Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fire Walk With Me - The Adana Burger at Balkan Grill

Let's consider the hamburger, shall we?  The average American consumes over 230 pounds of the stuff a year.  Be it the evil, ammonia-drenched, feces-covered 99 cent shit served out of the typical drive-thru window, or the truly good stuff from Wagyu stock, bathed in beer its whole life and routinely serviced by a Geisha’s right hand, then sold, later, in trendy burger joints for upwards of $25 a pop, gastronomy in America, or whatever it is we call the daily business of cooking and eating, would, for most, be unthinkable, a strange and alien culinary landscape, a place truly un-American.  So what happens when our national dish goes abroad?  What becomes of the burger in, say, Europe?  Does it travel the continent like some well-meaning but dimwitted Jamesian waif, the victim of incessant ridicule, the object of depthless contempt, a symbol of all that is wrong with America?  Or is it something else?  Does the hamburger go abroad like a culinary assassin and rogue agent of the American empire, secretly warring upon centuries of European culinary tradition, and loosed upon the continent like some gonzo-gastro Colonel Kurtz armed with trans-fats, intent on making everyone fat, dumb, and happy?

I once lived in Europe.  I lived there just long enough to discover that everywhere (and I mean everywhere) I went, there would be hundreds of white-shoed, khaki-pants-and-fanny-pack wearing Americans lined up twenty-deep beneath the Golden Arches of, say, Paris, Amsterdam, or Oxford, clamoring for a taste of Omaha, shouldering their way forward for a whiff of old Debuque.  To this day I can’t decide if my fellow travelers sought Big Macs as a panacea for being homesick, or if their ruin as eaters was already complete.  Were they intimidated by the culinary unknown, or had Ronald already had his way with them?  Were they the psychologically damaged suckers who identified with their abusers as described in psychology’s proto-Freudian object relations theory?  Or was it more simple than that?  Was it just that these Americans were the typical monoglots who go abroad too frightened to order off menus printed the local language?  Were they, as eaters, forever lost?

Seeing a young American wolf down Royale Deluxe (that’s a Royale with Cheese for all you Pulp Fiction fans out there) on the Champs-Elysees broke my heart.  That was it for me and the hamburger for a while.  We were done.  Officially broken up.  Friends no more.  I didn’t eat ground meat in pressed or patty form the rest of my time in Europe.  And that’s too bad.  Because there is a long and still-vital tradition of European hamburger making (and eating) in the Old World.  And no, I’m not talking about the tradition of Hamburg Steak from the 17th Century (the Germans are on their own here).  I’m talking about the amazingly varied and truly delicious tradition of meat in patty form that is the cornerstone of streetfood in Balkan cuisine.

I now know about Balkan burgers only because a sudden culinary whim brought me into Alexandria’s delightful Balkan Grill to have me staring at an illustrated menu featuring not one, but two burgers deeply rooted in the Balkan streetfood tradition.  Only these pucks of delicious protein are not called hamburgers in Bosnian.  They’re called pljeskavica and are traditionally made of mixed ground meats, then grilled or fried, and served between what Americans would call a bun, but which Serbs call lipinja, and more resembles pita bread in gluten content than, say, does that Sunbeam bun you grew up with.  The pljeskavica is traditionally served with raw onions, peppers, tomatoes, and something magical called kaymak, and which, to Americans, will resemble sour cream on first glance, but which resembles, when tasted, crème fraiche or clotted cream.

This first pljeskavica was billed on the menu as the Bosnian Burger.  Below the Bosnian Burger was pictured something called the Adana Burger, beside which was handwritten the word HOT in ball-point pen.  I knew that Adana was a city southern Turkey not particularly prominent on the Southeastern European culinary map, but the promise of a spicy burger (even hot) intrigued me so much that I ordered it and a second dish called borek (fillo pastry stuffed with cheese) just in case the burger should somehow disappoint.  The proprietor took my order with Old World formality and retreated to the kitchen, leaving me alone to wait.

Balkan Grill is a neighborhood joint in my very own neighborhood of Alexandria south, as it just so happens.  Alexandria’s “hood,” if you will.  Balkan Grill is located in a strip mall that I’ve only patronized when my thirst for a late-night beer outweighs the likelihood that I’ll have to fistfight some hard-case at the local 7-11 beercase (more on that later).  The restaurant itself is tiny, designed for take-away, and seats six on a good day.  But it’s bright and clean and really everything you’d ever want in a local eatery.  There was a reach-in fridge full of soft drinks set next to a nearly sold-out pastry case of homemade-looking Bosnian/Turkish pastry.  Balkan Grill is conjoined to the equally surprising Euro Foods market, which offers all the Occidental canned, bottled, and wrapped exotics you’d hope to find in a European sundry.  I might have walked past Balkan Grill everyday in my six years here in the hood, but others far wiser than I have clearly not made the same mistake.  In my brief time at Balkan Grill, there was a steady stream of Bosnian-speaking and Russian-speaking luncheoneers, all of them women, all of them in search of an American husband were the tightness of their jeans any harbinger of their intent.  That Balkan Grill was on the radar of European expatriates jonesing for the taste of home seemed a very good sign indeed.

