Sunday, June 28, 2015

For What Ails You in Pittsburgh - Cure

Hospitality.  The word comes to us from that etymological mac-daddy of dead languages, Latin, and it enters our own tongue in the late-14th century from the nominative hospitalitas for “friendliness to guests.”  Ancient Greeks (the Stoics in particular) believed the idea of hospitality to be a sacrosanct ritual of human kindness with the offering of a plate of figs and honey being the apotheosis and deliverance of divine rite.  Contemporary people (especially we restaurant habitués of the post-modern West) have taken a decidedly more relaxed approach to hospitality; we’ve conflated it with that dark-prince of conceptual doppelgangers, good service, and suddenly, for us, that perfect wine pour, that deft and expertly-timed application of the table crumber, has supplanted—in theory and in practice—that once-sacred bequest of tree nuts and mead.  That our beloved maître d’ is able to produce, instantaneously, and on sight, our favorite Pouilly-Fuisse is now (and heterodox to all reason) far more comforting to most of us than the offer of dry shelter and a friendly smile.  And that sucks.  Big time.  Because at some point between these two epochs and cultural polarities—ancient religious ritualism and the unmitigated douchebaggery of present day food culture—I’d like to think hospitality once occupied a golden age.  An age of spontaneous giving.  A time of selfless conference—from keeper to stranger—of both sustenance and mirth.  An idyllic age of travel when a voyager could quit the road and rest his weary bones among people whom he’d never before met, but who could be relied upon to provide food and conversation, simply for the asking.  For many of us modern dwellers, Starbucks—yes, Starbucks—has been the closest we’ve yet come to this illusory ideal.  But I’m here to tell you, friends, I’ve found the place, where true hospitality yet lives.  The place where the hungry journeyman is received with demonstrable largesse and a palpable conviviality of heart.  The place where the food is so very fucking good that it makes you want to stab yourself in the eye with your very own fork.

And that place is Pittsburgh’s magnificent Cure. 

To wit:  I was traveling by car—Chicago to Washington, D.C.—across that food desert and American turnpike that stretches from Gary, Indiana, to Breezewood, Pennsylvania, and beyond.  Mile after mile of endless culinary wasteland occupied by a veritable army of pernicious and highly hostile gastronomic kings and smiling clowns convened in rest areas under golden arches as bastions of dietary surrender.  I was trapped, boy-o, hemmed in by the turnpike.  I had nowhere else to go, and nothing to eat.  So I pulled my car over and sent up a flare.  A virtual Hail Mary.  A shot in the dark.  I tweeted Melissa McCart, dining critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whose work I have followed with particular interest over recent years, and whose journalistic and gastronomic acumen is second to none.  I would be passing through Pittsburgh at dinnertime, I explained in my tweet, and would she, could she, recommend someplace in Pittsburgh that I might eat?  Melissa’s response to my query was nearly instantaneous.  Her list of recommendations (what to do, what to eat) was more replete than that of hotel concierge.  There were breweries, bakeries, baseball games, and, of course restaurants.  Lots of those.  One name at the top of her list caught my eye:  Cure.  Maybe it was because I was a Robert Smith fan when I was too young to know any better.  Or maybe it was because the name, Cure, temporarily placated my hunger on the inherent promise of proving an eventual panacea for my sudden craving for meat.  Cure struck a chord.  So I made my decision with my usual punctilio, which is to say with all the arbitrary whimsy and caprice of a drunk throwing a dart at a mounted wall map to see where he would next travel.  But choose Cure I did.  I hit the gas.      

Cure is located in the Pittsburgh borough of Lawrenceville.  For a restaurant of Cure’s caliber and craft, it’s a highly unlikely spot.  Situated on the banks of the Allegheny River, Lawrenceville—with Cure newly in it—was, until very recently, the kind of neighborhood one might visit to purchase, say, a commercially-available blow job, or a pharmacological silver bullet—packaged in consumer-friendly dime bags and vials, no less—that one could aim at (and temporarily decimate) one’s own, um, existential despair.

But what I found among the sleepy ruins of a once-vital Pennsylvania mill town was an extraordinary gem of a restaurant.  Simultaneously hip and homey, walking into Cure was perfectly analogous to slipping into a warm bath—warm, comfortable, and deeply inviting.  I walked into Cure, scruffy and bleary-eyed, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and boots, looking every bit the man who had just driven five hundred miles on an empty stomach.  More importantly:  I walked into Cure at exactly 7:15 on a very busy Saturday night without a reservation.  I repeat:  Saturday night.  Without.  A.  Reservation.

