Tuesday, December 27, 2011

La Fromagerie - Let Them Eat Cheese

Everyone needs a Frenchman like Sebastien Tavel in his life.  This means you.  Mais pourquoi?  Because Sebastian possesses all the uniquely Franco-continental qualities that we Americans so desire in our French.  He's got great hair.  Looks dashing in a turtleneck.  Speaks with an impossibly charming accent.  Displays an impeccable taste in music.  But best of all, Sebastian owns a cheese shop.  And not just any cheese shop, friend-o.  Sebastien, along with his wife, Mary, the delightful American Southern belle she is, owns and operates the almost impossibly fantastic La Fromagerie in the historic Old Town, Alexandria, neighborhood of suburban Washington, D.C.

I confess to meeting Sebastien years ago and to loving him on first sight.  Here was a dark knight of the Washington food world, I thought.  A culinary hit man.  A gastronomic assassin in chef's whites who disguised a Marco Pierre White-sized passion for food perfection inside a French-hipster insouciance, a Gallic fuck-you kind of ennui, and who would just as soon as argue about the lasting importance of The Clash versus The Sex Pistols, than ever debate the merits of, say, sauteing your shallots in truffle oil instead of virgin olive.  

But as all too commonly happens in the food business, the trajectories of our respective careers required different courses, and I didn't see Sebastien again for several years until a sudden and unrelenting craving for really, really stinky cheese brought me, almost by accident, into Sebastien's La Fromagerie.    

Cheese guys are the esoteric wack-jobs of the food industry.  The Van Goghs of the business.  The purists.  And the culinary Green Berets.  They are the guys (and gals) who peddle still-living caseins of almost infinite variety of texture and flavor to a population of neophyte consumers whose grasp of cheese making and consumption goes little beyond Velveeta, and yeah, we know, that ain't cheese.  Those of us who work in the food business work with, and eat, cheese almost daily and know, truly know, precious little about the stuff.  Sure, I could hold forth, at appreciable length, about the differences between, say, Stilton and St. Andre, but the lecture would really be all smoke and mirrors, and dog and pony show, and about as nuanced as some professorial barfly discussing the difference between bourbon and tequila--an easy trick to pull off because each, Stilton and St. Andre, bourbon and tequila, is so profoundly different and unique.  We food pros are down with the wine guy.  We throw back with the sommelier several nights a week.  He's lied to our wives for us.  He's even driven us home and helped us up the porch stairs.  But the cheese guy?  He's the guy whom you really never get to know.  He's the mystery wrapped in enigma, the guy who played too much Dungeons and Dragons in his youth and grew up a gastronome.  He's also the guy who you, the food professional, with your profound lack of true cheese knowledge, never fails to disappoint.  

Except for Sebastian, the big daddy-o of French cool.  Now this guy has got your back.  Walk into La Fromagerie on any given day and stand slack-jawed before the cheese case, packed with often-local and always-artisinal American cheeses and Sebastian will guide you through an otherwise daunting gauntlet of choices.  He will ask you what you like in cheese.  Sharp or mild?  Goat or cow?  He will listen.  He will be patient.  He will let you speak.  He will nod.  Then he will remove cheese from his case, cut you a slice and offer it across the counter.  He will tell you to put it in your mouth.  And he will watch new culinary worlds open up for you and smile his Gallic smile.  Then he will walk you over to the wine case and teach you how to say vas te faire encule to your American compatriots with a perfectly delicious bottle of French rose.

My time in Paris, in that cold water flat in the Port de Orlean, taught me, out of an abject Orwellian poverty and necessity (re:  Down and Out in Paris and London, kids), that wine and cheese were French street food, that for less than five dollars American, I could walk into any Parisian grocery and walk out, minutes later, with a truly delicious and wholly satisfying lunch of wine, bread, and yes, cheese.  I spent glorious afternoons lunching in Pere Lachaise and on Montmartre, discovering revolution in the simple acts of drinking burgundy and eating brie beside the grave of Oscar Wilde, or on the street, with all of lower Paris laid out at my feet.  And if it wasn't to be cake for the Parisian masses, wine and cheese would duly, if not gloriously, suffice.  

To encounter Sebastien's La Fromagerie was no less a culinary epiphany.  Here was a guy, albeit one already known to me, who was offering the best, freshest cheeses and charcuterie to a tourist-heavy Old Town population greatly in need (whether the knew it or not) of gastronomic enlightenment.  Here was a guy bringing the Parisian street to the people.  Here was a guy selling a food product which, at its glorious best, and heterodox to the impulse of appetite, smells much like the white shit you dig out from under your big toe.  Here was a culinary gangster.  So I did what I knew I had to do.  I bought Sebastien's cheese.  I bought the Invierno, the Kentucky Tome, the Greyson, and I bought his charcuterie, the wild boar salami, the truffled salami, and his bread, and I went home and there went at this food purly intent on learning something, intent on truly paying attention to what I was eating.  And how often does that happen in this life?  The Japanese word for epiphany is satori, which translates as kick in the eye, not the actual eyes in one's head, I suspect, but the third eye of the soul, which for foodies might not be painted in red in the middle of one's forehead, as Hindu belief suggests, but sure-as-shooting tastes like pig fat and duck liver and, yes, leaves your breath smelling exactly like cheese.

So I ate my cheese and I ate my charcuterie and I told myself I had, if not learned about cheese, per se, learned what I loved about cheese, that its flavor changes with temperature and that it's flavor changes with the passing of days and that keeping it in my home fridge, exactly as it was, was like trying to keep a Genie in a bottle, or fresh bread fresh.  It was well above my pay grade.  And it simply couldn't be done.  

So when I hurried back to La Fromagerie to inform (or bore) Sebastien of my newly minted insights into all things cheese, I discovered this moody French bastard had now added a cafe to his cheese shop and that Sebastien, now once again sporting his beloved chef's whites, was churning out (from his open, one-man kitchen in back) such bold and daring lunch-time offerings as a braised pork belly sandwich, or a classic pork rillette, or house made head cheese and duck foie gras.  When I saw this, this miracle on King Street, I knew Sebastian was the mad French culinary genius I long suspected him of being.  I knew the day had come when a guy like me could walk off the street into a perfectly inviting cheese shop, sit down to a lunch of pork belly and cold French rose, and listen to Paul Simonon of The Clash sing The Guns of Brixton.  Then and only then did I truly know the new American food revolution had come.  Then and only then did I truly know the good guys had won.

Go to La Fromagerie.  Buy some cheese.  Buy some wine.  And for the love of the gods, buy some pork belly.  Happiness awaits.  Go and be happy.  And tell Sebastien I sent you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How To Spell Sunday in Chinese -- A & J Restaurant, Annandale, Virginia

Sundays are tricky.  The food business, such as it is, allows most of us, its devoted minions, but a single day's respite from its agony, its very specific grind and toil.  A single day to empty one's head, to vent one's spleen, to kick back and elevate one's feet in the wild hope the pain, both bodily and existential, will somehow abate, if not altogether, and magically, go away.  A single day of rest is all we so-called food professionals are allotted, and for me, that day is Sunday.  So where to cleanse this body and soul?  Church is clearly not an option for the deeply doubtful agnostic soul like mine.  So finding my own salvation in restaurants it must be.  Restaurants, where, for a golden hour or two, I can be cooked for, waited on, attended to, doted upon, and where, in that same magical hour, I can feed that karmic wheel in the sky and treat my cooks, my hostesses, my servers exactly how I long to be treated, with a generosity of heart, spirit, and, perhaps most importantly for them, a generosity of wallet .

So it is that my quest for food-borne salvation brings me to A & J Restaurant in Annandale, Virginia, on this balmy early-November midday.  Lucky for me, I know salvation almost always lurks in the strangest of places.  This place, this A & J Restaurant, is no exception.  For while Annandale, Virginia, might be one of the great culinary Asian hotspots in the Eastern United States, containing a mind-boggling number of first class Korean, Thai, and Chinese food joints, it is, as far as suburban towns go, a total shit hole.  It's suburban sprawl has suburban sprawl.  You would never, ever bring a date here.  No one you'd ever want to impress.  Annandale is downright nasty.  And so is the strip mall that houses A & J Restaurant.  It is, as suburban strip malls go, among the most homely and downtrodden I've ever seen.  It's a vintage 1971 model, and sits adjacent to a number of abandoned and bombed-out single family homes.  The neighborhood smells of ruin.  Of decay.  But it also smells of incredibly good Chinese food.  Freshly-cut scallions are in the air.  As is the unmistakable redolence of melted duck fat.  And fried pork.  Heaven smells of Chinese food.  Salvation clearly awaits here at the A & J Restaurant.  So I hurry in.

