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

Five Loaves Worth Crossing the Atlantic For

This month, Budget Travel features a short story on the best baguettes in Paris. While the idea is slightly goofy (is it possible for an observant person to buy a bad baguette in Paris?), the finalists are intriguing.

Like a guide to getting a killer slice of pizza in New York or a great bratwurst in Milwaukee, the story packs a certain duh factor—is it even possible to screw up this kind of mission?

Well, yes—of course it is. Mediocre food exists everywhere, even when high community standards for particular local favorites beat it into the shadowy underworld where it belongs.

Besides, the Budget Travel piece is less a celebration of the platonically ideal baguette than a broader survey of some of the more imaginative yet respectful efforts to bring bread into l’ère nouvelle.

One of the most intriguing is the Puissance Dix baguette from fancypants hotspot Bread & Roses:

Literally translated, the name means ‘the power of 10,’ a reference to the 10 flours—including chestnut, buckwheat, corn, and rye—incorporated into the dough.

But for my Euro, I’d take the Baguette Tzara at Au Duc de la Chapelle. It’s free of sourdough starter (resulting in a sweet flavor); made from dough that’s hand kneaded for a light, airy, moist texture; and surrounded by a slightly caramel-tasting crust. And it’s even named after one of the 20th century’s coolest dadaists.

Star Search

Does the word healthy actually mean anything when it’s on the label of a processed food?

Athough the federal government may set up guidelines for its use, those guidelines can be somewhat, shall we say, unstringent. But there are organizations that are taking the matter into their own hands. In New England, the Hannaford Brothers grocery chain has, with the assistance of nutritionists and a physician, developed a star system, doling out one, two, or three stars to products on their shelves from soup to nuts.

Bad-for-you products get no stars, and surprisingly it’s not just bags of Ruffles in that club, but also items like V8 vegetable juice, Lean Cuisine frozen dinners, and Healthy Request soups from Campbell’s. In fact, 77 percent of products evaluated got no stars at all.

In this story from The New York Times (requires registration), there are some enlightening quotes from food manufacturers about the grocery chain’s star system:

‘We don’t like the idea that there are good and bad foods out there, and these sort of arbitrary rating systems,’ said John Faulkner, director of brand communication at the Campbell Soup Company. The Healthy Request line of soup, he said, was ‘aligned with the government definition of what healthy is.’

Hannaford isn’t pulling unhealthy products from its shelves, or even telling people not to buy cookies or chips. They’ve just spent their own money to create a panel to evaluate nutritional content and help consumers make choices. Props to them. With so many packaged food and health claims out there, it would be great to shop in a store that simplified things.

And as for all the no-stars products out there, nutrition guru Marion Nestle is quoted in the Times article:

The poor marks doled out by Hannaford show ‘what happens when an independent group sets the criteria.’

Take that, FDA.

Eating Grass

Your heart goes out to those poor feedlot cows, it does. You want them to be happy and healthy, romping merrily through the pasture, rather than, say, standing knee-deep in manure with their rumens distended by too much government-subsidized cheap corn as they await their next round of antibiotics and weight-boosting hormones.

Then again, we’re talking about meat here, and you do like a fine, juicy steak. Does a steer raised the way nature intended taste better than USDA prime? Last week, online magazine Slate put its budget to work, letting lucky writer Mark Schatzker and pals taste-test five different slabs of beef. Conventionally raised Angus, both wet and dry aged, went up against Wagyu (the same strain of steer used for Japan’s famous Kobe beef), grass-raised but grain-finished beef from Niman Ranch, and all-grass steaks from Alderspring Ranch.

Think you can guess the winner? Yep, it’s grass fed by a mile. And surprisingly, the dry-aged, grass-fed steaks, at $21.50 a pound, turn out to be the most affordable, significantly cheaper than the $40/pound Wagyu and $35/pound dry-aged prime. Sometimes eating well is its own reward.

Mexican Street Bites at Calexico and Snack Dragon

Soho isn’t promising territory for Mexican street chow, but Calexico aims to change that. This cart operation, launched in July by three brothers from Southern California, offers border Mexican–tacos, burritos, and quesadillas with flavors described as “equal parts Mexican taqueria and American barbecue pit.”

Hounds are buying it. Chipotle pork–slow-cooked meat in smoky sauce–is heavenly in tacos ($3) or burritos ($7), with a shot of extra flavor from pickled onions and tomatillo sauce, says livetotravel. Also recommended: chicken tacos, carne asada (marinated skirt steak), and grilled corn (with cotija cheese, chile powder and lime). “Super fresh and flavorful,” declares NateV, “some of the best Cal-Mex in New York City–and to be honest, better than most of what you get on the Left Coast.” The carne asada is a signature dish, which you can buy by the pound to cook at home; order ahead by phone or e-mail (calexicocart@hotmail.com). Calexico is open weekdays from 11 a.m. till 3 or 4 p.m.–or whenever they run out of food.

