Monday, November 12, 2012
This is not chow mein
These days it seems like I only blog when I have something to rant about. If I keep it up, this might just merge with my other blog. But nothing raises my ire about Chinese restaurants as much as serving "chow mein" without noodles.
More... Recovering from a wicked bout of the flu, I was anxiously awaiting my first meal in three days. At some point after the nausea was gone, I was just trying to see how long I could go without eating. Once I finally regained my appetite, I ordered Chinese.
Growing up on the West Coast, ordering "chow mein" meant only the slightest bit of ambiguity. You're either getting the thick, soft noodle, or the crispy, thin noodle. The thin, crispy noodle is also known as Hong Kong style chow mein. Out here on the East Coast, through whatever asinine etymological perversion, apparently chow mein can mean no noodles at all. Instead, what I got was a glob of brown sauce and mixed-in bits and pieces, known in Chinese as 雜碎. Yes, this was chop-suey.
This is not the first time I've seen this monstrosity in Chinese kitchens. And to add insult to injury, I even found this order slip in the take-out bag.
The restaurant had even written on there "large pork fried noodles." Well technically they wrote "large meat fried face" but the Chinese word for face (面) is a homonym for the word noodle (麵) and was probably substituted for kitchen short-hand. Either that, or they realized the sick joke they were playing on the unsuspecting customers.
Having lived in New York for several years now, I've known that East Coast chow mein is actually called "lo mein." I just thought that this restaurant, which billed itself as authentic, wouldn't stand for this sort of linguistic atrocity.
Monday, October 15, 2012
Macaroon (above left) ≠ macaron (above right)
Normally I am not one to harp on my dining companions pronunciations of foreign foods. I say "bru'sket-ta" when eating at an osteria, but "brushetta" when eating at Applebees. For the most part, pronunciation is just a pretentious aspect of gastronomic culture that aggravates me the same way food fetishism does. However, I do make an exception when it comes to the popular pastries macarons because the mispronunciation or misidentification of these almond flour cookies as macaroons results in a completely different product.
More... I won't go into the rise of the popularity of macarons in this country. Suffice it to say, if someone's talking animatedly about a cookie, she's probably talking about a macaron. I don't think anyone gets excited about macaroons. Macarons are made with almond flour and powdered sugar and usually have a sandwiched filling of ganache or buttercream. Macaroons are more like small cakes or meringue cookies, typically coconut flavored in America.
Macarons are sexy and expensive, partly because of hype, partly because of the difficulty in preparation. Macaroons are what your grandmother buys in bulk at Costco (not to be confused with madeleines, which are sponge cakes). We've just been exposed to macaroons for so long, we're more familiar with them and I would guess that is why many people mistake the two. However, the proper pronunciation of macaron is something like "maka-ron" with a fancy French guttural r. Overexaggerate the pronunciation if you must, but don't feel like you're putting on airs because you don't want to sound too pompous. Otherwise, you might end up with the wrong pastry, a disaster of far greater proportions than the harm to your ego. Besides, you're idolizing a cookie; might as well jump in feet first and go full Francophile.
Photo credits: Jessica and Keven Law via Flickr ^
Saturday, September 29, 2012
It's that most wonderful time of year once again--Monopoly is back at McDonald's! Though McDonald's is promoting this year as the 20th Monopoly sweepstakes, the restaurant has been collaborating with Hasbro since 1987 all over the world. We all know about the elusive Boardwalk piece and the 1,000,000 McDoubles it would buy. Besides that top prize, the rest have shuffled over the years. Yet, the allure of the money has never been my main excitement over Monopoly at McDonalds. I decided to analyze the aspects of the promotion that make it so appealing.
More... Monopoly has always been about the American Dream. With some luck and saavy investing, you can become rich and powerful in your own little world. This concept is what drives American ideas of economy and power--we don't mind inequality, as long as everyone has a chance to make it big. We're inundated with individual success stories, despite the fact that real life odds are heavily stacked in favor of certain individuals. We celebrate that poor, come from nothing individual. This had special resonance during the Great Depression, when the game experienced its greatest growth. While there are plenty of iconic American board games, this is what makes Monopoly the most "American."
