Dinner and a show

After wandering the streets of Akihabara,the so called “Electric Town,” with its glittering lights, nonstop electronic din and cosplay clad locals, John and I not only felt sensory overload, but were famished. Our growling stomachs weren’t making it easy to choose from the huge variety of culinary delights available in Tokyo.  Luckily, before our hunger entered captionthe danger zone, called Defcon Five by a friend, we found a tempura restaurant called Shinjuku Tsunachachi So-honten.

We walked though the wooden sliding doors and were led upstairs to a seat at the bar that ran along the small kitchen. I always like eating where I can have a view of the chefs at work. When I’m at a sushi bar, I get a better appreciation of the way the flavors of a roll are created as I watch the seemingly simple process of seaweed, rice and fish being combined. Little did I know, at this restaurant, watching tempura being made would be as thrilling as savoring a delicious bite of it.

John and I ordered two different set meals. We were served clam soup, miso, pickled vegetables and rice, while we watched the rest of the meal come together. A selection of squash, kale, asparagus and other seasonal produce was dipped in batter, fried and placed piece by piece on our plates. Dipping each bite of food in the sauce, made of fish stock, rice wine and soy sauce, gave the crunchy tempura a rich juiciness. The carrots crunched with sweetness, the potatoes flooded my mouth with umami and the humble lotus, tasted almost meaty. As the chefs cooked for us, their faces were partially hidden by grease screens. We could only see their eyes, which gave them a theatrical allure, like glimpsing a geisha behind her fan. After the assortment of vegetables was served, it was time to move on to the fish course.

The fish course began with the chef showing us what he was about to fry up. With the grace of a ballerina, up rose the chef’s hand above the grease screen, clutching a live eel. The eel’s tail wagged magnificently as the chef danced it in a short arc, just at eye img_20160219_174523level, before lowering it to his cutting board for the kill. A few moments later, it was on our plates and tasted creamier and flakier than any barbecued unagi I’d ever had. I thanked Mr. Eel for dying in order to be our dinner, before chomping into the crunchy coated tender fish. Sooner than we finished enjoying the eel, a wriggling prawn appeared in the clutches of its executioner. The chef seemingly slowed down his presentation just long enough so we could appreciate all those little legs and antennae saying their last goodbye before being doused in an oily bath. The prawn had the fresh sweetness of a crustacean newly from the sea and was good to the last bite of its crispy fried tail.

The remainder of the fish we were served had met their demise sometime earlier than the eel and the prawns, but were just as delicious. Our bellies were pleasantly full and we were ready to take on the rest of Tokyo. We left dinner knowing that the next time we had tempura, it would surely lack the thespian tone of this meal.    photo0jpg

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Hong Kong hunger handled

img_20160513_073039-1-1My taxi ride through the streets of Hong Kong to the dim sum restaurant Hing Sun, was terrifying. My driver didn’t know where the restaurant was located and we found it with a combination of slowly loaded Google map directions along with my exasperated hand signals, directed forcefully from the backseat. As the taxi driver rounded each corner at break neck speeds, he occasionally would laugh maniacally and say, “I don’t speak English” as I tried my best to navigate us. He was driving so fast, he would often miss the turns, either because I couldn’t say the Chinese words fast enough or he outran the GPS satellite. Somehow, I arrived at my destination alive. The sun was just rising and I was right on time for 5 a.m. dim sum with the locals.

I had read Yelp reviews that the service at Hing Sun was different. A bowl of steaming hot water would arrive with dirty dishes to be washed by each patron before use. Waitstaff couldn’t be expected to serve you; it was suggested by several reviews to go help yourself to the table of dim sum baskets sitting on a corner table, rather than wait for someone to deliver anything. While I was on board for this dim sum adventure, I wasn’t img_20160513_064857quite prepared for the awkwardness of twenty senior citizens pointing and snickering at my arrival. It seemed they found it especially hilarious that the waitstaff was ignoring me. Finally, an elderly man, smiled very sweetly at me with a mouth full of black rotten teeth and requested a table setting. I got the dirty dishes with hot water combo, while he got a clean set.

After several staff walked past me, acting like my they couldn’t imagine what I was trying to get their attention for, I helped myself to the table piled high with dim sum. I was successful in picking out several baskets for myself right before being swatted away and shooed back to my table by what seemed like the owner. This of course raised more chuckles from the crowd, but at least I had my breakfast.

