Isaan Road Trip

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

I am rubbish on road trips. I can’t drive, and I don’t like to read maps or mess around with GPS. I am good with the radio, but if it’s not Boston, or Led Zeppelin, or Rush, I will probably try to rush past your favorite song in pursuit of something from one of these three groups. My friend Karen (@karenblumberg) can tell you I’m rubbish on road trips, if you asked her (but she wouldn’t, because she’s loyal and kind and my best friend), but, for some reason, Chin (@chilipastetour) and Anne (@anneskitchen) are both willing to spend a whopping 6 days with me cooped up in a car!

In all seriousness though, it’s for a very good reason. We are going to be tasting Isaan, Chin’s home turf. Despite the huge popularity of Isaan food in Thailand — and its growing popularity abroad — Isaan as a region has yet to draw the kinds of tourist numbers that Northern Thailand and the South see. That boggles my mind, since its Laos- and Vietnam-influenced food — succulent meats on the grill, tart and spicy larbs (minced salads) thick with roasted rice kernels, som tum (grated salads) of every possible variation, eggs cooked in a pan with steamed pork sausage (kai kata) and sticky rice — are what a lot of Thai food lovers think of when they think of their favorite dishes. Why not go to the source?

Yet Isaan remains bewilderingly under-visited. Every national park and waterfall we visited had either just a handful of people or, in some dazzlingly lucky cases, was completely abandoned. Restaurants, if full, were full of locals. Hotels were populated with Thai tourists from somewhere close by. For travelers who want a slice of something truly “authentic”, an experience just like that of someone living right there where you are visiting, you really can do no better than Thailand’s northeast: the country’s most populous region, producing some of its most memorable food, yet still strangely underrated.

Our road trip started with a stop at Pak Chong, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok but still seen as the gateway to Isaan. While there, we sampled the wares at the restaurant Mae Fai Pla Pow, where of course we had the namesake grilled fish which came stuffed with roasted eggplant and accompanied with a platterful of fresh vegetables served under a layer of ice cubes to keep them crunchy, plus six dipping sauces (nam jim).

"Pla pow", or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

“Pla pow”, or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

These fabulous sauces (Thais are all about the sauce, after all) included a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip); a tart/spicy seafood dipping sauce; a sweet tamarind dipping sauce to go with the sadao (a bitter river herb) served alongside the fish; and a dipping sauce flavored liberally with the essence of mangda (giant water beetle). These big critters feature in a lot of Isaan cuisine, either pounded into chili dips, deep-fried whole, or steamed. The taste is heavily floral, slightly cucumber-y, and even a little sweet. It’s just one of many examples of Isaan ingenuity.

Mangda at the market

Mangda at the market

At the Pak Chong market the next morning, we indulged in a couple of kafae boran (old-fashioned Thai coffees), sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a couple of glasses of Chinese tea to cut the sugary flavor.

borancoffee

We also came across a “sticky rice” stall, where you get your pick of toppings — most porky and/or deep-fried — which are then plopped onto a handful of sticky rice and wrapped in a banana leaf to stay warm:

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Selections made

Selections made

Later on, we hit Korat, where a lot of the Mon-style fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen are made. In fact, we were lucky enough to reach “kanom jeen row”, an entire aisle of rice noodle vendors featuring highly-spiced curries — usually including nam prik (sweet peanut curry), nam ya pa (fish curry without coconut milk), and/or nam ya (fish curry) – complete with the requisite toppings like shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts and sliced green beans set conveniently in front of stools to sit on.

"Kanom jeen pradok" at a market in Korat

“Kanom jeen pradok” at a market in Korat

I ended up choosing a mix of the sweet peanut curry and nam ya, topping it with a scattering of bean sprouts, sliced and blanched morning glory stems, and the julienned banana blossoms:

kanomjeenbowl

 

Another noodle dish we saw frequently on our table was the Vietnamese-inflected dish guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-style Chinese noodles), which, despite its name, employs a boatload of Thai flavor embodied in the sweetness of deep-fried shallots and an armload of dried spice. The best town for this dish by far was Ubon Ratchathani. However, the version we had at Mukdahan was more photogenic.

guayjab

Of course, no trip to Isaan is complete without a sampling of each town’s best som tum. Whatever your views on the fermented Thai fish known as pla rah, every som tum we had felt like som tum as it is meant to be: fresh, juicy, and heavy with the deep bass note pungency of salty fish. Just about every street side vendor we encountered proved adept with the mortar and pestle, and every variation was available to us, including green banana leavened with yellow Thai eggplant and the standard green papaya. But one of our favorites was a version made with cucumber and tomato:

