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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

What: Bennie’s Bennie

Where: Wilma and Frieda’s, 73575 El Paseo Drive, No. C2310, Palm Desert

How much: $14

Contact: 760-773-2807; www.wilmafrieda.com

Why: The pork and the perfect balance.

Over the last couple of years, creative types ranging from musicians to comedians to publishers have used crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter to turn their figurative dreams into reality.

Restaurateurs have done so as well. These fundraising efforts don’t always succeed—on a local level, Cello’s Bistro and Dish Creative Cuisine recently saw Kickstarter efforts come up short—but when they do, they can lead to great things—such as Wilma and Frieda’s, a delightful breakfast/brunch/lunch joint located in the Gardens on El Paseo shopping center.

In the summer of 2013, the owners of Wilma and Frieda’s successfully raised more than $50,000 to help them open the restaurant. And what a restaurant it is—the fare is both innovative and delicious, and Wilma and Frieda’s somehow manages to have a homey feel while not feeling out of place on ritzy El Paseo.

That’s not to say all is perfect at Wilma and Frieda’s—on a recent weekend visit, for example, the host managed to underestimate our wait time for a table by nearly a half-hour, a cardinal sin in the restaurant business. Also, the prices are decidedly El Paseo-appropriate (i.e., a bit high). However, once you dig in to a tasty treat like the Benny’s Bennie, all faults will be forgiven.

Yes, you’ve had eggs Benedict before. But have you had eggs Benedict on freshly made, house-made biscuits that are fluffy on the inside, and crunchy/crumbly on the outside? Have you had eggs Benedict with thick pieces of high-quality Duroc pork, rather than ho-hum Canadian bacon? Have you had eggs Benedict with a hollandaise sauce that neither fades behind the saltiness of the pork, nor overwhelms with salt or some cloying flavor like too much lemon—but instead, complements the meat and the biscuit?

If the answer to these questions is, “Why yes, I have, thank you,” then tell me where you’re eating, please. If the answer is no, and it probably is no, a trip to Wilma and Frieda’s for the Benny’s Bennie is highly recommended. 

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The BBQ Pork and Egg Roll Vermicelli Bowl

Where: Pho Vu, 34260 Monterey Ave., Palm Desert; also at 79630 Highway 111, No. 103, La Quinta; coming soon to 285 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $8.95

Contact: 760-324-1888 (Palm Desert); 760-775-2417 (La Quinta); phovurestaurant.com

Why: Pork and “Vietnamese vinaigrette” rock together.

Let’s face it: With a few notable exceptions, the Asian-food scene in the Coachella Valley is pretty dismal.

Yeah, there are some good Thai and Indian joints … but how many truly outstanding, say, Chinese-food restaurants are there? Heck, let’s not even go that far: How many better-than-passable Chinese-food restaurants are there?

The same can be said for Vietnamese food—although things are improving, thanks in large part to the introduction of Pho Vu, with newish restaurants in Palm Desert and La Quinta, and a third location coming soon to Palm Springs.

I recently stopped by the Pho Vu in Palm Desert, located in one of those seemingly endless strip malls near the intersection of Dinah Shore Drive and Monterey Avenue. I was craving one of my fave Vietnamese dishes: bún, aka a vermicelli bowl, with lettuce, cucumber, mint, cilantro, green onions, nuoc cham (touted on the menu as a “Vietnamese vinaigrette”; it's a fish-sauce-based dressing, of sorts) and one’s toppings of choice; I chose pork and egg roll.

I am elated to report that my craving was more than satisfied.

One of my favorite things about good bún is that it’s a veritable cornucopia of textures, flavors and even temperatures: The noodles are soft; the warm pork is slightly chewy and salty; the cool veggies are crisp and just a wee bit bitter; and the fish sauce is tart and vinegary. Despite the incredible sensory variety, it all comes together beautifully.

Yeah, the Asian-food world in the Coachella Valley has a loooog way to go. But it’s on the upswing, thanks in part to Pho Vu.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Tom Yum Soup

Where: Le Basil, 72695 Highway 111, No. A10, Palm Desert

How much: $4.95 (chicken) or $6.95 (shrimp); hot pots also available

Contact: 760-773-1112; www.lebasilrestaurant.com

Why: The flavors are amazing.

I love soup. No matter the time of year, and no matter how freaking hot the weather gets, I am up for a bowl of tasty, delicious soup—and one of my favorite soups, when done right, is tom yum.

I have tried this hot-and-sour soup at Thai restaurants far and wide, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s easy to make a good version of this soup—but it’s difficult to make a great version. Well, I am elated to report that Palm Desert’s Le Basil has produced a really great version—one of the best I’ve ever had.