The hostess looked embarrassed for me, as if I were that mouth-breather at the party who has just bumped his nose on the unseen sliding glass door.  I was a dimwit, a rube, and she took real and immediate pity on me.  There were no seats available, she informed me, not even at the bar; the two open seats I was looking at had been reserved long before my arrival.  I took the news with a cool-no-problem shrug of feigned resignation, then showed her my phone and Melissa’s list.  Which of these other Pittsburgh eateries would she recommend I try next, I wondered?  The look of pity turned to empathy and deep commiseration.  No matter where I went in Pittsburgh, her face suggested, it would still be Saturday night, and I would still be arriving without a reservation.  The hostess looked at me again, a bit sideways this time, and bit her lip and nodded.  She would seat me at the bar on the condition I would complete my meal—light snacks only—by 8:00, when the reserved party of two was scheduled to arrive.  I gave her my word.  We made a deal.

The bar:  it’s my favorite place to sit and eat at any restaurant.  It’s at the nerve center of any food purveyor, and it sits neatly at the confluence of front and back-of-the-house cultures.  It’s a restaurant’s heart and soul.  Sit at the bar, order a drink, and within minutes, you’ll know everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—you’ve ever wanted to know about a place.  Who’s working high, who arrived late, who will be knocking boots with whom after the end of that night’s third shift:  it’s all there—the spectacle of restaurant theatre—for any patron willing to pay the price of admission:  careful attention.  The bar is also where magic can happen, as it did on my visit to Cure.  Because I had Colin as my bartender.  Because in all my years frequenting that last, lone stool at the end of the bar, I have rarely, if ever, encountered a bartender so genuinely magnanimous as Colin.  He greeted me with a smile and welcomed me with a menu.  He poured me a draught (Small Crop #3—low alcohol and refreshingly delicious—brewed just up the street from Cure).  Colin made me feel invited, as if he was truly happy to serve me.  And when he explained the dinner menu, he struck that perfect (and all too rare) equipoise of food knowledge and enthusiasm, without the slightest soupcon of that millennial I-know-my-shit-and-you-don’t snobbery now endemic to most menu presentation. 

Colin was the very definition of hospitable.  When I mentioned that I had only until 8:00 to complete my meal, he smiled and told me to relax.  There was no hurry. Other accommodations for the eight o’clock party had already been made.  So I went big with my order.  From Cure’s Salumi di Mare offering, I ordered the bacalao en aceite (salt cod, yo) and the sockeye salmson “nduja” (in quotes to denote a spread typically made from pork, not fish).  From Cure’s “Snacks” portion of the menu, I ordered their beef tartare with oyster aioli, black garlic, and cured egg yolk.

To say that I lingered over each plate of food, savoring every bite offered me, would be disingenuous in the extreme:  I woofed it down.  I made a spectacle of myself.  I gnashed my food like a man who had not eaten all day.  And had I not been in polite company, I would have licked my fingers and my plate.  Because the food at Cure is that fucking good.  It’s beyond good, actually; it’s mind-bendingly delicious.  Chef and Cure co-owner Justin Severino has clearly triumphed in a way so few of his contemporaries have:  the elevation of elemental protein forms into dishes that are truly—and I mean truly—sublime.

Severino cooks with the economy and compression of a poet.  Nothing in his craft is superfluous, every ingredient, every texture, matters.  My bacalao was haiku.  My tartare was a sonnet.  Every bite I took tasted like some Horatian ode to the marriage of culinary terroir and umami.  And for all the elegiac elegance of these small food forms, Severino’s Homeric magnum opus that night was a pasta dish, his Squid Ink and Leek Ash Gnudi (in a Bolognese of octopus, beef heart, and guanciale, no less), a dish so profoundly good, so deeply delicious, that it made me want to throw my chair, to break my beer glass, in the same way reading Eliot’s The Wasteland (or better: dropping a needle on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) made me want to herald the discovery of something extraordinary by making a big fucking noise.  Because there was small revolution there, at the end of my fork.  Because now, for me, and all-things Italian, everything had suddenly changed.  Because of all the pastas I’ve yet tasted in my career as enthusiast and eater, I’ve not encountered one quite like it.  Severino’s is both mutinous and supreme.

For the record:  I did not throw my chair.  Instead, I reacted with finer aplomb:  I made the two young women sitting next to me eat from my bowl to ensure (for my own peace of mind) that Severino’s pasta was not some hallucination on my part, some trick of an over-hungry mind.  They covered their mouths and threw back their heads and laughed, and by their laughter, I knew exactly what they thought, and which no words could adequately express:  that Severino’s gnudi was really that good.

