Monday, September 9, 2019

Where to Eat: 10th Annual LA Times The Taste @ Paramount Pictures Studios, Hollywood (Los Angeles)

Three nights. 14 demos. 58 wine, spirits & beer companies. 100 restaurants. 

Someone had to try to conquer the 10th Annual LA Times The Taste food & beverage festival, and it might as well have been me!

Returning to the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood, The Taste took over the studio’s New York back lot (complete with brownstones and fire escapes) for Labor Day Weekend. Underneath the glow of hanging market lights and to a soundtrack of upbeat hits played by a DJ, various restaurants and wine, beer and spirit companies from around the world offered bite-sized tastings of their renowned food and drink specialties. Guests could come Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday night, 7:30 – 10:30 p.m., cruising by each participating vendor’s pop-up stand, checking out both cooking and beverage demos, and engaging in other interactive attractions, like photo booths and games.

Having stopped by last year’s festival, I was excited to discover what was new — but also the same — this time around.

Here’s a glimpse of the top contenders that caught my attention over the weekend, in the following eight categories: 

Best Bird, Best Seafood, Best Worldly Cuisine, Best Desserts, Best Beverages, Most Unusual Tasting, Demos and Best Overall Stand

Best Bird: It was all about the chicken!

Chicken ... was everywhere!! Whether it was riding solo or accompanied by sides; slathered with BBQ sauce or fried to a golden delight; or smooshed between two pieces of bread to make a sandwich, chicken showed up — and out — in a very big way. For another year, Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken gathered long lines thanks to its crispy fried chicken, and Hotville Chicken passed out its infamous (and spicy) Nashville Hot Chicken. Yardbird Southern Table & Bar had a noteworthy fried chicken sandwich with soft biscuits, and LN2, came through with crispy chicken sliders. Yet hands down, Doghaus wins my vote for Bubu’s hot chicken grilled cheese, stacked with slaw, pickles, sauce and tender fried chicken, all between toasted bread. The Doghaus team was also quick to share that throughout September, $1 will be donated to the No Kid Hungry initiative for each purchased Bubu’s sandwich. Eating well and supporting a good cause — can’t go wrong there! I’m also giving nods to Black Market Liquor Bar for its Spicy Korean Chicken Wings — they were the perfect balance of fiery and sweet — and to Pedalers Fork’s Sweet Chili Wings, accompanied by a tangy BBQ sauce.

Bubu’s hot chicken grilled cheese sandwich from Doghaus

Clockwise from top left: 
Gus’s fried chicken wing; Black Market’s Spicy Korean Chicken Wing; LN2’s crispy chicken slider; Yardbird’s fried chicken sandwich; Pedalers Fork’s Sweet Chili Wing; and Hotville’s Hot Chicken. 

Best Seafood: Way too hard to choose just one!

I was blown away by how many restaurants came with their seafood A-game. Not only were items bursting with so much flavor, but many were quite complex little creations, with lots of different textures and aesthetic appeal. The Bazaar by José Andrés had smoked Hamachi cones that delicately balanced fish, frothy merengue and other ingredients on top of thin cones. Isakaya Ozen tightly wrapped buttery salmon around creamy crab, while Baltaire’s Spanish Octopus was the perfect texture — not too chewy or tough — and slightly charred on the outside. Lasa’s squid ink fried rice with smoked coconut oil and herbs had a wonderfully sweet flavor with a bit of crunch for kicks. Both Mainland Poke Shop’s spicy tuna poke tacos and Banh Oui’s Shrimp Toast cleverly paired different textures and fused different cultures together. There were other noteworthy nods, like the massive whole ginger albacore and spicy tuna sushi hand rolls Hamasaku handed out.

Clockwise from top left: 
Lasa’s squid ink fried rice; Bazaar’s smoked Hamachi cones; Isakaya Ozen’ miso salmon crab; Baltaire’s Spanish Octopus; Banh Oui’s Shrimp Toast; and Mainland Poke Shop’s spicy tuna poke tacos.

Best Worldly Cuisines: European Blood Sausage

I made my way around the globe over the weekend, sampling Mexican, Indian and European cuisines. Eve creatively mixed oxtails and mole on a crunchy tostada and Tumbi Craft Indian Kitchen offered butter chicken uttapam. I had plenty of tacos, too, thanks to Tacos 1986 and Aqui es Texcoco. Eataly took us to Italy, with its traditional pasta from Piemonte, drenched in sage-and-butter, while Bibigo Kitchen brought out the Korean fried chicken. Yet hands down, my top pick was Church & State’s blood sausage. In theory, this sausage with European roots can sound somewhat gross, since it’s literally blood blended with meats and seasonings (and not every place gets it right, either). But Church & State’s version was a nice balance of flavor, lightly crisp on the outside, tender inside.