And one look at my food as it came out and I knew why Balkan Grill was a favorite among the Southeastern European crowd.  Before me were two huge plates of food.  One with a monster borek on it.  The other with the biggest hamburger I have ever seen.  The Adana burger was huge.  Colossal.  As big around as the top of my head.  It was presented as promised:  a meat patty of epic proportions laid between two slices of lipinja and garnished on the side with raw onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and a large dollop of kaymak.  I looked at the Adana burger, then at the two pretty tight-jeaned Bosnian nationals waiting for their food.  They winked at me and smiled and nodded me on like some fool about to plunge over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel, so I picked up my mammoth burger and took a bite.

Before I describe the Adana, a confession:  when it comes to hot food, I’m that guy.  I’m the guy who carries a bottle of Tabasco in his professional bag of tricks to enliven the staff meal I receive at the end of every event I supervise.  I drown my shift meal in hot sauce both to enliven my food and send my chefs into fits of apoplectic rage.  So I know my heat.  I’ve got the Scoville Scale tattooed on my culinary soul.

The heat I encountered in the Adana burger was, in a word, incendiary for a puck-shaped piece of ground protein.  It lit a fire in my mouth.  It called tears into my eyes.  It made me run for that cooling dollop of kaymak the way a frightened child runs for his mother.  The kaymak worked like magic.  Out went the flames.  And with the fire in my mouth extinguished, I was better able to detect spices in the meat which were unfamiliar but which hinted at the seasoning found in American breakfast sausage.  So I took another bite.  And another.  And another.  And as any heat-junkie well knows, food this hot only compels the eater to consume more and more.  It’s the white-knuckled rush of eating hot food.  That fabled endorphin high.  I ate and ate until my belly was distended, until I was wet as a long-distance runner in July, until the mighty Adana burger was no more than a memory on my plate.  The two Bosnian girls looked at me, rolled their eyes, and laughed.  Only a Bosnian fool would have me as a husband.  Ha ha ha.

Twelve years in the world of haute cuisine has taught me to believe that I know a helluva lot about food.  One late-winter’s visit to the truly excellent Balkan Grill has taught me that I know virtually nothing.  It has taught me there are untold numbers of age-old culinary traditions out there in the great wide world just waiting to be encountered by culinary enthusiasts like me.  As luck would have it, I always travel with my appetite; I’m always hungry for more.  Consider the hamburger.

Your link to Balkan Grill: Balkan Grill

And yeah, the borek was delicious.  Meet me there and I'll bring the beer.  Promise.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Finding Religion With the (New) Luther - Breakfast at ChurchKey

There are, we know, two kinds of eaters in this world.  There is the deus ex machina, you-are-what-you-eat variety, who regards the human machine as sacrosanct, as a corporeal temple in the ad maiorem gloriam sense, and whose food consumption is wholly (if angrily) based on a differential calculus of sphincter-puckering complexity wherein derivatives such as nutritional content, sustainability, and ethical harvesting and/or slaughter methods determine the function of whether that Twinkie he is so deeply jonesing for gets shoved into his sanctimonious gobhole, or not.  And then there’s the other kind of eater.  The kind like me.  The kind who believes that within the great bosom of the world beats the heart of assassin, that we’re all just food for worms (the old king-that-ate-of-the-fish-that-ate-of-the-worm-that-now-eats-of-the-king ouroboros of Shakespearian logic thang), and that we’re all just polishing the brass on the Titanic before it goes down.  The kind of eater whose world-weariness and fatalism turns him into a gastronomic bon vivant, a lamp shade-wearing, Hunter S. Thompson-styled fuck-it-I’ll-eat-it kind of omnivore willing consume pretty much anything I come across as long as it wasn’t first tazed or tortured or doused in ammonia or purveyed by a king or laughing clown.

For this kind of eater (and if you’re reading this, that’s likely you) I have the breakfast sandwich for you, friend-o.  It’s the New Luther at Washington, D.C.’s magnificent ChurchKey.  There’s just one catch:  it’s not on the menu (you have to ask your server for it).  And it’s only available on Sunday from Noon to 8PM.  But you already knew that, didn’t you, eh hipster?

