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

Not Your Average Hydroponic Garden

Window Farms is a group that's developing and cultivating a DIY system of edible hydroponic gardens which use recycled materials and are built with urban window spaces in mind. Created by New York artists Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray, it's not so much a product, but an ongoing collaborative experiment. People can go to their site and get all the information they need to build their own window farm, interact with other builders, and share what's worked and what needs improvement. So far, there are nearly 1,300 people registered. Window farms are mostly being built by New Yorkers, and the group has had installations at both the Whitney and Eyebeam, but they're also gaining traction in other areas, and have even been installed in art galleries in Hong Kong and Helsinki.

And though the art community has embraced it (no surprise there, as they do look cool), the underlying idea is really about creating a hyper-local supply of food. Maya Nayak of Window Farms says the things that grow best are bok choy, lettuce, and herbs like basil, chives, and thyme. Root vegetables won't really work, but she said that people have successfully grown heirloom tomatoes and even squash.

Kits are in the works for non-DIYers, but to get the full experience it seems like building it yourself is what it's all about. I'm rallying the CHOW staff to see if we can't install one in our test kitchen.

Check out Cool Hunting's recent video on the group:

Big Cuban Love from a Little Kitchen

Pilar in Brooklyn is a Chowhound love story, a four-month-old mom-and-pop kitchen that's turning out pure Cuban soul, says Daniel76. Vaca frita (braised skirt steak, shredded and fried with onion, garlic, and lime) is amazing. Pernil (marinated roast pork) is "off the hook," tasty and tender, no knife required. It's served most of the week, but much of the menu is specials and soups that change daily.

If there is caldo gallego on offer, get it. This is a deeply flavorful white bean stew with great smoky chorizo that's made in-house, like everything here, Daniel76 says, including empanada dough, pie dough, soups, and desserts. Those empanadas are also worth checking out, by the way, especially the ones filled with tender smoked beef short rib. So are those desserts: Try the passion fruit flan or guava and cream cheese pie.

lambretta76 loves Key West conch chowder and garbanzo frito (chickpeas with smoked chorizo and ham), and declares the Cubano the best he's had in New York, better than the ones at El Sitio in Queens (which has been up, down, and recently up again).

"This is a true labor of love," sums up Daniel, "knocking out some of the best Cuban food I have had."

Pilar [Clinton Hill]
393 Classon Avenue (between Greene Avenue and Clinton Place), Brooklyn

Discuss: Pilar Cuban Eatery in Brooklyn

Good Times Roll On at Cooking With Jazz

Cooking With Jazz, a much-missed Cajun spot in Queens, is taking an encore. A month ago, several years after closing a smaller space up in Whitestone, it reopened on Union Turnpike. Loyal fans say the kitchen hasn't missed a beat.

Chicken gumbo is thick and spicy, NYJewboy reports, boasting "complexity that cannot be obtained anywhere else in THIS city." Seafood gumbo is just as good: oysters, shrimp, scallops, fish and more in a piquant, well-rounded broth that stuartlafonda describes as dark and "evil-looking." Other hits include stuffed fried eggplant (with creamy shrimp sauce), the seafood Big Mamou (scallops, oysters, salmon, and jumbo shrimp in spicy/sweet sauce, tossed over fusilli), and chicken étouffée (Jaleamia "would have been happy eating a bowl of the sauce by itself"). stuartlafonda faults only a tasteless prefab chicken cutlet that turned up blackened with his jambalaya platter.

Hounds note approvingly that chef Steve Van Gelder, a Paul Prudhomme protégé, pays attention to the little things, like warm jalapeño bread and corn muffins, for starters, and the seasoning of the rice (“often ignored and underspiced," NYJewboy laments). You'll spot him working the room, catching up with grateful regulars.

Cooking With Jazz [Jamaica Estates]
179-22 Union Turnpike (between 179th and 180th streets), Jamaica Estates, Queens

Discuss: Cooking with Jazz reopens in a few weeks!

Overheard on the New York Boards

"Egg and avocado, it turns out, are wonderful bedmates." - plumpdumpling on an innovative ravioli dish at WD-50

"[T]he pièce de résistance for us was the brioche dessert. With pink peppercorn ice cream and a blood orange glaze. It was the most heavenly piece of French toast ever. I will dream about this dessert tonight!" - RawTunaFan on Aldea

"To explain why it took 34 years to get married I now remember eating the onion buns with sweet butter and raw onion. No wonder I couldn't get a date." - foodismylife on Isaac's Bake Shop

A Child’s Garden of Controversy

America's gone gaga over the idea of using gardens and small-scale farming to teach children, particularly those in disadvantaged school districts. What many parents assume is that this must have an incredibly positive educational effect, because it seems so damned wholesome and thoughtful. An Atlantic article by "I'm just an old-fashioned stay-at-home mom (with a full-time domestic staff)" Caitlin Flanagan takes aim at this theory. You can kind of get a sense of her point via the tone of her introduction:

"The galvanizing force behind this ideology is Alice Waters, the dowager queen of the grown-locally movement. Her goal is that children might become 'eco-gastronomes' and discover 'how food grows'—a lesson, if ever there was one, that our farm worker’s son might have learned at his father’s knee—leaving the Emerson and Euclid to the professionals over at the schoolhouse."

