Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dinner by the Fountain

Visited some good friends in Philly for the weekend. Knowing how much I love to eat, they planned an entire weekend of gluttony. Our first meal was at La Fontana Della Citta, a quaint BYOB Italian restaurant near the heart of the city.

Calamari Fritti
For starters, we whetted our appetites with an order of calamari fritti. These were some of the best I've had. The pieces of squid were plump and tender. The breading was crisp and light. The marinara was warm and chunky. My only complaint was there there were no pieces of tentacle. Though I like squid tubes, I LOVE me some squid tentacles. Next time I'll remember to request for some.

Rack of Lamb
This is their rack of lamb. I originally ordered the osso buco but they were out at the time. The brown sauce looked delicious but neither added nor detracted from the dish. Because it was bland, I just took it to be a means to keep the meat moist. Despite being a bit tough, the lamb was flavorful and thoroughly enjoyed by my taste buds. As I always do when eating a rack of lamb, I make a first pass using fork and knife but then finish off the dish with my fingers clinching the rib bones and my teeth tearing off every last bit of meaty goodness.

Seafood Risotto
My wife go their seafood risotto, of which I ate half. The seafood was superb but the rice wasn't. Undercooked, the grains did not absorb the creaminess of butter sauce. This was a minor setback since we simply ate around the rice. The seafood itself was delicious. Fresh and properly cooked, the mussels, squid, scallops and shrimp were all tender and plump with flavor.

When considering the food only, we had a pleasant experience at this eatery. But coupled with the great company at dinner, we loved the restaurant and would revisit when possible.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Home-Cooked Goodness

It's always busy right before the holidays. But for some reason, this is also the time I get really lazy, so I've been behind.

Today I'm sharing some home-cooked goodness.

Spring Roll Spread
This first spread was graciously served when I visited a good friend in Rowlett. I apologize for the foto's focal plane being to shallow. It's a build-your-own-spring-roll meal, similar to this one. The sliced beef was marinated in lemongrass, salt and secret spices. The shrimp wasn't marinated. For those unfamiliar with this set up, here's how things work:

1. Cook the meat in a lot of butter in the hot pot
2. Once cooked, combine meat with rice vermicelli, lettuce and cilantro and wrap in rice paper wrapper
3. Depending on your liking, dip it in the accompanying fish sauce (some folks may find the fish sauce too pungent, but, like Goldilocks in Baby Bear's bed, I found it was just right)
4. Guzzle some beer
5. Laugh with good friends
6. Repeat steps 1 through 5

As for how it tasted, IMHO, the combination of minced lemongrass and salt is as delicious as A and W. In the wild, lemongrass looks like a huge weed. In the grocery store, it looks like hard, dried green onions. But at the dinner table, it looks like there won't be any leftovers. It tastes like the illegitimate offspring of a lemon and lawn clippings. Sounds weird, I know. I really don't do it justice but that's what it tastes like. And once you had it, you won't forget it.

The rice vermicelli emulsified the oily, fatty meats with the crisp, fresh veggies so that you can enjoy all the flavors without getting sick of too much meat of veggies. The noodles also served as a means to capture plenty of fish sauce. With beef and shrimp in the same bite, it's the Asian version of surf and turf.

Grilled Nem
Our next home-cooked meal came from my mother-in-law. This woman loves to cook. See how the foto has enough food for 6 people? Yeah, all that was served for only 3. In one of my earlier posts, I covered Laotian nem. Well, here's one of the Vietnamese versions. Though I haven't asked her for her secrets yet, I have a hunch that it is a mixture of pork, beef and lemongrass. I know she then shapes it, steams it, and then grills the cooked meat mixture. Once cooked, it's split lengthwise and covered in cooked green onions. The green onions are cooked in plenty of hot oil just until fragrant. The Vietnamese term for the cooked green onion literally translate to "fat onions." The plate of greens consists of lettuce, a type of mint, and more green onions. In a bowl, combine the noodles, meat, and veggies. Add chili paste and fish sauce as desired and garnish with peanuts.

As I mentioned above, lemongrass and salt is a great combination, especially for beef and pork. And since the nem has both beef and pork, it's a no-brainer. The oil infused with green onion coats the meat and adds aroma and grease to the meat. Throw in the salty fish sauce and spicy chili paste and you have a symphony of flavors in your mouth. I ended up eating much more than I needed, as usual.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Mallard from Peking

Had dinner with my folks at Sing Kee. Like before, I ordered the ridiculously delicious sizzling bean curd. This time around, I also tried their Peking duck for the first time, but it won't be my last.