What I know of Justin Severino, the chef, is that he’s killing it (in the parlance of industry speak, yo, that’s as good as it gets), and that he’s a quixotic and boundlessly talented culinarian performing at the top of his game.  What I know of Justin Severino the restaurateur, the public figure, the man, is that he will leave his kitchen, in the middle of service to check on his guests, to make sure that they are—each and all—actually happy.  That Severino (or any chef of his caliber) does this suggests that in his quest for culinary excellence, he has succeeded in maintaining his sights on that most important aspect of all culinary endeavors—hospitality.

Thank you, Chef Severino, Melissa McCart, Colin, and the entire staff at Cure, for treating this weary traveler so very, very well.  And thank you for the extraordinary hospitality.

I can’t wait to hurry back.

Your link to Cure

5336 Butler Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15201


Hungry for more?  Visit my other site:  Proletariateats

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Rising (Again) in New Orleans East- The Bread of Dong Phuong

To the French, it’s an idee fixe.  English speakers will better recognize it as that cognitive siege-state wherein a lone idea, endowed with protean potency and power, occupies the mind with unmitigated singularity, and at the exclusion of all else.  That’s right:  I’m talking about obsession.  In a lifetime already crowded with perennially and seemingly intractable fixations (Hubig’s Honey Pies, mayonnaise, and Elvis Presley, thin and fat, just to name a few), I am, at this writing, consumed with but one obsession—a simple, single object of my now-greatest affection, which presently reigns utterly and totally supreme: the bread of New Orleans baker, Dong Phuong.

You read that right, boy-o:  the fluffy white stuff.

My first encounter with the bread of Dong Phuong—now over a year and a half ago—happened by happy accident when I picked up a roast beef Po Boy from the Adam’s Street Grocery in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.  Of that first encounter, I’ve written before here (click on the hyperlink, yo).  But I haven’t eaten their bread since.  Why?  Because I don’t live in New Orleans; I divide my time between Chicago and Washington, D.C.   So not being able to routinely (if ever) consume the baked wizardry of Dong Phuong—a much-desired daily habit that life in the work-in-one-place food industry is necessarily wont to impede—has produced a constancy of craving that time and distance has made worse.  How so?  Because in an eating career devoted to assiduously paying attention to what food I manage to cram into my own gob hole, I have yet to encounter better commercially produced bread anywhere in North America.  Not in New York.  Not in San Francisco.  Not even in those fabled and wood-fired ovens of Pleasanton Bakery in Traverse City, Michigan.  So when a recent opportunity to visit my brother, Brian, in his New Orleans home presented itself, I jumped at the chance.  But this visit to New Orleans would be different than the last. Because on this visit, I would not merely just eat the bread of Dong Phuong.  No, no.  On this visit, I would travel to the bakery itself, that culinary progenitor of the best baguette in America.  I would go, as if on pilgrimage, like some acolyte before an oracle, and see where all that magic was made.  And I would buy bread.  And I would eat and eat and eat.

So I went. 

Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery sits roadside, along Chef Menteur Highway, in the Village de L’Est, or Versailles (read:  “Little Vietnam”), neighborhood of New Orleans East.  The sheer banality of that sentence belies the hugely significant fact that New Orleans East saw some of the most savage devastation wrought upon Orleans Parish by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  We are talking an ass kicking of biblical proportions.  Of the 95,000 residents who lived there before the storm, only 65,000 of them have ever made it back.  The destruction to which those survivors first returned must have seemed nearly apocalyptic in scope: a dystopian, almost lunar landscape, with trees totally denuded of their late-summer foliage, and the detritus of modern Gulf life—fishing boats, corrugated out buildings, school buses—scattered here and there (even atop one another) as if by the whimsy and caprice of an enormous (if highly incensed) child at a game of jacks.  It was, for New Orleans East, total Armageddon.  The levees failed, spectacularly, as we now know, and the low country of New Orleans East—haplessly situated between the high ground of Lake Pontchartrain and the way-way-lower marsh and swamp lands to the extreme-eastern part of Orleans Parish—filled up with storm water like one enormous and highly-toxic fishpond; you remember the images, because, well, how could you possibly forget.  Electrical power wasn’t fully restored to New Orleans East until late-2006.  By 2007, still less than half of the pre-Katrina population had returned, and those who had were then remanded to occupy that living third-ring-of-hell that was federally-mandated subsistence inside those fucking Bush-issue FEMA trailers.

To now consider that De and Huong Tran (the bakery’s husband-and-wife owners/operators since its 1985 inception, and whose own 1980 immigration from Vietnam yet bears the whiff of post-war diaspora) should decide to rebuild their bakery among such almost-impossible-to-comprehend devastation is something nearly beyond our power to wonder.  That this tiny bakery on the edge of America’s latest and greatest wasteland would rise up through such unspeakable ruin only to then produce what is easily among the best, commercially available bread products in the American South is unlikely in the most extreme.

