The CHOW Blog rss

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

(Not a Particularly) Good Burger

Adam Kuban, writing over at Serious Eats, takes on the mostly thankless task of choking down a sampler of cheeseburgers from various “casual dining” restaurants.

This is why blogs exist. Gourmet and Food & Wine writers have better things to do than hang out at Houlihan’s debating how much better its fresh Angus offering was than the over-salted piece of boot they call a hamburger over at Applebee’s.

Kuban tackles his task with an implausible amount of gusto, gamely presenting the highs (T.G.I. Friday’s: “Here was still some juiciness left in the beefy-tasting patty”) and the lows (Applebee’s: “It came out very well done and so over salted as to be almost inedible”) with equally heartfelt deadpan sincerity.

Coming down the pike: reviews of cheeseburgers at Ruby Tuesday, Bennigan’s, and Chili’s.

There’s a question hidden within the editorial folds of this masochistic blog quest—why are good fast-food burgers (In-N-Out, Culver’s, Fatburger) so much better than their midrange competitors?

Pa Rum Pa Pom Pom

An article in The Boston Globe on Monday holds forth on the national fruitnomenon that is the pomegranate.

According to the Globe, last year saw 450 new pomegranate products on the market, which, when added to products accumulating since 2003, brings the pommy product list to 961. As prolific as they seem to be, I know that POM Wonderful can’t be responsible for all of them.

Although one market-research representative in the article is quoted as saying the pomegranate craze seems to have come from nowhere, the piece also notes that the tough-skinned fruit with the edible seeds has been around since ancient Egyptian and Grecian times. The article explains that while recent American rabidness for the ruby fruit might have something to do with the many health benefits it offers, pomegranate-product pushers are now trying to interest the public in other facts about the storied fruit.

But the pomegranate’s appeal has spread far beyond the bounds of other health foods. Savvy companies played up the fruit’s history, revered for centuries as a symbol of fertility, royalty, hope, and abundance in various cultures. Some scholars even suggest that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, eaten in the biblical Garden of Eden.

Last week, San Jose’s Mercury News sang the praises of SheerBliss, “the only nationally available pomegranate ice cream on the market” and called it “rapturously delicious.”

The Boston Globe also passes along a forecast:

Some market researchers predict that pomegranates will continue to be on the radar but will taper off in popularity with the discovery of the next superfood. One candidate: acai, a dark purple berry grown in the Amazon rainforest that apparently is loaded with antioxidants.

Given that Oprah featured acai as one of her “Ten Superfoods for Age-Defying Beauty,” I’d say they might be right. Maybe her guests will find bottles of acai juice under their chairs one of these days.

Full of Hope and Help

Food bloggers around the world are working to give to those in need this season, raising money by raffling off a staggering array of meals, culinary experiences (coffee with Thomas Keller!), cookbooks, and more.

The program, A Menu for Hope, is now in its third year. Originated by Pim, of Chez Pim, last year’s event raised more than $17,000 to help victims of the Kashmir earthquake. This year the hopes are even higher, and all proceeds will go to the UN World Food Programme to help fight hunger in countries around the world.

Pim explains it best on her blog:

To us Food Bloggers, food is a joy. On our blogs, we celebrate food as a delight or even an indulgence. Unfortunately, many others who share our world do not share that privilege. For them, food is a matter of survival. This “Menu for Hope” is our small way to help.

And the prizes—donated, assembled and solicited by bloggers around the globe—are quite a haul. There are vouchers for meals in fantastic restaurants, including Manresa, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and Tetsuya’s (airfare not included).

There are also opportunities for face time with famous foodies—like Thomas Keller, Harold McGee, and David Lebovitz—and the famous of the food-blog world: photography lessons with Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, dinner in Seattle with the Gluten-free Girl, a cooking date in New York with the Wednesday Chef.

Beyond the experiential prizes, there is just plain loot: Cookbooks (many of them signed), cooking gear (knives, pasta maker, KitchenAid mixer), and food and wine items from near and far. It’s enough to make any foodie’s heart go pitter-patter with hope.

The campaign is ongoing until December 22, with each $10 donation getting you one raffle ticket for the item of your choice. Individual prizes are listed on the website of the sponsoring blogger, but the whole roundup can be found at Chez Pim.

Those of you angling for a coffee date with Mr. Keller had better hop to it.

Cambodian Karaoke, Cider Doughnuts, and a Trampling by Stallions

Topsfield, Massachusetts; Revere, Massachusetts

I was invited to a Cambodian lunch at Floating Rock Restaurant (144 Shirley Ave, Revere, Massachusetts; 781-286-2554), by my friend Chris, whom I cajoled into trying a durian milkshake. For those who don’t know, durian is a hyper-stinky sulphurous fruit, but it’s nicer in milk shakes … a little:

The food was authentic but undelicious. This isn’t a crack Cambodian chef cooking his heart out, it’s just a foothold where immigrants crank out sustenance, sans flair.

At least they make the beef salad (a.k.a. “tiger tears”) with lots of toasted rice flour, which is how I like it:

French bread with beef stew was enjoyable home cooking:

Here’s the menu:

The owner was impressed by our prowess with Cambodian karaoke (which was admittedly wretched, yet also, paradoxically, kind of hard to beat, considering): MP3.

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Topsfield Fair, in Topsfield, Massachusetts, is “America’s Oldest Agricultural Fair (Established 1818).”