And this is where I ask you, dear reader, to imagine the sound of a record needle being dragged across twelve inches of vintage black vinyl.  Because my young family and I are the only white people here.  Because when we enter, everything stops, goes silent.  Talking.  Eating.  Moving.  Everything ceases.  And everyone looks at us.  Every person here is Chinese.  And they are, as a group, clearly thinking the same thing:  the white people are health inspectors, immigration police, or tourists who have taken a very wrong turn.  The hostess asks us in passable English is we need directions back towards Washington.  We need a table, we say with a smile.  So we share a table with another family, two elderly adults and their adult child, who, as it turns out, is visiting from Oakland, California, and is nearly the only one here who speaks English.  He kindly offers to help us navigate the menu.

"Circle the food you want," he says, pointing to the pencil on the table.  So we do.  We circle two bowls of noodle soup and six plates of dim sum.  It's a lot of food for the four of us, a blowout in fact, so the waitress considers our order and asks us, finally, if we'd like our noodles skinny or fat.  Both is what we tell her, and in no more than thirty seconds later we are rewarded with two steaming bowls of fried pork and fried chicken soup with house-made noodles, both skinny and fat, both incredibly fresh and delicious.

We slurp our soup loudly, as Chinese manners allow, and watch as the plates of dim sum starts to roll in.  First comes the Pao Cai, the pickled cabbage, which is simply a slaw of cabbage, red chili pepper, and whole pepper corns in rice wine vinegar.  The summation of flavors is hot, tart, bitter, and delicious.  Thai-like and nothing I've ever tasted of Chinese cooking.  Next comes the Ma La Er Si, or slicked pork ears, which my six-year-old daughter and I set upon with particular ferocity.  Sure, they are a bit springy and tough, but they're also sublime, earthy, somehow tart, altogether a rare treat.  The Chinese family at our table stares with open-mouthed incredulity.  The elderly mother speaks to her son in quiet Chinese.  The son nods his head, then speaks to us.

"My mother wants to know if you know what you're eating."

I tell him yes, that we are eating pig's ears, and that we're eating them with a pleasure that is truly keen.

The mother nods and speaks to her son in Chinese.

"My mother wants to know if you've told your daughter what she's eating."

I ask my daughter to describe the food presently in her mouth.

"Pig's ear," she says.

"We honor the animal by eating all its parts," I explain.

The son translates what I've said and his two elderly Chinese parents smile, then break into applause.  Whatever I've just said, whatever its translation, has just won them over.  They smile at us and pour us hot tea in our cups and nod their heads at us and pat our backs the way dog owners approvingly stroke their own pets.  White people we are no more.  We are something else.  Something sympathetic.  Knowable.  And that's when the rest of the dim sum starts to roll in.  When we've been deemed worthy by this Chinese family, part of the extended Asian tribe.  Scallion pancake, Pan Fried Pork Pot Stickers, Chinese Sesame Biscuit with Sliced Pork, Thousand Layer Pancake, and some of the best fried chicken (outside Old Town's fabled Blue and White) that I've ever eaten.  Plate after plate after plate of the best Chinese food I've ever put in my mouth.  This from a guy who hates (or so I thought)  Chinese food.  Cantonese and Szechuan cooking styles, with their endless parade of sauces thickened with corn starch and buttressed with the empty pop of MSG, have always left me, post-meal, feeling angry, cheap, dirty, ripped off, and somehow, in a purely culinary sense, fucked with.

Not at A & J.  Not here, brother and sister.  Every flavor is deeply honest, if not outright vibrant.  Every flavor is surely and unmistakably north-Chinese and starch-heavy, for sure, but it all manages to pull off the difficult trick (for Chinese food, at least) of appearing naked and fresh and vital and vulnerable to easy corruption.  Sauces laden with corn starch and MSG need not apply at A & J.  Here each protein, each vegetable starch, stands by its own merits and fails by its own shortcomings; food is allowed to succeed or fail nakedly, as it so goes in most Thai, Japanese and Korean cooking.

So is found my own Sunday salvation at A & J in Annandale, Virginia.  On this bright, balmy Sunday.  Here is Chinese cooking at its most humble and yet, most elevated.  Here is a restaurant full of Chinese nationals willing to share their most guarded culinary secrets with a white-American family of four in the naked light of Sunday.

And this is when the old Chinese man at our table leans over toward me and asks me, in perfectly passable English, where I'm from and if I've enjoyed my meal here today.

I'm from Missouri, I tell him, and I've never tasted anything like this.

He nods and smiles and tells me that he too has lived in Missouri, in Springfield, to be exact, and he informs me that Springfield is the home of the American movie star Brad Pitt.  This I know.  I ask him if he found Missouri, my home state, the state I so deeply love, to his liking.  He frowns and considers the question.

"It was slow there," he says.  "And the Chinese food wasn't so good."

No doubt.  Absent from professional palates was the cuisine of A & J Restaurant.  Go there if you can.  Venture into Annandale.  Sure.  You will find it sprawling.  You will find it ugly.  But you will find some of the best Asian food that this country has to offer.  Korean.  Thai.  And Chinese.  Especially Northern Chinese.  A & J Restaurant.  And share a table.  You never know who you'll meet or where they're from.  They just might be from China.  Or Missouri.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Manifesto: Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush

Manifesto: Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush: God speaks Spanish. And has three Michelin stars. I know this, because he has just spoken to me at this five-course luncheon, on this col...

Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush

God speaks Spanish.  And has three Michelin stars.  I know this, because he has just spoken to me at this five-course luncheon, on this cold, rainy mid-October afternoon, in the middle of Washington's Rogue 24 dining room floor for all here to see.  He touches my arm and speaks to me again, more slowly this time, almost languidly, the way an all-knowing abuelo will speak to a dimwitted, if favorite, grandchild at his knee.  He tells me, his head waiter charged with leading today's service, to slow down.  To concentrate.  To keep breathing.  To focus on what I'm doing.  He tells me that life in the Basque Country of Spain is not about speed.  Not about efficiency.  Not about rushing food from the kitchen to the table.  No.  That's gringo style.  The disease of North American fine dining.  Basque cooking is about taking one's time.  It's about the savoring the delicacy of life's many flavors.  It's about finding the reflection of one's very own soul in the pearly brine of an oyster shell.  And he tells me this, all of this, in Spanish.

"Entiendes lo que estoy diciendo?"

I tell him I understand everything.

"Claro, chef," I say.  "Si, claro.  Lo siento."

But I understand none of what he's trying to say.  Not just because my Spanish sucks (as clearly it must), but because this is a case of an oracle speaking directly to an acolyte from on-high.  Because this is a case of God speaking to Moses through the burning bush.  For while I might understand the words themselves and the sequence in which they're spoken, it's the concept of what's being said that I'm now struggling with, and mightily.  No doubt Arzak has already sized me up with his god-like acumen and spotted me for the food-professional impostor that I am, the foodie idiot savant.  I am not worthy.  Not to stand before him.  Not to serve his food.  He sees this or something like it in my face and smiles.

"Chill out, kid," he says in perfect English.  "Everything's going to be just fine." 

For those of you unfamiliar with the great chef, here's Arzak in a nutshell:  Three Michelin stars.  Chef/Owner of Arzak, a restaurant which international food writers routinely rate as among the world's ten best.  The reigning godfather of Basque Nuevo cuisine.  A true culinary heavy weight.  A living legend. A god of modern gastronomy.  

That I have well over ten years in the business and thousands of events under my belt should make me impervious to all the Food Network induced celebrity chef worship crap that goes with working with the likes of Arzak? 

Hardly.  That ain't the way it goes.

If nothing else, my hard-scrabble years in the food business evoke something just short of pure reverence for the great chef Arzak.

How so?  

