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J RI know my penchant for hamburgers may appear never wavering, but often, other menu items will tempt me. A fresh catch can read tantalizingly from a menu, or barbequed brisket can sound, and smell, better than a lowly hamburger, if I’m comparing meat to meat. No more difficult is it to fend off an instinct for seafood when I’m in a nautically themed restaurant, as recently I neatly fended, when I dined at James Republic in Long Beach. The journey sometimes is to allow the good burgers to find me.

A modern and clean-cut façade, James Republic operates at the corner of Linden Avenue and First Street, in downtown Long Beach. Chalkboard marquees shed any notion of a cold and uninviting downtown establishment while a seasonally driven menu and a stellar bar program are enough to hook me in for lunch or dinner.

J R BURUnlike my past dinner experiences here, the seafood options were downplayed, and the burger was quick to grab my attention.

A short fire time yielded a seven-grain bun sandwiching two medium-rare, grass-fed patties with a bubbling layer of Fiscalini cheddar that obscured the “fancy sauce” and onion jam, all served up on a thick cutting board with a ramekin of house-cured pickles. For extra measure I ordered a boat of fries.

Although I prefer to see some greens like Arugula, Butter, or even Iceberg lettuce on a sandwich (to reduce my guilt), one bite eased my fears of imbalance. The coarse grind was seasoned to perfection, the cheese, and horseradish—in the ‘fancy sauce’—added some bite, and where the seeded bun was the secret weapon, harnessing both the practical needs of maintaining form and sopping up the jus while the seeded crust imparted a boost in the flavor department. The pickles provided extra acid to help reset the palate. It was a thoughtful and clean presentation, which served as a good ambassador for the restaurant.

James Republic’s overachieving cheeseburger reminded me why I am on this never-ending quest of documenting America’s favorite comfort food—burgers—because even if I am led astray, chasing other menu items, a great burger can be an excellent place to drop the anchor.

Long ago, I had made a wrong turn in my search for a burger joint and by accident, spotted a quaint general store inhabiting the corner of Roycroft Ave and Colorado St in Long Beach. I didn’t think much of Ma and Pa’s upon first drive by, maybe a convenient store for the local neighborhood where residents would run in for some butter or eggs. It was apparent though, that the grocery had some history and I would put it on my long list of things to check out at a later date. It wasn’t until I did a little research that I found out that they sold more than cola and boxed cereal, offering patrons an assortment of prepared foods like artichokes, chocolate dipped strawberries, acclaimed jerky and even burgers that I decided Ma and Pa’s would make the shortlist when I was visiting my parents again.

It was a perfect April day as we (my mother and I) pulled up, the umbrellas were in full bloom and the picnic tables were inviting. Inside, the owner greeted us and we took in the shaded space. He shared with us the hundred-year history, highlighting the décor of artifacts like saws that once belonged to locals and dated scales that were repurposed for aesthetics. We took it all in and placed our order for two cheeseburgers as well as an artichoke and jerky for later. We were told about the patio in back, which is where we waited for our lunch.

Roses were in bloom, healthy and vigorous—my mother noted—as we meandered through the garden on the way back to the patio. We talked about remaining errands left on the agenda before the lunch was brought out to us. Minus the bacon, I had requested everything on the California burger.

Unwrapping the parchment paper, I noted a generous use of sides from iceberg lettuce to avocado. The patty followed suit, hand-formed and about a half inch thick. The presentation wasn’t photogenic but it was surpassing my expectations. The first bite reminded me of In-N-Out, but as I delved deeper into the thicker patty the cooking time (well done) was disappointing. Well-seasoned and definitely fresh as the beef had just been ground before we arrived, the burger had some obvious pluses but carried a few minuses as well.

My mother touched on the same things when I asked her opinion on that sandwich. She said the portions were large and obviously fresh but it wasn’t her favorite. We had both satisfied our curiosity about Ma and Pa’s, giving them a fair audition on a beautiful day. We thanked our host for the history lesson and for the hearty food as we took home our bundle of goods. There was a surprising star in our midst as we headed back on the road; the jerky was spectacular, tender meat with a lip of fat that was peppered delicately and exploded with flavor. Though the burger failed to captivate me quite like the jerky, it was fair. In the future, return trips will be exclusively for the homemade dried meats.

I was with my parents in Long Beach on a random Sunday afternoon. Off of work, and enjoying a productive day of errands with a promise of eating a big Italian meal that my father labored over for a few days,I had plans to serve a bottle of 2005 Conterno Barbera d’ Alba that had been aging undisturbed, blanketed by a healthy amount of dust. Although I had not paid attention to the vintage charts, I was certain that the wine had aged gracefully and would be decent match with the Italian dinner plan.

