Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Desperately Seeking (An Excellent) Sandwich

If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you'll be aware of one thing about me.

I love the NBA playoffs.

But it gets worse. Even if you knew that, you probably don't know that:

- I love the NBA playoffs so much, that I literally take off work (by calling in "sick") to watch the highlights that are played in the afternoon. Yes, I know that the highlights will run again in the evening, but I need to watch them when they're fresh.

- I love the NBA playoffs so much, that I don't even answer phone calls from my grandpa (who is over 95 years old) when the games are on the television. I just direct him straight to voicemail. My reasoning, is that "he can wait."

- I love the NBA playoffs so much, that if my team loses the series, I can't sleep for a week and have massive indigestion, cramps, and mood swings. Think "PMS" but with an "NBA" influence.

- Finally, I love the NBA playoffs so much, that I neglect my (1) kitchen, (2) food blog, and (3) other favorite food blogs for months on end.

Well, you probably knew that last fact, if you are a long-time reader and blog friend of mine.

To make it up to you all, I just wanted to post about two sandwich places that I recently discovered near me, in hopes of rekindling our blogging relationship: (1) Toasties and (2) the Submarine Center.

Recently, the beau and I have been sneaking over to West Portal, a trendy neighborhood yet quiet neighborhood in San Francisco. We had heard raves about this toasted sandwich place in West Portal, but conveniently, we forgot the name just as we were about to try it out one day.

All that we remembered was that the sandwich place was right next to the train station. So when we saw Toasties near the MUNI train line, we thought for sure that that sandwich place was "the" place. But, Toasties was pretty much empty and we were the only patrons. Nevertheless, it was clean and they gave us free sodas with our two sandwiches.

After we ordered, we were told that if we wanted to use the restroom, we had to go into the restaurant next door. (Strange, I know.) As we excused ourselves outside to use the neighboring bathroom facilities, we saw a crowded and bustling place on the same block called the Submarine Center. We then realized that we had bought our lunch at the wrong sandwich place! Therefore, we immediately went into the Submarine Center, and ordered a third sandwich (turkey) to share.

But, I have good news to report, the sandwiches were all decent, and I would more than likely go back again to both places.

First, as for the turkey sandwich at the Submarine Center, I really enjoyed the interplay between the crusty bread and the feathery shreds of iceberg lettuce and how both really brought out the flavors of the turkey and cheese. I found it to be a classic sandwich in all respects, and it was definitely appealing.

As for the toasted sandwiches at Toasties, I enjoyed the more substantial tug of the dense bread and the high quality of the toppings, such as grainy mustard and good mayonnaise. The sweet and yeast-pocketed bread definitely made these sandwiches stand out more prominently in my memory.

Toasties' sloppy crab melt sandwich was a little too sloppy for the beau, and I found it to have a pretty powerful relish up in there, but I definitely enjoyed it.

All in all, pretty good bang for your buck at both places.

Yes, I know, that's all for my crappy post. Brief, yes. To the point, hopefully. Okay, now back to playoffs!

(What's my quick take on the playoffs? Although I hate the Mavericks, I'm actually glad that they eliminated the Spurs. The Spurs manage to make the playoffs and championship games supremely boring. The players simply don't have charisma. (Although I do admit that I enjoy looking at Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker from time to time.) But that's why they can never be a real dynasty in my mind. Now I'm just cheering for the Hornets and for the Lakers. Since Phoenix was eliminated long ago, my ideal team now is the Hornets.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Whoa, That's Deep. Deep Dish, That Is.

Before I visited to Chicago, I heard that the three best deep dish pizzerias in all of Chicago were (1) Gino's East, (2) Giordano's, and (3) Lou Malnati's. Knowing me, you can rest assured that I set out to test those assertions, and try the places out myself.

First, I stopped by Gino's East for a solo lunch, and eagerly ordered a small personal pan pizza. After a lengthy wait, my fresh pizza arrived steaming hot inside the cardboard box. I immediately noticed several things. The warm and buttery deep dish crust was chockful of yeasty air pockets and the thick pizza filling was evenly layered with (1) supple and explosively juicy chunks of fresh tomatoes, (2) an oozing and melted blanket of mozzarella cheese, (3) chopped pieces of crisp green bell peppers, (4) sliced mushrooms, and (5) moist crumbles of Italian sausage. Every bite was packed with flavor and an even distribution of savory Italian toppings. My substantial deep dish experience at Gino's East was a solid "A-," indeed, and left me wanting more.

