The CHOW Blog rss

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

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?

Pass the River Fish

Pass the River Fish

Chenin blanc is one of the most underappreciated grapes READ MORE

How to Bottle

How to Bottle

You can get the pop in the bottles, but make sure the bottles don't pop READ MORE

Of Cabernet and Clooney

Did you know that cabernet sauvignon is the “George Clooney” of wines, attracting “sophisticates with natural, unforced elegance?”

What’s more, if you prefer zinfandel, “You likely enjoy this high-alcohol red because you’re unpretentious and extroverted.”

These insights come from sommelier Alpana Singh, author of the book Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine and Having Great Relationships, who was profiled this week in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The wine and relationship guru is on a mission to educate women about wine, dispensing cheeky advice like “Get over the ‘Pretty Boy’ phase” (“Pretty Boys” in this case being chardonnays), along with interpretations (that read like a horoscope) of what one’s wine preferences say about a person.

So, what if you like drinking sweet rosé or white zinfandel? Singh has bad news: “You’re possibly a homebody who’s not too knowledgeable about wine.” Better switch to cabernet.

Playground Bet or Good Eats?

Every few months, someone decides to write an edible-insect story, mostly for the cheap shock value. But a recent Reuters piece deserves credit for actually making its subject—crickets—sound kinda… good.

‘The taste is very particular, very special and it smells good and tastes delicious but it is very difficult to compare cricket to other meat,’ said [insect dealer Le Thanh Tung], 28, suggesting that crickets are an acquired taste.

The premise of the article is that once you’ve deep-fried a barrel of bugs, they make perfect finger food for drinkers—in Vietnam, at least. But will fried bugs catch on in the States? As long as we’ve got SunChips, Beer Nuts, and a relatively healthy national economy, probably not. (That should put fried bugs on the menu at your local tavern by sometime around mid-2007.)

In defense of cricket skeptics, there is very little that can’t be deep-fried and fed to drunk people. In defense of cricket partisans: Isn’t it time that serious chefs and chowhands got acquainted with a whole new class of edible life forms? How often does that opportunity present itself?

Jayakarta Restaurant: Indonesian!

Jayakarta Restaurant will be a source of great happiness to Bay Area Indonesians and anyone who wants real, hardcore Indonesian food, says Han. They do chicken particularly beautifully. Try lemper, chunks of flavorful chicken fragrant from being grilled in a banana leaf. The bakwan malang is a flavorful chicken soup with chunks of flour cakes, beef balls, and other goodies, though it might be a bit weird for non-natives.

And how about some “chicken gizzards with stinky beans”? Despite the name, It’s delicious, says Maya S, and the beans aren’t a bit stinky. They are, in fact, just favas. Or try the ayam kalasan, says jhinky–moist grilled chicken that’s been marinated in young coconut juice, served with fresh chili sauce.

Part of the joy of Indonesian food is the inscrutable weirdness of some of the dishes, but unless you’re up for that, you should probably avoid the nasi lelapan lengkap, says a very nonplussed chilihead2006. This dish consists of a wedge of raw cabbage, some raw green beans and other actually-just-raw veggies, a chunk of fried chicken, and some sauce and tamarind broth.

If you’re into embracing the surreal, just order at random. You’ll probably be really surprised.

Jayakarta Restaurant [East Bay]
2026 University Ave., Berkeley

Board Links
Jayakarta–short review (Berkeley)
Jayakarta —Indonesian in Berkeley!

Champions of Chirashi

Chirashi is the working man’s sushi lunch. It’s basically a bowl of sushi rice with a bunch of cuts of various raw fish on it, pressed down with a wooden press. Think of it as a sort of massive, frisbee-sized hunk of mega nigiri sushi. It’s not exactly lovingly hand-made, but it is cheaper. Where are this town’s good chirashis?

Sushi Go 55 makes an amazing chirashi with the usual cuts of fish plus mackerel, squid, and octopus, and uni available for an extra charge, says Haiylin. Izayoi has a beautiful chirashi available on their lunch menu only.

Sushi Gen’s chirashi is packed with tamago, various sashimi slices, perhaps octopus, ikura, shrimp, and more.

Jinpachi’s chirashi is an artfully assembled bowl of aquatic life with some less typical offerings like uni and squid, for around $20, says oleskoo. Sushi Kushi Imai has a dependable, workmanlike chirashi for substantially fewer bucks.

Considering their high quality, Sushi Tenn’s chirashi is an absolute bargain at $18 at lunchtime.

Kiriko makes a solid chirashi as well.

Shaab is a good chirashi stop if you’re near Pasadena.

Mako’s chirashi in Little Tokyo is good and inexpensive.

