The CHOW Blog rss

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

Rich, Dark, Chocolatey Justice

Now that Norwegian police have recovered “The Scream”, the marketing types over at the Mars candy company are claiming credit for the painting’s recovery. The Motley Fool reports that a Mars subsidiary is citing its bounty of two million Dark Chocolate M&Ms offered for the return of the Edvard Munch masterwork.

A bounty, it should be noted, that they actually intend to pay — although details of how and to whom have yet to be clarified.

An important work of public service by a major corporate player, no doubt. But more importantly, it heralds the exciting day when Mars — after more than a year of flirting with the idea — actually pumps up the distribution of their reasonably tasty dark M&Ms. The things are damn near impossible to find. And they’re actually kind of good.

Philadelphia: Southeast Asian, Shrimp, and the Young Crab Men

Note: Those with limited reading time should scroll down to the “Northern Philadelphia” part, where things started getting amazing.

Downtown

Glatt kosher Maccabeam Restaurant has an unfinished quality to it that’s hard to pin down. You can get the vibe just from looking at the exterior:

I immediately suspected the menu to be land-mined with misses as well as hits, and I stumbled right into one of the former, even after having been warned.

I’d asked the waitress if they really make latkes (potato pancakes), which aren’t usually restaurant food. She answered “yes” in the halting hesitant rhythm that waitresses use to send coded messages. She was telling me to avoid the latkes at all costs. But I never met a latke I couldn’t eat, so I ordered one anyway, along with a falafel sandwich. Assuming I wasn’t hip enough to pick up her signal, she concluded I was a rube and tried the oldest trick in the book.

“That’s ALL? Just a latke and falafel sandwich?” she asked, in wide-eyed disbelief. I grinned, stared her in the eye, and replied “Yeah, just THAT.” I’d seen through the ploy, in spite of my latke gullibility. Perplexed, she retreated to the kitchen.

My order arrived, and … let’s not discuss the latke (suffice to say I spit out my sole bite). My bad. But let’s talk a LOT about the falafel, which was the best Israeli falafel I’ve ever had. This rule of thumb is so exception-prone that some would deem it useless, but I’ll state it nonetheless: Israeli falafel tends to be golden, made from chickpeas, whereas Arabic and North African falafel tends to be greenish and made from fava beans (and herbs). This was chickpea falafal, it was gloriously loose (it burst into microchunks at the mere proximity of molars), and it was optimally crusty in the right places and richly moist in others. This was killer falafel, though the rest of the sandwich—pita, tahini, and salad—was merely functional.

God bless seven-megapixel cameras; the takeout menu is readable in this shot.

Washington Avenue

Philadelphia is blooming with chow. There’s a fairly musty Chinatown, but also a vibrant and burgeoning Vietnamese/Chinese area on Washington Avenue, anchored by the Wing Phat Plaza shopping center (1122–1138 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

Inside the plaza is Pho 75 (1122 Washington Avenue; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 215-271-5866), a very good-looking place for Vietnamese meat soup. It passed the all-essential smell test: If you don’t smell a deep, soulful, herbal aroma upon cracking open the front door, a pho place is no good. Pronunciation tip: Pronounce “pho” like “funk” without the “nk.” And raise your voice, as if asking a question.

Wait; I just noticed that this is a branch of the famous Pho 75 of northern Virginia, which makes my favorite rendition! I should have tried it; if it’s as good as the Arlington location, this place is worth a trek from NYC, which has no great pho. Even better, maybe the chain will keep spreading northward. All join hands in prayer.

There’s also a swell-looking Vietnamese noodle shop and other good stuff inside. And Hung Vuong (1122 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-336-2803), a large Asian supermarket, has a barbecued-meat counter selling very tasty (and reasonably priced) ready-to-eat ribs and other meats.

Further down Washington Avenue is an interesting, brand-new place, BaoBaoHao Chinese Seafood (1100 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-463-2981).

Here’s the menu:


You’ll notice that the menu lists enough Southeast Asian fare to make one suspect that, in spite of the name, this isn’t a Chinese place at all. But it’s very likely the other way around. The vast majority of Southeast Asian restaurants, both here as well as in Southeast Asia, are Chinese owned. Resourceful Chinese chefs learn how to produce local dishes there, just as they conjure up fried chicken wings and egg rolls here in America. My theory is that these guys are Chinese from Malaysia with Vietnamese sympathies.