The buns and dumplings were tasty enough, however, the Lai Wong Bao that this restaurant is img_20160513_065907known for, sent me to dim sum Shangri-la. I hadn’t ever had an egg custard bun in all of my years of dim sum eating and I no idea how delicious it would be. The warm fluffy bun delivered a molten center that was better than the most perfectly runny yolk.  The Chinese name for this dish translates to “milk custard bun” and is made with egg yolks, coconut milk and custard powder.  The result was a heavenly ambrosia delivered by a cloud-like bun. The center was like liquid egg shortbread balanced by softly sweetened dough. I had to slurp the gooey custard along with each bite as it threatened to drip out of the bun. My harrowing taxi ride seemed well worth the trip to have been left with such a mouthwatering memory.

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Midwestern-Tibetan Fusion

Amused diners at the Snow Lion.

There are times when having low standards about you’re going to eat, is a very good idea. When you go to a person’s house that is a terrible cook or you are eating a meal on an airplane, it’s beneficial to not get your hopes up that your meal will be excellent. That way, it’s not as disappointing when you are served up something sub par.

Subtle differences at work

with the noodle dishes.

This was especially true when my brother, sister-in-law and I went to the Snow Lion in Bloomington, Indiana. My brother recently moved to Bloomington to attend the university there for his PhD and during my visit, we decided that it was a must, to go to the famous restaurant owned by the nephew of the Dalai Lama.

Frozen dumplings and ketchup fried rice!

The Snow Lion gets terrible reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon alike. Adjectives such as watery, tough, bland and overcooked are in abundance in its reviews. But still, aren’t the novelty and humor of going to a restaurant in the Midwest connected to the Dalai Lama worth it? Hmmm… that’s a good question.

Aaron, Kinga and I were one of two tables eating lunch that day and our very low standards took a plummet when we read the disclaimer in the menu. The Snow Lion declared on the top of the lunch choices that since an American palate would not agree with traditional Tibetan foods like yak and mutton, that they had “Americanized” their food options. We therefore expected a sort of Tibetan-Midwestern fusion, or something like that.

Inedible potatoes.

The Midwest, doing what it knows.

Now, I don’t think that our meal at the Snow Lion was the worst I’ve eaten, but it could be added to the list of worst meals. We started out with the spicy potato appetizer and were served a plate of undercooked potatoes that had been coated with “Cajun spices.” Our entrees were a couple orders of noodles with varying levels of blandness and an order of Momo dumplings that must have been fallen under a very loose definition of traditional. The chef seemed to be a fan of the “Cajun spices” as the curry tasted suspiciously like the spicy potatoes, just grittier. And the potstickers, oops I mean, dumplings were definitely frozen before they went into the fryer. The best thing was the side salad, served with their secret house dressing, which was very obviously just ranch dressing.

Even though the meal was pretty dismal, I’m still glad we visited the Snow Lion. The experience was spot on with what we expected, so there was no large disappointment. And there is a satisfaction in knowing that you never again have to visit a particular eating establishment, that your curiosity is no more. Plus if Jeopardy ever uses the Snow Lion in one of their questions again, we will be ready!

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The Spotted Burger

It feels quite grand to go to a famous restaurant in New York. And I was indeed feeling fancy free when I went to The Spotted Pig in Manhattan. My friend Christina knows that I have a love for meat and truly appreciate a good burger. She also knows that I become giddy at the thought of a good celebrity sighting, so she knew right away that this was a place for me. The Spotted Pig is famous for being the cool hangout for anyone in the West Village and has been featured in many a magazine for their $17 burger.

Of course we ordered the famed burger, but we started out with an order of Devils on Horseback. These are pears, wrapped in prunes, wrapped in bacon and then braised to a soft tenderness. Somehow they managed to get the fruit to taste like it had been injected with meat juices. The whole package melted in my mouth with a sugary bacon surge.

Next we moved on the burger which is served rare with a thin spread of Gorgonzola cheese on a toasted brioche bun with a mound of rosemary shoestring fries. Normally, I like my meat cooked more than rare and I must say that the restaurants dim lighting helped with any squeamish feelings I had about consuming ground beef that was still mooing. That first bite quelled any hesitancy about rare burgers as my eyes filled with the kind of tears I get when I truly love a meal.  Each bite of the tender juicy meat had a layer of super salty cheese creep it to flavor it. I almost wanted there to be more Gorgonzola and yet, it was the perfect amount. I shoved some of the delicate fries into my mouth and proceeded through my meal with gusto. Surrounded by a decor of controlled meat and pig kitsch, I felt rather like a celebrity myself.

