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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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Thailand

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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Glutton Abroad: On the BBQ trail, 2

Pulled pork at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City

Burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City

Kansas City

There was a moment when I thought about cutting Kansas City out of our itinerary. It was just so out of the way, and involved a lot of monotonous driving on a two-line highway which ultimately made Karen very grumpy. But I’m glad we came. Kansas City is a lovely city, full of lovely people, and its barbecue somehow reflects this. The pork is porkier, the meat is meatier. And nowhere is the sauce any saucier. It’s a good thing Kansas City is so far away from me, because I would weigh 800 lbs otherwise.

1. Oklahoma Joe’s

I have to admit, I get a little bit of a sinking feeling when I see Anthony Bourdain’s photo on the wall. To me, he is the flip side of Bill Clinton: Bill’s photo=generally good grub. Tony Bourdain=crowded and possibly overhyped and full of insufferable food tourists like myself. I want to be the only insufferable food tourist in the room. I think that is the motivation driving insufferable food tourists worldwide.

But I need not have worried. Oklahoma Joe’s is awesome. This is helped by the fact that they are used to food tourists, and tell you what their specialties are up front. They are also happy to serve ribs a “bone” at a time, for people who lack the stomach to eat the full slab. Because, come on. Seriously. I think I am developing gout, and I am not even a 50-year-old man.

The specialty here: the pulled pork sandwich, which manages to be both meaty and tender at the same time. The ribs, strangely, have a smell reminiscent of Chinese spare ribs on them. They are very, very well-seasoned, on the verge of teetering into Salty Town. When we leave, the line to get a meal inside snakes around the front of the building. I have a feeling it’s not all food tourists.

Pulled pork sandwich and ribs at Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City

Pulled pork sandwich and ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City

2. Arthur Bryant’s 

The full name of this place is “Arthur Bryant’s Legendary Kansas City BBQ”. I feel like this is tempting fate a little bit. Also: on the wall, not one, but two photos of former President Jimmy Carter tucking into some ribs. Former President Harry Truman is also said to have been a fan. I don’t know if I trust either Jimmy Carter’s or Harry Truman’s culinary stamps of approval as much as I do Bill Clinton. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know.

The good thing: Arthur Bryant’s is quick and friendly, and its slow-smoking oven behind the cooks prominently features several drool-inducing slabs of meat — pork, beef or chicken — cooked over a combination of hickory and oak woods, according to Arthur Bryant’s website. Arthur passed away in 1982 and the restaurant has since been taken over by new owners, but the BBQ is presumably cooked the same way. And the verdict: the burnt ends tender and the ribs are smoky, but that sauce is plenty sweet. I missed the bite of Oklahoma Joe’s or even Pappy’s.

 

3. Fiorella’s Jack Stack 

Next to the more “DIY” atmosphere of Oklahoma Joe’s and Arthur Bryant’s, Fiorella’s Jack Stack is practically Le Cirque. In fact, it’s the fanciest place we’ve been to in a while, with actual waiters who wear uniforms and pretend you are young-looking enough to warrant an ID check, and tables with booths and menus and everything. Karen and I barely know what to do once we are seated, and pepper our long-suffering server Clint with questions about practically everything we think of ordering. Clint responds by sending over a free plate of deep-fried mushrooms. In one fell swoop, our loyalty is promptly bought.

Karen is no fan of beef ribs (hence our exclusion of Texas from this particular trip — lucky you, Texans!) but the house-specific “Crown Prime Ribs”, said to be exclusively a Jack Stack thing, are so meltingly tender and succulent that she is converted. I became a big fan after the BBQ Bloody Mary, which is probably the best Bloody Mary in the world thanks to its generous use of bacon salt. A little more puzzling: the popularity of something called the “cheesy corn bake”, which is actually a cup of melted Velveeta with a handful of corn kernels sprinkled over it. Karen and I speculate what other similar dishes could win us a similar level of acclaim: a “creamy Caesar salad” made up of a few shredded lettuce leaves atop a river of Caesar dressing, perhaps, or maybe a “saucy pulled pork platter” of … you guessed it. Actually, we already had that, back at Arthur Bryant’s. Haha, JK. Love you, Arthur Bryant’s.

