Monday, October 31, 2005

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Friday, October 28, 2005

Bulletproof BBQ theory

While the best barbecue is found in its native habitat down South, there are places like Mike Mills' restaurants in Illinois, and to a lesser extent, in Vegas. We can get pretty good examples in Southern California, too. Folks from the Chowhound board held a BBQ taste off two years ago. From the local contenders, I liked the ribs that Sandra brought from Rib Nest. Joe H flew in a Texas ringer: brisket from Black's in Lockhart, voted as the best cue by a large margin.

My favorite places around these parts are all in Los Angeles. None in Orange County. For example:

Rib Nest: terrific pork ribs served from behind bulletproof glass.
Phillip's (original Leimert Park location): terrific pork ribs served from behind bulletproof glass.
Woody's: terrific pork ribs served from behind bulletproof glass.
Bad 2 Da Bone: terrific pork ribs and brisket served from behind bulletproof glass.
Jaybee's (original location, on Avalon Blvd): terrific beef ribs served from behind bulletproof glass.

I'm led by these observations that your odds of finding great local BBQ increases exponentially at a shop shielded behind thick, ballistic acrylic. Try these and draw your own conclusions:

Rib Nest
1766 W. El Segundo Blvd.
Gardena, CA

4307 Leimert Blvd
Los Angeles, CA
2619 S. Crenshaw Blvd
Los Angeles, CA

3446 Slauson
Los Angeles
475 S. Market St.
Inglewood, CA

Bad 2 Da Bone
4565 W. Century Blvd
Los Angeles, CA

Jaybees BBQ
15915 S. Avalon Blvd
Los Angeles, CA

Memphis Championship BBQ - Las Vegas

Mike Mills makes the best barbecued ribs I've ever tasted. I've eaten a lot of barbecue across the southern United States, but his stand head and shoulders above anything else I've tried.

Mills owns a small, otherwise ordinary looking restaurant in a tiny Southern Illinois college town called Murphysboro. Like many other people, I learned of Mills from Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, who wrote of his unprecedented three Grand Championships at the Memphis in May BBQ World Championships. My buddy Matt and I drove from New York to visit both the restaurant and the Memphis in May competition back in 2000, and we were simply blown away at Mills' amazing ribs.

Real barbecue cooks slowly over wood smoke and low heat. It takes about four hours to cook a rack of ribs, during which time the fat renders, tenderizing the tough rib meat and connective tissue in the process. Spicy dry rub and smoke penetrate the meat as moisture and fat slowly escape, coloring the outer later of meat with a rosy pink smoke ring. There's a 20 minute window when the ribs are perfectly cooked. When two rib bones are pulled apart, the meat should stay attached to them, and tear easily between the ribs. "Falling off the bone" ribs are overcooked and mushy.

Competitive barbecue teams expend a lot of effort to deliver one perfectly cooked rack to the judges. They'll stagger ribs at 20 minute intervals so one rack will be peaking at the exact moment they're judged. Restaurant pitmasters can't afford to be so picky. They start cooking large batches hours in advance of mealtime and you'll get what you get: Mama Bear, Papa Bear, or Baby Bear.

What we got on that visit to Mills' Illinois restaurant near closing time on a slow weekday was Baby Bear: a perfectly cooked rack of ribs. Also: the best baked beans I've ever tasted, great coleslaw, and amazing cornbread. Barbecue restaurants usually focus on the meat and make lousy sides. Not here. It was simply the best barbecue meal I'd ever eaten.

Fast forward to 2001: Mills had partnered with a Vegas businessman and opened up 4 corporatized restaurants with faux down-homey decor. Just as Vegas apes New York, Venice, and Paris, these restaurants mimic what a barbecue restaurant in small town America might look like, tongue firmly embedded in corporate cheek. Think TGI Friday meets county fair.

I visited about a year after their openings, and the Vegas store's food was a faded, illegible facsimile of the Illinois original. I'm glad to report things have improved in four years.
fried pickles
We started with a basket of fried dill pickles, which I loved. Thick waffle cut slices are dredged in a flour heavily seasoned with cayenne and Mills' dry rub. Fried crisp, spicy and rather salty, these might be the ultimate beer snack.

We ordered the massive Mama Faye's combo of baby backs, chicken, beef brisket, pulled pork and hot links:
memphis champ  BBQ
The Memphis style baby back ribs are Mills' specialty and my favorite of all the meats. They're cooked with what's oxymoronically called a wet dry rub. The ribs are mopped with apple cider near the end of cooking, and dry rub is reapplied, leaving a moist spicy sweet coating that tastes great without sauce. The other meats? Nice, but not nearly as distinctive as the ribs. Next time, I'd order just the baby backs and call it a day.