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

One of my favorite things about Isaan was the seasonality of the ingredients and the immediacy (read: simplicity) of the cooking. Many of the things we ate were foraged from nearby. In fact, taking a walk through the woods with Chin involved a “Hunger Games”-like cataloguing of all the plants and leaves that were edible (note: a lot of this stuff is edible). One great meal involved buying mountain mushrooms from a roadside vendor who had just plucked them from a hillside 5 km away that morning:

Fresh mountain mushrooms

Fresh mountain mushrooms

A few minutes later, those mushrooms were being cooked at a roadside stall down the road, replete with chilies, a bit of pla rah juice, and herbs gathered by Chin from the nearby forest:

mushroomstew

The best meal, though, was cooked by Chin’s parents who — amazingly — set up a makeshift outdoor kitchen over the course of three days expressly for our visit! It was a lesson in real Isaan cooking: food seasoned with pla rah, fish sauce, and salt, cooked simply over two charcoal braziers, with many of the ingredients — down to the mushrooms, peppercorns, fruits and herbs — gathered from the backyard. We ended up with a gargantuan Isaan feast, featuring shredded bamboo shoot salad with chilies and toasted rice kernels, sliced pork with rice vermicelli and a scattering of fresh herbs, a quick and tasty soup of locally reared chicken thick with fresh dill, a larb of chicken skin and livers, grilled pork belly, steamed mushrooms dipped in a chili-flecked fish sauce … I am sure I am forgetting something. It was a dizzying array of great food.

Feast at Chin's family home

Feast at Chin’s family home

Let’s focus on that great bamboo shoot salad (soup naw mai, one of my very favorite Isaan dishes) again:

So good

So good

The meal encompassed everything I’ve come to learn about Isaan: the generosity, the hospitality, and of course, the great, fresh, seasonal produce cooked simply and flavored with only a handful of different seasonings. I may be ruined for every other kind of food for a while now.

 

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Made to Order

The tabletop at Saenchai Pochana

The tabletop at Sangchai Pochana: a spicy salad of egg yolks, salad of pickled cabbage, stir-fried bitter melon shoots

I’m sitting by myself on the sidewalk waiting for my friend Dwight (www.bkkfatty.com). I am almost always early to these things, and almost always the first person to arrive. It can be a problem in a city like Bangkok, where everyone is always a little late. Including the restaurants. Sangchai Pochana (entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 32, 02-204-3063) is supposed to open at 5:30, but they are just getting set up and starting in on their own staff meal.

I text Dwight because even though it’s 5:45 and, aside from a couple of Japanese guys, I am the only customer here, I’m afraid he might miss me, even though he has eyes.

Me: Hey, the place I’m at is called Sangchai Pochana and I’m at a table outside.

Him: That place I’ve been before.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s MSG-delicious.

Me: Ok

Him: And hungover-maxing.

Me: Are you suggesting another place?

Him: No. I don’t think.

Him: Let’s see what you think.

Knowing my friends are going to be late and watching people slice shallots and chilies all by my lonesome on a busy Bangkok sidewalk when I could be at home watching Australian MasterChef makes me feel like this:

It makes me feel like this.

Situations like these call for beer. And if there is beer, there must be some food because we have standards here in Bangkok, we are not ravening beer-chugging animals. So I get a gigantic bottle of Heineken that makes me embarrassed because it is still not yet 6 and I am by myself, and a plate of grilled sea snails (hoy waan) that make me forget about how big the beer is. It comes with a dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce and chilies that are like AAAAAAHHHHHH on the tongue. And then I get what Dwight means by “MSG-delicious”.

snails

Sangchai is what I consider to be a traditional aharn tham sung, or made-to-order vendor. Like other wok-based purveyors that rely largely on stir-frying, vendors like Sangchai will make whatever you ask of them, provided they have the ingredients and it is within reason (anything fried and boiled and sometimes even grilled). Even if they have a set menu (and many do), they display the special ingredients of the day out in front to coax you into going crazy and requesting something off-piste. This is my favorite thing about the aharn tham sung stalls — that you can basically come up with a meal tailor-made for you.