Next, I visited Lou Malnati's and again ordered a personal pan pizza. When the pizza arrived a while later, I again was greeted by a beautiful sight of a tomatoey red deep dish pie. Unlike Gino's East, I found the deep dish crust at Lou Malnati's to be lighter and more crackery. The thin crust surrounding deep dish filling was surprisingly crisp with crunchy charred areas packed with a smoky and bready flavor. I ordered the same toppings that I ordered at Gino's East, including onions, green bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, Italian sausage, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Again, I was satisfied with the uniform distribution and consistency of the toppings, and the warm, savory, hearty, and fulfilling nature of the deep dish pizza.

It was a perfect pie, and deserving of a high "A-/B+" grade.

Finally, buoyed by the deep dish successes at Gino's East and Lou Malnati's and falsely thinking that my large stomach had conquered the deep dish pan pizza, I decided to go all out and order a small pizza (and not just a personal pizza). The menu indicated that the small pizza fed one to two individuals, so I was confident that I could consume a whole pie by myself.

However, I was entirely unprepared for the excess that lay ahead before me.

Unlike the smaller personal deep dish pizzas, the tremendous slices of Giordano's pan pizza expanded significantly in my stomach, quadrupling in volume after just a few minutes. The pizza literally crippled my entire body, overwhelming and overloading my senses. Furthermore, the center of the dough was slightly uncooked with a gluey and gooey consistency. While I loved the quality of the bell pepper strips, button mushrooms, and substantial pieces of sausage, the sheer quantity of the deep dish pizza was a little too much for me.

Because of my gluttony, I only would rank Giordano's with a "B," but only for the sheer fact that I simply do not remember much about the pizza because of my overeating and inability to take it like a real woman.

However, overall, my deep dish experience in Chicago was a fantastic one, where I really got to enjoy Chicago hospitality and amazing pizza pies in these famous pizzerias. If you go to Chicago, definitely check out out these places.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where's the Beef? The Best Chicago Beef? Right Here, Baby.

Chicago is known for its three signature food items: (1) stomach-expanding deep dish pizza; (2) savory Italian beef sandwiches piled high with beef galore and soaked in au jus; and (3) Chicago-style 'dogs, loaded with special toppings and condiments. On my recent visit to Chicago, my quest was to try the "best" of all of these types of food, and weigh in with my own opinion. After some guidance from Dylan of Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, who recently visited Chicago, I set out on my quest.

First, where are the best hot dogs in Chicago? I attempted to answer this question by visiting four reputable hot dog eateries, in less than two days.

My first visit for hot dogs was
The Wieners Circle, where you can allegedly get a serving of "sass," banter, and attitude with your hot dogs. Rumor has it, that if you give the female cashier $20 and ask for a "chocolate (or vanilla) milkshake," depending on the race of the server, she will "flash" you.

That is terrible for so many reasons.

Now, I did not ask for a milkshake, but I did order two "Vienna red hot" dogs, one with a slathering of melted nacho cheese.

While the wieners tasted like classic hot dogs, I loved the Chicago touches of (1) the poppy seed encrusted bun, (2) the fresh relish made with chopped onion, (3) the fiery and acidic banana peppers, (4) the elongated wedge of dill pickle, (5) the cooling slices of beefsteak tomato, and (6) a sweet dusting of celery salt.

Wieners Circle's fluffy fries were steaming hot, and had a golden-brown and crispy shell.

Overall, the hot dogs and fries received a "B+" in my book. A respectable grade for a respectable hot dog establishment.

Next, I visited
SuperDawg, a drive-in fast food joint from the bygone period of yesteryear. Upon arriving, I was immediately entranced. I loved the assembly line of industrious workers, the animated hot dog mascots, the amazing variety of 1950s soda shoppe drink selections, and the whimsical hot dog packaging and decor. Similar to Wieners Circle, SuperDawg's crinkle cut fries were perfectly fried, with a crisp and seasoned shell and soft potato interior.

