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

Can Super Marketing Save the Grocery Store?

The New York Times today takes a look at traditional supermarkets (requires registration), which, despite embracing technology, are losing ground to upstart rivals. We’d all like a clean, well-lighted place to shop, but do we really need to buy our food in a store that looks like an art gallery?

In that spirit, the Times’ Julia Moskin writes about eschewing Whole Foods for her neighborhood supermarket:

I embraced the assignment of learning to love my supermarket: grimy aisles, shelves of overprocessed food and all.

Maybe the Times is cutting salaries.

She managed, though, to cobble together a list of 13 packaged foods that pass muster. The good news: Some are hidden gems. The bad news: She mostly goes for the pricier offerings. No pasta sauce (a staple for many busy folks) except Rao’s (at the exorbitant price of $11) makes the cut.

For those getting started with their first kitchen, there’s also a nice primer on stocking your pantry.

But the feature’s main focus is analyzing the state of the old-school supermarket, a place where big changes are being made by desperate execs:

In 2003 Safeway began to remake its 1,772 stores into something it termed a lifestyle concept. Perishables and prepared food sections were updated, lights were toned down and wood floors were added in the produce section.

Serious cooks and eaters have always done their gathering in lots of different places, from farmer’s markets to ethnic grocery stores. When it comes to food shopping, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Got Meat?

The sorry life of the feedlot steer—given a recent high profile in Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which contrasts the life of a typical cheap-burger-bound animal with those living on pasture in a small, sustainably managed farm—is turning more and more people away from supermarket meat. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reveals another option: buying a big chunk of cow (particularly one that been grass-fed and humanely raised) direct from the rancher.

It helps to have an extra freezer, since even small farms generally require a half- or quarter-cow purchase, but intrepid city dwellers can always get together with friends and share out the extra pounds. The Chronicle article also has useful info on cooking grass-fed meat (it’s generally leaner and more muscular than typical grain-fed beef, so it can dry out and get tougher faster).

Interested? Check out the listings on Eat Wild for a ranch near you.

America’s Next Top Wino

Striking the gastronomic reality show iron while it’s hot, PBS has gathered 12 purple-lipped contestants who will compete for the opportunity to create and uncork their own wine labels.

Christened Wine Makers and set in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, California, the new reality show is set to air next year. An SF article explained that 12 contestants “will experience every aspect of winemaking from viticulture and enology to sales and marketing.” And the winner doesn’t just get drunk, because, according to today’s Media Post article on the subject, “the winning label will be distributed at Whole Foods stores and via”

Honestly? I’m not sure what a prize that really is. Half the time, I can’t even find the wine section at Whole Foods, and when I do, it’s so small and unvarying, I’m almost sorry I even bothered. (Just so that a bunch of Whole Foodies don’t get their backs up, I’m speaking from the experience of one San Diego, two San Francisco, and three Boston Whole Foods stores.)

If couch-judging food that people cannot taste was a hurdle for Top Chef to overcome, getting viewers interested in wine they cannot sniff, sip, or spit could be close to impossible. Of course, there’s always the option to “play along at home” with selections from their personal cellars. I’m also wondering how long it will take the winning oenophile’s special label to actually make it into the market. I mean, I’m not a winemaker by any means, but I thought making wine could take several years. Since the show will be over by then, will the impact be lessened? Will people even remember there was a Public Broadcasting Station wine to look out for?

On the other hand, maybe the show will be a ratings success and the previous year’s winner could promote the launch of their new wine in the following seasons. Unfortunately, as Cooking Under Fire proved, PBS might not have what it takes to stir up a tasty pot of nasty reality stew. Sadly, I think it’s because they are too nice, and nice doesn’t make for good ratings. Just look at this year’s Survivor: Ratings Stunt Island, where just the news of racial divide has people alternately up in arms and salivating for the premiere.

