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.