Pairing Monopoly with McDonald's was a stroke of marketing genius. If Monopoly is most representative of this country within the game sphere, then McDonald's dominates the food. These two powerful brands form a successful synergy, despite the fact that Monopoly at McDonald's is completely a game of luck, disregarding any semblance of strategy (unless you make tactical menu choices to optimize your game pieces, like me). If anything, Monopoly at McDonald's involves teamwork, pooling your pieces and splitting the winnings.
What Monopoly at McDonald's gives you is not just the sliver of hope of winning one of the prize. While that lottery mechanic's effect on behavior is well-documented and intuitive, the best aspect of the game is that it gives you a justification for eating at McDonald's. We have the chance to eat our way to fortune. How cool is that? If Monopoly is an analogy for life, Monopoly at McDonald's is the gloss of the American obsession with unhealthy food. We're all dreamers, now we can channel our dreams through fast food. ^
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Salted cod, cabbage, parsley, brown butter
We here in the United States have long been exposed to the modernity of Scandinavian design in furniture, the sleek lines, clean surfaces, and wooden accents, but only recently has Scandinavian food made an impact in this country. With the rise of Marcus Samuelsson, Noma, and even the Swedish meatballs in the Ikea commissary, the recent emergence of Scandinavian cuisine has put Norway, Sweden, and Denmark on the map as modern dining destinations. A large part of my decision to visit Copenhagen was for the food; though because of late planning, a reservation at Noma was out of the question. Instead, I chose Radio, one of the Noma-alum restaurants focusing on local ingredients.
More... Radio, self-described as "unpretentious," has that casual atmosphere well-suited for a restaurant on Berkeley's College Avenue. The facade is simple and unadorned, the interior unembellished, with a rustic flair in the wood paneling. Large photos of the nearby organic farms where most of the ingredients are sourced line the walls. Also notable, like much of the Scandinavian population, the waiters were impeccably handsome.
The menu consists of five daily courses. Diners select either the full five-course tasting or pick and choose three of the five. You can also elect a wine pairing, or in my case, a non-alcoholic pairing. The waiter brought out an amuse of green beans, sour cream, and crushed olives. There was no preparation beyond tossing the ingredients together. It was all about the ingredients. This would set the tone for all of the courses--the chef's skill would come from combining the flavors more than the cooking technique.
Scallop, lettuce stem, cucumber, whey
Paired with cucumber juice
The first course featured excellently seared scallops. The dish's components clearly evoked sensations of the sea and surf. While I wonder whether seaweed featured in Danish cuisine before, I had no doubts that it was sourced locally. The cucumber juice pairing would characterize much of what the non-alcoholic pairings attempted. The juices would seize on a component flavor of the dish and try to highlight it. In this case, the refreshing cucumber beverage did just that.
Salted cod fish, cabbage, parsley, browned butter
Paired with elderflower juice
This dish wins the most beautiful plate award of the year. The wonderfully vivid cabbage had a crispness but none of the astringency associated with purple cabbage. The salt cod is actually uncooked, a preparation more similar to a crudo. Flavorwise, the cod held up, but I would've preferred for more of the natural flavor to come out rather than masked by the abundant use of brown butter. Cod is an oily enough fish without the addition butter. I've always been a fan of the slight medicinal quality of elderflower, and this pairing worked to cut through the fattiness of the cod.
Mushrooms, ramsons, ølandshvede, cress
Paired with sparkling blueberry juice
Despite the more exotic ingredients of this dish, the flavors were pedestrian. The waiter told us the mushrooms were wild chanterelles. Ramsons, also known as wild garlic, added little in flavor. And as far as I could understand, ølandshvede is a type of spelt wheat, manifested in the dish as little crunch granules. Although blueberries in the region are plump and delicious, the sparkling juice was too sweet to pair with this dish.