I caught the grand opening of Saigon Tofu (215-339-0388), which makes their own very good tofu and pretty good Vietnamese bakery items. They also have steam tables with prepared Vietnamese tofu dishes. To my knowledge, there’s nothing like this in New York.


I was so sorry not to have time to actually try a meal at wonderful-looking Café de Laos (1117 South 11th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-467-1546).

Terrific-looking place, no? Their takeout menu particularly intrigued me:


Laotian is a very rare cuisine in this part of the country—I know of no Laotian in the New York tristate area. New York is missing far more things than most people realize. One travels to fill such gaps!

And if Café de Laos rang my chowhound bells, Taqueria la Veracruzana (908 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-465-1440) conked me over the head.

Driving by, I was sure it was great, and having gone in, grabbed a menu, and scanned plates, I’d bet my chowmobile these are among the best tacos in Philly. I also got a good vibe from the fish store/restaurant next door, Anastasi Seafood Ristorante (Ninth and Washington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-462-0550). The place is less than no-frills, but the store has a fresh smell, and a fresh-smelling fish store with scattered tables inside for eating is an opportunity one must never pass up.

I passed it up, though (this sort of rigorous chowconnaissance work requires much sacrifice and trusting of instinct re places that “look good”), because I needed to head to north Philadelphia to scout expensive shrimp bars.

Northern Philadelphia: The Search for Extravagant Shrimp (and More)

In the poor, largely African-American northern reaches of Philly, there are bars with inexpensive drinks, inexpensive bar snacks, and extravagantly priced shrimp. We’re talking $15 to $20 for a half-dozen shrimp. I’ve never understood this phenomenon. As a jazz trombonist, I’ve hung out and performed in black bars all over the country, but I’ve never spotted extravagant shrimp elsewhere. Only in north Philadelphia.

What could be a shaggy dog story has an ending that’s both unsatisfying and triumphant. My quest was complete before I really started. I spotted, seconds after entering the nabe, Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe and fell immediately in love.

I can’t entirely grasp the extent of Sid Booker’s empire, but “The Colonel of Shrimp” certainly has a lot more going on than the small bulletproof takeout window at the corner of his vast pink edifice at 4600 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-329-4455.

This window was the only portion open at midday, but it sure expelled some mean shrimp. Let me back up, though, to the moment of my arrival at Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe, whereupon I pulled over, whipped out my camera, and started photographing the exterior through my car window. A rough-looking fellow in a van that was randomly driving by pulled up right next to me and, scowling in mistrust and malevolence, asked me who I was suing. I replied sunnily that I wasn’t suing anyone, and explained that I was, in fact, a food writer out to find the best shrimp in Philadelphia—and that I suspected I may have just hit pay dirt with Mr. Booker, the Colonel of Shrimp. Scowl turned to puzzlement, and then resolved into a glimmer of respect. “Man, those are the BEST MOTHERF*ING SHRIMP IN TOWN!” he hollered, driving off.

The Indian yoga masters write about “devas,” spirit guides who roam the earth directing human beings through rough times. I was sure I’d just encountered a chowhound deva—with neon wheel rims and a really, really loud stereo, no less.

Coughing in the dust he’d kicked up, but emboldened by his guidance, I stepped up to the window and ordered. The waitress asked me which of a half-dozen seasonings I wanted on my fried shrimp (cocktail sauce, hot sauce, salt-n-pepper, and a bunch of other things listed too fast to catch). I said “Salt and pepper.”

“That’s it? Just salt and pepper?” she asked, strangely parroting the glatt kosher waitress at Maccabeam Restaurant earlier in the day. I asked her to also add hot sauce.

“Nothing else?”

“Well,” I stammered, uneasily, “what else is good?”

“You could have cocktail sauce,” she suggested.

“OK, yeah. Cocktail sauce, too, please.”

“Do you LIKE cocktail sauce?” she asked, having telepathically surmised my aversion to cocktail sauce.

“Sure I do!” I lied.

The bulletproof window slid shut and she went to work, eventually handing me out a boat of fried shrimp and a boat of french fries.

