Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What It Means To Miss New Orleans With Chef David Guas

This is the one place I didn’t want to tell you about.  The one place I wanted kept secret.  The one place I wanted all to myself.  My fellow Gen X’ers who cut their sonic teeth on the “alternative” music of our day (re:  Black Flag, Bauhaus, Joy Division) will surely recognize the impulse:  you alone have discovered the worlds’ greatest and most obscure band, and you alone love this band so much that the very idea of anyone else listening to or even loving this same band sends you into fits of near-suicidal apoplexy.  So it is with me and Arlington’s almost impossibly wonderful Bayou Bakery.  The fifteen-year-old boy in me wants to tell you that I alone am cool enough to have ever heard of Bayou Baker, let alone actually understand the cultural and culinary greatness afoot here.  Stay away, I want to say.  Poseurs need not apply.  But asking you to stay away from Bayou Bakery is akin to me, as a teenager, first discovering Boy and asking you not to listen to U2 even though Joshua Tree is soon on it’s way.  It ain’t gonna happen.  You’re going to become a U2 fan.  You and everyone else you’ve ever known.  So it is with Bayou Bakery.  One bite of Chef/Ower David Guas’ food and you’ll be begging for backstage passes.

I well remember my first visit to Bayou Bakery.  The basket of Zapp’s potato chips atop the bakery case.  The Dr. John on the house speakers.  The smell of chicory on the laughing air.  I remember, too, each of these totems of pure Crescent City gris-gris taking me on a Wildean-sized synesthetic magic carpet ride back to my beloved Decatur Street in the French Quarter.  Just the act of standing before Bayou Bakery’s chalkboard menu, surrounded by a perfect facsimile of my favorite American city, was magical in itself.  But then came the discovery of Bayou Bakery’s food.  The thrill of finding pickled eggs (made pink by beet juice in brine) this far north.  The exquisite agony of accidently snorting an entire gram of confectionary sugar off my beignet.  Not to mention the instant and abiding man-crush I felt for David Guas upon discovering the greatest muffuletta I’ve ever tasted outside of New Orleans.  It was love.  For Guas.  For Bayou Bakey.  The kind of love leaves you wanting more.  One visit to Bayou Bakery and I was hooked.  Heavy as lead.

Call me an idiot to all things culinary.  Fine.  Brand me a food professional hack.  Cool.  Tell me I don’t shit from gastronomic Shinola.  Surely a case might be made for that.  But slander my devotion to the food of New Orleans (and all the knowledge that attends such reverence) and I’ll break your jaw (lovingly, of course).  Because I’ve been traveling to New Orleans as a culinary pilgrim my entire adult life the way an acolyte worships at the feet of an oracle.  Because I honeymooned there.  Because my brother lives in the middle 9th.   Because there is no city in North America with a richer, more storied, or more vibrant culinary tradition than New Orleans.  Nowhere else in the United States is the daily business of eating more central to workaday Americans than it is in New Orleans.  Does Chicago have anything approaching the greatness of the Po’ Boy?  Does New York have anything close of the Crescent City’s collective agreement that red beans and rice be eaten, city-wide, each and every Monday?  Does Los Angeles have anything as important to ritual or municipal pride like the King Cake?  New Orleans stands, now and forever, as the primogeniture of American culinary fusion.  African.  Spanish.  French.  Native American.  Italian.  Cajun and Creole.  It’s all still there.  Alive and kicking.  Everything that started two full centuries before gastronomic miscegenation was too cool for school and too hip to see its own feet.

So enter the 2011 advent of David Guas’ Bayou Bakery.  More than just a supremely delicious culinary destination for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Bayou Bakery is a veritable museum of New Orleans food history with a curator of living history (in the person of Guas) who has already forgotten more about the food and culture of his native Louisiana than I’ll ever be lucky enough to learn.  Conversation with Guas about the food of New Orleans is a white-knuckled joy ride at break-neck speed through such highly nuanced subjects as roux and mirepoix, tasso and file.  The dude knows his food history.  He more than knows it, actually.  He lives it.  Day in.  Day out.  That we should all be so lucky to have his job.  But lucky we are.  Because Guas cooks.  For you and me.  For all of us.  He cooks and bakes beyond what passes as merely good.  He cooks with all the proselytizing fervor of a Bible-tent revivalist intent on saving the world one lost culinary soul at a time.

