Mundaka Carmel Chef Brandon Miller’s yelp for help in the battle against mediocrity.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Chef Brandon Miller’s new-and-going-fast “fuerte” burger ($11.50) is a juicy triumph, a saliva symphony that starts with a kick-in of pig butt.
“Gotta have some pork fat in burgers,” he says.
Pork butt makes up 25 percent of his house blend, to which he adds natural Angus sirloin (for flavor) and chuck (for texture), before marinating the mix in mustard and thyme. The subsequent grind happens 50-50: half fine, half coarse.
“You get the meaty flavor – nice and steaky from the coarse [ground beef],” he says, “but the fine grind makes it stay together.”
It hits the cast iron griddle, where it soon meets oily-melty Valdeón Spanish blue cheese. Later comes a Kelly’s French Bakery (423-9059) potato-roll platform, a crown of caramelized sweet onions, and further accompaniment: paquillo peppers, heirloom tomato slices and arugula. Nice, skinny, truffle-salted fries, house-preserved bread-and-butter pickles and freshly made ketchup lifted by clove, onion, molasses, olive oil, salt, tomato, herbs de Provence also help, but it’s the tender porky patty that gives the burger its juice.
But it gets juicier – and not because the new liquor license and consequent cocktail program at Mundaka (624-7400) has Frayne Padghm mixing fresh lime and cucumber nectar in with mint and Comb 9 Gin to create the fresh and different la veja ($12.50). Juicier because this burger represents more than a Spanish take on an American emblem. It equals catharsis.
“You caught me,” Miller says. “It’s my comment on the local burger experience. Whenever there’s something substandard I can make better, within a week I have to make it.”
Some problematic pizza experiences led to the Catalan flatbread special. Some D-plus duck-fat treatments generated the duck leg confit on a duck-fat-fried tortilla with wild arugula orange salad.
“I have s****y corn beef hash,” he says, “I gotta buy a brisket, do the whole thing, so I can be straight with it.”
Because he wants to stick close to the soul of his Spanish menu, the cathartic items don’t stay on menu long – in other words, fellow burger-loving Americans, get moving – because it’s about the ritual of repping what’s right about the restaurant industry, not menu development. (The inspiring plates he finds lend themselves more to new stuff.)
What stays with me is what his response represents in the wider contemporary foodie context, within which people deal with disappointment in disappointing ways. His is a direct, smiling, personally backed response to something he isn’t in love with, rather than an anonymous gripe from an armchair asshat with jalapeño heartburn. It’s a professional sharing his attempt to do it better rather than amateur angst with world-class anger. This isn’t little doggies yelping, it’s a veteran chef letting inspiration and execution speak for themselves.
Miller doesn’t necessarily ascribe all this to his burger, and prefers not to identify who inspired the dish.
Instead, he offers, to each his own.
“For many, mediocrity is fine,” he says, “They’re OK with the chicken fingers – they can eat that s*** all day long. For me to say, ‘It’s not that great,’ it’s just me talking from my tastebuds. I mean, some people like the Raiders.”
• A long-loved taste tradition is back in the valley with the return of a rodeo kickoff cookoff, now known as the Oldtown Salinas Chili Cook-off. Roughly 20 teams – including heavyweights like XL Grindhouse (422-5500), Casa Sorrento (757-2720) and the Bakery Station (783-1140)-Fluff Cupcakery (975-5598) collaboration – compete for a $500 war chest ($125 to enter). Your $25 translates to chili and four kinds of beer ($10 and $20 à la carte, respectively), a semi-spicy value. There’s also live music, a kids zone from Maya Cinemas and the lady who made the white cheddar corn bread with jalapeño jelly that helped the Weekly’s chili almost take the Carmel Valley crown – Editor Mary Duan – joining the judges from the International Chili Society (really) to pick a winner. Chili takes over Main Street 11am-5pm Saturday, July 14, 776-0763, www.oldtownsalinas.com.
•Edible Complex took the event of Todd Fisher’s debut on “United States of Food” 7pm Sunday, July 8, on Discovery Channel as inspiration to sniff out his new dishes at Sticks in Spanish Bay (647-7470). The tortizzas are a thin-crust pizza fan’s dream, like the “vegzilla” ($15) with zucchini, roasted peppers, slivered garlic, three cheeses, arugula and basil and lemon oil on a crispy tortilla. The spicy Thai calamari ($13) is a stunner – it looks like it needs sauce but has more than enough zing from a tossing with Thai basil, mint, cilantro chili lime aioli and sweet chili sauce. Hot damn. He says the new tableside-shaken shrimp cocktail ($18), steak-and-truffle salad ($19) and short-rib roll ($17) are new stars worth a turn, too.
• Ever since learning to open oysters while floating on a boat by Morro Bay’s oyster beds, I’ve been more of a mother shucker than ever, which led to a Flaherty’s (625-1500) visit last week. While a too tuned into the tourist visitor than the local, they still have beautiful Kumamoto little guys ($18/half dozen, $28/full), which we washed down with, um, Blue Points ($16, $26) and Morro Bays ($18, $28). Speaking of oysters, Morro Bay freshies cost only $1.50 5-7pm Thursdays at Schooners (372-2628). That means you can have 15 and still have just enough scratch left for a $4 champagne (normally $7). More on the Schoon very soon.
The indomitable Alberto Bonatelli of Alberto’s (373-3993) serves no small amount of stories or authentic Italian, with boneless braised pork rib marinara, linguine puttanesca with anchovies and magical chicken marsala among his arsenal. With the right timing – 5-7pm Monday, Wednesday and Thursday – now everything on the dinner menu is $13.95 (not $6 more), with soup or salad and a side of pasta included. Great way to get at some of the best Italian food in the vicinity for less.
• The underground foie fun has begun (the state ban went into effect July 1): On Monday at Cachagua General Store (659-1857), Mike Jones served “black tar heroin with cherry/fig balsamic reduction and heroin mousse.” His commentary: “Penalties for selling heroin [are] often less than those proposed for foie gras… to be clear, we only served the ‘heroin’ to those who had pre-purchased it before the ban… .”
• Dinner for two from Wild Thyme (884-2414): four choices, just $10, 4-6pm July 10 to celebrate 10 years of business. The Ginger People (800-551-5284), headquartered in Marina, join in 5-7pm as they demo a special ginger drink.
• National Picnic Month is… July. Fandango (372-3456) is all over it with a contest to win a picnic (including lunch for two, two bottles of wine and a picnic basket) from a kitchen well-schooled in the feeling of escape. Visit the Facebook page to compete.
• Two tweets from the week: “Overheard at @postnobills: ‘dear God please let my daughter grow up to be a lesbian… ’”; “New firepit lounge, top deck at Monterey Plaza Hotel, in time for summer event slate.” Follow along at @MontereyMCA.
• Lunch deal at Wild Plum Cafe and Bistro (646-3109) the other day: A lively sesame chicken salad with baby spinach, grilled veggies and avocado plus fresh bread ($9.95) and a four-cheese veggie melt on house-baked focaccia with a pesto-ish pasta salad ($7.25) plus hot coffees for less than $20. Fresh, organic, affordable: a tasty triology.
• Happiness is a summer night under the big oak on the 1833 (643-1833) patio with a Penicillin No. 2 ($10) in your glass, cumin-laced hamachi on the plate ($6) and old friends like Tamara Mims, Bernadette Alion and Janet Elarmo around the firepit. Followed, of course, by a jukebox visit at the best dive bar between Bolinas and Beverly Hills, Alfredo’s Cantina (375-0655).
• No column is really complete without bacon. “Age appears to be best in four things,” Francis Bacon once said. “Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.”