Sunday, October 30, 2005

Breakfast for Dinner When Pulling an All-Nighter

Remembering my time in college always makes me so nostalgic. Ah, those were the good ole’ days, when all I could afford to eat was ramen noodles and outdated cans of garbanzo beans. There were some notable exceptions however. I once remember splurging before a "double-whammy" calculus final and philosophy paper to eat and study all-night at a classic Americana diner. Although my dismal finances have probably not changed much, I recently visited my local "Open 24 Hours" diner to take a trip down memory lane at around 11:00pm at night.

I read diner menus like they are juicy novels--I just can’t seem to put them down. I love looking at a diner’s offerings: salisbury steak with sliced mushroom gravy on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes; thick malted milk shakes brought out in frosted metal shakers; and huge sundaes with spherical mountains of pink ice cream dribbling with Hershey’s chocolate syrup and a perfectly-coiffed whipped cream "do." A diner helps to remind me of why I am alive--to eat.

On my recent diner trip, I decided to bet it all, and order the colossal breakfast extravaganza, including: two eggs over-easy, two crispy fried bacon strips, two meaty sausage links, one slice of honey-baked ham, half a plate of fried hash brown potatoes, and three hot cakes.

When my order arrived on two heavy beige platters, I felt as reminiscent as Celine Dion once sang, "It’s all coming back to me now."

The first thing I did was dust the entire landscape of my plate with black pepper and empty the tall glass Heinz ketchup bottle onto the perimeter of my potatoes. After pouring the small jug of sticky maple syrup on top of my pancakes and smearing the fist-sized mound of butter in between the open crevices, I wolfed down the meal in front of me. After dinner, I gently patted my stomach. I was a self-satisfied glutton.

However, my trip to the diner did not end when I cleaned off my plate and left my place in the vinyl booth. Later that night, I tossed and turned in my bed, and my burning and bloated stomach growled and hissed at me. It was then that I remembered why in college I ate at the diner to stay awake. As I sat up in my bed, the memorable words once wisely sung by Celine Dion resonated in my head again, "It’s all coming back to me now."

Is The Bay Area Better Than Bollywood?

The Bay Area is a mecca for an Indian-food-lover. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I lived in the Tenderloin district, an area endearingly dubbed the "Tandoori-loin" for its famous Indian restaurants on almost every block. Later, when I moved to Berkeley, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of Indian shops that lined its streets. There were stores that sold ornate saris, pungent Indian spices, and Indian restaurants on every street corner.

Given the plethora of options for an Indian-food-lover like me, you can imagine that I am in paradise. Just the other day, I had an amazing take-out lunch of my favorite trio: Bengun Bharta, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Palak Paneer. To whet my palate and mop up the delicious sauces, I also ordered a crunchy set of samosas stuffed with peas and mashed potatoes, and fluffy, clay-oven-baked naan. I always order two types: 1) aloo naan filled with spiced potatoes and 2) garlic naan sprinkled with handfuls of chopped cilantro and roasted garlic.

I am not someone who needs to have vegetables hidden in a meal. However, I still adore Bengun Bharta, with its tiny "eat it too fast and you miss it" bites of roasted tomato, eggplant, and yellow onion.

Although Chicken Tikka Masala may not be authentic Indian food (I have heard that it originated here in the United States), to me, I love how the cooling creamy yogurt perfectly plays off of the spicy tikka paste and luscious tomato sauce. For me, the sauce is enough of a meal, and finding the moist and tender hunks of meat within is like finding a prize in a Cracker Jack box.

The same "prize feeling" goes for Palak Paneer. Before one minute has elapsed after the serving dish has hit the table, my spoon has already searchingly tunneled through the spinach sauce and captured each of the spongy cheese chunks for my own plate.

And finally, the naan. Ah, the naan. . . The crackly edges and the soft "melt in your mouth" interior defies all description. All I can think of is opening up the glittering tin foil to vent out the hot wisps of steam from the wonderful naan. Delicious!

Okay. . . I can’t write anything about my delicious Indian lunch without salivating all over my keyboard. That is it. I am going to get myself another wonderful Indian meal right now.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Point Reyes Oyster Farms

I grew up in a land-locked desert state with no access to fresh seafood. That is why when I moved to San Francisco, I was amazed at the distinction between "previously frozen" seafood and "fresh" seafood--the only seafood I had ever had was purchased in a frosty, icy block, which thawed out under running tap water.

After living in California and visiting the East Coast, I have learned more about seafood. For instance, did you know that on the West Coast, they sell crab by the pound, but on the East Coast, they sell it by the bushel? Also, the shrimp on the East Coast is pink before it is even cooked, whereas the uncooked tiger prawns and shrimp on the West Coast is striped-black with grayish flesh! I am also beginning to understand to way different regions like to eat seafood. Maine lobster, Maryland crab, Louisiana shrimp . . . Either saturated in melted butter and lemon, or dredged in caked-on Old Bay seasoning, I am beginning to love it all.