Flank of veal, carrot, dill, smoked cheese
Paired with carrot apple juice
The main course was the oddest tasting dish, though not necessarily in a bad way. Carrots prepared two ways, one fresh, the other pickled and steamed, were the predominant flavors. Although the smoked fresh cheese, with the consistency of cream, had such strong smokiness that a small dollop would flavor the entire dish. Veal flank was a little tough as can be expected with that cut. By itself, I don't think the meat was seasoned at all. Most of the flavor came from the cheese and carrot. Dill, the omnipresent Nordic herb, went well with the carrots.
Plum, fermented plum, chocolate, malt
Paired with plum iced tea
Dessert came in a soup bowl. The plum came in the form of a sorbet, floating in a white chocolate lake. Normally not a fan of white chocolate, I was pleasantly surprised by the mellowness of this dessert. It didn't have any of the artificial cloyingness I associate with white chocolate. The iced tea was also a refreshing way to cleanse the palate.
The overall meal had some hits and misses. For a casual dining experience, more affordable than Noma, Radio was right on target. Speaking of price, at 400 DKK (~66 USD)for the five-courses, it was very reasonable. Meals in Scandinavia are outrageously expensive; so in comparison, this was actually a steal. The non-alcoholic pairings were a nice novelty, but the wine pairings were much more successful. While I don't know if I would choose Radio as an alternate to the Noma experience, it would make a nice supplement for someone who planned his vacation better than me.
Julius Thomsen Street 12 (Near the Forum)
1632 Copenhagen V ^
Thursday, August 2, 2012
It doesn't take long for a culinary tradition to emerge. Tradition is not measured merely by the passage of time, but by the tenacity of how a practice is preserved. We commonly see "tradition" at the more prosaic end of the dining spectrum--annual clambakes, family recipe dry rubs, chili cook-offs. So often, high-end dining chases innovation, caught in fads and burning out once the public tastes shift. We've all seen the latest "it" restaurant filled to the brim one month and empty the next. While there is a place for these restaurants to push the envelope, there's also a need for classic stalwarts that maintain quality and consistency of cuisine. The latter is where The French Laundry fits, and that is why it is still relevant even so many years after the height of its acclaim.
Oyster and Pearls - Sabayon of pearl tapioca, Island Creek oysters, white sturgeon caviar
At this point, a play-by-play review of The French Laundry would add little value. The Internet is littered with such, accompanied by photos much better than mine. I could wax poetic about the "oyster and pearls", how the savory sabayon coats your mouth, punctuated by the salinity of the caviar. I could go describing how the balance of spherical textures between the tapioca, caviar, and oysters gives the dish tactile variety that causes the flavors to linger as the orbs rolls around your tongue. Or I could simply direct you to the hundreds of reviews of this classic dish already permeating the ether.
As of this writing, there are 1,155 reviews on Yelp boasting an impressive 4.5 stars. Most of the one-star reviews are from people who've never even dined there. Common complaints are centered around the difficulty in securing a reservation. Indeed, it took an inside connection for me to manage my own, despite calling two months in advance (the earliest reservations are available). The other related protestation is related to the pretentiousness of the restaurant and its patrons. Spurned customers are a vocal group, especially when they don't even have the opportunity to pay the $270 for a meal.
I understand these complaints, but as one tumblr describes, Yelp enables anyone with an Internet connection, enough money for a meal, and a sense of entitlement to spew their vitriol. Yelp is a democracy; it is ill suited for The French Laundry, an institution that has never been about inclusiveness. What makes The French Laundry special is its exclusivity. If you want to dine there, you need to make a serious effort. Michelin describes three-star restaurants as those that are worth making a special trip for; that is indeed how you need to approach The French Laundry. Make your reservation, then book the flight.
Sweet butter poached lobster fricasee - Yukon gold potatoes, celery, spicy lobster nuage and tomato bullion
Of course, merely exclusivity doesn't make a great restaurant. Among people who have actually eaten at The French Laundry, many of the complaints I hear are about how it isn't that unique. Looking purely at the cuisine, I agree that some dishes were overseasoned or unbalanced, especially the braised Kurobuta pork jowl. But these misses were minor compared to the transcendent sweet butter poached lobster in a tomato bullion, or the best white peach sorbet I've ever had. Innovative uses of global ingredients kept the flavors varied. When the lobster needed a spicy kick, the chef went to Szechuan peppercorns for a numbing heat rather than something more traditional. Was the food the best I've ever had? Probably not, but The French Laundry experience isn't just eating--it's dining.
