Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Miga's Sliced Pork Lunch Special

The lunch special is never as special as the house specialty. When Brian and Justin suggested lunch, I suggested Miga, the newish Korean BBQ place on 15th.

Five years ago, I went to Seoul, which used its varied street food, hot pots, and barbecue to win a spot on my list of great food cities (don't worry Bangkok, you're still at the top). Since then, I haven't been to a proper, authentic Korean BBQ in Philly. While my love for the International House of Smokeless Barbecue will never wane, it's just not the real thing.

Our path to my most memorable meal in Seoul began in a large subway station. We had spent the last four months with the ultra efficient Tokyo transit system and found ourselves the target of much pushing, shoving, and negative vibes in the Korean metropolis. My friend Pierre vented his frustration with some audible questions about the normalcy of our surroundings, prompting one Korean man to stop in his tracks, turn to us and say in perfect English, "You don't like it? Leave!"

What was sure to turn into a scuffle in the eyes of any Philadelphian ended up being a guided tour of Seoul's nightlife, as Pierre and our Korean-American friend made amends and even found some commonality. Of the countless establishments we entered and left, I can now grasp a few through a blurry veneer of years old intoxication. Being me, the one that sticks in my mind most was a tiny, white tiled, bare walled barbecue joint with only three or four tables. Each one had the round grill, that you would find embedded into the table of a slightly classier place, simply laying on its surface surrounded by enigmatic condiments. The proprietor, an old woman, immediately filled the space before us with countless side dishes and plates of raw meat. Our host began emptying these contents onto the grill. The procedure was as follows: grill the meat, some kimchi, and a raw clove of garlic, wrap it up in a leaf if lettuce, eat the whole thing in one bite, and take a shot of soju, sweet Korean vodka. I found it to be true that some of the best meals in life leave you wasted in their wake.

And yet I hadn't even tried the bacon. Those thick, squared off slabs of flesh, cartoonishly striped with fat, sizzling on a griddle, were out of the question, even in my inebriated state. Since then I haven't had the chance to redeem the omission. In for a quick lunch and without the gratuitous time to sit and stuff our faces, yesterday's trip to Miga left this unchanged.

Of the various compartments of my lunch box, there was nothing of note; a few pieces of sushi, some glass noodles, a little salad, etc. The main event, marinated slices of an unspecified cut of pork, presented an issue that previous experiences with Korean beef have presented. Deposits of fat that were at once rubbery and gooey lined each piece of meat. I understand that certain cultures value textured meat, even if that is something that a classic American eater would call a sinewy or overly fatty cut. One may order what appears to be chicken nuggets at a Japanese restaurant and end up with deep fried cartilage. When it comes to these types of texture, I have my limits, and they were reached with Miga's lunch special. Brian inhaled what I couldn't finish.

I'll have to return to Miga for the Korean BBQ some time soon. There was a picture of raw pork belly in their window and it enticed me.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pho Hoa's Roast Pork and Wonton Egg Noodle Soup

Brian is the real adventurer. A man with a complete lack of culinary hesitance and a bottomless pit for a stomach, my friend from White Plains inspires me on a regular basis.

Brian and I have had lunch together through a million combinations of circumstances. When we met during our semester abroad in Tokyo, there was lunch, and much awe-inspired conversation. When we returned home, finished college, and both got jobs downtown, there was lunch and bitching about coworkers and bosses. When first one, then the other lost those jobs, there was bitching about unemployment. And as we piece our respective careers back together, Brian, my lunchtime confidant, is on the phone; "Tryin' to get some noodles maaaaan!?"

The bulk of our meals together involved pho. My regularity mirrored that of a senior citizen and his early bird special, as did Brian's until he began navigating the nether regions of the extensive and typo-fraught Vietnamese menu pages. He uncovered Bun Bo Hue, a hot and sour beef noodle soup that would be mainstream viable were there a mind thinking to angle it. Later, Brian went for an egg noodle, roast pork, and wonton dish that won him over. Though his fickle ordering face indicates that this new dish hasn't knocked pho off the top of the list as yet, it had noodles, pork, and Brian's seal of approval. I had to try it.

