Category Archives: restaurant

Glutton Abroad: Taipei Bang-bang

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

On the way over to Taipei, I saw an episode of the TV show “Louie”, which features American comedian Louis CK. In this episode, Louie and his friend brother engage in a practice they refer to as “bang-bang”: having a full meal at one venue before going to a completely different type of place and getting a second full meal there. There are different combinations they play with before deciding on “Indian-diner”, which, to me, is just an OK combination since you can cheat on the “diner” side of the quotation with just a Greek salad or something, whereas something like “Italian-barbecue” is a real, full-on, genuine pig-out. (This, from the person with $^%&ing GERD.)

Anyway, when they are talking to the waitress at the diner later, Louie treats his “bang-bang” mission as something to be hidden and ashamed of. This marks my first disconnect of the day: that this is something to hide away. Because I do this shit all the time. It is called “lunch” and “second lunch”. Sometimes it is “second breakfast”. I am too old to have “second dinners” anymore. The point is that this is perfectly normal behavior that every food lover worth his or her own weight in potato chips understands and engages in. Sometimes there is not enough time to try everything you want to try. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it! What’s the problem?

Faced with only two full days in Taipei, I was grappling with this very conundrum myself. There are a gazillion eateries in Taiwan’s capital, and only a few hours to taste them all. Do you think this meant I would have to do without something or other? HELL NAW. It was my first time in Taipei, and my very first experience with real Taiwanese food. I wasn’t going to chuck this opportunity with concerns about “diet” or “health” or “looking nice”, etc.

Thais like to consider Cantonese food the foundation of all great Chinese food. They say Cantonese food is the epitome of classical Chinese cooking, and a celebration of the light, natural flavors coaxed out of superior ingredients. I find this interesting because, even now, I still don’t get it. I still find it leaden and unappetizing, coated in gelatinous, saliva-like sauces. I know I am in the minority here, and likely traumatized from my childhood spent in every Cantonese restaurant located between Pittsburgh-Cleveland.

But no, I see Taiwanese food as the real embodiment of this light/natural aesthetic — minimal manipulation with great ingredients, minimal fuss, and unusual, thought-provoking combinations. The great difference between this and what Thais like is that there is no grand wallop of flavor. It’s introverted food, subtle, a little cerebral … some might even call it retiring or shy. It takes a little time with a dish to get to know it well. It’s not out to seduce, like Thai food, or wearing its resume on its sleeve, Cantonese-style. In this way, I feel like I can relate to Taiwanese food in a way I can’t with the more ESFP-geared charms of a place like Thailand or Hong Kong.

So when there were three places I really wanted to hit on Yong Kang Street, one of Taipei’s most well-known areas for food, I was determined to find them all (a “bang-bang-bang”, if you will). The first, and most obvious, is the famed xiaolongbao eatery Din Tai Fung, an Asia-wide dumpling empire that has been lauded by the New York Times. Its flagship is just around the corner, on Xinyi Road, and is a huge tourist draw. How much of a tourist draw? The girl in front speaks fluent Thai, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Cantonese. Despite its tourist attraction status, its famous soup dumplings may be even better than anywhere else. The standard pork and chicken soup dumplings are available, but there are also variations like pork and black truffle, which require an entirely different spoon and absolutely no sauce.

Din Tai Fung's pork and truffle soup dumpling

Din Tai Fung’s pork and truffle soup dumpling

The second place featured one of my very favorite noodle dishes in all the world, danzai or “dan dan” noodles. I wanted to make sure I got them at Slack Season Noodles (also known as Tu Hsiao Yueh, located at 9-1 Yong Kang St), started in 1895 by a fisherman who made noodles in the off-time spent away from his fishing boat (hence the name “Slack Season”). Today, there are several branches of this place, but the most famous may be on Yong Kang Street, where a noodle vendor is still located out in front of the dining room, patiently enduring tourists taking endless photos of them.

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

The final, third place was the hardest to get into, featuring the longest, most intimidating line. If it wasn’t called Yong Kang Beef Noodle (No. 17, Lane 31, Secion 2 Jinshan South Rd), I would have certainly walked away, but I didn’t come all this way to wimp out and deprive myself of Taiwan’s famous beef noodles. So in the line I went, listening to countless American tourists walking by and remarking on how some people are so “crazy” as to stand in line for food.

