’d had since being here, so I had to sample both!

Sticky bow ties!

Filled with brown sugar

A day at the beach

Woke up at 4.30am feeling uncomfortable and incredibly hot. I had turned the aircon off because when we got back last night it was absolutely freezing in the room, but forgot it was 35 degrees even at night.

We went to the gym then headed to the hotel restaurant for a light breakfast. Once there, I sat with a green tea while Simon headed straight for the buffet. I went up to have a look a and was completely overwhelmed- there was so much heavy, rich and steaming Mexican food, most of it meat, that I couldn’t quite handle it that early in the morning.

Luis with the mini lemon cakes

Luis and Sergio joined us about 20 minutes later and Luis took us around the buffet and explained what everything was.  It wasn’t like any breakfast I have ever had – there were at least 20 different dishes on offer, plus the usual egg station serving up huge omelettes and pancakes. Luis recommended a few must tries – chilaquiles, a dish of day old corn tortilla chips cooked with tomatoes, cheese and meat, frijoles (refried beans) albondigas – beef meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, a stew of beef, peppers, chiles and onions and white corn tamales. It was the first time I’ve ever tried tamales – they were steaming hot and wrapped in corn leaves, and a soft, mushy texture punctuated with some very chewy bits of corn.

Chihuahua!

Right after breakfast we headed over to Cosco so Luis could stock up on produce to take back to Hong Kong. There was a huge bakery section and we ended up buying cinnamon rolls, mini lemon cakes, red velvet cake and a lemon meringue cake for lunch the next day.

Panella in baskets

We then headed next door to the supermarket to stock up on some more food and checked out the huge variety of local cheeses, including the panela in a basket and the infamous chihuahua, as well as the many varieties of chorizo that are ready made and can just be heated up and put into anything from tacos to queso fundido.

After dropping off everything we had bought, we jumped back in the car and drove to Kino beach. It was an hour’s drive through the desert and when we finally saw the ocean glistening in the distance it seemed like a mirage.

The bright interiors of El Pargo Rojo

It was a sweltering day – at least 40 degrees, so when we finally arrived at El Pargo Rojo, a seafood restaurant by the beach, decked out in bright reds and oranges, the first thing we did was order big pitchers of limonada and beer.

Scallop cocktail

Lobster, garlic prawns and piri piri fish

Luis recommended the seafood cocktails, so I tried a scallop one, Simon and Luis had shrimp and Sergio chose a jumbo cocktail that was a mix of shrimps, snails, octopus and fish. They all arrived drowning in a mild tomato sauce with a few lime wedges and crackers, and I added a good dollop of chile sauces to mine. The scallops were very fresh and tender but I had a mouthful of Simon’s shrimps and immediately had food envy as they were succulent and full of flavour.

The butter and cilantro sauce

Pulpo Enamorado or 'Octopus in love'

Next up we decided to share three dishes – grilled lobster, piri piri fish and garlic prawns. The lobster was a little overdone so was a bit chewy, the fish was coated in a heavy sauce and then covered in cheese and was rich and moreish, though the fish got a bit lost under all the coatings. The prawns were tiny, more like shrimps and were lovely and garlicky, cooked liberally with lots of spicy chile seeds. Surprisingly the best part of the meal was the sauce that accompanied the lobster – melted butter with lots of cilantro and tomato, we ordered extra and simply ate it with rice.

Beach and desert outside the restaurant

Gorgeous white washed house overlooking the beach