Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Where Have I Been?

Well It has been a crazy few weeks. In between a Southern Wedding, torrential floods, a twenty-four hour fast and huge set-back due to my recent discovery of a shell-fish allergy, I haven’t had much time to write. I am thinking about how I will proceed with this site and I hope to implment a few changes. I did, however, revisit that Chinese food restaurant that makes fresh noodles. It’s called the Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle, it is located at 144 East Broadway and it is still delicious.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fall Road Trips - Five Meals in Five Sentences

September and October are two of my favorite months to call in sick and hop in the car for three days of Fall Fun. Here are five places worth stopping by to eat when hunger hits you on the road.

Mama’s Pizzeria (Bala Cynwyd, PA): Forget about the Philly Cheesesteak Kings, this suburban steak-shop lays some serious regicide to the proclaimed royalty of America’s greatest sandwich. Recommended: Cheesesteak, whiz, wit,

Steak Frites (Montreal, QC): Tucked in between various tourist traps of Old Montreal, this classic French Bistro offers up nine perfectly prepared items for visitors in the know. Recommended: Steak-Frites (9oz) with Mushrooms.

Sheldon Farms (Salem, NY): Independently owned and a classic representation of nostalgic Americana, Sheldon Farms offers up some of the best produce, locally baked bread and farm-raised animal this country has to offer. Recommended: Raw Sugar Corn.

Anna’s Taqueria (Brookline, MA): The Holy Grail for my own burrito crusade, Anna’s sets the standard for what I look for in the perfect Mexican meal. Recommended: Large steak burrito with black beans and sour cream.

Hoagie Haven (Princeton, NJ): A pride and joy of Princeton alumni for years, this sandwich shop produces gut busting delicacies for everyone from the over worked under grad to the golf playing tenured professor.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Schwartz's - A Smoked Meat Tradition

Being the son of an American mother and a Canadian father meant a multitude of childhood trips to their respective geographical origins. These trips included a full agenda of family time, family fun and, of course, copious amounts of family food. Since my mother hails from Brooklyn, trips to her parent’s house meant heaping cones of Nathan’s Fries, steaming hot raisin bagels and towering plates of cream cheese and lox; all classic staples of Brooklyn food. Trips to my father’s home in Canada were a different story. My dad’s mother lives about half an hour outside of Montreal, Qubebec in a small suburb called Chomedy, known for its malls and shopping centers and not so much for its culinary prowess. This was something I never noticed because until recently the only food I ate in Canada came from my grandmother’s kitchen.

Born in Hungary, my grandmother sailed from Europe shortly after the end of World War Two, bringing with her an expansive mental encyclopedia of old world recipes, techniques and flavors. Although she cooked hundreds of dishes for us over the years, my favorite meal with the one she would have waiting for us when we arrived. The first course was a cauliflower soup, laden with large chunks of chicken, carrots and fresh bits of parsley. The soup was an aromatic bouquet of salt, slow cooked meat and fresh cut vegetables. Next up were breaded chicken and veal, fried in a skillet and dripping with grease and flavor. This was accompanied by a tart, yet surprisingly sweet, pickled cucumber salad. The meal was finished off with a triple layered, chocolate and coffee blackout cake and a cool glass of milk. Now with a meal like that, why would anyone want to eat out.

Despite my grandmother’s culinary skills, as the years passed my father would take my brother and me out for eating tours of Montreal. Being both a Montreal native and an alumnus of McGill University, my dad knew all the old culinary hotspots that would impress his teenage sons. He initiated us to the “Big Orange”, home of the infamous Orange Julep, which is a sweet, creamy, frothy drink that is piped out from the top of the three-story structure into varying sizes of styrofoam cups. He introduced us to the Montreal Bagel, a salt-free, honey-sweetened, sesame-sprinkled piece of round heaven, best eaten just after it is dumped into a pile straight out of the flame-fired oven. He introduced us to Coffee Crisps, Cherry Blossoms, real maple syrup and chocolate cakes from the European kosher and Greek bakeries. However, the most impressive gastronomic gem our father ever shared with us was a hole-in-the-wall deli known as Schwartz’s.

