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

Sorghum, the New Pancake Pour

Your grandpappy from the Deep South didn't pour maple syrup on his hotcakes: maples need freezing cold nights to start the flow of sap that becomes syrup. No, sorghum was what sweetened all manner of foodstuffs way back when in the South, and now the old-fashioned sugar substitute is getting hot again. Hungry Beast's Stacey Slate explains how sorghum is made:

"Sorghum syrup is actually a juice extract collected from a tall grass called sweet sorghum. Harvesters strip the leaves off the stalk and cut the seeds from the head of the plant. The stalks are then laid out to dry for a few days while the enzymes within the cane convert starches to sugar. When the stalk is dried out, it is crushed to extract its green juice (the liquid is green because of chlorophyll in the plant). It is then boiled down to eliminate moisture and skimmed to get rid of the green juice. The result is the amber syrup known as sweet sorghum."

Yum! How do you use it? On pancakes and biscuits, in sweet sauces like barbecue, even in baked goods, where it makes a dandy substitute for molasses. Find out more about sorghum's resurgence, including its impressive nutritional profile, and why it may someday be used for fuel, at the Hungry Beast.

Beignets Are In!

I guess the maple-bacon doughnut trend was too played out. The latest incarnation of the deep-fried doughball is the frittery, doughnut-y beignet, made famous in New Orleans. Spotted: with bacon as an appetizer at the new Frances restaurant in San Francisco; with maple and bacon at Abattoir in Atlanta; and in pumpkin flavor served with coconut curry ice cream at Boka in Chicago.

Image source: Flickr member clamhead under Creative Commons

Street Food Made Fancy

Chilango, the brainchild of a chef from Mexico DF (the name Chilango is slang for a resident of Mexico City, or Distrito Federal) has zoomed to the top of david kaplan's list of best new restaurants. The excellent handmade street fare made from sustainable ingredients ranges "from very good to best in class."

"Their carnitas are small pieces of moist, fatty pork, deep-fried so they are crispy on the outside yet unctuous within," he says. "Served with pickled onions, chunky guacamole, four salsas, and handmade tortillas, their carnitas may be the best bite I've had this year."

Second to the carnitas is the huarache, a thickish oval of griddled masa piled with carnitas-flecked refried beans, pulled braised short ribs, cheese, and herbs. Sopes, a slightly thicker masa concoction, have a wonderful toasted flavor and resilient bite. There are four options for toppings: cheese, picadillo (spiced ground beef), potato-chorizo, and poblano. Tamales are creamy and loose, with a spicy salsa; fish tacos are also very good. And the filet mignon tacos are delicious, says vulber, who agrees it's one of the year's great new spots.

Incidentally, Chilango's owner also owns Casa Mexicana, which vulber thinks definitely has the best burrito in the Lower Haight-Duboce Triangle area.

Chilango is pricey compared to your average taqueria, but a bargain for the quality, david kaplan says. And the half-pound of carnitas that you get for $12 stands as a meal for two. The lunch and dinner menu items are the same, although a lunch order gets you two sopes, tamales, or quesadillas, while at dinner you get three.

Chilango [Castro]
235 Church Street, San Francisco

Discuss: Chilango: favorite new restaurant of 2009 (Church & Market, SF)

Sourdough on the Endangered List

Classic, artisanal San Francisco sourdough bread, "the stuff every supermarket used to have 25 varieties of, like Boudin still makes for old-school restaurants like Tadich and Sam's," has become endangered, says Robert Lauriston. "I knew this stuff was nearly extinct, but I didn't know things had gone this far."

Specifically, we're talking about bread that's "more assertive/sour, denser (not an airy bread) and the crust can literally cut your mouth, it's tough and chewy," says ML8000.

The consensus seems to be that the best old-school sourdough loaves found in the city these days originate at Bordenave's Bakery in San Rafael. Bordenave's extra-sour dark-bake loaves can be found at Spenger's fish market, where they're delivered fresh daily. But, although the batards and rounds sold there are both supposed to be sour, it's only the rounds that are true to the old-fashioned ideal.

"Bread Garden has the absolute best sourdough I've had in a long, long time," says rworange. "Opening the bag I was overcome with the wonderful sour tangy aroma. The crust nicely chewy, the crumb classic." It goes great with the crab salad from Sea Breeze Market (a little sweet-talkin' is needed to get the counterpeople to sell it apart from a green salad or a sandwich). Unfortunately, Bread Garden is considering closing its doors sometime in 2010.

"When I think of this type of bread it brings to mind an almost black very sharp crust with a pronounced sour taste," says cakebaker. While Tartine's sourdough has the right crust, Acme's Italian loaf tastes closest to what SF sourdough should be, cakebaker says.

Thorough Bread, a retail outlet of the San Francisco Baking Institute, makes a sourdough that's a great loaf of bread, but different from its ancestors, says Mick Ruthven. He loves the crust, but it's thinner and not as hard as the real thing; the interior isn't as dense; and, while it has a nice sour flavor, it's not quite sour enough.

Wedemeyer's loaf, available at the Grocery Outlets in Berkeley and Oakland at least, looks and smells right, Robert Lauriston says, down to those little bumps on the bottom. "Still not totally it, but probably my favorite of the old companies still producing bread," says sugartoof.