Peking Duck
The skin was crispy and separated from the meat, which is due to air injected under the skin before cooking. The meat was moist, tender, and full of duckiness. It helped that the duck was mostly deboned and cautiously carved for easy access. I began by eating the duck without any of the sides but that soon became unctuous since I needed something to balance out the lardy mallard.

Peking Duck Spread
Here's the entire spread that comes with an order of Peking duck. From the back to the front are steamed buns, duck, hoisin sauce, cilantro and green onions. The buns, sometimes referred to as pancakes, function similar to a tortilla or hot-dog bun in that it folds over the other foods. They were served freshly steamed so that they're moist and soft. So how does assembly work? Well, it works kind of like taco night at home. You grab a bun, spread on some hoisin sauce, add as much meat or greens as you like and chow down.

I had a blast eating the duck but am told that there are places in Houston that make it better. Terrific! This further cements my belief that life is a series of little food quests.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Chow Down on Chau

For dinner, the wife was craving some traditional Vietnamese noodles call bún riêu. To get this, we ventured out to west Houston to Kim Chau Restaurant. This restaurant was highly recommended by optometrist and his wife, who are Vietnamese and run a great optometry practice, no correspondence between the two facts. Though we were skeptical since this place is not anywhere near Chinatown, we learned three things about it: 1) they make their bún riêu with snails, 2) they also make a great bún bò Huế, and 3) they're in a strip mall. These three facts sold us on making the drive and trying a new place.

When we found the place, we drove up to one of the most rundown looking strip malls we have seen with a parking lot to match. We parked and saw no one inside except a guy watching college football. So we had a little conversation about whether or not to go inside. In the end, as an act of faith to our optometrist, we braved the empty mess hall.

It was two weeks after Hurricane Ike but when the server came to take our orders, he informed us that they had just gotten power the night before. Because of this, they only had 2 things on the menu that night and they just happened to be the two noodle soups we came to eat. Huzzah!

Spicy Beef Noodles
I didn't get a photo of my wife's bún riêu, but this was my bún bò Huế, which literally translates to "noodle beef Hue." FYI, Huế is a city in Viet Nam known for its Thai Hoa Palace, temples, monuments and spicy food. Like what I expected, it was spicy but came with a side of extra spiciness in case I needed more...and I did. The savory soup was infused with lemongrass, beef bones, chili peppers, and garnished with onions and cilantro. There was a side dish of shredded veggies to add, you know, to make it healthy. As a kid I never added the veggies because it didn't taste like anything in such a flavorful soup. However, now, it's a nice addition of texture to contrast the rich, fatty meats. What I didn't expect but was a welcomed surprised was that Kim Chau served the noodles with very traditional ingredients. So in addition to the beef shank and bones, there was also congealed pig blood, slices of Vietnamese pork sausage, pig knuckles, and enough MSG to make a horse twitch. Though I'm well aware of the controversy surrounding health matters related to MSG, the crystalline substance sure makes for good cooking. I was raised on MSG so I have no issues consuming foods laden with it (besides getting extremely thirsty after the meal), but I know several folks who swell up like a puffer fish because of it.

So in conclusion, I would definitely eat at Kim Chau again and MSG = yummy, if your body can handle it.

Ooo Ooo Fu Fu

Hello, my friends, we meet again. Sorry for the delay in updates. Thanks to everyone who's been hanging in there.

The wife and I visited one of Houston's Bellaire Chinatown's fine dining establishments. I specify Bellaire Chinatown because according to the highway signs, the traffic officials still think Houston's Chinatown is near downtown. Despite being out of touch, I'm sure they're good people and they mean well. Any how, the wife had been here with a coworker, liked it and here we are interacting via a food blog.

I entered this dinner with high hopes since Fu Fu Cafe is situated in a strip mall and for those of you who don't already know, I'm a big fan of strip mall eateries. Though they're not always good, more likely than not they are enjoyable and occasionally exceptional. My theory is because these establishments spend their resources on the food and not the appearance or rent of stand-alone structures. Fu Fu is somewhere in between good and exceptional. Through the glass door you step directly into the dinning area which accommodates 40 diners, maybe 50 if the guests can tolerate little table area. Even with limited eating real estate, you would have to pass through a crowd of waiting famished as you put your name on the waiting "list," i.e., the server's/hostess' memory.