For those who have never heard of Canada’s oldest deli, Schwartz’s is to Montreal as Katz’s is to New York. Known as the “Montreal Tradition Since 1928”, this Jewish-style Deli has been located in the same spot since its doors opened on the Main, namely St. Lawrence St. which separates traditional Montreal into East (mainly French roots) and West (mainly English roots). Unless you arrive when the doors open at 9 a.m., there is a good chance you will have to wait in a sometimes slow-moving, long line outdoors, which can be numbing in the depth of a Montreal winter. There are two lines, one for take-out service (to the right if facing the store) and one for seating (to the left). For those willing to endure the take-out line, they will be treated to a behind the scenes show of meat slicing, mustard spreading and sausage plating. For those waiting in the seating line, the only solace is knowing that in 20 minutes to an hour, you will be enjoying one of the best smoked-meat sandwiches in the world

Being in Montreal for Labor Day Weekend (and Grandma’s 80th), my brother and I decided to make our father proud and venture out on our first solo mission to Schwartz’s. With the acrid taste of late night indulgence still lingering in our mouths, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and into line by an impressive (at least by our standards) noon. Although the line appeared daunting at first, we only had a 20-minute wait and were graciously seated next to an elderly, Quebequois couple. The interior is a single white-tiled room, containing several rows of long narrow tables, with people packed “cheek by jowl” as my father lovingly puts it.

Whether it was the residue of the previous night’s revelry or some unfortunate and ill-timed sobering of my normal comestible cravings, my appetite was not up to its usual standards. My brother and I decided on two smoked meat sandwiches, one plate of fries, two pickles and a quarter pound of dried karnatzle (a spicy, boiled sausage). We gave our waiter our orders and got ready to feast.

There are three ways to order smoked meat: fatty, medium and lean. For the hot sandwich I recommend the medium cut which adds a nice amount of flavor with the rendered fat. The meat is first marinated in a blend of secret spices for a week, then smoked for six hours and finished off in the oven for another four. The resulting product is so tender that it splinters off into tiny, succulent morsels, with even the slightest pull.

Like Katz’s, all of the meat slicing is done in the open in the middle of the restaurant. There is a constant flow of steaming meat being cut to order and heaped in mountainous piles on top of fresh rye bread. After a relatively short wait, my brother and I were presented with two over stuffed, hot smoked meat sandwiches and all of our sides. The sandwiches, which were served on rye with a thin spread of yellow mustard, were flawless. The meat reminded me of a perfectly cooked Texas-styled brisket, with strong pepper and salt overtones and a hint of sweet smoke. The mustard’s light vinaigrette flavor rounded off the taste. The karnatzle had a taunt outer skin that encased a fatty meat inside, creamy in texture and spicy in taste. The fries were a crispy golden brown and the pickle was sour enough to make one’s lips pucker. With the bill totaling a mere twenty-four dollars Canadian, we left with both full stomachs and full wallets.

Later that day my brother and I traveled out to my grandmother’s house to meet up with the family. Over a plate of fried chicken and cucumber salad, we relayed our dining experience to our father. Although Schwartz’s could never replace the tradition of eating at Grandma’s, it’s always nice to know when our family has a new tradition to share.

Schwartz's is located at 3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd in Montreal.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

My Weary Body, My Extended Stomach

I am in the final stop of my four city whirlwind adventure. Although I have only been here for ten hours, Montreal hase been full of Molson, Whiskey and Poutine. My post next week will be about one of my favorite delis in Montreal.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Summer Wrap Up - Five Meals in Five Sentences

So I’ve been out on the road for the last week and will be doing the same till the end of August. I thought I’d give a quick summer wrap up to some of the places I’ve eaten and enjoyed, but did not write about. So here we go, five meals in five sentences.

Ruby’s: An Aussie hole in the wall that serves organic greens, seasonal vegetables and mouth watering burgers. Recommended: The Pumpkin Pasta, with goat cheese and chili oil.