The dogs from
SuperDawg came with all the Chicago fixings, including a dill pickle wedge, mustard, and banana peppers. As for the relish, I was truly impressed by the zesty, fresh, and bright flavors of their homemade version. Were there bell peppers in the relish? It certainly looked like it, and it tasted heavenly. Along with the classic Chicago hot dog ingredients, I enjoyed the large wedge of brined green tomato. I found the quality of the hot dog to be far better than the Vienna red hots served at Wieners Circle, for I could taste heavy undertones of beefiness and there was more of a substantial and hearty texture to the hot dog.

Although I was a little disappointed by the way my hot dog and fries were mashed inside a small brick-sized box, I would say, "A" for this super dog.

Third, I visited
Portillo's, and enjoyed the hot dog there, as well. Portillo's is a fun restaurant, with a unique and old-fashioned style of service and decor. As for the meaty dogs, I found them quite similar in flavor and in topping ingredients to Wieners Circle, with the right proportion of condiments and fixings, and a warm and delectable meat wiener. So a healthy "B+" for Portillo's.

(As you can tell, I am running a little low on words to describe the hot dogs.) But I do want to note with jubilation that
Portillo's has opened two locations outside of the State of Illinois and in Southern California, so if you live in So Cal, go forth and take advantage of this Chicago eatery!

Finally, I visited a gourmet and more upscale version of a classic hot dog stand in Chicago,
Hot Doug's, which is self-entitled as "the Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium." Hot Doug's does not only serve hot dogs, but gourmet sausages. Doug Sohn, the owner and namesake of the eatery, took it to a whole 'nother level. And actually, Doug of Hot Doug's is really hot.

Everyone and their mama has likely heard about Hot Doug's, especially after Anthony Bourdain featured Hot Doug's on one of his No Reservations episodes. Because of its immense popularity, you must be prepared for a long wait in a long line. And you will likely have to brave the relentless Chicago weather. For me, after torturously waiting over an hour in the sleet and frostbite-inducing and skin-shredding Chicago wind, I arrived inside, drenched with rain and sporting raw and chapped skin lesions.

Doug runs the counter and the cash register. Based on Doug's recommendation, I ordered three types of "encased meats." I enjoyed (1) a bacon and cheddar elk sausage with Goose Island Pere Jacques mustard and Madrigal cheese, (2) a chardonnay-infused rattlesnake sausage with sweet Peppadew dijonnaise and green peppercorn Montsegur cheese, and (3) a jalapeno and bacon duck sausage with blood orange mustard and Chaubier cheese drizzled with honey.

Okay, I am going to be vulnerable with you all, and admit to a sin that I committed that no food blogger should ever do. I wolfed down the delicious sausages and did not adequately document the sausages. By the time I eventually reviewed my pictures, I was pretty flabbergasted as to which sausage was which. I also ate so fast, that I do not actually remember that much about my wonderful meal. I do remember, however, that it was "wonderful." Finally, I ordered "to go," and took some messy pictures because the sauce from the 'dogs had smeared all over the wrappers. But I know you will forgive me. If not, I guess I will have to eat there again.

Nevertheless, I do remember some key characteristics about the sausages and their toppings. The elk sausage was surprisingly tough, dry, and resistant to the bite. Because of the texture, I thought that Doug did a particularly good job pairing the elk sausage with strong spices, a potent mustard, and a robust cheese. I thought the rattlesnake was interestingly tender and sweet, and I loved the spicy, fiery aroma from the peppercorns. Finally, the duck sausage possessed a penetrating cumin aroma, and really stood wonderfully on its own.

Best of all, on Fridays and Saturdays, you can partake of Doug's duck fat French fries, which are light, airy, and ethereal. They taste just like regular fries, but have a uniquely light feel to them. French fries deep-fried in duck fat? Oh man, I am in heaven (or will die and go to hell soon)!

The interestingly gourmet twist on the classic Chicago dog was very convincing for my palate.
Hot Doug's scored an "A" from me on its report card.