Take Guas’ muffuletta:  Capicola.  Salami.  Pepperoni.  Ham.  Emmentaler and provolone.  And don’t forget the essential “olive salad.”  And all of it on perfectly crusted bread.  Invented at the French Quarter’s Central Grocery in 1906 by Sicilian grocer Salvatore Lupo, the muffuletta is the signature sandwich of New Orleans.  Get this wrong and NOLA expats and food devotees will hang you by your toes from the highest branch.  And yet Guas makes a muffuletta that is beyond good.  It’s like finding faith in one’s fellow man.  And it’s also the first thing I put in my mouth after this autumn’s Hurricane Irene left me without power (and refrigeration).   The muffuletta wasn’t merely delicious.  It was soul-cleansing.  Life-affirming.  And it should give Central Grocery cause to smile that such apostolic mission work continues here in our nation’s capital, and this far north.    

Still not convinced?  Take Guas’ unbelievably delicious sausage biscuit.  The biscuit itself, in every way flaky, moist, and perfectly Southern, is reason enough to hug the stranger at the table next to you, but the sausage, made by Washington-area charcuterie maestro Jamie Stachowski, might very well lead you to finding religion, for surely by Grace alone could sausage like Stachowski’s ever be allowed to exist.  For all the yet-unmoved agnostic hard-cases, I offer Guas’ truly transcendental bacon biscuit.  It consists of just that:  three strips of smoked bacon laid inside two biscuit halves; the perfect (and I mean perfect) culinary understatement.  Because please, dear reader, consider this next sentence with the diligence and care it deserves:  the bacon is from Benton’s in Tennessee and it is the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.  Ever.  Spike my vein and you’ll find but two substances afloat in my blood:  bacon and booze.  So when I say this is the best bacon I’ve ever tasted, I mean it’s the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.  Brothers and sisters, let me hear an amen.

For the atheistic hold-outs, or those for whom the recent frontal lobotomy is now kicking in and who still don't get it, Guas offers the perfunctory Big Voodoo Daddies of Crescent City Cuisine.  Gumbo.  Jambalaya. Grits.  Collards.  Etouffee. Hot peanuts (boiled with Benton’s bacon, no less).  Chopped pork.  It’s all here.  Not some caricature of Big Easy cuisine. This isn’t food for tourists or skinny-jeaned wannabes.  No way.  This fare is the real fucking deal.  And all of it vital and popping with the flavors of someone who grew up eating the very stuff at his grandmother’s kitchen table.  Someone who grew up knowing the best roux came in non-blonde.  Someone who might jack you up for adding file to his gumbo.

I’m now of an age to know that I must eventually destroy everything I have ever loved.  Memories of ex-girlfriends.  Mix-tape cassettes of once-obscure bands.  Nightclubs frequented long ago and for whom I still pine.  I’m the General Sherman to their Atlanta.  It’s all going down in flames.  I know this.  I know, too, that, with any luck, I’ll now have to stand in a line twenty people deep every time I visit Bayou Bakery.  But that’s okay.  Because I’m now of an age to know that something as good as Bayou Bakery must not remain secret, even if that secret has been wildly popular for Washingtonians for almost a year now.  A man of my age, now graying at the temples, should be comfortable with sitting in the corner of his favorite local eatery, listening to the 80s alt-rock playlist on his iPhone, licking confectionary sugar off his fingers, and knowing, truly and deeply, just what it means to miss New Orleans.

You’ll know David Guas when you visit Bayou Bakery.  How so?  He’ll be the handsomest man in the room.  And for the love of Baby Jesus, friends, order the muffuletta.   

Your link to Bayou Bakery:   Bayou Bakery

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Manifesto: Eating in Gas Stations - The Political Sandwich

Manifesto: Eating in Gas Stations - The Political Sandwich: Who does this? What kind of entrepreneurial madman would put an upscale eatery serving fare for wayward foodie hipsters in bespoke denim i...

Eating in Gas Stations - Part One - The Political Sandwich

Who does this?  What kind of entrepreneurial madman would put an upscale eatery serving fare for wayward foodie hipsters in bespoke denim inside a decidedly bombed out gas station situated in the gastronomic wasteland of long-troubled inner city neighborhood?  Who would do such a thing?  A fiscal self-saboteur in the final throes of, say, bladder cancer or a nasty divorce, intent on total financial shipwreck to effectively dump his empire of net worth overboard and into a roiling sea of bankruptcy?  Or would it be the Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-smelling child of privilege, some last goateed survivor of the age with elbow patches on his corduroy blazer and who is still delusional on the conviction that complimentary Wi-Fi and the free-trade coffee of pseudo-liberal self-congratulations will inspire denizens of this blighted urban ghetto to rise up in revolution?  Neither?  Both?

