Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Jamie Stachowski - Meeting His Meat

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

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

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

Your link for Jaimie Stachowski:  Stachowski Brand Charcuterie

Strange Bedfellows - La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your link:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Lost In Translation - Dirty Chinese

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

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

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

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

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

A hit.   A very palpable hit.

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

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

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

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

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