The Food Freak

Cooking, dining, and appreciating food through the written word. A young West-Coast food-lover has been displaced to numerous small towns and cities on the East Coast; in New Jersey, New England, and now the Hudson Valley. This is his story.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Thai Spice!

In honor of today's military coup, a brief review of two Thai restaurants.

It's hard to find a lover of ethnic food who is not a fan of Thai. Thai food is everything you can love about any exotic cuisine. The ingredients are always fresh, diverse, heavily spiced, and completely unique. Aromatic Thai basil is remarkable to smell and taste in both lightly steamed dishes and heavy garlic and chili dishes. Kafir lime leaves add a je ne sais quoi to soupy rich curry dishes that cannot be duplicated. Lemongrass is very subtlely herbal, not acidic and bright like lemon or zest. Together, these three flavors and smells give you a cuisine unlike any other, so unique that the first taste will spark your fascination.

Like most great Asian cuisines, Thai food divides between the ala carte savory dishes that you order family-style with your guests each having a bit of everything with their bowls of sticky rice, and the fried rice and noodle dishes that people enjoy on their own (though no one said you couldn't share them). Thai food in America is markedly less spicy than truly authentic Thai cuisine, which will kill the average American in a matter of seconds. (Thai chilis are up there with habaneros in terms of hotness). Also like other great Asian cuisines in America, it is almost impossible to do Thai well in areas without a significant enough population of immigrants to sustain a restaurant. In such environments, restaurants can order the abundance of fresh herbs, vegetables, noodles, and meats to make the great dishes without a concern of spoilage.

I have recently been to two Thai restaurants, one in the Hudson Valley, not known for its Thai diaspora, and one in Queens, known for its many diasporas. Night and Day.

Lemongrass Thai Cuisine in New Paltz has been voted the best Thai Restaurant in the Hudson Valley for a few years now. I think it must be the only Thai restaurant in the Hudson Valley. It is decent, completely average, good enough to go to when you can't make the two hour journey to Queens. The herbs are at least correctly used and the dishes are fresh. However, they skimp on the meat, overloading your dish with par cooked vegetables that barely deserve to be in a Thai dish. The presentation is nice and neat, and the seasoning good. All in all, it is good enough to be called decent Thai for the suburbanite interested enough to experiment but frightened of anything too far from four-door sedans, apple pie, and picket fences. Lemongrass is the place to go to because you miss eating Thai and can’t make it to the nearest Thai community. But compared to what is possible....Lemongrass pales.

Then there is Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens. Absolutely remarkable in terms of authenticity of herbs, spices, curries, right down to the thickness and width of the fat rice noodles and the mixed chili concoction they place on top of their fried red snapper. But even on top of that, with the exception of the fish, which was slightly overcooked, the curry dishes, meat dishes, and the steamed mussels were PERFECTLY cooked in terms of temperature, texture, and tenderness. Steamed mussels with Thai basil and beef satay were our appetizers. The mussels were large, tender, not rubbery, and the flavor of wilted basil made them absolutely delightful. The satay was tender, not chewy, glistening with sizzle, and served with a peanut sauce to die for.

From there it was green curry chicken, duck with bamboo shoots (they even got the bamboo texture right, not too raw, not too mushy, just perfect!), and drunken noodles (And the aforementioned red snapper). My only criticisms is that the drunken noodles deserved much better quality beef, (not ground beef you cheapskates, try sirloin or rib eye or even tenderloin!), and the fish was fried a tad too long, making the surface a little too crunchy and the meat less than perfectly tender. Portions were huge, they weren't stingy with the meat whatsoever, and didn't water down their dishes with a questionable choice of vegetables like Lemongrass Thai. All in all, it was one of the most authentic and delightful Thai experiences I have ever had. We all hail Sripraphai, and hope that suburbanites become adventurous enough to allow owners of suburban Thai restaurants to follow suit.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Dinner at the Diner

New Jersey is the home of very many good diners, my favorite being the Americana Diner in East Windsor. The Americana has about a thousand items on its menu, about 80% of which are very good. That's a huge compliment for a Diner. Usually, a diner is good if only 80% of the food is BAD...that would mean a whole 20% of the menu is decent. Pretty good considering Diner food is the ancestor of fast food.

