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

Portland’s Greek Pizza Sleeper, Plus Stealth Somali

Portland, Maine

Two breakfast places regretfully missed in Ogunquit:

The Egg and I (Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; 207-646-8777) (across from the Lobster Pound).

The Omelette Factory (422 Main Street, Ogunquit, Maine; 207-646-4110).

Peanut butter is a side dish at the Omelette Factory!

Wow. Two dedicated breakfast specialists in one town of 1,226 residents. This, my friends, is where I intend to retire one day.

But wait! I just learned there are even more!!

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Sometimes the biggest finds are obvious places that are undervalued by locals. No one in Portland doesn’t know Bill’s Pizza (177 Commercial Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-6166). But no one in Portland seems to fully recognize the majesty of their pies. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out taken-for-granted brilliance. For example, until beer writer Michael Jackson began writing rapturously about the artistry of Belgian ales, the Belgians themselves did not realize their beer was anything special. It was just stuff they unthinkingly brewed and drank. Bill’s Pizza is like this.

One likely reason for the underrating is that they make a little-known subgenre: Greek pizza. Greek pizza is a vanishing style that was once fairly common in New England, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania. It’s characterized by thin, well-done cheese (usually pocked with crunchy burntish nodes); plenty of oregano; and a highly ridged, lightly oiled crisp crust.

Greek pizza is not an acknowledged term among pizza historians. I use it to refer to pizza baked by Greek restaurateurs who scrambled to get in on the action as pizza was becoming ubiquitous in the 1960s. If you spot pizza fitting this description, ask about the original proprietor’s nationality. You can bet that Greeks started the place. You can also bet that the place is at least 30 years old.

I don’t need to check genealogy at Bill’s. They do an archetypal rendition of this style, and it’s smashingly tasty. Notice the large bitten-off missing portion, below. My breach of professional self-control is the best possible indication of killer deliciousness:

This reverse shot shows the trademark ridged crisp crust. You’ll want to study it closely in order to identify specimens quickly in the field:

The crust was so crisp (the end crust was positively explosive), the cheese and sauce so perfectly dovetailed, the spicing was so deftly optimized, that I did something I’d never before done on this CHOW Tour: I returned for another portion. In my position, every iota of hunger must be carefully rationed. I’ve seldom finished an item, much less asked for more.

This place is that good. And I’ll bet it has been since 1949.

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Middle Street is a cool little eating block on the edge of downtown Portland. In the photo above, Duckfat is the place with the orange and blue awning, and Norm’s East End Grill is to its left. I didn’t try Ribolita (41 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-2972), at the end of the block.

Duckfat (43 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-8080) is a breezy, cool little place, very informal and relaxing. They keep their menu quite small—a great way to ensure quality:

White bean and chorizo soup, a special, was humdrum, though. I don’t usually order soup specials. Great soups require long repetition to perfect. My bad.

Frites, fried in—what else?—duck fat, were quite the luxurious experience. They were oversalted and too greasy by far, but have undeniable appeal as an infrequent (say, biannual) extravagance.

Also calorically profligate (what, you were expecting health food at a place called Duckfat?) was the duck confit panini, with herbed black pepper Boursin spread. It contained some other stuff, too, but the thing atomized before I could fully analyze it. This pressed sandwich was so light and crisp as to be positively insubstantial—ingested more by osmosis than by chewing. The kitchen exhibited formidable Zen chops via the effortless transformation of heavy ingredients into a beautiful ducky cloud.

Their beignets looked good, but I didn’t try them. And I somehow completely missed the sweet chestnut and mascarpone panini, a daily special I just now noticed in the photo, above. A humiliating failure.

Norm’s East End Grill (48 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-253-1700) is a similarly airy, laid-back place. The staff’s incredibly friendly and the beer’s good—Riptide Red, brewed by local Casco Bay Brewing Company, is a magnetically subtle brew with a hint of malty sweetness. Their pulled-pork BBQ sandwich wasn’t authentic, but it emoted palpable kindess. Fun eating.

