Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Soup mystery update

For those of you wondering, a letter and photos of the mystery chunk have been sent to the Campbell Soup Company. I'm waiting to hear their response, half expecting a standard form letter, half expecting a call from their attorneys. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pupusería San Sivar - Costa Mesa, CA

Pupusas are not the infantbearing slings worn by native American women. No, pupusas are to El Salvador what quesadillas are to the United States. None of the very divergent things called quesadillas found across the regions of Mexico are anything like the bland grilled-cheese-on-a-flavorless-flour-tortilla as we know it in the US. But that's another story for another time.

We're talking about pupusas: fresh masa dough and savory fillings like cheese, chorizo, meat and vegetables handpatted into a flat round disc about 8 inches in diameter, then griddled until crisp. Make the masa too thin, and the fillings can leak. Make the masa too thick, and it's as clodgy and heavy as day old oatmeal.

That baby bear, just right balance point tips precipitously close on the too-thin side of the equation, and you'll find it at Pupusería San Sivar, a wee, modest restaurant in an unassuming Costa Mesa strip mall. Proudly displayed on the door and wall sits their justly deserved Best Eats of OC 2005 award from the paper I occasionally write for, the OC Weekly.

Seven classic flavors are offered. Can't go wrong with revueltas con queso, frijol y chicharron: a mixed cheese, bean and pork filling. I heavily favor the ones here with chicharron. Pollo is a mildly seasoned shredded chicken meat, without cheese, which is only ok in my book. I'm partial to the squash with cheese, called calabazitas. Loroco is a pod-like vegetable whose shreds are sauteed and mixed with cheese. The cheese lets off an agreeable slick of oil, in the way a good New York pizza slice might ooze a little orange grease. Don't let it harsh your mellow.

Pupusas de arroz, made of rice flour, cost 20 cents more than corn and are an unusual variation on the theme. The rice dough tastes plainer than the corn version, but its texture is phenomenally better in my opinion. Something about the gels and starches in rice give it the ability to crisp into a toasty, crunchy, browned crust.

Rice eating people the world over fight for the crisp brownies at the bottom of the rice cooker. Persians invert this browned crust in the dish called tadig. Japanese grill rice balls into yaki onigiri, and Italians fry rice balls into arancini. Koreans use a superheated stone pot to serve the rice dish called dolsot bibimbap, which continually toasts your rice while you eat it. Rice's ability to take on a browned crust makes its way to El Salvador in their most popular dish.

Salvadoran food doesn't mandate chili heat like so many Mexican dishes, so the spicy variation of curtido, the requisite side dish of cabbage slaw is surprising, and good. Sweet is balanced with vinegar which has been infused with red chili flakes.

San Sivar makes their own horchata salvadorena in house. They flavor this version of the rice drink with ground sesame, cacao bean, pepitas, morro seed and cinnamon. Very unlike Mexican horchata, and definitely not from the concentrate that most restaurants use.

One last bit of advice. Eat pupusas as soon as they hit the table. The half life on these things is about 8 minutes, after which the crisp goes soggy, the starches in the dough stiffen, and the whole thing skids downhill fast and faceplants like your first time on a snowboard. Take out is a last resort, m'kay?

Pupusería San Sivar
1940 Harbor Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What eez it man?


the hell



  • Hard and bonelike
  • Doesn't dissolve or soften in water
  • Has several spiky looking points

I'll tell you what it's not. It's not supposed to be in a can of chicken noodle soup. Yes, I'm going to call the Campbell Soup Company. Before I contact them, I figured we'd have a little fun with it here first.

Dear Campbell Soup Co:
"I recently found something chunky that shouldn't belong in your Chunky soup. I took a poll on my website, and now think this nubbin is .... We'd like to hear your response."

I'm leaving comments wide open for a few days at the risk of letting in the comment spammer scumbags. Any comments with a URL will be deleted as usual, unless it has something to do with this mystery.

Take a stab. What the hell?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Why I keep reliving summer vacation, part 2

When I visit my folks in New York, I'm only in town for a day or two, and like to hit some of favorite old Greenwich Village haunts: Mamoun's for falafel and shewarma, Joe's Pizza for some of the best slices in the city, maybe cross town and get some Italian pastries at Vesuvio Bakery.

Breaking my usual pattern, I chose to spend time with my parents. Must be getting family oriented in my old age or something. Dad wanted to take us to a Shanghainese place in Flushing that he's been going to for years (without telling me or giving me an invite). Or maybe I was too busy running out the door for falafel.

I inhertited my instincts for finding good food from him, because his place turns out to be Joe's Shanghai, internationally renowned for their soup dumplings, or xiao long bao. When we walked in, the manager greeted him by name. My dad. How about that?