I've only really found a handful of diners with good statistical profiles. Americana is definitely by far the best. Compare the Americana to the horrendous excuse for a local favorite P.J.'s Pancake House in Princeton (who actually got the "pancakes.com" domain name!). Americana's pancakes, waffles, and french toast have a light fluffiness to them without even a hint of cooking grease or the flavor of old food off the grill or griddle. The fruit toppings are fresh, the bacon lightly crispy and never dark. You cannot fail at Americana with any of their sandwiches, including the souvlaki, something non-Greek diners get very wrong all the time. And the Mile-high Meatloaf? My god! P.J.'s fruit, on the other hand, is frozen, defrosted on the counter to a hideous brown. The pancakes taste of the stale corn oil they use on the grill, and their savory dishes taste like they were concocted by a Denny's reject. Why there are lines at PJ's every weekend is beyond me.

One of my first projects here in the Hudson Valley is to visit every single restaurant on the "Best of Hudson Valley" list. I've actually made it to MANY of them in the short time I have been here, and my reviews will be slowly posted as time permits. Today's emphasis is on the Diner.

Eveready Diner in Hyde Park has consistently been the number one Diner in this magazine. It was the second diner I went to in the Hudson Valley. I've also been to the Millbrook Diner in Millbrook, the Acropolis Diner in Poughkeepsie, and Alex's Restaurant in downtown Poughkeepsie. I will not dignify Alex's Restaurant with even a negative review. The Acropolis, decent enough for a 1am snack, since it is the only thing in Poughkeepsie open 24 hours. Otherwise, not worth mentioning too much.

My favorite thus far has been the Millbrook Diner. The Millbrook Diner has a remarkable quality; the food, building, town, and people seem to be part of the same experience. I felt that I was thrown into 1950s American middle-class wholesomeness. The scrambled eggs did not look like anything I would call such, but I dug right in and I found a soft fluffiness hiding underneath a less than completely attractive exterior that made me think "Wow, if I had a white-middle-class, mother-who-is-a-homemaker, Wonder-Years kind of childhood, this would taste just like home!" How much better a compliment can you give a good diner? I looked around at the customers, cars, and town and thought I was cast as the ethnic extra in a Hollywood movie set in small town America circa 1961.

Which brings me to Eveready. I would put Eveready in the half-way decent range. The look and decor are correct, there is just enough good items on the menu (the French Dip, excellent) to warrant coming back, but also enough downright crappy items to warrant a verdict of OVERRATED! Iceberg lettuce, radishes, cherry tomato salads with Italian dressing (are you kidding me?), unseasoned egg and chicken salad, overly-creamed mac n' cheese...come on, these are Diner standards! If I were Eveready, I would settle with cutting the menu in half and getting the classics right.

All in all, I still need to find a good enough local diner to be a regular hang out. It would be a shame if the Hudson Valley fell behind New Jersey in any respect, especially in matters of food.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mexican on the East Coast

The biggest and most familiar complaint from West coasters like myself moving East is the lack of Mexican food and the lack of respect for Mexican food we find out here near the Atlantic. Your Chevy's and On the Border's insult us and all of the cultures of Mexico they purport to represent. I believe that it is immoral, not just lame and unfortunate, but downright immoral, to pass awful food off to an unknowing American public as "Mexican" or "Italian" or "Indian". People eat mediocre-to-awful food and then believe "Ah, that's Mexican, I don't think I like Mexican" or Indian or Middle-Eastern or whatever. In the process, you have bastardized the culinary offspring of an entire culture. Imagine, you East Coasters, the Chinese, Japanese, or South Americans thinking that all there is to "pizza" is Domino's, or all there is to Italian is Olive Garden.

But my ranting aside, I have been told, and have since confirmed, that the Hudson Valley is one of the few places on the East Coast with a growing and vibrant community of Mexican immigrants building small enclaves of bakeries, eateries, and markets. Poughkeepsie in particular sparked my interest. I have tried three such places; El Bracero, Mole Mole, and Tacocina.

Tacocina (on Route 9 in Wappinger Falls) is by far my favorite at the moment. For a Southern Californian, the food can be best described as "good taco-truck tacos and rice and beans." For you East Coasters who do not know what a taco-truck is, I'll give you a more complete review. Tacocina is a little grocery-mart with a kitchen in the back. They make fresh corn tortillas, the little three inch kind, and have a wide array of meats simmering together for your choosing. The meat is chopped fresh and placed in two corn tortillas with just onions and cilantro. Tacos are are $1. Meats include chicken, beef, carnitas (pork), and all your favorite innards, from tripe to brain. My favorites so far are the beef and the longanisa, a Mexican sausage with a rich cinnamony and herby kick. Enchiladas are made with fresh, simple cheeses and the green and red salsas are all homemade. Grab yourself four tacos and a horchata and you have a beautiful $5 taste of Central-Northern Mexican cuisine. I hear through the grapevine Tacocina
is the local favorite of the Culinary Institute of America chef's-in-training.