But rebuild they did.

We went to Dong Phuong in the morning.  We went on Easter Sunday.  We four—my brother, his wife, and my companion extraordinaire, the ever-phosphorescent X, and me—with our faces pressed up against the glass of my brother’s speeding pickup, like a lost band of voyagers not quite able to reconcile what we were seeing out the window—ruin after architectural ruin, and the all-consuming kudzu wrapped carrion-like around it—with what we knew to be the United States of America in the twenty-first century.  Because what we were seeing was a model of the Third fucking World, or a nearly perfect facsimile thereof, a now-vast empire of weeds and rust, with its post-catastrophe sorrow of not-so-benign neglect, washed up in America’s very own back yard. 

But things were different at Dong Phuong.  Entirely.  There were cars, for one thing.  And pickup trucks, besides our own.  And people.  Lots of people—Anglo and Asian alike—eating sweet and savory pastry on the hoods of their cars.  We parked, we four, and hurried inside.  What we discovered within Dong Phuong itself was the incredible redolence of baking bread, and the mellifluous sound of Vietnamese being spoken, loudly, rapidly, in all of its sharp-tongued and atonal glory.  I know the bread-as-life metaphor is a tired old workhorse in the world of letters, but to step into Dong Phuong—on Easter morning, of all mornings—and slip into that proverbial warm bath that is any good bakery bustling with activity on a sunny Sunday morning, was to very much experience something akin to resurrection—and triumph—of the collective anthropological spirit over the malaise of post-Katrina ennui that yet remains, pall-like, over New Orleans East.  The bakery was ebullient with the elation of a people who have come through slaughter, and with all their fingers and toes.

All this happiness made us hungry.


So we ordered food.  And just what we ordered—item after miraculous item; each somehow better than the last—now reads like a culinary Homeric catalog of ships:  banh mi of thit nguoi (sandwiches of French-style pork) and xa xiu (Chinese barbecue pork); pate chaud, in pastry, of course, of thit ga (spicy chicken); banh bao hap thap cam (Imperial steamed buns); bia dau do (red bean cakes); and for dessert, banh dua nuong (coconut macaroons).  And bread.  All of it with bread.

We paid almost nothing for our food (by those now-hyper-inflated French Quarter prices), and left with our bags to then climb into my brother’s pickup, and head back towards New Orleans proper, back through those post-apocalyptic badlands of New Orleans East, to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where we sat at a picnic table and ate under the late-morning shade of a catalpa tree, the four of us lightheaded and happy on the now-certain knowledge that we had just procured—and had our mouths full of—some the greatest Vietnamese street food these United States has to offer.

There are demonstrable and deeply scientific reasons as to why the bread of Dong Phuong is so amazingly good.  There is the matter of the high-gluten flour they surely must use for certain breads, and how those flour proteins therein—the albumin, globulin, and proteoses, with the attendant leavening agents—interact with the insoluble mineral content unique to the ground water of New Orleans East to produce a bread without peer in texture and taste.  There is also the heavy moisture content of that just-below-sea-level bayou air to consider, and how the water in that air interacts with—and ultimately affects—the bread dough when it’s allowed to autolyse.  There is the (likely) use of calcium propionate to retard the growth of molds.  There is even the matter of that harmless variety of ever-present bacteria on the bakers’ hands that informs the bread’s character and flavor.  The reasons, no doubt, are all so heavily Harold McGee.  But I choose to ignore all that.  I choose to eschew that large and perfectly empirical body of food science behind what makes Dong Phuong’s bread so undeniably excellent.  Instead, I choose to embrace the kind of faith-based belief in the ephemera and fairy dust that is at the real heart of all truly great gastronomy.  Like Santa Claus.  Like the Easter Bunny.  Such is my belief in Dong Phuong.  The bread is just that good.

When you next visit New Orleans, do yourself (and me) a favor:  eat the bread of Dong Phuong.  Just do it.  I implore you.  Why?  Because it’s now available almost everywhere in the Crescent City.  On the po boys at Adams Street Grocery.  On the pulled-pork sandwiches at the always-excellent McClure's Barbecue on Magazine Street.  Because the when you and I should meet again on the street, friend-o, I want to be able to whisper those two, magical little words—Dong Phuong.  And I want you to be able to nod and smile right back like the culinary secret sharer you will now be.  It will be our secret handshake.  Only better.