Bordenave's Bakery [Marin County]
1512 Fourth Street, San Rafael

Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto [East Bay]
1919 Fourth Street, Berkeley

Bread Garden [East Bay]
2912 Domingo Avenue, Berkeley

Sea Breeze Market & Deli [East Bay]
598 University Avenue, Berkeley

Tartine Bakery [Mission]
600 Guerrero Street, San Francisco

Acme Bread [Embarcadero]
Ferry Slip, San Francisco

Tadich Grill
240 California Street, San Francisco

Thorough Bread and Pastry [Duboce Triangle]
248 Church Street, San Francisco

Grocery Outlet [East Bay]
2001 Fourth Street, Berkeley

Grocery Outlet [East Bay]
2900 Broadway, Oakland

Discuss: Old-school sourdough bread?

Baltic Soothes the Schnitzel-Starved

The Baltic has opened after much delay, bringing high-quality German and American food to the schnitzel-starved residents of Point Richmond, reports AntarcticWidow.

Sautéed pork loin with mushroom sauce is solidly delicious comfort food, with a fantastic sauce and tender, chewy housemade spätzle. A German-style beef stew is all "beefy, stewy goodness," ladled over even more of that spätzle. The lunch menu includes vegetarian dishes, soups, salads, burgers, and "serious sounding sandwiches," the Widow says.

rworange says a special of pork tenderloin with red cabbage and apples was "lovely," the thick pork slices tender and tasty, the red cabbage very good. She notes that the Baltic also has a buffalo burger that's pretty popular.

Portions are generous even at lunch, when prices are $12 to $23. The owners are still in the process of getting a liquor license.

The Baltic [East Bay]
135 Park Place, Point Richmond

Discuss: Point Richmond. At last … German food at The Baltic!

Old Standby Now a Local Gem

Although Florio is an old reliable in CarrieWas218's neighborhood restaurant rotation, she's always found it not that interesting, just solid home cooking. But on a recent visit, it seemed the kitchen had upped its game.

A salad of shaved fennel, anchovies, and pomelos is "fresh and innovative," while squash soup with wild mushrooms is creamy, rich and engaging. Then there's the Berkshire pork Milanese. "Pounded thin like a veal cutlet, for $19 this dish was astonishingly good; tender, moist, and with a great crust, possibly made with the addition of panko for extra crunchiness. I was a bit jealous I hadn't ordered the dish myself," Carrie says. It comes with mustard sauce, housemade sauerkraut, and fingerling potatoes.

Carrie's Totten Inlet mussels, though, were more than satisfying, huge and richly flavored. The broth is white-wine based, but the addition of a garlicky aioli takes it over the top. "I have a new fondness and respect for Florio," Carrie says. "And a last word on service: Exemplary."

But it seems that consistency, or maybe large groups, is not Florio's forte. PulledPork briefly details a recent disappointing meal for 10: "Boring flavors, overcooked meats, and pastas that fell far short of those offered all over SF these days."

Florio Bar & Cafe [Pacific Heights]
1915 Fillmore Street, San Francisco

Discuss: [SF] Florio

Overheard on the San Francisco Bay Area Boards

"The potato chips at La Palma Mexicatessen ... are back to their former grandeur." - Jim Leff

"The shrimp taco had five or six plump shrimp ... coated in a zingy hot sauce that had a hint of sweetness, along with some chopped jicama and onion." - sairuh

"[A]ll were delicious but I think the roasted bone marrow with bergamot preserve and persian pickles was my favorite." - melly

Coca-Laced Liqueur

Agwa De Bolivia, a new liqueur made from coca leaves is now available for about 40 bucks a bottle. The company's website says it'll give you an “AGWABUZZ” like no other by activating the "various coca leaf alkaloids ... with lime to mimic the 'oxygen buzz' experienced when chewing coca leaves or drinking coca-leaf tea at high altitude in the Andes; it tunes you in." Yet, all the cocaine alkaloid is removed. From the press release:

"Wild Bolivian coca leaves are hand-picked at 2000 meters in the Andes and shipped under armed guard in 2000 Kilo Bales to Amsterdam to be macerated and de-cocainized. The potent high strength flavor formula is reduced to 60 proof, bottled and then shipped around the world in a more conventional format."

Sweet Wine Has a Purpose

Many hounds aren't wild about drinking wines on the sweeter side, but they use them to good effect in both savory and sweet cooking.

A lightly sweet wine is good for braising sauerkraut, according to Will Owen, either with bacon as a side dish, or as part of a full choucroute garni. buttertart steeps prunes in sweet wine and uses this as an accompaniment to pork chops or roasted pork. miss louella loves the results so much when she uses a sweet wine in risotto that she buys sweet wines solely for that purpose.

Vetter uses sweet wines for poaching pears or stone fruit, while Querencia pours sweet wine over cut-up fresh fruit. HillJ says sweet Rieslings are a good base for sorbets and granitas.

Discuss: Half a bottle of too-sweet Riesling

A Gingerbread Home for the Holidays

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A sweet holiday story built on spices and icing. ... WATCH THE VIDEO