Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The End

Pork and I have something in common now. It's that neither of us are special anymore. Having incorporated the forbidden brute into my diet so regularly, it's flesh no longer invokes the same criminal feeling it once did. And as a result, nothing I can say about it now will be as interesting as my first Adventures. I guess haraam has become routine.

Things are a bit different now. I've left my beloved Philadelphia for New York, and now I sit in my bed, in a basement apartment on the upper west side, surrounded, in varying proximity, by some of the most awesome prepared pork foods in the world, from every one of its corners. Thus far, I've eaten lots of it, and written about none of it.

Maybe it's because, when I look at it from your perspective, the novelty has worn off. Eating pork is no longer an emotional experience, undoing my conditioning and shocking me with every bite. I'm not "seeing if I like it" anymore. I've tried a lot, decided what's good and bad, and chosen my favorite things. I might snack on them from time to time in the future (right now I'm thinking about the pepper crusted salame in the fridge), but there is no longer a point in my writing about them. I'll start back up when I find something new to obsess over

Thank you for reading.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Teri's BLT

Trying to cover all the staples attributed to an animal as versatile as the pig, I was bound to allow some things to fall through the cracks (Italian sausage and peppers, I'm looking at you too). One old favorite that I can't believe I glossed over is one of the simplest bacon applications; the BLT.

I always wondered what made the BLT a standard on diner menus. It always seemed like the main event, any sort of meat, was missing from it. After all, aren't the B, L, and T all just accompaniment? There was only one way to find out.

My old friend Cory was passing through Philly from Boston on his way to Baltimore and happened to be in town on Joey's birthday. This meant we spent the better part of the evening drinking, and by midnight Joey still hadn't realized that the six pack of Dogfishhead IPAs he downed in the past hour, coupled with several beverages earlier in the evening, would hit him like a ton of bricks as soon as he stood up. Following some temporary paralysis and several paragraphs of incredibly sad bitching, we managed to get Joey back to his apartment, or at least to his front steps from where he painted the sidewalk a barfy yellow.

Of course, this made Cory and I quite hungry, so we decided to stop at a place that I wrote off a few months back after waiting too long for my brunch. Since then, Teri's has changed its game up and become more of a bar than simply a diner. It being a neighborhood spot, it behooved me to give it another chance.

The first thing that caught Cory's eye was the cowboy tots. Being half of a cowboy band, I knew it had to happen. Teri's enhances a plate of tots with bacon, ranch, and cheddar, and lays it in front of you fully expecting you to attack it with zeal. We complied while waiting for our main orders, mine being a BLT; my first BLT.

Though I had nothing to compare it to, there was a near perfect balance to my sandwich. I realized quickly that the textures of the three components fit perfectly with one another. Once your top teeth sink through the bread, they hit the salty half-crunch of the bacon, followed by the light crunch of the lettuce layer, then a juicy hit of tomato, and finally the bottom piece of bread. The bread being toasted just right made that first bite all the better. I suddenly understood the hoopla around this sandwich. In the absence of a main meat event, one is able to appreciate the flavors that usually fade into the background.

I finished it quickly and decided that I'd have to try these from different places until I get one I don't like so that I can identify how anyone, if anyone, can mess up something so simple and so tasty.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Favorite

So, you think I'm some kind of pork crazed maniac? I come home and unlock my door with a key that's on a little pig key chain and come upstairs, take off my shoes and put on my fuzzy pig slippers, open a shrink-wrapped pepperoni and plod down on my couch and turn on the Food Network?

Well, you're wrong! Mostly wrong, anyway.

Nay, completely wrong!

I often hear the assumption that I love pork, and rightfully so. After all, I have dedicated a blog to it. But remember, as I told Sapna Magazine some months ago, I eat pork to provoke a reaction that inspires me to write. I, like most, have comfort food that I come back to time and time again. Ask my friends and they'll tell you flat out, it's pho. But what they don't realize is that pho substitutes for something even more special to me, a food that I grew up with in Thailand and could never satisfactorily find here in America. Only my mom can make this dish just right, just the way I like it. I learned the recipe from her and try my best to do it justice on occasions like tonight. It's been a long day of study and school (which I recently returned to) and all I want is a bowl of kwaey teow.