We went about our routine family style, achieving more quickly by delegating duties as to be more efficient in the aisles of Grocery stores and pharmacies, cutting our time like pit crew in NASCAR.

We got home, walked our dog together as the sun set on the shores of Long Beach and the heat from the day subsided… our hunger pangs mounting.

Prepping the bottle of Barbera, opening and decanting it half an hour before serving, it was time to put the finishing touches on the cuisine; our little dog stared with rapt attention like she was about to be served from the table too. Show time.

Capellini noodles were dressed in a fresh tomato sauce (eggplant and beef based with a big kick of peppers yielding a slow and controlled burn) were all prodded to the side to make room for more items; hot Italian sausage (without the casings), andloaded with spices and fennel seeds, were placed on each plate, along with garlic baguette and a side salad. It was big and seemed to be calling out for a good red wine.

The collective whiff of the Barbera gave off some complex notes; holding the cherry fragrances ransom was a bouquet of coffee and cigar box esters. The wine was showing maturity by downplaying the fruit and expressing earthier and secondary flavors. Sipping the Barbera cemented my olfactory impressions; it was smooth with round tannins that showed structure and a fair amount of natural acidity that made me salivate.

It was a very good match for the food; the spice seemed to play nicely with the wine and as the night wore on and we plated seconds the wine changed for the better, opening more and digging deeper into its bag of tricks. I cannot wait to pop open some older Barolos by Conterno in the future. Those wines will not make this countdown but I would love to play with the age concept down the road.

Meanwhile, back on Route #191 things were looking good and I was happy to have driven a little closer to 500 with a nicely structured bottle of Barbera d’Alba. As for the family, they assisted in finishing the bottle, a rare feat at our table, but a tip of the cap to the wine. Maybe a Super Tuscan would have been better (?) match on paper but I was fairly pleased with this combination, and content to get to try another wine from one of my favorite Italian producers.

 

Dinner with my parents is an occasion; they are rarely home together for a meal so when we are all available we need to make it special. My mother always has plans to create something thoughtful, tasty and not too time-consuming and I am always left in charge of the wine-pairing portion of the meal. This time I had an ace in the hole, or so I thought with the Prisoner—bin number 235.

I have to admit that I was a bit intrigued with the offerings of wine from Orin Swift; the eye-catching labels fastened to the elegant and rather heavy bottles really call attention to themselves on store shelves. This Prisoner sprints off the wall in the Whole Foods where I work, having to refill frequently the vacancy where it was nestled. Next to the other Orin Swift projects like the Palermo Cabernet Sauvignon, the Abstract Grenache, Papillion and even his latest endeavor the Department 66—a French Grenache—the entire oeuvre creates an aesthetically pleasing block, dynamic and striking. Gorgeous artwork aside I have remained doubtful and almost counter-culture to the Orin Swift phenomena. There is one element to his wines that remains a steady fixture of his style and a serious deterrent for me as a consumer; probably the reason why so many others love his wines and that is the ABV. Those wines regularly tip the scales at 15 plus percent alcohol which is heavy enough to require a nap after drinking a bottle.

I was lucky enough to have my boss purchase a bottle for me recently because she said it was too popular for me to not know what it tasted like. I agreed, and was incredibly thankful for the gesture. The educational value—aside from the literal price—was extremely high and I was totally willing to be a guinea pig, experimenting with the massively popular wine. Like a guilty pleasure, secretly listening to Miley Cyrus (maybe not that bad?!!!).

When I arrived in Long Beach to have dinner with my parents I quickly opened the bottle to allow for maximum breathing time (about an hour before we ate). I wanted to experience this wine in its best form and so I pulled out the Schott Zwiesel Bordeaux stemware to enhance the showing. It was an occasion after all.

My mother prepared fillet mignon, asparagus and a baked potato for each of us, it was looking like a Ruth’s Chris-kind-of-night. When everything was ready to eat we dug our noses deep into the opulent glassware and smelled some dark ripe fruits, baked compote with a sifted dusting of cocoa. I felt a minor singe of alcohol burning on the inside of my nostrils as I tried to pull out everything from the glass. The first taste yielded similar notes with a big body, moderate tannins and a heavy coating in the mouth feel, I readied my mouth for the first bite of steak. It was a respectable yet boring match for the dinner and the Prisoner was not making me a fan—it was too much—with its overabundance of alcohol and borderline cloying, with overripe fruits until dessert. We had some homemade dark chocolate truffles to finish off the night. That was the saving grace; the alcohol was moderate in comparison to the fortified wines I was used to pairing with chocolate but the dusty cocoa notes inherent in the Prisoner really synched beautifully with the rich dark chocolate.

The Prisoner was unable to make me a believer; instead my dubious attitude toward the wine was validated. Although it was a hit with truffles, the wine was out of balance, favoring a big bang rather than a subtle approach that I find much more satisfying. No depth but a lot of brawn, I could see why this wine has been locked up.

