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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

La Barca’s Got Culinary Chops

No secret what the specialty is at Birreria La Barca: It’s the birria. An order gets you a nice pile of braised goat meat (juicy and tender) in an incredibly flavorful broth, house-made refried beans, rice, tortillas, and the usual accoutrements, says Clare K.

La Barca may execute its meals better than any other regional Mexican restaurant, says Eat_Nopal, with the exception of some blah dishes that pad out its menu, like chicken cordon bleu (??!!) and taquitos.

Service is swift and polite.


Birrieria La Barca Jalisco [East LA-ish]
10817 Valley Mall, El Monte

626-452-2121
Locater

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I walked 7 miles for goat…

Bacon Brittle

You read that right: bacon brittle. Not peanut brittle. Bacon brittle.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of having some of your pancake syrup flow onto the savory side of the plate, you might understand why hounds are crazy for the porky version of this old-fashioned confection. Some have become downright addicts. missclaudy made and ate so much in the space of a couple days she feels like she was in her own bacon candy version of “The Lost Weekend,” “though I did manage to crawl to the store to buy more bacon.” And she’s got all her friends making it.

Chowhounds have been tweaking away, and Pistou has come up with the ultimate recipe:

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup chopped pecans
1 cup crispy cooked bacon, in bits (about 12 oz. uncooked bacon)

Grease or butter a large nonstick baking sheet, or line with a Silpat mat. In a heavy medium-sized saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a boil. Attach a candy thermometer to the pan, increase the heat to high, and cook without stirring until the mixture reaches 290 degrees. Immediately remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, vanilla, baking soda, salt, pecans, and bacon bits. The mixture will foam quite a bit. When the foam subsides, pour the hot mixture out onto the prepared baking sheet and, working quickly, spread thin using a silicone spatula or two forks. If the brittle starts to set up before you have spread it out thin, set the baking sheet in a hot oven until the candy softens and continue to spread. Cool at least 10 minutes before breaking into pieces. Store in a covered container.

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Bacon Brittle

Simple Curry Soy Stir-Fry Sauce

This stir-fry sauce created by opinionatedchef is great–you can keep it on the pantry shelf at room temperature. It’s basically a sauce for stir-fried veggies–just chuck it on at the end of cooking. ptrefler suggests adding some cayenne or chili-garlic sauce if you like a spicier sauce.

Stir-fry Sauce

3 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/3 cup cold water
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup curry powder (Sun Brand Madras Curry Powder recommended)

Add some water to cornstarch to make a paste, then add all remaining ingredients and mix well. Store at room temperature, but mix well before each use, as cornstarch will settle on bottom in a thick mass.

To use: Stir-fry vegetables at highest heat; when done, add enough sauce to coat, stir, and bring to a boil to thicken cornstarch. If the sauce is too thick, immediately add some water and stir well.

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EASY Curry Soy Stir Fry Sauce To Keep on Hand

Mangosteens

Mangosteens are not related to mangos and are grown all over tropical Asia. They’re about the size of tangerines, with up to eight delectable segments. The sweet and tart flavor is wonderfully refreshing.

Mangosteens may soon be coming our way, after years of being banned. litchick explains that it’s now up to Thailand to get the exporting sorted out. The fruit will probably be irradiated, but we’ll take ‘em! They’ve been available in Hawaii and Canada, however.

For a preview of this fabulous fruit, try the freeze dried version from Trader Joe’s. They don’t compare with the real thing, but they sure are addictive, says MaggieMuffin.

This is a good picture and description. Their flavor is described as “exquisitely luscious and delicious”.

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Mangosteen–King of the Fruits

What’s Happened to Oreos?

The trans fats are gone from Oreos. They’re healthier, but they’re no longer the cookie many of us remember. Hounds report that the cookie part is now strangely crispy and yet also soggy. And it shatters easily, making it harder to separate the halves and lick off the icing, if that’s your thing. And the icing now tastes greasy, anyway, says sivyaleah.

If you have a yen, give Trader Joe’s version, called Joe Joes, a try. jfood is sold on the taste, as well as the ingredients.

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Oreo’s–the post trans fat era

Frisky Cod Help Redefine the Word “Delicacy”

When daddy cod loves mommy cod very much, the result is usually lots of really tiny baby cod eggs. Yay! But sometimes, when a chef is involved, the result is called “cod milt,” and it’s apparently delicious.

New York magazine is all over the cod spooge phenomenon, describing the dish as looking like a “cluster-bomb explosion in bocconcini factory.”