Sangchai's shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

Sangchai’s shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

But they occupy a special niche, a sub-set of that standard aharn tham sung. Their dishes are meant to be served as accompaniments to Thai-style rice porridge (khao thom), the whole of which make up the Thai meal khao thom gub, or plain porridge served with an array of pickled, spicy, soupy and stir-fried dishes. This results in a tabletop of real, genuine bounty, a sight for sore eyes meant to greet diners after a wearisome ordeal. Maybe this is why Sangchai — and vendors like it — are so popular late at night, and why khao thom gub is considered an after-clubbing ritual.

This is food that, in a sense, thinks it knows its place. It’s the backdrop to what you are doing: picking yourself up after an evening of drinking maybe a little too much, or hashing over ideas, or mourning your lost youth, or simply waiting. When you are done, you forget about your meal and go your separate ways. This must be what food is like for most people who don’t think about food all the time. To me, that is an awful place to be in for too long. But it’s food that’s OK when your friends have finally arrived.

 

 

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What’s Cooking: Soup makuea

Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

Isaan-style Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

I’m trying this thing where I eat less meat. In fact, I’m trying not to eat any at all, beyond fish. This is because I went on a two-week barbecue tour where my friend Karen and I stuffed ourselves on different variations of pork product 3-4 times a day. So I am turning pescatarian, but trying not to be too strict with it, because that is a surefire way to get me to stop.

I change the rules as I go along. It keeps things fresh (i.e. confusing). If I am at a dinner party, I will eat whatever the host is serving me, because I don’t want to mold other people’s stuff around my dietary whims. Also if I’m doing an assignment involving some sort of meat. I was also cutting out booze but I am back off the wagon because why make my life less awesome? I drink a glass of red wine a day and, if I am going out, I drink more than one glass. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL GRANDMA? I hear it’s heart healthy.

The focus on non-meat food, and my abject laziness in the kitchen, means I am trying a lot of new places. There is the vegetarian restaurant Na Aroon at Ariyasom Villa, old favorite Rasayana Raw Food Cafe, and a longstanding vegetarian Italian place saddled with the Indian-ish name Govinda. And there is a lot of Japanese food: Hinata at Central Embassy and a lunch at the newly opened Sushi Ichi at the Erawan that was so good I booked another lunch for the following week. I sometimes don’t miss red meat, much. Then I sometimes count the days to when I can find an excuse to eat it again.

This is one of those recipes that, for me, put many of the meat cravings at bay. It’s also dead easy (I am reading a lot of Jamie Oliver, because his are the only recipes I can stand to make right now). As with any other dish, it sprang out of necessity: we didn’t have any bamboo shoots on that particular day, and an abundance of the gumball-sized Thai eggplants known as makuea proh. With its toasted rice kernels, pla rah, and scattered mint, it’s very Isaan-inspired. Eat with sticky rice and grilled chicken like you would a som tum, or serve it with lettuce leaves like a larb — it’s up to you.

Soup Makuea (makes 4)

6-8 Thai eggplants, boiled

4-5 shallots, peeled

2 Tbs dried chili powder

2 tsp mahgrood lime leaves, julienned

3 Tbs toasted rice kernels, ground

1-2 Tbs pla rah juice (or fish sauce, if you’re in a pinch)

Juice from one lime (optional)

Handful each of mint, coriander and sawtooth coriander, chopped

1. With your mortar and pestle, mash your shallots until they are like a jam. Add the eggplants, and mash until they are at the desired consistency.

2. Mix in your chili powder, lime leaves, and toasted rice kernels.

3. Flavor with pla rah or fish sauce. Add lime to taste if you like.

4. Add your chopped herbs and mix in well. Serve at room temperature.

makuea

 

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Filed under Asia, food, pescatarian, Thailand

Chicken rice for the articles

The full deal at Mongkolchai

The full deal at Mongkolchai

Chicken rice in Thailand can in many ways be a fraught affair. This is because a dish that supposedly leans so heavily on its essence — boiled, plain chicken meat and fluffy, white rice, stripped of any artifice — is being served in a country that has never heard of a food that couldn’t take another chili pepper or another dollop of shrimp paste. Thailand is about the grand gesture: great big flavors married to overwhelmingly pungent smells. Chicken rice is retiring, minimalistic, almost bare.