Sushi Go 55 [Little Tokyo]
333 S. Alameda St. #317, at 3rd St., Los Angeles

Izayoi [Little Tokyo]
132 South Central Ave., Los Angeles

Sushi Gen [Little Tokyo]
422 E. 2nd St., at Alameda, Los Angeles

Jinpachi [West Hollywood]
8711 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood

Sushi & Kushi IMAI [Beverly Hills]
8300 Wilshire Blvd., at San Vicente Blvd., Beverly Hills

Sushi Tenn [Sawtelle Strip]
2004 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles

Kiriko Sushi [Sawtelle Strip]
11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles

Shaab Restaurant [Pasadena-ish]
77 N Raymond Ave., Pasadena

Mako Sushi [Little Tokyo]
Weller Court Shopping Ctr.
123 Astronaut Esonizuka St. #313, Los Angeles

Board Links
Best chirashi in LA?

Catskills Picks, from Pizza to Sushi to Venison Chili

“Keep in mind that this not France. It is upstate New York,” cautions erstwhile city slicker gala. He’s talking about eating in the Catskills, from around Oneonta to Phoenicia. That said, there’s still deliciousness to be found here. There are superior seasonal produce, local cheeses and maple syrup, as well as a handful of restaurants that rise above the generally discouraging norm:

- Pizza Factory, Delhi: Best pizza for miles around (including an excellent Sicilian) plus soulful soups and other Italian food. “The owner loves to cook and has a good imagination.”

- Slow Down Food Co., Andes: Simple American chow from organic, locally produced ingredients, made by followers of the Slow Food movement–salads, sandwiches, soup, chili, breakfast fare, hamburgers (from Skate Creek pasture-raised beef), etc. It’s terrific, but very, very slow. Be prepared for your meal to last many hours.

- Elena’s Sweet Indulgence, Oneonta: Exceptional pastries, especially Italian. Go early–she tends to sell out.

- Brooks House of Bar-B-Q, Oneonta: Chicken is the way to go, fine when hot but even better as takeout. “Served cold the next day, it is heaven. True white-folks barbecue.” Pass on the butterscotch-sweet barbecue sauce.

- Peekamoose Restaurant, Big Indian: Nicely done upmarket American, heavy on local produce, from chef Devin Mills, an alumnus of Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin. Typical choices: house-made charcuterie, chili with venison and Granny Smith apples, Hudson Valley vegetable plate, roasted wild striped bass with eggplant caviar. “Absolutely wonderful, right up there with Berkeley’s Chez Panisse Cafe.”

- Tuna III, Delhi: Sushi, noodles, and other decent Japanese, with especially good deals for lunch. “As good as any passable big-city Japanese restaurant….Otherwise, if you expect to eat anything the least bit foreign and come out of it with a good meal, save your money and find the nearest stove.”

Pizza Factory [Delaware County]
6 Kingston St., near Main, Delhi, NY

Slow Down Food Co. [Delaware County]
22 Lee Ln., at Main St. (Rte. 28), Andes, NY

Elena’s Sweet Indulgence [Otsego County]
281 Main St., between Elm St. and Ford Ave., Oneonta, NY

Brooks House of Bar-B-Q [Otsego County]
5560 State Hwy. 7, west of Rte. 47, Oneonta, NY

Peekamoose Restaurant and Tap Room [Ulster County]
8373 Rte. 28, near Lasher Rd., Big Indian, NY

Tuna III Japanese Restaurant [Delaware County]
82 Main St., near Kingston, Delhi, NY

Board Links
Catskills, NY- Livingston Manor, Roscoe, Margaretville Area?

At Prosperity Dumplings, a Wealth of Cheap Eats

The latest five-for-a-buck Chinese dumpling joint to turn up on hound radar is Prosperity on Eldridge. It offers a familiar lineup of fried or boiled dumplings, plus sesame pancakes, noodle soups, and a handful of Fuzhou-style bites like peanut noodles. “Can’t say enough good things about Prosperity or its proprietors,” raves Nosher, who gives the friendly newcomer the edge over Dumpling House a couple blocks to the north. bolletje puts it a rung below Chinatown’s Tasty Dumpling.

Like most of the other dumpling contenders, Prosperity makes a great cheap sandwich by stuffing fresh-griddled sesame pancakes with meat and a lively, banh mi-like vegetable slaw. The beef-vegetable version is terrific, says Nehna, who adds that a mere $5 will buy two of them plus 10 dumplings and bottled water.

Prosperity Dumplings [Lower East Side]
46 Eldridge St., between Canal and Hester, Manhattan

Dumpling House [Lower East Side]
118A Eldridge St., between Broome and Grand, Manhattan

Tasty Dumpling [Chinatown]
54 Mulberry St., between Bayard and Mosco, Manhattan

Board Links
Best Chinatown not dim sum, not noodles, not viet
Manhattan Chinatown Report (long)
Skyway Malaysian (On Allen and Canal)