Those of us who toil daily and largely anonymously in the industry find (if my may speak for my food brethren) all of this celebrity chef bullshit somehow analogous to the music business:  most rock 'n roll bands, however talented and good, never get signed, never land the big record deal; they are, almost all, relegated to the ash heaps of obscurity, a veritable dust bin of unlistened-to demo tapes, and dismissed to a life of "what-if's" and "almosts."  So it is in the food business.  Daily I am surrounded by ferociously talented cooks and servers, who will, for their entire careers, remain nameless and obscure in their glorious labor.  But that's the gig.  It's what they've signed up for.  It's a given.  You live in the moment.  And when that moment has passed, you move on to the next.  Not until the advent of the Food Network, and still as rarely as lightning gets trapped in a bottle, had anyone (with exemptions allotted to Child and Pepin) risen to true celebrity in the food business.  Only very rarely does this world allow a skinny, big-toothed, knock-kneed punk-rock drummer from suburban Northern Virginia to become Dave Grohl.  Only more rarely does the world allow a Vassar-dropout-cum-brunch cook-cum-junkie become to Tony Bourdain.  And we celebrate those who have gone before, whom have triumphed.

So what, then, to make of this culinary titan before me, this Chef Juan Mari Arzak, for whom our own Food Network/Travel Channel celebrity chefs swoon and revere?  Arzak, I suspect, knows little of such things.  Here is a man, born in 1942, and who came of culinary age when apprentice chefs were physically beaten, and whose stations were, in the American parlance, fixedly blue collar.  

The luncheon for which we're working is for 27 guests.  And it's to celebrate the food and wine of the Basque region of Spain.  All Arzak has to do is show up in his whites, shake a few hands, and smile.  His vast international celebrity can do all of the heavy lifting for him.  It's a veritable walk in the park.  I would know.  I've been working with his advance team of sous chefs for the past two days.  Everything's been prepped; every culinary contingency met; nothing left to chance.  All Arzak has to do is show up and smile.  

But no.  He enters the kitchen and rolls up his sleeves.  He means business. 

And this is why, in a silly blog decidedly about the glories of street food, of populist cuisine, that someone the likes of Arzak shall appear, stars and all.

Because he brings a ferocious Basque-cum-American blue-collar ethic to his cooking; because he is seemingly oblivious to his own celebrity; because he's a man of the people, a man of the street.  I watched him fix an unworthy sauce seconds before plating.  I watched him berate (in hushed, god-like tones) one of his sous chefs for not having a section of beef cheek at proper serving temperature.  I watched him plate every single course, and touch every single plate, that came out of that kitchen.

Is this the life of a so-called celebrity chef?  Is this what international acclaim brings to a no-brainer of a lunch for 27 dim-witted Washingtonians who merely need the famed chef to clap like a seal to feel nourished and well-fed?  No.  This is the work of soldier, who, for no matter how many Michelin stars may be pinned across his chest, will forever fight the good fight, and no doubt die with his culinary boots on.

I salute you, Chef Arzak.  And yes, Chef, I am working on my Spanish.

At this very moment.

And that's a promise. 


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Honduras Bites Back - A Ride on Con Sabor a Mi Patria

Now this a food truck.  A twenty-year-old delivery truck retrofitted with propane heat and refrigeration, parked in the crowded lot of a supermercado latino, and badly hand-lettered, curiously enough, on its side with the words Con Sabor A Mi Patria, whose literal word-for-word translation is with flavor of my country.  For our purposes, we'll call her Flavor Country.  We'll call her a food truck in its purest form.  Not the kind that peddles sprout wraps to Federal luncheoneers on their noon breaks.  Not the kind that traffics to yuppie foodie douchbags questing for the most authentic turkey burger on wheels.  Not the kind that sells you cupcakes, the crack of food nostalgia that robs you of real childhood memories one red velvety bite at a time.  No.  This truck is the real deal.  A direct blood descendent of the chuck wagon, or better, those silver-gleaming roach coaches that first brought hot breakfasts and lunches to an army of American laborers, and which allowed iron workers and welders, for the very first time, to return to work with hamburger grease on their fingers and yellow mustard on their chins.  This is what Flavor Country surely represents.  A mighty gastronomic ship of authentic Latino cuisine.  A truck that repudiates, with a perfectly pitched fuck you, the current food truck fad of falafel trucks and frozen yogurt stands rolling around Washington on oversized Firestones.  Flavor Country calls to me like a siren's song.  And it would take a veritable army of health inspectors to keep me away.

The first thing I realize about Flavor Country is that ordering in English is not an option.  This is a Spanish-only operation, boy-o, not just in cuisine, but in language as well.  There are two women inside Flavor Country.  Both middle aged.  Both with gold teeth and hair dyed the color of a Texaco sign.  They look at me with the smiling wonder of tourists watching of a Yellowstone Grizzly wander up to their minivan intent on walking away with a belly full of food.  I nod at the women and smile back.  Greetings and salutations are perfunctorily polite and one of the women inside Flavor Country points me to the menu painted on the side of the truck.  What I see are all the familiar classics of Central American Cuisine.  Pupusas.  Carne Asada.  Baleadas.  Bistec Encebollado.  They're all here.  The menu is a hall of fame of Latino gastronomy.  What I fail to notice, however, is the large Honduran flag painted bottom and center of the menu.  But I've already blown through a thousand STOP signs in my adult life, so why fret over just one more left in my rearview mirror.

After a moment's contemplation, I decide to go with the two all-too-familiar golden oldies of Latino cooking:  tacos and enchiladas.  I know, I know.  This is the gastronomic equivalent of asking to hear a band of pimpled eighteen-year-olds with knock-off brand Les Pauls cover Stairway to Heaven, a song no one, and I mean no one, needs to hear ever again.  Ever.  But in my defense, by hearing those pimpled eighteen-year-olds butcher (or not) Page and Plant, by hearing if the singer can handle Plant's vocal range or Page's quiet masterpiece of a guitar solo, you'll quickly know if this band is any good or not.  So it is with my order of tacos and enchiladas, con todo, y muy caliente.  One bite of each dish, and I'll know if Flavor Country is as great as she appears to be, the food truck of all food trucks.  The mothership of ethnic flavor.  But something in my order has troubled the cooks.  The women inside the truck discuss my request in hushed voices and at troubling length.  A minute goes by.  Then two.  They shake their heads and argue quietly about some culinary impasse I've created with my order.  They bicker a moment longer, then inform me, their waiting customer, that my stomach is simply not suited for what I've asked for, that con todo may, in fact, complicate my life in ways I will surely find unpleasant.

"Soy gringo, si, pero mi estomago es muy fuerte," I assure them.

They look dubious of my claims of intestinal fortitude, then share a no me importa shrug and go about the business of cooking my lunch.  While one woman is bent over the flattop grill, searing the animal protein of my lunch, skirt steak and ground beef it would appear, the other asks me what I'd like to drink.  The question catches me off guard.  I'm so wrapped up in watching the woman work the propane-heated grill that I balk at the matter of a culinary chaser.  So I order a Coke.  This is not something I often drink in life.  Not that I have anything against cola, per se.  I do, however, kindle a pure and unadulterated hostility against high-fructose corn syrup.  It's the devil in your drink.  The Type ll diabetes in your can.  High-fructose corn syrup can go fuck itself.  But it's what I end up drinking with my lunch.  And it represents yet another STOP sign that I blithely blow through on the way to the gastronomic calamity I'm about to experience.  The can she hands me has just come the low-boy reach-in refrigerator, and yet it's almost warm to the touch.

Danger Will Robinson.

Another minute or two later, and my lunch is ready, delivered in styrofoam clamshells and bagged in plastic.  I smile, pay, bid the cooks of Flavor Country a heartfelt adios, and abscond with my lunch like someone at a yard sale who has just purchased an original Jackson Pollock for the price of a single, 1983 copy of Mad magazine.  To the victor go the spoils, as they say.  And yet, when I find a favorite nearby park bench and open the clamshell containing my enchiladas, something is not quite commensurate with triumph.  The enchiladas have been served open faced, over fried flour tortillas, and topped with a nearly unrecognizable melange of iceberg lettuce, farmer's cheese, and a near-tasteless red sauce which eerily resembles blood.

So I put that clamshell aside and move on to the tacos.  Everything amiss in the world can be righted by a good taco, yes?  Or no.  These tacos seem anemic somehow.    Lifeless and pale.  They are, without question, fully recognizable as tacos, but, on closer look, appear as taco imposters, taco doppelgangers, who might have mastered the look of a taco, but who have somehow botched the task of learning the taco's essence. 

Okay.  Perhaps I've judged too hastily.  I've let appearances taint what will otherwise be a tasty and truly authentic Honduran culinary experience.  Presentation is for suckers, right?  It's what lives at the end of your fork that really and truly matter, no?  So return, do I, con el tenedor, to the enchiladas.  I go at them.  I tear them up.  I really shovel it in.

And I am deeply unimpressed.