Restaurants, so goes the long-prevailing wisdom of food purveyance, thrive or perish not just on the savor of their fare, but where, precisely, they are located.  The ultimate success of a restaurant is based on a highly nuanced algorithm of Newtonian complexity involving foot traffic, proximity to public transportation, population density, parking, lunch traffic, real traffic, with the caprice of chance and calculus of bad or good luck thrown in to boot.  Culinary empires rise or fall on where, exactly, a restaurant peddles its fare.  Location, location, location is the maxim whispered under every restaurateur’s breath, the dictum tattooed across his soul.

Unless it’s not.  Unless the idea of the perfect location is, in fact, the worst possible location ever.  Unless shoving a high-end sandwich boutique up the ass crack of an otherwise unassuming and innocent inner city gas station is the blueprint for culinary excellence and financial triumph.  Unless you know the implicit fuck you inherent in subverting the expectations of the general eating public will act like equal parts cat nip and fish chum on hoards of local hipsters tipsy at 1AM on microbrew and happily willing to shell out fifteen bucks for a fucking sandwich.  Be the genius behind this location strategy sinisterly Machiavellian or blissfully accidental, it works.  It worked on me as it’s surely worked on thousands of others.  Because for an eater like me, like all of us, it’s not the location of a meal, but the context of a culinary experience that matters.  The success or failure of a meal is often not food-based, but situational.  Someone promising to feed me really great food in a shit hole is simply something I cannot pass up.  So on a sunny January late afternoon, I hurried to Washington’s 14th and W Streets and the woebegone Lowest Price Gas Station that stands there to see what all the foodie hipster buzz on Fast Gourmet was all about.

In my experience, the rule is this:  if you have to tell me you’re gourmet, you’re likely not.  But once inside Fast Gourmet, I understood why they might have felt compelled to err on the side of obviousness, and why they might want to drive the point home.  Because inside the dining area of Fast Gourmet, all 300-or-so square feet of it, was a perfect microcosm of all that gentrification (or so-called “urban renewal”) brings to a city.  In the rear of the dining area were gathered a dozen or so neighborhood folks, all of them African American, whom the tide of poverty and institutional inequity had beached there, back by the locked bathrooms, with no where else to go and with nothing else to do other than to watch me, some over-educated white fucker in an Italian-made camel hair coat walk up to the Fast Gourmet counter and order a $13 sandwich and a $4 Pellegrino to wash it down.  Did the presence of Fast Gourmet awaken and enliven their culinary wonder, affording access to truly wholesome and delicious foods heretofore unavailable?   Or did the advent of Fast Gourmet ruin the availability of otherwise affordable and perfectly palatable, even delicious, gas station favorites like hotdogs and pizza?  Clearly none of the local folks were here for anything but a sense of community and bodily warmth.  Yet none failed to be anything but hospitable and downright polite.  So I ordered my sandwich and sat at the rear-most table beside them all, eavesdropping on all the neighborhood gossip and quickly forgetting my own white urban neo-imperialist guilt to tackle the formidable task at hand:  devouring a sandwich nearly the size of my head.

I had ordered the El Chivito.  It was huge.  A monster.  And the unofficial national dish of Uruguay.  The El Chivito is made of beef tenderloin (pounded cutlet thin), Black Forest Ham, melted mozzarella, green olives, bacon, lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg, and an escabeche made from onion, red peppers, and garlic in olive oil.  It was delicious.  No doubt about that.  But was it thirteen dollars worth of deliciousness?  Was it dollar-for-dollar, inch-for-inch, a better sandwich than what I could grab at the local Blimpie inside the Shell station in my own neighborhood?

The ultimate decision would have to come from Amy T. of Living Social fame.  Amy just happened to come into Fast Gourmet as I was pondering this quandary.  It was a chance meeting and our first.  For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Amy’s the kind of woman for whom you stop what you’re doing to watch cross a room (that means she’s a hottie for all you sporting lads out there).  She sat at the counter opposite me and installed herself with a laptop and a Smartphone and a plate of really delicious looking food and began to encrypt her own Fast Gourmet experience into binary code.  Imagine a laughably absurd episode of Spy v. Spy and you’ve got the idea.  The irony that two “food writers” had converged on the same eatery devoid of any actual paying customers was not lost on me, nor was the hunch that I was party to everything I detested about gentrification.  I was, as usual, guilty as guilty could be.

So I decided to lighten it up a bit.  I decided to speak with Amy.  And being the smooth operator I am, introduced myself just as Amy was taking a bite of her sandwich, forcing her to answer my greeting with a mouthful of food.  She was having the lamb wrap with yogurt sauce and mint and yes, it was very, very good.