In it’s original form (whose progenitor, legend has it, is Mulligan’s bar in Decatur, Georgia), the Luther, named for singer Luther Vandross, is an all-beef patty topped with bacon and sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme donuts.  At ChurchKey, the New Luther is decidedly more haute and high-rent.  At ChurchKey, pieces of boneless, buttermilk fried chicken replace the beef burger, the bacon goes uptown with an applewood smoke, and the Krispy Kremes are replaced with two house-made brioche donuts, glazed with maple-chicken jus, and topped with pecans.  Think of it as a bold new riff on the chicken-and-waffles Southern flavor combinations, with salty and sweet doing those naughty things they do so well together.  The chicken is perfect.  The buttermilk comes through magnificently with a lovely bite of black pepper right behind it.  The bacon is wonderfully smoky.  The brioche is perfectly unsweet behind the perfectly pitched goodness of the maple glaze.  (And all this paired with a truly lovely breakfast stout).  One bite of the New Luther and you’ll likely blush.  And you didn't think you could do that anymore, did you?  Blush, that is.

You could go to ChurchKey for any of their 550 beers from over 30 countries.  You could go to ChurchKey for any of their 50 beers they offer on draught.  You could go to ChurchKey for the 5 cask-conditioned ales they keep in constant rotation.  But you won’t.  You’ll go for the New Luther.  The best breakfast sandwich in America.  Says me.  And you’ll go for the London Calling-era Clash aplay on the in-house system.  And the Lipitor endorsement deal that is surely in your post-New Luther future.

Your link for ChurchKey:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Eating in Gas Stations Part Two - The Taco Bar

Let’s call this the turducken business model for culinary success.  To wit:  if stuffing a chicken into a duck and inside a turkey gives us turducken, then surely stuffing a taco bar into a liquor store and inside a gas station offers us the same misguided entrepreneurial portmanteau that is Taco Bar.  Situated inside a drab and perfectly unremarkable W Express gas station and set contiguous to the Lube Center and your typical soul-sucking suburban strip sprawl, Taco Bar is a culinary dead zone, a no-one-here-gets-out-alive kind of place, beautifully bad, surely, but deliciously devoid of hipster irony and foodie scenester self-congratulations inherent in discovering the worst restaurant location ever, which, following the inverted sentential logic on which our hipster Bizarro Food World now runs, makes it the best restaurant location ever.  But this is Gaithersburg, Maryland.  A place where coolness crawls off to curl up and die.  How better for a restaurateur to attract the culinary life-blood of foot traffic than to locate his business at the great American confluence of petroleum and booze.  Surely the happy motorist, suddenly finding himself peckish, is equally inclined to order the taqitos fritos as is a pro-card-carrying booze hound well into his two-day bender intent on shoving as much choriqueso into his gobhole to keep his blood-alcohol ratio under that magical .08.   It’s pure genius.  It’s so wrong that it’s somehow right.  It’s also why on a cold February day with better things to do I would drive over an hour to a “city” I abhor to eat a fucking gas station taco.

The idea of pairing restaurants and gas stations is old as motoring itself.  The advent of the automobile is arguably the single most important event in American gastronomy since the advent of refrigeration.  It’s the culinary Big Bang of the early 20th Century.  Cars have determined how we eat.  Where we eat.  What we eat.  The idea that road food should not be both delicious and healthful is the cultural blight and condition of late-modernity whose proliferation I blame on those culinary Evil Empires who dispatch black-hearted henchman disguised as kings and clowns to peddle their fecal-infused shit burgers to children while simultaneously dumbing-down the collective culinary IQs of young Americans and saddling them with the burden of carrying Type II diabetes to an early grave.  Some of the greatest meals of my life have been eaten inside gas stations.  I shit you not.  There was the best cheeseburger of my life (so far) in that Bucksnort, Tennessee, Shell station.  The best menudo I’ve ever put in my mouth courtesy of that combination gas station/laundromat in south Phoenix.  Food that enlivens the inner Neal Cassidy road warrior in every American motorist and which sets our highways ablaze with eaters made happy by truly great gas-n-go culinary achievement.   

Taco Bar of Gaithersburg, Maryland, is such a magical place.  Park your car past the petrol pumps, walk inside liquor store crowded with wine bottles, and you’ll find of Washington’s tiniest and most unlikely culinary treasures.  I ordered six tacos.  That’s one of every taco that Taco Bar offers con horchata to wash it all down.  I was soon given a single, white styrofoam plate, on which all six tacos were laid out, concentrically, with laudable aesthetic aptitude, resulting in wrist-spraining heft.  If meat is murder, as a cherished band of my youth alleges, then I was the Charles Manson to this carnage of what was surely a three-pound meat massacre.