Your links:  Dong Phuong
                   McClure's Barbecue

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Jamie Stachowski - Meeting His Meat

Writing about food is hardly ever an especially delicate enterprise. The food writer simply declares the food he’s just eaten as either delicious or not delicious, then quickly moves on to the next meal.  Rarely do post-strucuralist or proto-Derridan linguistic theories enter into describing something as commonplace as a sandwich. Unless, of course, that food writer has been tasked with describing Chef Jamie Stachowski’s sandwiches, and writing about his rather sizable meat. Then surely, all bets are off.  For in what more correlative terms can a food writer describe the John Holmes of sandwiches, artfully engineered to be crammed into a bodily orifice (that’s your mouth, boy-o), and masticated to maximize pure, unadulterated culinary joy?  How else can a writer grapple with decidedly indelicate phrases like: too big to fit into my mouth or too much meat for one guy to handle without giving in to the temptation of a well-timed dick joke?  Luckily, this food writer is fourteen years deep into a food career that sees daily speculation on my pinga, and exactly how much I like taking it in the culo.  The thought of treading a linguistic minefield of Freudian slips and double entendre is something we food careerists do at work every day. Not to worry.  I’m up for the task.  Eh, hem. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Chef Jamie Stachowski, he is the erstwhile chef ower/operator of Restaurant Kolumbia, and is now, without dispute, the reigning mac daddy of the Washington charcuterie scene.  Chef Stachowski is the man you go to see when your jones for, say, beef tongue blood sausage has jolted you awake, sweating, in the middle of the night.  His stuff is really that good.  But despite having the well-earned street-cred of the dude holding the purest, most buzz-producing charcuterie on the mean streets of culinary Washington, Chef Stachowski has been something of an elusive, almost mythical figure in the city.  Unless you knew, exactly, which local restauranteurs were sourcing from Stachowski, you were forced to stalk him at the better farmers’ markets around the region, and your chances of getting his sausages into your mouth were more a matter of chance than will or design. Eh, hem.

Carnivores and Stachowskian devotees can now rejoice, however, because Chef Stachowski has opened an aponymously named storefront in Georgetown where the Griffin Market once stood.  Both butchery and sandwich shop, Stachowski’s also offers grab-and-go meals ready for the oven or grill for busy Washington careerists.  My own visit was a quick, lunch time drive-by for Stachowski’s fabled 4 Meat Grinder, a sandwich made locally famous for the truly vast amount of meat it delivers in undeniably phallus-like form.  I entered the shop and ordered.  What I was given, moments later, was easily the biggest sandwich I’ve ever seen.  Layer after layer of cured meat:  soppressata, salami, copa, and mortadella; all of it stuffed into medium-crusted peasant bread and topped with red onion, tomato, provolone, lettuce, and peppers, then dressed with a liberal soaking of oil and vinegar.  It was the size of a football and bore the heft of culinary danger.  So I paid and left (there is no seating in Stachowski’s; it is, after all, a butchery) and found a small metal table, blocks away, where I could dispatch the 4 Meat Grinder in the relative obscurity of a Whole Foods sidewalk cafe.  And yes.  It was ugly getting it down.  My lap was covered with crumbs,  and sandwich oil dripped off my chin.  But it was also something else:  it was, at once, deeply satisfying and profoundly delicious.  It was, if nothing else, a truly great sandwich (a close second only, perhaps, to reigning Washington sandwich-making champion, A. Litteri).  And I ate the whole thing.  At a mere $11, when considering your meat-to-money ratio, Stachowski’s 4 Meat Grinder is a hell of a steal.  So forget the dick jokes and leave the phallic imagery to the Georgetown undergrads and go to Stachowski’s, because Chef Stachowski has lots of meat around, some of it quite large, certainly, but he’s a generous guy; he’s always happy to share.

Your link for Jaimie Stachowski:  Stachowski Brand Charcuterie

Strange Bedfellows - La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria

Blink while you’re driving by and you’ll miss it.  But who could blame you.  Thousands of hungry motorists, no doubt, already have.  Secreted in a down-at-the-heels strip mall in the deeply unfashionable Hybla Valley section of Alexandria South, among a motley assembly of convenience stores, halal food purveyors, and kabab joints, sits the gastronomically unassuming and totally unpretentious La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria, home to what are easily some of the best tacos in Northern Virginia.  Best tacos?  Really, you ask.  Big words, I know.  Write best in a blog and it’s game on.  Binary punches will be thrown.  There will be blood.  The taco blogosphere is fraught with the same kind of cultish and cut-throat fanaticism and fetishism one finds in the world of bar-b-que, where bloggers debate the virtues of smoked pig with the same kind of bug-eyed, vein-popping frenzy that early architects of the New Testament arm-wrestled over when considering which gospels were canonical, and which were heretical–the latter transgression being punishable by a roasting on the stake, of course.  This I understand.  But the tacos of La Mexicana have a unique leg-up on the competition insofar as they enjoy the rare pedigree (for DC area taco makers) of actually being made by a–gasp–real live Mexican.