You can find cod milt on the menu of Brooklyn’s Zenkichi restaurant, where the “creamy and custardlike” dish is billed as shirako and either served with seaweed in a tangy ponzu sauce or cooked to an uni-like consistency as tempura with bonito broth.

Attention Brooklynite foodies: You’ve long claimed that you’ll eat anything, as long as it’s delicious. You now have a stellar opportunity to put your money where your mouth is. Or your mouth where a lady cod should be. Or whatever. Pucker up!

One of America’s Most Fascinating Undiscovered Restaurants

Lowell, Massachusetts

I first visited Lowell years ago, hunting for Cambodian and Laotian food. I’d heard that many Southeast Asian immigrants lived in the area, but drove for hours without finding a single restaurant. Finally, in desperation, I walked into City Hall and queried the restaurant inspector, who kindly hipped me to Southeast Asian Restaurant (343 Market Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-452-3182).

Despite Lowell’s burgeoning Southeast Asian community, this remains one of only a tiny handful of local outposts cooking that food. But it’s quite a place … and has one of the most interesting stories of any restaurant I know.

Owner Joe Antonaccio is a Vietnam vet who hung around after the war, married a local woman, learned the language and culture, and deeply immersed himself in the food. He traveled around, learning Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines. When his family moved back to the States, he and his wife, Chanthip, opened a little restaurant with a great big menu crammed with impossibly obscure dishes described with the depth and precision of a museum program. Antonaccio is such a stickler that he often has to train new kitchen staff—even new immigrants—in their own cuisines because too much Western influence has crept into their cooking!

For a sample of Antonaccio’s enthusiasm and commitment (and also to learn a lot), read his notes on Southeast Asian food culture.

My first meals at Southeast Asian Restaurant were revelations. I plunged joyfully into the enormous menu, sampling multiple iterations of larb (one a bit more Thai-style, another a bit more Laotian). Spicy meant spicy. I knew that I’d found one of the most fascinating restaurants in America, but I couldn’t persuade any of the food magazines to let me write a profile.

The food press’s neglect seemed to be mirrored by foodie neglect. A lunch buffet was added—always a bad sign. In their downtown location, they had to cater to the mainstream lunch crowd to stay afloat. The epic menu gradually shrank, and it became harder and harder to be served genuinely spicy food (the kitchen’s assumptions about gringo preferences were likely conditioned by the spice-averse buffet crowd). How sad that such a unique and wonderful operation couldn’t pull in a critical mass of hip customers. Blasé reaction to greatness discourages prospective restaurateurs from knocking themselves out. It makes more sense to just open an Olive Garden franchise.

Though diminished, Southeast Asian Restaurant is still an invigoratingly good place to eat. This time I had “Phat Prik Gra Pao—T-3 [the code indicates that the dish is Thai and level 3 spicy]: Chopped chicken breast and thigh meat quick fried with chili pepper, Thai basil, onion, and a special sauce combine to make this dish qualify as a bowl of fire (and brimstone for our religious friends). Served with rice”:

... and “Nuer Dat Deo/Beef Jerky—L-0 [Laotian and level 0 spicy]: Dried beef, similar to beef jerky. Typically eaten with Lao Dum Som and sticky rice”:

For dessert, charming “Laotian Soy Bean Custard Cake”:

The phat prik gra pao was, alas, only medium spicy in spite of my supplications. But it was luscious. And the beef jerky (with intense dipping sauce) may not have matched the textural wonderment of the version at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, but it was easily worth a special trip from Boston. Despite the spice decrescendo and shrinking menu, Southeast Asian Restaurant is still great if you catch it on a good night—like tonight. And a great bargain: The total cost of sufficient food for two or three is a mere $20.

Download the current menu in Word format. The restaurant also offers, with 24 hours’ notice, meticulously authentic banquets and specialty dinners. This page links to full descriptions, including scholarly explanations of the pertinent traditions.

Here’s an interesting Lowell Cambodian Neighborhood Walking Tour.

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Lowell’s got a lot more than Southeast Asian going on. For example, Bany Restaurant (681 Merrimack Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-458-6384), a real bare-bones joint, makes super-delicious, super-authentic Puerto Rican soul food. The roast chicken can only be described as beautiful—in both appearance and flavor. It comes with good moist rice and very nice plantains.

To roughly estimate food quality from my photos, observe how much is eaten. You’ll notice that I ravaged almost the entire half-chicken before remembering to whip out my camera. That’s a good sign.

They make good cuchifritos, too, like papa rellena (fried potato stuffed with ground meat). The counter guy seems gruff, but he has a heart of gold (he unsmilingly threw an extra papa rellena into my bag; it’s that sort of place).

