Thursday, August 28, 2008

Thai or Viet?

Met with the father-in-law for dinner the other night. He recommended a new Thai place in Chinatown called Thai Spice. Turns out they have many locations and this is their newest one. To those who don't already know, Houston's "Chinatown" is a bit of a misnomer since it's more of a Little Saigon. So when Pappa-2, as I have him listed in my phone, suggested Thai in Chinatown, I was curious as to how authentic it would be. Well, in Thai restaurant nomenclature, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being kinda Thai and 5 being too Thai) it was about a 0.75.

The restaurant seemed to be Vietnamese owned and operated. The menus had English and Vietnamese descriptions. Come to think of it, most of the menu were down right Vietnamese fare. To justify "Thai" in the title, I think they merely added more Thai basil and limes and chili peppers to the dishes. Though Thai and Vietnamese cuisines have certain similiarities, I felt like I was in a Vietnamese restaurant. Imagine going in for Italian food but feeling like you're in a Spanish tapas bar. I've only been to this one location so it might be different with the others.

Despite my ranting, I enjoyed the food enough to look pass everything I just stated.

Beef Noodles
The beef noodles weren't too oily, which is usually the case. The dish was seasoned well and the meat was nice and tender. The addition of carrots were unexpected, but didn't make me mad at my wife for ordering it.

Tofu & Veggies
I liked the veggies more than the noodles. Again, not too oily. The hard stalks were cut thin and cooked well so that they were tender enough to enjoy but still had a nice fresh snap when you bit down. The firm tofu was fresh and its silky texture balanced out the crispness of the veggies. If I ate only this dish for dinner, I would have been happy.

Overall, Thai Spice wasn't outstanding but I didn't regret eating there.

Monday, August 25, 2008

NY Culinary Quest

So finally got a new computer and am now back in business. Boy do I have a treat for you. While waiting on the computer, I visited NYC for an extended stay to work, play and eat. I ate so many excellent dishes that I don't even know where to start my discussion. I'll not detract from the fotos with too many words and I'll only comment on the exceptionally delicious ones.

Day One

Our first stop was Chinatown at Dim Sum Go Go, where my sister-in-law raved about their duck dumplings. We got lost trying to get to this place because it turns out NY has 3 different Broadways. We finally got onto the right one and it was well worth the trek. The restaurant was the most modern looking dim sum establishment I've been to. And though it was in Chinatown, most of the dinners we saw were not Chinese, which some would say is an indication of the food's mm-mmm factor. But despite this fact and mixed reviews found on the web, everything we ordered brought silence to the table and smiles to our faces.

Dim Sum BBQ Pork Pastries
Puff pastry stuffed with Chinese BBQ pork

Dim Sum Turnip Cake
Pan-fried turnip cake

Dim Sum Dumplings
Pot-stickers from left to right: spinach, duck, veggies, duck

Dim Sum Various
From front to back: rolled bean-curd skin, steamed pork short ribs, pork shumai

After finishing dim sum, though we were full, but weren't stuffed yet. So what's the logical thing to do? Eat more of course. Since we were already in Chinatown, Joe's Shanghai was only a few blocks away. Joe's has amazing soup dumplings, which are dumplings where concentrated broth is packed inside the wrapper, as opposed to the dumplings sitting in broth. These tidbits are both amazingly delicious and amazingly hot. If you're not careful, you'll scorch you lips, tongue, gums and anything else the molten inner liquids come into contact with. It's very similar to the scene on Aliens where the alien blood burns through metal. But handled correctly, you would find yourself a new addiction.

Soup Dumplings
For the filling, you can choose just pork or a pork-crab combination. Definitely get the combination.

For our first dinner, we went to our favorite izakaya thus far, Hagi. I first heard of this place from the Travel Channel's show No Reservations. BTW, Anthony, if you're reading this and looking to retire, my schedule is wide open and I dare say I love food and alcohol as much as you. Though Hagi is only a few blocks from Time Square, it's as unassuming as restaurants can be. Outside is a tiny sign that reads "Hagi Sake Bar" and it's actually situated in a basement. There's not even a menu posted on its door. Despite all this, the food and sake provoke a desire for larger stomachs and greater tolerance. All the times we've been, most the patron are Japanese, which some would say is an indication of great Japanese food. So we always order what sounds good to us as well as what the surround tables ordered, you know, for good measure.

Seared Bonito
Seared bonito

Hagi Wasabi Shumai
Wasabi shumai - these bite-sized morsels packs enough punch to win a gold medal

Hagi Short Ribs
Grill beef short ribs

Hagi Anago Fry
Anago (eel) tempura

Hagi Skewers 1
Skewers of duck (left) and chicken skin (right)

Hagi Skewers 2
Skewers of chicken meatballs (left 3) and pork belly (right)

Hagi Curry Noodles
Curry noodles

Hagi Yellowtail Collar
Hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail collar). For some reason, this part of the fish is usually discarded. Oh well, more for me.