This past weekend I participated in another educational event--I took a trip up to Point Reyes to sample fresh oysters from the acres of ocean farms in the area. Armed with nothing more than a pack of disposable napkins, plastic utensils, and a bottle of organic cocktail sauce, I set out on my mission.

For me, learning how to shuck oysters was an ordeal in and of itself. My first attempt resulted in shards of splintered oyster shell flying across the picnic tables and my knife-welding arm jerking and flailing like a suicidal maniac.

However, practice makes perfect. I learned how to shuck oysters at my companion’s expense--meaning that I shucked them, while he had to eat the consequences. My companion was so kind, that instead of wincing each time the chipped oyster shells lodged into his teeth and throat, he would discreetly remove it from his mouth with a napkin.

The raw oysters were magnificent. I was originally skeptical of the claims that oysters living in the same waters can have varying degrees of sweet and salty flavor. However, after tasting them, I actually began to detect the differences between Kumamoto, Sweetwater, and French Hog oysters.

Although I am still not completely at ease with slurping up the oyster meat and briny oyster liqueur, the oysters tasted great with a helping of hot sauce and cocktail sauce.

It was definitely one of my favorite trips, with a great lesson from the seafood department.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Cheap and Proud

I remember it fondly as the "Summer of Love." It was best of times, it was the tastiest of times. It was my second summer in San Francisco, and the planets aligned perfectly, allowing me to dine at some of the "fanciest-schmanciest" restaurants in the Bay Area, and at a minimal cost to me. The establishments I patronized included: Aqua, Chaya Brasserie, the Fifth Floor, Gary Danko, Kokkari, the Waterfront, and Yank Sing. Alright. . . This may be a self-serving bragging list, but it is also list of restaurants that I can never afford to eat at again.

Living in the outrageously-price-inflated Bay Area on a shoestring budget has taught me how to eat well with minimal pocket change. Although I cannot afford to splurge on an appetizer of "foie gras galantine encrusted with oven-roasted macadamia nuts and served with chiffonade of arugula"; as a cool and satisfying substitute, I can ravenously devour a banh-mi sandwich smeared heavily with liverwurst and stuffed with pickled carrots and fresh cilantro for under $2.50.

Okay. . . Maybe a banh mi sandwich is not the equivalent of a foie gras sampler, but there are many alternatives in the Bay Area for a thrifty gourmet.

For instance, as opposed to ordering a pricey dessert of "crème bruleé with passion fruit essence," hop down to the Civic Center Farmer's Market and buy a small plastic basket of voluptuous purple figs to accompany a egg custard tart from a Chinatown bakery.

San Francisco has an abundance of fresh organic produce and easy access to ethnic products not readily available anywhere else. It's not hard, but if you know where to look, you can find some very affordable places--like family-owned produce shops in San Francisco's ethnic enclaves. Additionally, the food community here is open to sharing techniques and teaching others how to make delicious gourmet food. (Just look at how many PBS food shows are based here in the Bay Area.) With the arsenal provided by the Bay Area community, one can still have legendary restaurant-style meal, at a portion of the price.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Artistry of the Mission District

San Francisco is a city with a passion for art. To me, the most amazing visual extravaganza in San Francisco is not in any acclaimed Bay Area museum, but in the taquerias of the Mission District.

Entering any Mission restaurant, you will be greeted with a barrage of incredible images. Enchiladas--that are smothered in fragrant red gravy, blanketed with melting white queso, and peppered with fresh green cilantro--shout out the vibrant shades of the Mexican flag. Curved ladles swim in heavy glass jars filled with fruity agua frescas which are colored like a pastel rainbow.

Even the salsas range from subtle burgundy and fiery red, to a rich and verdant green.

But the Mission taquerias are infinitely better than any museum, because they cater to all the human senses.

The flavors and aromas of Mexican food penetrate one's tongue and nostrils. The textured crunch of freshly-fried flautas and taquitos between your teeth and the sound of the serving spoons scraping against the bottoms of metal trays filled with meats and gravies all contribute to the sensory experience.

For me, living on the border of Mexico and United States for over 10 years has given me an immense appreciation for Mexican culture and Mexican food. Never having visited Mexico, I can't say whether the love I developed is for "authentic" Mexican cuisine, or the watered-down Tex-Mex food from chain restaurants. Regardless of where I derive my taste for Mexican food, I know that the Mission District in San Francisco is a fantastic place for me to satisfy both all my senses.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Chinese Origin of Noodles (Pasta)

Great things come from China, and as we found out this past week, archeologists now have discovered fossilized evidence that corroborates the claims that the Chinese invented noodles over 4,000 years ago. (Now maybe Mario Batali will finally concede that the Italians probably learned a thing or two from the Chinese.) Therefore, to celebrate, I made a huge pot of stewed Chinese beef noodle soup.

Some translate this soup as "red braised beef noodle soup," but the meat is not braised. Well-marbled beef shank is generally simmered in a dark-hued beefy broth for several hours, and just before serving, leafy greens are wilted in the heated soup.