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There’s at least a tinge of Brazilian and Portuguese immigration in most parts of Massachusetts (most recently, the Berkshires). In Lowell, I found a pretty good Portuguese bakery called, logically enough, Lowell Portuguese Bakery (930 Gorham Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-458-3111).

They make swell pasteis de nata (similar to Chinese egg custard pastries—which, actually, were brought to China by Portuguese).

Nearby is a cute little Brazilian place called Oasis Grill (910 Gorham Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-452-0833), which I didn’t have a chance to try (they make feijoada, the Brazilian equivalent of cassoulet, on Wednesdays and Saturdays).

The place I’m most sorry I missed is Cavaleiro’s Restaurant (573 Lawrence Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-458-2800), an upscale Portuguese place that looked primo to my chow-dar. They keep difficult hours, and I never managed to catch them open.

There’s a cool bohemian area right in the middle of downtown. It’s all bricky industrial-chic, great to walk through at night with lots of little bars and eateries to stumble across. I’m a fan of the Revolving Museum, which sponsors all sorts of high jinks.

Here are some of the wacky installations currently on display in the Garden of Big Heads and Earthly Delights just outside the museum:

Next to the Garden, extraordinarily nice people serve extraordinarily tasteless vegetarian fare at Life Alive Urban Oasis and Organic Café (194 Middle Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-453-1311). You’d need to be really nice to make me want to return for bad food, but the folks here are actually that nice.

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Note: I have now worked through one large box of Shout stain-removing wipes.

Seafood Saturation

The plan is this: to zip frenetically around Rhode Island’s jagged shoreline, trying bites of seafood here and there, while attempting to remain relaxed and seashoreish about it all. This is the gorgeous peak of Indian summer, and I aim to bask in balminess throughout my intense chowconnaissance.

I’ve found the perfect place to stay: Middletown. It truly is the Middle Town, 15 to 20 minutes from just about everywhere. What’s more, Middletown itself has some good places. Finally, it’s quite close to Newport, though outside the bubble of expense and traffic.

Newport has little in common with the rest of the state. Rhode island is the New Jersey of New England: working class, “ethnic,” just a bit scruffy but with lots of raw beauty. People aren’t just unpretentious, they’re anti-pretentious. And amid this blue-collar stew is the non sequitur of old-money Newport. I hear there are some good things to eat in Newport, and I like to plunge into the widest range of scenes—especially non sequiturs! But I was so wrapped up in shacks that I ran out of time and missed hitting Newport proper.

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The day started in unexpected triumph. Rather than spoil the tale, I’ll let you listen to the podcast I recorded just after the Chowhounding Gods smiled upon me: MP3.

My recorder’s battery died in mid-podcast, but here’s the rest of the story. This diner, which I’d found ten years earlier and dreamed of ever since (but was never able to identify), suddenly appeared. Ecstatic, I pulled off the road, recorded the above jubilant podcast, and went into Bishop’s 4th Street Diner (184 Admiral Kalbfus Road, Newport, Rhode Island; 401-847-2069).

It is, as I’d recalled, on a traffic circle:

And it’s still a beautifully preserved old-fashioned railroad-car-style diner.

The diner is under new ownership, and I was crestfallen to spot a young kid in the kitchen who looked like he’d rather be out skateboarding. I couldn’t have been more wrong. His cooking was fabulous (more on that in a minute), and this chef’s a formidable dude. He walked by as I was browsing New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, and at a mere glance—without slowing down!—spewed comments about food quality at each place mentioned on the page. He doesn’t miss a thing, and is totally passionate about his job, boasting that “some people say we do better seafood than the shacks.” I didn’t order seafood there, but I completely believe it’s true.

Chowhounding requires constant theorizing. But theories require presumptions. And once again, I’d been shown the pitfalls of stereotyping based on preconceptions. Preconceptions are inevitable, I suppose, but the trick is to be flexible enough to abandon them on a dime.

But about the food. Yikes, have a look at this amazing sandwich of roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. It works! So delicious. I’ll never forget it:

This strawberry shortcake may have been less refined than the masterpiece served me at Canyon Grill, back in Rising Fawn, Georgia (see report #25), but it contained no less love or intrinsic deliciousness:

I missed johnnycakes by a mere 15 minutes. God …

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Flo’s Clam Shack (4 Wave Avenue, Middletown, Rhode Island; 401-847-8141) is so archetypally clam-shacky that it’s hard to believe this place is real, and not just some cynical evocation of genre.

But let’s talk about clam cakes.