Baby back ribs under an annoying slice of toast at Jack Stack's

Baby back ribs under an annoying slice of toast at Jack Stack’s

Pounds gained: 55

Exercise expended in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: Two 45-minute runs in the Holiday Inn fitness room

Times Karen got annoyed with me: 3.5

Times got lost in Kansas City’s labyrinthine highway system: 2

Memphis

I won’t mince words. Memphis has better food than Nashville. Maybe this is because it’s a “multi-cultural” town, meaning it’s located at the junction of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Or maybe it’s because of the influence of the King himself, Elvis Presley. We are doing Memphis properly, which means we are staying at the Heartbreak Hotel, situated right next to Graceland. Later we discover it’s basically a Day’s Inn with some photos of Elvis in all the rooms. “At least it’s really far away from everything else,” says Karen.

1. Rendezvous

Rendezvous’ most recent claim to fame is the fact Prince Harry and the other one came here a few months ago. But tons of other people have been here, including our very own home-grown princes, the Manning brothers. I did not see a photo of Bill Clinton, however. Or of the King.

The special here is the dry-rubbed ribs. I have told you before of my feelings about dry-rubbed ribs. I STILL NO GET. Why get something that you have to basically douse in sauce yourself, when it could come to you already properly sauced? What Karen and I ended up loving more: the lamb “riblets”, barbecued lamb ribs in the same spice rub, which somehow sets off the taste of the meat and keeps the meat juicy. These are delicious. And I don’t even like lamb BBQ.

Dry-rubbed pork ribs at Rendezvous

Dry-rubbed pork ribs at Rendezvous

2. Gus’s Fried Chicken

I love fried chicken. As in, it’s a shame it’s only fried chicken, because we should be married and have little chicken babies. That’s how much I love fried chicken. So of course I would take a break from the unrelenting BBQ and come here. Thank God this place exists.

The chicken is as awesome as you might have heard it to be, especially after a liberal sprinkling of the Louisiana Hot Sauce set on every table. Better yet, the pies — coconut, pecan, sweet potato, and chess (custard, a local specialty) — have a wonderfully flaky, savory crust that sets off the extreme sweetness of the filling (don’t worry, we ordered almost all of them, so we almost know what we’re talking about). Also, there is beer. It was a shame to have to leave, but there was a line of people waiting. The love must be spread.

Gus's fried chicken, with hot sauce

Gus’s fried chicken, with hot sauce

Pounds gained: 100

Exercise attempted: None

Baseball games attended: One

Alcoholic drinks consumed: 100

Elvis songs heard: 144,300

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Glutton Abroad: On the BBQ trail

Burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries at Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis

Burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries at Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis

Nashville, TN

When we get out of the airport, our host — the kind, generous, saint-like Nancy — is already waiting for us with a car. This car will come in handy as we explore “Music City”, a place Deadspin has called “the lamest city in the South”, “a glorified exurb”. I only know it as a place that sure does boast a lot of BBQ joints in a city more known for its music industry. It is also the home of “hot chicken”, which ends up being fried chicken with a lot of cayenne pepper on it. Sometimes this baptism of spice falls on other, equally deep-fried things like fish. But we have yet to move on to an abomination like “hot tofu”. So on the hipster scale of things, we are at Bushwick, not full-on Williamsburg. Congratulations, I guess, Nashville?

1. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish

We head here straight from the airport, and are rewarded with a nearly empty one-room shack reminiscent of a noodle stall on the side of the highway on the way to Pattaya. It has that same abandoned holiday feel, reinforced when we read the sign to knock at the door knocker once we are ready to place our order at the window.

We go as all out as we can, ordering a hot catfish, two filets of hot whiting, and of course, hot chicken. For sides we get mac and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, and greens. Although the chicken is dry, the fish is delicious, blessed with a crackly crust generously seasoned with pepper and topped with a scattering of onions and pickle slices. Wrapped in a slice of white bread, and maybe topped with a little of the potato salad, there is nothing better in this city. That I know of. Rating: Full-on Johnny Cash. (I know nothing about country music).