What I find under all that farmer's cheese and iceberg lettuce is a greasy mess of unseasoned ground beef, hard-boiled eggs, lima beens, peas, and carrots.  It's the everything-but-the kitchen sink approach to gastronomy that is the signature of nations whose cuisine was born from pure and abject poverty, and where the inclusion of such dispirit ingredients speaks to a wealth only imagined, far off in a future that never comes, and wealth that is never ever real.

So I quit while I'm still ahead and yet cramp-free, and move on to the tacos.  Put me on death row and have me choose a last meal, and if the prison kitchen is out of fried chicken and pork ribs, then for my last meal tacos it will be.  But not these tacos.  Not on your life.  One bite unmasks these tacos for the tacos they were only pretending to be.  What had appeared to be skirt steak is a form of protein heretofore unknown to me (which leaves only monkey for those of you keeping score at home).  The corn tortillas have been steamed into a soggy state of limp flavorlessness, and what little seasoning adorns the protein comes in the form of an impotent dice of cilantro and onion.

Fail.  Abort.  This food sucks.

Or does it?  Is the food really this bad or have I brought my yuppie Anglo expectations to a national cuisine that defies such notions of cultural and culinary short hand?  Does it mean that because I've once had the dubious pleasure of eating a hamburger from, say, McDonald's, all other hamburgers, however "authentic," that fail to resemble the McDonald's prototype suck despite their own merits?

Would I be better off waiting in another food truck line for turkey burgers and falafel and veggie wraps, and eager, as I should be, to pay with my earth-friendly debit card (because, Dude, Cash = Slavery, or haven't you heard)?

Or does the question of my hating this food get even trickier?

Does that fact that this food comes from an "authentic" Honduran food truck render it intrinsically better than the far tastier faux-ethnic food at, say, Baja Fresh, which, in my albeit limited experience, is also prepared by "authentic" Latino line cooks over open flame.

Yes and no.  None of the above and all of the above.  Simultaneously and never at the same time.

Which is to say that while the food of Flavor Country might very well be truly delicious, truly authentic Honduran food, and most excellent on its own cultural and gastronomic terms, this gringo palate prefers to pass on it as a national cuisine.  Chalk it up to my own shortcomings and my own ruin as an eater at the hands of all the Mexican street cooks I have known, and whose wily use of low heat to break down beef fat in its sundry forms (think tongue and brains) and whose ability to highly season food with a few simple, elemental spices (think cumin and chili powder for starters) have proven, for this stupid white man, at least, positively transcendent, time and time again.

Have I failed my lovely lady friends of Flavor Country?  Perhaps.  Perhaps they too failed me, however.  For how did I spend next several hours contemplating my culinary experience?  In a pose made famous by Rodin's The Thinker while doing a Jackson Pollock on my own toilet bowl.

This gringo finds himself attached to the miracle of modern refrigeration.

I'll see you tomorrow at Baja Fresh.

Hasta nunca, Con Sabor a Mi Patria.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Manifesto: Manifesto: Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Taste...

Manifesto: Manifesto: Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Taste...: Manifesto: Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner : I can't say I wasn't warned. The admonitions are everywhere. They are like roa...

Manifesto: Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner

Manifesto: Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner: I can't say I wasn't warned. The admonitions are everywhere. They are like road signs urging you to stop, turn around and head in the oppo...

Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner

[Reader's note: this piece was written three years ago.  The diner has recently been purchased by John K. Wood, and following extensive renovation, will open September 2014.]

I can't say I wasn't warned.  The admonitions are everywhere.  They are like road signs urging you to stop, turn around and head in the opposite direction.  And you'll find them, these warnings, in pop songs, in epic verse, in testaments old and new.  The advice is simple, emphatic, and unwaveringly clear:  never look back at what you've long ago abandoned; only a fool revisits the past, for even if you manage to unearth a few ruined artifacts or survivors of a past life, of a time and place, you will most certainly find these fragments not as you remember them, but somehow different, changed, less shiny and no where as beautiful, not nearly as bright.  Time does a number on people and nostalgia is a lie.  This goes for everything, it seems.  Old friends who were not that.  Old haunts.  Old flames (especially those).  Every time I've failed to heed the advice of these troubadours and ancients, every time I've ignored the wisdom of their advice and revisited some place or person last seen, long ago, in my rear view mirror, I've paid with a disappointment as painful as a toothache.

So what could I have possibly been thinking when I found myself in Fairfax, Virginia, one dreary midweek noon and thought it would be a good idea to lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner?  Thinking I wasn't.  Clearly.  I should have gone.  Fled.  Sped away and grabbed a Patio Burrito at the corner 7-11 and called it a day.  But I didn't.  I pulled into the parking lot and congratulated myself on patronizing what I remembered as one of the truly great, truly authentic diners in all North America.  The fool is me.  I should have turned around and gone.

Why beat a hasty retreat?  Because I once lived at the Tastee.  And that's not hyperbole, folks.  I didn't just eat there a lot, I lived there, from morning to night, in a naugahyde booth, or on one of the swivel stools, perched at the counter.   And so did all my friends, we merry band of miscreants, six or seven strong.  I spent the most formative and, in many ways, most glorious years of my life there.  A kid eighteen to twenty-two who, in those four years at the Tastee, learned more about the world than I have in the nearly twenty years since.  My friends and I (and they all remain that, loved and dear to me, despite the sermon above) spent tens of thousands of hours there across those four years, sitting there after ditching school, drinking bad coffee, smoking cigarettes, and watching as the waitresses and cooks change shifts from breakfast to lunch to dinner.  Image our delight as suburban teens of the 80s to have found a place that not only tolerated but encouraged a gang of tattooed, leather jacketed, greasy-hair wanna be tough guys to just sit there consuming plate after plate of deeply discounted and profoundly delicious American diner food.

The culinary talent at the Tastee was serious.  The food, world class.  There was Fran, for instance, the best short order cook I've ever seen, EVER, who could, single handedly, and on a single flat iron grill, crank out over a hundred breakfast orders in an hour all the while smoking her Pall Malls over the grill and singing along with Elvis.  And there was Linda, the waitress, who would knowingly slip cold beer to this then-nineteen year old lad and hand him her cherrywood one-hitter over the counter if he smiled just right.  Love was found at the Tastee.  And lost.  There was laughter more often than there were tears.  And violence.  Lots of that.   (I fondly recall being punched in the face by a homeless guy with a cigarette burn between his eyes and a hand with two missing fingers, onto which was tattooed the word fingers).  

What I know of life I first learned at the Tastee.  And what I now know of food was first discovered there as well.  The Tastee's was a cuisine of American classics, iconic diner food, that was the life-blood of the American labor force throughout most of the 20th century.  Hamburgers.  Corned beef hash.  Fried ham.  Scrapple.  Cream chipped beef on toast.  French fries with brown gravy.  Fresh pies.  Coffee that was supposed to be  bad and which outed you as a pussy had you the gall to complain about its unnerving similarity in color and taste to dishwater.

The Tastee was more than a great diner.  It was a fucking church.  Holy and sacrosanct in every way.

So why did I think it a good idea to go back?  Because I am a seasoned food professional (pun intended) with over a successful decade in the business who falls to sleep nightly reading cookbooks and who could bring my highly trained palate and gastronomic acumen to what I remember as a hidden culinary gem hidden in plain sight in Fairfax, Virginia?  Nope.  Not even close.  It's because I'm a fuckhead.  A douchebag.  It's because I must destroy everything I've ever loved.

So I walk into the Tastee at lunchtime and find it exactly as I remember it, a veritable time machine.  There's the blue naugahyde booths and the jukebox and the sign above the kitchen door which reads:  YCJCUAQFTJB (translation:  Your Curiosity Just Cost You A Quarter For The Juke Box).  And it smells exactly the same.  Exactly. A delightful and decades-old amalgam of beach and fry grease.  And the waitress is even the same.  I remember her as young woman named Carla and who, like me, is young no longer.  But the Tastee is also smaller than I remember.  More shop worn.  And dirtier.  And strangest of all:  it's lunchtime and the place is empty.  I'm the only one here.

Carla tells me to sit anywhere I like, so I sit at my old favorite booth, the one with the crack in the stone table, and Carla brings me a menu, which I wave away.  There's only one way to know if the Tastee has retained its culinary greatness, so I order the gastronomic gold standard of any self-respecting diner.

I order the Cheeseburger Royal, which outside Tastee parlance, translates as a cheeseburger platter, meaning, in the simplest terms, a cheeseburger with everything, accompanied with a side of fries and coleslaw.  To drink? A Coke.