A food epiphany like the one I had in Illinois doesn't happen often. I realize I'm judging Jan by Marcia's accomplishments here. Really, Jan is terrific. Definitely stop in when you're in Vegas. But that Marcia. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

Memphis Championship Barbecue
2250 Warm Springs Rd.
Las Vegas, NV
1401 S. Rainbow Blvd
Las Vegaas
4949 N. Rancho Dr
Las Vegas, NV
4379 Las Vegas Blvd
North Las Vegas, NV

17th Street Bar & Grill
32 North 17th Street
Murphysboro, IL 62966
2700 17th Street
Marion, IL 62959

PS: I picked up Mills' new book, called Peace, Love and Barbecue, which is one of the better colections of barbecue lore I've read. It also lists recipes for some of my favorite dishes from his restaurants. The award winning ribs, his Magic Dust dry rub recipe, the baked beans, the fried dill pickles: they're in there. I'll write a book review after I've had a chance to go through it more thoroughly.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Colorado dreaming

Hello from western Colorado, where we've been since last week visiting Gurlfren's family. Her dad and I spent 4 days camped out on Black Mountain where we unsuccessfully hunted elk. So much for the Mighty Hunters.

I was hoping to give you the blow by blow of how we took down an elk and turned it into some delicious wild game dishes. Better luck next time?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Beard Papa cream puffs - Hollywood, CA

When Krispy Kreme first came to Southern California, people went nuts for the stuff. Drove in from hours away to the only location on the West coast, as if Jesus Christ almighty had come back to sell us donuts and the only way to see Him was to wait in line at the drive through window of the Brea Krispy Kreme. The madness didn't subside for months after the grand opening.

Americans are a donut eating people. We Japanese don't donut. Wouldn't give a rat's patootey if Krispy Kreme opened in Tokyo. We are a "choux cream" eating people. Today, a Beard Papa opened in Hollywood's massive Kodak Theater shopping-tainment megaplex. It's Japan's largest chain of cream puff bakery cafe, and people lose their minds and and queue up when a new one opens in Japan. This is their first California location, with others soon to follow in the South Bay area and possibly Santa Monica.

The staff started baking at 2am for today's 10am grand opening. According to someone on Chowhound who was there, a line of anxious (mostly Japanese) people waited an hour for the first taste. This intrepid reporter showed up at 7:30pm, well after the lines subsided.

Baked choux pastry prior to filling
Cream puff selection
Directly across from the El Capitan theater on Hollywood Blvd.

These treats are heavy for their moderate size because they're overfilled with a soft, almost runny vanilla custard. The choux pastry is baked to a firm, crisp texture with very little sweetness. It's a crispy vehicle for carrying the pudding like filling. Although they claim to use lavish amounts of vanilla beans, the vanilla flavor was mellow, and balanced nicely with egg yolk and a very restrained amount of sugar. It's Japanese subtlety at its best.

If Americans think of cream puffs at all, it's in the pejorative, sissified sense. That's because most American bakeries make lousy cream puffs filled with a stiff overstarched pastry cream, or worse, a butter cream. These don't weep moisture into the choux puff, but they don't taste good, either. They do that because their cream puffs sit around for hours until someone buys them, and they weren't ever good to start with.

Beard Papa, on the other hand, just makes cream puffs so they're always fresh. They can use wetter, gooey, luscious cream fillings. For today's opening, the basic vanilla filling is all they offered. I can't wait to try the other fillings like sesame and green tea!

The sum of Beard Papa's cream puff is greater than its mild components. It's a perfect contrast of crisp shell and creamy filling, with just enough powdered sugar to remind you these are decadent treats. Left unsupervised with a pot of coffee, I could easily scarf a box of six by myself, and I guarantee my ass would grow a size larger by next week. Ah - there's the American in me!

Beard Papa, for your next location, please give us a drive though window. If there's anything you can learn from Krisy Kreme, it's that we Americans love our drive-thrus!

Beard Papa
6801 Hollywood Blvd
Hollywood, CA

Monday, October 03, 2005

Persian Harvest Festival

The Salt household was invited to Mehregan last weekend as guests of Network of Iranian-American Professionals of Orange County. I interviewed Dr. Hosseini, the President of NIPOC, for a Persian foodstuffs story filed with the OC Weekly. His organization puts on a large cultural festival that draws over 20,000 Iranian-Americans from across the country to the Orange County Fairgrounds. Sadly, the OC Weekly story didn't run before this weekend, so we weren't able to plug the festival as I'd hoped.