Amy smiled then and I knew the matter had been settled; the jury was in.  Fast Gourmet had been declared delicious by an industry professional whose very livelihood depended on her ability to suss out truly tasty food for an eating public perhaps too anxious or too busy to discover something like Fast Gourmet on their own.  And wasn’t cultural cross-pollination the point of this grand American experiment anyway?  Did not racial comingling and collision produce every great American and world shaping idea and art form?  Jazz?  Civil rights?  Rock ‘n roll?  Would not some ultimate good come from the influx of sudsy hipsters and khaki-wearing suburban foodie douchebags into this neighborhood?  Would they not see how others far less privileged than themselves were forced to live, with their noses pressed against the Fast Gourmet glass, forever unable to afford the deliciousness inside?  Would they not pay attention?

Or maybe I should take my cue from Amy, who is, no doubt far, far wiser than me.  Maybe sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich.  Maybe I should chill out.  Maybe I should just shut up, sit down, and fucking eat.

Your link to Fast Express is below.  Enjoy the aroma.  I know I did.



Thursday, January 12, 2012

Channeling Your Inner Che -- El Pollo Rico

So I'm late to the party yet again.  El Pollo Rico.  Every area restaurant critic or food blogger worth her salt has already made the pilgrimage.  It's now a been-there-done-that kind of food destination for the culinary pen.  It's even a notch in the iconic belt of Anthony Bourdain.  And yet, as any party-goer who has ever crushed a can of Miller Lite against his frontal lobe well knows, parties themselves run on a kind of Pynchonian entropy.  Revelers fight.  Drink themselves sick.  Throw up.  Sneak off to screw like spider monkeys.  And yet the party manages to go on, through daylight and into dark again, as if by its own phenomenological volition and the 180 beats per minute coming from the overheated sub-woofer of the shared and collective soul.  And so seems to be the case with Arlington, Virginia's never-say-die and always-terrific El Pollo Rico.  Washington-area streets remain abuzz to this day, years into El Pollo Rico's hugely successful run, with tales of the proverbial gastronomic three-kegger that just won't quit and reports of chicken so good that even the stuffiest of gastronomes are reduced to behaving like frat boys bereft of their emotional equilibrium and pride.

The parking lot of El Pollo Rico is a study in Keatsian negative capability.  It's a shit hole that smells like heaven.  A blacktopped ruin that simultaneously repulses and attracts.  And likely cheapest date to free you of all epistemological bounds short of the famed "happy ending" you are ever likely to have.  It's seriously choked with traffic, the noon of my visit, and blighted with a whirling Charlie-don't-surf density of haze that smells exactly like charcoal and melted chicken fat, and which hits the brain like olfactory crack and makes you want to rip animal flesh off bones with your bare teeth.  It smells in I go.

Entering El Pollo Rico is no less vexing.  It's like to walking into a Foo Fighters show the precise moment Chris Shiflett decides to shred his lead through a stack of Marshall amps.  It's an auditory shit show that throws you off balance.  A din that keeps you dizzy.  There's the hiss of a hundred cooking chickens.  The roar of happy patrons.  The constant and unending pounding of a meat cleaver splitting chicken bones on a butcher's block.  And Spanish.  Lots of it.  Everywhere.  A parade of incessant noise.

This might explain how a guy like me, now hardly a neophyte in divining strange, even esoteric  culinary mojo, could stand slack-jawed before a menu sign, offering a single protein and two sides in perfectly legible English, and ask the middle-aged Peruvian pelon in front of me what I should eat.

The Peruvian looks at me like I am drunk or high or just plain fucking with him.  Deciding none of these scenarios is in play, he frowns and shakes his head.  It's a frown of pity.

"The chicken," he says.  "You order the chicken.  Dios mio."

It's so loud I can hardly make out what he says.

On my comrade's advice, I order a whole chicken with French fries (fried yucca is not offered) with a Mexican Coca-Cola and Inca Cola (imagine drinking bubble gum) to wash it down.  I do so in Spanish evidently so terrible that the young man behind the counter wielding the butcher's cleaver feels compelled to mention that in no way does my Spanish fail to suck.  I pay in cash (it cost less than twenty bucks), take a table in back, and tuck into my meal.

My understanding of how El Pollo Rico prepares their chicken is this:  they bathe their chicken in a top-secret marinade of Peruvian spices smuggled through customs in body cavities (I joke), then skewer the chicken on a large rotisserie, and finally roast the chicken over open-flame charcoal.  When the chicken is cooked, it's removed from the skewer and hacked by some erstwhile grammarian into four steaming, succulent sections.  The chicken is plated on styrofoam and paired with two sauces, one a kind of perky, yellow mayonnaise, and another of what I guessed to be a puree of jalepeno peppers and salt.