Brown Cafe: A biodynamically centered café that uses local vegetables, free range meats, and fish from conscientious purveyors. (Stolen right from the website, sorry!) Recommended: The octopus salad with shaved fennel, green beans, grape tomatoes and capers.

Lodge: An infamous institution for hipster Brunch, this Williamsburg eatery is the place to go for a couple of Bloody Mary’s and eggs any Sunday morning. Recommended: The Biscuits and Gravy with Eggs.

Union Picnic: A taste of the South in the heart of Brooklyn, this fine establishment serves up some of the best fried chicken, fried steak and friend vegetables this side of the Mason Dixon. Recommended: The Chicken Fried Chicken and Fries.

East 88: This Chinese restaurant is a savior from the run-of-the-mill Plexiglas institutions that populate this great city. Recommended: Lychee Duck with Plum Sauce.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Boston Market - One Free Meal

With the exception of a few infrequent indulgences, I rarely ever eat fast food. As a child, my mother forbid my brother and I from eating it, our only respite being when our father would stop at McDonald’s before a Flyer’s game. As a result I never developed a taste for the stuff and when eating it I usually find it revolting, repugnant and repulsive. The argument from many proponents of this garbage is that although it may not taste great, it is fast and cheap. This argument does not and should never be raised when dining in New York. One of the greatest advantages of living in NYC is the wide variety of cheap and delicious food. So why, you might ask yourself, did I lower my standards to almost gutter level, to dine on food that I knew would revolt the nose, repel the mouth and repulse the eyes? Simple: it was free.

About two weeks ago I ran into my friends Patrick and Claire and they told me that their friend, Keith, had also started his own food blog called 100 Meals. He had entered a contest for Boston Market to make a video that depicted what he would do with the hour he saved from buying dinner at Boston Market versus cooking his own. He had won third place and a free dinner for four, once a week for six months, which equals roughly $755 or about $30 a meal , just under $8 a person. I decided to write Keith and see if he would like to take me out to dinner. About an hour after I sent the e-mail I received a very excited response, saying that he would love to show me the wonderful world of the Market. It turns out that I was the first person to request a dinner, who wasn’t a friend, family member or business associate. So we picked a date, set a time and gave our stomachs fair warning about the malicious journey they were about to embark on.

We decided to meet for dinner after work at the glamorous, yet refined, West 23rd Street location. I arrived earlier than Keith and posted up outside for a classic case study of people watching. What surprised me the most with the abundant amount of young, hip and skinny people choosing Boston Market as their dining establishment. Hadn’t their mothers taught them the negative effects of rapid cuisine, hadn’t they learned that there are more flavors to life than salty and sweet? It dawned on me that many people probably didn’t see Boston Market as fast food, but as a quality meal with slow roasted chickens, fresh vegetables and decadent desserts. What most people don’t know is that McDonalds acquired Boston Market in December 1999 and one can only surmise that their chickens are coming from the same source. Finally Keith showed up and we headed in to feast on what I expected would be greasy faux-gourmet.

Keith told me that I could order whatever I wanted and he would pay for it, as long as he could photograph me and my food. I decided on the three-piece dark meat meal with three sides, cornbread, a slice of apple pie and lemonade. It was more food than I could really handle, but I felt it was an appropriate order for the type of fare we were eating. I quickly discovered there really are only two flavors at Boston Market, salty and sweet, with each flavor only enhanced by the dish with which it is associated. For example, the sweet potatoes with marshmallows were a mind-blowing experience of saccharine and sugar. Of course, in hindsight, I can understand why this dish would be so sugary, but it turned out to be sweeter than the chocolate cake Keith had for dessert. The spinach was a brackish mouthful of salt and cream, with a hint of spinach flavoring and an overwhelming taste of chopped onions. The chicken was moist and tender, but light on the meat, heavy on the skin and dripping in fat. In fact the only saving grace of the meal was the mac-and-cheese, which was firm in texture, velvety in taste and was only a bit too salty for my liking. I did order the apple pie for dessert, but after one bite of the slightly-defrosted, flavorless crust and canned fruit, I laid my fork down for good.