The unassuming facade
As you can imagine, the restaurant has a certain type of clientele. Most people who aren't already eating at this caliber restaurant can't even get a reservation. It caters to the people who are there, not to the people who want to be there. Speaking as someone with one foot in that door, who has his share of fine dining experiences, I was still surprised at the level of service and detail. The six top next to me stayed vacant for at least one seating, but rather than rush a dinner, the restaurant would rather keep it empty. There was a sense of no compromise. It was a place designed for special occasions. With the waiters speaking so softly and such small dining spaces, it was among the quietest meal I've had out. Intimate dining at its peak.
What's truly amazing is The French Laundry's staying power. While some other famous restaurants like Spago can remain quality dining options, they haven't been able to consistently top best dining lists year after year. Other chateau-type restaurants have emerged in America, but The French Laundry will always be the epitome by which these restaurants are compared. It defines Napa Valley and Northern California cuisine. It is the three-word answer to American fine dining, and that's what creates a legacy. ^
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Mapo Tofu, Kurobuta pork shoulder, Szechuan peppercorns, chili oil
I've been hearing about Mission Chinese Food for some time now. This former pop up that eventually took over a non-descript family restaurant has made "best of" lists all over the country. When I found out that one of my childhood friends was working there, I made it a point to drop in.
Look for Lung Shan Restaurant. The storefront's unchanged.
By now, Mission Chinese's storied past is already well documented, but Josh at Food GPS did a great write up last year on its history. From what my friend told me, Mission Chinese has completely displaced Lung Shan, though the former proprietors still staff the back. Instead, my American born Chinese friend was the only Asian face in the front of the house.
Though the decor still consists of the tacky Chinese decorations that adorn Chinese restaurants worldwide, there were some ambiance changes of note. I'm assuming that Lung Shan didn't play The Strokes over minuscule speakers to dinners in Christmas light dim illumination. Chinese typically brightly light their restaurants, in contrast to Western mood lighting. The result is that Mission Chinese has a clash of moods, forcing the Chinese decor remnants to take on an ironic meaning.
Now that the hype has died down a little, it's actually possible to get a table with a minor wait. I went on a Sunday and waited less than twenty minutes for a table for four at 6. Having an inside (wo)man didn't help me get to the top of the list, but it turned out not to be a problem at all.
Tea Smoked Eel, pulled ham hock, Chinese celery, rice noodle, cognac
We started with the tea smoked eel rolls, Beijing vinegar peanuts, and hot and sour cucumbers as cold dish appetizers. While many of Mission Chinese's dishes were fairly traditional with some modern flourishes and ingredients, the eel rolls were unique to me. Unfortunately, my disdain for celery did not overcome the rest of the dish.
Wild pepper leaves, pressed tofu, salted chili broth, pumpkin
The above pictured ma po tofu is an example of the more common Chinese dishes with a little flair. Like the thrice cooked bacon, the ma po tofu had multi-layered flavors. So much of Asian fusion often boils down to adulterating Oriental cuisine by making it much too sweet. I didn't get that impression here. The thrice cooked bacon, which I imagine was derivative of twice cooked pork belly, consisted of amalgamations of tastes. I could get a savory sensation biting in, a smooth mouth feel of umami, then a lingering numbness due to the Szechuan peppers. The wild pepper leaves dish felt familiar enough to be identifiably Chinese, but yet it had a smokiness that I associated with Southern collard greens. It was flavor combinations like these that kept every dish exciting.
That's not to say the more "traditional" dishes weren't stellar as well. For $11, you can get a heaping of , salt and peppered on a sizzling platter. Though the ingredients were more along the lines of the things you would've found on Lung Shan's menu, the execution was impressive. In a pure Chinese cook-off, Mission Chinese would be able to hold its own against the stalwarts of the cuisine. It may not win, but it would certainly demonstrate that it could innovate without denigrating Chinese food.