Church & State’s blood sausage

Clockwise from top left: 
Eve’s Oxtail Mole Tostada; Tacos 1986’s chicken taco; Aqui es Texcoco’s lamb taco; Bibigo Kitchen’s Korean fried chicken; Eataly’s traditional pasta; and Tumbi Craft Indian Kitchen’s butter chicken uttapam.

Best Desserts: Vegan Donuts

Throughout the weekend, there were definitely more savory and beverage options than desserts…but the available sweets proved they were out on a mission to please. Maker's Mark offered bourbon-infused ice cream that seemed to be a hit with a lot of people I talked with (unfortunately, my lactose intolerance made me sit that one out). I applaud Delicious at the Dunbar for even attempting at making a peach cobbler, because if a family member or a family friend didn't bake it, I’m typically going to pass. Astro Donuts, a #WilsonsGuide fave, offered fried chicken, PB&J and crème brûlée donuts, the latter being very, very tasty (but they get a point knocked off in my books for asking guests to only pick one option due to limited supplies; clearly we want to taste it all!). Yet Donut Friend gets the trophy in this category for making gluten-free, vegan donuts taste so darn good. These mini-treats were fluffy and came in fun flavors like Yo La Mango, Strawberry So Far and Rites of Sprinkles. Plus, you could take as many as you wanted.

Donut Friend's assorted donuts

From top center, clockwise: 
Astro Donuts’ fried chicken and crème brûlée donut; Maker's Marks’ Makers Mule bourbon-infused ice cream; and Delicious at the Dunbar’s peach cobbler.

Best Beverages: Summer Ain’t Over…yet!

Wine brands came out especially strong on Friday night, so whether you were in the mood for an Australian wine or something glitzy and bubbly, there was literally something for everyone. Bulleit, Ketel One and Maker's Mark all returned, too, with potent mini-cocktails. I’m typically not a scotch drinker, but the Singleton Whisky & Ginger Beer was a refreshing alternative to the standard bourbon and ginger blend. My vote in this group goes out to two drinks that seemed to try and keep summer alive, with refreshing, chilled cocktails: Kelvin Slush Co.’s frosé, which is pretty much frozen rosé, and St. Germain’s concoction of its namesake (which is a French elderflower liqueur), Prosecco and lemon zest.

Kelvin Slush Co.'s  frosé 

Clockwise from top left: 
Bulleit offered four different whiskeys to taste; Singleton’s scotch cocktails; beautiful Bodvar-House of Roses’ wines; and St. Germain’s namesake.

Most Unusual Tasting: Radishes...(!)

While it’s not uncommon to order a salad on any given day for lunch or dinner, you’re more likely to find more substantial savory options — like meat skewers, mini-sandwiches or even small plates of a veggie assortment — at a food fest like The Taste. Ronan, on the other hand, took a completely out-of-the-ordinary approach by offering tiny uncooked radishes topped with Parisian butter. I’d probably never order a side of uncooked radishes at a restaurant, let alone expect to snack on them at this event, but lo and behold, I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious they were. A point to Ronan for thinking outside the box, bringing something novel to the table, all while getting us all to eat more of our veggies.

And there’s more: Nightly Food & Beverage Demos

Out of 14 demos to potentially see throughout the weekend, I only attended two — which is two more than I visited last year. Friday night, I sat front row and center for Mark Oldman’s “Wine Secrets,” where we made our way through six tastings, learning about various varietals and how to find our own personal wine preferences. I absolutely had to stop by Kim Prince’s “Hot Chicken Cooking Demonstration” on Saturday night, since I featured her in a recent blog post. She gave out interesting tidbits of knowledge, sharing why you typically serve white bread with hot chicken, and useful tips, such as not turning your chicken once you’ve placed in the oil to fry.

Best Overall Stand: Aperol

While many participating places may only have a simple tented stand, there are some that go big, taking over massive spaces filled with tastings and interactive activities. Maker's Mark returned with its VR game and photo booth, while Bulleit brought back its camper with reclining seats. Singleton Whisky had a fun toss-and-throw game, giving out small candy prizes, to winners and losers alike (I speak from first-hand experience, because I was in the latter group). Yet the space that caught my eye the most was arranged by Aperol. Decked in neon orange, there was a bocce ball setup, plenty of seats and a stand decked out like a truck where visitors could grab an Aperol spritzer. I felt like I was transported to some tropical destination like Miami, and loved every second of it.