They weren’t, as I’d feared, gloppy with multiple sauces. It was almost as if fries and shrimp had been tossed in a wok with hot sauce (I don’t think she’d applied cocktail sauce). The thinnest film was dried on, crunch was retained, counterpointed with a few happily soggy spots. I discovered that adding ample salt and pepper to Trappy’s Red Devil creates an entirely different result from any of those seasonings on their own. The shrimp were excellent, but the french fries were screamingly good. I think you can get a sense of them from this photo (I’m not a very good photographer, so if this evokes any emotional reaction in you, it’s purely the result of my own overflowing feelings for my subject. With that in mind, please view the french fries and know that you are seeing and feeling what I saw and felt):

Since Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe is a bar (and, I’m certain, much, much more), I feel that I fulfilled my extravagant shrimp mission, even though the bar was closed at this time. And these suckers WERE expensive, at $18.50 per dozen. But I still don’t understand why North Philly has developed this culture of expensive shrimp bars. I’ll have to keep hammering away at the puzzle.

Then I hit gold. I found young kids working in a tarp-covered roadside shack, in the poorest part of North Philly, cooking crabs with incredible skill. They worked amid buckets of squirming crabs and buckets of spicy cooked crabs (the spice blend was nothing you’ve ever had before—I think the kids just went to the grocery and bought random spice bottles and shook indiscriminantly, but it’s pure genius).
These are by far the best crabs I’ve ever had. Hear the story of their discovery in this podcast: MP3 file. Please understand that you’re hearing a recording made in a car strewn with severed bits of crab, as if a Tasmanian devil had whipped through the area. My clothes were stained and greasy from head to foot, my hands were completely caked with spices, my lips were swollen with chile—the whole scene must have looked straight out of Silence of the Lambs.

As I say in the podcast, they are near the intersection of Taney and Burkes. As with all previous investigations I’ve done in Philadelphia, it’s as if I dreamed it. Because there is no intersection of Taney and Burkes I can find on any map. Some things must remain a bit mysterious. But at least I have photos:

These young kids were cooking and serving the crabs with unearthly skill and panache.

Alas, my only photo of the staging buckets of crabs turned out blurry. Yet the vibe is still palpable, so I’m leaving this shot in:

Cool mural on the side of the building gets you in the mood for seafood:

My bag of crab … seconds before I devoured it like a crazed animal:

UPDATE:

SUCCESS! The spelling is “Berks,” not “Burkes,” so the locale has
been found and mapped!

North Taney Street and West Berks Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19121.

Unfortunately, I did not spot the Florida Boy’s Street Barbecue truck, which I’d last come upon years ago after countless hours of tracking. My notes from that encounter are sketchy, and Eartha, my GPS navigation concierge, couldn’t make sense out of them (and I had no maps). If you’d like to search for this truck yourself, here are some raw clues. I’m quoting from my scribbled notes:

Delfield and 18th (on Delfield). Or near Woode’s Poing (whatever that is). Or try 16th and Hunting Park Ave.

Happy hunting!

Lukewarm Repast

Bravo is replaying Top Chef’s first season to whet viewers’ appetites for the season two, set to premiere October 18. But if anything, a second look at the show makes its flaws more glaring.

Yes, Katie Lee Joel (who was axed from the second season) has a voice that could strip paint. Stephen’s a pompous poop. Tiffani makes a convincing kitchen villain.

But why are the show’s makers choosing to focus on the contestants’ personalities, flawed or no? Tell me more about the food, people! Don’t focus on tension between the characters – bring us into creative process behind the cooking and the judging. What inspired Tiffani to choose the obscure fish escolar as the centerpiece for her winning entrée in the microwaveable food challenge? How come Candice’s “edible underwear” cake for the sexy food competition look worse than a reject from the worst X-rated bakery on the planet? And why on God’s green earth would Stephen win the fruit plate challenge with a dish that included, amongst other horrors, an emulsion of watermelon and olive oil?

Top Chef, a show about an art form accessible to the average Jane or Joe, could and should be every bit as mesmerizing as Project Runway. But last season Top Chef was more like a middling revamp of Big Brother. It’s frustrating given that producers Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth helmed both Top Chef and Project Runway. Why is one fascinating and the other merely passable? Guys: this year, lose the “oh no he didn’t moments” and just focus on the food.

Food porn on the brain

Tasty recipes and snappy copy do not a great food blog make—we want the tantalizing, drool-inducing photos to go along with it. These days, everyone’s talking about food porn.

