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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Swine Flu and Tofu

I met Pierre and BK during my stint in Japan, 2005. It was our first week there and on one of several field trips required to get our foreign asses registered, my roommate Dave and I ended up across a table from these white boys over ...some kind of food, don't remember what, but you can bet it was Japanese and I was avoiding pork. After some talk we learned that these two kids lived in the room directly above us. This circumstance led to some interesting communication practices later in the semester.

Surely, mayhem ensued during our foursome's adventures in Tokyo and surrounding areas. When it all came to a close that December, Dave and I returned to earth and Pierre and BK remained in the future. Today, they are only occasional visitors to Philly, but when they are here, we always eat well. It's the effect of spending so much time together in one of the world's greatest food countries. But for today, I suggested Chinese; Han Dynasty in Old City, based on their out of this world pork belly, my favorite cut.

When I hopped in the back of Pierre's 2004 Ford Focus ZX3 hatchback (which resembles him as a dog would its owner), I discovered that there were prizes for me stashed in the piles of life items strewn about the car. Firstly, Pierre handed me a Blue Scholars CD, a group he always raves about, but warning me that it might not work (it didn't work, if you're reading this, thanks for nothing you son of a bitch). The next prize I found myself. Due to undeniable appropriateness, it was promptly granted to me. What I received was swine flu. Not quite the all-bark no-bite pandemic that just swept areas of the globe last year, but a plush reflection of it. Pierre works for Giant Microbes, a CT company that makes stuffed animals, if in your mind the 'animal' category includes botulism, HPV, and bad breath. I'm guessing the little cute swine flu cell plushie was a hot item in the wake of the disease. I just love that it's actually pink. What are the odds of that?

After being un-promptly seated by the inept lanky white kid who inexplicably still works at Han Dynasty, we ordered the pork belly, the cumin lamb, hot beef tripe, and something new to me; Ma Po Tofu. It reminded me of Korean jigae in texture, though not so much in flavor. Though there was pork in this dish, it was dissolved, all stewed in with super soft tofu and a striking blend of a few flavors that are unmistakably Sichuan. Speaking of stand-out flavors, I got hit with a Sichuan peppercorn real bad somewhere through the tripe. It numbed my mouth right around when the owner walked over to tell us that we had ordered all his favorite dishes. Whether or not it was a fluke decision, it struck up some pretty entertaining conversation.

We wrapped up our meal with a little grub to spare, which the out of towners kindly left me so that I could crave it late at night, eat it, and spend the next 20 minutes in blissful agony from my mouth being on fire.