Thursday, August 31, 2006

Country comes to the city

We’ve seen this happen before--Texas-style barbecue served in NYC. When Pearson’s Texas BBQ was in Long Island City (before LIC was a destination), it was worth the trip to sit outside on its patio and eat a plate of brisket and pickles. If you squinted through the haze you could pretend the Manhattan skyline was just a grove of Hill Country pecan trees. Then he became ambitious, moved to the upper East side, and that’s the last I heard of Pearson’s. Its arrival in Manhattan was eagerly anticipated, but when the reviews rolled in the big question was, “Where’s the smoke?” And before I even had a chance to check it out for myself, it was closed.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dolly: a cook of many colors

Dolly Parton, while not a Texan, is still fabulous. And besides being a fantastic singer (Jolene is one of the best songs ever) and hilarious actor (after 26 years, 9-to-5 still feels fresh), she can also cook. White Trash BBQ writes that she has a new cookbook of Tennessee family recipes, and 100% of the net proceeds benefit the The Dollywood Foundation which promotes literacy to disadvantaged preschool children. But even better, if you buy the book you’re entered into a contest to have a bbq with Dolly and 100 of your closest friends. Good luck, and hopefully it’ll be you and not those people two doors down laughing and drinking and having a party.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A tale of two restaurants

“Buenos dias, La Asuncion,” said the woman who answered the phone. I asked her what time the restaurant closes. Silence. I heard a bang and then two people rapidly talking in Spanish. In the background was the joyful bounce of conjunto music. “Buenos dias, La Ascuncion,” said a male voice. “What time does your restaurant close?” I queried again. “No hablo ingles. Nadie aqui hablo ingles,” he said. So I dusted off my college Spanish and said, ‘Vale, a que hora esta la restaurante cerrada?” He didn’t understand me, I reckon, because he just hung up the phone without saying a word. An excellent beginning, I thought. This Mexican restaurant is the real deal!

La Asuncion is a Mexican restaurant on Fort Hamilton Parkway marooned in a neighborhood that is predominantly Hasidic. Something told me it could be The One. And after a Mexican meal on Friday at the fancy-pants Crema, that had some highs:(the smooth, bacony refried black beans, the habanero salsa that could moonlight as a chili pepper bisque, and the beef tenderloin taco appetizer with its flavorful acquiescent chunks of meat),and some lows: (the much-touted chocolate cake that had an annoying, sandy crunch, the flavorless guacamole, the undercooked zucchini and the Styrofoam tortilla chips), all at Manhattan prices ($12 for a teaspoon of guac? $8 for chips and salsa? You’ve got to be kidding)—I was ready for some good cheap Mex.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

To bean or not to bean

Melissa admits in the comments of a previous post that she, a native Texan, cooks her Texas Red with beans. That gave me pause, but I bit my tongue and said nothing. I used to become all biblical when people admitted they added beans to their chili because I was a firm believer that chili wasn’t true chili if it had beans; it was meat and bean soup. And yes, some places like Wendy’s serve a dish they call chili but it’s just ground beef, tomato and beans in broth. But I’ve realized that most people make their chili with beans, and I’ve had the pleasure of eating their spicy concoctions. And more often than not, it felt like a bowl of chili, never mind the beans. So if most of the world puts beans in their chili, does this make it the standard? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t add beans to my chili--it's just meat, chili peppers and secret spices. And to many of the uninitiated it seems bizarre. “What, no beans?” said one friend when I gave him a bowl (he was a NYC chili champion and yes, he uses beans). But he ate it, and while deeming it unlike any chili he’d ever had, it conceded it was still the best chili he’d ever had (OK, I’m not immodest about my Texas Red, but, hey, everyone needs one thing they’re good at, right?). So to bean or not to bean, that is the question. What do you think?