Hagi Shitake
Grilled shitake mushroom. Unlike other mushrooms, this had a tender velvety texture.

Hagi Dessert
Red bean ice cream with red bean pancakes. Sure, to some people, beans sound strange as a dessert ingredient, but some people also never find true love...coincidence?

Day Two

After a full night's rest and an early morning work out, I was primed for another day of overindulgence...keyword "over." We nixed breakfast and went straight to bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Our wiener of choice was Crif Dogs. This place was highly recommended by a good friend who lives in the City.

Crif Dogs Sign
Though the sign seems overly conspicuous, it's necessary on a street where only every 4th door does not lead to a restaurant.

Crif Dogs
Regular frank with sauerkraut and mustard (left) and the "Spicy Red Neck," bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with chili, cheese, onions and cole slaw (right).

You're probably thinking, "wow, 2 hot dogs as the first meal of the day can't be good" and you're right. Knowing there was little nutritional value in what was effectively our breakfast, we set out to get more sustenance. So we immediately walked to Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese, AKA S'MAC. We each ordered a 6" skillet o' yummy. The interior was whimsically painted yellow and orange, seemingly to forewarn you of all the cheese you're about to ingest. Leave you lactose intolerance at the door.

Clockwise from left:
1. Garden Lite - light Cheddar, Parmesan, roasted cauliflower and portobello mushrooms, roasted garlic, broccoli and scallions
2. 4-cheeses - Cheddar, Muenster, Gruyere and a touch of Pecorino
3. Mediterranean - goat cheese, sautéed spinach, kalamata olives, and roasted garlic

Half way through my Mediterranean.

So after all that savory fan fare, it was time for some sweets. We slowly rose from our table and waddled over to Union Square to meet up with some more friends at Max Brenner. Though I've had their chocolates before, I didn't know it was also a full-service restaurant. This discovery made me tempted to try one of their savory menu items, but I was disciplined (and hurting) enough to just focus on dessert.

MB Chocolate Mess
My wife and her sister share the "Chocolate Mess," which is warm chocolate cake topped with ice cream, toffee bananas, whipped cream and candied hazelnut bits. In case that wasn't enough, extra chocolate chunks, toffee cream and warm chocolate sauce is served on the side.

MB Lava Cake
My friend and I shared the molten chocolate cake, i.e., chocolate stuffed with chocolate served with chocolate, drizzled with chocolate. Oh, there was fruit and ice cream too.

After all that chocolate, we needed time and walking to digest. So we hiked over 30 blocks from Union Square to Times Square to grab some tickets from TKTS for a show that night. Then we walked from Times Square to Central Park and back. After all that walking we finally had an appetite again. Next stop: John's Pizzeria. Though some would argue there's better pizza in NY, I personally love the restaurant itself. First off, it's convenient if you're already in Times Square. Secondly, and most importantly, it's set inside a renovated church with two brick ovens you can walk up to and watch as they prepare your pie...though you may be the only one doing this.

Johns Ceiling
The ceiling in John's Pizzeria. Even if you don't eat there, it's worth walking in and looking at the ceiling.

Johns Chef
Though this wasn't the pizza we eventually ate, I couldn't help but feel a certain closeness with it.

Johns Oven
I wonder if I can get one of these ovens for my house.

Johns Pizza
Crispy crust matched with crispy pepperoni

Day Three

Everyone work up later than expected today. The good: we all got some sleep. The bad: we were all hungry. And since hunger leads to bad moods and impaired, we couldn't decide where to get brunch and were upset with life in general. So to fix this, we walked downstairs and entered the Grand Central Terminal's dining concourse for a quick bite. We all got something from different places, but I only got a shot of what I ordered, mainly because I wasn't about to ask the others to not eat for me to take pictures.

Mendy Gravlox Bagel
Onion bagel with gravlax and cream cheese from Mendy's

For an early dinner, we returned to Hagi right when it opened at 5:30. Did I mention we love this place? If not, here are more fotos to prove it.

Hagi Tofu Fry
Fried tofu topped with bonito flakes

Hagi Pork Pancake
Japanese pancake with pork. Though the description may put off some folks, it taste much like a savory crepe, just heartier.