Mission Chinese Food
2234 Mission Street
San Francisco, 94110
No reservations and no parties over 8.
Friday, April 6, 2012
Brisket, sausage, potato salad, slaw, and a Big Red
On a dreary Wednesday morning I was sitting on metal patio furniture, hoping that the clouds above my head didn't bring rain. I was entering the second hour of my barbecue trials. Despite arriving at 9:30 in the morning, I wasn't first in line for a restaurant that didn't even open until 11:00. I wasn't surprised; I had done my research beforehand. You have to be prepared when you're pursuing the best barbecue in the country.
The line at 10:30. Photo taken from my spot below the ramp.
Franklin Barbecue has been a gourmet press darling since its humble beginnings as a trailer in an East Austin parking lot in 2009. Since then, it has moved to a building off the 35 freeway. Every morning, besides Mondays when it is closed, Aaron Franklin gets up before dawn to prepare his daily ritual. While the restaurant is not a one-man operation, Franklin's involvement is critical, from stoking the flames of his hardwood smokers to carving up every single customer's order.
Aaron Franklin, proprietor, chef, and all-around nice guy
Because Franklin takes his time to chat up each of his customers, the line moves at a glacial pace. The restaurant's official hours are eleven until sold out. At this point, they don't bother removing the sold out signs anymore. If you're not already in line by eleven or twelve, you're going to have slim pickings of whatever meats are left, if any.
Finally at the front of the line
Around 11:30, I finally made it to the counter. As a Texas barbecue, Franklin's claim to fame is is brisket. Considering I had just done my Lockhart barbecue marathon the day before, I was hesitant to get more. But I had yet to try any Texas sausage.
At Franklin's suggestion, I got half fatty, half lean brisket. Keep in mind that lean is a relative term and does not imply any dryness or lack of flavor. The brisket was as good, if not slightly better than the brisket at Smitty's, my favorite of the Lockhart three. There is complexity to Franklin's barbecue that many places lack. While many barbecues have two or three flavor notes, the brisket at Franklin has a chorus. The sausage was phenomenal. I made very little progress cutting through the casing with my plastic knife, but when I finally punctured it, the juice squirted out from its cylindrical prison. I'm not sure what mix of meats went into that sausage and the seasonings were relatively simple. But the barbecuing process made it uniquely delicious. Franklin's also offers three signature barbecue sauces, but besides the chipotle flavored one, they weren't too notable.
I'll have to come back and try the pork ribs one day. The bit of pulled pork, donated to me by my line compatriot, was bland. The big question is whether I think Franklin Barbecue was worth the two hour wait. For those visiting Austin with time to spare, it is worth a free morning. It would take even longer to drive out to Lockhart.
900 E. 11th Street
Austin, TX 78702
$13 for a two-meat plate
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Served a beef rib and brisket at Black's Barbecue
As I mentioned before, Austin is not what I, as a California native and now a New York elitist, expected of the Texas experience. There were no big hats, pick-ups, rodeos or Southern drawls. Having lived in Austin for almost two years, my buddy with whom I was staying had never taken the Texas sojourn to The Alamo that is the prerogative of every red-blooded resident. Thus was born a day trip down to the tourist trap that is San Antonio. On our way, we would stop by the one Texas experience I couldn't leave without--Texas barbecue.
Lockhart is about a ninety minute drive south of Austin. Known as "The Barbecue Capital of Texas," this tiny town of twelve-thousand residents hosts three of the most renowned barbecue joints in the state. Speaking with several native Texans, each had flattering things to say about the town and its most famous landmarks. Yet, no two people I asked could agree on the best of the Big Three restaurants--Kreuz Market, Black's Barbecue, or Smitty's Market. After lengthy deliberation, and it was an arduous decision, I came to the epiphany that the sky's the limit...even if my stomach wasn't so limitless. We must try all three.
To actually arrive at some sort of subjective opinion on the barbecue, we couldn't go in without a game plan. Since beef brisket is king in Texas barbecue, we decided to order that at each place as a control. And if given a choice, we would choose the fatty brisket over the lean. At the very least, we could compare the brisket for all three. Yet it would be palate-deadeningly boring to order the exact same thing at each place. Thus we would pick a variable meat at random as well.