Brined for a Fight

A funny entry about oversalted potato-chip chicken on the Failed Recipes LiveJournal inspired some commenters to muse about just how much of the mineral one person can take. Poster Volkerri describes her boyfriend’s reaction as he begins eating the chicken (before she’s discovered her salty slip-up):

He took his first bite … his lips curled in. His face turned red. He started gulping his drink and running to the kitchen for more. He had his head under the faucet as I rounded the corner. Still flushed, he asked what in the world did I do to that chicken.

Commenter Coercedbynutmeg is moved to ask, “Is your boyfriend a slug? I’m amazed at his reaction to the salt! Unless you used a ton, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal.”

Mr./Ms. Nutmeg has a point: Given the excessive salinity of processed foods these days—which recently led the American Medical Association to declare a war on salt—we’re supposed to have lost that kind of sensitivity. And by the way, AMA, restaurants are apparently just as guilty of oversalting: Together with processed foods, restaurant meals make up almost 80 percent of the sodium in our diet.

Of course it’s not just McDonald’s that likes to salt it up—one of the supposed marks of a true chef is that s/he isn’t scared of liberally sprinkling sodium on everything. A friend of a friend who works in the Chez Panisse kitchen once said that your own cooking will never taste like what you’d get in a restaurant unless you add way more salt than seems appropriate. This trick (along with using tons of other seasonings, and a whopping dose of butter) is what makes lots of restaurant food so delicious. I’m all for reducing the average person’s sodium intake by requiring convenience-food manufacturers to cut back on the stuff, but if the FDA ends up regulating salt content in restaurant food as well, they might just have some angry chefs (with some very flat-tasting dishes) on their hands.

Then again, if processed foods become less salty, eateries could end up cutting back sodium levels in their food to meet changed consumer tastes. Any chefs out there want to share their thoughts?

Champa Laos: Winning Thai Fusion in Cherry Hill, NJ

Champa Laos does elegant, nuanced East-West fusion–which it describes as “Thai-Lao-French”–without sacrificing any robust seasoning, according to our first reports. michelle71 characterizes the flavors as delicate yet complex, and not Americanized in any way.

Red curry duck is a generous bowl of moist meat, prettily arranged in a knockout spicy/sweet sauce, says Markarotti. Other winners: steamed shrimp-chicken dumplings, Le Mae Khong (Chilean sea bass filet stuffed with crab, spinach, and feta, served in tamarind sauce), and deep-flavored house-made mango ice cream, presented over drizzlings of caramel and raspberry sauces. Open since winter, Champa Laos offers a lengthy menu developed by chef Michael Raethong (of Cafe de Laos and Lemongrass in Philadelphia). It comprises curries and other Thai dishes, Lao-influenced stuff like larb and namtok (grilled meat tossed with spices and roasted rice), and such hybrids as char-grilled tenderloin in Pinot Noir reduction and salmon with “Cajun-seasoned” pistachio crust in apricot brandy sauce.

It’s BYOB, so Markarotti adds some wine tips: avoid heavily oaked whites; better matches would be Viognier, Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc. Among reds, try peppery or spicy varietals such as Shiraz or Zinfandel.

Champa Laos [Camden County]
219 Haddonfield-Berlin Rd., near Brace Rd., at Centrum Shoppes, Cherry Hill, NJ

Board Links
Champa-Laos Great New Thai-Laotian-French BYOB in CherryHill NJ

The Chinatown Beat: Two Roast Meat Contenders

OK 218 roasts superior chicken and duck, boasting beautiful skin and flavorful meat, reports wleatherette. No reports yet on the noodles, congees, seafood, or casseroles at this Cantonese place.

Chinatown’s New Big Wang is Wallace Stevens’s go-to spot for roast duck and barbecued pork. Also recommended: “hundred flavor” duck or chicken, a killer special that’s poached and marinated in a complex mix of sweet spices.

For a different take on chicken, try the fried stuffed wings at Rainbow Cafe, a family-run Hong Kong-style joint on Mott, suggests designerboy01. They’re deboned and filled to bursting with sticky rice with bits of pork.

OK 218 Restaurant [Chinatown]
218 Grand St., between Elizabeth and Mott, Manhattan

New Big Wang Restaurant [Chinatown]
1 Elizabeth St., at Bayard, Manhattan

Rainbow Cafe [Chinatown]
154 Mott St., between Grand and Broome, Manhattan

Board Links
best fried chicken wings (not buffalo wings)
Chinatown roast duck ?

Chinatown Diner Is a Real Deal

Zen Mei’s first anniversary deal is so popular, they’ve been offering it for about four years. Order $20 worth of food, and you get a free plate of fried salty shrimp. It’s one of their best dishes, with very large shrimp, crispy and delicious.

Their wontons are some of the best in Chinatown, nice and meaty, with a good ratio of shrimp to pork. House special wonton soup ($5) is a huge bowl of the stuff, with plenty of wontons, squid, shrimp, pork, and vegetables in a tasty broth. Beef with Chinese broccoli is quite good, and the portion is generous.

Also good: fried chicken, a hearty kung pao chicken with lots of peppers, dry fried string beans.

This is a nice, family-style joint off the beaten path that’s usually full of people who know of its afforable prices and reliable food. Decor is retro diner.

Zen Mei Bistro [Chinatown]
800 Yale St., at Alpine, Los Angeles

Board Links
Zen Mei Bistro—Mini Review

Lots of Love for Fried Rice

Does fried rice have to be nondescript? Are all restaurants’ versions alike? No, yell a chorus of chowhounds.

Quite a few are devoted to Din Tai Fung’s fried rice, which rbw describes as wonderfully subtle, “with a bit of scrambled egg, shrimp, and peas; the rice itself is sublime, just glutinous enough without being sticky.” It’s so light, you’ll almost want a second order.

Their pork chop fried rice, simple and perfectly executed, is just as popular. Of course, there are some who say DTF’s fried rice is just too dainty. Where’s the soul? they ask. It just goes to show you that one hound’s “soulless” is another’s “ethereally subtle.”

Will Owen says, “The rest of the eatin’ posse and I were fanatics for the salty-fish fried rice at Har Lam Kee, and then we discovered the much less harsh but more complex version at New Concept.” He loves them both.

At Pearl’s Oriental Restaurant, the fried rice is unapologetically greasy and flat-out delicious, says ladius.

Try the seafood fried rice with XO sauce at Maxim Caf

Extremely Japanese Summer Cold Noodles

Ramen Halu, favorite ramen-ya of Melanie Wong, *wchane, and chowhounds everywhere, is serving an excellent summer cold noodle dish, tsuke-men. The thick, firm, cold noodles are served on the side, with cold spinach, roast pork, black tree ears, and an intensely salty, piping-hot dipping stock. The stock is so salty that sometimes it limps over on its wooden leg and calls you Matey. It’s dusky and appealingly briny, tasty and complex, with garlic sweetness, bonito fishiness, and porky richness. And did we mention it’s salty? Just have plenty of cold jasmine tea to go with it.

Ramen Halu [South Bay]
375-M South Saratoga Ave., San Jose

Board Links
Tsuke-men at Ramen Halu, San Jose

Marrow Bones

Bar Tartine has excellent roasted marrow bones, says Malik. They serve two good-sized bones, perfectly cooked, with parsley salt, toasts, and some greens. They’re served beautifully plain, with no distracting sweet sauces to dilute the marrow experience.

AmySherman recommends the marrow bones at Coco500. And the ones at Bix are great, too, says foodfan.

Bar Tartine [Mission]
561 Valencia St., San Francisco

Coco500 [SOMA]
formerly Bizou
500 Brannan St., San Francisco

Bix [Jackson Square]
56 Gold St., San Francisco

Board Links
Great roasted marrow bones at Bar Tartine