Me with the Too Hot Tamales at Ciudad
It's Saturday and I've been invited to lunch at Ciudad, one of my favorite downtown restaurants, to talk about avocados with a bunch of other food bloggers. And there's lots to talk about. Ciudad owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the dynamic duo also known as Too Hot Tamales, are huge fans of the avocado, and they work with the California Avocado Commission to spread the avocado love around. I've lived in southern California more than a decade and visited the Tamales' restaurants many times, but I've got butterflies as I turn into the parking garage. I learned to cook watching Mary Sue and Susan on TV in my New York apartment two decades ago, when the only Mexican food I knew came from El Torito. They've been stars to me for a long time.
When I arrive, it turns out that there's more than lunch and a pleasant chat involved. The Tamales, all challenge-happy from Susan's stint on Top Chef Masters Season 2, have set up a little challenge for us. One table holds bowls of quartered California avocados. Another is laden with bowls of possible guacamole mix-ins, from traditional (lemons and limes, chopped cilantro, salsas, onions) to not so much (pomegranate seeds, bacon, all kinds of Asian condiments, bananas?!?). In teams of two, we've got five minutes to create the ultimate guacamole.
Rachael Narins with our Pure Guac L.A.
Luckily, I grab Rachael Narins as my partner. She's one of the brainy chefs behind the phenomenal roaming supper club Chicks With Knives, and she has one of the most refined and creative palates I know. We pull in Marla Meridith of Family Fresh Cooking at the last minute and get to work. Let's go purist, says Rachael, and Marla and I agree and start mashing. Lime, salt, cilantro, a touch of salsa, and a sprinkle of ground dried chipotle, just the tiniest bit. Rachael tastes, sprinkles, tastes, squeezes, tastes. Now I know why her food tastes so good, always: She is not easily satisfied. We write our creation's name on a card - Pure Guac L.A. - and we're done.
Each team talks about the inspiration for its recipe as the judges taste. Our turn approaches, and I'm in front, so I do the talking. "Tell them we wanted to honor the avocado," mouths Rachael to me. Honor the avocado: It's the perfect way to frame what we've done. When you go simple and pure, it's all about the balance, and Rachael's palate comes through for us - the judges comment on how perfectly the flavors come together. Still, our Pure Guac is no match for Spud Not, a concoction loaded with traditional baked potato toppings, including what seems like a full pound of bacon. Bacon always wins. But we're happy with our honorable mention. We followed our hearts and honored our avocados.
Susan and Mary Sue making avocado tacos (left) and skillet chilaquiles
After that, Susan and Mary Sue put on an impressive demo while we take pictures - food bloggers, of course, who would expect us to stay in our seats? - and nibble on what's coming out of the kitchen. Crispy avocado tacos, a tasty salad, skillet chilaquiles with chicken and avocado, a simple mango and avocado plate with honey-sweetened yogurt, an orange and avocado liquado. The avocados add a richness to every dish.
Crispy avocado tacos - Susan and Mary Sue serve these from the Border Grill truck
At the end of the lunch I head to the ladies' to freshen up, and I catch my reflection in the mirror. Am I imagining it, or does my skin look clearer and smoother than it did when I left the house? Not the lighting. Must be those magical avocados.
Orange and avocado liquado
See more photos from this event in Celebrating California avocados at Ciudad with Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken on my LA Cooking Examiner column
More avocado recipes from Erika:
- Dr. No's famous guacamole
- Weston's guacamole
- Spring scrambled eggs with avocado by Emery
- Creamy avocado-cucumber soup
- Smoked salmon avocado toasts