Well, let me tell you, the line was worth it. It’s not a beef noodle like in Thailand, where the broth is either thickened with cow’s blood and a representation of all that is beefy, or a clear broth that ends up being light and refreshing — it’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between those two. The broth is hearty and beefy, yet light, and the noodles chewy and satisfying, but it’s that beef that is the real star: thick melting slabs generous marbled and tender enough to be cut with a single chopstick.

beefnoodle

But the real discovery here was the “spicy dumpling”, which featured a sheet of nearly-melting dough around a nicely-seasoned ball of mince, doused in a sauce thickened with fermented tofu. Could I resist a generous dollop of macerated red chili with garlic to accompany it? Of course not.

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

 

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Filed under Asia, beef, food, noodles, restaurant, Taiwan

Feeling chicken in Hua Hin

A trio of favorites: green curry, shredded chicken curry and clear soup

A trio of favorites: green curry, shredded chicken curry and clear soup

A few months ago while in New York, my friend Karen took me to Momofuku Ko. It was a hard reservation to score — the chance to vie for a spot at the kappo-style restaurant (currently closed) started off at something like 10 in the morning on the restaurant’s website and closed around 5 minutes later. It was always booked out by then — that is, unless you are lucky like Karen was, winning us a couple of seats right before we were due to set off on a barbecue tour. The secret to getting a reservation? As one of the chefs behind the counter (hipster Ryan Reynolds in an alternate universe) said, “You have to not want it that much.”

That struck me (as did the fact that, um, Mark Ruffalo appeared to be working as the maitre’d there. Does Marvel truly not pay that well? Does no one notice that the Hulk is bringing them menus and giving them glasses? Do NOT complain about your drink order!) “You have to not want it that much” seemed like a very zen way to approach just about everything in your life, if you can keep a handle on all that WANT.

I’ve wanted to go to Krua Kannikar for months. But it’s not easy when a. it’s in Hua Hin and b. your husband is doing all he can to turn into a “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”-style shut-in. There are lots of reasons to give up being a shut-in for at least a couple of hours though. And the reasons that Krua Kannikar gives are a. chicken b. chicken and c. chicken.

Because that’s all Kannikar serves. Fried chicken, crumbly and thick; stir-fried chicken; chicken shredded and minced in soup; chicken tossed into coconut milk curries with a handful of lime leaves, peppercorns and chilies. Let me tell you a little something about chicken. I LURVE CHICKEN. ESPECIALLY FRIED CHICKEN. In fact, in the same alternate universe where cheffy Ryan Reynolds slaves over a hot stove all day for David Chang, fried chicken and I are happily married and expecting an entire litter of chicken Mcnuggets. But that is back in that other universe. In this universe, I will have to make peace with fried chicken as the one that got away.

Luckily for me, fried chicken is the specialty of the house here. Born back in 1994, Krua Kannikar — like almost all popular Thai restaurants that have been around for a while — morphed out of a street food cart that first sold fresh chicken, then fried chicken. Now, it offers just about every beloved Thai dish that can take chicken: minced chicken salad, stir-fried chicken with chilies and holy basil, chicken tom yum, green curry, and, most notably, the gai yad sai, or deboned fried chicken wings stuffed with a mix of highly seasoned pork mince, garlic  and glass vermicelli. A bewitching mix of crunch, juicy meat, glass noodle-y squick and a little bit of heat, these wings are perfect for people who want everything in one bite.

Kannikar's stuffed fried chicken wings

Kannikar’s stuffed fried chicken wings

It’s chicken heaven for chicken lovers, Ground Central for a Thai Colonel Sanders, and it’s right there for the taking, if you are willing to venture to the train tracks and amble along for a little while until you spot Kannikar’s sign. It’s worth it if you are in the neighborhood, and maybe worth it even if you’re not.

 

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

Glutton Abroad: Dyspeptic in Japan

Everyone always says Japan is a country full of food obsessives, and it feels true. In places like the US — full of work obsessives — and Thailand (where it is chic to pretend to be a work obsessive), it would be considered a complete waste of time to line up for two hours for the perfect soft cream (“fresh!”) cheesecake, or wait outside in the cold for a space at your favorite beef stew restaurant behind Kabuki-za (oh, OK, it’s MY favorite beef stew restaurant). In Japan, this is seen as completely normal behavior. It takes a special blend of desire and commitment to practice this kind of stick-to-itiveness for something many others would dismiss as frivolous.

In Japan, food is not frivolous, and its inevitable discovery is considered a special time in everyone’s life. This is probably why there is such a thing as the “food manga”, comic books which document a person’s first blossoming of culinary interest (a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for foodies). This usually takes the form of throwing over one’s job and/or parentally-approved educational plans in favor of a backbreaking, precarious life in the food business. In Thailand, this is typically called “having a nervous breakdown”.  In Japan, it is subverting your own ego to create more beauty in the world.