At Pho Hoa with Joey and Hassan, I went for it. Egg noodles have a very different texture from the rice noodles I swear by. They are slightly more rigid, which causes them to hold their curls even after being boiled. They separate from each other with a bit more ease, making it easier to pile your spoon Thai style. I recall a phase during my childhood in Thailand in which I got egg noodles from my school's cafeteria, but since then I tend to choose the rice noodles.

Another difference is that Chinese style noodle soups are complemented by soy sauce and red vinegar, as opposed to the fish sauce/lime combination. This sends the noodle experience into a new direction, the contrast between salty and sour being far sharper in the soy/vinegar combo. There's something simpler and less delicate about this Chinese variation.

These noodles contained something ever present in Thai noodle soups that I always missed in Vietnamese versions. Fried garlic should never be underestimated, even in its overly dry prepackaged form. When making Thai kuay teow at home, I prefer to fry the garlic myself, which is slightly time consuming but yields a garlic infused oil that cannot be substituted for. It is my favorite preparation of one of the most delightful things in the world, garlic.

There is one more item of note that was in play in the bowl before me. Chinese broccoli, or gailan, stalks are amazing in noodles when peeled and boiled properly. This is something else that is in a lot of Thai and Chinese noodle soups, but rarely in a Vietnamese one. By the way, if you ever want to buy this stuff from the Asian market to cook at home, be advised that it has several dopplegangers that don't taste quite as wonderful.

It looked good, steaming there in front of me. The clear yellowish broth was colored in by the Sriracha, red vinegar, and soy sauce. The wontons were making their presence quite apparent while I had to dig a little to find the bits of pork. Buried beneath the noodles, I found a stash of cubes. Pink on the edges, but for the most part gray, these bits of roast pork looked absolutely repulsive. I have come to notice that roast pork often retains its pinkness, even after thorough cooking, and this was an example for the books. The simultaneous appearance gray and pink raise some ambiguity as to whether the meat is severely overcooked or dangerously undercooked. Despite this, a spoonful or yellow noodles and gailan topped with one of these chunks was delicious. The meat was salty and soft, falling in nicely between the gailan's slight crunchiness and the gentle stiffness of the egg noodles. The wontons were a nice familiar addition, though I would have traded them for more actual meat.

While I'm likely to love any culture's entry to the world of noodle soups, quite likely my favorite type of food, nothing will ever compare to the rendition I associate with home, warmth, comfort, and the utmost care: my mom's Thai kuay teow with homemade ground chicken meatballs (chicken, fishsauce, and pepper), peeled gailan stems, and home fried garlic. Absolutely nothing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Quick and the Halal

I already told you, I won't do fast food in Philadelphia. I don't count Crown Fried Chicken as fast food.

North Philly was an exciting place to move to, and a daunting one at the age of 18. Suddenly in the island nation of Temple University, surrounded by a sea of resentful hostility, a newly christened adult searches for pieces of home. This is where my lifelong detachment from the 'community' did me no good. I had plenty of white friends, a rag tag grab bag of crackers I was lucky to have on my floor, but my track suit and pseudo-afro didn't match the popped collars and hair gel of the browns in business school with me. My mom's sheltering me from the double-talk world of desi socializing had left me without the tools to find that kind of home at college. I didn't bother trying, and not trying didn't bother me.

At some point I ventured into the now closed Crown at 13th and Girard. The man behind the counter bore the immediately recognizable tint that was my uncle, my cousin, my grandma's driver, a shopkeeper at Jinnah Market, the one leading namaz, staring back at what he pegged to be a Puerto Rican kid in a Puma jacket. I opened my mouth and squeezed out a crumbling Urdu introduction, and he lit up. We carried my most pleasant Philadelphia conversation to that date and he gave me a free side. It was enough to bring me back regularly.