On a recent and ill-advised sorte into Chipotle, I was asked by my friendly taco maker what kind of rice, and which kind of beans, I wanted on my taco.  Rice and beans on a taco?  The very idea that a person composed of purely Hispanic DNA, no matter the country of origin, no matter the fact that the taco is indigenous to a relatively small geographical area, would ask me this did what panic or, in my case, blind rage does to a person:  it calls blood away from his brain, and directs the liver to produce large amounts of cholesterol to help his blood clot when he reaches over the sneeze guard to throttle the Chipotle worker, only to have his arm slashed for his efforts (yes, the good folks of Chipotle do, on occasion, use knives).  Of course, that I would assume my taco maker at Chipotle is an expert on tacos simply because that person is Latino/a makes about as much sense as having the same indignant bile redirected at me because white boy here (yep, that’s me) couldn’t produce, on demand, some culinary riff on say, the importance of sauerkraut in the ascendency of Teutonic tribalism in Western Europe.  I get it.  But being from a place matters when you’re selling the food from that place.  In my experience, Mexicans serve the best Mexican food.  The same goes for Poles, Peruvians, and the French.  The tacos of La Mexicana may not altogether be more “authentic” than other local tacos (I, for one, no longer know, exactly, what that word means) but it sure as shooting makes them among DC’s best.

I went on a Sunday afternoon.  While the rest of the gringo world watched football on television and fattened themselves on wings and pizza (why not apply my racially-insensitve generalizing to white people as well, I ask), I entered this humble little strip-mall eatery and was amazed.  For what astonished me was not the handful of post-iglesia families in their Sunday best, quietly munching their food, eyes on the soccer match on Telemundo (with nary a hipster to be seen).  No.  What amazed me was the smell.  Gone was the savory bouquet of seared meats, of larded beans, of saffron-kissed rice.  La Mexicana smelled like, well, like a bakery.  Butter cream.  Confectionary sugar.  A cool smell.  A clean smell.  The kind of odor that lingers in Federal buildings and banks.  And I wondered, momentarily, if La Mexicana had given up the taco business altogether to concentrate their talents on pastry, but the proprietor, the fabulous Carlos Benitez (he’s Columbian; his lovely wife/cook, Alicia, is from Mexico), assured me otherwise.  The tacos were good, locally famous, and I should consider eating one or two.  As is my habit, I ordered three:  beef, chicken, and pork.  And to drink, Carlos wondered.  My response, proffered in the interrogative, sounded innocent enough.  Did they, I wondered, have horchata.  They did, Carlos told me, and immediately I went dizzy in the head and weak in the knees.  To the uninitiated, horchata is a kind of rice milk flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar.  It gives the eater courage to test the outer limits of culinary spice and heat not only because it’s delicious, but because it acts as a fire extinguisher to the 10-alarm blaze raging in your mouth.  Crack’s got nothing on this stuff, folks, it’s that good.  At La Mexicana, the horchata comes ready-made in cups set inside a repository made of a reach-in fridge, and I grabbed one and took a seat, happy as a boy at Christmas.

The tacos soon arrived, and I knew, instantly, that something special was going on at La Mexicana.  Not for what I saw on my plate, exactly, but for what I didn’t see.  I didn’t see any dairy on my food.  No cheese.  No sour cream.  Just seared protein piled atop a two-ply tortilla configuration (standard) and garnished with cilantro, onion, and a hint of lime juice.  That’s it.  In the taco world, less is more.  The caliber of the protein is not disguised by some Lincoln beard and Groucho nose of culinary hocus pocus.  Oh, no.  Not here.  Here, the protein must go before the eater naked, the way a patient stands before a doctor.  The time for bullshit is over.  Taco and eater are together in the truth-telling business.  The taco is either good, or it isn’t.  Rarely is there any in-between.

So I ate.  I moved around my plate, clockwise, in this order:  beef to chicken to pork.  All were good.  Really, really good.  Perfectly seasoned.  Perfectly seared.  Everything a taco should be.  But it was the pork, the carnitas, that really got my attention.  So much, in fact, that I ordered three more.  Carlos looked at me they way a bartender regards the red-nosed lush who has just bolted eight shots of warm Jager, and who begs for eight more.  But Carlos put the order in, and I was soon able to face-plant into what I consider (at this point in my eating career) greatest carnitas to ever grace a Washington-area corn tortilla.