I made a bigger dent than I thought I would, but there was still a lot of food on my plate. The sweet potatoes and creamed spinach remained almost untouched and the chicken still had large chunks of meat left, but the mac-and-cheese was ravaged. I will admit that before this outing, Boston Market had been on my “Ok-There’s-Nothing-Else-Open-Or-Around-So-Let’s-Just-Eat-There-It-Won’t-Be-That-Bad” list, but this meal sealed its fate. I will never, ever eat at Boston Market again, no matter how hungry or desperate or destitute I am. That is, unless, the meal is of course free.

Boston Market is located all over America. I do not recommend going there.

100 Meals is a fantastic website. I do recommend going there.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tehuitzingo - My Favorite Bodega

With over 10,000 bodegas in the five boroughs, it’s hard to say why one stands out from others. Most of them have the same layout, products and service, making them a homogenous collection of old tiling, Boar’s Head deli meats and over-worked counter service. Despite their uniformity, every once in a while one of these joints is a beacon of light in a sea of mediocrity. It could be that its preparations range from the obscure to the internationally renowned, or that the sandwich maker is a culinary artist, or it is a specialty bodega that carries ethnic food, drinks and novelties or that the guy behind the counter has a funny way of ringing up a coffee and an egg sandwich. Whatever the reason, if you live in New York long enough, you come to love and depend on bodegas for food, drinks and efficiency of service.

About two weeks ago I had heard a rumor of a Mexican bodega in Hell’s Kitchen that made incredible tacos. Rumor had it that at the back of the store, one could find two women, a minuscule kitchen and some of the greatest and most genuine Mexican food in town. So with a little research and a few trusty compadres, we struck out in search of some bona fide tacos at a little bodega called Tehuitzingo.

I had been warned to keep my eyes peeled for Tehuitzingo and the warning was accurate. It was tucked between a row of nondescript stores and restaurants, itself being nothing more than a small store front, identified by a small sign. Upon entry, two physical aspects struck us: the narrow, compact nature of the store and the delectable, olfactory ambiance streaming from the kitchen. We immediately followed our noses to the back of the store, only stopping to pick up glass-bottled sodas (which were “hecho en Mexico”, that means they are made with cane sugar). The scene in the back was quaint and compressed. The kitchen was tucked away in a cubby-hole, set into the far wall. There was a large mirror, but the small, stool-packed counters quickly dissolved any illusion of space. After a quick glance at the menu, I delivered my order through broken Spanish, pointing and pantomime.

With the exception of the corn tortillas, everything is prepared fresh and on-site, which meant a bit of a wait. I was famished, so I ordered three tacos and hoped that they would do the trick. The wait was mostly worth it. Each taco is prepared with meat and a simple garnish of fresh cilantro and chopped onions, wrapped in two tortillas. For added flavor, there is a salsa, lime and pepper bar, which was needed on all of the tacos (my method was a small dollop of salsa, a squirt of lime juice and a few peppers).

I started with the Suadereo ($2, beef belly), which was small cubes of yellow, rubbery, flavorless pieces of fatty beef that pleased neither the palate nor the olfactory nerves. Next up was the Barbacoa ($2.50, goat), which contained long strips of grayish, slightly sinewy meat that packed a strong salty taste, with tender notes of smokiness. Finally I ate the Chicharron ($2.50, pork skin), which included small bits of salty, fried skin, with tasty morsels of pork, speckled with flavorful fat. The Chicharron was by far the best taco, with crispy texture and sweet, brackish flavors.

Despite my initial hunger, I struggled to finish all three, and eventually wound up removing the second tortilla from each taco. The three tacos and soda cost me a whopping $8.50 and I was so full, that I skipped dinner that night. As I paid for my meal, the man at the counter commented on how he liked my beard and how he was trying to grow one of his own. We chatted for a few minutes, exchanging tips and stories about facial hair, then he gave me my change and I left. Without a doubt, that exchange was the friendliest interaction I had ever had with a counter guy since I’d moved to the city. So even without the delicious food, the friendly service and the affordable prices, Tehuitzingo has become my favorite bodega in New York.

Tehuitzingo is located at 695 10th Ave in New York City.