I was once told of the pairing powers of Champagne and its affinity for fried foods. I felt that I could not just let that statement float in the ether without it being confirmed so I orchestrated a tasting around the end of the month, inviting some close friends to join me at my parents’ house for a fun pairing of grower Champagne with fried chicken from Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n Waffles in Long Beach, to conduct a first-hand experiment on the two. No pairing would be complete without dessert and I thought I would continue with the French theme by marrying the waffles with a Sauterne.

On the menu for the festivities were a couple bottles of grower Champagne; the first of the evening being a NV José Dhondt Blanc de Blancs Champagne (#402) from Oger and the second bottle was NV Chartogne-Taillet “Sainte Anne” Champagne (#401) to be paired with the fried chicken. We would hold off on the waffles, even though the two are meant to be eaten together, and enjoy them with a bottle of 2005 Château d’ Arche Sauterne (#400).

The event began around 4 p.m. and everyone arrived shortly thereafter where we proceeded to Roscoe’s for our respective orders of chicken and waffles to go. Most diners ordered white meat; I changed it up by ordering an extra buckwheat waffle and mostly dark meat.

We waited about twenty minutes for our orders, my buckwheat waffle delayed things unnecessarily, but after we had food in hand it was only a few minutes later before we transferred the fried birds from their to-go packages to our plates.

Uncorking the José Dhondt, we performed a group sniff by raising the flutes to our noses and were excited by the amount of concentrated apple in the bouquet. On the palate the wine had a lot more green apples and a sprits of fresh squeezed lemon, teeming with bright acidity and good weight on the palate it paired well with the chicken and curtailed the lingering affects of the hot sauce that a few of us doused our chicken with.

The Dhondt was quickly becoming a transformative experience, everybody’s previous high of tasting his or her favorite Veuve Clicqout or other Champagne moment was far being surpassed.

It was onto the Chartogne-Taillet for the second bout of chicken and Champagne. The Chartogne-Taillet was more varied in fragrance and quickly assumed its role of talk of the table. With notes of raisins tucked inside a strudel, baked apples and a little bit of earth, on its own it did not mesh with a lot of palates at the table but when added to the crispy fried chicken the wine gracefully supported the weight. With regards to the fried chicken it possibly outperformed the José Dhondt.

Saving room for dessert, I began to pour the contents of the Sauterne around the table; it would be the first time for all the people at the event to try the honey-hued beverage. What I like so much about this style of dessert wine is that it retains a high amount of acidity, mixed with great residual sugars and has lower alcohol than Port or Sherry because it has not been fortified—less sleepy as a result. It is always coupled with sumptuous aromatics and lushly covers the surface area of my mouth.

After the first bite of waffle I quickly sipped the Sauterne and was shocked that it enhanced the sweetness, not taking anything away from the “maple syrup.” There was a little more oak than I remembered in this wine but primarily orange peel and peach notes, it was refreshing, delicious and a dessert in its own right.

Pairing the indie Champagne producers with the fried chicken and Sauterne with waffles was quite an amazing way to punctuate 100 wines in my Countdown-to-500. We continued the night by watching Swingers first and the apposite film Julie and Julia—all about a blogger and her 500 plus recipes in 365 days, I could not help but turn red at the thought of the parallels—later. If this is any sign of things to come then I am seriously looking forward to my next centurion mark.  À votre santé mes amis.

There are too many hole-in-the-wall-taco stands out there; too many excellent options for carne asada burritos or lengua tacos and my decisions were not made any easier while spending time in Long Beach. A casual search on Yelp can yield a mindboggling survey of worthwhile Mexican joints; enough to keep your stomachs puffed and britches uncomfortably tight while you search for the perfect Latin fare. Cruising the streets near downtown you might pass by a myriad of intriguing eateries. On the corner of Coronado and east 4th street I spotted a perfect spot to grab lunch—Taqueria La Mexicana.

On Monday, when I happened to drive-by around lunch, about eight people were massed by the order window (a good omen), each transaction expedited and made even quicker by the cash-only exchange (typical of Taquerias). I queued up and placed an order for a wet burrito and three tacos (I was sharing the order).  A little over a Hamilton ($10) later and I had a massive meal in hand and was ready to eat at my parents’ apartment.

I was nervous about what wine to pair with the food—over-thinking it because wine is not always my go-to when eating tacos or burritos—and also not really aware of La Mexicana’s piquancy. I thought about the pairing potential of Zinfandel, that it might be the best match I had in my makeshift cellar, because of the body of the wine on the tongue. I thumbed through my zinfandel-heavy-roster until I came across the Cellar Cats red from Sausal winery (#448).  It was billed as a lighter Zinfandel and fruitier that would still be able to hold up to hamburgers and cheeses, naturally I assumed a taco or wet burrito would be a good partner.