First place open in town was Smitty's Market. Given the small area of Lockhart, each restaurant was easy to find and within such close proximity, the scent of the smoke from one may be detectable in another. We were one of the first customers as we encountered most of the employees still winding up for the day. You enter through a hallway black with years of soot. In the back are two sets of barbecue smokers (pictured below). Order at the counter and the friendly workers pull out slabs of meat to be carved up and served on butcher paper. I had seen this service style at Hill County Barbecue back in New York, but it was reassuring to see that it deviated little from the Texas roots. Once you order at the meat station, you grab your fragrant bundle and bring it back to the brightly lit dining room where you can order drinks and sides.
At Smitty's, we opted for the pork rib as the variable. Keep in mind that this beautiful, slow-cooked meat was the first thing either of us ate that morning. My first impression with the brisket was that it wasn't quite as fork-tender as I had expected from reading reviews. It still had some solidity to it that required either a knife or a firm bite. Don't bother asking for a fork; they'll give you plastic knives but barbecue is a hands-on event. The meat was so extremely flavorful that I appreciated the extra time I had to savor as I chewed through each bite. A crispy outer layer with a moistly glistening center, this brisket was top notch. The firmness of the brisket was in sharp contrast to the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the pork rib. To be honest, I could hardly control myself and soon found myself sucking on the bone eager for more. Were these the best baby back ribs I've ever had? I would need more to tell you for sure, but having eaten it so quickly that I have little recollection may be some indication.
Smitty's also offered something Kreuz and Black's did not--barbecue sauce. Lockhart is part of the Central Texas barbecue tradition, one marked by spicy dry rubs and indirect wood smoke cooking. As such, the focus is on the quality of the meat and the zealously guarded secret rub and sauce, if served, is usually as a minor component for dipping. Smitty's did have a tangy tomato-based sauce, or what you might think of as "barbecue sauce." Kreuz and Black's had sauces too, but they were more hot sauces that lacked the sweetness of Smitty's. So if sauce is your thing, make sure to ask for it at Smitty's.
Of the three meaty stalwarts of Lockhart, Black's has seemingly engaged in the most marketing. Around town, and even from the highway, you'll see various signs directing you to the "famous" Black's Barbecue. Although all three restaurants sell t-shirts, Black's was fully engaged in the merchandising business. And while Kreuz and Smitty's seemed to adopt a no frills approach to interior decorating, Black's strives to give you the tourist's Texas experience.
Black's has a streamlined design. Unlike Kreuz or Smitty's there is a single line leading past a steam table of side dishes to the barbecue counter before depositing you in the dining room. The barbecue section is not as accessible, which gave the restaurant a more sanitized feel. For a cuisine that is best eaten with your fingers and a bib, the cleanliness was actually a bit incongruous.
We ordered the fatty brisket and a beef rib. While most of the barbecue items are sold by the pound, the beef ribs are sold individually. We realized why when we received this twelve-inch wide monstrosity. Each rib is about a pound anyway. The brisket here was actually far too fatty. As you can see in the first picture, we received the end cut, one especially streaked with fat and gristle. Yet this was the tenderness I initially expected of the Smitty's brisket. It easily fell apart in my fingers. By the time we turned to the beef rib, we each had about a half pound of meat before 11 am. Neither of us were really up to the task, but we tackled that Brontosaurus rib and discovered the smokey flavor that comes in two stages. First, a hearty whiff of char, followed by lip-smacking umami. Eating a gigantic rib like this is a primal exercise that brings you closer to the essence of meat.
Unlike Black's and Smitty's, which are both in the town center of Lockhart, Kreuz is actually a solitary structure right off the 183 highway. The massive barn, parking lot, and outdoor storage of hardwood betrayed a bigger operation than its rivals. The restaurant's interior seemed relatively modern, not cluttered like Black's or rustic like Smitty's. Helpful older women take your order near the barbecue pits just like at Smitty's and you bring your butcher paper wrapped tray to the dining room for sides and drinks.
