Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Big Beef Rib at the OC Fair '12

By Dru Chai

Last year at the OC Fair, I wrote about deep fried kool-aid. It was alright, but it just didn't provoke any excitement. I'm not really a dessert kind of guy. I'm all about the meat. Call me a BBQ snob -- but generally when it comes to BBQ at the fair, I just have to shake my head. It's all the usual dry, lifeless BBQ plates and sandwiches. But when I first read about the Big Beef Rib on OC Weekly and OC Register, I just knew I had to check it out for myself.

With a name like Biggy's Meat Market, the new guys in town for the OC Fair wanted to create something that would stand out other than the usual giant burgers and fries. Hence, the Beef Rib (or La Super Costilla, if you want to say it with some latin flare) was born, and from speaking with owner Dominic, he's one proud papa.

The Big Beef Rib isn't an actual, natural rib commonly found in restaurants (for my money, my favorite restaurant beef rib is from Phil's BBQ in SD). Dominic's beef rib is "engineered" to basically look like a giant meat lollipop. He wouldn't divulge any details, but he has assured me that there is no meat glue, chemicals, or anything artificial into the making of the Big Beef Rib. One thing's for sure -- there's something satisfying about waving an enormous meat club in the air while grunting like a caveman.

It's 2 lbs of USDA Prime meat wrapped around a 17-inch bone, forming a giant meatsicle (yeah, I just made that word up). According to Dominic, they are initially smoked for a couple of hours at a little higher temperature than the usual low and slow -- around 280 degrees F over oak wood. Then it's finished off over an open mesquite fire before being slathered with sauce.

At $16.95 a pop, these suckers aren't obviously cheap. But we're at the OC Fair, and just about everything is overpriced. When I first ordered the Big Beef Rib, I was given a choice of how I wanted the meat cooked -- best at either medium-rare or medium. Then I had my choice of sauce -- smoky, zesty garlic, or spicy. I chose medium and the smoky sauce.

So how did it taste? I could taste a smidgen of smokiness, but I would've liked more. I was expecting to gnaw on some tough shoe leather, but the meat was actually tender -- especially the outer meat away from the bone. As far as the flavor, the meat itself could've used more of that "beefy" profile, and perhaps more seasoning. The slathering of the BBQ sauce definitely helped provide more flavor to the meat. I had to ask for more after eating about half of the rib.

As a BBQ guy, I obviously would've loved to have more smoky flavor in the meat and some more char on the exterior. It looked like the open mesquite fire was really low -- if the rib was finished off on a larger open flame to give it those awesome, blackened, grill char marks, that would've really elevated the rib. When it was all said and done, I had to put the leftover bone into the custom doggy bone bag for... who else? My dogs. They sure were happy!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Eating Kobe Beef and... Meeting Kobe Bryant?!

By Dru Chai

Talk about lucky. When I was notified that I was the winner of a Twitter contest for a chance to meet Kobe Bryant at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, my jaw dropped. I rarely win anything good. If I do win something, it's usually something lame like a mug or a book. But a chance to meet Kobe Bryant in person, take a picture with him, AND a free night stay at the Palazzo? Pssshhh, you got to be joking me.

Well, it was no joke. I won the contest on a Friday, and the very next day I was off to Vegas. The 4-hour drive seemed to take forever, and seemed to be more of an exhausting drive than the usual. When I finally arrived at the Palazzo, and checked into my room, I had to count my blessings once again. The view of the Strip high above the hotel was fabulous. Thank you, Palazzo and Vegas!

View of the Strip high above the Palazzo hotel

After a well-deserved nap and a couple of successful hours at the blackjack tables, we had some time for dinner before meeting Kobe. One of the restaurants I've always wanted to try is Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse CUT. There's a location in Beverly Hills, CA, but I've walked by the location inside the Palazzo hotel countless times without even a glimpse at the menu. This time around, I figured why not.

First time eating at CUT
Get the wallet ready

I had already braced myself for the high prices, but it's another thing to see the menu in person. After a bit of deliberation, I knew it was only fitting to celebrate the occasion by selecting the American Wagyu / Angus "Kobe Style" Beef ribeye from Snake River Farms (SRF). It's not quite on the level of Japanese Kobe beef, but it's still good. SRF is one of the top meat purveyors for BBQ competition teams, especially when it comes to brisket. If you've been watching this season's BBQ Pitmasters, you won't miss the SRF logo on the meats being used.

So this was my first time tasting meat from SRF. I requested the ribeye to be cooked medium, and it was absolutely perfect. Well seasoned and charred on the outside, while juicy on the inside. I loved all of the marbling throughout the meat, which gave it that intense, rich, and beefy flavor. They even provided a wide array of complimentary sauces and salt for the steak -- but it shouldn't even be touched. Just enjoy the meat, and nothing else. But overheard on the table next to ours, "can I get some BBQ sauce?"

The meal was excellent. So after eating some Kobe beef, it was time to meet Kobe Bryant. I know this is a BBQ blog, but I wanted to detail the experience and post some pictures of the Kobe meet-and-greet before developing a sudden case of amnesia. I'm a die-hard LA Lakers fan and have seen Kobe grow up since he entered the league as a rookie straight from high school way back in '96. So meeting Kobe is uh, something of a big deal for me. So excuse me if I sound like a giddy school girl in the following paragraphs.

As you can imagine, my interaction with Kobe was extremely quick. I had all of these things in my mind that I wanted to tell or ask him, but with no more than a minute to chat  -- it was all a blur. The security personnel made certain to tell us to keep things moving, that Kobe would not be signing any autographs, and that you could not pose with him and take pictures with your personal camera -- each group was only allowed one picture by the professional photographer. If you blink, or get caught in an awkward grade-school-like photo, tough luck. No do-overs.