Now that I finished my excellent hot dog adventure, and have emerged with a clear victor in mind, I will share about my journey in seeking an answer to the baffling question of where to find the best Italian beef in Chicago. That question led me to two places.

My first experience with Italian beef was at
Portillo's, the same place where I also ordered an enjoyable hot dog (see above). I actually visited Portillo's with a few Chicago natives, and they gave me a few pointers on how to order Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago. First, you must order them with peppers. Second, you must also order them dipped in the roast beef jus. And that is exactly what I did.  (Oh, and check out this great Italian beef website for more tips on how to order.)

When I unwrapped the soggy foil-lined paper, I was quite overwhelmed with the amount of beef stuffed inside what was once crusty bread. Everything was in disarray. However, one bite, and I was smitten.

I loved (1) the rich oregano-flavored beef broth which had been soaked into the bread, (2) the soft pieces of celery, onions, and carrots that had been slow cooked and shoved inside the beef sandwich, (3) the slippery and tender slices of beef, and (4) the giardiniera relish made of pickled sport peppers and carrots. The toothsome slices of roasted beef were full of flavor from the Italian spices and coated with a perfect amount of jus (and grease). Definitely an "A" grade.

After my experience with the Italian beef sandwiches at
Portillo's, I had high hopes for what was lauded as the "#1 Italian beef" in the City of Chicago, Al's Beef.

But my hopes were not to be realized. Unlike the slices of beef from
Portillo's, I found Al's sandwich to be lacking in inherent moisture. The meat seemed to be cooked beyond recognition, and was more akin to an overcooked chipped beef sandwich, than a nicely sliced roast beef sandwich. It seemed as if the juices had been completely drained from the beef, and Al simply dunked the beef in jus, hoping to reconstitute it. Also, the mushy bread was saturated with the oddly flavored jus. I found the jus to be overpowered with the strong essence from cloves. Sorry Al, but you are a distant second to Portillo's according to my experience at your place. I hate to be harsh, but I would give you a "C."

So there you have it, my take on the best hot dogs in Chicago and the best Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago. What are your thoughts about Chicago's best? Also, stay tuned for my take on the best deep dish pizzas in Chicago, next!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Food Blogger's Dilemma: Ugly Spaghetti

As a food blogger, sometimes, you go through "moments."

One of those "moments," is realizing that the food pictures that you took are hideously unappetizing.

After this past Easter week/weekend and all of the activities with the church, friends, and family, I finally sat down at my computer, ready to begin posting again. As I uploaded the pictures from my camera to my computer, I realized to my chagrin that I have a lot of ugly food pictures. And when I say "ugly," I really mean "fugly." Ahem, like that below.

Can the world of food blogging be more like the cute fantasy world of Ugly Betty? Can good content (what is on the inside) redeem really disastrous food pictures (what is on the outside)? Should you still post on a meal or a restaurant, even though your pictures came out looking like a bad nightmare? That is the food blogger's dilemma.

Admittedly, sometimes I am too lazy to garnish a plate with grated cheese and chiffonaded basil. And most of the time, the lighting in my windowless kitchen sucks the big one. I wish all pictures automatically came out perfectly, with gorgeous lighting and cute props.

Thanks for listening to my blathering, and staying with me despite the oftentimes poor quality of my pictures and posts. I will crank out a substantively decent food post soon, I promise.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Working Eater Series: Oven-Baked Salmon with Dill and Lemon

One of the magazines that I subscribe to has a regular feature on "three ingredient recipes." I love the simplicity of those recipes and the ease of making food with only a few ingredients. Therefore, I have recently been trying my hand at learning and making more of these recipes, which call for just a few ingredients. This is my favorite three ingredient recipe (from my beau). Well, I guess it is five ingredients with the salt and pepper, but it is pretty much just three main ingredients. It may look a little funky (with the sprawled out tendrils of dill), but it is delicious and perfect for a working eater. If you do not have time for a extensive dinner, just make this and serve it with some crusty bread and a quick salad.