Hagi Grilled Yellowtail
Grilled whole fish

Hagi Cherrystone Clams
Cherrystone clams steamed in sake. Though we didn't get these the first night, we noticed that many other tables got it, both on the first night and this night. After the first one, we realized what we had missed out on. The clams themselves were fresh with a clean clam flavor. The sake was noticeable but didn't overpower the shellfish. A match made in sake bar heaven.

Day Four

Today I met up with my good friend for lunch and an intriguing discussion of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation whose mission is to further the pursuit of art and higher education. It's a shame there's not a location in Houston because it is a great cause to contribute to.

For lunch she took me to a place called Follow Me Caffe, a quaint eatery in NY's Upper East Side.

FMC Salami Panini
Panini with salami, brie, arugula and tapenade

For dinner, the wife and I ventured out and tried a new place. Though we were craving the izakaya fare, we knew we had to try another place beside Hagi...thank goodness we did. Two blocks from our hotel was Aburiya Kinnosuke (I'll refer to it as AK). Remember how I mentioned early that Hagi was our favorite place thus far? Well, AK is the reason for that qualification. I won't be able to fully convey the satisfaction we had from this meal with just words. You'd have to be present with me closing my eyes, swaying side to side while humming "mm-mmm" to get a better idea.

AK Sashimi
Started with some sea bass sashimi, which was among the freshest we've had

AK Tofu
Homemade tofu served with 3 differently flavored salts, but I can only remember pink sea salt and wasabi salt

AK Spice Beef Soup
Spice beef soup. This was excellent. The pieces of beef feel apart in your mouth, the broth was actually spicy, and the daikon soaked up all the flavors, which slightly reminded me of Vietnamese bo kho. This might have been our favorite dish of the evening.

AK Gindala
Gindala (miso-marinated cod). After the statement above about the beef soup, this gindala had a tough act to follow. But wow, did it deliver. This was the best gindala we've had. It used to be our favorite was a place in Denver. Put this plate on the podium because it's won gold!

AK Pork Cheeks
Grilled pork cheek. OMG, I never knew pork could be so tender. Its texture was similar to slow-smoked brisket. One of the great things about this dish was its simplicity. Meat grilled with salt and pepper and served with lime. My mouth is watering while I write this.

AK Teba
Grilled chicken wings. Another deceptively simple item. The joints were removed for easier eating. No seasoning besides the smoke from the robata. This was a perfect match with the salty side of ground green onions, ginger and other secret deliciousness.

AK Rock Fish Collar
Our meal ended with some grilled rockfish collar. My only complaint about this dish is that the fins were crusted with too much salt. And for a guy like me who loves eating the brittle fins of grilled/fried fish, this sent my blood pressure through the roof. But it was a sacrifice I'd gladly make again. Like most fish collars, the meaty parts were tender and fatty. The skin was crisp yet chewy, balancing out the meat's texture.

Day Five

For lunch today, I met up with another old friend for steaks at Keen's Steakhouse. The restaurant was decorated with what seemed to be thousands of old smoking pipes along the ceiling and walls. The really important pipes were on display in the front in a glass case, which I understand included the pipes of Babe Ruth and one of the US Presidents. But I didn't come to smoke and I'm sure they didn't either, seeing as how they forgot their pipes.

Keens Chateaubriand
We both share the Chateaubriand. Here, you see it served already sliced on a cutting board with a garlic herb sauce. There was also a red-wine sauce, which both he and I preferred.

Keens Chateaubriand Plated
Here is the meat plated cooked to medium perfection with mashed potatoes and sautéed escarole. I'm told this is the oldest steakhouse in NY. I'm not going to argue because it tasted like they've been doing nothing but cooking steaks since 1885. And though I'm not normally a potatoes guy, these mashed potatoes were incredible! It tasted like the potato farmers of America made a deal with the Devil it was so good. The only issue I had was that I had to share.

Keens Blueberry Crumble
For dessert, I got the warm blueberry crumble. The buttery crust and warm sweet berries made me briefly forget the rest of the world existed. The filling wasn't overly sweet nor tart. Most importantly, it was served warm, not hot. When eating warming things with ice cream, I like the ice cream to still resemble ice cream when it's served.

For dinner, the wife and I continued our quest for Japanese cuisine by going to Sushi Yasuda. This place is supposed to be the best in the City. On our last trip, we tried to just walk in for lunch and the host laughed at us for not having a reservation. This night we lucked out with a late reservation. The restaurant was very chic and clean. Outside, the only sign is the faded image of a fish (see the website). So if it's your first time there, you'd be unsure if you were at the right place. The walls, tables and booth seats were made from bamboo, which gave the place a streamlined look with all the lines and angles. There was lots of room around eat table so that the diners didn't feel crowded. It was roomy by TX standards, let alone NY.