For our meal, we got soup dumplings and beef tendons with scallions. The dumplings I liked though they weren't as good as the ones I've had in NYC. The wrapping was overly thick and doughy for my tastes. The broth and pork filling inside was warm and flavorful. For those you haven't had soup dumplings, imagine a French-dip sandwich that, instead of dipping the sandwich, the au jus and meat were encased inside a water-proof bread crust. Like it sounds, not only would it be incredibly delicious, you would also have to eat it with extreme caution. Wow...I might have just come up with a great new food item. I'll have to experiment and get back to you. Oh, and for those of you who haven't had soup dumplings or a French dip, pat yourselves on the back for being cruel and negligent to your taste buds. Unfortunately, the yummy dumplings made for a poor foto.

Scallions & Beef Tendons
For our main dish, we ordered the "beef tendons with scallions." What's funny is that I quoted the actual English menu entry but the Chinese version had about 20 characters. Just goes to show this place caters to Asians and Chinese illiteracy just means your dinner is like a box of chocolates. The beef tendons seem to have been slow simmered in broth and then flash stir-fried with fresh green onions when ordered. There's really no consistency with tendons since they can come from many joint of the cow. So some pieces were firm and chewy while other pieces were soft and edible sans teeth but all pieces of tendon had the subtle tendon flavor infused with the salty brown broth. The flash frying merely softened the onions, leaving a nice pungency to cut through the oily broth and gelatinous tendons. We ate this with white rice and smiled the whole time.

Since our first visit together, we've revisited Fu Fu, reordered these same dishes and received the same smiles.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

An Evening of Brie

The other night I obtained a small wheel of Brie from the cheese company Ile de France. In full disclosure, the company offered me the cheese to sample and blog about. Also, there's currently a recipe contest going on so I figure I'd try out a couple.

Le Brie

Fresh Cut Brie
I had a few pieces of the cheese before incorporating it into recipes. This was an interesting Brie because it had a relatively firmer middle and softer rind than the double or triple cream varieties I usually buy. This resulted in a Brie that was extremely easy to cut and eat. The cheese had a nice strong flavor for a Brie. Texturally, the rind and middle worked well together due to their similar firmness; sharply contrasting textures can sometimes detract front the taste. It's easy to see why this Brie won a Food & Wine taste test. On with the cooking!

Crab & Brie Phyllo Squares
My first pass at cooking with this cheese came in the form of phyllo dough squares with snow crab. This was a simple recipe. Layer about 15 sheets of phyllo, brushing butter on each layer. Cut into squares slightly larger than the Brie pieces and pierce each square with fork to prevent too much puffing. Bake as directed and remove from the oven 10 minutes before it's done, i.e., 350°F for 10-15 minutes. Add the Brie and pieces of steamed snow crab leg meat. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or until the cheese starts to look gooey. Remove, drizzle on a few drops of white truffle oil, and serve. If you're like me, you'll burn the roof of your mouth and love doing it. Modesty aside, these squares were amazing. The mild crab and white truffle together with the warm, salty Brie and the buttery, crispy phyllo made me glad I baked extra squares. Though I did regret eating more of these than I should have, guilt never tasted so good.

For the next recipe, I prepared a Brie souffle. To make this simple-as-it-gets souffle, I needed the following:

5 large egg whites at room temperature
4 oz of Brie, cubed and rind removed (half of the wheel above)
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons of water
¼ cup water
dash of cream of tartar
1 electric hand mixer or whisk and a hand that won't quit

Brie Souffle Prep
After preheating the oven to 350°F and generously buttering the sides of three 4" ramekins, melt the cheese in a small pot with water over medium heat. Stir constantly. When the cheese is evenly melted, add the cornstarch and stir. As soon as the mixture starts to bubble, remove from heat, transfer to a plastic or glass bowl, and beat with the hand mixer on medium for 3-5 minutes or until cool. This helps maintain small fat particles evenly disbursed through out the mixture, otherwise puddles of oil form. Once cooled, in a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on high until a stiff peak forms. It's very important the whites are at room temperature before beating. You could speed things up by putting the eggs in warm water before separating yolk from whites.

Brie Souffle Folding
When the egg whites form a stiff peak, it's time to combine with the cheese. With a spatula, first fold in about 1/3 of the whites into the cheese. Once that's even, add the cheese to the rest of the whites and fold until even, but don't over do it, otherwise your souffle won't rise.