More an op-ed attack on left-wing elitism (actual and perceived) than a thoughtful analysis of educational policy, the article does do one valuable thing: It points out that measurement of education-via-gardening is difficult to do, and that it should be done more rigorously. But flatly writing the movement off because it fails to directly prepare students for standardized tests is about as blinkered a perspective as one can have on education. The whole article is, in fact, like a game of left-wing label pinball, where the aim is to hit as many loaded terms as you can in as few words as possible.

Moreover: There's no fresh-food crisis in urban America, because Flanagan once saw a Ralph's in Compton with all sorts of great veggies.

But the most irritating part of the article may be her description of Chez Panisse as: "an eatery where the right-on, 'yes we can,' ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hôte menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams—wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included."

That's a load. You can eat at Chez Panisse for $60 on Monday nights; $75 on other weeknights. And based on first-hand experience, the service was impeccable—and nobody is more irritated by sanctimonious left-wing crap than this writer, a Madison, Wisconsin native who was forced to relive the 1960s four or five times before graduating high school. Service at Chez Panisse was elegant, minimalist, warm, and welcoming.

Image source: Flickr member Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons

Attack of the Anti-Meat Crusaders!

Meat eating is under attack! And yet you may not have noticed all the noise—new, shocking reports from the World Bank, United Nations, and more—because you were too busy mawing on that delicious artisanal bacon.


Chicago Beef, Dripping Down Your Arms

After bringing Chicago-style hot dogs to the Bay Area, Little Gino's has followed up with another Chi-town classic, the Italian beef sandwich.

"This is the real thing, not some lame imitation," says Agent 510. "The bun is huge, the beef tender, and the dip has that meaty flavor it's supposed to have." Giardiniera, the pickled vegetable relish, is available on the side. The owner apparently wants to expand the menu to even more Chicago foods. Can you make deep-dish pizza at a stand?

Little Gino's Hot Dogs [East Bay]
2109 Milvia Street, Berkeley

Discuss: Little Gino's in Berkeley now has a "real" Italian Beef sandwich

Deep-Fried Goodness at Taiwan Restaurant

"It is my personal goal to try everything on that little pink menu," declares PorktoPurslane after a meal "full of intense, deep-fried goodness" at Taiwan Restaurant. The wonton soup "with extra vegetables" and Shandong vegetable buns filled with juicy ground pork are particularly good, she says.

"They have the best Chinese doughnut in the whole city," MaryD says. Her favorite dinner dish is the Taiwan country spareribs and the mustard greens with shredded pork noodle soup is wonderful, too.

cakebaker thinks the food used to be better before the restaurant changed hands, but still loves the boiled dumplings with pork and ginger and all the soup noodles.

Taiwan Restaurant [Inner Richmond]

445 Clement Street, San Francisco

Discuss: Taiwan Restaurant on Clement - Fantastic Wonton Soup, Doughnuts + More!

Meat Sliced With a Smile

These days, even many butcher shops sell pre-cut meat from boxes, but Wayland's Meat, run by a husband and wife in Oakland, is a wonderful throwback, says Kayde.

"Wayland buys whole pork, lamb, and sides of beef, and cuts to order. They will split and slice marrow bones and short ribs, quarter rabbit, and debone that pork shoulder." It makes some sausages in-house, including a polish-your-plate, slightly spicy pork sausage, and also carries Italian-style, chicken-apple, and lamb sausages. The shop is small, and the selection varies. "Last week they had fresh rabbit, free range chicken, ground lamb, and oxtails, aside from the standards," says Kayde. Don't see what you want? Ask anyway, as it could be in the back. Wayland's also handles special orders promptly, part of the all-around great service you can find here.

Wayland's Meat [East Bay]
3421 Fruitvale Avenue, Oakland

Discuss: Wayland's Meat - Outstanding Service in Oakland's Dimond District

So You Think You Know Reuben?

Like many products of genius, Della Fattoria's Reuben sandwich is brilliant but a tad eccentric: It has fatty Niman pastrami instead of corned beef, tangy Thousand Island dressing instead of Russian, and levain bread instead of rye. The Alexander Valley sauerkraut, on the other hand, is textbook.

"This was one of the best Reubens I've ever had," says Robert Lauriston.

Della Fattoria [Sonoma County]
141 Petaluma Boulevard North, Petaluma

Discuss: Della Fattoria's Reuben