Hot catfish with potato salad and cole slaw

Hot catfish with potato salad and cole slaw

2. Edley’s

This is what happens when frat-boy types take over a BBQ place. There is the requisite snaking line, there is the requisite DIY beverage station, there are the requisite tables at which to tentatively plant your burgeoning behinds as you attempt to balance your trays of food and drinks without spilling them on anyone. We get a pulled pork platter with greens and mac and cheese. The mac manages to be bland and the greens are too salty. The pulled pork is meh. I would rate this a Blake Shelton.

Pulled pork platter with mac and cheese and greens

Pulled pork platter with mac and cheese and greens

3. Hattie B’s

I cannot go without hot chicken for more than 24 hours, so we find ourselves in yet another long, snaking line, the most intimidating of the lines that we have encountered yet. This is on its way to being a Disney Ride line. In the sweltering heat. Luckily, the chicken is juicy when we get it. Unluckily, it is nowhere near “hot”. Have my tastebuds become calloused from years in the tropics? At least we got to stand in line for a long time. Rating: Is there a country music version of Justin Bieber?

Hot chicken with mac and cheese and black-eyed pea salad

Hot chicken with mac and cheese and black-eyed pea salad

4. Peg Leg Porker

Owned by a man who lost his right leg to an aggressive form of bone cancer, Peg Leg Porker proudly sports the mascot of a pig with a “peg leg”, painted prominently on the side of the building as you pull into the parking lot. Inside, the ambience is that of a Las Vegas hotel lounge full of people on the tail end of a particularly vicious losing streak, but service is nice and prompt, and generously accommodating even though we order more after the kitchen has officially closed. The special here is the “dry-rubbed ribs”, so we order a rack alongside a pulled pork sandwich, baked beans and cole slaw (which is quirky becoming Karen’s own personal barometer of quality). The verdict: I am beginning to think “dry” ribs are God’s way of saying that there are aspects to American cooking that I will never fully understand, and that’s OK. Not everyone gets durian, or shrimp paste chili dip, or stink bean. Maybe we should just let things be, and not think about them too much. Rating: Keith Urban, whom I also don’t get.

Baked beans and pulled pork sandwich, with dry-rubbed ribs in the background

Baked beans and pulled pork sandwich, with dry-rubbed ribs in the background

5. Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

Is BBQ really spelled that way here? I am too lazy to google. This tells you something about Martin’s. This tells you that it’s the kind of place to pile a bunch of pre-existing components together into one dish, dub it with a catchy name, and trick people into thinking they are ordering something unique and special when really they are just eating a bunch of crap piled up on each other under the guise of something different. What I’m talking about is the “redneck taco”, which takes “hoe cake” (WHAT IS THIS) and ruins it the way all bread-like items are ruined when wet things are put on top of them. In this instance, the wet items are pulled pork, cole slaw, and a generous slathering of sweet BBQ sauce. It recalls all the things I hate about Ethiopian food, without any of the good qualities. Good things: lovely service, and a very efficient ordering system. Rating: Taylor Swift, who is actually a pop music artist and not country

Martin's redneck taco

Martin’s redneck taco

To summarize:

Pounds gained: Maybe 20 each

Exercise employed in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: Nancy’s fitness room is under renovation, so we do Jillian Michaels’ “30-minute shred level 1″ (a lot of jumping jacks) and her mammoth, sadistic “6-week 6-pack abs level 1″.

Pairs of pants ruined: one

Places missed: Prince’s Hot Chicken

St. Louis

The “gateway to the West”, driving into St. Louis really does feel like driving back up into the north. And that is all I have to say about St. Louis.

1. Pappy’s Smokehouse

We have time for one place, so we’d better make that place count. Why not make it Pappy’s, where a line forms promptly at 11 on the dot and diners are already vying for the best tables before the door even opens. Pappy’s, known for its brisket, serves until it runs out — a very Thai concept. To keep track, there is a blackboard of doom listing items that are gone if you get there too late. Happily, the blackboard of doom does not come into play for us. We get ribs, burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries. It is, easily, the best barbecue we’ve had so far on our trip. Where have you been all my life, Pappy’s?

Pounds gained: 5

Exercise employed in futile attempt to stave off pounds: Absolutely none.

Places missed: C&K, Bogart’s, Sugarfire

 

 

 

 

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