What I'm talking about is the Thai version of beef noodle soup. Back home, the finest example of this dish is found at street level, from kwaey teow ladies standing over giant bubbling vats of soup. You select the type of noodle you want (sen mee, sen lek, or sen yai from thinnest to thickest), perhaps some meatballs, and vegetable (phak kanaa, which you might know as Chinese broccoli) and the lady puts it all in a little wire mesh ladle and dunks it into the water to cook. Once they're done, she throws them into a bowl, pours in the soup and the meat, and you condiment-ify it with an array of items; chili in vinegar, chili in fish sauce, sugar, pepper, hots, crushed peanuts, cilantro leaves. You then proceed to eat two or three bowls and even finish off your brother's, prompting delight from the lady at how such a skinny little bitch can put away so many noodles. That's how I did it last time I was in Thailand, anyway.

Now the big vat of soup is the thing that I am missing. Churning and boiling day in and day out, this thin stew is packed with flavor. Its dark color is attributed to beef blood, something you can't exactly buy bottles of in the US. I have to make do with a stew pot brought to a boil with beef bones, raw garlic, cilantro root (the essence lies in the root, you fools!), salt, white pepper, and cubed beef. I remember well that Thais prefer textured beef in noodles, cuts that we often consider too sinewy. I use eye round, a cheap cut with a similar mouth feel to what I remember.

I always go with sen mee, the thinnest noodle. For the vegetable component, I use Chinese broccoli tips ('gai lan' tips). I am blessed to have multiple Asian groceries in my vicinity that carry these things. The condiment that takes the most preparation is fried garlic. For the first few months that I was making kwaey teow myself, I couldn't figure out what I was missing. Finally, my mom discovered that I hadn't been frying up sliced garlic in vegetable oil to top my noodles. She didn't say much, but I saw the disappointment in her eyes.

So, the noodles and greens go on the bowl, and in goes the soup and beef. This is followed by the fried garlic, some chili powder and cilantro leaves (merely a garnish). If there are surviving beansprouts in the fridge, they go on too.

Finally, I add amounts of fish sauce and vinegar, not so much with the chilies, to taste. This, pork fans, is my favorite food. There isn't a hint of pork in it, and it makes me so so happy. I am not exaggerating. There was a period of time when I would come home drunk and hungry and three in the morning and venture to go through this entire cooking process just so I could put on an episode of Futurama and chow down on the best thing I have ever eaten. It reminds me of Thailand, it reminds me of my mama, and it's something I make from scratch with my own hands. There are few eating experiences I find more pleasure in.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dim Sum Garden's Xiaolongbao

I cracked up at Hal's ridiculous mustache right when I walked into the place as if my mutton chops weren't equally as hysterical. He and Orest had lured me to Dim Sum Garden with promises of amazing dumplings, namely xiaolongbao: the soup dumpling, sometimes called Shanghai dumpling. The place is a certifiable hellhole, aptly surrounded by hell; right between every bum's favorite spot to pan handle outside Wawa and a Chinatown bus station where all US language and law ceases to exist, and right around the corner from the Greyhound bus station, the center for riff raff and human garbage in every major city in America.

The lunch crowd consisted not only of Asians, but white 9-5ers, and us, suggesting this place had been discovered time and time again, and I'm not going to try to Columbus this one. Craig Laban apparently wrote about it some time ago which gave it a little push. The dumplings revealed that the critical acclaim came well deserved.

We started out with some sticky rice dumplings, which is not something I usually go for off the dim sum cart. It was nice to have something a little heavy to accompany the dim sum. The shrimp dumplings had definitely come out of a freezer recently and spent too short a time steaming, but this little mishap was quickly forgotten when the Shanghai dumplings came out.

This was my first time with soup dumplings. Hal demonstrated the process;

1) Place the dumpling face up in your spoon.

2) Carefully bite off the very top of the dumpling.

3) Resist the urge to eat it at this point because it will scald the living shit out of your mouth if you go for it too fast.

4) Douse it with dumpling sauce

5) Blow on it awhile.

6) Put bliss into your face.

Yes, these were damn good. The soup tasted like a slightly salty meat broth. We ordered two trays, one filled only with minced pork, and the other with pork and crab meat.

Now, it's a little hard to judge the flavor of a dumpling, because I often consider it to be a textured vessel, the dumpling sauce dominating most of the flavor with its dual salty-tart flavor. The most fun thing about this particular dim sum is the multitude of these textures. First the thin, nearly translucent outer dough, then the slightly thick soup, and finally the minced meatball. It's a bite you can savor for an extended moment. I did several times.