Oven-Baked Salmon with Dill and Lemon
raw salmon fillet (approximately 1 to 1 1/2 lbs)
1 bundle of fresh dill, washed and with woody and fibrous stems removed
2 lemons, thinly sliced with the rinds
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, place the fillet of salmon, skin side down, onto a baking sheet lined with foil. Season the exposed surface of the salmon with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Blanket the salmon in dill and then thin slices of lemon. Place the salmon into the oven, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Take the salmon out of the oven, and let it rest under a foil tent for about 10 minutes, and then serve with fresh lemon wedges, after removing the stringy pieces of dill and the roasted lemon slices. Garnish with fresh dill and fresh lemon wedges.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Steak at Stake: Ruth's Chris Versus Peter Luger

Yeah right.

Is there even a competition here? I think we all assume that Peter Luger Steak House (the century-old, highly revered, and much heralded dry-aged steak restaurant) would blow any chain restaurant competition out of the water. Plus, Bon Appetit magazine lovingly appointed Peter Luger as "the best" steak in the U.S.

But you'll be surprised at my findings at which restaurant really takes the cake, or should I say, "steak."

"Are you ready for a steak throwdown?"

First up is Ruth's Chris Steak House in San Francisco, California.

There is a bustling city street in San Francisco lined with great steakhouses: (1) Harris' (where they serve pretty delicious steak and potatoes au gratin and obtain their beef supply from the Harris Ranch arm of their business), (2) House of Prime Rib, and (3)
Ruth's Chris Steak House. All three steak houses are within less than a city block's distance away from each other on Van Ness Street in San Francisco. Since the beau and I were trying to eat in that area, we agreed to dine at Ruth's Chris, the only steakhouse participating in the Dine About Town prix-fixe program. (This year, the beau convinced me to give the monthly Dine About Town promotion in San Francisco a go one more time. Despite my reluctance and bad experiences with Dine About Town in the past, I agreed.)

Included within the
Ruth's Chris $35.00 prix-fixe Dine About Town meal was a simple salad of iceberg, romaine, and baby lettuces with halved grape tomatoes, garlic croutons, and slices of red onion rings. Since our evening was all about the meat, we quickly wolfed down this salad and its light vinaigrette dressing without much fanfare or any real attention. It was a generic salad, nothing more, nor nothing less.

Additionally, the
Ruth's Chris prix-fixe meal came with a choice of sides, either (1) a windswept casserole dish of mashed potatoes topped with delicate pools of melted butter and garnished with minced Italian parsley or (2) milky creamed spinach, chopped, strained, and saturated with heavy full-fat cream. We ordered both. While the sides were hearty and filling, they were merely supporting co-stars to the main celebrities of the evening, the dense cuts of dry-aged beef.

For the main course, the beau and I split two types of steak: (1) ribeye, which, according to the menu, is "[a]n outstanding example of USDA Prime at its best. Well marbled for peak flavor, deliciously juicy," and (2) the petite filet mignon, which the menu described as the "[m]ost tender cut of midwestern corn-fed beef."

The ribeye came with showered with a sprinkling of chopped herbs and a melted lake of foamy butter, cascading down the surface and into crevices of the medium-rare meat. Within the seared exterior of the ribeye lay huge canyons filled with rivers of crimson jus. The slick and glistening cut of ribeye meat was bursting with juices and possessed a hearty, nutty flavor. The ribeye was definitely the highlight of the protein-packed evening.

Oddly, I found the filet mignon to actually be a little tougher and more resistant than the ribeye. I could definitely feel the strength of the meat grains against my steak knife and my teeth. Despite the firm, dense texture, the filet was full-bodied in beefy protein flavor. The filet was delicately surrounded by what looked like moat of emulsified butter heated under a broiler until browned and bubbly. Ah, butter. The perfect dipping sauce for steak!

We ended our meal at
Ruth's Chris with two desserts, the first being a New Orleans-style bread pudding with a whiskey sauce. A powerful yet sweet whiskey and vanilla fragrance permeated the condensed milk and absorbent bread pudding mattress. The saturated pudding was (1) interspersed with plumped raisins, (2) flavored with grounded aromatic spices of cinnamon and nutmeg, and (3) blanketed with a mahogany-colored caramelized crust.