I don’t know how they do it, Carlos and Alicia.  I don’t know how they can produce the kind of spectacular taqueria fare inside a bakery that smells like the inside of your grandmother’s refrigerator.  It defies logic.  There must be a trick.  So I will investigate.  I will suss out the seemingly impossible accomplishment of producing this caliber of Mexican cuisine inside a restaurant that evokes the redolence of Wonder bread.  And I will eat the tacos.  You know I will.  I will return to eat, time and time again, until I–we, dear reader, we–have our answer.  We will unriddle this mystery.  And one thing is for sure:  it will be my pleasure.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Lost In Translation - Dirty Chinese

It began as a love affair: this young, farm boy, marooned in that middle-American food dessert, first discovering the exquisite culinary exotica that was Chinese food in the 1970s.  And not just any kind Chinese food, mind you.  This was utility Chinese, dirty Chinese, the lowest of the low:  the product of a central-Missouri chop suey joint that offered what even then was a compulsory set list of all-time greatest Chinese-American hits.  Beef with broccoli.  Sweet and sour chicken the color of Pepto-Bismol.  Moo shoo pork.  However pedestrian and laughably commonplace these dishes might now seem, they represented true gastronomic esoterica in a time and place when liberating the lone, maraschino cherry from a can of Libby’s fruit cocktail represented culinary high adventure.  The novelty of jarred baby corn, the exhilarating texture of a canned water chestnut, these were, for this young lad, articles of liberation from the tyranny of the hamburger, from the despotism of the chicken fried steak.  

My love of American Chinese food didn’t end with childhood.  There were my college days, smoke-addled, don’t-Bogart-that-joint days of youthful ebullience and skullduggery, when procuring Styrofoam clamshells of shrimp fried rice at three in the morning was tantamount to finding one’s very own salvation in the holy grail of stoner gastronomy.  To stumble back from five-dollar-pitcher-night and into the I’ve-been-waiting-for-you embrace of a carton of cold General Tso’s chicken was to fully and truly know culinary love.   This much I knew.

But after college, things changed.  Food changed.  I changed.  It was now the middle-90s, and the dominance and sheer ubiquity of American-styled Chinese food was suddenly (if wholly successfully) challenged by the emergence of other, far more invigorated Asian cuisines.  Laotian.  Vietnamese.  Thai.  These were authentic and not dumbed-down-for-the-masses foodways, whose always-bold, always-engaging flavor profiles suddenly exposed American Chinese food for the culinary flim-flam man it had always been.  Dirty Chinese food fled white neighborhoods.  It went underground.  It embarked on a kind of inverted gastronomic diaspora, making its way into America’s poorest cities, our most blighted of neighborhoods, where it would flourish, almost predatory in its practices of selling the basest of poorly-sourced, poorly-prepared ingredients to people too disenfranchised—as citizens, as eaters—to ever question the lucky gift of a hot meal.

I stopped eating dirty Chinese.  I stopped thinking about it.  Ever.  Because there was far, far too much to appreciate in real and authentic Chinese cooking to ever need cast a backwards glance to the bad old days of Kung Pao chicken.  To dine on, say, Cantonese dim sum was to now touch the rosetta stone of culinary wonder:  char sui baau (barbecued pork bun), fung zau (chicken feet), char siu (black-roasted spare ribs), each mind-blowing in the extraordinary complexity of its simplicity, if you get me in that what’s-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping, zen koan kind of way, yo.  To later be lucky enough to personally spend several hours in a kitchen with legendary Szechuan chef, Peter Chang (as I did last January), watching him cook in perfect silence, was to witness the most profound culinary wizardry I’ve yet seen, and by the experience, I was forever changed.  I could never again go back to dirty Chinese.  As a cuisine, it was suddenly, and irrevocably, a bridge too far.

So imagine my reaction when a fellow food professional and neighbor recently asked me if I had ever tried the dirty Chinese place up the street from where we live.  Imagine me nonplussed while choking on my own indignation.  Image me drowning in my own bile.  Imagine me going pink in the face on my own spluttering rage.  When did finally regain my ability to speak, I unleashed upon this man a tirade of epic proportions, a withering and invective-filled verbal assault against all I found heretical and worthy of hating in dirty Chinese:  its aim-in-a-general-direction-and-fire approach to culinary technique; the one-size-fits-all ubiquity in its use corn starch as a thickening agent in all of its sauces; the way it forever insists on diminishing the collective culinary IQs of its eaters, a la American fast food, by offering two and only two flavor profiles in its cuisine, fat and salt; its incredibly short-sighted and deeply stupid decision to forsake (publically, at least, on its menus) the many charms, and invaluable gifts, of MSG.  My list of grievances went on and on.   And when I had finished my rant, my friend simply nodded and smiled, then repeated his original question:  had I tried the dirty Chinese place up the street?  They were the same words, spoken in the same order, sure, but they now asked something else entirely.  They asked:  if you haven’t eaten dirty Chinese in twenty years, then how the fuck could you possibly know what you’re talking about.