I would recommend El Bracero also, but I need to try it a few more times to get a complete opinion. Mole Mole is good, but not great. Their items are on the greasier side and do not taste as fresh. They do not make their own fresh hot sauces. Their carne asada is well seasoned, but not seared at a high enough temperature for caramelization, a necessity for good carne asada. In terms of quality of ingredients, Tacocina beats them all. But both Mole Mole and El Bracero remind me of East LA, which says a lot on the East Coast.

One complaint about both Tacocina and El Bracero. Is it a Oaxacan norm to leave the pork-shoulder skin on for Carnitas, and then to chop it up and serve it with the carnitas tacos? If so, I find it much too greasy and chewy. I've never had carnitas like this in California, but then again, I didn't know a lot of Oaxacans in California.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Nation, On Food

Attending to the social, political, and ecological consequences of what you eat does not thereby render your food experiences devoid of pleasure. Freshmen in college literature classes often complain that the level of analysis they are forced to perform on a novel completely depletes them of their sense of pleasure in reading fiction. But of course literature students eventually grow to appreciate a novel when reading it in an intellectual way, whereas they only enjoy it when they read it purely viscerally. Enjoyment is fleeting, appreciation is far more robust.

The Food Issue of the Nation restates unfortunately familiar themes and facts about the ecology and economics of food production. Less of a focus, however, does it place on the culture of food consumption. We know that large amounts of agricultural subsidies keep the prices of unhealthy foods artificially low, the most environomentally damaging foods the most available ones, and healthy wholesome foods completely inaccessible. We know that such policies slowly lead to ill physical health among ourselves and, most frighteningly, our children. Such policies lead very quickly to ill ecological health. Finally, we know that it promotes a poor culture of food consumption, where most of our food is neither appreciated, nor enjoyed, but consumed and propagated like a narcotic.

Notably absent from the Nation is any mention of the class issues involved in the culture of food consumption. PBS once did a remarkably illuminating series on class in America in which they documented a community's attempt to turn an abandoned building into a food market. Competing for the space was a standard chain supermarket and a Co-op. At issue were 99 cent loaves of white bread, a symbol of the class issues involved at the local level. Poorer residents were up in arms protesting the Co-op. Co-ops no longer represent hippy-food shopping in American class culture, but rather yuppy-food shopping. A huge invisible class line outlines the Co-op, and even your Whole Foods and Wild Oats of America. The only specialty food store that I have seen break this class barrier is Trader Joe's, and only in its home-state of California do I see the class barrier virtually non-existent at its stores. (In general, California food shopping is much less class-segregated than the East Coast, a fact I think due to its ethnic diversity.)

I won't comment about the issue of class in food consumption now, but I think it will make a very good future issue of your favorite left-wing (or right-wing) magazine.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

An experiment for a Friday night

The Hudson Valley has no large asian supermarket as far as I can see. This means, among other things, no jars of Korean BBQ sauce in my pantry, a staple in my home for quick 30-minute, no-thought meals. I just throw any piece of meat I can find from the fridge or freezer (most likely some form of dark-meat chicken or lean pork chop) into a saute pan with a healthy dose of Korean BBQ sauce, cover and braise in the oven, with white rice and a steamed leafy vegetable, and I have a flavorful meal with 10 minutes work and 20 minutes cooking time. As you see, the lack of an asian supermarket trickles down to being a serious problem of daily life, leading to more time cooking, and possibly affecting everything from work productivity to daily stress. This is one of the Food Freak's main anxieties.

The essense of BBQ sauce is the combination of sweet, savory, and spice. Americans use salt separately from their sauces, and use the sugars for color and caramelization. Their sauces tend to be tangy, using the acid to balance the enormous amounts of sugar that are common to everything American. Asian BBQ sauces emphasize savoriness and spice more than sweetness. Asians tend to use soy for flavor and color and lighter fruit juices for sweetness, although small amounts of brown sugar are common. A good Korean BBQ sauce uses Korean pear juice (those large round pears that look like pale-green apples), is never too salty, and has a healthy amount of garlic and ginger chunks. Differences in the ratios of soy to herbs/spices to pear juice will render different sauces for different meats. The Koreans have perfected the right combinations for beef, which differ from the right combination for pork, which differ from chicken. I myself found a sauce I thought was useful for all kinds of meats, including salmon and white fish.