Did you attend the Taste this year? If so, what were your faves and what did you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below and see you there next year!

For more info: 

Monday, August 26, 2019

And Where Do You “Where To?”: Hotville Chicken’s Kim Prince @ Los Angeles Times’ The Taste Festival

It’s that time again - The Taste returns to the Paramount Studios in Hollywood this Labor Day Weekend! 

Hosted by Los Angeles Times, this annual food & beverage festival features three evenings of endless tastings from scores of participating restaurants from across the SoCal region. There’s also demos and discussions with renowned chefs, beverage vendors and interactive stations, such as photo booths and art installations. You can read more about what the 2018 rendition was like, in my recap from last year here.

While there are so many stands to visit, one participant I was excited to see return was Kim Prince’s Hotville Chicken. This pop-up eatery serves up legendary Nashville Hot Chicken (NHC), which, in recent years, has spread like wildfire throughout the nation, and more specifically, here in Los Angeles, too.

Last year was the first time ever that Prince had a booth at The Taste, passing out close to 2,200 plates of NHC bites on white bread on topped with a sliced pickle (pictured below).

And this year, she’ll be around both Saturday, Aug. 31 and Sunday, and Sept. 1, expecting to pass out 2,000 each day. She’s also kicking it up a notch by offering what’s called the "Bird's Nest" — “a juicy bite size chunk of my Nashville Hot Chicken nesting on a bed of crispy julienne potatoes and topped with the traditional pickle chip,” she explained. “Now all that means to a country gal like me is some fiery fried fowl and some fancy fries!”

So in honor of this year’s upcoming event and Prince's return to The Taste, I connected with her to get the scoop on what’s new for this year, what it’s like to prep for such a big, multi-day event like The Taste, and of course, her own favorite “Where To” destination in Los Angeles.

Read on to hear more and don’t forget to check out The Taste, Labor Day Weekend! 

WilsonsGuide: You participated in The Taste last year. Why did you decide to participate again for this year?
Prince: It's an invitation-only affair, and Los Angeles Times asked again. I'm most humbled with gratitude for the opportunity to stand alongside so many amazing local chefs in Los Angeles. Plus, it's an opportunity to expose my brand to the general public as I prepare to open my first Nashville Chicken Shack here in Los Angeles.

WilsonsGuide: What's going to be new this year for Hotville Chicken?
Prince: We're looking to make some BIG NEWS announcements....emphasis on the plural "s". I can't go into detail just yet, but let's just say it's got zip codes attached to it!

WilsonsGuide: What's the best part about participating in an event like The Taste?
Prince: Introducing my brand, Hotville Chicken to the guests. I'm handing out a true Nashville original on a plate. It's country-comfort food with a kick. Now who could resist that!

WilsonsGuide: What does it take to prep for an event like The Taste? Can you walk us through the process?
Prince: I began planning for The Taste just as soon as I accepted the invite. I kept the menu simple and didn't want to stray too far from how traditional Nashville Hot Chicken is served (on top of two slices of white bread and topped with a couple of dill pickle chips). 

As far as process, well, first I do a little dance and thank God for another opportunity to simply share what my family is so proud to have started in the 1930s. Being invited to participate in The Taste is sort of a BIG DEAL to a gal that grew up in College Grove, Tennessee (just outside Nashville). So naturally, I call my folks, including my Aunt Andre Prince who has been at the helm of Prince's Hot Chicken Shack for some 40 years in Nashville.

Planning for the event really starts with the Times and their staff. They provide such wonderful guidance and take a lot of the stressful work off my shoulders. I plan my kitchen layout, reserve equipment, secure staff, and contact suppliers to have all of my resources lined up and ready to go. We spend about five hours prepping the day before and I try to get a good night's rest.

On the day of the event, it's show time. Once I say "light 'em up!" my crew knows what to do. It takes 15 or so minutes to get the grease ready to start frying. Then it's time to "Baptize the Bird." That simply means drop the floured chicken into the grease. Twelve to 20 minutes or so later, depending on the cut of the chicken, they are ready to be spiced at varying levels of heat and served.