Uncooked Brie Souffles
Once the egg whites and cheese are evenly folded, fill the buttered ramekins. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Fresh Baked Brie Souffles
Remove from oven and serve immediately. Make sure to say "Voilà" while you serve it. As you can see, 3 went in but only 2 are in the foto. This was because I had to eat one to make sure it was's really the only way to be absolutely certain. These light, airy souffles had plenty of the Brie flavor. I intentionally avoided a complicated recipe to not detract from the cheese, one of my rare good decisions. The salty Brie puffed well and added just enough fat content to the souffle for some creaminess without preventing the rising. The crusty muffin top reminded me of eating slightly charred cheese, which I loved to do as a kid, so there was a slight nostalgic aspect to this recipe.

So my sincere thanks goes to Ile de France for providing me some of their delicious Brie to sample. If ever a dish calls for Brie, I would definitely consider getting more, since my cooking experience with it has been a great one.

However, because all of the above happened in one night, it may be a little while before I crave Brie again, especially since my bastard of a scale mercilessly reminds me of how I consumed a wheel of cheese in one night.

Gathering at The Salt Lick

Our final meal of our Austin visit was Sunday lunch at The Salt Lick in Round Rock, which is north of Austin. The original location is south of Austin in Driftwood. Their website doesn't appear to make any mention of the north-side location. We had to call the Driftwood place to get the phone number for the other.

To get to The Salt Lick in Round Rock:
1. Head north on I-35 from Austin
2. Take exit 253 for US-79
3. Turn right onto US-79 AKA E Palm Valley Blvd (heading east)
4. Just past 4 miles in and The Salt Lick will be on your left just in front of the Round Rock Express Ballpark.

Smoking Wood
The smell of BBQ smoke seeps through the car's air vents as we searched for a parking spot.

Chopping Block
This location is similar to the original in several aspects. In addition to wood dominating the interior and exterior decor, diners see the kitchen in full view as they pass to enter the main dining area. However, a big difference from the Driftwood location is that this one is not BYOB. This was a very disheartening lesson to learn first hand.

Pork Ribs & Brisket
My wife ordered their pork ribs and beef brisket combo plate. The ribs were tender and easily came off the bone as we bit into them. Notice the beautiful pink coloring through out the meat. This permeating pink is a sign of low and slow smoking. The brisket was soft enough for folks without teeth. I once heard of another BBQ joint in TX whose slogan is "Don't need teef to eat our beef." Though that motto doesn't officially belong to The Salt Lick, you could probably fool a first-timer. The folks at The Salt Lick really know how to smoke their meats.

Beef Ribs Special
I ordered their special, which was a plate of beef ribs, beans, and au gratin potatoes. Before I get into the meat, these potatoes were amazing. That's saying a lot coming from a guy that isn't big on the pale root. These had plenty of butter and cheese to win me over. The meat on the ribs didn't "fall off the bone," which is expected of beef ribs. The ribs' connective tissues were tough, almost as if waxed paper was Superglued onto bone. This usually means one of two things, the ribs were cooked too quickly or the ribs came from an old steer. From the tenderness of the actual meat, I concluded it was just a geriatric bovine. This was a small price to pay for the richly marbled meat that came with ribs. Through ribs are typically messy, a dexterous diner could successfully eat pork ribs with a knife a fork. Beef ribs, on the other hand, requires a expectation of and commitment to saucy, oily hands, lips, chin, and, occasionally, shirt and pants. I'm proud to say that I extracted all the meat possible from these ribs. The remainder went to my dogs who acted like Christmas came early.

For dessert, we ordered a couple of their sinfully delicious blackberry cobbler. It comes out in a small bowl where a warm blackberry bottom layer is topped with a buttery cornmeal-based crust. Since the first time I had this years ago, it's been a must-have for every visit. There's no fotos of it because the dessert came out while I stepped away and the others at the table weren't patient enough to wait. But don't worry, I'll definitely visit again and will be prepared.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Torchy's Temptations

Despite a great meal at Uchi, later that same night I got a strong case of the munchies that needed satiating. This was probably due to the fact we had dinner at 5:30. So I and fellow foodies headed over South Austin's Trailer Park & Eatery to so that Torchy's Tacos could silence our growling tummies.

Trailer Park & Eatery
The vivid street sign to ensure drivers don't miss the stop they didn't even know was on their itinerary.

Torchy's Trailer
Long hours and hard work make for a happy trailer park eatery.

Pulled Pork
This is Torchy's green chili pork taco and was hands down the best pork taco I've ever had. The pulled pork plenarily pleased palettes with plentiful porcine pieces of pure propitiousness. In other words, it was good. The tender pork was slow simmered in a green-chili's and topped with fresh cilantro and onions and served a wedge of lime. I opted out of the cheese as to fully taste the pork and I'm glad I did. My mouth still waters with the memory of mouthfuls of fatty pork, zingy lime, fresh garnish, and warm buttery flour tortillas. It was so good I actually went back and got another.