Carla delivers my order to the cook, who, incredibly, I recognize as Linda's mother, and who must be well over eighty by now.  My hamburger meat hits the grill with a familiar loud sizzle and my fries are dunked in the fry oil and suddenly everything seems right with the world.  Order has been restored.  My whole life and all the choices I've ever made now make perfect sense.  So I stroll up to the jukebox and dial up three old favorites:  Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Horton, who, in loving detail, describes the Battle of New Orleans.  The world is new again.  I am alive.

After a few glorious minutes, Carla brings me my food and dress my burger in mustard and ketchup.  I hold the burger up to my mouth.  Then I close my eyes.  I take a big breath.  I smell onion.  Pickle.  Mustard.  The smells of my glorious youth.  I take a bite.

I am profoundly underwhelmed.  I'm not liking what's now in my mouth.  Not at all.

So I bite, chew and swallow again and again and again, hoping for a better result.  But no.  I'm a few bites into my burger before I decide to dismantle the thing, take it apart, piece by piece, and divine why, exactly, I'm not tasting culinary greatness here.  It takes me only a second to see where Linda's mom just went terribly, terribly wrong with my burger.  And my heart breaks a little for the discovery.

Twenty years ago, when I would order a cheeseburger, I would watch Fran open the reach-in next to the grill and extract a handful of ground beef from the huge mountain of fresh hamburger that was piled up, haystack like, in the little fridge.  She would then hand make the patty and throw it on the grill.

What I was presently eating was the proto-hockey puck of frozen industrial ground beef now ubiquitous in the food industry.  The very meat product that sickens thousands of Americans annually.  Meat imported from third-world countries and treated with ammonia to kill the bacteria present in the meat due to its contact with bovine fecal matter.  The kind of meat that can give you kidney failure.  Meat of convenience.  Meat with shit in it.  Meat of the enemy.  And something I will not eat.  Ever.

So I ditch the burger and hope to find salvation in the fries.  Nothing doing here.  I can taste the freezer burn in the starch.  And the coleslaw?  Someone had made it in a factory far off and long ago.  Someone who didn't give a shit about making food.  Then I look at the specials board hanging on the wall in the wild, last-minute hope that the Tastee was now foregoing attention to the hamburger to better concentrate its culinary efforts on diner classics like homemade meatloaf or shit-on-a-shingle.  But no.  What do I see listed on the specials board instead?  Chicken tenders.  That's right:  fried chicken tenders.  The kind that three-year-olds eat.  On a fucking specials board in the Tastee diner.  The church of my youth.

And that's when it hits me.  The Tastee no longer gives a shit about food.  It might have churned out some of the most epic and memorable diner food in American history at one point, but now, sixty-five years into her storied history, the old girl has given up, thrown in the towel.  She simply doesn't care any longer.  She is just going through the motions.  It's foreign beef with shit in it from here on out.  The lights might be on at the Tastee boy-o, but no one is home.  That's for sure.

I wave Carla over and ask for my check.  She frowns at my plate.

"But you haven't finished your lunch," she says.

I smile at her, sadly, and tell her I finished this lunch a long, long time ago.

And I tip her more than she likely makes in any given week.

Because this is the last time I will ever tip Carla.  Because next time I will heed the admonitions of the ancients.  I will never again look back.  At least not to the Tastee.  Memories are all that are left us.  Best to keep them close to our hearts.  Better that way to keep them pure.

I'm the fool for ever having tried.

Onward and upward, yo.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Manifesto: Manifesto: The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Ta...

Manifesto: Manifesto: The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Ta...: Manifesto: The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Tamale : It's Sunday and the place is packed. There are no fewer than a hundred people in t...

Manifesto: The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Tamale

Manifesto: The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Tamale: It's Sunday and the place is packed. There are no fewer than a hundred people in this supermercado latino and not a single person will spea...

The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Tamale

It's Sunday and the place is packed.  There are no fewer than a hundred people in this supermercado latino and not a single person will speak to me.  Or look at me.  Or give me the hora del dia, the time of day.  I'm guessing it's because I'm tall.  And white.  And that I'm wearing a military haircut and green Ray Ban aviators and that they've all mistaken me for la migra, for some wayward I.C.E. hard case come in to knock heads and kick Latino ass and send these so-called mojados back to El Salvador on a one-way ticket home.  Yeah, it's the haircut that's got these folks spooked.  The whole Casper the Not-So-Friendly Ghost thing I've got going.  And the sunglasses; the sunglasses (and the fact I haven't taken them off) are really making these folks itch.  No one here can possibly see through them, into my eyes, and know I'm a viva la raza, si se puede kind of guy.  They can't possibly know I've come here for the incredibly cheap produce, the astonishing varieties of queso campesino, farmer's cheese, and that occasional and all-too guilty pleasure of mine:  Mexican Coca-Cola, delightfully devoid of high-fructose corn syrup and just the pure cane-sugary sweetness that it is.  If these folks would just take a minute to answer my questions on which masa de maiz (corn dough made from hominy) they would use in making their own pupusas, or which cut of pork makes the best chicharron.  But they don't.  They ignore me.  So I am left to navigate this supermercado on my own.  I grab some avocados.  Some jalapenos.  Some corn tortillas.  Some limes.  I know I am being watched as I shop.  Studied.  Even laughed at.  And I know why.  The contents of my shopping basket are all too predictable.  They surely comprise what every gringo comes here to buy.  If I was truly simpatico, had I any real huevos hanging between my legs, I would be back in the meat section haggling in Spanish over fish heads and sections of tripe.  But no.  I've clearly decided to hedge my bets.  Play it safe.  I've played this like any other garden-variety white boy would.  And the humiliation is keen.  So I slink up to the cash register to pay for my food.

But here's where it gets interesting.

Situated at the near end of the conveyor belt, closest to me, is an electric chafing dish full of fresh, homemade Salvadoran tamales.  Each tamale is wrapped in aluminum foil.  There is a pair of plastic tongs and a wrinkled sign urging caution, the tamales are hot.  And they are big, huge by Mexican standards.  And they smell divine.  And they only cost $1.99 each.

I've got to have one, two in fact, but something about this impromptu tamale stand troubles me, if only because I must consider such things as food safety, daily, at work.

I ask the cashier how long the tamales have been sitting here.

"Cuanto hace que estas aqui?" 

I don't know if she's more surprised by the question, or my bad Spanish.

She shrugs her shoulders.

"No se."

"Usted no sabe?"

"Lo siento."

My dilemma is a relatively simple one:  should I purchase a highly-perishable food product likely made of unknown ingredients in someone's unlicensed home kitchen under extremely dubious sanitary conditions and held well below safe-handling temperature in some makeshift electric chafing dish at the end of an already-suspect supermarket cash register, and insodoing, risk the two-to-four hours of puking my brains out and freckling the toilet bowl that comes with every poisoning by food?  Or should I just walk away?  Go back to my April-fresh world of hand sanitizers and Lysol wipes from whence all food-borne parasites have been banished and germs, any and all, are the common enemy of the middle class?  Run back to my U.S.D.A. prime like a frightened child for his baby blanket?  What to do.

I look back at the Latino family now in line behind me.  The husband is smiling at me.  His wife is tapping her foot.  They can sense my trepidation.  They can smell my fear.  And then the husband winks.  It is la migra who is now running scared.  The wink is a challenge.  A dare.

I turn back to the cashier and hold up two fingers.

"Voy a tomar dos."

The components of the tamale are deceptively simple.  Some form of cooked, often shredded protein, is wrapped in masa, or corn meal, and steam-cooked inside corn husks or plantain leaves until the masa is firm.  The sheer ubiquity of the tamale in Latino cooking makes them something of a joke for Anglo palates.  That some corn-fed farm boy in northwestern Nebraska knows of the tamale somehow renders them not worth eating for most gringos, and makes objects of culinary contempt.

And yet what I encountered in my two tamales was nothing short of sublime.  Both were wrapped in oily plantain leaves and stuffed with shredded chicken.  Inside the masa, itself rich and oily and incredibly flavorful, were raisins and green olives and pearl onions.  And while the complexity of each tamale was, gastronomically speaking, the equivalent of finger painting, each was rich and delicious and calorically highly-dense.  For when we speak of street food, particularly that of Latin America, we are necessarily speaking of high-fat, high-calorie food that must sustain the eater through woeful physical labor, or inordinately long periods of time between meals that may or may not ever come.  Food for the third world.  Food for the masses.  That my own four dollars American bought that many calories, and that much sheer culinary pleasure was a triumph.  I was more than just full.  I was satisfied.  I was happy.