The “big” ingredients—the moist chicken, the tasty mushrooms, the texturally satisfying tomato pieces—were all perfect, but it was the “little” ingredients in the broth that made this soup so splendid. The liquid is home to a variety of spices, lime, lemongrass and other flavor-producing goodies.

Wait, is that fish sauce I taste? Why, yes, I think it is. And all of it works in perfect harmony.

Most of the other dishes we had at Le Basil were also quite enjoyable. An honorable-mention endorsement goes to the Le Basil crispy fish salad ($12.95), which successfully merged chunks of deep-fried white fish with apple, onions, (far too few) cashews and a lemon dressing. On paper, that combination may make you go: “Huh?!” But on the plate, it was a big hit.

However, the tom yum was the undisputed highlight. While I’ll gladly slurp down soup in 117-degree weather, I understand that not everyone feels the same way. But, hey, the Coachella Valley’s “cold” season is here—so get thee to Le Basil, and enjoy the tasty warmth of the tom yum. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: You’ll be glad you did.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Banana Walnut Pancakes

Where: The Palms Café, 69930 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; also at 44150 Town Center Way, Palm Desert

How much: $9.75; also available as an add-on with other entrées

Contact: 760-770-1614 (Rancho Mirage), 760-779-1617 (Palm Desert); thepalmscaferm.com

Why: Big chunks of banana.

I like pancakes—but I rarely order them for breakfast.

Here’s why: When it comes to a choice between pork (sausage … bacon … mmm!) and what’s basically bread covered with some sort of sweet sauce, I am going to go with the pork 99.43 percent of the time. Because, y’know, pork.

However, the banana walnut pancakes at the Palms Café in Rancho Mirage came highly recommended, so I ordered one. Boy, am I glad I did.

(OK, confession time: I got bacon and eggs, too. No judgment, please.)

The buttermilk pancake (a wheat variety made with Splenda is also available) part of the not-too-sweet pancake was tasty in and of itself; the menu touts the fact it’s made with real buttermilk (the words are even underlined), and you can indeed taste that buttermilk. However, the addition of big slices of banana, and just enough walnut pieces, took these pancakes from tasty to oooh I think I’d like another.

However, all was not perfect in Pancake Land: The Palms Café gets a slap on the wrist for apparently not offering customers real maple syrup. The pancake, as you can see, came with a little plastic container of syrup that, unless my taste buds (and those of my father in law, who was dining with me) were deeply confused, was not real maple syrup; instead, it was apparently one of those corn-syrup atrocities that’s foisted on unwitting Americans way too frequently. According to my server, Smucker’s Sugar Free Breakfast Syrup was the only other available alternative, which was a shame; I’d gladly have paid an extra buck or two for the real deal.

No worries; the next time I head to the Palms Café for one of these heavenly breakfast pancakes, I’ll skip the bacon and eggs—and I’ll bring my own syrup.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: Nora’s Nutty Salad

Where: Karen’s Café, 77682 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert

How much: $8.50

Contact info: 760-772-2800

Why: The crunch and the hint of sweetness.

I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I did not want to order Nora’s Nutty Salad.

Don’t get me wrong; the salad sounded yummy—I like romaine lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, onions, sunflower seeds, almonds, honey-sesame cashews and chicken—but Karen’s Café also serves breakfast, which means things like eggs and bacon are available, and really: Is there anything yummier on this planet than eggs and freaking bacon?

But, y’know, healthiness and losing weight are important, too, and Nora’s Nutty Salad came highly recommended by Nora herself (she’s the owner; she bought the place from Karen, apparently) at this charming little diner, located in the back corner of a Palm Desert industrial-area strip-mall building. So, I ordered the damn salad, even as the smell of freaking bacon wafted out of the kitchen.

In the end, I was glad I ordered the damn salad.

While what I received didn’t exactly match what was listed on the menu—walnuts and black olives were nowhere to be found, and the honey-sesame cashews that were present seemed more like honey-sesame powder clumps—what I received was delicious. The sweetness provided by the honey whatever-it-was enhanced the flavor of the fresh veggies, and the chicken was deliciously moist.

The mouth-feel of the salad nice and fun, too. Unlike most salads, this was crunchy in a variety of festive ways, thanks to the cucumbers, the sunflower seeds and the almond slices. The ranch dressing came on the side—always my preference with salad—which meant things didn’t get too soggy.