This is their brushfire, which is Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled jalapenos, mango, Sour cream, and cilantro served on a flour tortilla. This taco was served with their Diablo sauce, a creamy habanero sauce (it's in the pork taco foto above). The taco was as delicious as it was photogenic. My wife particularly enjoyed this one due to her affinity for mangos.

For dessert, we ordered their nookie. These golf-ball-sized spheres o' fried fun are deep-fried chocolate-chip-cookie-dough-covered Hershey kisses. I know what you're thinking and, yes, we got some nookie in the trailer park.

In all honestly, I ate at this place twice during the weekend. However, due to my excitement and eagerness to start eating, only a few fotos turned out appetizing enough for blogging. This won't be so the next time I visit.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Itching for Uchi

Saturday dinner in Austin was at Uchi, which we understood to be the best place for sushi in Austin. Wow, we weren't disappointed. As you approach the front door, you walk through a large zen garden that makes you feel guilty for stepping in it, even though there were seats and tables set up. Upon entry into the restaurant, you see the sushi bar with sushi chefs working elbow to elbow. Looking pass the sushi bar, you see a long dining room with ornate wallpaper, which creates the sensation of being in one of the cars of the Orient Express. Definitely romantic.

Alright, enough about the ambiance, the following are the flavorful fotos of our meal.

Our first appetizer was their uchiviche, their take on ceviche. Their version consisted of salmon, striped bass, vine-ripened tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, garlic and cilantro drizzled in a light vinegar mixture. This dish tasted much like sashimi with a tangy zingy kick. The tomatoes were fresh and the peppers were tender, probably from poaching. This was a great beginning to what was to come.

Saba Shio
This was their saba shio, Norwegian mackerel broiled and served with 3 different spices. The mackerel was delicious. The meat was firm and dense. The skin was crisp yet chewy. And both meat and skin were wonderfully melded by the flavorful, fatty fish oil through out the filet. Like I always say, fat is flavor.

Belly Steakie
Next up was the bacon steakie. Like it sounds, this was an dish of twice-cooked thick steaks of pork belly covered in a sweet brown sauce and sour green apples pieces. It's practically a self-explanatory name for the dish. If fat is flavor, this dish was almost purely flavor; wonderful, delicious flavor. Imagine delicious cubes of pork where it's layers of just meat, fat, more meat and more fat. Though others at the table stated they could have done without it, I personally thought it was brilliant.

Crunchy Tuna
This was one of their specials of the night. Tuna, avocado, and cucumber rolled in rice rolled in crunchy tempura flakes served with a spicy mayo sauce. Not a complicated combination, the simplicity of this roll was what made it so great. Fresh tuna and avocado is always a great mix with similar textures and differing subtle flavors. The virtually flavorless cucumber and tempura flakes added a great, crunchy texture. Though it may seem rather plain compared to the selection found at most sushi bars, it's a great roll.

Salmon & Escolar
The salmon and escolar sashimi were extremely fresh.

The mackerel was fresh, fatty, and unforgettable. A raw version of the saba shio mentioned above.

The broiled fresh-water eel was flaky, moist and made everyone smile.

Scallop & Avocado
I typically don't order scallops, but my wife is the fan and so we ordered a round for the table. This was some of the freshest scallops I've had ever. And since I'm a sucker for avocado, Uchi has made me re-evaluate my stance on scallops.

From left to right, we had salmon roe, flying fish roe, and sea bass.

The sea urchin was amazingly fresh. Too bad it was served with the mint leaves. My wife knew better and removed it before eating, so she loved her piece. I got a piece with very little mint and didn't hate the combination, but would have preferred it without the green leaf. Sadly, the others at the table said the mint overpowered the urchin and it was as if they were eating minty, mushy rice.

Foie Gras Nigiri
This was everyone's favorite of the meal, foie gras nigiri. Thin pieces of goose liver seared and topped with a bit of mint and crispy-fried something sitting in what I think was some of the pan drippings. When bitten into, the rich liver spreads like warm butter over the rice, prolonging the slight sweet and salty juices already permeating the rice grains. In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that roasted pig would be apart of my final meal. These morsels would also be included in said meal.

The delicate fish to rice ratio was delectably perfected. This was some of the best sushi rice I've had in Texas. It was just as it should have been, room temperature, held firm, and it seemed like every piece was covered with rice vinegar goodness.

