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

Green and Black’s Chocolate Bars

The chocolate bars made by Green and Black’s are organic and very good; they’re available at Target stores and Whole Foods. Especially nice is their white chocolate. You needn’t be a white chocolate lover to enjoy it.

Their Maya Gold bar is flavored with orange; there’s also a mint chocolate, a 70% dark chocolate, and more–twelve flavors, in all. The holy grail of Green and Black’s bars is the butterscotch flavor, which isn’t available in the States. You can find them in the UK and Toronto.

The chocolate bars.

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Green and Blacks Butterscotch bar and white chocolate bar

Consider the Source

Last week’s news that the New York City Health Department wants to ban trans fats in restaurants atrracted lots of support.

But its detractors are legion, and the food-industry lobbying group Center for Consumer Freedom is fighting back. The organization (which is the polar opposite of the nutrition watchdog organization Center for Science in the Public Interest) is this week airing a television ad that is an over-the-top attempt to win sympathy for its side (and, presumably, the organization’s funders, a coalition of food, fast food, and tobacco corporations). In the ad, a little boy gets a delicious-looking ice cream cone literally ripped from his hands by the food police. He cries.

Of course, since the food industry has developed many substitutes for trans fats (although they might not be as convenient or cheap), no one will actually be ripping food from anyone’s hands. Even french fries can be produced using healthier fats than partially hydrogenated soybean oil. In the end, if the trans fat ban goes through, it probably won’t be little kids who are crying, but executives of fast food corporations.

Found, Not Farmed

The days are getting shorter. The light is fading to winter gray. And in forests all over the Western Hemisphere, mushrooms are popping up beneath burned-out pines and spreading oaks. It’s gotten so that all I can think about is going out and hunting. And I’m not the only one. The BBC News has an excellent video primer on how to forage for wild food (which they charmingly call “hedgerow food”), especially edible fungi. Similar mass-media guides for American would-be mushroom hunters are rare; Yanks tend to be so spooked by the dangers of wild ‘shrooms that no respectable publication would dare run a how-to feature on foraging.

Yet interest in foraging is starting to grow stateside, pushed along by the fresh/seasonal/organic movement. Michael Pollan’s seminal book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has a whole chapter on foraging that awoke a hunter-gatherer longing in many. But an interview with a Seattle-area forager in food blog the Ethicurean and an entry from personal blog Hoarded Ordinaries illustrate the problem with learning how to forage: You just can’t do it with books. In the Old World, you learned from your uncle or your mom what could be eaten and what couldn’t. In our supermarket age, there aren’t many people around to show you how and where to pick. Is the chanterelle you’ve found the real deal, or the false chanterelle that’ll kill you dead? Are those huckleberries or nightshade? It takes a lot of nerve to trust a picture in a field guide. Probably best to restrict your foraging to organized trips with experienced guides.

If you do manage to get your hands on some wild mushrooms, Sunset magazine has a great compendium of mushroom recipes. The morel-sherry gratin is to die for.

Edward Behr Rocks the Jura

The new quarterly installment of The Art of Eating is out, and it features a synapse-searing profile of wines from France’s Jura vineyards.

The feature rolls on for nearly 30 pages, detailing the region’s viticultural history, the area’s chief winemakers, the best food to pair with Jura wines, the “method versus soil” argument about what makes the wines distinctive, the unique flavor profile of the Jura’s famous vin jaune (“yellow wine”), and the best places to eat and shop the next time you find yourself hanging around Arbois.

The wine itself sounds like something best loved by connoisseurs; the writer, Edward Behr, builds up steam for several hundred words before confessing that the main flavor of vin jaune is often described as “rancid walnut,” albeit with some non-rancid nut undertones accompanied by notes of caramel and curry.

Specific sensory details aside, “Wines of the Jura” is everything a slightly unhinged oenophile could possibly want from a piece of writing. It’s elegant and well researched. It’s as sprawlingly detailed as the Manhattan Yellow Pages. And it’s mind-bendingly complete. This isn’t an article you browse or surf. It’s a story that you go and live in for a few days. And in an era when 300-word fluff features and … uh … food blogs define the way most edibles and potables get written about, it’s paradoxically refreshing.