So it went something like this:

I walked up to Kobe with a huge smile, and gave him a "bro hug" and said it was awesome to finally meet him in person. I told him I was a die-hard Laker fan for life and that I was looking forward to another ring. I emphatically said "Yeah, we got Nash!" with a little fist pump. Kobe looked at me with a big grin and said "we're gonna win it next year." I quickly said, alright then and I wanted to say something else... but before I knew it, it was time to pose for the photo.

The next person in line was already approaching Kobe, but I had to thank him again and that it was great he was doing this for his fans. I asked him if he still lives in OC (Orange County, CA) and he replied yes. I said I live in OC too. Kobe replied, "maybe I'll see you around." I smiled and pointed at him. It was all over. I was grinning from ear-to-ear, with an experience of a lifetime I'll never forget.

Security blocked off the waterfall atrium area for the special event
We asked if we could keep a poster - no luck
Line was already forming about an hour before entrance
About a hundred fans waiting for Kobe's arrival and photo-op
Kobe's in the house! With shades... indoors. But he pulls it off.
Kobe waves to the shrieking fans on the top level
Kobe soaks in the chants of "MVP! MVP! MVP!"
We met these cool, lovely ladies from LA while standing in line
They provided some hors d'oeuvres - these were potato samosas (okay, dry)
These were chicken skewers (bland, rubber-like texture)
After about half hour of photo ops, it was time for Kobe to exit the building
Kobe paparazzi shot, up close, with view of the goatee
Kobe being surrounded by fans following him, like the pied piper
See ya, Kobe! Go take home the gold and another ring next year!
It's like one of those old family portraits (I wish).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Top 5 Tips For Making BBQ Grilled Pizza

By Dru Chai

Happy July 4th! I want to write a post about pizza. I love pizza -- it's one of my favorite foods (aside from BBQ, of course). I think I read somewhere that over 3 billions pizzas are sold every year, and the average family eats over 30 pizzas a year. I've had all kinds of pizza from all over the place, but my first exposure to really good, thin crust Neapolitan-style pizza was at Pepe's in New Haven, Connecticut about 12 years ago. It really spearheaded my love for pizza, and the rest is history.

Since then, I've had thick crust pizza in Chicago, New York, and even Pizza Hut in China where they put toppings like corn and imitation crab on their pizza (yuck). Of course, in my home state of California, Wolfgang Puck started the whole fancy topping pizza revolution with Spago -- which inspired places like California Pizza Kitchen. Nowadays, if I want to splurge on fancy pizza, I'll head over to Pizzeria Mozza -- I just love their crust.

But enough of the pizza history lesson. I recently decided I wanted to grill pizza at home. If you Google "how to grill pizza," you'll find tons of useful websites, links, and recipes. I skimmed through most of them and decided to give it a shot on my own. I just recently purchased a 22" Weber grill, and have been itching to do something different on it aside from the usual burgers and hot dogs.

Serious Eats has a great summary of grilling pizza, and I essentially followed their instructions and recipe. I also found this dough recipe, which is good as well. So how was my first time grilling pizza? I can honestly tell you, it turned out great. The hot temperature from the charcoal produced about 500+ degrees F, which isn't quite as scorching as the brick ovens in restaurants -- but for personal sized pizzas, it does the trick. The dough had that great charred flavor -- crispy on the outside, but still soft and chewy on the inside. You just can't replicate that in a conventional oven, and there's something utterly satisfying about seeing BREAD BUBBLES form while grilling dough.

I made a really simple pizza with minimal toppings -- a little bit of marinara sauce, shredded mozzarella, fresh basil, and spinach. I finished it off with a few shavings of parmesan reggiano and red pepper flakes for a little kick.

Even though my pizza turned out well, I learned a few tips just from first-hand experience. I think most of it just about practice and preparation. Here are my top 5 pizza grilling tips. You'll notice that it's mostly about the dough, since it's the most important part of the pizza.

1. Don't forget to season your dough with a bit of sugar and salt, but make it your own and customize it. Throw in some garlic powder or some dried basil. Make sure to give some time to the dough to properly rise -- it will give the crust that bubbly and chewy consistency after grilling.

2. Try to roll or knead the dough as thin as you can without ripping it or making any holes. Since the grill burns really hot, the dough will cook REALLY fast. I had a few of them with tiny holes and it just burned right through them and had that nasty, burnt taste around those edges.

3. Brush your pizza dough with olive oil. Not only does it prevent the dough from sticking to the grill, but it definitely adds some flavor and helps develop that crispy crust that you want.

4 . Depending on how hot your grill is and how thin your pizza crust is, it should be about 1-2 minutes per side tops (or even less). I would use a pair tongs and peek on the bottom of the crust, and start moving it around to find the hot spots on the grill. When the top starts to bubble, it's time to flip it over.

5. As I mentioned before, keep the toppings simple and minimal. But if you want to use something like sausage or mushrooms, make sure to pre-cook it before putting it on the pizza. Make sure the toppings are ready to go, because as soon as you flip the crust, it's time to start to pile on the toppings. Then move it over to the indirect heat without the charcoal and cover for a little so that the cheese melts.

There it is! Those are my tips for grilling pizza, based on my experience. One thing's for sure, I'll keep making grilled pizzas and experiment with different dough recipes, herbs, spices, and toppings. It DOES take a bit of work and preparation (plus, who wants to clean up afterwards?), so it's not like I'll never go back to eating out. But it's nice to know that I have the option of making grilled pizza at home. That's amore!