Everyone loved this place and the wife and I would definitely go again if ever in Austin. In a rare stroke of genius, we went right when they opened for dinner and got seated immediately. Fifteen minutes into our meal the dining and outdoor waiting were packed. The food gods must have been smiling on me that day.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Flipping Out

For Saturday lunch in Austin, we tried a place we saw on Food Network's Throw Down with Bobby Flay. According to the show, the two founders of Flip Happy Crepes could not seem to find a decent crepe after a trip to Paris. So after perfecting their recipe with lots of practice and discarded batches of batter, they obtained a cozy vintage trailer from which they serve warm smiles 5 days/week.


Crepe Line
Though the line moved fast, it didn't let up the entire time we were there. It's outdoor seating, which was great this weekend since the weather was perfect. Interestingly enough, from a few conversations I overheard while standing in line, there were a handful of other Ike evacuees in our midst. So it truly was one big flip happy.

Smoked Salmon Crepe
The first crepe we bit into was their smoked salmon with herb cream cheese, spinach, and tomato. Since we were so eager to dig in, I didn't showcase the filling as much as I would have liked. But from this foto, you can easily see the warm, buttery, crispy exterior that completely surrounds the filling. All the subtle ingredients complimented one another extremely well. In other words, each ingredient has a mild flavor that's easy to distinguish when eaten alone but could easily be overpowered with the wrong combination. But by their powers combined, they were crepe extraordinaire. The rich cream cheese was balanced out by the doughy crepe and crisp veggies. At the center of this tango on my palette was the salty smoked salmon. It's kind of like that group of 5 nerds in high school. Individually, each was meek and oft overlooked. But together, they formed an incredible team of matheletes. Yeah, it's exactly like that.

Pork Crepe
Our next crepe was their shredded pork with caramelized onions and Gruyere. Unlike the team of mathelets above, this one was more like two of jocks trying to one-up the other while their girlfriends roll their eyes. Shredded pork and caramelized onions are very pronounced ingredients. I felt the mild flavor the Gruyere was almost lost in the mix but it definitely added a great richness to the crepe. After taking a bite, someone commented, "I suddenly feel happy."

Sweet Crepe
For dessert, we got their cinnamon sugar crepe with toasted coconut and cream cheese frosting. The cinnamon and sugar was mixed into the crepe batter. The filling consisted of sweet coconut flakes and cream cheese frosting. All this was topped off with powdered sugar and crushed almonds. The kind of response that comes from eating this warm triangle is silence. In this one moment, there are no words, no conversation, just smiles and glances of complete understanding that everyone at the table is in the same state of mind as the other.

We wanted to go again the next day on Sunday, but they were closed. We're supposed to go camping in the Austin area soon, maybe we'll just camp outside the Happy Flip Trailer.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Tony the Chef

So after a week of being evacuees in Dallas, the wife and I visited a good friend in Austin named Tony. During our weekend there, Tony prepared breakfast for us each morning.

Saturday morning

Breakfast @ Tony's
Clockwise starting with the center bowl: pepper-braise pork, rice, stir-fried ong choy with garlic, mushroom & green onion omelet, lemongrass pork chops (cut into smaller pieces), fresh cucumbers.

Our first morning there, Tony prepared Vietnamese food. For those who think this looks more like lunch or dinner, keep in mind that the typical Vietnamese breakfast is merely a cup of coffee. So a "Vietnamese breakfast" really just means we ate Vietnamese food in the morning, which balances out all those who get the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity for dinner at your neighborhood IHOP. I really enjoyed his cooking, partly because I love pork for breakfast and partly because his cooking style is similar to my mama's (his family is from the same part of Vietnam as mine).

Sunday morning

Bo Bia
Our second morning in Austin, we awoke to Tony preparing bò bía, which is another type of Vietnamese spring roll; typically people think of Vietnamese spring rolls with sliced pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and veggies. Bò bía is made with (clockwise) slices of Chinese sausage, fresh basil, fried eggs, dried shrimp, grated carrots and jicama, peanut sauce, and spring roll wrapper. Here, Tony's combined the dried shrimp, carrots, and jicama for easy assembly.

Assembly instructions:
1. Dip the dry, brittle spring roll wrapper in warm water briefly and place onto your plate. You won't want it to get soft while in water, just get it wet, transfer to your plate and it will soften by the time you start wrapping.
2. Add a small spoonful of each ingredient, tear off some fresh basil leaves
3. Roll like an eggroll or enchilada with the ends closed off.
4. Dip in sauce and enjoy.