On subsequent visits, I learned that my friend was a Pakistani working for an Afghani family, and that most of the Crowns in the city were owned by Middle Eastern Muslims and only served halal food. I'd never bothered to stay halal before, and it felt somehow right just to have something halal once in a while. I'd walk in and relief would wash over his face. I was the break in the string of intentionally obnoxious hoodrats that comprise Crown's customer base. Sooner than later, my friends were accompanying me to this very Crown, and they hit it up on their own, and we hit up other Crowns in the city. It became a standard meal in a time past mom's cooking and cafeteria plans.

Years later, I mentioned to a Crown loving buddy of mine that what he was consuming was, in fact, halal. As my eyes were fixed on his chewing profile, he continued staring at the TV and allowed a 'hm' of acknowledgment. He absolutely did not give a shit, and neither did I.

Perhaps that's America for you. Muslims in America tread pretty softly compared to other minorities, but it seems that every step taken by the Islamic minority in France is amplified exponentially. Following the decision of some Quick fast food joints to offer a fully halal menu, the French government is up in arms and calling discrimination. People are losing their minds because they feel like their fast food options are being taken over, the menu contents altered forever into an array of edibles sanctioned by a religion that isn't theirs, not realizing that they wouldn't be able to taste more god in one than another in a blind taste test.

For a country that eats goose organs, it seems a little prude. Maybe France should step out a little.

"I don't eat ___ because it's ___"

That's exactly what I said, and look at me now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pico de Gallo's Sweet Plantain, Roasted Pork, and Black Bean Burrito

Again with the snow. Boots take forever to put on, and dry winter weather is summer compared to the burning, frost-embedded air after a storm. I took the now familiar trek to Joey's, finally with some sidewalk to cruise. Even after consecutive hard lessons, Philly didn't take the hint. The city's south, in it's inherent lawlessness, was left to fend for itself.

Joey, Hassan, and I made our way to Pico de Gallo at 15th and South. Mexican has never been my first choice, which is perhaps why none of its pork incarnations have yet found their way into my stomach, my heart and subsequently onto this blog. At this tiny little place, run by a gentleman who appeared suspiciously non-Mexican, there was something unusual on the menu: a roast pork, black bean, and sweet plantain burrito.

I love sweet plantains. I once frequented La Lupe for this favorite, but that eatery's nosedive in quality and service over the past year or two cast me into the other Mexican joints of 9th street, surprisingly lacking in plantains.

The order arrived, its contents concealed by soft, delicate tortilla which nearly resembled the texture of Japanese buns (which I enjoyed thoroughly in my travels there). I cleaved the capsule open, spilling out stringy, shredded chunks of stewy roast pork, a black froth of beans, and a few quartered plantains. The first bite, all the elements included, was a near perfect balance of sweet, salty, and bland; mushy, chewy, and down right gruel. Taking more bites progressively deconstructed the burrito, resulting in a thick soup of ingredients. The meal was consumed far faster than it was prepared.

Again, I fooled myself into believing that roast pork was goat. It was facilitated by the appeal of dinner with dessert inserted directly into it. While it delivered on the promise of its menu description, little about it truly wowed me to the point of shifting Mexican to the head of my crave list.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

J&J's Sausage Pizza

My living arrangement is slightly odd. I occupy an autonomous apartment on the second floor of a house, which I share with a guy named Greg whose room is upstairs, but whose kitchen and bathroom are on the ground floor. All we share, aside from supporting the same sports teams, is a hallway. We get along just fine, but never really hung out until Greg started getting Netflix movies that appealed to us both. Thursday night, with a white blanket silently solidifying on Philly streets, we watched The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a failed metal band from the 80s and took advantage of the resilience of the delivery men at J&J's Pizza.

Pizza in South Philly can be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes a tried and true place will send you a downright hot circle of garbage. Granted, there are plenty of places with consistency (my personal favorite is Lorenzo's, not at 4th and South, but at 9th and Christian. The one not filled with a steady flow Jersey trash from Friday to Sunday). I'd never had J&J before, but I was in the mood for pizza, and I'd never had one with sausage on it. It arrived just in time for the movie.

I was inclined to associate sausage either with something from breakfast, or something dry and preserved. This was a new entity all together. The pizza was covered in little brown pellets, partially embedded in the cheese. They kind of looked like rabbit turds. I'd seen pizza with crumbled sausage on it, but I couldn't imagine what the starting point of this sausage looked like. The pizza looked ok.