Now, if we could just get Edward Behr to turn his Borgesian talents to the commercial history and cultural implications of the Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, we’d have some food writing that would really richochet around the blogosphere.

Great ‘Cue with Bob Garner, Two Pillars of Mexican Cooking, and a Deafening Honduran Pool Hall

Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina

What a thrill to meet Bob Garner, author of one of my favorite guidebooks—Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue.

Bob was generous enough to meet me and some friends for lunch at one of his favorite places: Allen & Son (6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; 919-942-7576). It was great to hear Bob’s barbecue wisdom in person, and I’ll share some audio highlights with you.

Podcast 1 —MP3 file:
We join in as Bob’s offering his thoughts on the places I hit yesterday.

Podcast 2 —MP3 file:
Bob weighs in on the delicate issue of “outside brown.”

Podcast 3 —MP3 file:
Bob offers a neophyte in our party a quick tutorial in North Carolina ‘cue:

Podcast 4 —MP3 file:
Background info on the incredible personal touch and energy applied by Allen & Son’s chef/owner, Keith Allen.

Podcast 5 —MP3 file:
Discussion and analysis of the hush puppies.

Podcast 6 —MP3 file:
Bob (who’s never visited our site) eloquently expresses the chowhounding ethos.

Podcast 7 —MP3 file: Bob’s further ponderings on the outside brown issue, left on my voicemail later that day.

I loved just about everything about Allen & Son. It’s truly benchmark barbecue, and sides and desserts are terrific, too. But one thing: Why on earth would chef/owner Keith Allen go to the trouble of whipping up great fresh desserts daily if he’s going to allow waiters to tragically destroy them by nuking before serving? Superb piecrust is rendered sodden; cobbler has its soul sucked out. It’s pure blasphemy.


Allen & Son.


Bob Garner addresses his rapt admirers.


Bob takes us around back.


Chopped barbecue sandwich.


Hush puppies.


Brunswick stew.


Pound cake and (homemade) ice cream.


Banana pudding.


Chocolate pie.


Coconut pie.


Peanut butter pie.

Chowhounding Durham

Chapel Hill is intensely charming and tightly zoned. It’s not the sort of place where one finds finds. But upon hearing that nearby Durham is more sprawling and less explored, I made a beeline and within minutes came upon the astonishing Taqueria El Paraiso (111 South Alston Avenue, Durham, North Carolina, 919-680-4728).

Paraiso means “paradise” in Spanish, but that’s not the half of it. This is a major point of culinary light. The best stuff here is vastly better than anything I had in Mexico (and companions with more Mexico experience than I were inclined to agree). Their menudo rocked my world. It was intensely garlicky, spiced to perfect balance, and layered as deftly as a top-tier fireworks display. The tripe was clean-tasting and tender. The secret ingredient? Ham hocks!

Their posole was even better. Food this good is hard to describe, but let me just say that whereas other posoles taste like soup, this one tasted like a symphony or a novel or a torrid romance. The sensation is too much for one avenue of perception alone, so the bliss overflows into synesthesia. I’m so glad to have had my camera along, because for some reason the Casio Exilim 750 has the magical ability to convey soul. Take a look!


Humble exterior belies greatness within.


The blessed menudo.


I forget what they call this, but it amounts to beef fajitas. The beef is insanely tender and bursting with soulful flavor, and it yearns (insofar as meat yearns) to soak up the garlicky sludge of black beans served alongside. Oh, and the rice alone is worth a trip to North Carolina.


Freshly handmade tortillas!


Tostadas for the posole are utterly greaseless and gushing with earthy corn flavor.


Tacos on great fresh tortillas. The salsa verde is the best I’ve ever tasted (the rojo is merely stunning).


The previous tacos were terrific, but the cabeza tacos (beef head —mostly cheek meat, I believe) are life-changing. Sure, the pool of oozing oil is a bit intimidating. But … gawd …

These guys are Oaxacan, by the way. They make a few customary moles, but everything’s from scratch in small quantities, so unless you arrive quite early, the specialty items will have run out. El Paraiso makes several varieties of tamales, and I was crushed not to get any in two visits (next time I’ll go at 9 a.m.). The wistful look in the eye of the counter guy indicated to me that they are magnificent.

