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

The Beer with the Green Label

The Beer with the Green Label

Sierra Nevada tries to reclaim its cred

By Roxanne Webber

Beer aficionados could hardly do better than the Monk’s Kettle, a bar and restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. The beer list is five pages and nearly 200 choices long, including a coconut and macadamia nut porter and a beer made with crushed Chardonnay grapes. Would those two Google engineers at the corner of the bar—the ones drinking challenging Belgian sour ales—ever order a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale?

“You’d deserve to be made fun of by the proprietor!” scoffs one. “It’s just very mainstream.” The other one considers for a moment: “I’d drink it if my choices were that or Bud.” But even if they wanted to, they couldn’t order a Sierra Nevada at the Monk’s Kettle—Pale Ale has never been on tap here, because you can get it anywhere; it doesn’t have enough cachet with drinkers like the Google guys.

And here’s the irony: Ask a craft brewer which other brewers he most admires, and he’s likely to mention Sierra Nevada. The Chico, California, brewery is considered to be sacred ground, and its beers expertly crafted. “When you die as a brewer, you go to Chico,” says Matthew Brynildson, brewmaster of Firestone Walker in Southern California.

One of the reasons Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione got into brewing in the first place was because he so loved the taste of a Sierra Nevada holiday beer called Celebration Ale. The esteemed brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company never lets his home fridge run dry of Pale Ale. “It’s a perfectly balanced beer,” he says.

But “perfectly balanced” is having a hard time competing with macadamia nuts. Now that hundreds of small-batch and wacky beers are being made (often trying to outhop each other with extremely bitter flavors), the moderately hoppy, medium-bodied ale seems boring by comparison. You can get it at any corner liquor store. It’s on tap next to MGD at nearly every bar. It’s too mainstream for somebody who wants exotic, and too ubiquitous for somebody who equates quality with rarity.

When it debuted in 1980, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the extreme. Almost all beer in America was like Bud: bland, light lager, easy to drink, thirst-quenching, and inexpensive. Anybody wanting the grainy, malty tastes, bitter hops, or fruity yeast flavors of European beers was out of luck. Sierra Nevada came along and with a handful of other adventurous small breweries created a market for craft beer, educating consumers and future brewers about how good beer could be.

Other than Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, which was making craft brews in the early ’70s under Fritz Maytag, the craft beer movement didn’t really get rolling until the late 1970s, when laws prohibiting home-brewing were relaxed. A generation of people started to make beer in their garages, hobbyists opened up their own little breweries, and the craft beer movement was born. Among the hobbyists was Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken Grossman, who had opened a home-brew shop in Chico in 1976.

Back Home in Harlem, Chicken Without Peer

Charles Gabriel, the wandering soul food master, is back in business in Harlem. His celebrated restaurant Southern Style Kitchen closed last year, then reopened a month ago as Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken. bussy26 says it's as good as ever. The signature skillet-fried chicken is beautifully seasoned and cooked to an impeccable crispness. "Absolutely delicious," bussy says.

The rest of the cafeteria-style spread also delivers. Winners include sweet, meltingly tender barbecued pork ribs and some don't-miss sides: mac ’n’ cheese, greens with just enough pork and salt, and show-stopping yams (“pure unadulterated delicious sugar"). This is "great stuff," adds bussy, who confesses to indulging in "too many returns to the buffet line to count."

Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken [Harlem]
2837 Eighth Avenue (near 151st Street), Manhattan

Board Link: Charles Fried Chicken-Welcome Back!

CHOW and Foodzie’s Holiday Charity Drive

CHOW and Foodzie’s Holiday Charity Drive

Give a little, get a little. READ MORE

What to Do with a Thousand Apples

This short documentary by Patrick Johnson focuses on a collective of young dudes who go by the name Orchitecture (orchard + architecture). They brought a thousand Pink Lady apples from Patagonia to Bumpkin Island in Boston Harbor. While on the island, their diet solely consisted of apples, and they made various three-dimensional structures centered around the Pink Ladies. The whole thing feels a little Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-design-school, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Plus it's beautifully filmed, but bonus points if you actually understand the last shot.

Your Lunch Looks Like a Winner

The Let's Do Lunch photo contest is on. There was a time when photographing food in a restaurant was something people debated. Whether it was rude, whether staff would assume the photographer was a blogger or reviewer, whether it was anti-social behavior sure to drive civilization into the ground.

As it turns out, people like to document what they're eating. And photographing the plate in front of you has almost become a standard step between ordering and eating. Do the right thing with those photos: win with them, and win big. The Let's Do Lunch photo contest will outfit one winner with a fantastic suite of prizes, including a Nikon D5000 Digital SLR camera. And beyond the first prize, other winners will receive things like printers and software.

Yes, there is an entry fee. But 20 percent of it goes to food banks, and a $2 taco or a $50 steak are equally worthy. CHOW is helping judge the contest, and we want to see delicious things. So shoot, shoot, and win.