One stereotype held true here, and I was hungry again a couple of hours later. I seriously considered trekking back to the fringe of Chinatown for more.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Honey's Hype

Sabrina's is totally my spot for brunch. It's in my favorite neighborhood, the service is almost always great, and brunch menu is diverse enough to accommodate any degree of sweet or savory I desire. This also means that I have to give myself a little nudge to check out other places. Morning Glory is also in the neighborhood and has great pancakes, but there is a host/server who works there who is just fucking rude. It's beyond me how such a dick remained employed there for so long. It's solely his potential presence at that diner that keeps me away from it. Green Eggs is a pleasant place, but I was never really wowed by a meal I had there, though I plan on giving them another shot soon.

So, let's leave the neighborhood. I found myself venturing to NoLibs yet again with Sunny Ali and our boy Imran. Our destination was Honey's, a brunch spot so popular that it remains packed throughout the week, leaving the beer intensive eateries of the neighborhood empty by comparison. I had been hearing Honey's come up in food conversations for ages. Lot's of 'Oohs' and 'Ahs' from the scores who have been satiated by their fare. What kept me from it, aside from the alleged crowds, was the possibility that a friend of a girl I once pissed off worked there. Having allowed a sufficient latency period by now, I thought I'd go for it.

There wasn't much pork in my breakfast. Just the side of 'handmade honey dean sausage' which looked more like it was made using feet. A dry, crumbly, crusty little slice of overdone sausage to accompany an absolutely mediocre example of buttermilk pancakes made with berries and walnuts. I would have much sooner opted for any kind of Slam at Denny's for half the price.

One of two things happened here. Either I just happened to get one of the few bad breakfasts doled out by this local favorite, or the gears of hype are running on fuel comprised mostly of bullshit. Right now, I'm feeling the latter explanation, seeing that Sunny's chicken fried steak wasn't looking too hot, and the only worthy meal on the table was Imran's bagel and lox, which can't really be attributed to the chef.

Am I wrong? Let me know if you think I should give Honey's another try.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Abbaye's Ancho BBQ Pork Sandwich

I don't know if you went outside yesterday, but it was absolutely beautiful in Philadelphia. The sun was out and felt just far away enough, the air was dry and cool, and the weather in the shade was just perfect. The day's eating needed to be done outside.

While there are a handful of places to eat outside in South Philly, we had exhausted most of them. I was with Sunny Ali and his girlfriend Caitt, who had to go work at Cantina later that afternoon, so that spot was out of the question. Sabrina's and Paesano's I've done and done again, so those were out. We thought it prudent to venture out of our neighborhood to Northern Liberties, a haven for outdoor seating.

I'd only come to the Abbaye previously for their killer beer selection, but this time I was just hungry. Not quite in the mood for alcohol, I was kind of bummed that a place with such a good list of craft beer had no beer of the birch or root variety, not fancy or standard. Of course, I know that I'm on my own with this. I get shit from friends and servers alike when I'm not in the mood for America's drug of choice. I just hope to one day find a spot that doesn't make me feel silly for just wanting a really good soda with my lunch.

Before looking at the menu, I wasn't expecting an adventure for the day, but I saw a sandwich that fit the bill; ancho bbq pork with chorizo corn relish. Ancho is a dried poblano pepper, which carries flavor without much bite. That being coupled with pretty mellow sounding sauce, I was expecting a mild flavored sandwich with a focus on the preparation of the pork.

The pork was visibly braised well and piled high on a bun that could hardly handle the load (this is a trend). I personally prefer as few lumps of pork in a BBQ sandwich as possible in favor of stringy strands, and to that end this sandwich abode. I don't know if that's a standard measure of quality, but I know I like it for its uniqueness to pork. Though in several of its forms the meat of my endeavor can mimic so many others, pulled pork can't be mistaken for anything else if it's done just right. The closest thing, in my experience, is brazed goat meat which is something absolutely distinct.

Flavor-wise, it could have done with a little more punch. Mild flavor is one thing, but this sandwich left me very little to focus on besides its texture and preparation. I attributed the lack of heat to the often benign poblano, but a weak savory component detracted from the idea of it being a BBQ sandwich. Even the chorizo half of the relish wasn't quite salty enough, and the corn sure as hell wouldn't pick up the slack.