The best thing I can say about this salad: When I was finished, my taste buds were happy, despite the lack of bacon—and that meant that for one meal, at least, my waistline was happy, too.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Where: The 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro, 73101 Highway 111, Palm Desert

How much: $21

Contact: 760-837-9600; www.the3rdcornerpalmdesert.com

Why: It’s forkably good.

While many folks, locals and nonlocals alike, snivel about summer in the Coachella Valley, I kind of like this time of year.

The roads are less crowded. The (very) occasional rains are nice. And the dining deals at many restaurants can’t be beat.

One such restaurant that’s offering some ganga deals is the 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro, which has been around for a few years in Palm Desert along that stretch of 111 that runs parallel to El Paseo. (There are also 3rd Corner restaurants in San Diego and Encinitas.) We learned about these great deals when we visited there on a recent Friday, and saw all sorts of prices in red on the menu. Turns out those prices are for their “summer happy hour” (aka whenever 3rd Corner’s doors are open this time of year)—and those prices are a buck or two or four cheaper than the normal (i.e. in-season) prices.

Nice.

Our meal was lovely from start to finish—but the highlight, by far, was the red-wine-braised short ribs. The dish is pretty gosh-darned simple, really: There were cooked-to-perfection fingerling potatoes and broccolini pieces below and around sauce and meat.

But simple, of course, can be great—and these ribs were indeed great. The fine folks at 3rd Corner provided us with a knife, but it went unused, as the meat was so tender, so juicy, and so fantastically braised that a fork was all we needed. My only complaint, really, is a compliment, of sorts: I wish there’d have been some more of that red-wine sauce, as it was quite delicious, and the chunk o’ rib meat was quite … meaty.

The kicker: Turns out the short ribs aren’t discounted for the summer happy hour: They’re $21, whether it’s July or March. And you know what? I don’t care. I’ll pay $21 for these delicious short ribs any time.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The fish tacos

Where: El Ranchito Taco Shop, 34580 Monterey Ave., No. 103, Palm Desert

How much: $2.49

Contact: 760-320-9182; www.elranchitotacoshop.net

Why: The sauce, the crispiness and the price.

The first-ever Indy Endorsement was published on Nov. 1 of last year. The subject of our effusive praise: the fish tacos at Shanghai Reds.

Now, more than eight months later, we’re celebrating another Indy Endorsement first: For the first time, we’re endorsing essentially the same item (fish tacos) at a second restaurant.

One may have a reasonable expectation of getting a great fish taco at a local mini-chain that has “fish” in its name, as is the case of Shanghai Reds and its parent restaurant, Fisherman’s Market and Grill. However, one does not necessarily expect to get a great fish taco in a gigantic industrial-area Palm Desert strip mall that’s anchored by a freakin’ Walmart.

Yet that’s exactly what we found at El Ranchito Taco Shop. We wandered before a weekday Costco run—and were shocked to see every table in the smallish restaurant full. At 11 a.m. On a Friday. In the summer.

Fortunately, someone was leaving as we got in line to order, so the significant other nabbed the table while I stayed in line. I ordered several tacos, some chips, and an order of huevos rancheros ($5.25). An aside: El Ranchito serves breakfast all day, as all breakfast-serving restaurants should. Bless you, El Ranchito!

All of our food was tasty—but the fish taco, as you probably guessed from the fish-taco banter above, offered the best bites of the bunch. The cod was crispy and not overly oily; the white sauce was tangy and smooth; the cabbage and tomatoes were fresh and crisp. It was truly a pleasant surprise—and helped explain why El Ranchito was so damned busy at 11 a.m. on a Friday.

So, you may be wondering: Is the fish taco at El Ranchito as good as the one at Shanghai Reds? All things considered, yes: While the tortilla is far better with the Shanghai Reds taco (it’s thick and delicious, while the El Ranchito taco is wrapped in two average-tasting tortillas), the price is far better with the El Ranchito taco: It’s $1.46 less than the fish taco at Shanghai Reds.

And, unlike the Shanghai Reds taco, it’s available nearby before or after a Costco run.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The bacon, tomato, fontina and basil panino

Where: Clementine Gourmet Marketplace and Café, 72990 El Paseo, Palm Desert

How much: $10

Contact info: 760-834-8814; www.clementineshop.com

Why: The pickles brighten things up nicely.

For the first couple of bites, it was simply a sandwich—a tasty sandwich made with great ingredients, yes, but still just a sandwich—that was pricey and on the small side.

And what was on the plate alongside said sandwich, frankly, wasn’t looking too great. The potato chips were unremarkable, and the vegetables, as you can see above, looked … well, past their prime, to say the least.

But then something possessed me to take a bite of one of those carrots … and I felt really, really stupid. I should have known better.