Yes, I know these directions lacks detail but getting good at making spring rolls only comes after having made many ugly, broken ones.

We've never been in a position to have Tony cook for us, but we were pleasantly surprised. Tony's a great cook. If I could, I'd have him cook for me everyday. Though I've only said this to a handful of people, no one's ever taken my offer for some reason. I'm not sure why.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hurricane Ike Evacuation, part 5

On our sixth day as evacuees, we meet my brother and some close friends for lunch at an old favorite Chinese spot of ours called Sing Kee Chinese BBQ. The wife and I used to go here on dates during high school. Though we've eaten here a few times since then, it's been a good 3 years since our last visit. It was just like we remembered with the same tables, lazy Susans, and chairs. Actually, I think I saw the same soy sauce stain I made years ago on one of the booths. I kid of course. By no mean is the place romantic but it holds a soft spot in our hearts.

Sizzling Tofu
Our all-time favorite dish here is their "Sizzling bean curd with shrimp." I'm not sure why they opted with "bean curd" instead of "tofu." Possibly because many non-Asians cringe at the though of tofu; however, I'm not quite sure bean curd is a crowd-winner. Either way, anyone who thinks tofu is gross hasn't tasted this. These cubes of molded soybeans with a shrimp adhered one of the sides (I assume with shrimp adhesive) are battered and deep-fried, giving them a crunchy, doughy crust. When it's brought out, the server brings three items to the table: a plate of the tofu, a bowl of sauce, and a hot plate (AKA the Sizzler). Once at your table, the server transfers the tofu from the normal plate to the Sizzler and pours on the sauce. The resulting sound, steam, and aroma signifies that an angel got its wings. If all I had was this dish and rice, I'd be a happy foodie. The crispy-fried batter not only absorbs the sweetly salty sauce, it also holds the tender tofu together. I always burn my tongue on the first bite but I've always viewed it as a necessary sacrifice.

Lunch #1
This time around I tried a new item, their lunch special #1, which was a noodle bowl with a little bit of all their Chinese BBQ offerings. There were a few wontons in addition to the BBQ chicken, duck, and pork. Though I enjoyed the dish, there wasn't anything particularly spectacular about it. The noodles and broth were your standard Chinese noodle fare. I ordered it because I was craving noodles and these satisfied my craving. I will say that the BBQ was well flavored and rich with fatty, oily goodness. For me, a strong believer that fat is flavor, this made the dish better than average. So no regrets on ordering it.

But if you ever try this place, definitely brave the bean curd.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hurricane Ike Evacuation, Part 4

Our fourth night as evacuees was spent at my mom's house. This night was special because she was hosting a prayer session in honor of my grandparents and great-grandparents. When she told me this, I was expecting a group of about 10-15 close friends over for dinner and prayer. But oh did I underestimate my mama. Her guestlist included over 70 guests and she prepared the feast for all the guest virtually single-handed.

It wasn't until the 11th hour did she ask for help, i.e., the event started at 7pm and she didn't call on us until 10am that morning. She bought all the groceries herself. The night before the event, she was up until 4 am preparing ingredients for sausage, two types of sticky rice, congee (rice porridge), stir-fried noodles and more. By the time we arrived to help, she had gotten most things to the point she just needed to combine items and put over fire. However, she did need me to grate the cucumbers. The problem was she didn't have a grater. So instead, I had to use a peeler. Yes, one of those things that peels the skin off potatoes and carrots, I used that. To effectively grate 20 lbs of cucumbers for the Vietnamese salad called goi. Yes, 20 lbs!!! I've never hated cucumbers more in my life.

Since I was busy grating cucumbers, I didn't get any fotos of the prep work. But here are some of the results:

Mama's Buffet
Clockwise from the purple rice: purple sticky rice, peanut sticky rice, goi (Vietnamese salad, yay me for grating 20 lbs of cucumbers), stir-fried beef noodles, eggrolls, and fried shrimp chips. The coloring of the purple sticky rice is just for show. Sometimes it made red or just left as plain white. The peanut sticky rice is white sticky rice mixed with peanuts boiled soft so that it almost serves as a creamy compliment to the sweet rice. Because I grew up eating it, I never really knew what it was, but wikipedia can tell you more about sticky rice. The beef noodles are similar to what you'd find at a Chinese restaurant, except my mama's dish is much better. It's not drowned in sauce, not too salty and with a good balance of beef, veggies and rice noodles.