Unwrapping the foods, plating the tacos and leaving the wet burrito, as was, framed in the Styrofoam container, we ate. The burrito was enormous, dressed in enchilada sauce, guacamole, cheese and lettuce; I chose to eat it with utensils. I ate a few bites to get the feel for the street-style food and drew the chalice of Cellar Cats to my lips.

On the nose there were ripe strawberry aromas with subtle toasted wood notes, living up to it’s billing, and the palate followed the nose—fresh strawberries overpowered the wine. The Cellar Cats was delicious on its own but with the Mexican food it quickly became unhinged, the slight spike in alcohol on the palate did not dissipate but was pronounced. It was nothing I couldn’t tolerate but I was hoping for a do-wa-diddy-diddy-dum-diddy-do experience or, some fireworks a la Rodrigo y Gabriela at least. It was not what I had imagined—not a resounding success.

The food exposed unflattering elements of the wine, components less detectable when sipped alone like man-hands on an attractive young lady. It was supposed to be a flawless combination on paper, and with that in mind, I would pair it with a heartier Zinfandel or even a high acid German Riesling (white wine) because the fat would be pierced by Riesling’s signature component, trident-like acidity would work in contrast to the fattiness.

Both items were very good on their own, but the combination was like a frenzied duel in my mouth. Taqueria La Mexicana was definitely a serviceable taco stand and the Cellar Cats would be an easy sipping wine, but they could not be partnered, they just were not destined to be together. It was an unfortunate tasting, trying to reconcile the two but in the end the burrito and wine had to be separated, leaving me desperate for a second crack at a more harmonious pairing. It will play on my mind like Santa Maria de Feira until things can be remedied. ‘Til the next edition of dining in Long Beach.

 

I rarely dine out in Long Beach despite the amount of time I spend in the city visiting my parents, yet I still take note of many eateries along the way there, bookmarking all the hole-in-the-wall spots that I prize. Unfortunately, I neglect the eateries of Long Beach, in favor of the highly touted and trafficked places in Los Angeles because somehow I feel that they are proven, with the high volume of people eating there. But then reality sets in: You can have incredible food from anywhere (Bisbee, Arizona anyone?). Why is it that I seem to go out of my way for offbeat restaurants in Los Angeles and treat Long Beach like a second-class citizen? No good answer really but all that changed Sunday.

I started my day at 2 a.m., up-‘n-at-em like I always say (I don’t really say that), but happened to be working REALLY EARLY! Afterward, I spent the remainder of the day with my parents, catching the Ducks game and trying Louis Burgers III, a local hamburger joint located off Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Long Beach.

The outing had been pre-orchestrated and I had arranged to serve the burger with a bottle of 08 Clos la Coutale from Cahors (one of the five Kermit Lynch bottles I purchased recently), a blend of eighty percent Malbec and twenty percent Merlot that seemed like it would be a stellar pairing on paper.

My first trip to the Louis Burgers III, after passing by it numerous times was exciting. The joint was hopping, diners occupied all booths/tables and a long queue was forming at the door. Somehow I was a tiny bit disappointed because I had romanticized notions of a dingier burger joint that would still serve a fantastic burger.

The workers, clad in purple attire, were working at a furious pace, pumping out order after order. The epitome of efficiency. We ordered a burger and junior cheeseburger with some fries to go. About ten minutes later we had our food and were on the road back home.

We transferred the food to plates; poured a few ounces each into our goblets of decanted Cahors red wine and began eating. The burger was served with a ¼ inch patty painted beautifully with char marks from the griddle, shredded iceberg lettuce, raw red onion, pickle, tomato and a little spread. The first bite was very good and this night was going off without a hitch. The Ducks were up 3-0 against Edmonton by the second period (who knew the sort of cardiac they had in store for us later!), and I tried the wine with the burger, probably my best pairing since I have begun this mission of marrying burger and wine, everything working in concert. Even the French fries were above average, heavy on the potatoes (much like their Dutch /Belgian forbears).

The Malbec-heavy blend supported the weight of the burger, it was a remarkable pairing and it got better with each bite, both serving to make the other better, no spikes of heat or being out of balance. On its own, the Cahors red wine was very tannic and big bodied, taking on an intense bloodlike color in the glass with earth, ripe blackberries and faint speckles of vanilla on the nose.

If this is any indication of the caliber of foods Long Beach offers, then I might be eating a little more frequently in the fifth largest city in California. This past Sunday was one of my favorite burger outings of all time, the food and drink were in symmetry, the Ducks eked out a narrow victory with Selanne potting his 1300th point and I spent time with my parents. The vinometer whooshed by marker 486 on the quest-to-500. Just gathering momentum.

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