Last month Food and Wine magazine published a list of food blogs with stunning photos (though it was pointed out that the list might be a wee bit incomplete). An accompanying piece gives aspiring photogs camera recommendations and brief pointers on improving their craft.

Australian chef, food show host and cookbook author Benjamin Christie has more complete advice for mouthwatering food photographs—including tips on lighting, food styling and the right software to organize the three hundred photos of plums you just took. For serious food styling advice, he points out this article (forget milk with that bowl of cereal, PVA glue will keep those flakes from getting soggy while you snap away).

For a behind the scenes look at the art of food styling and photography, read Lara’s glowing account of a day spent on a LA food shoot with Matt Armendariz, of the photo-gorgeous blog Matt Bites. She includes some tips learned that day—how to make your own light bounce, how to help a glass of beer maintain its froth, how to keep flies off your food. Lara’s two blogs, Cookbook 411 and Still Life with…, offer samples of her own considerable photo talent.

Matt follows up with a post on his site about trying to find out of season produce at the farmers’ market—their August shoot was for holiday and fall foods. He’s also got a funny story of the agony an art director goes though when the black truffles go missing—and the lengths to which he will go to find them.

There’s more info about Matt’s work on the digital photography blog I Speak Film—an interview with the man himself, entertaining and chock full of photo and styling tips (trust me—you don’t want to know what they do to get those succulent looking Thanksgiving turkeys).

Matt himself has posted what might be the final word on the subject of food porn—far more of Sandra Lee than the Food Network should be displaying. Yikes, give me luscious strawberries any day of the week.

Any favorite photo-gorgeous food blogs out there, or tips for getting the perfect food shot?

Dessert: The Final Frontier

New York magazine is up to its usual mischief: tempting already harried New York gastronomes and tantalizing the rest of us. This time, it previews dessert-centric lounges that put the sweet course first.

It’s reasonably easy to understand Kyotofu, which serves an ice cream made from soy milk and tofu. And while P*ong is more challenging (its offerings include a fifteen-layer Armagnac cake with pickled apricot) it still seems basically comprehensible.

But the enigmatic yet-to-be-named dessert bar from Sam Mason, pastry chef at trendy Manhattan restaurant wd-50 strains the old gray matter. It will offer terrines that combine foie gras and peanut butter, pork belly ladled with miso butterscotch, and dehydrated rum-and-Cokes.

Perhaps it could be named: Whaa?

Or El Bulli 2, Electric Boogaloo.

Or maybe just: Holy Crap, We’ve Gotten So Completely Tired of Normal Food That Now We’ve Started Throwing $60-a-Pound Ingredients into the Cuisinart Pretty Much At Random!

Other suggestions?

Sci-fi sommelier

The age of robotic wine tasting has arrived. Does this represent a technological advancement for mankind, or are we descending into a gastronomic Matrix?

First, there was the beer-pouring robot, and now comes the news that researchers at NEC System Technologies and Japan’s Mie University have designed a robot that can “taste” wine, cheese, and other foods.

The device uses an infrared spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of wine and make a conclusion about its flavor. Says USA Today:

When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.

Should wine critics and sommeliers fear the rise of an army of robots that have mastered winespeak? Paging Morpheus?

Well, don’t worry just yet. It’s only a prototype, and apparently there are some kinks to be worked out in the technology. As noted in the USA Today story, “When a reporter’s hand was placed against the robot’s taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.”

There you have it. Humans still have the upper hand over machines, at least when it comes to tasting…the media.

Oakland Airport Taco Trucks

El Novillo serves the best carnitas of any taco truck Ruth Lafler has ever tried. The tripas tacos are also excellent, even for those who don’t usually like tripe. Tripas tacos are like slightly chewy, chopped-up bacon, reminiscent of chicharrones, says chocolatetartguy. The carne asada can be chewy, though, says lainielou. Also, the night crew is better than the day crew–luckily, the truck is open until 2 a.m.

lainielou also likes the truck from La Pinata restaurant, located at the intersection of High Street and Interstate 880, behind the inexpensive gas station–NOT the truck inside the gas station! The carnitas are great, the sopes excellent. The taco truck at 98th Avenue, near the DMV, has great tortas.