Assorted Meats
For those of you a bit squimish, you may want to skip to the next foto. Here are platters of all things pork not served in 99% of restaurants. In no particular order (because it's all mixed together), there's boiled pork intestine, stomach, tongue, belly, ear and liver. These tasty tidbits were added to the congee made with coagulated pig blood. If the previous 2 sentences sparked more intrigue than indigestion, consider yourself a foodie.

Vietnamese Sausage
Here's the home-made sausage. Well, technically my mama only prepared the filling and had the sausages stuffed by professionals, though I'm sure she seriously considered doing it herself. As you can see that unlike the sausage at the store, which is comprised of evenly ground meats, this sausage is purposedly chunky. Though I'm unsure why we wouldn't just leave the meat chunks out for eat as is, it sure tastes good.

Though there were many other food items, I didn't get more fotos because with over 70 on the guestlist, once the food is laid out, no one waits for the cameraman to get a shot. I'll end this post with some words of wisdom: NEVER get in the way of a woman with a huge pot of boiling soup.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Ike Evacuation, Part 3

Finally got internet at the house again. So I'll be playing catch up these next few posts. Stay tuned.

During our third day back in Dallas we were treated to a Laotian feast fit for kings. Our good friends had a housewarming that included what seemed like 20 family-members from Kansas. And what kind of housewarming would it be without a proper buffet? Several of the visiting family members seemingly worked 16 hours straight so that we could experience a food coma. Here are some fotos of the fruits of their labor.

I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the foods items you are about to see.

Housewarming Lunch
So here's everything laid out in smaller serving bowls. I wish I could give you detailed descriptions about each dish's ingredients and method of cooking, but much like when I was growing up, I was told to not ask questions and finish everything in my bowl. And that's exactly what I did. I've never been one to offend the cook, in this case several Laotian women ready to put me in my place. Though giving you my best guess of each dish would only showcase my ignorance of Laotian cuisine, I do distinctively remember lots of bamboo shoots, roasted pig and beef salad. Once again, that was beef salad. Much like a salad is a bowl full of shredded lettuce, the beef salad was a bowl of thinly-slice beef. Honestly, any cuisine with a meat salad wins my vote.

Roasted Pork
Here's a foto of the roasted pig. Each piece had a layer of moist, salty meat, rich, oily fat and crispy, crunchy skin. I think if I were to have a last meal, it would include roast pig.

Peppers for Dipping Sauce
They warned me that the food would be spicy, but seeing as how I love to sweat, I told them how the food was just right. So here's what they whipped up for me to eat with the food. Yes, that's just a bunch of BYA (burn your a**) pepper crushed with salt and sugar. To this they added some sort of soy sauce mixture. Let's just say I didn't again comment on how the food wasn't spicy enough.

Seem like a lot of food? It was. But that was only lunch. After a siesta, we were ready to eat some least expected to.

Dinner Preparations
And why wouldn't everyone be expected to eat more, especially when the out-of-town guests worked so hard on preparations. This foto was only a small portion of what was being prepared for dinner. As soon as the ladies saw me in the kitchen with a camera, threats were made on my life if any fotos were taken of them cooking. I heeded their warnings.


This dish was simply called nem, which is the name of the main ingredient. Though nem is briefly described on wikipedia (last bullet under "Meat Dishes"), wiki fails to mention that it's a slightly sour type of sausage that is usually eaten while drinking beer.

What these ladies did with it wasn't anything short of genius. They crumbled huge pieces of nem by hand, mixed in rice, lime juice and other secret ingredients, reshaped the mixture into balls and deep-fried the newly-formed bundles of joy.

Deep-fried Happiness
The result are crispy spheres that look ready for devouring. Or so I thought until I reached for one and was promptly scolded. The ladies weren't done yet. This was but a mere step in the preparation of this dish.

Ball Breaker
Next came the ball breaking and I'm not talking about them giving me a hard time all day for snapping fotos while they toiled away. The fried, steamy clump of meat and rice was then crumbled to form what almost looked like Chinese fried rice. I guess it technically was still fried rice, but I didn't refer to it as much for fear of offending the lovely ladies preparing the meal.

Laotian Nem
Finally, the mixture is tossed with fresh cilantro and served. The result is a dish combining moist steamed rice, crunchy fried pieces, sour meaty pork chunks and fresh flavorful cilantro. In other words, every bite was a spoonful of "OMG that's good!"

There were so much more delicious Laotian dishes I ate that night, but in all the celebration associated with a housewarming, my focus on fotography blurred as the night went on. Though I ate much more than I should have, my only regret is that I didn't give each lady a hug for the food they made.