WilsonsGuide: What's one thing that you wish The Taste guests knew that they may not already know?
Prince: The history of Nashville Hot Chicken started with the Prince family. Original Nashville Hot Chicken is not prepared w/ buttermilk, but rather SERVED w/ buttermilk.

WilsonsGuide: You're also going to be giving a Special Cooking Demo on Saturday, Aug. 31, 7:30 - 10:30 p.m….how did this opportunity arise?
Prince: Back in June, Jenn Harris of Los AngelesTimes Food Section put myself and Johnny Ray Zone, owner of Howlin' Ray's Hot Chicken, in the same kitchen. Two hot-chicken heads flicking flour and frying fowl was exhilarating and educational. While our approach to frying NHC is different, the kinetic bond of passion in frying chicken is unapologetically HOT!

WilsonsGuide: Can you give us a sneak peek at what to expect during the demo?
Prince: All I can say is, "It's gonna be hot!"

WilsonsGuide: Are there any other chefs / stations you're looking forward to seeing?
Prince: If I can break away from my own station this year, I plan to graze all of the stations.

WilsonsGuide: Aside from Hotville, do you have a favorite L.A. or Nashville restaurant or travel destination? If so, what is it and why?
In L.A., I'm a fan of Dulan's Soul Food. I like a plate overflowing with Oxtails, Collards, Corn and Okra, and a side of cornbread. It fuels me to get up and workout every morning. It does the body good!

Can’t make The Taste? No worries! Hotville Chicken plans to open a brick-and-mortar fast-casual dining spot later this fall, so you’ll have the chance to nibble on this hot chicken soon enough. 
Check the website for more details and see you at The Taste soon! 

Photo credits for all photos of Kim Prince:
1. LA Sentinel 2017 - Photographer Brittany K Jackson for LA Sentinel 11.2017 
2. Lab Time - Photographer Cory Burns for LACBSD 
3. LA - 1535950783 - Photographer Patrick T. Fallon for Los Angeles Times/The Taste 2018
**This interview was slightly edited and condensed for ease of readability. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Where to Eat: Chicken & Waffles...and Much, Much More @ Sweet Chick (NYC & Los Angeles)

The Eats: Chicken & Waffles and other upscale soul food options, all in a laid-back, earthy vibe

The Location: Mid-City in L.A.; Manhattan in NYC

The Vibes: Mid-City – airy, laid-back, trendy  // Manhattan – earthy, cozy, intimate

Good for: Alone, Dates, Groups (small and large), all ages

When-To-Go: Mid-City – Daily, 10/11 a.m. - midnight/2 a.m. // Manhattan – Daily, 10/11 a.m. - 2 a.m. 

The $$ Factor: Cocktails, $13; Entrées, $13 - $21; Starters, $10 - $13

The Names behind the scenes: Investor / Entertainment Mogul Nas and Restaurateur John Seymour

The 4-1-1: While this post specifically only compares the Mid-City and Manhattan locations, there are actually four additional locations worldwide: three more in NYC (Queens, and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Prospect Heights) and one in London opening Fall 2019. 

I’ll Be Back…:  For Big Booh’s BBQ Chicken and a sweet corn waffle!

Los Angeles vs. New York City

It’s a timeless battle-of-the-best that’s ingrained in every aspect of life imaginable. 

Musically, can we ever forget the Tupac vs. Biggie debate of the 90’s? Or culturally, the constant comparison of L.A.’s alleged laid-back airs to NYC’s purported uptight, aggressive approach? Even in fashion, NYC is considered to be more conservative than it’s L.A. counterpart, and in everything from museums to the performing arts and more, both cities have no shame claiming they’re better than the other. 

I decided to bring this friendly coast vs. coast competition to the culinary scene, posing a simple question: Sweet Chick’s Mid-City or Manhattan location — which one is the absolute best? 

In case you’re not familiar with the restaurant, here’s a little background for context: initially opening in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg in 2013, three more NYC locations — including Manhattan’s Lower East Side spot — popped up over the years. Sweet Chick expanded into L.A.'s Mid-City neighborhood in 2017, and, there are even plans to open one in London later this year. Entertainment mogul Nas came onboard as a business partner, too, directly involved with the later locations such as Queens and L.A. Across its handful of global locations, Sweet Chick’s serving up glorious chicken & waffles and other soul favorites that have an upscale flair. A heavy rotation of R&B and hip-hop along with a bar offering artistic libations are other staple characteristics. 