Which brings me to my point. Not having any Korean BBQ sauce has forced me to think creatively. Soy is available everywhere. Using the good Tamari I have in my fridge, I am going to try to make myself a small batch of all-purpose Asian BBQ sauce using what I know about good Asian sauces. I will try to find pear juice or pear nectar, but if I can't find it, a good apple juice will have do. At first, I will try equal parts chopped garlic, to chopped ginger, to chopped shallots, and a splash of rice wine vinegar for a little acidity. Cooked together with the tamari and reduced to at least a half, I will see what I come up with. I am sure I will need to add water and corn starch, but let's see how things work for now.

I am sure that, after a good amount of experimentation, I will be able to concoct something useful. Once I do that, its all a matter of jaring, freezing, and then plenty more 30-minute dinners! If I discover something exceptionally good, I will post it here.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rustic Authenticity versus Subtle Gourmet

The flavors of "authentic" dishes are a lot harder to describe, review, and critique than upscale gourmet dishes. With gourmet, originality and complexity are necessary to the overall experience of the dish, as are expensive ingredients, and the many years of training and work-experience behind the creation of that dish. None of these necessary elements for a good gourmet dish are part of good authentic ethnic cuisine.

An good "authentic" dish is not necessarily a dish with a specific, untainted ethnic history, and is not necessarily a dish that is true to the history and tradition of that dish. A taco, filled with tender chopped carne asada in two three-inch fresh corn tortillas, accompanied by nothing more than chopped white onions and cilantro, is an authentic dish. Stir-fried clams in black bean sauce, fried over a ridiculously hot wok, with peppers, onions, and a squirt of everything from oyster sauce to sesame oil, is an authentic dish. But so is Kushari, the Egyptian dish of rice, pasta, and lentils in a seasoned tomato sauce, a dish that screams of Egypt's colonial past and the fusion of ingredients and cooking techniques that always accompany such histories. None of these are good dishes in virtue of their "authenticity" in any interestingly anthopological sense of that word.

Yet, I think there is something to the judgment that some good ethnic dishes are good because they are authentic, and others not. What is the difference? Here is one thing I could think of. I think authentic dishes should be characterized as rustic, not in the literal sense of being "charmingly simple and unsophisticated" and "lacking refinement or coarse", although many authentic dishes are these things. Rather, I think of good authentic ethnic dishes as rustic in the sense that we mean the word when we want to characterize a film, a book, a picture, or a song, as beautifully rustic. We understand what this sense of "rustic" means, because we have all seen and felt rustic art and entertainment. The good authentic ethnic dish is beautifully rustic in taste and texture in the same way that the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" is beautifully rustic to the ear. It comforts even when it is novel; the experience survives seconds, thirds, and fourths, and even at breakfast the next morning. Authentic dishes remind us that the simple life-which requires the transformation of a very limited number of coarse ingredients into a desireable meal- and not the abundant one, spawns the richest culinary creativity.

So while not everyone has the taste to appreciate the subtlety and complexity of high gourmet meals, in all of their expense and lavishness, what we always miss when far from home is the rustic authenticity of our favorite ethnic meals, especially those of our home cultures. Eliminate the dreaded balsamic reductions, foie gras, and white asparagus dishes of the world and they will be missed very little. Eliminate carnitas tacos, lamb kababs, steamed red snapper with soy, ginger and scallions, and blueberry pancakes with warm maple syrup, and you lose a life worth living!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hudson Valley Ribfest (versus Maine Lobster Festival)

Almost exactly a year ago, I drove up to Rockland, Maine for the Maine Lobster Festival. I probably ate between 3-4 lobsters that day, as well as a plate of steamed mussels, and to my memory, some sort of fried shrimp sandwich. My biggest surprise at the Maine Lobster Festival was that all of the lobster was cooked one way; big crates of them were steamed at one time. You would spend about $20 for one or two 1.5-pounders with some butter and bread. Gently steamed or poached shellfish and fresh fish is a staple of the New England diet , as well as in the Far East, most notably Japan and eastern China. I enjoyed the lobster very much, but I expected much more from a Lobster Festival. I had hoped to find interesting ways of cook ing lobster, a competition of creative lobster dishes, and things of that sort. Walk into any good Chinese Seafood Restaurant (and in this country this only means Southern California), and you will find stir-fried lobster with ginger and scallions, deep-fried lobster with spicy salt and garlic, lobster with black bean-garlic sauce, just to name a few. And these are just ONE ethinc group's alternative to steamed lobster. Look into Mexican and Latin-American seafood, and of course Japanese, and you have all kind of interesting ideas for a Lobster Festival.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed my experience at the Maine Lobster Festival (who can ever reasonably complain about simple, sweet, and succulent Maine lobster?). This year, I found myself at the Hudson Valley Rib Festival at the Ulster County Fairgrounds in New Paltz, NY. This festival was a little bit more of what I expected from a food festival dedicated to one type of food (although notably absent again was any Asian or Latin-American rendition of ribs. Look for my recipe for East Asian-style BBQ ribs in the near future) . The festival was much much smaller that the Maine Festival, and it was only the second time they've done it. Moreover, the festival was in the state of NY, not Missouri or Texas, not the most famous American region for slow-cooked smoked meat. Nonetheless, there were five rib-vendors and a few dozen competitors who had booths though no food to vend. The five rib-venders were Smoke N' Dudes of Pennsylvania, Big Moe's M&M of Boston, Elia's Texas Connection, of New York by way of Texas, Jack's Firehouse of Philly, and the local favorite, Hickory House BBQ restaurant.