 

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Calfornia… rediscovered

Many years ago, during my college newspaper days in San Diego, I conducted a search for the best California burrito. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with this tasty treat, it is something that I found (at that time) to only exist in San Diego and was made in with slight variations among the plentiful drive-through taquerias. Though there were differences in each burrito, the California style always included carne asada, cheese, sour cream, salsa fresca and its crowning glory… french fries. For those who weren’t raised on the greasy Mexican foods of Southern California, this mixture sounds revolting and I too took some time to join the following of french fries on my Mexican food.

I really discovered my love of California burritos during my search for the best one. I studied the texture and thickness of the tortilla wrapping. I analyzed the carne asada for the correct flavor and juiciness. I evaluated the crispness of the french fries. And I finally found the love of my California burrito life at a place tucked into the Hillcrest neighborhood called, La Posta de Alcapulco’s. A frequent hangout post drinking, for the college folk and the vagrants of the area, it has dirty tables and sits next to a scummy liquor store. It is unsuspecting and dingy, but man do they know how to make a burrito.

After my discovery, I figured that California burritos were something confined to San Diego and I would have to travel there to get anything close to the real thing. Well, this week I happened upon something very close. On recommendation from a friend who attended San Diego State as well, I tried Leo’s Taco Bar in Santa Cruz.

Leo’s version is called the BIG California burrito and the menu suggests that it is a meal for two. At nearly a foot and a half long and weighing as much as a small child, they are quite right about sharing. The behemoth has all the regular components as well as rice and beans and is most importantly, incredibly tasty. I lost all self control when noshing my half down and was in a joyful pain for the rest of the day.  Although it was not exactly the same as a San Diego California burrito, it was closer than I thought it would ever be. And it took me back to the mouthwatering memories of my burrito search.

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No bones about it

Almost as good as catching a fish on your own before cooking and eating it, is choosing one from a bed of ice after its just been caught by someone else. When I was at Railay Beach recently, I felt like eating fish for dinner. And it just so happened that at the restaurant I was going to be eating at, you could go and take a look at the catch of the day and pick a fish to be cooked up. My friend Noreen and I were going to be sharing this meal and we decided on red snapper since the waiter said it was extremely fresh and who could resist that lovely pink skin and big red eye?

About 20 minutes after ordering, the barbecued red snapper arrived back at our table, seasoned with lemon and pepper and nearly falling off the bones with tender juiciness. It was delicious, but it was also fun to tuck into the little nooks and crannies of the fish body that you don’t get to enjoy when a fish is filleted. Tapping my fork around the face brought out the sweet meat hidden in the cheeks and searching next to the fins revealed morsels that truly melted in my mouth.

Guidebooks say that Railay Beach is one of the most beautiful in all of Thailand. Impressive limestone cliffs overgrown with lush jungle plants loom over the warm Andaman Sea making it is a lovely place. Even as picturesque as it was, digging into my red snapper rivaled digging my toes into that white sandy beach.

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Hot Damn

A few years ago, I developed somewhat of a fascination with “competitive eaters.” These are people who excel at packing away disgusting amounts of food that could feed a normal person for a few days, in just a few minutes. Some people even make a living from these eating contests that include packing away over a hundred jalapeño poppers in 10 minutes, nearly 7 lbs. of buffalo chicken tenders in 10 minutes and 3 onions in a minute flat.th

The king of all these chow downs, has to be Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, in Coney Island. What supposedly started in 1916 as an eat off between immigrants to settle who was the most patriotic, has turned into an event broadcast on ESPN each year. This year Joey Chestnut defended his title with 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.

I recently visited the dilapidated amusement park and boardwalk that is Coney Island and ordered one hot dog with grilled onions from Nathan’s. It fulfilled a foodie field trip that I had wanted to take for a long time, but as much as I wanted to have eaten the best hot dog of my life, it was pretty mediocre. And while it was fun to be eating at the same place as so many of my eating heroes, one hot dog was enough for me.

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