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Texas in the Times

The Sunday Times has two articles about Texas today, both focusing on the Texas art scene. In Hollywood Stampedes a Texas Town, and Tranquility Rides into the Sunset, Whitney Joiner writes about two recent big movies filmed in Marfa, one by the Coen brothers and another by P. Thomas Anderson. Joiner’s focus is on how Marfa is unaffected by the influx of celebrities, as it’s not only used to big movies (Giant was filmed there back in the 50’s) but it’s also become an international art destination due to the Chinati Foundation. But the one thing about the article that tickled me was its notes about Marfa restaurants. Everything closes at 9 and nothing’s open on a Sunday (my header above was taken at Carmen’s CafĂ©, in Marfa). So that leaves you with one dining option—the gas station. But oh what a gas station! They have a Texas delicacy there I (now) call a fried burrito. They just call it a burrito, and no, it’s not a chimichanga. It’s a flour tortilla wrapped several times around a simple filling of spicy ground beef (and sometimes beans). And it’s fried a bit, but not enough for it to become super crisp. Instead, there’s a thin shell but you can unwrap the thing and work through the soft, greasy tortilla folds on a hunt for the center. Or not—the filling isn’t the prettiest thing in the world (brown and lumpy) but oh my, it sure does taste good. Growing up, my school cafeteria sold these, and for the longest time, this is what I thought was a burrito, not those crazy overstuffed West Coast concoctions pumped up with rice, beans and anything else lying around the kitchen. This is simple and pure, and if you find yourself in Marfa (or any other Texas town that has a gas station with fried food) do yourself a favor and try one. You won’t be sorry.

In Lone Star Style, Cathy Horyn takes a look at the gallery scene across the state and seems surprised it’s so energetic. Well why wouldn’t it be? Every Texan is an artist, a colorful piece adding the state’s self-created mythical mosaic. Think about it: if you go to Tokyo, and say you’re from Ohio, nobody cares. But if you say you’re a Texan, well then that’s something to discuss. People either love us or hate us, but no matter what side of the fence they’re on, nobody is neutral, and that’s all part of our charm.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

These boots are made for cooking

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Five things to eat before you die

The Traveler's Lunchbox is compiling a brilliant list of 5 things everyone must eat in their life. It's a difficult task to narrow the choices, but here are five of my favorite things.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rack and roll

I awoke on Monday and my bag had been delivered. Hurrah! Tired of Northern Alabama, I hightailed it south to Tuscaloosa, home of the legendary Dreamland. It's nestled on a side street off the interestingly named Jug Factory Road (no jugs but lots of tires). Unfortunately, it’s a tourist haunt now, so the walls are plastered with Dreamland’s national press. They open early (10 am) so I had a short stack of ribs for breakfast—that’s all they sell. You have a choice of two sides, white bread and potato chips. And at that early hour, the place was packed. But it was mostly fellow travelers, and I had to giggle when I overheard this exchange: I’d like salmon. (No, we only serve ribs). Chicken? (No, we only serve ribs). Pulled pork? (How many ribs would you like, sir?). Oh, I guess I’ll have the ribs. Drowning in sauce, the meat wasn't as tender as I'd like, but the flavor was tasty.

Next I hit Miss Myra’s in Birmingham. Smoky goodness greeted me as got out of the car, and the meat served (pulled pork and more ribs) was juicy and flavorful. Her Alabama white sauce was tangy and thin, sort of in-between Big Bob’s and Greenbrier's.

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New York City? Get a rope!

My second day in Alabama had me still bagless, and Continental wasn’t forthcoming with any information. Very frustrating. But not to be beaten, I hit the road again, exploring Northern Alabama’s culinary treats. Well, it being Sunday, and Jesus being very much in charge, I found most places closed. The few places that were open for business, were obviously ran by heathens even though the after-church crowd didn’t see any hypocrisy in dining out on a Sunday.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Alabama roadtrip blues

On my first day in Alabama, I spent most of the day dealing with lost luggage, so I wasn't able to cover as much ground as I had hoped. The main reason why I prefer to fly nonstop when I have checked bags is to avoid having lost luggage, but Continental didn't load about a 1/3 of the plane's bags (nobody knows why), so I spent hours trying to find it (still hasn't been found) and stocking up on basic necessities like clothes and toothpaste. But the real upset is that I packed my tripod so I wasn't able to do any night shots. But lost luggage is another rant for another day, and at least Continental is giving me $75 a day until they return my bag to me. I needed new undergarments and mascara, so thank you, Continental!