What comes of this preparation and open-flame cooking goes well, well beyond a simple kegger in one's mouth.  It is the food of South American revolution.  The stuff that can still oust tyrants, topple dictators, and set whole populations of the proletariate to riot with the desire to have something this rico, this amazing on their tables every night.  It is chicken that asks you to rise up and take back (gastronomically speaking) what is rightfully yours.  And so I take it down.  Section by section.  Bone by bone.  An entire roasted chicken dispatched with a simple one-two combination of my top incisors and my bare hands.  And when I look up from the carnage, people are pretending not to stare.  Except the Peruvian pelon.  He stares openly and smiles across the dining room as if to say he now understands I'm not the idiot he's taken me for after all, I'm just a lost gringo soul looking for a South American culinary flag to march behind.  But find it I have.  At 932 North Kenmore Street in Arlington, Virginia.  El Pollo Rico.  Revolutionaries they are, and revolutionaries to the man.

So I smile back at my newest bald friend, as if in benediction, as if to say viva revolucion, or, as it translates in American English, party on, dude.  Better late to the party than never, I say.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Manifesto: Questing Carolina -- Searching For (and Finding) t...

Manifesto: Questing Carolina -- Searching For (and Finding) t...: Writing about barbecue is like writing about religion: no matter how unitarian your embrace of all forms of smoked protein, no matter how p...

Questing Carolina -- Searching For (and Finding) the Perfect Barbecue

Writing about barbecue is like writing about religion:  no matter how unitarian your embrace of all forms of smoked protein, no matter how pantheistic your remarks on the virtues of tomato and vinegar-based sauces, your views will deeply offend someone's barbecue orthodoxy.  You will be labeled a heretic.  Called out for apostasy.  Pelted with binary stones for culinary blasphemy.  Because barbecue is not merely some form of cuisine, nor is it simply some ancient cooking method perfectly suited for breaking down proteins, melting fat, and imparting the flavor of smoke.  No, barbecue is, for some, a way of life.  So let me say I adore all the high parishes and priests of the barbecue world.  Kansas City.  Memphis.  Texas.  Cows.  Pigs.  Yard birds.  Each and all have a special place in my heart.  But it's Carolina barbecue, specifically eastern Carolina pig, with its exquisite sauce of hot and tangy vinegar, that keeps this eater up nights, my dreams of pork shoulder borne up on imaginary whiffs of hickory smoke.

My mission was simple:  eat barbecue twice over two days in eastern North Carolina.  The only rule:  recommendations on where to eat cannot be culled from self-proclaimed "expert" internet sources, but must come from the mouths of locals in purely anecdotal form.  Sounds simple, right?  I knew from earlier trips through the Carolinas that the sheer ubiquity of barbecue is in no way a guarantee of quality pig.  Like all places hallowed for a specific culinary thing, the Carolinas have their share of culinary grifters and flim-flam men all too happy to peddle sub-par pig to any poor sucker with out-of-state plates.

First stop was the truly marvelous Bar-B-Que House Restaurant in the coastal town of Oak Island, North Carolina.  Situated in the extreme south-eastern corner of the state and literally a stone's throw from the Oak Island barrier beach, Bar-B-Que House first appeared as one of those sand-front food establishments I'm so deeply leery of; the kind of place that could easily be ignored by the 6,500 Oak Island locals, but kept flush by the nearly 50,000 sun-loving tourists that flock to the island in the summer months.  The kind of place that could offer little more than deep-fried sewer rat and still keep its ownership in an unending succession of Cadillac SUVs.  And yet every local I spoke with in Oak Island and neighboring Southport insisted Bar-B-Que House was the real deal.  So on a bleak winter weekday afternoon (nothing quite kills a lunch rush like weather) I ventured in and was nothing short of astonished at what I found.

The place was packed.  And loud.  One might even say rowdy.  What had just happened, I wondered?  Was I suddenly no longer in the staid and sleepy South? Did I just unwittingly step through a magical door and somehow end up in South Boston following a Red Sox game?  No, the signs and signifiers of the old South were very much represented.  Cammo vests.  Clasp knives on belts.  Hats adorned with the Stars and Bars. These were all true Southern locals, my kind of culinary people, and they were all clearly juiced on the kind of high that only sweet tea and barbecued pig can produce.  So I sat in a booth and ordered from my delightful server the epic Grand Daddy Combo Platter (that's three meat choices for you keeping score at home) of chopped pork, pork ribs, and smoked chicken.  Accompanying this carnage were four sides:  red slaw, collard greens, hush puppies with honey butter, and what turned out to be the  piece de resistance, the deep fried corn on the cob.