Sure enough, the pellets crumbled further upon eating, but were not nearly as unpleasant as they looked. There was a saltiness to them that complemented the cheese as opposed to out-salting every other ingredient like pepperoni does. In terms of flavor, it wasn't too noticeably a departure from a plain pizza.

I considered that next time I get a slice in passing, maybe I'll get it with sausage. Again, I felt a preemptive guilt for eating pork unnecessarily, particularly when it wouldn't make that much of a difference in taste. However, having a plain slice will now always feel just slightly empty, considering that pepperoni is nearly always an option.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bacon, Eggs, and French Toast at Christina & Vince's

Among the records broken by Philadelphia in this new decade, the most recent was evidenced by a snowy aftermath. 60 some inches of the precipitation that sticks hindered my adventures in the past week and left me in a whiny mood. Wednesday morning brought winter's gratuity, and I was lucky to have friends close by who ceased their day off by making a big breakfast. With Gus and I as their guests, Paulito, his girlfriend Christina, and her housemate Vince had prepared an all American breakfast of French toast, cheesy scrambled eggs, and crispy strips of of my muse.

Let's cut to the chase. I skeptically eyed the bacon, the first home fried breakfast bacon of my experience. This was likely the culprit, the notoriously delicious incarnation of pork that strategically places itself at the top of the day, bringing it the love and affection of free eaters the world over. I went for it.

The first bite said it all. Though the bacon was fried to a crisp, the fat remained slightly rubbery, resulting in a coupling of texture that was unnaturally pleasurable. However, as the bacon cooled, subsequent bites revealed diminishing charm. I wasn't too into it by the time i was crumbly through and through. Nevertheless, that first bite had given me something to chew on. I got a glimpse, albeit a brief one, of the magic in everyday, run of the mill bacon.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pho & Cafe Viet Huong's Pork Chop over Broken Rice

The snow put a damper on everything. They predicted a foot and their inaccuracy ran in the direction unfavorable to the prospect of pork, at least. With my car buried, I was forced to brave the altered landscape by foot, limiting my options for food. The entire weekend had slipped by and I hadn't eaten anything relevant to my project. Tonight, I made a stop on my way home to correct this injustice. Let me note here that I was, in no manner, craving pork. It felt more like I had homework to do.

I stopped at a pho joint, an old favorite of my mom and mine. Pho & Cafe Viet Huong, or 'Green Awning Joint', as it is named in my contacts, is your typical Vietnamese restaurant, except that this one has a waiter in its employ who acknowledges me for my repeat business. I love that peppy little bastard. He was, to my chagrin, absent when I made my take-out order. Venturing into the netherpages of the food bible this establishment calls a menu, I uncovered a pork chop dish that sounded awesome. I made a decision, claimed my prize, and scampered home.

The compartments in the styrofoam box contained the pork chop over broken rice, a fried egg, a mix of tomato, cucumber, radish pickle, carrot pickle, mustard leaf pickle, a little slice of quiche, and shredded pork. I started with the grayish pink noodle-like strands of shredded pork. I wasn't into them. The musty sourness, the disagreeable flavor that I only taste in pork, was the solitary element. Coupled with the texture of partially decayed nightcrawlers, this side dish was nothing short of abominable.

I neutralized my taste buds by consuming the egg in two bites, ate a couple of pickles, and moved on to the pork chop. The char grilled chop was, thus far, the most ambiguous pork I'd had, embodying textural elements of chicken, beef, and lamb. The seasoning had been soaked into every fiber and was lemony and delicious, in a quick meal kind of way.

This plate struck me as something between two Asian standards familiar to me; the layout reminiscent of the Japanese bento box and the aroma very close to Thai Khao Man Cai, a chicken and rice dish. The meat was simply prepared and served over rice along with a couple of side dishes, the kind of thing your mom would pack you for lunch.