Taco Bar emphatically avows strict attendance to a purely Mexican taco making orthodoxy (it calls itself Fast Mexican Food, no less), but what I received was more Salvadoran than Mexican in that my six different proteins were laid atop their twelve corn tortillas (double-ply, yo) naked of any cheese or sour cream or salsa.  The lovely matron who took my order directed me to the Fixin’s Bar (to co-opt the parlance of the Roy Rogers burger joints of my youth) and invited me to partake of complimentary salsas and peppers.  I declined.  I took the naked meat before me as a sign.  A dare, in fact.  For here were food purveyors bold enough not to hide behind the fake beards and Grocho noses of condiments and customer-driven seasoning.  So I picked up my plastic fork and dug in.  (The tacos pictured below were later hired at Taco Bar as body-doubles for that all-important money shot required of this exercise in food porn.)

I expected my first taco to be my least favorite.  Pollo.  Chicken.  The protein of the uninspired eaters and cooks alike and usually a culinary yawn.  But no.  Oh, no.  This chicken was marvelously seasoned, with notes simultaneously hinting at heat and sweet.  And it was delightfully rico, rich, with a true depth of flavor.  It was also tender and moist.  Nothing in the protein was overcooked enough to bite back.  It was a small, quiet triumph and a harbinger of better things to come.

Taco numero dos was the only offering that left me indifferent to the culinary good things at hand.  It was the bistec, the grilled skirt steak, cubed to the verge of being minced, and the only protein at Taco Bar I found under-seasoned and overcooked.  A bit of a culinary snooze fest.  Something I could move beyond and remain untroubled by my decision to sneak off in the middle of the night, on tiptoes, without kissing my sleeping dinner companion adios.

The pastor taco is where I decided hints of culinary greatness were afoot at Taco Bar.  The pork is first marinated in pineapple juice (a fruit whose juice, when not paired with vodka, most resembles, for me, the Libby’s Fruit Cocktail syrup of my 1970s Missouri youth), and then hit with high flame.  Whomever was at the grill this day was a true master.  The pork evoked the perfect meat-to-carbon ratio on the sear and the pineapple juice imparted nothing but acidity and complexity.  Nothing Libby-like going on here and clearly what food enthusiasts consider winning.

Next came the chorizo.  Bold.  Zesty.  But not overly seasoned or greasy.  Good stuff.  A solid, if predicable, offering.  Chorizo is, for me, the veritable culinary spokesperson for Mexican street cuisine.  Chorizo is the guy who tells you how rough he had it growing up around all the cholos and pachucos of his barrio before slipping you the business card of his buddy with the tooth-whitening business.  The authenticity factor just doesn’t jive, but I am always happy to listen to him talk.

And then came the lengua, or beef tongue.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy was this tongue taco good.  Delicate, earthy, succulent, even grassy.  And perfectly cooked.  No.  Let’s not say this tongue was cooked.  Let’s say it was melted, for that’s what this otherwise tough and unforgiving section of offal did in my mouth, bite after bite, time and again.  It melted.  The offal wasn’t awful; it was delicious.

And if that not-insignificant culinary hat-trick we’re enough to place Taco Bar’s offerings in the realm of the real and serious culinary contenders, my final taco was among the most transcendent in recent memory.  The suadero is rib meat grilled and shaved off the bone.  It’s steaming pile of shredded protein, black carbon char, and melted animal fat dashed across a corn tortilla with the kind of haphazard greatness that will have you wondering where such a taco has been every waking moment of your adult life.  Nothing I put in my mouth this day was better than the suadero.

And as for my usual attempts and identifying and quantifying so-called authenticity in “ethnic” eating establishments, I was given these signifiers for consideration:  all-Latina staff who hand trimmed and portioned vast amounts of beef and pork well within plain view of me the entire duration of my stay; a decidedly all-Latino, all-Spanish speaking patronage (no gringos aqui, ese); a sign posted in Spanish warning patrons that eating the suadero might result in traces of rib bone being lodged in their throats; a small dog carried in under the pretense of pleasing the matron with its curly-haired cuteness, but which, I suspect, was brought in, via some unseen Bat Signal, to nibble my considerable all-meat droppings off the liquor store floor.  (I’m bad with a fork, what can I say.)

Tacos at the Taco Bar.  Were they the best tacos the best I’ve ever eaten?  Not by a long shot.  Were they the tacos the best I’ve ever eaten inside a liquor store shoved inside a gas station?  Truly.  Without a doubt.

Go buy some.  Tacos are good for the soul.  But you already knew that.

Your link to Taco Bar:  Taco Bar II - Home