No sooner had my food arrived that I beheld what for me was a truly astonishing sight.  At my table were all three varieties of Carolina barbecue sauce. I realize that most barbecue newbies will fail to recognize this as the kind of culinary apocalypse, the gastronomic big one, that, to barbecue aficionados this surely must represent.  To explain:  when one enters the Carolina barbecue world as an aspiring aficionado, a self-annointed expert, one is asked, implicitly, to pick a favorite, to choose sides, to swear unwavering allegiance to one of the three Carolina-style sauces pictured left:  Lexington (cider vinegar), Eastern (cider vinegar with more heat), or South Carolia-style (vinegar and mustard).  And once you pick a sauce style, you must defend it tooth-and-nail to the bitter, bitter end.  Think of barbecue culture like a bad prison movie:  chose your homeboys, chose your inside gang, or be left out in the prison yard like buzzard food.  Me, I'm devotedly an Eastern sauce kind of guy, but I was secretly delighted--even thrilled--to see all three styles represented.  It was an act of culinary daring, (imagine the fate of the jailbird foolish enough to ask the Nazi ganglord just why can't everyone just simply get along) and just when I was sure no one was looking, I sauced my food with all three.  The pork ribs were fantastic: pink with wood smoke and falling off the bone.  The chicken was good, a solid, solid offering.  But the chopped pork was truly magnificent.  Almost as good as Carolina pork gets.  And a true show stopper.  Or nearly.

Because once I had dispatched the meat, I moved on to the sides.  The red slaw was made of finely chopped cabbage and flavored with a perfect balance of vinegar and catsup.  The collards contained enough bacon to be considered a pork dish.  But the deep fried corn on the cob was transcendental--boiled, no doubt, before being deep fried.  What emerged from the fryer was corn no longer.  What had started out as corn had come out as caramelized golden goodness.  Something you offer to the spirits of the dead as the best of what we mere mortals can produce.

After a meal like this, dessert is a non starter.  A no go.  All of the available internal real estate has been used up.  As in:  no vacancies, dude.  But something told me to order the cobbler and the banana pudding.  While the cobbler was quite tasty, it was the pudding that blew me away.  It was nothing like anything I had ever tasted.  It resembled pudding in almost no way.  So I asked the manager for the recipe and was told it's a closely guarded secret.  If I had to guess, the pudding was a delightfully baffling mixture of sliced bananas, sour cream, Cool Whip, and powdered vanilla pudding.  But Whatever is in the stuff, the banana pudding was pure sugary magic and I ate every last bite.

As with any truly great restaurant experience, I was strangely sad when the meal was over and the check delivered.  I simply wanted to keep eating all afternoon long.  But we know that's not how it works, especially with barbecue.  One must quite while one's ahead and simply walk away.  But as I paid my bill and picked my teeth, I knew with absolute certainty that dish for dish, pig for chicken, sauce for sides, my meal at Bar-B-Que House was the best barbecue restaurant experience I've yet to have.  Bar-B-Que house has got it down.  And they reign supreme.  I'll be back to lovely Oak Island, my Bar-B-Que House friends, and I'll be ordering the Grand Daddy Platter.  Just please don't tell anyone about the sauce.  My Eastern-sauce homeboys will surely shank me.

Stop two on my Carolina quest took me to Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina, roughly two hours northwest of Oak Island and in the porcine heart of barbecue country.  Wilber's sits at the edge of Goldsboro and is far enough off the beaten culinary path that the curious stares I received upon entering reminded me, small-town Missouri boy I am, of how effectively a well-timed glower can make a well-meaning out-of-town visitor feel like an unwanted outsider.  Perhaps there would be little love for me here at Wilber's, I thought, but isn't that what questing is all about?  Surmounting the stones in one's pathway?  Keeping the hellhounds off one's own trail?  Every great ancient myth surely reminds us of one thing:  the greater the obstacle, the greater the reward.  So I sallied forth, humming a Robert Johnson tune the whole way.

Wilber's Barbecue is vast and very nearly the size of a German beer hall.  On the late-afternoon, post-lunch rush occasion of my visit, it was still crowded, in sections, with the kind of locals one finds only in North Carolina, the kind who don't smile, even when tickled.  Southern hospitality might very well have stopped outside Wilber's door, but I remained undaunted.  Until I met my waitress.

As luck would have it, I had for my waitress an elderly Asian woman from an indeterminate country of origin, who sat next to me at my table, leaned in close, shoulder to shoulder, with fish oil on her breath, and who seemed to be learning English from what she could glean from Wilber's luncheon menus.  Poor lady.  The menu itself was strangely limited.  In its English.  In its culinary destinations.  It did offer a few essential and expected proteins (pig, chicken livers and gizzards, oysters, Brunswick stew) and the usual sides of greens, potato salad, and cole slaw.  Everything about the menu seemed to point in one direction only: pig.  So I ordered just that, chopped pork paired with roast chicken.  My sides would be green beens, hushpuppies, and slaw.  My tea would be sweet enough to induce Type II diabetes (not to mention rendering my vinyl table cloth sticky as fly paper).   I had ordered unsweet tea, but hey, the devil is in the details, and may not always speak English.