After a few hours of digestion while driving around Portland in search of duct tape for my decrepit suitcase, much excitement flared as I spotted Al-Amin Halaal Market (269 St. John Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-3220). Who’d have expected Somalis in Maine??

Podcast #1, MP3: The whole story.

Podcast #2, MP3: Goat curry on spaghetti in the car.

The curry (shot on my car’s roof).

Podcast #3, MP3: Curry appraisal: very good, not quite great.

Halfway through my meal, I realized they’d forgotten to pack my samosas. I ran back, grabbed my crunchy fried meat pastries, and returned to the car, where I took a bite and just barely turned on the recorder in time to catch the bliss in podcast #4, MP3:

Killer, killer samosas!

Putting the Party on Ice

If there’s one thing food magazines can be relied upon to do, it’s coming up with aggravating, overly decorative, Martha-Stewartesque things that you’ll never actually do. It’s not a cardinal sin—the features are usually short, and the ideas they contain are often entertaining to read about … if completely impractical to execute.

Therefore, Food & Wine’s blurb and photograph about decorative ice cubes (which act as edible display cases for cranberries, star anise, mint, and other benign-and-colorful ingredients) might provoke a certain amount of initial scoffing. Who actually takes the time to freeze crap inside of huge ice cubes? Won’t they just make a mess? Could they actually, possibly be worth the time?

This author’s fiancée says that “Not really” and “Yes” are the answers to the last two questions, respectively.

When served at a New Year’s grilled-cheese-and-champagne party, the cubes—dubbed MirandaCubes in honor of the first guest to truly embrace their full potential—provoked general acclaim because they looked absolutely kick-ass. A couple of mint leaves and a cranberry in a big cube make a shockingly satisfying visual splash in champagne punch. Cinnamon sticks and star anise did the trick as well.

The whole thing appeals on a number of levels. There’s the “I made it myself” faux-art level. And the “Holy crap, these ice cubes are crazy!” guest-reaction level.

And—possibly most significantly—there’s the “This is the coolest melted-down day-old half-consumed drink I’ve ever seen” level. When you’re wrestling with a half-ton of post-party debris, it’s a morale builder.

… But the Beer Is Quite Delightful

If is to be believed, winter’s about to toughen up and land a body blow. And if that’s the case, we need calories. And what better way to gain weight and celebrate winter than drinking winter beers?

Therefore, it seems appropriate that imbibe presents a kick-ass assortment of 25 great winter beers in its January/February edition.

Other than the crooked stacking of the tasting panel (two people from the Pacific Northwest and no one from the bountiful brewing heartland of the upper Midwest?!), there’s little to complain about in imbibe’s far-reaching survey. Exotic choices from Belgium and Austria sit shoulder-to-shoulder with native stalwarts from breweries such as Anchor and Rogue.

My personal favorite is the pleasingly complex, 10 percent ABV, pomegranate-laced flavor of He’Brew’s Genesis 10:10, brought to us by the folks at Schmaltz Brewing Co.

The panel’s number one pick? Appropriately enough, Alaska is represented by Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Smoked Porter, “a rich and complex beer that stands up to many years of aging … after six or seven years, the smoke fades into the background and the delicious, roasty malt flavor shines through.”

Kinda makes you want to grab a toboggan and head north.

Etiquette Reform School

Etiquette Reform School

Can I give my seriously rude friend a talking to, or is that just rude? READ MORE

Inventor of Top Ramen Dies

Score one for the geeks: Maybe the real secret to a long, healthy life isn’t running marathons and eating organic broccoli. Maybe what will get you hale and hearty into your 90s is eating lots of instant noodles at your desk.

Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen and the founder of Japanese food-industry giant Nissin Foods, makers of Top Ramen and Cup Noodles—and thus a man who had surely ingested more than his share of MSG-laden seasoning packets—was 96 years old at the time of his death last week. He held his position as Nissin’s chairman from the company’s founding in 1948 until 2005.