So, as with just about every dish of Chinese origin, chicken rice undergoes a little bit of a makeover every time it appears on a Thai plate. There is the chicken, breast or thigh meat, skin or no skin, of course. The rice, grains plumped by chicken broth, no duh. And finally, a tranche of cucumber slices with fresh coriander, paired with a cube of congealed chicken blood or two, and a clear soup in which a sad old hunk of winter melon or turnip swims, possibly with a coriander leaf or cut-up scallion for company.

But in Thailand, everyone who is anyone knows that the dipping sauce is the most important thing on that table. At least, according to my mother. “There is no good khao man gai without a good dipping sauce,” she says, echoing what every Thai has ever really thought: that there is no food on earth that cannot be complete without the perfect sauce. This is the basic premise behind what many consider the gold standard of Bangkok chicken rice dishes, what every khao man gai purveyor strives for: the plump pillow of chicken and rice at Montien Hotel over which not one, not two, not three, but FOUR sauces are meant to drape themselves. Khao man gai is supposed to be about the sauce. Or is it?

It took me a long time to get to Mongkolchai (314 Samsen Road, 02-282-1991). It’s not really about the location, because I will go that far for Sukhothai noodles, or Chinese-style roasted duck on rice, or pork satay. It’s not about the dish, either. I love chicken rice, because I love sauce — specifically, the inky salt sauce dotted with garlic, ginger and chilies that makes Thai chicken rice something beyond the ordinary. It’s how people invariably describe the attraction: this street food place far far away that serves boiled chicken on rice and, oh btw, their soup is really great. This brings on a great big WTF from me, because … come on, SOUP? That side dish you take sips of to help your real food along? These people are like the guys who read Playboy for the articles.

I went anyway. It’s predictably good, tender chicken breast with the option of skin on or off, the requisite Thai-spiked sauce that there is never enough of, the cube of blood and the cucumber. My soup was darker than the average clear broth, awash in pepper and sprinkled with pickled lime flesh. When I got home, I did a little research and read that my soup was probably twice-boiled duck broth.

The pillow and the cube

The pillow and the cube

Would I go back? Yes, because the service was fast and solicitous and friendly. Whether that was because they thought I was a tourist from Hong Kong doesn’t matter to me. But there is more chicken rice a few steps away on my street corner and another half a block away. And the one, the chicken rice that really speaks to me, with its battery of sauce and excess of flesh, awaiting me at the Montien Hotel coffee shop, should I really want to take that trip. I guess I am super Thai after all.

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Back to the starting point

Chicken-bitter melon noodles at Guaythiew Gai Mara

Chicken-bitter melon noodles at Guaythiew Gai Mara

Chicken and bitter melon noodles can be tricky. They are the blind date that seems normal enough, but who rarely sets off very many sparks. “Sparky” is reserved for the Cristiano Ronaldos of this world, the tom yum noodles, the egg noodles with barely cooked egg threatening to break all over the strands at the slightest tap of the spoon. Meanwhile, chicken is boring and bitter melon is for old people. It is very, very hard to make alluring.

That is why I like to seek them out. I feel like they are one of the greater challenges of the Thai street food scene: how to make dumpy grandma Spanx something you would actively seek out? There are those aforementioned tom yum noodles sprawled out all over the street, after all. So I dip into street side bowls set atop tables on rickety sidewalks, or buy them from carts parked perilously close to oncoming traffic. There is always something wrong with them. Not to get too Goldilocks on it, but they are either bland, or sweet. Too much watery broth. Not saucy enough — not with the right kind of sauce. And almost never spicy enough.

It’s in the accoutrements. Not in the quality of the chicken itself, or on how young the bitter melon is. I feel like people who don’t really get chicken-bitter melon noodles emphasize those two main ingredients, like they are the end-all be-all of this dish. They really aren’t. Any old dead chicken will do, and as long as that bitter melon doesn’t come at you all moldy and dog-eared like present-day Vince Neil, you’ll do all right. No, it’s more about lashings of that dark sweet soy sauce, the bits of deep-fried garlic, the fresh basil and coriander strewn across the noodles, the pickled chili vinegar, and the chili oil. It should be — as you probably already suspected — a balance of sweet, salt, tart, spicy and bitter.