El Novillo Taco Truck [Fruitvale]
in parking lot of Guadalajara Restaurant
1001 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland
Locater

La Pinata Taco Truck [Fruitvale]
720 High St., at Highway 880, Oakland
Locater

Taco Truck [Fruitvale]
at 98th Ave., near the DMV, Oakland
Map

Board Links
Taco trucks around Oakland Airport

Empress’s Mysterious Decline Diagnosed

Negative posts have been accumulating over the last year about the rapid and puzzling decline in quality at the previously reliable Empress Pavilion. Chandavkl passes on the word on the street in Chinatown: Apparently two chefs have left Empress for the kitchen at the Universal City Hilton, and a third has gone to the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. Which leaves the Chinatown scene looking grim, but maybe this will give the Chinese seafood-centric buffet at Universal City Hilton the edge over its San Gabriel Hilton competition.

Empress Pavilion [Chinatown]
988 N. Hill St. # 201, Los Angeles
213-617-9898
Locater

Universal City Hilton & Towers [East San Fernando Valley]
555 Universal Hollywood Dr., Universal City
213-617-0666
Locater

San Gabriel Hilton Hotel [San Gabriel Valley]
209 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel
626-943-1900
Locater

Board Links
Explanation For Sudden Deterioration In Quality At Empress Pavilion

From the Magic Wok into the Saffron Spot

Having heard the raves about Magic Wok in Artesia, Abby went to see just how authentic this Filipino joint is, and declares that it was like eating her (Filipina) mom’s cooking–good, homey food without any fusioney flourishes.

Chicken adobo is the perfect example of this–slow-cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, crushed garlic, bay leaf, and black peppercorns. The chicken is actually fried, but the dish isn’t greasy at all. Paksiw na lechon is pork slow-cooked in a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, peppercorns, bay leaves, sugar, salt, and liver sauce. Here, it’s a little sweeter than at some other places, but this is just part of whole range of flavors, from tangy to a little salty to sweet.

Also delicious is the ordinary-sounding bistek, which is basically thinly sliced beef steak, marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic and then fried with onions. The sauce is great over rice. Fried bangus, or milkfish, is super-delicate and moist. Add some vinegar to experience it the Filipino way–sour. Sinigang soup, tamarind based, uses sour vegetables as well to enhance the tanginess. It’s a well-done classic.

There are some fruity drinks, which can be too sweet. But it’s worth trying the drink made with calamansi, a citrus fruit native to the Philippines. The flavor is tough to describe–it’s kind of like a mandarin orange crossed with a kumquat, and maybe a lemon too–sour and tangy, but with some sweetness to balance it out.

The restaurant isn’t fancy, just plain white walls with wood-straw-shell Filipino crafts hanging as decoration. But it’s bustling with Filipino families and couples, and there’s also a busy takeout business.

For dessert, nearby in Little India is Saffron Spot, an ice cream and snack shop. There’s regular ice cream in not-so-regular flavors like saffron, rose, mango, pistachio, lychee, and chikoo. Chikoo is made from an Indian fruit called sapota and tastes like prunes and licorice. There’s also kulfi–traditional Indian ice cream–in mango, saffron, rose, and plain flavors. The kulfi is extra dense, rich, and creamy.

Magic Wok Enterprises [Artesia-ish]
11869 Artesia Blvd., Artesia
562-865-7340
Locater

Saffron Spot [Artesia-ish]
in the Little Indian Village center
18744 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia
562-809-4554
Map

Board Links
Magic Wok and Saffron Spot in Artesia (review)

Tracks: Seafood Central at Penn Station

No one goes to Penn Station just to eat at Tracks, but those who wind up there report surprisingly good seafood. Simple dishes are the way to go: sweet, briny St. Simon oysters and other shellfish from the raw bar; spinach salad with moist, flavorful grilled scallops and a nice balsamic dressing; a good-sized lobster roll with seasoned fries; and boiled lobster with a tasty salad and generous heaps of broccoli and mashed potatoes. “It was decent and I would come back,” says sivyaleah, who did take fault with their slipshod service, and watery tarragon cream sauce that came with her lobster ravioli.

You can eat at the bar, amid a loud, wired crowd that seems to turn over whenever a train pulls out, but if you’d rather not, head for the calmer dining room in back.

Tracks Raw Bar and Grill [Penn Station]
1 Penn Plaza #11, in Penn Station, LIRR level, Manhattan
212-244-6350
Locater

Board Links
Hate to Even Ask–Tracks in Penn Station?
Lobster Dinners or Lobster Rolls in Manhattan