But what about Alabama bbq? Well, it's funny. Something has happened to this state, and I can't quite figure out what's wrong, but the only sport I heard on the radio was the Yankees/Red Sox game, and there are about 10-times more Mexican restaurants than bbq joints in the two places I've explored, Cullman and Decatur. I thought this state was bbq mad, but everyone I talk to could care less, and they'd rather go to either a Mexican place or Applebees.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sweet roam Alabama

I'm going to abandon the NYC taco trail for a few days so I can finally pursue a 4-year curiousity of mine: Alabama white sauce. I've long been fascinated by Alabama, as one of my favorite photographers, Walker Evans, had his defining artistic moment in the state. And while I may be Texan, I always embarrassed my family by requesting mayonnaise on my hamburgers and hot dogs. When I heard that northern Alabamans plop a variation of mayonnaise on their chicken, pork and other smoked meats, I knew that I had to check it out firsthand. I'll be roaming around northern Alabama eating at such famed places as Big Bob Gibson's BBQ and Greenbrier BBQ, but the real treat of the trip will be finding little hole in the wall joints that big media doesn't deem worthy. Being in Alabama (and Lord knows when I'll return) I also plan on hitting Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, home of (purportedly) the best ribs ever made. A friend who spent time at the Anniston Star has also pointed me in the direction of some unique finds, the most exciting being an ice cream shack in Heflin that also sells BBQ.

Watch this space for full reports of my road trip--hopefully Alabama has embraced wireless Internet.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Taco Tour: Pampano Taqueria

Pampano Taqueria is the taco-stand little brother of the expensive Pampano. If you’re not familiar with Pampano, it’s a high-end Mexican restaurant owned by Placido Domingo and chef Richard Sandoval. Operated in a soulless food court in midtown Manhattan, the place is only open from 11-3 and draws a big corporate crowd. And no wonder: with tacos priced at $2.50 (even some hole in the walls are now charging $3 per taco), it’s an inexpensive quasi-gourmet lunch. Or at least in theory.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

The Rachael papers

Rachael Ray is filming her new show across the street from my office in midtown Manhattan. And because we're so susceptible to even the slightest brush with celebrity, we often stare out the window and watch the tourists queue up to see Rachael live. Last week, one of my colleagues became extremely excited when he thought he saw Rachael herself talking to the people on line. Unfortunately, it was just a flack telling the people they hadn't made the cut to be in the studio audience. Alas, he'll have to wait another day to see his Ray of sunshine.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

There's the R.U.B.

It's taken me a year to gather up the courage to give R.U.B. (aka Righteous Urban BBQ) another chance, and after devouring some burnt ends and St. Louis ribs, I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Yes, it's amazing what a year does to a place. And never mind all the naysayers claiming that R.U.B. is an emperor in no clothes--believe me, things have changed. It's all about the smoke and they finally captured it. Each bite was a smoky, spicy, slightly sweet joy; no sauce needed. And after my meal I flossed but (contrary to my usual practice) I refused to brush just so I could continue to savor the smoky goodness. As for the sides--they're fine, (I had the onion strings and vinegar cole slaw) but BBQ is about meat, and R.U.B. knows how to smoke it. I'm glad I've rediscovered them, and delighted they're right around the corner. It isn't Kreuz's, but it's a more-than-decent substitute for any New Yorker looking for some 'cue.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Smoke and mirrors

A few months ago, Tom Ryder, the Chairman of Reader's Digest, took a BBQ tour of the Texas Hill Country. And even though he lives in Connecticut, he's no slouch on his 'cue credentials: southern, owns a chain of CT bbq joints called the Cookhouse and is a partner in NY's Blue Smoke. So I read his missives on my homeland with great anticipation. And most of the time he was pretty spot on in his descriptions, even though he didn't like Kreuz's Market and his party was upset when no sauce was served. But it's one's man's taste and one man's opinion. And even if you don't agree with his observations I highly recommend going through the full online package as it offers up a ton of information through words, photos and videos. And then you can be inspired to take your own BBQ tour of the Texas Hill Country.

Speaking of the Cookhouse, the NY Times reviewed the joint on Sunday. As usual when it comes to East Coast reviews of bbq, there was a humdinger of a comment that made me wonder where they find these writers. "The brisket is beautifully cooked but, served as it is without broth, its lovely flavor gets lost in the intensity of the smoke and sweet that pervades all the food here." Broth? With your barbecue brisket? This isn't grandma's Sunday brisket served with carrots and potatoes. If you don't know what something is, what gives you the right to pass judgment on it? The writer even concedes in the last graf, "The Cookhouse is not my style," meaning she doesn't know anything about bbq. So I still have no idea if the place is good or not, but I aim to check it out and pay my respects to Mr. Ryder.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Taco Tour: Los Mexicanos 14th Street taco cart

Is it possible to find redemption in a taco? It is when you find food this good. Los Mexicanos "La Poblanita" taco cart promises home cooking, and if this is what Mexican home cooking tastes like, I live in the wrong country. Unfortunately, only on Sundays will you find these ladies grilling meat, stuffing tacos, and even patting out fresh flour tortillas for deep-fried quesadillas. Their predominant customer base is the Mexican congregants of Our Lady of Guadalupe church on 14th between 8th and 9th Avenues, and along with the taco cart, there are other venders selling other Mexican treasures such as horchata, elote, and fruit on a stick. It's all very authentic, and everyone is super friendly.