The brevity of my description of the main event, the pork chop, matches its impression on me. It was tasty, but scarcely memorable. Its similarity to some Thai dishes gave it a little nostalgic value to me, which would constitute the bulk of cause for a repeat.

Interview with Sepia Mutiny

Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of meeting with Kishwer, who interviewed me for Sepia Mutiny, a blog serving America's South Asian population. The interview just went up and I'm excited to see the reaction of the people who are more likely find Adventures in Pork controversial. So far, it looks like plenty of people have broken their dietary restrictions, but I'm the first guy to make a big deal out of it.

For those of you reading Adventures in Pork for the first time, please scroll down past the last review of Wendy's Bacon Single. That was an attempt of mine to get back to the items eaten regularly by folks not averse to swine. There's more interesting stuff going back.

Thanks to Sepia Mutiny for posting the piece and thanks to Kishwer for a fun interview.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wendy's Bacon Deluxe Single

As promised, I hit the street, if Columbus Blvd counts as a street. On an errand back from Best Buy, Hassan requested a stop at Wendy's, and not the Chic Fil A obscuring it from our vantage point. I agreed, breaching my long standing policy of never eating fast food in a city, especially Philadelphia. This decision was made in the summer of 2006, when I worked at a school in the barrio at 4th and Lehigh. There was a Wendy's there that ruined Wendy's for me for at least two years, and I like Wendy's.

Of course, I've never had bacon on a burger from Wendy's. Judging by long-running advertising for the Baconator, this simple ingredient so enhances the nature of the sandwich that it occupies the forefront of its moniker simply with its presence within the buns. Since I've never seen an ad for the Pickle-nator, I can only assume that this is yet another testament to the magnitude of bacon.

Though there was no line at this Wendy's at this particular time, waiting for our surly servers to finish playfully cussing at each other was necessary before their jovial smiles turned to the indifferent droops staring blankly at us waiting for an order, allowing us just a touch of extra time to reconsider the meal decision. I was reminded of my fast food policy. I fought through it and placed my order.

With my Bacon Deluxe Single, a five piece chicken nuggets, and a coke, I took a seat opposite Hassan. The burger, unwrapped, looked the same as my usual standby. As always, I slathered the top bun with the barbecue sauce provided for my nuggets. With my sandwich reassembling with all the integral parts, I took a bite, my first bite, of an everyday favorite.

Initially, the crunch threw me off. Perhaps it was an effect of low quality, but the bacon crumbled in my mouth like lumpy soil. It was a distinct texture among the familiar elements of a Wendy's single, the only crunchy thing in the mix. The flavor remained relatively the same, perhaps slightly saltier. Though it was new and unusual, it didn't put me off, so I finished the burger with standard velocity. I could see how good bacon might enhance a sandwich, but what I had couldn't have been what caused the hype. The experience won't change my recurring order of a bacon free burger on my next highway rest stop.

The fact that there was so little pork involved, and some doubt that anything in the sandwich came from animals or plants, left me feeling pretty guilt free. The crack decision to turn this quick stab and grab for food into an adventure paid off by balancing out some of the fancier stuff I've had lately, and what I had here wasn't nearly as pork-y, psychologically speaking. Unless there is some other kind of pork fast food that I need to try, I think I've seen enough.

Bindi's Pork Cheek Vindaloo

It was over barbecue at Percy Street that BJ and I were discussing that there are only a couple of regions in which the culinary traditions exclude swine; the Middle East, Muslim nations of Southeast Asia, and India. The Hindu and Muslim dietary restrictions of most of the country yield a food culture in which cooked pork is a stark rarity, thereby yielding its absence from Indian menus in the US. We'd moved onto another topic when Jason joined us and divulged a tale of intrigue.

Jason works at Bindi, a downtown Indian restaurant from which you shant expect a nine dollar lunch buffet. He mentioned that the head chef, George Sabatino, was celebrating his departure to Barbuzzo by preparing a tasting menu that culminated in a pork cheek vindaloo. What a coincidence.