I had a late-night supper in a Honduran pool hall, just on impulse upon driving by. Mi Pequeño Honduras (2201 North Roxboro Road, Durham, North Carolina; 919-220-3702) is quite a good venue for a pretty rare cuisine. But jaded by the superlativeness of earlier discoveries—plus the fact that I was pretty damned full—I failed to get as excited as I probably should have. In any normal day of chowhounding, this would have been quite a find indeed.

Baleada, a huge tortilla wrapped around curdy cheese and beans, was both interesting and delicious. Pupusas are more Salvadoran than Honduran, but I loved the kitchen’s take on them. They had a lively, sexy freshness, and the curtido (akin to cole slaw, the traditional pupusa accompaniment) was unusually spritely. Even in my delicate state, it took much self-discipline not to polish off the plate. I was less tempted by the tajadas con pollo frito, though. This was a perfectly OK deep-fried half bird strewn with perfectly fine fried green plantains and curtido. Not something to especially transport gringo food-lovers to Honduras, but good stuff for homesick immigrants.

Another factor in my underappreciation: The music was nothing short of bone-shattering. Get the idea from this short podcast. MP3 file

I didn’t want to stop again, being achingly full and exhausted, but I sensed grandeur and so ducked in for one last very-late-night check-out at a place right near Mi Pequeño Honduras, Taqueria Y Birreria Los Comales (2103 North Roxboro Road, Durham, North Carolina; 919-220-1614). I’ve seen restaurants like this before: a gleaming, bracingly efficient Mexican eatery clearly run by a very strict perfectionist owner who keeps an extremely tight ship. Hours are late, prices are fair, and service is brusque (the efficiency ethic irons out all the sweetness).

Every inch of the place is sparklingly clean—even the toppings/condiments bar at 1:30 a.m. They’ve earned a 98 out of 100 health rating, which is the best I’d seen in North Carolina. No corners are cut in the cooking, either. Everything’s done just right—both delicious and authentic enough to impress anyone. What more can you ask?

Well … soul! Buche (pork stomach) and birria de chivo (stewed goat) tacos were technically perfect and extraordinarily enjoyable, but lacked that loving feeling. As at Paraiso, tortillas are made fresh, but these are a tad cold-spirited (if these tortillas and the ones at Paraiso ever touched, the matter/antimatter reaction would implode the galaxy).

But it doesn’t matter. It’s just another sort of greatness. I wish I had time to stick around and work through the whole menu; there are things to learn, and everything is prepared so deftly that I could establish baselines on foods I’m less familiar with. I’ve never drunk such pristinely ricey horchata.

The menu at Los Comales includes a smattering of Salvadoran items, and I’d particularly like to try their pupusas. Maybe the Salvadoran chef has more warmth.

I don’t know any other Mexican eatery currently operating on the East Coast that can even begin to rival El Paraiso or Los Comales. And I need to get earplugs and return to Mi Pequeño Honduras sometime for more thorough checking. All in all, it was a rewarding day of free-form chowhounding. My streak remains intact!

Spinach: The Aftermath

As spinach creeps shamefacedly back onto grocery store shelves, officials are looking more suspiciously at the causes of the E. coli outbreak—and articles about it are getting a lot more interesting. This week, Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon provides an excellent analysis of what we can learn from the whole debacle, while New York Times reporter Marian Burros offers a roundup of smart recommendations to farmers, consumers, and supermarkets.

When the whole episode began, like many people I speculated that agricultural runoff had something to do with it. Bazelon marshals some good evidence for that theory:

The nation’s salad bowl turns out to be a pretty disgusting place. The Salinas and San Benito rivers and their tributaries course with agricultural runoff, including cattle waste from dairy farms. These waters are deemed “impaired” under the Clean Water Act, and farms in the region don’t irrigate from rivers. But sometimes, flooding spills water over the rivers’ banks and into fields. Another possible source of the E. coli is manure-based fertilizer, which some growers use (and which, amazingly, only organic farms are forbidden to use in raw form). Whatever the precise cause, the Salinas Valley has now been the source of nine E. coli outbreaks traced to spinach and lettuce since 1995. We know that its farming practices are making us sick.