Personally, I’ve only been to the Mid-City and Manhattan locations, hence the focus on these two specifically. So here’s a look at what sets them apart — and, what they have in common, too — to determine who comes out on top of this L.A. vs. NYC duel. 

All the feels: The Ambiance 

Both locations fit within one room with high ceilings, hanging market lights, exposed brick, vintage knick-knacks on display and a laid-back appeal. Yet the difference is that L.A.’s location (first photo below) feels bright, open and airy, probably thanks to skylights that emit lots of natural light. Vibes at the Manhattan location (second photo below), on the other hand, feel more cozy, compact and intimate. I also find myself ogling more over the décor — including iron caskets and quirky bird portraits hanging from the walls — here more so than in L.A. However, I also tend to notice the incredible R&B playlist more often than not, at the L.A. location, subconsciously swaying to jams from the 2000s as I sip a cocktail.  This is a tough one, so I’m going to give them both a point on ambiance. 

Manhattan (NYC): 1 // Mid-City (L.A.): 1

When to go: Night vs. Day

I’ll typically visit Manhattan’s Sweet Chick late on a weekday night, while reserving a trip to the Mid-City location for weekend brunch. Like any respectable brunch destination in L.A., it can be hard to get a reservation (especially with a larger group), it’s jam-packed and waits for food can be looonnng. Alternatively in Manhattan, at least on any given weekday night, it’s fairly effortless to grab a spot and food with minimal wait time — even with a decent crowd, (of course, it may be a completely different story at brunch!). For the ease of grabbing a seat and food, the Manhattan spot for weekday dining wins in this category. 

Manhattan (NYC): 1

The food: Brunch vs. Dinner 

Technically, both Sweet Chicks have very similar menus, and both bring out an incredible trio of butters — rosemary, strawberry and plain — with waffles. At brunch, there are six different waffle options, including the classic, bacon’n’cheese, spiced pecan and dried cherry. They can be ordered solo or with fried chicken. But the variety doesn’t stop with dinner options either; in fact, it increases! In addition to these waffles, there are six more specialty chicken and waffle combos. These include Big Booh’s BBQ Chicken with a sweet corn waffle (first photo below), the Nashville Hot Fried Chicken with a milk jam waffle (second photo below) and one in particular I’m curious to try, General Tsao’s Chicken with a rice flour and broccoli waffle. Dinner wins in this category for the plethora of options, but since it’s featured at both locations, both get a point. 

Manhattan (NYC): 1 // Mid-City (L.A.): 1

The libations: L.A. vs. NYC 

Just like with the food options, the cocktails are pretty much the same at both locations. I’ve enjoyed boozy slushies with my brunch as well as classy libations at night. Expect what you'd find at many hip dining establishments these days: a well-thought out, mature cocktail program, creative combinations of ingredients (i.e., Thai chili mezcal mixed with roasted rice vinegar) and cheeky, pun-filled names (i.e., the Side Chick, Christopher Wallace, Purple Drank, etc.). A point for both here, too. 

Manhattan (NYC): 1 // Mid-City (L.A.): 1

The Service: L.A. vs. NYC 

Service at both has been on point, but for some reason, I tend to remember the people who helped me the most at Mid-City…Like the server who patiently answered my group’s gazillion questions without ever looking fazed, just with a nonchalant smile. Or the bartender who addressed my girl friends and I as “Queens” as we sat at the bar. I guess as the saying goes, we are friendlier than New Yorkers right? A point for L.A. 

Manhattan (NYC): 1 

The Tie-breaker – Overall Impression

We’re down to the final category — overall impression — with both Sweet Chicks currently tied with four points each. I had to quickly consider: were there any other aspects I wasn’t taking into consideration? What was my gut feeling saying?? And while clearly it goes without saying in general, the West Coast is the best coast, when I think about overall experience, Manhattan’s Sweet Chick wins the glory. Perhaps it’s because of that uber cozy setting and that NYC is the original home of Sweet Chick, but there’s truly something magical about this space. Manhattan takes the point, coming out victorious in this friendly contest. 

Manhattan (NYC): 1 - WINNER - Manhattan (NYC)

All in all, both are #WilsonsGuide faves and most certainly worth a visit. So the next time you find yourself either in L.A. or NYC, swing by a Sweet Chick. See you there soon!

What’s your fave Sweet Chick to visit? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below! 

For more information: 

Me with a dear friend at the Midtown location 

Me with friends at the Mid-City location

A sample of the postcards given out at each location