We also shared a key lime pie, which was sinfully as rich and decadent as a cheesecake, but also light and refreshing. The pie was complimented with an awakening and invigorating bite of brisk lime zest and tart lime juice.

Now, onto the competitor! How do the steak and sides at
Peter Luger in Brooklyn compare to that of a (gasp), upscale chain steak restaurant? According to many of my New York friends, you haven't lived until you've dined at least once at Peter Luger. Therefore, I had high expectations for Peter Luger from the moment I walked in, despite its non-pretentious German beerhaus decor.

First off, our lofty expectations of
Peter Luger were only reinforced when we tried the baked goods inside Peter Luger's tabletop bread basket. Inside the complimentary basket o' carbs sat a diverse offering of onion rye bread and seasoned crackers encrusted with sesame seeds and sizeable salt crystals. The breads and peppery crackers were intriguingly and lip-smackingly delicious, for they were packed with multi-dimensional flavors from the potent rye seeds and the liberal salt seasoning.

A tiny taste of
Peter Luger's famed steak sauce further increased the hype. The steak sauce tasted like a chunky combination of Worcestershire sauce, crushed tomatoes, molasses, and grated horseradish. The sauce was so sweet, it bordered on cloying, but had a bright, tangy, and palate-refreshing bite. Simply summarized, that sauce was hella good, and delivered a swift punch of deliciousness to my tongue.

The sauce and bread though, only whetted our appetite for the main attraction, the steak.

After apprehensively staring at their barebones menu, we finally decided to order after a good half an hour. We settled on the (1) prime rib and (2) porterhouse steak, both medium-rare and both dry-aged in the classic
Peter Luger fashion.

Based on my understanding, the process of dry-aging beef produces the most supple of results. Wikipedia states that there are two steps to the process of dry-aging beef: "First, moisture is evaporated from the muscle. This creates a greater concentration of beef flavor and taste. Second, the beef's natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which leads to more tender beef."

Upon being served, I immediately noticed a blackened outer layer of carcinogenic char encrusting the steaks, which was a little bit of a turnoff for me. Also, unlike other steak restaurants,
Peter Luger's steaks come out pre-cut into large fish stick-sized hunks, with the accompanying bone. The only beef I have with pre-cut meat (pun intended), is that Peter Luger deprives you of the joy of piercing into steak and watching the liquid jus spill forth. Also, I felt that the servers left a little too much meat on the bone, and the orientation of the bone wasn't conducive for removing the remaining meat without making a scene and gnawing and chewing the meat off with my teeth like a cavewoman.

As for the taste? It was heavenly. The beef definitely lived up to its dry-aged claims. The texture of the steaks were lusciously buttery. Through the dry-aging process, it was clear to my tastebuds that the beef flavor had concentrated and evolved into a complex meaty explosion of flavors, ranging from earthy to "wow." The steak at
Peter Luger was supple and creamy, yet firm and rich, almost like a silken pate or meat pudding with a slippery, juicy finish. There was a soft nuttiness, and I could clearly taste a strong beef flavor, which was dissimilar from my previous experience of eating kobe beef. (If that kobe beef had been dry-aged, I would have been on that steak like a fly.)

The bone held together the remnants of sinew and jiggly beef fat that tenderly clung on like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Along with our steaks, we also ordered two sides: (1) Luger's special German fried potatoes and (2) creamed spinach. As for the fried potatoes, I implore you, don't expect anything life-changing. Basically, these potatoes are the equivalent of chunky breakfast potatoes that you can get at your local diner. Overpriced? Yes. Only decent? Yes.

Lastly, and actually, least appealing, was the mushy, slimy excuse for creamed spinach. It was overseasoned with nutmeg and pulverized into a sloppy goop akin to baby food or liquefied paste. The free chocolate coins that the server handed out with the bill couldn't even redeem this disaster.

To its demerit, Peter Luger really failed on its disappointing sides. The lackluster sides were a mere afterthought, and seriously overpriced.

Nonetheless, in the battle for superior steaks, as expected,
Peter Luger won this round, for juicy and succulent dry-aged steaks. However, Ruth's Chris came out a worthy contender with its delicious ribeye steak, and its affordable prix-fixe option which included salad, sides, and a dessert for $35.00.
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