Mexican Sandwiches and Other Bites

Carmelita in Sunset Park is the latest grocery-plus-taqueria to appear on hound radar. At the back of the shop, a tiny kitchen turns out a superior chorizo torta, among other things. DistrictSelectman loves the $1.50 tacos with authentic fixings: a sprinkling of onion and cilantro, grilled cebollitas, radishes, pickled jalapeños, and standout condiments like smoky salsa rojo and salsa verde, chunky with avocado. "The food is terrific and cheap, and sinfully good," he says.

Not far away is Los Tres Potrillos, Barry Strugatz's go-to spot for an amazing lengua torta. And Cholulita, a bodega-with-kitchen in Bushwick, comes through with a "very respectable" longaniza cemita, says ftgsandwich.

In Queens, Chowhound champ Taqueria Coatzingo continues to blow away fans with its milanesa de res, a fried cutlet in a torta or a cemita: "That sandwich is boss," bigjeff declares, easily enough to feed two. For one, he adds, it's "a punch in the gut," and that's a good thing, as long as "you like your gut punched with two kinds of cheeses, breaded fried steak and multiple kinds of peppers."

A few blocks away, Tia Julia serves up E Eto's favorite cemitas, from its truck or its newer restaurant. Jeffsayyes says its milanesa de pollo cemita is both excellent and uncommonly large at seven or eight inches across, but gives the nod to Coatzingo for flavor.

Carmelita [Sunset Park]
780 Fourth Avenue (between 26th and 27th streets), Brooklyn
No phone available

Los Tres Potrillos [Sunset Park]
1004 Fourth Avenue (at 39th Street), Brooklyn

Cholulita [Bushwick]
888 Broadway (between Belvidere Street and Arion Place), Brooklyn

Taqueria Coatzingo [Jackson Heights]
76-05 Roosevelt Avenue (near 76th Street), Queens

Tia Julia [Woodside]
91st Street & Roosevelt Avenue, Queens

Tia Julia [Woodside]
68-06 Roosevelt Avenue (near 68th Street), Queens

Board Links: Unsung Mexican food in north Sunset Park
Best Torta?

One Whole Hog, Disassembly Not Required

Jim McDuffee, the chef at Joseph Leonard, takes apart a whole pig every Sunday to produce a weekly procession of snout-to-tail dishes. The highlight of wew's recent dinner was a delicate terrine, served with greens and a bit of mustard. Pulled pork with gnocchi was another winner, garlicky and robust. Pot-au-feu was a feast of rib, sausage, and braised pork in peppery, deeply flavorful broth, marred only by excess salt. Pork belly gumbo "was a pass," wew adds, "as was any thought of a sweet after all that."

Joseph Leonard [Greenwich Village]
170 Waverly Place (at Grove Street), Manhattan

Board Link: Joseph Leonard's Sunday night pig dinner

Overheard on the New York Boards

"The walls virtually spill out with pastries that appear to be teetering on countertops that might, at any moment, topple over and kill you with sweetness."

"Pelmeni are awesome if the filling is good. Lot of places use cheap meat and it tastes like bad Chinese dumplings. Same idea—and it's where we got it in the first place."

"Whenever Vinny took your dinner order he always said 'eat, drink and order whatever you like, there's no charge.' He would pause for a few seconds and then say, 'only cash,' and then he would laugh loudly."

London’s Fruity Skyline

The Telegraph has put together a lovely video detailing the depiction of London's skyline using produce, which, as it turns out, is an eerily expressive medium. See also: the Daily Mail's story last year on recreating the London skyline using tubes of Smarties. Why this is becoming a slowly building mini-fad is not entirely clear.

Bring a French Chef into Your Home

The house-made smoked sausage at La Bedaine, a French place selling its own charcuterie and ready-made French dinners to take home, already has its own fan club.

"It is succulent, smoky, pure goodness," says rworange. "They were the smokiest I've ever had except for some that a friend hand-carries back from Louisiana," confirms Robert Lauriston. "Massive flavor for such a small quantity."

The pork rillettes are also fantastic, says abstractpoet: "less salty than, and at least as good as, Fatted Calf's—at a significantly lower price." A portion is $4. The smoked halibut has exquisite texture, adds rworange. "Anyone with a passion for smoked whitefish will drop to their knees in reverence for this.

"Wild boar terrine is wonderful," says nicedragonboy, and makes a good sandwich. noahj appreciates the pork terrine sandwich, especially for just $6.

As for the Cryovac-ed take-home meals, abstractpoet enjoyed the hearty cassoulet, with generous pieces of beef, sausage, and what may have been duck leg. The smoked halibut dinner was also very good. To cook them at home, you pop them into a pot of boiling water, turn off the heat, and let sit 10 minutes.

A chocolate tart is lovely and fudgy in a crisp crust, but the croissants are on the bready side. The chef apparently used to cook at Le Charm, which bodes well for the duck dishes, says ernie in berkeley. And take note: These prices are too low to last, Robert Lauriston says.

La Bedaine [East Bay]
1585 Solano Avenue, Berkeley

Board Links: Albany: La Bedaine Cuisine de l'atelier?
Berkeley: La Bedaine—Reasonably-priced French pastries, house-made smoked sausages, pates and French dinners to go