A hit.   A very palpable hit.

So I went.  I ate at Asian Wok.  The place he had mentioned.  Because I had been called out on my bullshit.  Because I didn’t know what I was talking about, because my distance from my subject was too great.  Because my industry friend was right.

Asian Wok occupies the unmistakable old bones of former Little Tavern restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria North, and it bills itself as “authentic” Hunan and Szechuan Cuisine—and sushi, of course.  Of course, sushi.  It has the faded and back-lit picture menu of house specialties hanging above the cash register that we’ve all come to love and expect, and it boasts a farewell tour-sized menu of every hit in the Chinese American playbook.  Crab rangoon.  Egg foo young.   Ocean treasure soup.  It’s got them all.   

I went for lunch.  I was friendly.  I was nice.  I smiled.  I asked the lady behind the counter what I should eat, what the cook in the open kitchen might really want to cook for me, and she suggested Curry Chicken.  I balked.  This was unexpected, because the use of yellow curry in Chinese cooking is typically Cantonese.  Not Hunan.  Not Szechuan.  Not in sushi.  Curry was a culinary curve ball at which I compelled to swing.  Of course I wanted a curry.  So I sat at a table and waited.  What arrived moments later was everything I had hitherto dreaded:  a Styrofoam clamshell packed with American Chinese food.  On one side of the clamshell:  my curry chicken.  On the other:  steamed white rice.  Gobs of the stuff.  The contempt I felt for this food was reflexive and, well, entirely misplaced.  Because I hadn’t actually tasted the dish yet, had I?  I hadn’t evaluated it with anything approaching clinical dispassion or a critical eye.  Instead, I had done the stupid thing.  I had gone straight to hate.  And this was patently unfair to the cook of Asian Wok.  That I would outright dismiss his better efforts to prepare a delicious lunch for me without first trying the dish was a food crime in the extreme.  I was the problem.  I was the food snob with a chip on my shoulder.  So I took up my plastic fork and poked around my food for a better glimpse into my curry.  True, the ratio of vegetables to protein suggested a cook deeply mindful of his food-cost margins.  True, the chop of vegetables suggested someone in the kitchen might have skipped one too many Knife Skill classes at culinary school.  True, the application of cooking oil might have been a wee bit heavy handed.  But when I actually put the food in my mouth, when I remembered to concentrate on flavor, when I remembered to chew, what I tasted was…good.  The chicken had been perfectly cooked (food pornographers note:  succulent), and the curry struck at perfect equipoise among milky and acidic and hot.  The on-my-table red pepper paste I added to the mix only heightened this interplay of flavors.  That I now found myself really and truly enjoying my food raised more questions than answers. 

Why had I not allowed this American Chinese food to ever be its own entity, its own thing, unfettered and unbeholden to so-called “authenticity,” as I had Italian red sauce joints in Chicago and New York?  Why could I not celebrate a population coopting and changing Asian cuisine the way I now celebrate the African-American population of New Orleans and how they've transformed the food of Chinese railroad workers into their own—and profoundly unique—yaka mein?  Why could I not pull my head out of my own ass long enough to see that $6.75 had bought me what was easily two pounds of hot, freshly-prepared food, and that every other patron of Asian Wok—roofers, landscapers, house painters—understood the need for inexpensive, delicious, and calorically-dense food to drive their day’s labor, which was infinitely more productive than writing food snark at home on their MacBook Pro?  After all, American Chinese has never, ever pretended to be something it’s not.  It’s never fetishized itself.  It’s never used words like local or seasonal or artisanal when talking about itself.  It’s never grown a beard or ordered Warby-Parker black rims off the internet.  It’s never done anything as insidious as have a cartoon king or a laughing clown pimp ammonia-bleached beef pucks tainted with bovine fecal matter to millions upon millions of unsuspecting American schoolchildren.  It’s only committed the crime of being itself:  that tired old war-horse of Pan Asian cuisine that succeeds in the daily feeding of a laudable percentage of America’s none-too-flush but still-very-hungry masses.

My epiphany, there at the Asian Wok table, was an all-too-familiar refrain in my life:  the problem wasn’t the food; the problem was me.  I can forgive American Chinese its sins:  the corn starch, the culinary purgatory of a never-changing menu.  I can only hope it can forgive mine.