We were immediately interested and planned on the experience, one presented with a touch of class over my last pork outing on Oregon Ave. I arrived at Bindi yesterday evening with BJ and Katey, our squad equipped with a bottle of Castillo ready to dilute the exotic mixers at this BYOB. Once seated, our waiter noted our choice of spirits and recommended a bright yellow mango mixture that masked the quality of our rum in the best way possible.

The meal began with a single bite of raw halibut, continuing with dueling preparations of chicken liver, and a skate wing far more agreeable than any previous incarnation of the bottom feeder that I'd had. Each dish represented a balance in texture: the radish and pickled mustard seed garnish on the halibut, the liver coupled with watercress, and the crusted skate wing all contained a component, veggie or otherwise, that added an appropriate crunch to its respective protein. Finally, it was time for the pork.

Pork cheek is a stringy, gamy cut of meat coming from the head of the pig. Katey mentioned that it's not considered a tender cut of pork, which is what I was expecting. It requires careful cooking to soften its texture while maintaining its moistness. BJ noted that what we were presented with was braised, and braised well. The meat came apart on my plate and in my mouth much like stewed goat meat, only less chewy. Of all it's accompanyment, the slices of pickled fuji apple complemented the pork cheek best. Beneath it all, the grits and oyster mushrooms contributed two extremes of texture. I knew the soft and crunchy mushrooms from authentic tom yam (lemongrass soup), a dish I associate with life in Thailand and not with desi food. The combination of flavors and textures provided a detailed statement in each bite, depending on the ingredients that ended up on your fork. Though Indian themes present in this dish were, at times, overshadowed by the few atypical ingredients, the aforementioned texture balance hit its peak between the kale and the pork cheek. The kale's slight bitterness countered the buttery composure of the meat, making for a complex end to leave you thinking.

There was so much going on on my plate that I never had a moment to consider that I was consuming the very face of the animal with which I am engaged in this delicate dance. The apprehension is certainly more apparent in traditional pork meals in which the flesh is the unapologetic centerpiece. It didn't get its chance to bother me within all its edible framing. I think the rum helped a little too.

This was a gourmet experience that I had to have as soon as it was mentioned, and I have absolutely no regrets despite this being a step in the direction of special occasion eating for regular pork eaters, something I vowed to move away from in the pepperoni post below. Whatever I tackle next will have to be real street.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

America's Choice Sliced Pepperoni

I started this project to experience and react to pork, and at the time nothing dictated where I found the pork I ate. Once I got started, friends began making tons and tons of recommendations of the best of everything: roast pork, pulled pork, ribs, etc. I noticed that this has led me to what most people treat as occasional specialties, causing me to neglect the pork that most folks eat everyday.

I still won't cook it at home, nor will I buy it at the grocery store. I know I've said that bacon hasn't wowed me yet, and my opinion may lose some credibility when I tell you that there's a pound of turkey bacon in my fridge right now. It's true, when I am at home writing, I can't just snack on pork. As I've noted before, it's still an adventure each time. Hassan, my bandmate in a project called Sunny Ali & the Kid, has clearly gotten past it.

We had just gotten done putting together a couple of songs, and while taking a little break, Hassan broke out a snack: a package of America's Choice Sliced Pepperoni and pepper jack cheese, also of a supermarket brand. As soon as it appeared, I was reminded of the first time I had pepperoni on a slice of pizza at a highway rest stop between Philadelphia and Washington DC. I remembered finding the bland, defrosted triangle of bread-from-paste and false cheese enhanced by this salty porcine ingredient, and an understanding of its ubiquity dawned on me.

The gratuitous element of saltiness in dry sausage is something that allows me to consume it without any of the flavor surprises that have shocked my taste buds and killed my appetites in the past. That's made it a favorite of mine, and an example of pork that I could see myself eating beyond this series of experiments. The gourmet stuff is awesome, and the Italian Market is the best source I know of. This stuff, however, was different. Tart and spicy, this standard pepperoni was in a category of meat snack unmatched by the pig's bovine and poultry opponents. A slice wrapped around a little cube of pepper jack added a little exponent to the awesome. This little adventure led me to consider a third participant. Next time I have cheese and dry sausage, at least a couple of green olives will have to be involved.