The bowls I ranged far and wide for were rarely good. It reminds me of that Survivor song — no, please give me a break here — about some dude who looked far and wide for a soulmate, only to find that she was there the whole time right in front of him. I know this song because of my mother, who would stop what she was doing anytime that song came on the radio. Now that former lead singer Jimi Jamison is gone, I bring it up again, in case you have a soft spot for arena rock ballads clearly written for the end credits of a movie. Go ahead and look it up. The soulmate was there all along. Clearly marked by a line like this:

line

To a normal person, this line is a bright red flashing sign reading “EAT HERE! EAT HERE!” But not to me. It was too close to my house. I needed to suffer for my noodles before I could sit down to them. So when I did finally deign to set my butt onto one of those little plastic stools, a Thai basil-heavy bowl of chicken and bitter melon in front of me, I had wandered through enough alleyways to realize that this bowl was the best of them all.

The stall is open most mornings at 8am until they sell out, at about 3pm — sometimes they take the day off on Mondays, but sometimes they aren’t here on a Tuesday or Wednesday. They are never here on a Sunday. The cart is located in the street between Emporium and the park, set across from Emporium garage, and run by a man wearing a Japanese ramen chef-type kerchief and his wife. If you come by at lunchtime, you will probably be able to find this stall by the long line of hopeful diners at the side of the road, the promise of a perfect bowl of chicken-bitter melon noodles right before their eyes.

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Glutton Abroad: The last of the BBQ, part 4

"Coarse chopped" pork BBQ and slaw at Lexington Barbecue

“Coarse chopped” pork BBQ and slaw at Lexington Barbecue

It seems like just yesterday when Karen and I were headed to the airport to start off our barbecue trip in Nashville. Now it’s been nearly 10 days and we are already headed into North Carolina, self-proclaimed home of American pork (read: real) barbecue.

If there is anything culinarily-related to inspire heated debate among Americans, it’s barbecue. And while Midwesteners may sing the praises of tomato-based sauce and Texans proclaim their barbecue to be superior to anything the Southeast may produce, it’s North Carolina I’ve been most excited about. Here, it’s not only about the sauce (vinegar-based, with a hit of chili to cut the grease — a similar approach to how Thais prepare fatty meat). It’s also about the wood — usually white oak with, maybe, the addition of some hickory — used to gently cook the pork over a low heat, perfuming the skin with its scent. This, more than anything else, separates the “genuine” barbecue from the arriviste poseur to the average North Carolinian.

There is a lot of tradition in North Carolina barbecue. Sometimes, it is baffling to the meat-loving outsider. For example, carnivores expecting a mountain of ribs that can be gnawed on, caveman-like, will be sorely disappointed. North Carolina’s barbecue is positively “dainty”, the pork served in tiny take-out containers called “trays” (aka the paper take-out containers you usually see holding fries) or on plates either sliced or “chopped” (local-speak for “shredded”). The typical accompaniment is cole slaw, the cabbage simply minced with maybe a bit of onion and typically dressed in a mix of vinegar and mayonnaise. And, like the IRS, there is no escaping this side dish, whether you want it or not:

North Carolina-style hush puppies

North Carolina-style hush puppies

Saying “no” to this makes you either different or a Communist (both of these things are very bad). Just accept a tray of these deep-fried curlicues as your due, the perfect vehicle for taste-testing the battery of sauces on your table.

Lexington

Lexington Barbecue

Lexington refers to itself as the “world capital of barbecue”. So it’s no surprise that there are several well-known BBQ places here, sparking a brief debate on where exactly we should go. Of all the BBQ joints in town, Lexington Barbecue — known among locals as “the Monk” or “Honeymonk” in honor of founder Wayne Monk — is the most famous. So that seals the deal for me.

Lexington Barbecue has been around for more than half a century, and it’s easy to imagine that the menu has changed little. There is your sliced and chopped BBQ, as well as a “coarse chopped” variation that is basically shards of pork. Everything comes with slaw and hush puppies, of course, but you can also get a “side” of beans or chicken tenders or pork rinds, or if you are one of those healthy people who insist on greenery, a salad topped with cheese and more BBQ.

Out back, where all the chimneys are, 34 pork shoulders are cooked a day — unless it’s the week before Christmas, when 3-4 cooks work night and day to make enough BBQ for people to enjoy at home for the holidays. In Lexington, the meat cleaves to the typical barbecue ideal, flavored with a tomato-based sauce (as is the slaw). And of course, all meat is cooked over oak or hickory coals for half a day. The meat is left alone to cook and absorb the smoke, and is not basted. The end product, while meaty and magnanimous in spirit, reflects this. It’s a traditionalist’s kind of barbecue, as long as that traditionalist lives in Lexington.