In the East Village, a street stand called Snack Dragon has won a following among night owls with tacos made from unusually fresh ingredients–not south-of-the-border authentic, but more Southwestern style. Fish tacos ($4) are superb, says ningerma–grilled sole, delicious red cabbage-chipotle slaw, lime, and cilantro on a blue corn tortilla. Other taco fillings include chicken in salsa verde, quinoa, and tasty carne asada–all come with cheese, homemade salsa, cilantro, sour cream, and great black beans with an alluring floral undertone.

Snack Dragon, opened last year by a painter and onetime bartender, surfaced in its current location this summer after a few months’ hiatus (it originally occupied a shack around the corner, outside a deli-grocery on Avenue B). It gets going after 6 p.m. and stays open extra-late, till around 4 a.m., on Friday and Saturday nights.

Calexico [Soho]
Wooster and Prince Sts., NE corner, Manhattan
646-234-4728
Map

Snack Dragon Taco Shack [East Village]
199 E. 3rd St., at Ave. B, Manhattan
Map

Board Links
Snack Dragon–Any daring souls?
Excellent Mexican Soft Tacos, Grilled Corn, Etc at cart on Wooster and Prince.
The search for great FISH TACOS continues…please help!

Fallen Biscuit Rises Again; and Other New York News

It’s lights out for Night and Day. The Park Slope restaurant and performance venue, which survived a rocky start and eventually won over hounds with hearty, comforting American chow, has closed its doors. Opening in its place is the reincarnation of Biscuit, a barbecue house that closed in 2005 a few blocks away. Hounds are less than thrilled at the return of an eatery they never much liked in its previous digs on Flatbush Avenue. But most seem willing to give it a chance, if only for the bar and promised live blues. “Hopefully they have a better recipes than before,” says lambretta76.

In Queens, change is afoot at Ploes, and it doesn’t sound good. The Greek seafood grill has new cooks, a drastically pared-down menu, and much higher prices. “I’m sad the old Ploes is gone–it was amazing,” laments Rover.

In New Jersey, hot dog destination Syd’s is on the move. Its lease ran out at Union’s Millburn Mall, so it will reopen in Springfield, where it will share space with a luncheonette called Tony’s, reports hotdoglover. Look for Syd’s to resume serving its fat all-beef dogs (grilled or boiled) sometime early in November.

Finally, there’s good news from the Jersey Shore, where the Keyport Fishery has gone from the fire back to the frying pan. Just two months after it burned down, the 70-year-old fish shack has reopened and is once again dishing up crowd-pleasing fried shrimp and scallops.

Biscuit [Park Slope]
230 5th Ave., at President St., Brooklyn
718-399-2161
Map

Ploes [Astoria]
33-04 Broadway, at 33rd St., Astoria, Queens 11106
718-278-1133
Locater

Syd’s [Union County]
moving to…234 Morris Ave., in Tony’s Place, Springfield, NJ
973-564-8001
Map

Keyport Fishery [Monmouth County]
150 W. Front St., between Broadway and Beers St., Keyport, NJ
732-264-9723
Locater

Board Links
Biscuit BBQ is opening tonight on 5th Ave. & President
Keyport Fishery Reopens
Ploes
Night & Day closes–“Biscuit” is coming…
Syd’s New Jersey

Soulful Salt Cod at Kurio

When salt cod turns up as a special at Kurio, it’s worth a try. A recent dinner of Portuguese-style bacalhau was superb, reports Dave Feldman: funky, flavorful cod with huge hunks of sweet potato and just enough tomato to cut the sweetness and richness.

For the uninitiated, this low-key neighborhood gem is not a Portuguese restaurant, but serves an eclectic, often-changing menu with flavors from all over the map–the Mediterranean, Asia, Latin America. “Kurio is one of my favorite places to eat or drink on the East Side,” Dave writes, “not the least because of the quiet, relaxed vibe, the interesting folks in the neighborhood, the excellent drinks, and the wonderful family that runs it.”

Kurio [Upper East Side]
338 E. 92nd St., between 1st and 2nd Aves.
Manhattan, NY
212-828-1267
Locater

Board Links
Bacalau at Kurio on 92nd St. on Between 1/2nd Ave.