Burros also quotes a UC Davis biologist and an FDA official hypothesizing a link between manure and the outbreak. Unfortunately, the latter agency has so few inspectors keeping an eye on the produce industry that it hasn’t really looked at the manure issue before: As Burros reports, “the F.D.A … has fewer than 2,000 inspectors for more than 120,000 facilities,” down from about 2,250 inspectors in 2003. “Even some high-risk foods are only inspected every two to four years,” she writes.

The government has its work cut out for it, but supermarkets and shoppers can help keep something like this from happening again, Burros reports: Everyone should treat produce as though it were meat, refrigerating it immediately after purchase and washing any surfaces that have come into contact with cut produce. (Washing won’t get rid of E. coli, of course, but it’s still a good idea for eliminating about 90 percent of fruit-and veggie-philic microorganisms.)

While Burros avoids any discussion of local- versus industrial-scale produce distribution, Bazelon concludes with a great point about the need for convenient grocery stores that sell local produce whenever possible and label the rest of their fruit and veggie offerings. I bet our poor writer Diane Mehta, whose quest for such a store led her into into all sorts of trouble at the Park Slope Food Co-op, would get behind that.

Let the Barbecue Begin

Winston-Salem, North Carolina (and environs)

Family Diner (7911 North Carolina Highway 68 North, Stokesdale, North Carolina; 336-643-8853) is killer, a serious revelation. It left me shaken and giddy, as you’ll hear in the following podcast (note: I was way too ecstatic to attend to things like recording level, so the sound’s pretty bad. But this meal was a watershed moment for me, and I feel fortunate to have emerged with even this damaged fragment). MP3 file

Note that Family Diner is just the name in the Yellow Pages. As best as I can determine, the restaurant has no formal name.

Could you resist stopping here?

The bill of fare

Ruby fries are not red. They’re fries in the style of a woman named Ruby —one among a daily rotating list of chefs (including Jimmy, creator of the eponymous burger).

But how can anyone eat food this great without swearing?

Teeth strictly optional. Food needn’t have texture to be great.

No need to wait till September 23; just scarf the chicken and dumplings.

On impulse, Tom Philpott (from Maverick Farms, who accompanied today) and I pulled over to check out a small, tidy rural fish store run by an old, kindly African-American man. His inventory consisted of a few bags of cornmeal and a dozen or two fish (not sure what kind) so fresh and clear-eyed that the fisherman must be a blood relative. The store had no fishy smell at all. I tried to hit up the owner for chow tips, but he directed us toward the sprawl. Finally deciding that there was just no use to be made of a large raw fish during a two-month car trip, I bought a bag of self-rising cornmeal and headed back to the car.

As we walked down the sidewalk, another mystical guide (see the “spirit guide” portion of report #7) appeared. A middle-aged white man in an orange baseball hat missing a quantity of teeth, who’d been in the store, had come out on the sidewalk and was yelling at us. Resisting the impulse to run, we hesitantly walked back and learned that he was asking what sort of restaurant we were looking for. We said barbecue. He sent us, with great authority, to Hill’s Lexington Barbecue (4005 Patterson Avenue, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-767-2184).


I loved the place, though their sauce is way too sweet for Carolina taste (being less doctrinaire, I wasn’t bothered a bit), plus it does seem hyperbolic of them to advertise as “The Original Lexington Barbecue” when they’re not even in Lexington.

Check out the feast we ordered:



Back row, left to right: string beans, creamed potatoes, fried squash, hush puppies. Front row, left to right: chopped barbecue sandwich, sliced barbecue with outside brown, (red) slaw, baked beans.

Before you read further, I need to bring you up to date on my unfolding knowledge of “outside brown.” The following is an article I wrote just after my last North Carolina barbecue trip:

Going Brown

As a food writer, I don’t spend much time contemplating my personal likes and dislikes. It’s my role to be a chameleon, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Malaysian fish head curry even if I’d privately prefer to be scarfing pizza. My goal is to appreciate things on their own terms. So I rarely order what I feel like eating; I order what I suspect the place does best, and aim to gauge the objective quality of foods that I may not subjectively prefer.