Barbecue Center

Full of pork from Lexington BBQ, we still thought we’d be thorough and try out the rival Barbecue Center, even if only for a chopped BBQ sandwich. This probably did the Barbecue Center a disservice. Arriving late, we shared one sandwich between the three of us and were rewarded with a dry, tasteless heap of meat shoved into a cold bun and smeared with a small dollop of cole slaw. Probably not the best idea.

Chopped BBQ sandwich

Chopped BBQ sandwich

 

Asheville

12 Bones

If Lexington is a traditionalist’s kind of BBQ town, where different generations break bread over paper take-out containers holding shredded pork topped with ketchup-y cole slaw, Asheville is earmarked as the southern preserve of the city slicker. Meaning, those hipsters who have fled Brooklyn en masse, decrying it as “too popular”? They are now in Asheville.

And 12 Bones is their kind of barbecue joint. Please don’t get me wrong: it’s a great restaurant. Any place worthy of President Obama’s patronage is A-OK by me. Take, for example, all the “rib flavors” on offer here, a first for any of the BBQ places Karen and I have visited, and definitely the only in a state awash with “take it or leave it”-type eateries.

What was available at 12 Bones when we visited

What was available at 12 Bones when we visited

If you haven’t guessed already, ribs are the order of the day here. You don’t have to make do with plain old beans, slaw and/or hush puppies either: there’s an entire blackboard of sides for your pleasure, enough to fill the deli counter at a Whole Foods. Have some issues with gluten or lactose? Don’t worry, 12 Bones will let you know what’s up. Worried your beer is not local? There’s a whole passel of local craft beers in the fridge!

We punk out and get a “wedge salad”, which is half a head of iceberg lettuce topped with deep-fried onions and drenched in ranch dressing, sided by “four bones” of “twang”-flavored ribs. You don’t even have to stick with that flavor: the four sauces available to drown your ribs in include tomato-based, mustard-based, and two kinds of vinegar-based, one green-y and vaguely Mexican-like and the other traditionally clear.

Wedge salad with cornbread and ribs

Wedge salad with cornbread and ribs

It figures President Obama is willing to shut down traffic for a little while to get here. It’s good food, gussied up with all the right things to make it irresistible to Gen X-and-younger foodie types who are willing to slum it for a little while between meals at sushi bars and raw food cafes. Of course, I am talking mainly about myself.

Does it have anything to do with NC barbecue, other than the fact that it’s in NC? Well, not really. The real stuff is coming up …

… here.

Ayden

Skylight Inn 

Barbecued chicken and "pork BBQ" with slaw and cornbread

Barbecued chicken and “pork BBQ” with slaw and cornbread

When we pull into the parking lot, an entire tribe of bikers is just getting ready to leave. “Yay, bikers,” says Karen, who views the patronage of bikers the same way I see Bill Clinton’s photo: a sign that there is good food to be had. Another harbinger of goodness is the prominent Skylight Inn sign, which reads, “If it’s not cooked over wood, it’s not barbecue”.

Skylight has been in business since 1947. This is something that the elderly man in line behind us wants to share, his memories of having Skylight as a little boy. Today, the counter is manned by the type of young men who look like they could be cast in any movie about Hoosiers or high school football players. This includes the guy chopping up pork shoulders with two butcher’s knives — the only BBQ here is chopped —  and seasoning the meat with what looks like a vat of chill sauce and a vat and a half of vinegar. This meat is all about the seasoning, while the chicken (available only on Thursdays and Fridays) is a tender, melting hunk of flesh daubed in ketchup-y barbecue sauce.

Goldsboro

Wilber’s Barbecue Home

The presidential endorsement here, shown in a framed photograph in the entrance, might say all you need to know about Wilber’s. It’s of George H.W. Bush. And while I don’t know much about Bush 41’s foodie credentials, I do know that Wilber’s is a true NC institution, around since 1962 and still overseen by octogenarian owner Wilber Shirley, who is at the restaurant on most days.

Unlike most of the other barbecue joints in the state, Wilber’s is a sit-down-and-order kind of place. They also have a big coterie of sides, many grown on the land right behind the restaurant: simply sliced tomatoes, green beans, corn. Here, also, there is no need to specify what kind of BBQ you want: there is only one, the pit-cooked barbecue pork plate, which arrives to the table chopped. They specify the wood is oak. Also recommended: the barbecued chicken, which is slathered in gravy instead of barbecued sauce, and accompanied by a pitcher of … more gravy. It is as fork-cuttingly tender as anything we’ve had.