No great stretch, then, to learn that there are also “wine mangas”: comics which depict the deflowering of the protagonist’s innocence re wine. My friend Ritsuko says they usually fall back on the same narrative as the food manga, except that there are lots of porny shots of sexy wine labels and hot ‘n bothered talk of “terroir”. There is no burgeoning romance, no family drama to distract the reader from the main objective — the love of wine, ideally something French and expensive:

comic1

Here, a lady is discovering her first Burgundy. Whether she is shocked because of the wine’s deliciousness or the price tag, I dunno, my Japanese isn’t that good.

And here, dude is learning how a special set of characteristics manifests itself into the soil to create the best wine evah (aka “terroir”, aka “Only French people can make good wine”.)

comic2

I kid, because I love. I love Japan, and I am a Francophile, so this is a perfect storm of awesomeness for me. I also think France produces the best wine. Haha, who am I kidding. I will guzzle wine from anywhere.

I will also guzzle sake from anywhere, including Awaji Island. Now, Awaji is a special place for Japanese food lovers, because its close proximity to Kobe=wonderful Japanese beef, while its location as the biggest island in the Inland Sea on Japan’s eastern side=great seafood, particularly lobster, abalone and sea urchin. This pretty much would have equalled heaven on earth for me, were I not afflicted with %*&^#$ing GERD (medico-speak for really bad, constant heartburn). I am old.

I wasn’t so afflicted that I couldn’t eat anything, however. Awaji also specializes in red snapper, which I am told is the same thing as sea bream. Really? I see both on restaurant menus all the time, and have noticed how much Japanese people like sea bream. In any case, Awaji Island is Ground Zero for sea bream/red snapper. It’s no surprise that they serve it as sashimi as a first course. It does come as a surprise, however, when your dinner starts moving and gasping on the table as you are taking squares of flesh off its skeleton and dipping them in soy sauce. That is a surprise. If you are old enough to remember Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, where they start cutting pieces of Alice up and serving them as cake, you will understand what eating this sashimi was like.

This fish is still moving

This fish is still moving

If you stick around, you will be rewarded with cooked versions of this fish, grilled until white and juicy and served up alongside fragrant Japanese limes and cooked sakae, or Japanese sea snails (another specialty of the area).

Snapper and sea snails

Snapper and sea snails

As lovely as Awaji was, one could not stay there forever. There was more food to be had in Nagano, which is one of my favorite cities in Japan, no uso. Set almost smack in the middle of Honshu, Nagano acts like the country’s fruit basket — gargantuan apples, grapes, apricots, peaches, nectarines — but it also abounds in good sake, flour dumplings, grilled, miso-flecked rice cakes, and wild game. The region’s premier culinary specialty, however, might be this:

Nagano's #1 specialty, soba

Nagano’s #1 specialty, soba

Like Thais and their soup noodles, every person in this town will tell you a different place that makes the “best soba”, and they are totally prepared to fight to the death (OK, for the next five minutes) about it. In fact, when asked to go to one soba shop, our taxi driver in Nagano refused, taking us to a different one that he said was better. In the end, it really doesn’t matter where you go because (much like many of Bangkok’s more famous guay thiew shops), you’d have to work hard to find a really, really bad one in Nagano. Most are pretty good, unless you are the world’s most discerning gourmet of soba noodles ever (95% of Japanese people).

Another, far less lauded Nagano specialty is its “apple beef”, made from cows fed on, yes, the region’s famously sweet, juicy, and large apples. Like their more famous Kobe brethren, these cows are massaged regularly so that the fat is distributed throughout the flesh, like this:

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei in Nagano

I’ve come to believe that Japanese-style beef may be that country’s most famous “fusion” food. Popularized during the Meiji Restoration when Japan was coming to grips with Western influence, beef (and “steak”) here have since taken on qualities that are uniquely Japanese. While American beef is about the beef itself — fibers, sinews, blood and all — the flavor characteristics prized by the Japanese are tenderness, fattiness, umami. It’s meat that’s been manipulated from day one, made to be cooked to medium or even medium-well to activate the fat buried within, and then (if served as a steak), grilled before its heady baptism with soy sauce and a dollop of wasabi to cut the greasiness. I’ll be honest: this meat is too much for me, especially in my old lady GERD state. This kind of meat is meant for lucky people with working digestive systems. I’ll be in the corner gnawing on a couple of medium-rare pieces of Porterhouse.

 

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Filed under Asia, beef, food, Japan, restaurant