Neon sign touts Joe's specialty

The chefs form the dumplings with a bit of cold gelled broth in the filling, which liquifies into a hot soup after they're steamed. It's splashed with black vinegar & shredded fresh ginger and plopped atop a spoon to catch all the juice that spills out. Open carefully so the hot soup doesn't scorch.

Pork and shrimp xiao long bao

The dumpling skin is medium thin and tender, with lots of rich soup inside. As with Peking duck, pastrami, or southern barbecue, seek out a specialist restaurant where every table is ordering that one thing, or you'll wonder what the big wooptee-do is. If you need help locating a dumpling specialist in your city, stop by chowhound.com and ask on the approriate discussion board for your town.

Joe's Shanghai
136-21 37th Ave
Flushing, NY
(other locations in NYC as well)

In the greater LA area, I like Din Tai Fung, a Taipei based mini-empire whose various dumplings are all very good, if different than Joe's. But let's not split hairs over these differences right now. As with New York pizza, these fine distinctions among shops are important and you won't understand until you understand, dig?

Din Tai Fung
1108 S. Baldwin
Arcadia, CA

That segues into my lunch the day afterward. I continued breaking my usual NYC eating habits and spent the day in Brooklyn. I hit Di Fara's pizza just as they opened. The legendary Dominic De Marco has made masterful pies for over 40 years. He stands at the pinnacle of New York pizza makers along with a very select group of pizzaiolos. If I have to explain New Yorkers' obsession with pizza, you haven't had the real thing. I nudge you to buy Ed Levine's book, "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven." It will guide you to the best New York pizza on your next visit.

Unassuming hole in the wall with world class food

The Legend at work. Note herbs growing in window pots.

Di Fara Pizza
1424 Avenue J
Brooklyn, NY

In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge lurks a French magician in a chilly lair, stirring a copper cauldron full of brown elixir. Ancient cobblestones line the row in front of the wizard's shop, where ladies driving Saabs and Volvos visit.

Inside, the ladies' eyes glaze over, captured by the gilded glint of glossy chocolate truffles, a spell as powerful as any in the enchanted city.

But beware the poor soul that touches lips to the plastic chalice protected with a paper covered sippy straw, for it takes its victims words and renders them rather like moo cows in heat. Inside this wicked chalice awaits... the Frozen Hot Chocolate!

Fast forward to the happy ending: magical fairytale chocolate shop. Fantastic truffles assortment. Chocolate covered corn flakes. Genius without pretense. And that frozen hot chocolate: thick, rich cocoa and chocolate flavors with just a touch of sugar sweetness. It's fuller bodied, not as chilled and has fewer ice granules than the city's other famous frozen hot chocolate served at Serendipity 3 on the Upper East Side.

Go. Fall in love.
Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY
One other location in Manhattan, see their website

PS - This trip happened a month ago at this point, and I've had a chance to reflect on the differences between New York and California. Los Angeles has a high end patisserie called Boule that makes phenomenal chocolates, pastries, candies and even ice creams & sorbets that'll blow your mind. As great a product as Jacques Torres, but served with a heap of annoying attitude. The entire store, the gift boxes, and even the website is done up in robin's egg blue to evoke a Tiffany's-like boutique feel. I asked them if I could take a photo of the chocolate display, because that's what I do. Got the sneery look like "this is a boutique, daahling, a temple. You must not photograph it, for our souls will be stolen."

Boule people: please take a cue regarding service from the friendly, unpretentious Jacques Torres people, like the girl who gladly posed for the frozen hot chocolate photo. I would also like to ask why you framed a letter of congratulations from Chef Daniel Boulud only to adorn the men's bathroom with it. Does he know you put that in the crapper?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Why I keep reliving summer vacation, part 1

Our band of itinerant eaters stopped for a night on the border of Maine and New Hampshire to visit Marlene's cousin Anne and her family. Their small town home is surrounded by creeks and canals that feed the estuaries around Portsmouth. In their neighborhood remains well preserved textile mills from the 19th century and an old countinghouse that monitored commerce on the ancient canals.

Anne, Zach, McGill and Grace keep hens that provide their eggs. We fried them sunnyside up for breakfast in a bit of butter. I'd never had eggs this fresh before, and was shocked at how rich the yolks tasted compared to commercial eggs. Perhaps it's the diet of kitchen scraps their hens eat, but fresh backyard eggs are definitely superior.

Green eggs from Araucana hens, the small one on left is from a bantam hen

In this place of strong traditions and historical continuity, people still fish the salt creeks for shad in the spring and pick wild summer berries in the woods as countless generations before them have done. Vainly dodging bloodthirsty horseflies, deerflies and mosquitoes is another timeworn woodland tradition we didn't care for, so we opted out of that wild blueberry adventure and instead crossed the state line to Saltbox Farms to fill up on the domesticated variety.