My food arrived just in time.  My fellow luncheoneers kept shooting me the Carolina stink eye, and I wasn't exactly made to feel welcome there, though only now do I realize that a VW driving, yuppie uberdouche from D.C. intent on photographing everything he sees or eats with a white iPhone deserves every nasty look he takes on the chin.  I smiled at my food and tasted my sides first:  the slaw was made from finely chopped cabbage, mayo, vinegar, and something (likely food coloring) that had turned it an iridescent green, and the green beans were unevenly cut and full of vine stems--good things, really, that indicate someone actually cooked this food on site instead of simply warming a can of foodstuff from food-devil Cisco.  Next I tasted the chicken.  It was perfectly roasted and tender and topped with a yellowish-orange gravy that seemed to be made of poultry pan drippings and cider vinegar.  The gravy was strange and rich and good.  All of Wilber's food was good, actually.  Really good.  Especially the gravy.

Lastly, I tasted the chopped pork.  I don't know what made me eat it last, or why the culinary cosmos would speak to me in such strange and unexpected ways.  But Wilber's chopped pork was, without question, the best chopped pork I've ever put in my mouth.  THE.  BEST.  EVER.  This is not hyperbole, folks.  This is not some jerk-off food blogger correcting an otherwise questionable food experience by writing false epiphany into an untrue happy ending.  No, this was it.  This was the best barbecue of my life.  The best and most perfectly seasoned pork dish I've ever eaten.  The most perfectly smoked piece of meat I'd ever put my mouth.  More telling perhaps:  Wilber's was the only chopped pork I've ever come across that made me know that saucing the meat would be an act of self-sabatage and a crime against all that was holy and good in the world.  How could this be possible, I wondered?  How could such an idiosyncratic place like Wilber's produce something so delicious, so truly amazing, that it would make me want to sing its praises from high atop the binary mountaintop to whomever could be troubled to listen?

I waved my elderly Asian waitress over and asked her the same question.  She smiled with perfect understanding.

"More sweet tea," she said.  "Coming right up."

I paid my bill, bought some of Wilber's bottled sauce, and rushed outside to follow a sudden impulse.  This impulse took me all the way behind Wilber's Barbecue and to a gravel lot between the restaurant and an adjacent cornfield.  There it was, dear readers.  There was my answer.  And in a great halo of hickory smoke.  There was the great barbecue oracle foretelling all things truly great about Wilber's pork had I only the insight to investigate its tellings before sitting down to eat.

It was Wilber's smokehouse.  It's where the magic happened.  The Mount Olympus where the barbecue gods lurked.  And I was awestruck.  I was truly amazed.  I had found the holy barbecue grail. At Wilber's no less.

Your link to Bar-B-Que House:
The Bar B Que House - Best BBQ on the Beach

Your link to Wilber's Barbecue:

Barbecue, Wilber's Barbecue Home

And love them both for what they truly are: culinary treasures.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Heart New York Pizza, If Only Elsewhere, And In the Deep American South

Heartbreak in life is inevitable.  As is the fact that everything you ever believed in or thought was true will eventually be debunked, shat on, and revealed as the sham it always was.  Evidence Santa Claus.  The Easter bunny.  The sparkling promise of the Obama presidency.  Lies, all of it.  And all of it, the opposite of true.  So how did I ever make it this far in life with the silly belief that Italians made the best pizza?  I've lived in Chicago.  I've stalked New York like a jealous ex-boyfriend.  I've eaten hundreds, nay thousands, of slices of the greasy stuff in that dark and often drunken and inevitable 3AM of the soul, and believed with soul-shuddering conviction that all the truly great pizza I had put in my mouth was made by some fresh-off-the-boat paisan who wore a gold St. Christopher medallion around his neck and loved his elderly Turino-born mother just a little too much.  So imagine my astonishment when I discovered what was some of the best pizza of my life in a Wilmington, North Carolina, pizzeria named I Heart New York Pizza (owned by a Greek named Yani, no less) and made by a Salvadoran cook named Herbert.  Yes, Herbert.  You would have likely had a better chance at reviving my belief in the Tooth Fairy than convince me guys with names like Yani and Herbert could be producing some of the best pizza in North America.  And yet, that's precisely what they are doing at I Heart New York Pizza, and doing it daily, and oh-so very, very well.