Yasuda Appetizer
A small complimentary appetizer with seaweed

Yasuda Crab Innards
Rock crab innards. Both my wife and I grew up eating crabs and we both especially love the crab "mustard." Needless to say, we both thoroughly enjoyed this dish. It was served chilled and the flavor was as if you ate it directly from a steamed crab.

Yasuda Sushi
Assorted nigiri. Like what we had in Tokyo, the sushi was served at room temperature. Though the pieces were small, the balance between fish and rice had the harmony of a philharmonic orchestra.

One of the countless things I love about my wife is how she loves food as much as I do. For example, immediately after the hundred-dollar sushi meal above, we went to the room, changed and hopped the subway to get some hot dogs. That's right. She's a keeper. This time we went to Papaya King. It was our first time to one, up until now we've done Gray's Papaya. Though we'll need to conduct more extensive research, for now, we're both King converts.

Papaya King Signs
Neon signs in case your nose was dead to the aroma

Papaya King
Smoked beef sausage with peppers (left) and regular with chili, cheese and onions (right). The franks were more flavorful and better seasoned than what we remembered of Gray's. It also seem the franks were more moist and thicker than Gray's as well. Unfortunately, we reached the limit of our stomachs and the end of our trip to venture to Gray's for a back to back comparison.

So now that I'm back in action, I hope you'll tune in from time to time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Saturday Triple Play

Hunkering down for Tropical Storm Edouard prevented me from posting my weekend's adventures. So if you notice the early morning posting time, it's because this is the only thing left for me to do @ 5am Tuesday while waiting for the storm. Hopefully I finish before the power goes out.

All my notable weekend eats occurred on Saturday. So like a hurricane, most the damage happened in one day. But through our meals, it was like we travelled to both Italy and Viet Nam and then was back in Texas in time for dinner.

Saturday Lunch

We had some friends over and prepared lasagna for lunch. We used a Tyler Florence recipe. My wife and I have been fans of Tyler since college when we first saw his show Food 911 where he actually goes to people's homes and show them how to make better food. At the end of the show, he and the aspiring home cook enthusiastically dig into what they've cooked...this activity is also known as my dream job. We only had 2 friends over, making for 4 diners in total, but we made enough for 12. The same happened 3 years ago and we haven't made the pasta pie again until now. And after eating it for most meals over the upcoming week, I have a feeling you might not see another lasagna entry for another three years.

I wish I could say we used an old family recipe, though it would be strange for a Vietnamese family to have its own lasagna recipe. However, this one turned out so well that maybe our future generations will have their an old family lasagna recipe, after we've tweaked to our own liking of course.

All the ingredients for the lasagna

Lasagna is a cruel recipe since it calls for it to "rest" for 30 minutes...too long to stare at a pan of layered happiness.

From the bottom up: sauce, meat, cheese, cheese, sauce, pasta, and repeat.

Saturday Dinner

Some other friends had us over for a backyard cook out. Though I can't really tell you how they prepared everything, I can tell you that I finished everything on my plate. Luckily for the other guests, my father-in-law called just as eating commenced, so we had to leave with just what we could fit on the plate. Otherwise, there might not have been enough for everyone else. Sadly, it wasn't until we left the house did I realize I did not get enough sausage and hot links. Those babies were gone during the 5-minute drive back to our house.

Major props to Rene, Michele and Maddie for always making excellent food whenever we visit.

A BBQ platter of chicken quarters, hot links and sausage.

Smoky beef fajitas on the grill.

Saturday 2nd Dinner

So we were planning to meet her father later that evening. However, he called unexpectedly early cutting short our stay at the cook-out.

As always, we met him over food. We tried a new Vietnamese restaurant called Cafe Saigon. My wife and I had tried it before and enjoyed our experience, so we suggested the place. He was very hesitant and understandably so. This was our first time eating Vietnamese outside Houston's Chinatown. But in the end, he was pleasantly surprised.

The cafe is a cozy counter-service eatery located inside a strip mall; so it already has an advantage since most of our favorite restaurants are in strip malls. The wall colors and decor is warm and inviting. And like most true Vietnamese restaurants here in Houston, they offer a surprising wide selection of dishes, as seen on their menu. Ordering is facilitated by combinations of letters and numbers, e.g., we ordered EB1 and V3.

Bò lúc lắc (shaking beef) is usually comprised of cubes of beef quickly cooked in butter, oyster sauce, soy sauce with garlic and onions over watercrest. Typically, the beef is dipped in a salt, pepper and lemon juice mixture, but thie beef was overly salted.

Snow pea leaves stir fried in oil and lots of garlic. This dish was also overly salted. Though both dishes were overly salty, there was plenty of rice to even out the sodium content.