Diaphanous dragonfly

Red and golden raspberries

Domesticated blueberries

Saltbox Farms
321 Portsmouth Ave
Stratham, NH

We chose Saltbox Farms in part because a county fair was open right down the street. Unlike my local (suburban) Orange County Fair, which features vendors hawking hot tubs and home mortgages as soon as you enter the grounds, the folks in Stratham County take their animal husbandry very seriously. In the rabbit pavilion, they held a bunny hurdling contest, where handlers nudge their leashed rabbits to hop over a series of wooden obstacles that increase in height with each round. For reals - I'm not making this up. Think I'll find this sport at this month's Los Angeles County Fair?

Shady carny rides and French fries

Happy potato chip eating goat

After a long afternoon of driving, we arrived at Matt's childhood home outside of Albany, NY, where his retired parents have a beautiful 18th century farmhouse. His dad Richard is a beekeeper, and mom Marianne keeps the garden beautifully well tended. We picked red currants from her bushes, and she made us raspberry and currant jam to take home: flavors and memories of our summer vacation to savor months from now.

Homegrown currants

Richard harvests honey seasonally from different flowers in bloom at the time. His early summer honey tastes lighter than the dusky, late summer variety. Fantastic honeys with great character. A more complete post about his honey coming at some point.

Have I punished you enough with vacation pictures? DiFara's pizza and chocolates from Jacques Torres in Brooklyn coming next!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Thinking of New Orleans

The distant helicopter camera shots of the devastation in New Orleans color them with a distant, surreal quality that makes the city look like a parallel universe filled with alien beings.

I then recall the really nice people I met during a handful of visits, and the devastation becomes more real for me. I wonder if they heeded the warnings to get out before the storm, and how their stores, homes and families fared.

Earlier this year, Anthony and Gail Uglesich retired after 50 years of running their legendary family restaurant and closed up shop, with much ado from its fans around the globe. The Uglesich family had operated their humble restaurant in that location since 1849. Located in the shadow of the Superdome in one of the poorer parts of the city, their menu was priced too high for most of their neighbors to eat there on a regular basis. This is where I learned how good fried green tomatoes with remoulade can be, and where my standard for an oyster po' boy was set.

As soon as you entered the front door, you'd notice a man of impressive stature standing behind a counter, shucking oysters like the champion he was. Michael Rogers loomed over his station and effortlessly opened a dozen oysters using nothing else except an oyster knife, a U shaped anvil of soft metal to steady the oyster and his powerful, well practiced hands. I'd stand in front of him and watch his technique. He'd chatter while he worked, his mouth running as fast and steady as his hands while he'd charm the customers waiting for their food. A plaque on the wall behind him hailed his oyster shucking feats, and he'd gladly relate the finer points of how he'd won these contests.

He'd place an oyster in a dull grey metal block that looked alarmingly like lead, and put the point of the knife in the hinge of the oyster. With a precise push and twist, the oyster would open. He'd slice the meat away from the flat top shell in a flash and serve the critter in its bowl shaped lower shell.

"I never cut into the oyster - knife marks lose you points in competition," teaching me something I never thought to look for on a plate of raw oysters. Most restaurants hire shuckers to work the raw bar and buy buckets of preshucked "cookers" for use in the kitchen. Uggie's relied on Michael to open every oyster they'd use because freshness and quality mattered. That counter was his stage where thousands appreciated his easy manner and performer's charm.

I see the devastated Superdome on TV and know that a half mile away, the flood probably reclaimed the formerly cheery Uglesich building into an otherwise undistinguished and ignominious neighborhood: hip deep in filthy water, and possibly housing catfish that once would have been served there. I think of Michael's magnetic charm, and hope that he can somehow manage that charming smile in the midst of the devastation. Know sir, that you are loved and remembered by a world far bigger than you can possibly imagine, and our thoughts are with you and your family.

# # #

On a more local note, my friend Brian fowarded a press release from a Thai-Chinese restaurant in Anaheim Hills called Spice Delight that's raising money for the flood victims. Brian and his wife took us there for a mind blowing dinner, and I'd say it's easily the best restaurant in the otherwise glum restaurant scene of Anaheim Hills. It compares favorably to Thai Nakorn, a widely praised Thai restaurant in Orange County, minus their focus on the Northern regional dishes of Isaan.

I've been holding off on a writeup of Spice Delight until I've had a couple more visits, and this fundraising effort seems a good time to do it. John Sangsiri is a 20 year veteran of running Thai restaurants in Florida and Southern California, and has friends and family that lived through the Asian tsunami of 2004.

He's giving 10% of the daily receipts to charity from September 18 to September 24. They're open 7 days a week from 11am to 10pm and also offer free delivery within 5 miles on orders over $20.

Spice Delight
124 South Fairmont Blvd.
Anaheim Hills, CA 92808