All in all, a satisfying sandwich for its heft, but perhaps not a repeat adventure.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cosmi's Antipasto Salad

This is terrain I love to navigate. Just ask my mom.

As a kid, my brother loved meat and chocolate. I think that's fairly acceptable for a growing lad. I, on the other hand, was a mother's dream because of my obsession with vegetables. When we would return home from school, fresh out of our two hour minivan ride from the other side of Bangkok, Ahmad would request pretty normal fair, while my craving was for any combination of veggies in a strong, vinegar-heavy dressing that I later tweaked to perfection and still make to this day (expect to see Granddad Abdullah's Old Fashioned Vinaigrette in stores soon). At first, I would simply accept whatever combination of vegetables my mom or our maid Sony (yup) would put together for me. Soon, I was making requests. Isolating each vegetable was one fad. I was the only kid on the block who came home and asked for a huge bowl of string beans floating in sour acid.

When I came to America at 13, I discovered two things in the salad realm. The first was the infamous ranch dressing. I don't hate ranch, but I don't trust it. At first, I marveled at this wonder condiment that could complement the flavor of any vegetable. Slowly, I realized that it simply masked any other flavor I combined it with. You could slather that shit on a Snickers bar and it would just taste like ranch dressing. It's a good thing my compassion grew with my devious thoughts or I would totally have been feeding my little cousins dog turds under the guise of mighty ranch.

The other, later discovery was not a supermarket staple. In fact, you shouldn't buy feta cheese from a supermarket unless it's your only option. I have the fortune of living close to the Italian Market, where quality feta and plenty of other Greek salad fixings are available. The Greek quickly became my favorite salad and now I demand that all the ingredients be in place for it to be up to par; kalamata olives, anchovies, hots, the whole nine (I should note here that I'm referring to the American permutation of the Greek, no offense to any Greek readers). Most recently, I discovered a Bulgarian feta that can be described as 'too strong for some'. I highly recommend.

The strong flavors of this salad are what appeal to me the most. I find it pleasing to go through the intense saltiness of the cheese and anchovies, and the tartness of the dressing, the punch of garlic, all in one multi-textured bite. That's why i always looked at the antipasto salad with interest.

This thing is a hell of a salad, and with three kinds of pork in it, I'm shocked that it didn't dawn on me to try it sooner. I got my first antipasto from Cosmi's Deli, an absolute gem of a deli that's been at 8th and Dickinson since the 1930s. Aside from spectacular hoagie selection and killer salads, this place has the best damn prosciutto pepper shooters I've had, but that's talk for a different post.

Over a bed of romaine and tomatoes are piled roasted peppers, black and green olives of somewhat ambiguous quality, croutons, and crumbled Italian tuna fish. The tuna didn't strike me as appetizing at first, but combined with the stars of the salad, it did quite well. Laid over all this is a liberal helping of three kinds of Italian cured meats rolled up into little tubes, looking like three walls of three different log cabins made of different trees: prosciutto, salami, and sopressata. The first thing I appreciated was that this presentation makes it nice and easy to puncture it with your fork to pick it up, combine it with whatever other ingredients, and eat it all in one bite. I tried my best to differentiate between which meat I was eating, but it wasn't long before I was mixing it up and lost track. The prosciutto was familiar, having been my first conscious pork experience ever just over a year ago. Paper thin and just a little sour, it fell in well with its surroundings. The saltiest and most textured of the meats was the salami, with little fatty white deposits that you find in a lot of cured pork. This texture is one that really grossed me out at one time, but has grown on my much as beef tripe did, the reason being that it's all about interesting mouthfeel. The sopressata had a slightly coarser texture than the salami.

The meats being the main event, this was a pretty good salad. It would have been nice to have a few other flavor groups in there traditional to antipasto in Italy. Especially missed were pepperoncini and artichokes. These are things I might consider adding myself next time I pick up an antipasto salad. Another thing I'd venture to handle myself is the dressing. Whoever invented creamy vinaigrette should be shot. One thing I still, after 13 years, don't understand about American food is why dressings have to be goo. Unless it's thousand island or ranch or gorgonzola, it doesn't have to be so thick. I don't blame Cosmi's for catering to the wider taste for packaged dressing, but I definitely won't use it again. Combined with my own concoction, this salad has immense potential. The obsession lives.