With that in mind, I must confess: I’ve never loved North Carolina barbecue. I’ll rave over it when it’s good, I’ll drive hours out of my way for a top rendition, I treasure my Lexington Barbecue T-shirt, and I can triangulate location without the use of maps, simply via subtleties in the vinegar/tomato balance. But to me, frankly, this style of barbecue offers few of the pleasures of barbecue to the south or west. There’s no sublime juxtaposition of crunch, chaw, and meltingness; it’s just a mass of uniform pork meat packed into a sandwich. This is, after all, ‘cue in a hamburger bun, and the best that can be hoped for, in truth, is a sloppy Joe with moist, well-chopped meat and a decent balance of sauce. That, plus tiny variations in smoke quantity and quality, is what differentiates great North Carolina ‘cue.

But then I found God. And God is Brown. Or, at least, He orders Brown.

Let me explain. I’d seen passing references to lesser-known ways of ordering Carolina barbecue but figured they were esoteric variations on the same basic thing, which I ignored in my efforts to immerse in the fundamentals. Nobody, damn them, ever gripped my shoulders and told me I was missing everything. I’ve read twenty jagillion barbecue books, and none of them explained that there is one, and only one, way to eat Carolina barbecue.

Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue was no exception. It mentions that “with outside brown” is a hip order in certain places. Again, it’s offered as a mere variation, like a soy milk latte. Wrong. Brown is the crunchy skin and the meat right near the brown crunchy skin. It is essential, and all the metric tonnage of Carolina barbecue prepared and consumed sans Brown is wrong and ungenerous and woefully incomplete —in truth, not quite really barbecue. Brown should never have been withheld; it’s precisely the thing I’d always found missing. Brown is crunchy and succulent. Brown is salty and smoky and deep. It is the yang to the yin; the prosciutto to the melon; the hot ironing and lemon juice that expose the invisible writing and make the paper convey A MESSAGE!

NC barbecue ordered with Brown is like your first taste of fresh-filled cannoli. No, it’s so much more than that. It’s like having a really great burger after a lifetime of Wendy’s. No, it’s like your first lasagna after the taste bud transplant. I’m struggling here, but stay with me. In one bite I went from appreciating Carolina barbecue in an intellectual food-writerish sort of way to appreciating it in an I’m-selling-all-my-belongings-and-moving-down-here sort of way. Genre utterly redefined, attention riveted, appointments dropped, cholesterol swelled, lapels stained, political party switched, Jesus Christ adopted as personal savior. Finally, I got it!

After the reverie of my first bite wound down, I expected to look up and find myself in utter harmony with the rapture around me. I, the big-city Yankee rube, had been ordering wrong lo these many years, but North Carolinians would now spiritually welcome me into their fold. To my extreme anguished shock, however, I seemed to be the only person in the room eating barbecue with Brown. Almost none of the locals were hip enough to know. THEY WERE EATING THEIR OWN FOOD WRONG!

The Buddhists say that a sure sign of enlightenment is a powerful urge to awaken one’s fellow beings. And this is how I know that Brown is Good: As I worked blissfully through my sandwich, I found myself noticing my fellow eaters who’d not yet found Brown, and pangs of pity drove me to wonder how I could show them the light. I asked a waitress why everyone didn’t order Brown, and she hemmed and hawed, and finally whispered, with some embarrassment, the answer:

If everyone ordered Brown, there wouldn’t be enough for all.

So don’t pass the word, OK? Save it only for those righteous enough to merit the Good News.

Armed with my new hip ordering strategy, I ordered sliced barbecue with outside brown at Hill’s. It looked great:

... but was actually pretty dry and unpleasant. Outside brown is not always, it seems, the hip strategy. The bits of non-brown barbecue were pretty great, though. And Hill’s regular chopped barbecue sandwich was tender and very good (even with that heretical sauce).

I should have ordered sliced regular, and not resorted to oustide brown. Live and learn. Anyway, the hush puppies were terrific (it’s becoming a ritual for me to deem each new hush puppy the best I’ve ever had, but that’s just evidence that the trip’s going well!).