At our last stop, we ordered brisket and a pork chop. The brisket here was the leanest, even though we had specified for a fatty cut. The main flavor profile was salty without too much complexity or depth. I enjoyed the crust of the pork chop, though the center was a bit dry and could've used a good sauce. Both cuts of meat had a proper smokiness that indicates a long, indirect cooking process--key in Central Texas barbecue.
What is the best brisket in Lockhart? Both my friend and my number one choice is Smitty's. The brisket there had the most astounding, stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks flavor and just the right amount of bite. Dipped (optionally, of course) in the tasty sauce, your best bet for beef is at Smitty's. Additionally, we gave high marks to the pork ribs here and the beef rib at Black's. But why does it matter which one is the best? If you're going to be in Lockhart, you're obligated to try all three as well. Keep in mind that even the worst barbecue in town is miles beyond anything you'd find in New York or California. I am not going to get into the barbecue rivalries of the Southern states, but Texas has a lock on brisket so make sure that's on your plate.
208 S Commerce St
Lockhart, TX 78644
$9.50/lb brisket, $9.50/lb pork rib
215 N Main St
Lockhart, TX 78644
$12.98/lb brisket, $10.98/lb giant beef rib
619 N Colorado St
Lockhart, TX 78644
$11.40/lb brisket, $12.50/lb pork chop
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
We've all heard the familiar story. A tremendously successful food truck upgrades to brick and mortar. Occasionally, as in the case of Torchy's Tacos in Austin, the little food truck that could expands around town and commands an eternally loyal following. I recall reading a list of top restaurants in Austin. The entry for Torchy's says that it is almost a cliché at this point to recommend Torchy's to visitors, but nonetheless, the praise is well-deserved.
There were two types of cuisine I wanted to try on my brief visit to this capital city with a small town feel--Texas-style barbecue and Tex Mex. The barbecue requested would be satisfied many times over, but Torchy's was the only pseudo-Mexican food I had.
Yes, it is a chain. Yes, it looks like it was designed by a former store manager of a Hot Topic. Yes, it is fast casual dining. None of these factors took away from the fact that you'd be hard pressed to find a juicier carnitas taco. The tacos are large, one is equivalent in size to two taco truck street tacos in California. There are also offerings of breakfast taco fillings and migas, but the main draw comes in between the corn or flour tortillas.
Although I heard pleasant accolades of the odder tacos, the Jamaican jerk chicken or Baja shrimp for examples, I opted for the more traditional. The Democrat, with shredded beef barbacoa, onion, queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, and salsa verde was decadently flavorful. Although I prefer a goat or sheep barbacoa, the beef here surely put Chipotle's own barbacoa offering to shame. The Green Chili Pork Taco, with roasted carnitas, green chilis, queso fresco, cilantro, onion, lime, and salsa verde was essentially the same taco as The Democrat but with pork. Authenticity aside, I've yet to find better carnitas tacos.
Torchy's is an Austin chain with eight locations in that city alone. They recently expanded to Dallas and Houston as well. If you're in any of these cities, just look for that devilish red baby signage. Grab some tacos and wash them down with some Dublin Dr. Pepper.
2801 Guadalupe St. (multiple locations, this one is by UT Austin)
Austin, TX 78705
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Austin is an odd place. Having my fill of Brooklyn hipsters, I was somewhat dreading the people I'd meet in this Portland of the South. Yet, my expectations weren't met in the negative at all. Everyone has been exceedingly friendly and leading productive lives as contributing members of society. Also, having not spent any significant time in Texas before, I was expecting much more of the stereotypes of this Red state. There are no cowboy hats and boots here. No rodeos or plate-sized steaks. If anything, Austin seems fiercely democratic, and the independent nature of the state is reflected in its non-conformist population.
Being the small town with the urban feel, I knew the food in Austin would be worth a trip in itself. My friend, with whom I was staying, showed me just how eclectic the cuisine could be with our first meal at South Congress Cafe. Congress is a main North-South drag through Austin, with much of the iconic Austin atmosphere South of the lake.