Grilled tomatoes

Beef koobideh

Chicken koobideh

About 20 food vendors lined sides selling mostly Persian foods, although roasted corn on the cob and Pizza Hut were there. Local restaurants and catering outfits grilled kebabs of ground meats called koobideh, or pieces of marinated chicken breast called barg. For the same reason that a Fourth of July cookout wouldn't be complete without burgers and dogs, kebabs are the quintessential cookout food found from Turkey to Mongolia. Even with other food options, a cookout's not the same without smoky, sensual, satisfying sticks of charry meat.

Ash-e reshteh, garnished with mint oil

I was hoping for more variety among the vendors' menus, but everyone had similar offerings: a plate of kebabs, plain rice, a grilled tomato, and the noodle soup called ash-e reshteh. A few different kinds of polos would have been nice: the rice pilafs flavored with nuts, fruit, and herbs. Or my favorite stewed meat dish called fessenjan flavored with ground walnuts and pomegranate. But as someone who's cooked professionallly, I understand that long cooked stews don't work well for impatient festival crowds that want to eat right now. Kebabs cook up in minutes and keep hungry crowds happy.

One vendor sold Persian donuts, some sweet, some savory. Picture a round oily donut filled with a pleasing, sweet, eggy custard. Another was shaped long, like a fat cruller, but stuffed with potato chunks flavored with dill and mint. Two other varities were made, but we were pretty full at that point. It kills me that I didn't take photos or notes on what they're called. Please leave a comment if you know.

What better way to end the meal than at Akbar Mashti's booth, aka Mashti Malone's Ice Cream? One of Los Angeles' best ice cream makers brought select flavors including faludeh and my favorite, orange blossom with pistachio nuts. We're looking forward to next year's event!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Soup mystery update

For those of you wondering, a letter and photos of the mystery chunk have been sent to the Campbell Soup Company. I'm waiting to hear their response, half expecting a standard form letter, half expecting a call from their attorneys. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pupusería San Sivar - Costa Mesa, CA

Pupusas are not the infantbearing slings worn by native American women. No, pupusas are to El Salvador what quesadillas are to the United States. None of the very divergent things called quesadillas found across the regions of Mexico are anything like the bland grilled-cheese-on-a-flavorless-flour-tortilla as we know it in the US. But that's another story for another time.

We're talking about pupusas: fresh masa dough and savory fillings like cheese, chorizo, meat and vegetables handpatted into a flat round disc about 8 inches in diameter, then griddled until crisp. Make the masa too thin, and the fillings can leak. Make the masa too thick, and it's as clodgy and heavy as day old oatmeal.

That baby bear, just right balance point tips precipitously close on the too-thin side of the equation, and you'll find it at Pupusería San Sivar, a wee, modest restaurant in an unassuming Costa Mesa strip mall. Proudly displayed on the door and wall sits their justly deserved Best Eats of OC 2005 award from the paper I occasionally write for, the OC Weekly.

Seven classic flavors are offered. Can't go wrong with revueltas con queso, frijol y chicharron: a mixed cheese, bean and pork filling. I heavily favor the ones here with chicharron. Pollo is a mildly seasoned shredded chicken meat, without cheese, which is only ok in my book. I'm partial to the squash with cheese, called calabazitas. Loroco is a pod-like vegetable whose shreds are sauteed and mixed with cheese. The cheese lets off an agreeable slick of oil, in the way a good New York pizza slice might ooze a little orange grease. Don't let it harsh your mellow.

Pupusas de arroz, made of rice flour, cost 20 cents more than corn and are an unusual variation on the theme. The rice dough tastes plainer than the corn version, but its texture is phenomenally better in my opinion. Something about the gels and starches in rice give it the ability to crisp into a toasty, crunchy, browned crust.

Rice eating people the world over fight for the crisp brownies at the bottom of the rice cooker. Persians invert this browned crust in the dish called tadig. Japanese grill rice balls into yaki onigiri, and Italians fry rice balls into arancini. Koreans use a superheated stone pot to serve the rice dish called dolsot bibimbap, which continually toasts your rice while you eat it. Rice's ability to take on a browned crust makes its way to El Salvador in their most popular dish.

Salvadoran food doesn't mandate chili heat like so many Mexican dishes, so the spicy variation of curtido, the requisite side dish of cabbage slaw is surprising, and good. Sweet is balanced with vinegar which has been infused with red chili flakes.

San Sivar makes their own horchata salvadorena in house. They flavor this version of the rice drink with ground sesame, cacao bean, pepitas, morro seed and cinnamon. Very unlike Mexican horchata, and definitely not from the concentrate that most restaurants use.

One last bit of advice. Eat pupusas as soon as they hit the table. The half life on these things is about 8 minutes, after which the crisp goes soggy, the starches in the dough stiffen, and the whole thing skids downhill fast and faceplants like your first time on a snowboard. Take out is a last resort, m'kay?

Pupusería San Sivar
1940 Harbor Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA