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

Holy Grail with Curly Tail

An ambitious chef is setting out to breed the über-pig, according to a post today on the new New York magazine blog Grub Street. Cesare Casella, chef of the madcap-Tuscan restaurant Maremma and experienced steer breeder, is crossing the rare Large Black pig with a Yorkshire-Duroc cross to produce a breed that is at once succulently marbled (thanks to the Large Black blood) and quick-growing (courtesy of the fast-to-fatten Duroc), with a high yield of delicious meat (due to the genes of the x-tra long, ribtastic Yorkshire).

What the Grub Street post doesn’t mention is that crossing these heritage breeds isn’t such a hot idea, because there are very few of each kind in existence these days. Heritage (or heirloom) pigs are pure breeds that have been raised on small-scale farms in the U.S. since being brought over from Europe more than a century ago; in the past 60 or so years they’ve been driven to the edge of extinction by industrial livestock production. Heritage Foods USA, the online sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA, reports that there are fewer than 200 registered purebred Large Blacks in the States today, which lands the hogs on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s most-endangered list. Today’s crossbred, mass-produced pigs—selected for leanness, high yield, and fast growth, usually at the expense of the animals’ health, and certainly at the expense of deliciousness—are raised and slaughtered at the rate of more than 100 million per year, according to a piece on heritage meats I edited for Plenty magazine last year (November/December 2005). The Bitter Greens Journal also makes a great case that industrial hog farming has ruined North Carolina barbecue.

High yield, fast growth … sound familiar? Casella wants to select for the same qualities, to create a pig that he can whisk from farm to table posthaste—potentially reducing the numbers of an ultrarare breed in the process. All of this is at least a little disconcerting; even more disturbing is this description of the Duroc from the Iowa Purebred Swine Council (which Grub Street links to but does not discuss specifically):

The red breed of hogs known as Duroc is a major contributor to almost every successful hog operation. This breed has long been known for its ability to grow faster on less feed. The Duroc’s ability to display a rapid growth rate, coinciding with efficient conversion of pound of feed to pounds of red meat, is unequaled by any other breed. Through the use of purebred Duroc boars in commercial operations, the producer can maximize the heterosis that is generated by crossbreeding pure genetic lines. Duroc’s skeletal structure, which stands up in all kinds of environments, combined with natural leanness, produce a fast growing, efficient product that is acceptable to the packer and the consumer.

The whole idea of heirloom breeding is to protect these animals from extinction and to create meat that’s much more than just “acceptable” and an “efficient product.” As is happening with organic farming, it seems like industrial principles are creeping into heritage agriculture, too.

Palate Tease

Amuse-bouches from top chefs

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The little freebie brought to you before the start of a meal at a great restaurant, the amuse-bouche is a vehicle for pro cooks to get creative. Our slideshow documents recent amuses from some of our favorite restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. Find out what inspired some of them by listening to our podcast.

Have you got favorite amuse-bouche snapshots of your own? Send them to, and we’ll add them to the mix.

Batali, High and Low

Batali, High and Low

Mario Batali's new cookbook, "Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style," targets a different audience altogether. READ MORE

Bouncing the Brisket

L’Shana Tova, everyone. Will you be preparing Sephardic or Ashkenazic treats for your New Year celebration this weekend? Forward-thinking foodies have been moving away from heavy Northern European Ashkenazic dishes and gravitating to the Sephardic foods of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa for a while, and the week’s newspaper food coverage seems to back this up. Is it all Joyce Goldstein’s fault?

I’m all for replacing gut-bombing brisket with lighter fare (requires registration) like roasted fish and lentils. And eggplant is welcome to elbow its way onto the holiday table. Heck, going Sephardic certainly makes for an easier dinner for vegetarians.

But whatever you do, don’t take away my honey cake.

Gastropubs: Hot or Not?

While Americans are going gaga for gastropubs, back in the UK (where the eateries originated) some Britons are tiring of the concept.

