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.