Turns out those pieces of carrot and broccoli were pickles—tart, vinegary pickles. And it turns out that those pickles served as a palate-cleanser, of sorts, that helped make subsequent bites of that sandwich sing.

Before a pickle, a bite of the sandwich was good, but dominated by bacon, with the other flavors well in the background. After a bite of pickle, the pesto jumped front and center, with the basil bright and floral. The fontina’s sweetness also came forward, and the bacon moved from being the only star to being one of the three ingredients on the sandwich marquee.

This visit to Clementine was my first, and it sure won’t be my last. The café part offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the gourmet-marketplace part offers all sorts of goodies, including a pasta bar, refrigerated foods (the soups got my attention), a deli and a patisserie that’ll add a half-inch to your waistline just by looking at it.

Who could have known that among all these great foods, some rough-looking pickles would be so important?

Published in The Indy Endorsement

Friday, May 31, may seem like a long way away, but the organizers of Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week say it never hurts to get an early start on planning.

“Every year, my husband and I make it a staycation,” said Kim Crandal, the executive director of Restaurant Week, during which a bevy of local restaurants will be offering special three-course prix-fixe menus for either $26 or $38 per person.

Given that this year’s Restaurant Week is bigger than ever, perhaps planning is a good idea. For one thing, the week is much longer than a week—it runs for 17 days, in fact, from Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 16.

Why the expansion?

“We took a look at the history of requests from some of the restaurants,” Crandal said. “… So many people were experiencing success.”

As of now, 79 restaurants throughout the valley—including local favorites, big chains and eateries that are new to the scene—are signed up to participate.

But the week goes beyond food; the tag line for the event is “Eat. See. Stay.” Crandal said numerous hotels and resorts (that would be the “stay” part) are participating, as are various attractions and spas (that would be the “see” part).

“We are focusing more on crafting the ‘see’ and ‘stay’ components so people understand it’s more than a restaurant week,” she said. What do you do during the day?”

About a dozen hotels are currently signed on, and the 20 or so “see” partners include everything from the Palm Springs Art Museum to Knott’s Soak City to the Desert Springs Spa to Desert Adventures Eco-Tours and Events.

Restaurant Week also has something of a special relationship with “Forever Marilyn,” the 26-foot-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe that currently graces downtown Palm Springs. She was installed just before last year’s Restaurant Week, and she’ll be taken down and moved (temporarily, many hope) during this year’s Restaurant Week. While plans are not yet finalized, an idea is being batted around to create a more life-sized Marilyn Monroe representation—a statue, perhaps, or a cut-out—and have her pop up at the various restaurants during the 2 1/2 weeks of Restaurant Week.

Crandal noted that some folks are indeed already making Restaurant Week plans. For example, she cited a group of about 90 golfers from Santa Barbara who have made Restaurant Week an annual trip.

“It’s really building a nice following,” Crandal said.

Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week takes place from Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 16. For a complete list of participants and updates, visit www.palmspringsrestaurantweek.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

What: The beef ’n’ latkas

Where: Sherman’s Deli and Bakery, 401 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 73161 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert

How much: $13.95

Contact info: 325-1199 (Palm Springs); 568-1350 (Palm Desert); www.shermansdeli.com

Why: The crunchiness of the latkas.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: The Independent is endorsing a sandwich at Sherman’s? Well, duh. That’s like endorsing Meryl Streep for her acting ability. There’s no news there.

On one hand, you’re correct: The fact that Sherman’s Deli and Bakery has tasty sandwiches is no news. After all, the deli has been around for a half-century as of this year, and draws big crowds at both of its locations.

But on the other hand, you may have overlooked this sandwich. In fact, on the Sherman’s website, this sandwich is not even listed in the “sandwich” category. Instead, you can find the beef ’n’ latkas under “specials.”

The concept is pretty simple: The folks at Sherman’s take either the corned-beef or pastrami sandwich, your choice (we choose pastrami), and swap out the bread in favor of potato pancakes. But the change this simple swap makes to the flavor and mouth feel of this sandwich is out of this world. The earthiness of the potatoes melds perfectly with the saltiness of the pastrami; the outer crunch and soft interior of the latkas contrasts nicely with the subtle stringiness of the meat.

There’s only one problem, though (unless you’re a cardiologist, in which case this sandwich offers multiple problems): The latkas arrive at the table hot, and cool down much more slowly than the pastrami does. Therefore, we endorse eating this sandwich with a fork.

Perhaps that’s why this sandwich is not listed under “sandwiches.” But no matter where the beef ’n’ latkas are listed, this is one big plate o’ food worth ordering.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

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