But was I ever sick from these highly questionable Salvadoran tamales?

Before I answer:  a quick digression.

I well remember the last time I was poisoned by food.  I was shopping for picture frames at the Ikea in Woodbridge, Virginia, and blindingly hungover from the previous night's overindulgence and in desperate need of dietary protein.  No picture frames would be purchased without first scarfing down some form of Scandinavian animal matter to clear my fuzzy, fuzzy head.  So I foolishly ventured over to Ikea's in-store cafeteria and ordered the poached salmon.  Yes, I really did this.  It actually happened.  I wasn't thinking straight.  But before you judge me, please consider the very cerebral nature of my distress.  And when I ordered the salmon lunch special (with steamed potatoes and broccoli, no less) the sweet little old lady behind the counter informed me that I was in luck, and that the salmon lunch platter was buy one, get one free.  Wow, I thought.  Free fish.  This must be my lucky day.  Some luck.  I spent the next twelve hours in the fetal position on my bathroom floor, praying for a swift and merciful death.

As for the tamale?

I came through the experience with nary a gastrointestinal scratch.  But even if the tamales had made me sick, I would have wrapped my own ass in a Depends adult undergarment, gargled with Listerine, and marched back to the supermercado for two more.  Why?  What for?  Because life is dangerous.  Because eating anything is full of risk.  Even at Ikea.  Because a few hours of gastrointestinal distress is a paltry price to pay for eating something, safe or not, that tests your mettle, that asks you to ask yourself who you really are, that sets your heart aflutter with adrynalyne, all the while somehow teaching you something about the world, that great beyond.

Go ahead.

Eat something dangerous.

I dare you.

And if it makes you sick, I'll be there to wipe your chin.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Manifesto: The Blue and White and the Southern Soul

Manifesto: The Blue and White and the Southern Soul: So here's how the topic first comes up: there are three of us in this Washington, D.C. dive bar, late at night, and deep enough into our cu...

The Blue and White and the Southern Soul

So here's how the topic first comes up:  there are three of us in this Washington, D.C. dive bar, late at night, and deep enough into our cups, as they say, to mistake platitudes for epiphanies and to think that ordering two batches of freshly fried pork skins is a really, really good idea.  It's that kind of night.  We are all strangers, we three, but have struck up a quick friendship to trick ourselves into believing that each of us is not actually drinking alone in this Capitol Hill shit hole where the bartender is selling little white pills across the bar and the one, lone waitress is offering to service male patrons in the men's room out back.  Like I said:  it's that kind of night.  One of my companions is from New York City, a photographer by trade; the other is from Atlanta, a motorcycle mechanic, all tattoos and nose rings, and they are arguing, loudly, if affably enough, over the soul of Washington--is it a Southern city, as the New Yorker contends, or does its cold heart and killing pace necessarily relegate it to the North, as the dude from Atlanta maintains?  They bicker back and forth for a minute, trade a few friendly blows to the arms and shoulders, then posit the question to me, the one among us who actually lives here.

"So, which is it?" asks the New Yorker.  "Washington.  Northern or Southern?"

I bite my lip and consider.  I have to get this right.  These guys are all smiles, sure, but three drinks from now it might be blood, not beer, that gets spilled.

"Both," I say.  "Neither."

"Einstein," says the mechanic.  "That's who you are."

The New Yorker looks at me and rolls his eyes.

"Jackass," he says.

That Washington is well below the Mason-Dixon Line should have settled the matter for my drinking companions and me, but everyone here, be they the recently-landed from the outer provinces or long-time residents, is quick to realize that D.C. is at the cultural (and culinary) confluence of two vastly different American traditions.  One can easily see the former home of Robert E. Lee from the rear terrace of the Lincoln Memorial.  President Kennedy famously remarked that Washington was a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, a quip, however funny, that reveals the essential duality of this place.  We are both, simultaneously Northern and Southern, a fact which looms over us like a kind of historical haunting, and posesses us like a cultural schizophrenia, and which, ultimately makes us something kindred to both and apart from each.  We are neither.  

But where, then, if not in Washington, does the North end and the South begin?

With all due respect to Misters Mason and Dixon, who got it so wrong with their proverbial line in the sand, I believe I alone have the correct answer.

The Southern United States begin at 1024 Wythe Street in Alexandria, Virginia, at the Blue and White Carry Out, and is heralded not by the Stars and Bars, but by some of the best fried chicken you're likely to ever put in your mouth.

I understand if you've driven by and have  been afraid to stop.  Believe me, I do.  The Blue and White not only looks menacing, as far as eateries go, it feels dangerous.  Situated in an industrial section of northern Old Town in spitting distance from Section 8 housing, the Blue and White hardly appears as the culinary power house that it most certainly is.  No, the Blue and White is tiny.  Maybe a 150 square feet--tops--of working space, I'd guess.  And dirty-looking.  And old.  Really old.  As in eighty-five years old.  And did I mention tiny?  The door jam framing the single ingress is so low that patrons taller than 5'8" have to duck when entering.  And once inside, you'd better be on your toes, boy-o, because there is a palpable amalgam of racial tension and requisite Soup-Nazi-like protocol to ordering that, if upset, will undoubtedly result in the diminished quality of your order.

So if the Blue and White is all these things (and is most certainly is) then why bother?  Why not just drive a little farther south and eat at Chipotle with all the other khaki-wearing, button-down, slack-jawed douchebags who flock to Old Town, Alexandria, on any given day?  I'll tell you why, jack-o:  the fried chicken.  Just the smell of it stopped me at 10:30 on a Thursday morning like any other.  Blue sky.  Puffy white clouds.  Just a regular day.  Only it wasn't.  Someone was frying chicken while the rest of the working world was still picking Frosted Flakes out of its collective teeth.  So in I went, into this tiny, filthy shack of a place misbegotten upon a street corner that the march of time (and the ceaseless avarice of real estate developers) had somehow overlooked.

The act of eating soul food is inherently a political one.  It's largely a deep-fried cuisine whose high-fat, high-starch content that speaks to the legacy of physical toil and hardship that such calorically-dense foods necessarily evoke.  Food to nourish the soul when one's bodily reality was abject misery.  Unless you think digging ditches is fun.  No.  It's soul food.  Southern food.  Food for black people tasked with doing all the really, really hard work that white people, with our famous and famously collective sense of entitlement, were unwilling to do.

So it did not go unnoticed that a white boy like me (avec starched white shirt and soft white hands) would come into a soul food joint and ask for fried chicken.  Was I embracing the politics of soul food or subverting it, was the question.  Was I okay, down with the program, or just another white dude in an expensive neck tie pretending to own the place?  Behind the glass, in a space no bigger than a walk-in closet (think "Das Boot," only smaller and way more cramped), were four African-American cooks, who politely asked what I'd like to eat while somehow managing to suggest that I should already know what I wanted to eat.  That only suckers and chumps ordered off menus.  So I winged it.  I made something up.  A soul food menu in my head.  I ordered the chicken dinner and the pork chop dinner, hoping they had both.  They smiled.

"I'm guessing you want the white meat," said the cook.

I smiled back.

"I prefer dark meat," I said.  "Always have."


"You know it."



"Hot sauce?"

"Over everything," I said.  "Never leave home without it."

The cook winked at me.

"Enjoy your dark meat."

I winked back.

"I always do."

What I received was two styrofoam "clam shells" with nearly two pounds of food in each.  A massive lunch by any definition.  So how to eat it?  Back at my office, at my desk, in front of my computer just like any other Gap-loving, gravity-bound white guy would do, or out in the open, in the fresh air, as a real working man would, as soul food was meant to be eaten?  So I ate it on the hood of my car.  At 10:40 on that sunny Thursday morning.  In the middle of traffic.  With my plastic fork and styrofoam plate, I ate.  What I discovered, with equal parts chagrin and delight, was that I was having two very different culinary experiences at the same time.  To explain:  the potatoes, the collard greens, and the brown gravy that was poured over nearly everything, while perfectly eatable, were prefab, industrial, reconstituted and canned, respectively, while my two proteins, the chicken and the pork, were both fried after I had ordered.  Both proteins were fantastic, with the chicken being nearly transcendental, god-like in its perfection, and easily some of the best I've ever had in my life.  And the cheapest.  Both meals, including an ice-cold Royal Crown Cola, cost me just over ten ($10--that's right) American dollars.  Two lunches.  Ten dollars total.  Call it Christmas in August.