The gastropub phenomenon first emerged in early-1990s London with restaurateurs pairing contemporary cuisine—rather than traditional pub grub —with rustic tavern decor. The movement finally crossed the Atlantic in 2004 with the opening of New York’s first installment of the new idiom, The Spotted Pig, which has been squeezing in huge crowds of eager diners since it first opened. A new crop of similar restaurants quickly followed, and joining the fray soon is the unfortunately named Spotted Dick. The gastropub juggernaut made its way further west this past spring with Ford’s Filling Station, L.A.’s first official gastropub.

While the trend can’t be stopped in the States, Laura Barton writes in The Guardian of her fatigue with London’s gastropubs, which she finds have become a culinary cliché:

Gastropub. Three syllables that instill an oily dread into my heart. It is not the word itself, of course, more the fact that, were there such a thing as a linguistic gastropub menu, it would probably find itself described as a duo of pub and gastronomy served on a bed of wild roquette with a plum confit and red wine reduction.

And what does Barton think of the news that superchef Gordon Ramsay plans to open a chain of gastropubs in the UK?

More gastropubs? This seems to me a bleak, bleak future, for as the years have rolled by I have rather had my fill of herbed polenta and parmesan shavings, and after considerable rumination I have reached this conclusion: I loathe gastropubs and all who sail in them.

Pancakes and Lobster Omelettes on Long Island

Breakfast hounds have fallen hard for the pancakes at Maureen’s Kitchen in Smithtown. CornflakeGirl is hooked on the ones with orange and blueberry but says banana-nut, orange-chocolate chip, and other combinations also rock. Also recommended: uncommon breakfast choices like an excellent lobster-chive omelette.

In Northport, Letseat likes breakfast at Sweet Mama’s but recommends its omelettes and oatmeal over its pancakes and French toast, which are nothing special.

Maureen’s Kitchen [Suffolk County]
1 Larson Ave., at Hallock Ave., Smithtown, NY

Sweet Mama’s [Suffolk County]
9 Alsace Pl., between Fort Salonga Rd. and Wheeler Pl., Northport, NY

Board Links
Melville, LI & environs
Weekend in Commack, LI (beaching at Robert Moses)

Princess Cake at Schubert’s

The princess cake at Schubert’s Bakery is a real winner, with layers of fluffy white Genoise cake, raspberry jam, and a smooth custard that isn’t excessively sweet, all covered in tender, green-tinted marzipan. Pei says it’s one of the best in the city. Schubert’s is a great value–places with just slightly better cakes will easily cost twice as much. Guys will love that princess cakes too–just tell them it’s a Manly Green Avenger cake.

Schubert’s Bakery [Richmond]
521 Clement St., San Francisco

Board Links
Schubert’s Bakery on Clement–Specific Cake Recs

Counter Burger

Hounds are digging the newly opened Palo Alto branch of Counter Burger, an upscale, high-quality burger joint known for its wide variety of burger topping options. The toppings range from the traditional to the eyebrow-raising (dried cranberries, horseradish cheddar, and peanut sauce, anyone?). The beef is excellent and burgers are cooked medium, with lovely deep pink in the middle, says katya, who likes her burger loaded with lettuce, green chiles, tomatoes, dill pickle chips, and sweet onion marmalade. Chipotle orders cheddar, grilled onion, roasted chile, baby greens, and garlic aioli on a honey wheat bun. The bun tends to get gradually soaked with burger juice, but that’s hardly a drawback. doc finds the straight-up burger with nothing but Bermuda red onions decent and solid. And ChewChew likes the beef burger on a toasted bun with nutty melted gruyere, grilled onions, bacon cooked just shy of crispy, and garlicky aioli. Everything tastes fresh and robust. Overall, it’s a great burger, but the fries are greeted with a resounding “meh”–even the sweet potato fries are just okay. Burgers (there are turkey and veggie as well as beef) and soft drinks for two will run you about $25.