First, the negatives; Big Moe's was perhaps my least favorite, which is not to say it did not have its own positives and character. It was clear that the ribs were pre-boiled because the pork had an almost watery quality to it. The smoke flavor was present, but Big Moe's ribs were cut and served only with a drizzle of sauce on top. For me, this made a bad combination. Sauceless ribs with the sauce added upon serving only works when the ribs are dry, caramelized, and well seasoned. These qualities made Hickory House stand out, and Big Moe's seem like you were eating roasted pork rather than ribs. Hickory House clearly cooked their ribs in the smoker, with a simple rub, finished on the grill. You could put sauce on top if you wish (their sauce was not worth it: watery, runny, and flavorless). However, with Big Moe's, the ribs were almost like eating smoky boiled meat. Their sauce was also watery and a little too "Tabascoey" for my taste, orange, thin, vinegary, and peppery. I can see how some people might like Big Moe's, since it was very juicy. Me, I like my ribs drier.

I would return to the Hickory House again for a meal, since it is the local joint. I would enjoy their ribs for what they are; simple, decently BBQ'd dry ribs. The texture was quite nice; you put a little bit of work into it in order to get the meat to fall off the bone. In contrast, one can have ribs where one bite would give you all of the meat from the bone, or ribs where you work hard to clean the meat off. Hickory House was perfect in that respect, as were the other vendors. However, as I mentioned before, their sauce really blew, and their ribs in no respect stood out from the crowd.

Elia's Texas Connection was the best, in my opinion, in terms of meat texture and smokiness. The smoke flavor permeated the meat beautifully. Elia's fault was that the sauce, while added to the ribs on top of the grill (my favorite method), was not as caramelized as it could have been, leading to a more saucy, rawer flavor than a crispy sweet flavor. The sauce was also MUCH too sweet.

Which leads me to my favorite, by FAR, Smoke N' Dudes. Texture, color, caramelization, quality of sauce, level of sweetness to savoriness, all were absolutely perfect. The ribs had a crispiness to them, not just where the MEAT was caramelized, but where the SAUCE was caramelized also! No burnt spots, neither too salty nor saucy, they were the perfect ribs. I also attended a demonstration done by the guy from Smoke N' Dudes, and, it turns out that simplicity is everything. Equal parts salt, pepper, sugar as the base of your rub, paprika and garlic to your taste, and that's it. I had the sampler platter from Smoke N' Dudes, and they had the best pulled pork also, great cole slaw, and great baked beans. The beef brisket was good for what it was, but nowhere near as flavorful as the other items.

As for Jack's Firehouse, I am sad to say I did not try their ribs. However, I did have their pulled pork, smoked sausage, and bbq chicken breast. The pulled pork was awful. The meat was almost like mashed potatoes, small and fibery like baby-food. If the texture wasn't bad enough, the sauce was much too vinegary; it tasted like someone put red salad dressing onto mashed pork. Jack's redeemed themselves with their smoked sausage and BBQ chicken breast, but they get demerits for going the chicken-breast route...who goes to a BBQ for chicken and asks for the breast? The answer, all you white coastal Americans, since you have all convinced yourselves that you do not like dark meat....you are delusional. Dark meat is objectively better tasting. Fattier, more chicken flavor, more bone. I'm going to have to side with the Southerners, Midwesterners, and foreigners on the chicken meat. Dark meat is the way to go. For a mesculun salad with a light Balsamic (puke) vinaigrette, get yourself some grilled chicken breast. For BBQ, it’s a big fat leg with the skin on, preferrably with back meat.

I look forward to the RibFest next year. Good luck on the People's Choice Award, Smoke N' Dudes! You had my vote!