Clam cakes aren’t what you think. If the name makes you visualize crab cakes with clam instead of crab, you’re way off. These are clearly Italian—like zeppole (fried dough) studded with vestigial bits of clam. They are crunchy/fluffy delicious (when served straight from the fryer, which is the only way to have them), and they live to be dunked in Rhode Island clam chowder (a grayish brine rife with diced potatoes that lives to have clam cakes dunked in it). Flo’s is excellent for both clam cakes and chowder. And, as you can see in the photos, it’s a fun place to hang out in.

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Champlin’s Seafood (256 Great Island Road, Narragansett, Rhode Island; 401-783-3152) is also picturesque. It’s a tourist magnet, hence the queue. They make excellent fried seafood and chowder. I wasn’t reduced to a sobbing wreck or anything, but every bite tasted right on the money.

If you ever go here, pass on the ice cream stand situated beneath the restaurant. I had one lick and almost choked on an industrial-tasting chemical flavor. It was obviously an error, but still …

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Chopmist Charlie’s (40 Narragansett Avenue, Jamestown, Rhode Island; 401-423-1020) is a homey sit-down restaurant run by a gregarious dude named Charlie. I got the broiled-seafood platter (for $22.95), which consisted of fresh scrod and sea scallops broiled with buttercrumb topping, along with a stuffie and two baked stuffed shrimp. The vegetables were actually the best thing. Stuffies (bread stuffing mixed with chopped clams and baked in clam shells) were fun, and scallops were just OK. I didn’t love the apple crisp. This is a cool, convivial place, with the sort of bar where strangers talk. Their luxurious lobster bisque is real good.

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Gray’s Ice Cream (16 East Road, Tiverton, Rhode Island; 401-624-4500) is killer great. Put it on your short list if you’re ever around here. How many ice cream stands afford an opportunity to meet your cows?

Gray’s butterscotch ice cream is sensational, one of the best butterscotch items I’ve ever had. It’s not a precious butterscotch hard-candy flavor; it’s more rich butterscotch-puddingish flavor. It’s a must-slurp … though only if you can tear yourself away from the ginger ice cream. It’s full-flavored in its ginger flavor and reasonably potent, but doesn’t quite crest into over-the-top heat.

Coffee cabinet (same as a shake or frappe) is also precision balanced. Not too sweet, not too ice creamy, not too milky, not too thin, not too thick … just dead dead-on. Wow.

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Hey, you wanna see some bad food?

Looks good, no? But no. It’s unredeemably empty soulless slop (from Sakonnet Fish Co., 657 Park Avenue, Portsmouth, Rhode Island; 401-683-1180).

I now mistrust my camera. If it makes bad food look good, then I can no longer rely on it to convey truth about things I love. Why is my camera, after many trustworthy weeks, suddenly lying? Is this covered by warranty?

“Dear Casio: My Casio Exilim EX-Z750 has turned dishonest …”

Real Oaxacan Mole

If you’ve been fortunate enough to travel in Oaxaca, you may feel cursed upon your return–because back home, there’s none of that mole. You wander the world like a junkie, seeking that full strength black mole paste with which to brutalize chicken.

Never fear–Karina’s has the good stuff, though at $10 a pound, it’s not cheap. Eat_Nopal thinks it’s a very decent version, based on aroma and consistency.

Also note that many Mexican markets in the area sell fresh mole in the carniceria, often in a paste so thick it gets cut into squares. rworange thinks the carniceria in Mi Tierra Supermercado has the most promising mole, but look around your neighborhood and poke around any exciting carnicerias you find.

Karina’s Mexican Bakery [Sonoma County]

827 Petaluma Blvd N., Petaluma

707-765-2772

Locater

Carniceria Mi Tierra [East Bay]

516 23rd Street, at Barrett, Richmond

510-232-0333

Locater

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Mole in the bay area

Don’t Miss the Boat

Sushi that comes by on a little boat on a conveyer belt isn’t going to provide you with the same epicurean enjoyment as omakase from a sushi master. But the stuff at Sushi Maru is extremely enjoyable and quite cheap, making it the perfect choice for when you’re cruising with, say, your four-year-old grandchild, says Sushi Monster. Other hounds agree. “Sushi Maru has better stuff on the conveyors than the majority of sushi bars in the Bay Area,” says Melanie Wong.

Check out their Japanese specials board, advises Humbucker. It often has unusual items you wouldn’t ordinarily find on the white boards at other cheap sushi-yas. And remember, you’re not limited to what’s on the conveyer belt–they’ll make sushi to order for you, too.

Sushi Maru [South Bay]
262 Jackson St., at 6th St., San Jose

408-998-8170

Locater

Board Links: Yuzu (San Mateo, sushi) updater —too steep for Sushi Monster