Pork BBQ with chicken and gravy and sliced tomato

Pork BBQ with chicken and gravy and sliced tomato

When we ask where the chimneys are, the waitress simply tells us they are “behind” (if it’s not cooked over wood, it’s not barbecue, right?) Once she finds out about our BBQ tour, she asks the manager on duty, Gary, to show us around. It turns out pit-cooked really means that there is no need for freaking wood-burning smokestacks. It’s out in the open, like a campfire.

Burning oak in Wilber's backyard

Burning oak in Wilber’s backyard

It turns out very few BBQ places are still allowed to leave their wood out in the open like this, but Wilber’s — beloved by the local authorities — can do whatever it needs in pursuit of the best barbecue.

The oak coals are then moved to the cooking shed, over which shoulders and whole hogs are placed to cook slowly overnight. This is hard on the cooks who have to tend the fires and meat in the wee hours of the morning, as well as on the shed — it’s burned down a couple of times because of sleeping attendants, Gary tells us.

What's cooking at Wilber's

What’s cooking at Wilber’s

Besides its chicken and pork, Wilber’s is also proud of its beef (when it’s available, as it was when we visited). This is first on my list the next time I find myself in NC. I might just head to NC especially for it.

Durham

Hog Heaven

Skylight is for the old-timers and Wilber’s is for the pit-cooking enthusiast. Hog Heaven, on the other hand, is for the type of person who reads “Herman” comics, has dinner at 5:30 and thinks signs reading “Dad’s dream: to be able to have the same lifestyle as his wife and children” are funny. Nothing against that, of course. But Karen says it best: “This is hospital food”. It’s barbecue for the Boca Raton crowd.

Case in point: there is a “vegetable of the day”. Our day was squash day. There is also something called “granny potatoes” on the menu, which end up being boiled peeled new potatoes. Like everywhere else we’ve been to lately, there is only one option for barbecue: simply denoted “Bar-B-Q”, it is a chopped pork plate. The meat is also cooked over electrical heat, something that seems mildly scandalous in NC. I can imagine Gary’s disapproving face now.

Bar-B-Q with turnip greens and granny potatoes

Bar-B-Q with turnip greens and granny potatoes

Is it something to make me return? No. Nor was it like the disappointing barbecue we’d had earlier in the day, a sandwich of dried-out pork floss at a “barbecue” restaurant that had mutated like a deadly virus into a drive-in, buffet restaurant and convention centre. That place is a cautionary tale, pointing to what can happen to your product when you’re in it for the money. We need not mention that place.

Hog Heaven was the last barbecue we had, and the last plate of shredded pork I’m likely to eat for a long, long time. Not to say I’m breaking up definitively with barbecue. I just think we need some time apart.

I think I’ll be a pescatarian for a while.

 

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Glutton Abroad: Still with the BBQ, part 3

Brisket and pulled pork with beans, slaw and a pickle at Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Alabama

Brisket and pulled pork with beans, slaw and a pickle at Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama

We are on the verge of being barbecued out. So far we have dipped a toe into the vast pool that is saucy St. Louis barbecue (the kind we get back in Bangkok), worked our stomachs through the tomato-based charms of Kansas City barbecue, and taste-tested our way through the dry-rubs and spice mixes of slathered on Tennessee pork. We’ve even given in to the South’s implicit encouragement to let loose our inner Lindsay Lohans and indulged in a tipple or two, getting gently soused at the Grand Ole Opry and absolutely plastered at an Alamo Drafthouse showing of “Guardians of the Galaxy”. We have been as thorough in our “research” of the region’s meat and mead as our digestive systems could possibly allow.

But it’s the “white barbecue” of northern Alabama that I’m curious about the most. Unlike the red, sweet and frankly ketchup-y sauces of the American Midwest, white barbecue sauce is based on mayonnaise, tarted up with cider vinegar and pepper for a bit of kick. Because it’s mayonnaise-based, this sauce is either applied at the very end of the cooking process, or served on the side like, well, mayonnaise. It’s something most Asians — and, I’m willing to bet, Northerners — don’t know much about, and it’s served in the tiny patch of land between the northern Alabama border and Birmingham. There was no way we could miss this.