Across the blogosphere, Ando was saluted as the sustainer of students and computer programmers everywhere. Comparing ramen to other cheap, noodle-based eats like boxed mac ‘n’ cheese and canned spaghetti, Lawrence Downes gets downright poetic in The New York Times, noting,

Ramen noodles, by contrast, are a dish of effortless purity. Like the egg, or tea, they attain a state of grace through a marriage with nothing but hot water. After three minutes in a yellow bath, the noodles soften. The pebbly peas and carrot chips turn practically lifelike. A near-weightless assemblage of plastic and foam is transformed into something any college student will recognize as food, for as little as 20 cents a serving.

According to his obituary in The Japan Times, Ando was especially proud of Nissin’s introduction of Space Ram, vacuum-packed noodles made for Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to eat aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Said Ando, “I’m happy to have realized my dream that noodles can go into space.”

The Myth of the Pie Crust

The Myth of the Pie Crust

A conversation with cookbook author Dorie Greenspan. READ MORE

Hot Banh Khot

Vung Tau II, destined to be forever overshadowed by its brighter, more talented sibling Vung Tau Restaurant in San Jose, is worth checking out in its own right for its excellent banh khot, says echo. The crust on the outside of these little fried tasties is crisp, and the shrimp-laden interior is tender and custard-like. They are served so hot that even wrapped in cool herbs and lettuce and dunked in fish sauce, they are dangerous. At around $7, they’re a bit pricier than some other versions, but well worth it.

Also try the banh khot at Ngoc Mai, which, though not quite as good as the Vung Tau version, are totally worthwhile–so says zippo, who keeps going back and ordering them.

Vung Tau II Restaurant [South Bay]
1750 N. Milpitas Blvd., Milpitas

Ngoc Mai [Union Square]
547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

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shrimp cups at vung tau 2 (milpitas)–delicious
Ngoc Mai

Shanghai Fried Pork Buns

“This is the best tasting shan jean bao I’ve had outside of Shanghai,” says stanfordfoodie of the fried pork buns at Shanghai Flavor Shop. The bao are pan-fried crisp on the outside with a wonderfully soft layer just beneath. Inside, a good portion of meat is surrounded by juicy broth–be careful not to scald yourself as you bite down. The weirdest part–it’s good food near Stanford.

They also have great baked radish cake (baked buns with radish shreds inside).

Shanghai Flavor Shop [Peninsula]
888 Old San Francisco Rd., Sunnyvale

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Shanghai Flavor Shop in Sunnyvale

Pho Mac: Surprising Vietnamese on Staten Island

Pho Mac brings something unusual to Staten Island: genuine Vietnamese food. Open since November in the Graniteville neighborhood, it makes great spring rolls, lemongrass chicken, grilled pork chops, and pho, with tender meat in delicious broth, according to our first report. Prices are gentle: $10 to $13 for most entrees, $7 for big, filling bowls of soup, and just $6 to $7 for rice plates, which are served not only at lunchtime but all day.

“Usually we have to travel to Brooklyn for any authentic Asian food in this culinary wasteland,” writes Sandinyc. “The question is how long can it last on Staten Island?”

Pho Mac Vietnamese Restaurant [Staten Island]

1407 Richmond Ave., near Christopher Ln., Staten Island



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New Vietnamese on Staten Island

Royale: Backyard-Style Burgers in an East Village Bar

New York City’s latest hamburger contender is the East Village watering hole Royale. Hounds rank the well-reviewed newcomer up there with Corner Bistro and a step above neighborhood hangout Paul’s. “The burger lives up to the hype,” promises mas. It’s a loosely packed Black Angus patty, flame-broiled to order with a pleasing char, served with nicely melted American cheese on a toasted brioche bun from Tom Cat Bakery.

“They reminded me of burgers you would have in a backyard straight off a grill,” says wingman, “very juicy with a great bun.” duaoj1 approves of their manageable heft and height, which allow beef, bun and add-ons to fit comfortably in each bite.

Wedge fries are simple and good, though some find them under-seasoned. There’s a bacon option, but it’s skippable. And some detractors complain of overcooked and underwhelming meat. “Drinking helps the burgers at Royale,” sniffs sarapeater.

Royale [East Village]
157 Ave. C, near E. 10th St., Manhattan

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ROYALE–‘out of burgers’ at 8pm