From the outside, as depicted in the photo above, I was expecting a steak and grits brunch. Instead, the menu is a gastronomically-forward selection of New American cuisine with game meats and Southwestern flavors. Opting out of the migas, the local favorite scramble topped with tortilla chips, I decided on the crispy quail sandwich with truffle remoulade. My buddy ordered a sky-high bloody mary and eggs benedict on crispy crab cakes topped with chipotle hollandaise.
While both dishes were delicious, the quail was not as flavorful as I expected. It relied a little too heavily on the remoulade to impart flavor. Eggs benedict is my favorite brunch dish and this was no exception. Crab cakes may be a little heavy in the morning, but I had to indulge on my visit.
South Congress Cafe
1600 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78704
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Saturday, February 25, 2012
I've always been more of a crab fan myself. Whether it's the roasted garlic crab at PPQ in San Francisco, the Indonesian crab at Fatty Crab, or the blue crab in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, I've always been more partial to crab than lobster. But having been invited to Luke's Lobster by almost every one of my LA friends who swing by town, I knew I had to finally try it out.
You'll find multiple locations in Manhattan for Luke's Lobster. They're fairly spaced out on the island and most offer delivery too. Each restaurant's decor is simple, kitschy and casual, conveying Northeastern seafood shack.
Lobster rolls are expensive anywhere, but Luke's does provide a hearty amount on each roll. It takes 5-6 lobster calls for the meat of one roll. Luke's has a reputation for sourcing their lobster directly from sustainable fisheries in Maine. Seeing as how this was my birthday dinner, I had to order the Noah's Ark and split it with my friend. Two 1/2 lobster rolls, two 1/2 crab rolls, two 1/2 shrimp rolls, four crab claws, two drinks, and two bags of chips, the feast is pictured above.
Luke's does make an excellent lobster roll. The dominant flavor is lobster, not mayonnaise or butter. As good as its namesake is, I still preferred the crab roll. The shrimp was boring, merely a shrimp cocktail on a loaf. I got a sarsaparilla with my meal, a happy find considering how difficult it is to find.
Multiple locations in East Village, Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Financial District, and Penn Quarter.
$15 for just the lobster roll. $41 for the Noah's Ark pictured above.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
I made sure to indulge in some of my favorite foods during my vacation back in California for the holidays. But I also made an effort to try out some things that I've heard so much about on the Twittersphere but don't have access to out in New York. Among those things are good fish tacos. Yet, the hands down best thing I ate was a bowl of Thai boat noodles. I had heard so much about boat noodles, and the lack of authentic boat noodles in New York made the experience in Los Angeles that much more special.
Although most people flock to the two heavyweights of the Thai boat noodle community in North Hollywood's Thai Town, Pa Ord and Sapp, I had my noodles at Sanamluang Cafe. It was only days after the New Year and many places were closed for the holidays. Sanamluang, with its 4 am daily closing time, was perfect for meeting up some of my familiar food friends @olivejina, @djjewelz, @limer35 @kungfoodpanda, and @ravenouscouple. The restaurant is in a small shopping center with a parking lot that easily gets overwhelmed.
While it's not difficult to find a bowl of beef noodle soup at Thai restaurants all over the country, it's tough to find one made with all the offal that truly makes a great bowl of boat noodles. Thai food in America is so generic and the flavors are simplified to the point of easy replication at any pan-Asian fusion eatery. The name comes from the common serving style in Thailand, when vendors sell noodles directly out of their boats. The secret to a great bowl is the abundant use of pork blood, liver, and other cuts of beef. Though it's listed as spicy beef noodles on the menu at Sanamluang, you can also order it as boat noodles. They'll know what you're talking about.
I've commonly heard of Thai boat noodles as pho on crack. It is the most flavorful bowl of noodles I've ever come across. Savory and sour are the main components, but a healthy amount of spice gives it a kick. Cinnamon and star anise are the key elements. However, the most memorable aspect of the noodles is the outstanding mouthfeel of the soup.
If anyone knows where I can get a great bowl of Thai boat noodles in New York, please let me know!
5176 Hollywood Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 90027
$5.95 for a bowl of "Spicy Beef Noodles"