Alabama

Big Bob Gibson

Big Bob has several locations, including a brave outpost in the rival BBQ land of North Carolina. The one we head to is just off of Highway 31, and like every BBQ place we’ve been to before us, it is packed. This is also a proper restaurant, with the feel of a BBQ-based Denny’s. Recommended: the ribs and brisket, and we get a bit of pulled pork to go with it. Of course, Karen also wants the cole slaw, since she appears to be intent on taste-testing every slaw that crosses her path on this trip. And there are the beans, which seem to be properly cooked instead of the doctored beans-in-a-can that have been one of the mainstays of our diet for the past two weeks. Most importantly: set on every tabletop in the place is a big bottle of Big Bob’s white barbecue sauce, as well as their more traditional “award-winning” tomato-based sauce.

Verdict: For the first time, the ribs feature meat that sloughs off the bone. How wonderful to see gravity work on something that doesn’t involve a part of our bodies. Portions are substantial, the slaw is chopped finely and simply dressed (we have been at this enough to develop a preference for this kind of slaw), and the beans are oomphy and well-seasoned. BUT THAT SAUCE. That white sauce — a mix of the sweetish, faintly chemical taste of commercially-made mayo married to the burning-rubber acerbic tang of vinegar — was almost orc-like in the majesty of its sheer awfulness.

So I guess I’m not a fan. In fact, traumatized by our encounter with white barbecue sauce, we have beer for dinner in Birmingham.

Georgia

Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles 

You might already know how I feel about fried chicken. And waffles are okay too. So when our friend Dwight Turner of bkkfatty.com recommended this chicken and waffle place, we made sure to include it in our itinerary. In fact, it might be the biggest reason why we are in Atlanta.

There are two kinds of chicken and waffles. One is the Amish version, which involves piling shredded, stewed chicken meat on top of a waffle and covering the lot in gravy. You don’t see too much of that in restaurants, probably because it sounds a little gross. The second is the kind that we are all familiar with: fried chicken set alongside a waffle with butter and syrup. In other words: dinner and breakfast, all on one plate. The most common myth on the origins of this dish rely on its dual nature: when jazz musicians in Harlem in the 1930s finished their gigs in the wee hours of the morning, they couldn’t decide between breakfast and dinner, so combined the two. And voila, chicken and waffles was born.

Gladys Knight (yes, THAT Gladys Knight) offers a dish fittingly called the “Midnight Train” (an original waffle with four fried chicken wings), but we wanted leg, thigh and breast meat instead. We also wanted to try their other waffles (we tried both apple-cinnamon and pecan, along with original because of course). The combination of crunchy hot fried chicken with sweet, buttery waffle is just as you would expect it to be. In a word: DELICIOUS.

Fried chicken with original and apple-cinnamon waffles

Fried chicken with original and apple-cinnamon waffles

South Carolina

Page’s Okra Grill

We had only one night in Charleston, so we were in danger of not doing our BBQ work that thoroughly (and we all know how vitally important our BBQ work is). In fact, the closest we had gotten to the area’s popular mustard-based barbecue sauce was this:

mustardsauce

But that was before we got to Page’s Okra Grill. Now, we have had almost uniformly great experiences at all the places we’ve been to on our trip, ranging from pleasant to heartwarmingly friendly. Okra Grill actually goes beyond this to such a degree that Karen actually became a little suspicious, hypothesizing that maybe they were fattening us up to serve us later for dinner. Don’t worry, they don’t really do that. We are still alive, you guys. I know you were worried. It’s just that these people are so “OMG! BFF” nice.

There is a lot to choose from here, but the menu item that Okra Grill is most proud of is the shrimp and grits. Unlike the usual congee-like soup topped with a few grilled shrimp, the grits here are “lightly fried” into a cake, topping a creamy “stew” studded with cooked shrimp. It’s good, and so so fatty. I can still taste it three days later.

Okra Grill's shrimp and grits

Okra Grill’s shrimp and grits

Once they found out about our barbecue tour, they made sure to give us a little sample of their pulled pork and mustardy BBQ sauce. And you know, it’s … just like sweet mustard. Mystery solved! Mustard-based BBQ sauce tastes like mustard. Go figure.

Next up: North Carolina, what many consider the mecca of American barbecue. We are on the tail end of our trip! It’s hard to believe.

Pounds gained: 2,000

Exercise in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: One 60-minute run in Alabama, a 45-minute run in Atlanta, a half-assed 40-minute run in Charleston.

Incidences of heartburn: 2

Pants I can never wear again: 1

Times we have heard Maroon 5 on the radio: 230,357

 

 

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