Served with a garnish of cilantro and green scallions sliced on a bias, this is a hearty and delicious meal perfect for keeping warm on a foggy day in the Bay Area. It is also the perfect dish to celebrate the Chinese invention of noodles

Growing Up on Gefilte Fish

Jewish sandwiches have a special place in my heart. It was always a treat when my Dad would make his magnificently delicious sauerkraut and sardine sandwiches. I also loved spooning out jellied aspic and baseball-sized gefilte fish cakes from towering, screw-lipped glass jars onto thin slices of bread.

That's why my visit to Katz's in New York merits particular mention. Katz's is the "delicatessen of all delicatessens," and has etched its way into pop culture--and my heart. You might remember Katz's from the infamous scene in When Harry Met Sally. Or you might also remember it from the wonderful PBS Show
Sandwiches That You Will Like.

After spending a long and humid day in Central Park, Katz's was the ultimate destination to satisfy my rumbling stomach. My companion and I ordered pastrami on rye and a Reuben sandwich with "the works."

The pastrami sandwich was busting at the seams with thick-layered slices of pastrami. I ordered it without mayonnaise or anything else that might interfere with my overall delicatessen experience. The rich, smoky flavor of the pastrami was enough to make it an amazing stand-alone sandwich.

However, I must admit, I did have some problems with the Reuben. The lightly toasted rye bread, the coarsely shredded sauerkraut, and the caramelized swiss cheese were perfect, but the corned beef gave me some problems. It was too tough, and I was surprised by the weird, almost-gamey flavor of the pickling spices.

Their pickles tasted like Claussen's brand, but had an authentic aftertaste of being freshly brined. The thick-cut french fries were crisp on the outside, and hot, fluffy, and creamy on the inside.

Finally, no visit to New York would be complete without gulping down a "chocklity" egg creme. However, the best part of the evening was the "New York" label on my Diet Pepsi. How come the sodas in California aren't labeled similarly?

Ultimately, the message on my cola served as a subtle reminder that the evening I spent at Katz's was a quintessential New York experience.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Strugglin' With Spring Rolls

I love Vietnamese spring rolls--the tangy bite from the fresh mint leaves, the bright zestiness from the basil layered in the filling, and the cool, crisp texture of the chilled iceberg lettuce when accompanied by the crunchy, ocean-seasoned shrimp. This dish exemplifies the freshness of the "spring" season, when gardens are infused with the fragrance of the blooming flowers; the herb plants are abundant with rich, leafy greens; and fruits buckle off the trees at the slightest jostle.

However, just because I voraciously consume these lil' snacks, does not mean I like making them. Whenever I make them, they end up looking like mutated franken-fritters. (See images above and below.)

These pictures do not do justice of how hard it is to handle the delicate and sticky film wrapper. The tenuous wrapper snags and tears open like nylon stockings catching on a jagged fingernail. For those of you unfamiliar with nylons, I would compare it to handling an aged rubber balloon that has been exposed to the sun after sitting in a windowsill for several years.

Unfortunately, until I master the art of "rice wrapper manipulating," I will be relegated to purchasing these rolls at one of those delicious Vietnamese sandwich shops in the Tenderloin District, or only making the rolls when I have a full day off work and two full days of patience.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Faidley's in Baltimore

Upon first encountering the "World Famous Lexington Market" in Baltimore, Maryland, it seems anything but world famous. It is a non-pretentious food court-type gathering of independent food vendors hawking deli sandwiches stuffed with thinly-sliced cold cuts, unfortunate looking fried rice that has been blackened by sponging up gallons of soy sauce, and mountains of golden fried chicken keeping crisp under orange heat lamps. One definitely notices common food themes as he or she peruses the offerings at the market. But don't be tempted--you must hold off on your lunch purchase until you walk to the very back of the building and reach the promised land: Faidley's.

Faidley's prides itself as serving the "Best Crabcakes in Maryland," and considering that Maryland is the Crab Capital of the U.S.A., those had better be some darn good crabcakes. Indeed they are.

The regular poor-man's crabcake they offer is very good. The crabcake is moist and well-bound together by a punch of tantalizing seasonings. The crabcake literally melts in your mouth. You don’t have to chew at all.

The "big lump" crabcake is even better. It has the same package of seasonings, but the tender texture of the huge hunks of crab nestling within the cake make is what makes it incredible.

The clam chowder and miscellaneous side dishes are pretty good and compliment the crab cakes very well. My only complaint is why they even bother to include a leaf of lettuce and slice of tomato with each crabcake. Those additional items just take up space in the stomach needed for eating more crabcakes. However, I guess they serve the same purpose as the slice of orange and sprig of parsley that they add at Sizzler to the $7.99 Steak and Baked Potato Dinner. DPO. ("Decorative Purposes Only.")

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

I've decided to join the millions of bloggers on the internet, and create my own online journal. It will be "dedicated to decadence" and will chronicle my life, or what gives it meaning--pure, unadulterated food.

To give you some context, my views will be inadvertently biased with a "west coast mentality." Nevertheless, feel free to add any rebuttals in the comment section of each post. I hope my journal will appease your appetite.

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