Everything looked and smelled delicious, so I was having a difficult time choosing what to order. I asked the woman what was the best and she recommended the barbacoa. That makes sense, as barbacoa de cabeza is a traditional Sunday Mexican dish. I also ordered the pernil. While the flour tortillas were homemade, the corn tortillas were from a bag. But they threw them on the well-oiled grill so they were perfectly cooked with terrific texture, taste and support. They are generous with the meat and you also have the option to load up the tacos with three salsas, cilantro, onions and lettuce. But this meat is so sublime, you could get away with just eating the meat and tortillas by themselves, these tacos don't need any enhancements.

First, the barbacoa: I've been looking for proper bar-b-que in this town, and I finally found it. The meat tasted of smoke and spices, yet was so tender it melted in my mouth. The pernil, while not as delectable as the barbacoa, was still amazing. Crispy yet not too chewy, also perfectly spiced and with just enough fat to make me happy. The three salasa all had the perfect balance of flavor and heat, and were all so different I used all three. There were two green salsas, an avocado and tomatillo salsa (that was so popular they were almost out of it) and a brightly flavored jalapeno, cilantro, tomatillo and lime salsa. The red salsa was rich and deep, and tasted like a blend of pureed anchos with tomatoes and garlic. Los Mexicanos also has big buckets of cilantro, onions and lettuce--enough to make taco salad if you like. When you dress your taco, everything is in harmony. And the double tortillas are a perfect wrap to keep this meal intact. There's no place to sit, but I had no problem standing and eating--these ladies have mastered taco architecture. And they're also parked under a row of trees, so it's shady and cool, a perfect respite on a hot summer day.

I can't say enough good things about these tacos. All I know is that if I hadn't been full, I would have ordered everything else on the menu. Too bad I have to wait another week to return, but you know where I'll be next Sunday.

Recommendation: Barbacoa is sublime, but it's all good
Score: 9 (I wish they had fresh corn tortillas)
Location: 14th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, south side of street, Manhattan

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Taco Tour: Great Burrito

I decided to embark my Taco Tour in my own backyard, Chelsea. In a neighborhood drowning in high-end Mexican restaurants (Rocking Horse, Suenos, Crema) and Chinese-owned taquerias, I was surprised to find a true Mexican-owned hole-in-the-wall only a block away. I had passed this place many times, but had never been convinced it was worth a visit due to its lack of air conditioning and the swarming flies and dirty floor. But I've been to Mexico, and have eaten in places far worse for aesthetic value. And hey, when tacos are concerned, the quality of food can sometimes be in an inverse proportion to a restaurant's atmosphere. So I decided to give Great Burrito a chance.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

NYC Taco Tour

Hungry for tacos? If you read last week's NY Times article, you might think you have to fly all the way to LA to enjoy this delectable dish. But it ain't true. While I am partial to my homeland's Mexican/Tex-Mex treats, I do believe there are some good tacos to be found in this town. And to prove my theory, starting today I am embarking on a taco tour of New York City. From the Bronx to the Battery, from Queens to Brooklyn and yes, I'll even take the ferry to Staten Island (which is rumored to have the best tacos of all five boroughs). I'll probably hit all the usual faves, but I'm hoping, in the spirit of discovery and adventure, to unearth some new gems as well. I won't put a time limit on this tour, but I will be posting often on what I eat. In the spirit of fair judgment, I will keep my tacos simple: tortilla, meat and salsa, with cilantro, onions and lime added if available. There will be no cheese, sour cream, lettuce or guacamole added to my tacos as not every place offers these extras. I will only be hitting places ran by Mexicans or perhaps the odd Texan or Californian, so you will not find any Fresh Tortillas or Taco Bell tacos on my taco tour. And my scoring will be conducted thusly: As in life, every taco begins with a clean slate. Starting at 10, points will be subtracted for quality of tortilla, quality of meat, quality of salsa and availability of aforementioned simple garnishes: cilantro, lime and onions. It's that simple. I'm not going to judge a place on atmosphere, service (unless it's completely abysmal) or location. I'm just doing this for the food. And hopefully, I'll find enough yummy ones that I can help other New Yorkers plan their own taco tours. Que aprovecho!

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