by Terrance Mc Arthur
The Great Food Search has trekked up and down the San Joaquin Valley, ventured to Morro Bay and Mariposa, and sampled the foods of the Fresno Rogue Performance Festival. Currently, I have been busy in Fresno, rehearsing for the Good Company Players production of I Remember Mama at GCP’s 2nd Space Theatre (which opened this weekend). Being a semi-human individual, I need sustenance to sustain me through these play practices, so I eat. Where do I eat? In the Tower District, which the City of Fresno defines as the area bounded by Blackstone, Belmont, West, and Shields. Let me tell you about my edible explorations.Irene’s Café—747 E. Olive Ave., Fresno This venerable (thirty years and counting) Queen of the Tower District was my first stop on my Tower Taste Trip, partly because it is mentioned in One of Us, a Tower District-set mystery by Lorie Lewis Ham. The place isn’t fancy, but it has charm, with indoor and outdoor seating. I tried the California Bagel, open-faced on an everything bagel with turkey and Jack cheese, loaded with sprouts, tomato, avocado, and onions. That was delish, and my side was a macaroni salad that came al dente (Who wants limp pasta?) with olives and a creamy dressing. Cuca’s Restaurant—936 E. Olive Ave., Fresno It’s next door to the 2nd Space Theatre, and has knocked its way around Fresno for generations. One of the draws of the place is that it’s open for breakfast, although I was there for an early dinner. Inside, it looks like all my memories of Olvera Street in Los Angeles. I chose Machaca, and received a glorious scramble of eggs, cheese, pork, peppers, tomato, and zucchini, along with healthy piles of rice and beans. Make sure you ask for the corn tortillas; they are home-made, and the edges are lacy and uneven. You don’t get that quality very often. The staff is proud of the place. They should be. Ming Restaurant—1414 N. Van Ness Ave., Fresno The last time I was here was in the mid-80s. I should have been back sooner. The decor is classic, but airy and well-lit. I ordered a combo plate of Beef Chop Suey Chow Mein, Pork Fried Rice, and Fried Shrimp, which came with a golden-hued Egg Flower Soup and the Sweet & Sour Pork option, with an order of Potstickers. The potstickers were amazingly crispy, the pork/egg/veggie-studded rice was blindingly white, and the shrimp must have been stretched on a medieval rack. The plate was huge, and my leftovers kept the family fed for three days. It won’t be another thirty-six years before I return. Noodle Express—601 E. Olive Ave., Fresno If you’ve been in the Tower District long enough, you’ll recognize this square building as a former Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now, it’s a fast purveyor of Thai dishes. I’m an eggplant fan, and the Eggplant Pad Prik was something to write home about. The sticky rice dunked into the saucy broth soaked up the flavor and color, there were enough veggies to fill Mr. MacGregor’s Garden*, and it came to me with heat fresh from the Underworld. Good eating. Loving Hut—1495 N. Van Ness Ave., Fresno Who knows how many times I’ve driven past this spot south of Fresno City College, but I finally decided to give vegan a chance. The special of the day looked like a beef dish, had beef texture, tasted like beef, and…it was non-meat protein! Lots of vegetables, fluffy rice, and it showed me you don’t need meat to be happy. It was my pleasant surprise of the month.
The Verdict—All five of these places should be on your culinary calendar, but my choice is Noodle Express, probably because they used the long Japanese Eggplant for their delectable dish.
*Reference—Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Peter Rabbit