But as I ate, there on the hood of my car, in the tiny shadow of that tiny and ancient little shack, all 150 square feet of it, I realized the Blue and White doesn't cook its own potatoes and greens because it can't.  There's no room.  No real estate.  No space.  Anyone who has ever cooked collards, mustards, or kale knows that greens greatly reduce in volume when cooked, they shrink, disappear in fact, and that raw greens that may have taken up a whole shelf of fridge space will produce no more than a few paltry servings of vegetable matter.  For the Blue and White to cook their own greens, they'd have to annex the adjacent building just to serve you a marginally better product, and after eighty-five years of doing this, that simply ain't in the chips, friend-o.

What the Blue and White cooks is protein.  They have a deep fryer and a grill.  Side by side.  Five feet from where you order your lunch.  That's all.  And that's what they cook in and on.  Chicken.  Pork.  Beef.  Fish.  In oil.  On hot, flat steel.  And what they cook is some of the best chicken in the Southern United States.  A bold statement, I know.  But how else to stave off Northern aggression with its hard consonants and gruff manners and Euro-centric cuisine than with chicken that makes you happy to simply be alive and have fry-grease dribbling down your chin?

Go feed your soul.  Give it chicken.  Eat on the hood of car and lick your fingers.  Eat in very, very northern edge of the South.  Eat at the Blue and White.  Why?  Because they give you two pieces of white sandwich bread to mop the brown gravy off your plate.  And because it's ridiculously cheap.  And because it's really good.  And because, after eighty-five years, it's still there.


And order the dark meat.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Manifesto: Eating Chicago - Three Meals in 36 Hours In the Ci...

Manifesto: Eating Chicago - Three Meals in 36 Hours In the Ci...: "For all its supposed glamor, working in the food business often seems a particularly Promethean endeavor insofar as the topography of one's ..."

Monday, August 1, 2011

Eating Chicago - Three Meals in 36 Hours In the City by the Lake

For all its supposed glamor, working in the food business often seems a particularly Promethean endeavor insofar as the topography of one's occasional agony is emphatically local.  A saute pan and a six-burner industrial range, a hostess station, a mahogany bar lined with prattling drunks, these are the proverbial rocks to which we food professionals seem forever lashed, and those diners, those drunks, they are the eagles which feast on our livers each and every day.  Okay, so it's never really that bad, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that food professionals, to the person, often dream of leaving their places of toil.  We dream of leaving it all behind.  We dream of escape.

So imagine my delight when I was offered the chance to escape D.C. for a short weekend of work in Chicago.  The gig itself was easy, a veritable no-brainer--overseeing a Chicago caterer's wedding rehearsal dinner at the Art Institute for an erstwhile Washington client--but it represented, in the short 36 hours I was allotted in the windy city, a chance to experience all that proletarian Chicago gastronomy had to offer in the slightly askew culinary triptych of dinner, followed by breakfast and lunch, in that order.

First, to dinner.

Simply put, the history of 20th-century American cuisine is the elevation of peasant foods to haute cuisine.  Cases in point:  lobster, grits, sweatbreads, headcheese; each once the daily sustenance of the poor, the proletariate, the unwashed working classes; now all culinary staples on fine dining menus across the country.  That those cold-water crustaceans once eaten by Northeastern button-makers purely for survival called lobster are now emblematic of the gastronomic entitlement of the chattering classes has been the typical culinary trajectory of offal, organs meats, and bottom feeders everywhere.  How truly strange that the rich would now pay such extravagant sums of money to eat what, for centuries, has been the working poor's dietary effluvium.

This upended-Marxian culinary paradigm offends only when the restauranteur intentionally subverts or denies the history of a particular dish (take what was once simply corn meal, now elevated to its present shrimp-and-grits infamy) or the particular protein in question (calf's brains, for instance, or beef tongue) with his menagerie of white linen table clothes, leather-bound wine lists, haughty serving staff, and stiff, Old World cooking practices.  Take what was once shit and make me pay a king's ransom for it?  Make me think you're an innovator for serving it?  That is culinary revisionism.  And it makes douchebags of its practitioners, to the person.  But when the restaurant somehow finds a way to celebrate the humble origins of its fare, when it somehow intimates, by trick of the font used on its menus, say, or some aesthetic or visual cue that perfectly suggests that, yes, what you're about to eat was once eaten by poor people, and yes, the food on the menu was once considered detritus and dross, but man, oh man, it sure is tasty, and man, oh man, have you been missing out--then and only then does the establishment succeed in its perceived culinary freethinking while simultaneously tipping its hat to the lowly beginnings of our shared and collective culinary pasts.  Only then does that restaurant get it right.

I found such a place.  In Chicago, naturally.  One place (of several I'm sure) that celebrates crustaceans, bivalve molluscs, and stomach and intestinal lining, while making you feel both hip and sexy for the sheer act of daring of putting such things in your mouth.

The place is Publican.  At 837 West Fulton Market in Chicago's West Loop.  Imagine a Beard-award-worthy eatery unassumingly situated in a still-vital and working warehouse district, near the El tracks, and situated among slaughter houses, fish mongers, and meat markets such as the famous Columbus Quality Meats.  Imagine a dining room decorated with portraiture of the porcine figure in profile.  It's pigs everywhere you look, and it makes the mouth water, if you are disposed to reveries involving bacon and pork belly.  Be that you, friend, and surly this place will not disappoint.

My dinner companion and I were seated at the end of a long, single table, shoulder to shoulder with our fellow patrons, be they hipsters in skinny jeans, or foodies intent on photographing their every bite.  (I'll plead the fifth on that one, daddy-o.)  Service successfully approximates family style, and dishes, once ordered, are set between or among guests, who serve themselves on small, six-inch plates.

Our aperitif were, respectively, a Vander Mill Cider from Lake Spring, Michigan, for madame, and a Dreadnaught IPA from Three Floyds Brewing Company, Munster, Indiana, which, at 9.5%, rang monsieur's head like a bell.

We ordered with the open-mouthed, squinty-eyed precision of two drunks throwing darts at a tavern wall, then sat back and smiled though the din (it's a noisy, even rawkus place) and waited.  First up were the Kusshi Oysters, which were, as advertised on the menu, precious and ultra-clean.  The six we had were a small triumph.  Next up were the spicy pork rinds from Becker Lane Organic Farm, Dyerson, Iowa, which arrived in a Belgium-style metal chip cone, and which tasted not unlike the culinary love-child of a drunken piece of popcorn and a lonely, if randy, Cheeto.  Crunchy.  Mildly spicy.  Pure cracklin' glory.  Then the shrimp arrived.  Four tails and two shrimp heads (which, admittedly, I was compelled to suck), on a bed of squid ink fettucine, corn, and calabrian chilis.  This was shrimp (read:  bottomfeeders, once and proudly the food of the poor) done in understated elegance.  No showing off here.  Just simple shrimpy goodness.  Take it or leave it, it seemed to say.  Following the shrimp was what I considered the triumph of the evening:  the marinated tripe from Swan Creek Farm of North Adams, Michigan.  Tripe, the red-headed stepchild, if you will, of priggish Anglo dining habits everywhere.  Even the lowly beef liver is held in higher esteem.  And yet, with its cherry tomatoes, caperberries (the largest I've ever seen if you're into that sort of thing--ehem), oregano and manchego.  Not the best tasting dish of the night by any means, mind you, but it's the most transcendent use of tripe I've yet experienced.  Think tripe transformed into a noodle dish and there you'll have it.  This was followed by the perfectly cooked country ribs from Slagel Family Farm of Fairbury, Illinois.  Spot on with it's unapologetic presentation:  meat on a plate.  The melons, radishes and sungold tomatoes were clearly an afterthought, and rightly so.  Who needs veggies when beholding such lovely, pure meat on a plate?  They would simply complicate the matter and compromise your mission of gnawing on bones and to wear mouth painted in animal blood.  And for dessert?  Why naturally it was another round of raw oysters on the halfshell, fresh as briny as the sea itself, however unlikely that might be in metropolitan middle-America.  I'll be back to Publican.  The blood sausage is calling as is the cucussu and the boudin blanc.  And that's not a promise, Publican.  That's a threat.  Your entire right side of the menu is going down next time, chump, it's going down I say.  I'm going to eat it all.  You can bet the ranch on it.

And then there's the delicate matter of breakfast.

