Saturday, September 18, 2010

Craving Kara's Cupcakes

What is it about cupcakes that's so sweetly satisfying? Of course there's the sugar, the marvelous mix of cake and frosting, and the incredible new flavors at gourmet shops sprouting up across the country. But it's more than that. Eating cupcakes creates an emotional connection to the past, evoking warm memories of birthday parties, baking in the kitchen, and celebrating with family and friends. Cupcakes are not an everyday treat; they're something special to enjoy on worthy occasions.

Cupcakes are also wonderfully accessible. It's a smaller commitment than buying a cake, everyone can choose the flavors they want, they look festive, taste fabulous, and can be eaten by hand. Cupcakes are adorable, and gourmet versions elevate the category, opening up incredible innovations for the dessert table.

One of my favorite local gourmet cupcake spots is Kara's Cupcakes in Palo Alto. They have five locations in all including San Francisco, San Jose, and Napa. They even have a mobile KaraVan to bring the cupcakes to you for special events. They cater for weddings and parties, and make an extra special dessert for any reason to celebrate.

What's most wonderful about Kara's, as they aptly promise, is that they bring 'a sophisticated twist to an old fashioned favorite.'  At Kara's you don't order just ordinary chocolate and vanilla. Oh no, you get to order from an array of enticing flavors such as Meyer Lemony Lemon, Raspberry Dazzle, Peanut Butter Milk Chocolate Ganache, Passion Fruit, and Java. I have to admit I've tried about a dozen of the flavors (!) although I had to do so as part of a consulting project I was working on (no, really!).

One weekend after brunch at Hobee's, I took my three kids to Kara's and let them each choose a cupcake to have after dinner for dessert. As we ate them later, I asked each one to describe their cupcakes to me. Here's what they said:

Jacob chose Coconut, a chocolate cupcake with coconut cream cheese frosting. He described it as having creamy, flaky coconut frosting, with a delicious coconut flavor that's stronger than the chocolate flavor. It's like a Mounds candy bar in cupcake form.

Valerie chose Kara's Karrot cupcake with cream cheese frosting. She said it had a yummy cream cheese frosting, walnuts, nutmeg, and raisins. She said it was moist and just as delicious as chocolate. Her strongest endorsement: "Mmmmmm."

Amanda chose the most sophisticated flavor, Fleur de Sel, a chocolate cupcake with ganache frosting, a sprinkle of fleur de sel on top, and caramel filling. She chose this flavor because it was filled. She described it as a dark chocolate cupcake with salt on top. Very moist, with a sweet caramel filling. It had an extra strong dose of sugar, nicely balanced by the salt.

I chose Sweet S'mores, a chocolate cupcake with graham cracker crust on the bottom and toasted marshmallow frosting on top. To me, this cupcake exemplifies what's so great about gourmet cupcakes. It transforms the traditional s'mores dessert into a whole new, mouthwatering form. The burnt marshmallow topping was fluffy and light, the chocolate cupcake moist and flavorful. The crumbly graham cracker crust had an utterly delicious, buttery toffee flavor. What a great combination of textures and flavors, and an impressive improvement on the original. The flavors danced on my taste buds.

The hardest part of eating Kara's Cupcakes is resisting the temptation to go back for more....and more!  They're that good.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Lee's Sandwiches

I love walking into a new food store or restaurant and instantly knowing I've found something authentic, different, and good.  I'd heard about Lee's Sandwiches for a while and thought I would finally investigate.  The closest one is in Sunnyvale so it was not along my usual driving route. Lee's offers mostly traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, a wonderful combination of French baguette and Vietnamese fillings. It also has European style sandwiches, breads and pastries, Asian drinks and smoothies, and desserts. The company started in 1981 with a catering truck in San Jose. It has since grown to dozens of retail locations in California, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma. Lee's Sandwiches represents both a wonderful melding of Asian and French cuisines, and American entrepreneurial zeal.

It takes several visits to get a good sampling of Lee's offerings. There's so much to try! The company's website gives a good overview of the menu, complete with photos,  descriptions, and nutritional information. I truly enjoyed the vegetarian sandwich with fried tofu, vermicelli, bean curd, yam, carrot, house pickle, jalapano, cilantro, salt, pepper, and soy sauce all tucked into a soft baguette. I also loved the BBQ pork sandwich, which had the same tangy pork that's in Chinese bao. I also savored the grilled chicken sandwich with its soft baguette featuring just enough al dente on the crust, nicely seasoned chicken pieces, and crunchy julienne vegetables. The grilled pork sandwich is similar to the BBQ pork sandwich (I prefer the more flavorful BBQ pork to grilled). My daughters gobbled up the more familiar ham & cheese baguettes, a nice option for the less adventurous and for kids. What delicious sandwiches! The combination of spicy, tangy, savory, and sweet flavors, the soft bread with crunchy vegetables, and the melding of red, green, orange, and other colors makes for a satisfying new kind of fast food meal.

To top off the sandwiches, Lee's has many unusually tasty drinks.  The Thai iced tea with tapioca pearls features a refreshing black tea with sugar and condensed milk flavor, a pumpkin orange color, and the dark, chewy tapioca pearls which find their way up the extra large sized straw. Many different smoothies also tempt the palate. These are quite large, and in between what I think of as a smoothie and a milkshake, so be forewarned that either you drink up with an equally large appetite, save some for later, or share. The avocado smoothie was so unexpected and yet familiar with its green color, smooth texture, and unique creamy flavor. It was like drinking a guacamole elixir, with no salsa or chips needed. The mango smoothie was sweet and refreshing, more of an Asian mango flavor (such as Indian mango lassi) and probably more likely something kids would enjoy. I always opt for the big, chewy tapioca pearls at the bottom of smoothies. I also enjoyed the coconut delight dessert, which is like coconut Jell-o. It's not for everyone but I found its light coconut flavor and wiggly Jell-o texture a refreshing finish to my meal.

Here's hoping a Lee's Sandwiches will move up farther north and closer to Menlo Park. I have no doubt it would be full of hungry, happy customers as soon as its doors opened. I'd be first in line, eating my way through the menu.