Counter Burger [Peninsula]
369 California Avenue, Palo Alto

Board Links
Review–Counter Burger Palo Alto
The Counter (burgers, Palo Alto)

Chinese Vegetarian Tip-Off

Chinese vegetarian food lovers can rejoice. From the mobs of hungry veg lovers at Happy Veggie Garden, this place is all that. The menu leans toward fake meats, rounded out by a good selection of tofu, vegetables, and noodle dishes. Unlike other local versions of crispy bean curd, Happy’s has a filling of fruit and sunflower seeds; it’s very good, says Chandavkl.

Happy Veggie Garden [Inland of LA]
in 99 Ranch Market mall
1015 S. Nogales St. Ste. 127A, Colima, Rowland Heights

Board Links
Fantastic New Chinese Vegetarian Restaurant

East L.A. Classics

The original La Serenata definitely has street cred, being right across the street from Mariachi Plaza in East L.A., but also gourmet cachet as one of the few, and probably the oldest, upscale Mexican restaurants in town. If you’re afraid of East L.A., get over it, advises Das Ubergeek–this place is worth it. The Westside branches are but poor imitations.

Seafood is their specialty, and the specials are a good bet–they’re always perfectly cooked. Halibut in salsa de huitlacoche (corn fungus, a funky delicacy) has a slow burn; it’s also got lots of huitlacoche and gobs of deliciousness. Salmon in salsa de molcajete is really, really spicy, and really, really good. The dishes all come with sides of yellow rice, handmade corn tortillas, and outrageously tasty beans cooked with a ton of the zingy Mexican herb epazote.

For dessert, skip the leaden flourless chocolate cake and head straight for the flan. It’s creamy and impossibly rich, with a caramel that’s practically dulce de leche. When they have it, coconut flan is divine.

Serenata only has a beer and wine license, so margaritas are made with wine/soju rather than tequila, and are rather too sweet. The wine list has some cheap and very good wines from L.A. Cetto in Mexico, and nothing over $45.

Service is fantastic, excited about the food, and ready to lend guidance on pairing fish with sauce.

Dinner for six, with drinks, shared desserts, and no appetizers, is about $260 with tax and tip–about $43 per person. Note that with the construction of the Gold Line, getting there can be tricky these days. Call the restaurant for directions.

Nearby at El Tepeyac, a chicken Hollenbeck burrito is a colossal thing of beauty–bursting with stewed white meat, peppers, rice, beans and a bit of guacamole, says David Kahn. Chicken taquitos are also huge and fresh, and not at all greasy. A combo plate with two taquitos comes with a pile of guacamole, rice, beans and salad. The enchiladas rancheras are also delish, says godvls, who prefers them to the burritos.

Unfortunately, this place is so popular that some resort to getting their burrito fix at 9 or 10 in the morning to avoid the lunchtime crowd. LAPD employees get preferred treatment, but the rest of us might need to call in advance. If you can get a seat, the vibe is very homey. You can also eat outside, where there usually isn’t a wait, says monku.

There’s another El Tepeyac in Monterey Park, run by the son of the original’s owners. It’s more comfortable than the East L.A. restaurant, and the food is just as good, but without that nostalgic atmosphere.

Half a block away is Ciro’s, another East L.A. institution–in fact, folks here disdain El Tepeyac as L.A. Mexican food. Everyone raves about the chunky avocado salsa and the flautas at Ciro’s. Milanesa and steak picado are also good.

La Serenata di Garibaldi [East LA-ish]
1842 E. 1st St., Los Angeles

El Tepeyac [East LA-ish]
812 N. Evergreen Ave., Los Angeles

El Tepeyac Cafe [San Gabriel Valley]
1965 Potrero Grande Dr. # A, Monterey Park

Ciro’s Cafe [East LA-ish]
705 N. Evergreen Ave., Los Angeles

Board Links
Review: La Serenata di Garibaldi, Boyle Heights
El Tepeyac Cafe