Excellent, excellent banana pudding, with lots of meringue and ‘Nilla Wafers mixed in:

Looking for ‘Cue in All the Wrong Places
We had, er, some trouble locating a legendary barbecue place called Wild Hogs. Hear all about it in this podcast: MP3 file. Warning: This podcast is rated R for vulgar language and shocking accounts of lewd and deviant behavior.

Finally, on to Short Sugar’s (234 South Scales Street, Reidsville, North Carolina; 336-349-9128), a local legend not well known outside the area.

Short Sugar’s is, as you can see, super down-home, with open kitchen and open pit, and everyone involved talking and hanging out with you as you eat at the counter —plus lots of cross-talk with other customers. I vastly prefer this back-of-the-house ambiance, which is rare in North Carolina, though it suits barbecue so well.

We ordered a minced (their term for chopped) barbecue sandwich and a sliced sandwich. No fooling around with outside brown; we just took it straight. It was wonderful, coming with white cole slaw (places to the west add a bit of sauce to tint the slaw red) and intense hush puppies.

Like Hill’s, Short Sugar’s also uses a heretical sauce: Theirs is dark and sweet. The minced/chopped ‘cue takes to this sauce better, as greater meat surface area injects more smoky counterpoint. But sliced is great here, too. As Tom notes, it’s the perfect texture—super-tender but not stringy.

North Carolina Barbecue Joint Chowscape
Groove on some ambient sound at Short Sugar’s BBQ—punctuated by Tom and me trying to figure it all out. Listen with headphones for best effect. You Are (Eating) There! MP3 file

A Whole Lotta Bannin’ Going On

On popular food blog Megnut, Michael Ruhlman writes a thoughtful analysis of the latest foie gras flap (the second East Coast proposed food ban this week): New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Panter’s bill to ban the sale of the fatty liver in the state, set to be introduced next week. It appears that Ruhlman actually broke the news—his post ran Wednesday, while the AP story about the bill didn’t appear until yesterday. Ruhlman’s post is based on a tip phoned in by Anthony Bourdain, who followed up with this post on eGullet.

Both Bourdain and Ruhlman do a good job articulating the problems with the proposed ban. As Bourdain points out, foie gras is crucial in the kitchen, a “primary color” in a chef’s palette. And he says that New Jersey–based D’Artagnan, a small specialty-foods company that imports foie and other duck and goose products (which is owned by Ariane Daguin, whom Bourdain compares to Julia Child in her influence on the food world), would likely be put out of business by such a ban. Ruhlman has a political take:

The foie issue embodies the hypocrisy and corruption of so much of how our government operates. That our public officials continue to spend their time and our dollars on this is ludicrous. If they cared about their state and their country, they would address the catastrophe of how we’re raising agri-hogs. That’s truly inhumane. We’re trashing our land and water, growing crappy food, contaminated chicken, feed lot beef and creating lakes of sewage polluted with e coli that gets on our spinach and kills our kids.

In a post about Ruhlman’s piece, titled simply “ARRRRGGGHHHHH!!!,” Accidental Hedonist wonders how New Jersey farmers, hard-hit by the spinach scare, will react to this second slap in the face.

Another N.J. legislator hopes to soften the blow by striking a compromise: Her alternate bill wouldn’t ban the sale of foie gras, but it would require producers in the state to make the liver without force-feeding. I have a feeling that’s impossible—although, according to chef Eve Felder (quoted by Ruhlman last month at Megnut), ducks naturally gorge before migrating, so perhaps they could be coaxed into fattening their own livers? Hmmm. Felder also mentions that ducks don’t have a gag reflex, so the process of force-feeding doesn’t hurt them. I’d always been pretty much on board with the animal-rights arguments against foie gras (which, admittedly, sometimes just meant that I’d have a moment of guilt before chowing down if the dish was put in front of me), but Felder’s unexpected account has made me rethink that stance.

What’s your take—is this ban an unnecessary curtailment of consumer freedom? Or should chefs find other “primary colors” and ditch the foie?

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