Where does one eat in Chicago the morning following such a glorious and unexpected dinner?  Why, Wishbone on 1001 West Washington Boulevard, also in the West Loop.  Billed as Southern Reconstruction Cooking, Wishbone delivers exactly that.  Humble, familiar breakfast favorites delivered with understated southern panache in this most northern of cities.  So maybe it wasn't the best southern breakfast I've ever had (my eggs were slightly overpoached, and well, yeah, I deserved it for being the only douchebag in the place with the arrogance to order poached--not fried--eggs during a very busy Saturday morning rush) but it was one of my most unexpected breakfasts I've had outside of the South.  I ordered the Catfish.  That's right, catfish.  The favored fish protein of generations of my Missouri-farmer forebears.  For breakfast, no less.  Pan-seared, then blackened and finished in the oven.  It came out hot and perfectly cooked.  Initially, I had had my doubts when ordering.  A frozen-cum-highly perishable piece of fish protein for breakfast during the weekend rush.  I expressed these doubts to our server, Anthony, who hailed from Louisiana, and who assured me that yes, I should order the fish, and that yes, good things were about to happen in my mouth.  Bless you, Saint Anthony, and may the breakfast gods of Southern cooking always be with you.

And then came lunch.  This was to be my last meal in Chicago this trip, so I went alone, without local guidance or insider intelligence.  I simply took the El to Lawrence Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood and starting walking south towards the Loop, looking for perfect Mexican cuisine, and, if luck would have it, the perfect taco.  This would have been a very different expedition here in my native D.C.  There are few Mexicans nationals here.  Our Latino population is largely composed of Central American immigrants and their contributions to the culinary scene here are naturally, even necessarily, devoid of the storied taco.  But the Latino population of Chicago is decidedly Mexican.  So much so, in fact, that El Presidente de Mexico will often visit Chicago before stopping off at the White House, so vital and populous is the Mexican-American population of Chicago.  So I wish I might chalk it up to something other than sheer dumb luck that I should walk into what surly must be one of the finest taquerias on the North Side of the city.  You might be forgiven if you mistook Los 3 Panchos Place at 1155 West Diversey Parkway for a coin-laundry, so unassuming and seemingly provincial is this humble culinary power house.  Walk inside and you'll find a counter and five booths in a space half the size of the typical dentist's waiting room.  A T.V. with Telemundo on it.  A crazy Mexican prostitute laughing at the cars passing by.  And she even louder than the T.V.  That's all.  Oh, and a picture of the Pope taped to the back wall.  My order was decidedly simple; I gave the cook a one-in-three chance of getting it right:  tres carne asada tacos con todo (that's three steak tacos with everything to all you pinche gringos out there) and an order of horchata, which, if you've never had the keen pleasure of throwing the stuff back, is rice-milk flavored with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla.  It's like waiting ice for the fire about to rage in your mouth.  A dip in the proverbial pool of shady sweetness.  A respite from the coming heat.  Three steak tacos are given to me with a large, clear bottle of salsa verde, a puree likely made of tomatillos and jalapenos (think tangy and hot), on a hard plastic plate.  And I get a fork.  But the tacos are minor masterpieces of culinary compression.  A small amount of grilled meat, iceberg lettuce, tomato, and queso blanco laid over two corn tortillas and dashed, by me, with green sauce.  This should not have been all that good.  It most certainly should not even approached great.  And yet, what I put in my mouth exploded with flavor.  It stunned me.  Overwhelmed me.  I found it extraordinary.  Transcendent.  I simply could not believe what I was tasting.  So I tried to isolate the component parts.  I tasted the cheese.  Good, fresh, with slight acidity to it.  The cheese bit back.  Good.  Then to the iceberg lettuce:  just your average lettuce, nothing remarkable here.  The sour cream did as sour cream does.  Cool.  But when I had isolated the steak, I knew I had found the little man behind the curtain, so to speak, for there, there was a perfectly tender, perfectly seasoned, perfectly charred piece of skirt steak.  We are talking meaty perfection here, folks.  Meat as good as meat gets.  Like ever.  In any shape, cut or form.  So I restored the taco to its former architecture, meat and lettuce and cheese stacked in that perfect order, and resumed its quiet, if ferocious, destruction.  When I had dispatched all three tacos and looked up, the Mexican hooker was staring at me, afraid to laugh, it seemed, and my arms were wet to the elbows with tomatillo sauce.

Chicago.  Three meals in thirty-six hours and not an inglorious bite of food in all that time.  Is there a better city for the proletariate palate in America?  I'll try to find one.  Believe me.  But in the meantime, I think not.  I shall return Chicago.  And I'll be bringing my appetite.

I'm coming.

Be ready.

You know who you are.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Manifesto: Mr. Anthony: Grillmaster

Manifesto: Mr. Anthony: Grillmaster: "Let's imagine you've come to this god-forsaken neighborhood for anything but food even though it's lunch time and you're really, really hung..."

Mr. Anthony: Grillmaster

Let's imagine you've come to this god-forsaken neighborhood for anything but food, even though it's lunch time and you're really, really hungry.  A stolen car, perhaps, an illegal day laborer, a fluffy quarter-ounce of that fabled Mexican parsley, a handgun, a hooker, anything but food.  It's south Arlington.  Four Mile Run Drive.  The Compton of Northern Virginia.  Nothing here suggests the fact you've stumbled into a secret culinary Brigadoon.  For lunch fare you see only the Weenie Beenie (the very same hot dog stand named on track 7 of the Foo Fighters eponymous debut album) and the Tiger Mart inside the Exxon.  Beyond that, there are only day labor sights and automotive chop shops, where cars go for VIN reassignment and a new paint job before heading south for Tijuana.  Half-smokes and beer nuts are clearly the fare du jour in this place.  But why the sudden whiff of hickory smoke?  How the impossibly dense and seemingly impenetrable plume of smoke all but obscuring the road like early-morning Tennessee fog?  How to explain the redolence of burning animal fat and brown sugar so unmistakably on the wind now?  And that's when you see Mr. Anthony (pictured left) standing there, a human colossus beside his colossal grill, and just beyond the side of the road, like some culinary warlord and prophet of smoke and fire, surrounded, Colonel Kurtz-like, by his band of gastronomic miscreants and devotees, each silent to the man.  So you park your car and go before him like some acolyte attending an oracle and point at his grill.  He lifts the lid to reveal what's underneath.  Beef ribs.  Burgers.  Homemade pork sausage.  Half-chicken on the bone.  Only meat.  No vegetables.  He's polite when he asks you what you want.  You're polite to the point of differential when you tell him you'd like one of everything.  He looks at you more closely now to see if you're fucking with him.  He decides you're not.  One of everything--ribs, chicken, sausage, a burger--it is.  He asks one of his men for a couple of styrofoam clamshells and loads them up.  You ask him how much.  He looks at you and sizes you up.  Your clothes.  Your shoes.  The car you've driven here in.  Then he names a price for the food as if pulling a number out of the sky.  It's breathtakingly inexpensive.  Way beyond cheap.  This side of free.  And this is the very moment you make an ass of yourself.  This is the moment you overreach.  You start asking him questions.  The kind of questions only a yuppie-foodie-wanna-be like you would ask.  Where he got his chicken.  The name of his rib purveyor.  Where he learned to grill.  Is the protein organic?  Does he make his own dry-rub, his own sauce?  He does you the favor of answering none of these things.  Not a single question is rejoined.  He hands you your food and a stack of paper napkins and sends you on your way.  You get as far as your car before you decide to tuck into Mr. Anthony's food.  And you are amazed at what you taste.  It's easily the best grilled chicken you've had in your life.  The.  Best.  Ever.  The ribs are beef, not pork, so no, not the best you've had, a bit tough and not parboiled, but the sausage, my god, the sausage, by way of recompense, is easily some the best you've ever put in your mouth.  So you go at your food, sans Mr. Anthony's obligatory plastic flatware, like a wild animal.  It's primal now.  Just you and your hands and your teeth tasked with ripping this incredible fire-cooked meat off the bone.  And that's when you notice people are staring.  At you.   People on bikes.  People in cars.  Watching you eat, open-mouthed, amazed.  And you are not ashamed.

Mr. Anthony and his friends cook on Saturdays, in fair weather, when the mood strikes.

I have once had the keen pleasure of Mr. Anthony's wings on a Sunday.

Look for him on Four Mile Run Drive, in Arlington, Virginia.

Probably best not to tell him I sent you.

He would only shake his head.