Best Pumpkin Bread

rworange’s favorite pumpkin bread in the area is at Semifreddi’s Bakery, moist with lots of raisins. Bakesale Betty makes a great version, too, without raisins. It’s moist with a nice ginger flavor.

Sophia C. likes the moist, raisinless pumpkin bread at Virginia Bakery.

The versions at Fat Apples and House of Bread are dry and lacking in pumpkin flavor, says rworange, although the white bread is excellent at both establishments.

Semifreddi’s Bakery [East Bay]
372 Colusa Ave., Kensington
510-596-9935
Locater

Bakesale Betty [Temescal]
5098 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
510-289-550
Locater

Virginia Bakery [East Bay]
1690 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
510-848-6711
Locater

Fatapple’s Restaurant [East Bay]
1346 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Berkeley
510-526-2260
Locater

Fatapple’s Restaurant [East Bay]
7525 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito
510-528-3433
Locater

House of Bread [East Bay]
841 San Pablo Avenue, Albany
510-524-5126
Map

Board Links
Best pumpkin bread?

Turkey to Go

If you don’t feel like preparing a turkey this year, you can get one from Mollie Stone’s, all prepared and ready to pop in the oven for about an hour before serving. A turkey weighing 12-14 pounds will run you about $50, says OnceUponABite. Sebby likes their prepared turkey–it’s not dry at all. You can also buy stuffing and gravy to go with it.

Or you could go to Chinatown, where the barbecue stands usually roast a couple of turkeys along with all the ducks and chickens. Reserve one ahead of time to be sure they don’t sell out. Melanie Wong has seen them sell quarter and half turkeys, too.

Mollie Stone’s [Areawide]

Chinatown Barbecue Stands [Chinatown]

Board Links
Prepared Turkey for Thanksgiving?

Ceviche With a Splash of Lima

Of the Peruvian restaurants around town, Los Balcones del Peru still seems to be the front-runner. Go for anything with seafood, especially the sparkling fresh ceviche (the house blend of calamari–both fried and raw–fish, and shrimp is outstanding). They also do pretty tasty anticuchos (Peruvian kebabs).

Saltados (stir-fries made with French fries) aren’t Balcones’ strong suit, though–you’ll find better stuff at Mario’s or El Rocoto, where modernist loves the seafood rice and other fish dishes. Hounds report mixed experiences, though.

The venerable Don Felix is known among Peruvian expats as the place to go for Peruvian breakfast before church. Warning: it ends early.

Chubbypanda’s default stop for Peruvian eats is Peruvian Kitchen, where they do a fine aguadito de pollo–a long-simmered chicken soup that’s green with parsley.

El Pollo Inka in Lawndale, the superior branch in this local chain, also has delicious aguadita de pollo, says elmomonster.

Los Balcones Del Peru [Hollywood]
formerly Toi on Vine
1360 Vine St., Los Angeles
323-871-9600
Locater

Mario’s Peruvian [Hollywood]
5786 Melrose Ave., Vine, Los Angeles
323-466-4181
Locater

El Rocoto Restaurant [Artesia-ish]
11433 South St., Cerritos
562-924-1919
Locater

El Rocoto [South Bay]
1356 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena
310-768-8768
Locater

Don Felix Restaurant [East Hollywood]
4435 Fountain Ave., Virgil, Los Angeles
323-669-7575
Locater

Don Felix Restaurant [East Hollywood]
305 N. Virgil Ave., Beverly, Los Angeles
323-663-1088
Locater

Peruvian Kitchen [South OC]
8610 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley
714-847-7555
Locater

El Pollo Inka [South Bay]
15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale
310-676-6665
Locater

Board Links
Los Balcones del Peru–PK’s Review w/pics
Peruvian soup

For the Filipina Soul, it’s Mami

Mami is a fusion dish from a nation that’s full of them. And for a Chinese-Filipino invention, it’s basically chicken noodle soup.

The mami at Asian Noodles meets the Filipina mom test, says pleasurepalate, with flavorful broth perked up by a few scallions, noodles cooked just right and tender meat (you can get chicken and/or pork). It’s pretty mild stuff, but classic comfort food. Note that you can get mami with wontons, too–they’re tasty, but weirdly hard, like compressed Spam.

Siopao (bao, or steamed bun) is mami’s traditional partner–try bola bola siopao, filled with chicken, pork, sausage, and salted egg. The salted egg cuts the sweetness of the other ingredients.

The Glendale location of Asian Noodles is significantly grimier (C rated) and smaller than the downtown location.

Asian Noodles [Chinatown]
643 N. Spring St., Los Angeles
213-617-1083
Locater

Board Links