The sad truth is that before my recent encounter with I Heart New York Pizza, I did not heart pizza at all.  In fact, I kind of hated the stuff.  Not because pizza ever failed to be delicious, or even, if more rarely, something that approximated culinary salvation for an intemperate soul.  It was that pizza seemed a simpleton's food.  The proverbial white flag of culinary surrender.  What is pizza, after all?  Red sauce.  Dough.  Cheese.  Some combination of vegetable or protein topping.  And something you ate when too drunk or tired to seek the truly transcendental.  It was kid food.  It was food for the despondent.  The bored.  The cerebrally impaired.  Or so I thought until a winter's late-afternoon need for a snack brought me off Wilmington's Front Street and into the culinary wheelhouse of Herbert and Yani, and their magic dough.

It was not love at first sight.  I Heart New York Pizza requires the eater to choose from an ever-changing variety of pizzas cooked at some point in the recent (or not so) past, left to sit at room temperature and under glass for god-knows-how-long, then returned to a thousand-degree pizza oven for a reheat just prior to eating.  In New York, this is the gig, par for the course, but in the American South it was strangely vexing.  And then there's the matter of Yani himself.  He's clearly calling the shots here, the swinging dick, and he will finish whatever task he's set out to dispatch before acknowledging your presence in any way, let alone taking your order.  I stood in front of the pizza case a good two-to-three minutes, feeling stupid every second of it, before Yani could be bothered to take my order.  But when he did turn and face me, when he did look into my eyes and favor me with that fleeting, Greek smile, it was if the sun had suddenly appeared from behind a cloud and the world was golden again and a place where possibilities did indeed abound.

I ordered three slices.  The Rio Rancho.  The Lasagna.  The Sausage and Pepperoni.  Each slice was somehow better than the last.  The Rio Rancho was a strange fusion of ricotta, bacon, and ranch dressing.  The lasagna also boasted ricotta, but with the welcome addition of meatballs and mozzarella.  As for the sausage and pepperoni, it was a straight-forward, no frills, in-your-face amalgam of mozzarella and pepperoni, but the sausage was akin to gyro meat and delightfully strange when paired with the pepperoni.  Nothing in these ingredients suggests anything approaching culinary greatness, I know, but somehow each slice was far, far greater than the sum of its parts.  So I finished all three enormous slices and returned to the counter to order two slices more.  Yani had evidently just left for the day, so I ordered from the delightful Herbert, who informed me my Buffalo Chicken pizza was good to go, but that he had no White pizza at present and would make me one on the spot.

So I watched Herbert roll out the dough, then toss it into the air with all the breezy, if masterful, nonchalance you'd expect from some expert pizza maker from Naples, not El Salvador.  Herbert told me he had been making pizza, professionally, since arriving from Salvador, several years before, and that he now believed he had finally discovered what people wanted in pizza, the acidity of the red sauce, the bite of the cheese, and which combination of ingredients made his pizza truly delicious, even surprising, and always popular with the Wilmington locals.

I told Herbert the fact I was about to consume five colossal slices of some food I previously hated might very well suggest that his pizza was more than simply delicious; it was remarkable, even special.  A gift from the culinary gods.  Herbert accepted the compliment with laughter and a smile.  But he grew serious, downright contemplative, when asked what, in his opinion, made his pizza so goddamned good.  Herbert raised his chin.  He narrowed his eyes.  He put his forefinger on his lips and nodded.

"It's the water," he said, finally.  "The water in the dough.  It comes from the river.  The river is magic."

An hour before, I had seen two alligators swimming in the same river of which Herbert now spoke.  So magic the river must be.  I returned to my booth, already full from my previous slices, and managed to take down my pizza with the finger-licking ferocity of a man who hadn't eaten in a week.  And yes, I even ate the crust.  But as I was leaving, a panhandler came into the store.  He was the same dread-wearing, hippy-love-shit kind of a guy, whom I had seen earlier begging for spare change on his all-too-dubious mastery of the African finger-piano.  He came into I Heart New York Pizza and laid down three dollars worth of small change for a single slice of Herbert's amazing pizza.  And as I watched him spill his dirty money across Yani's counter, asked myself this:  would I lay down my last three dollars on a single slice of Herbert's cheesy deliciousness?  That's a no-brainer.  The answer arrived in a nano-second:  Yes, emphatically, yes.

Yani and Herbert can likely be found most days at 28 North Front Street in Wilmington, North Carolina.  I will likely be found there most Federal holidays when I've ventured to visit the bizzaro Carolina low-country and my not-Italian mother.  You should know me on sight.  I'll be the guy hating myself for loving this pizza so much.  And I'll be sitting in the back booth with pizza grease on my chin, licking my fingers, yearning for more.