The cool, hyperrealistic model railroad was a nice touch:

As always, food choices were dominated by the generic festival shlock that’s dogged me for thousands of miles on this trip. But I felt a good vibe from a certain cider doughnut concession (the woman in charge radiated sincerity and the oil smelled fresh):

Sure enough, her doughnuts were wonderful. So crisp, so creamy/melting. Great doughnuts are logarithmically more delicious than pretty good doughnuts, and it’s been ages since I had truly great ones:

View, if you dare, Ron Wallace’s obscenely overgrown 1,345.5-pound pumpkin:

These cucumbers, for reasons neither you nor I nor anyone we know could ever pretend to fathom, are blue ribbon cucumbers:

I got a charge out of this cool little all-produce racetrack:

Now, about the cow …

The sign reads, “Please do not pet me … I do not play well with others!”

In my opinion, this is a woefully misunderstood cow. I spent a bunch of time with her and had no problems whatsoever.

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This is phenomenally non-food-related, but go ahead and experience the oh-so-kitsch Royal Canadian Mounted Police equestrian team at Topsfield Fair, complete with trampling (which, I admit, I amply deserved), in this video. (Note: You need to watch all the way through to catch the trampling.)

The Secret’s in the Spice Mix

The Secret’s in the Spice Mix

National heritages hinge on these exact blends. READ MORE

No Crisco in the Kitchen

In the wake of last week’s NYC trans fat ban, The New York Times reports on a genteel fry-and-bake-off (registration required) by chef Michael S. Schwartz at the Institute of Culinary Education. On the menu: french fries, fried chicken, and, in keeping with the school’s highbrow mien, tarte Tatin. The challenge? See how the old, soon-to-be-dumped Crisco versions stack up against those made with other fats—in this case, coconut oil, canola oil, peanut oil, butter, and lard.

Crisco in the tarte Tatin? Quelle horreur! But Schwartz promises that the Crisco crust would be the best, and according to reporter Thomas J. Lueck, it was “light, flaky, and beckoning,” where the butter crust was flat and the coconut-oil one lumpy and crumbly. Crisco also made the crispest french fries. The only winner? Fried chicken, which came out uniformly crisp and golden no matter which fat or oil it was fried in.

But while the New York State Restaurant Association fights to keep trans fats in the kitchen and under the radar, Slate offers a smart and pithy take on the whole issue. As William Saletan writes of the Big-Bloomberg-Knows-Best law,

Still, Americans draw the line at food. You stamped out our cigarettes, you made us wear seat belts, but you’ll get our burgers when you pry them from our cold, dead hands. But that’s the funny thing about trans fats: They aren’t exactly food. A century ago, they hardly existed. Nature didn’t mass-produce them; we did.

Saleten also points out that, for all the big fast-food companies’ whining, plenty of them are already using trans-fat-free recipes in Europe, where the man-made fats are banned in several countries.

A Worthy Tamale

Of all the tamales available on the Peninsula, yimster enthusiastically recommends those sold by the lady with the tamale cart who is usually found outside a produce shop called El Mercadito Latino. Her masa is the best around. Go early, because they sell out.

Tamales come in several flavors, including mild and spicy versions of chicken and pork that are spectacular. At $1 each, they’re a bargain, and they’re so good, it’s easy to get carried away. “My brother-in-law once purchase two dozen and ate fourteen of them at one sitting,” says yimster. “I believe he was sick for a couple of days, not from the tamales themselves but from the amount he ate.” You’ve been warned.

Lady with Tamale Cart [Peninsula]

ouside El Mercadito Latino

1726 El Camino Real, Redwood City

650-306-0104

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Tamales in the Peninsula

Le Soleil

For delicious Vietnamese with nice ambience, Le Soleil is a perfect choice. Bodegadawg thinks the mango salad topped with fried shallots is exceptional, and loves the barbecued pork rolls and clams with black beans. makaroon likes the tasty, succulent BBQ chicken, and many hounds recommend the five-spice chicken. Le Soleil is more expensive than your average Vietnamese dive in the area, but it has attractive decor and nice service to make up for it, if you’re into that sort of thing. And the food is actually really good. Even the seafood curry–a dish that sounds like bad imitation Thai–tastes delicious, says Windy.

Le Soleil Authentic Vietnamese [Richmond]

133 Clement St., San Francisco

415-668-4848

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Dinner at Le Soleil on Clement

Cider with Character from Connecticut’s Applebrook Farm

So what kind of apples does Applebrook Farm press into its Grampa Tony’s Cider? Depends on when you ask, but the season’s delicious second batch was made of Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Cortland, Macoun, Ginger Gold, Honey Crisp, Roxbury Russet, Jonamac, Jonagold, Liberty, Paulared, Empire, Jonathan, Summer Rambeau, and Spartan. That’s right, 17 varieties, and the result is an uncommonly complex cider–sweet, tart, and refreshing, with a beautiful finish, reports gordon wing.

They do around 18 pressings a season, and the mix changes each time. “They know what they’re doing, so it will continue to be a well-balanced cider,” gordon adds. It’s unpasteurized, so bring a cooler to keep it cold on the way home.

Applebrook also sells doughnuts, made from its cider by Donut Dip in West Springfield, Mass. They’re first-rate, says Jestner–crunchy outside, moist inside.

Applebrook Farm [Hartford County]

216 East Rd., between Reservoir Ave. and Chamberlain Rd., Broad Brook, CT

860-654-1590

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Donut Dip [Hampden County]

1305 Riverdale St., between Ashley and Wayside Aves., West Springfield, MA

413-733-9604

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Grandpa Tony’s Unpasteurized Apple Cider–Applebrook Farms, Broad Brook, CT

In Hell’s Kitchen, a Heavenly Blueberry Cupcake

At Burgers and Cupcakes, the cafe from Mitchel London Foods, blueberry-vanilla cupcakes are “oh my god amazing!” effuses haleyjen.

Burgers and Cupcakes [Clinton]

formerly Mitchel London Foods

458 9th Ave., between W. 35th and 36th Sts., Manhattan

212-643-1200

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How are the cupcakes at Hamburgers & Cupcakes?