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Friday, April 29, 2005

Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks

I don't know about you, but whenever I'm in Modesto, I could just kill for some decent food.

Fortunately, Karen always keeps us well fed whenever we come to visit, so we never really consider eating out that often. But there are the few times when we're on our own, and attempting to find something worthwhile and interesting often leads to frustration in the land of Panda Express and Perko's.

Taco Truck

My philosophy thus far has been that no matter where you are, no matter the size of the town, large or small, that in that town there has to be at least one place that does the best of whatever it does. If you are in a place where the dining situation looks rather bleak, a place where Olive Gardens, Jack In The Box's, and Applebees's dominate, there's gotta be one place – I repeat, one place – that stands apart. And sometimes a place like that can be fancy and "gourmet", or it can be ethnic, or sometimes it can be just a little stand on the side of the road that sells smoked fish. There has got to be that one place that, if they just put a damn hot dog on a bun, it is one of the best damn hot dogs you've ever had. In every town, I know that place exists.

Modesto is no exception.

I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you, gentle readers, that restaurants are made to suite the taste of the diner. Restaurants live on the expectations of the average diner. Only the people who can afford to eat out often, do. And depending on where you eat, you are not eating the opinion of the chef, you are eating the opinion of his or her regulars. Sometimes just knowing a restaurant's clientele is all of the truth in advertising you'll ever need. And remember that cost is no indication of quality.

When in Rome, find out where the Romans eat.

I had been hearing of the taco trucks in Modesto as sources of delicious Mexican food for really really cheap. In my area of San Francisco, I rarely encounter taco trucks and seeing as I don't get to the Mission very often, I've always settled for the more known and established eateries such as Pancho Villa, Los Jarritos, and La Rondalla. When Bruce and I were visiting Oxford, England, we saw that town's version of our taco trucks – the kebab vans. And while those also looked tempting, we steered clear of them in favor for the more traditional pub food. Now I wish we hadn't.

Kebab Vans, Oxford, England

The taco trucks we checked out last Thursday, besides being interesting cultural landmarks, were my first initiation into their inexpensive, yet delicious world. What brought us to Modesto on a weekday was to celebrate Bruce and Karen's birthdays and to help his dad go through some things for a yard sell.

On our lunch break, Bruce and I headed over to two areas of Modesto I'd heard about, where good taco trucks seemed to flourish. The first area was a place literally, and figuratively, on the "other side of the tracks". This is the place I christened Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks.

About a few blocks away from the county jail, and surrounded by bail bondsmen storefronts, was a little strip of 8th Street in which 6 taco trucks were lined up side by side with their backs towards the train tracks that run through the southern part of town. The front of the trucks were obscured by large tents under which sat picnic tables and taco truck patrons. Edging up against the tents were rows of cars that belonged to the patrons stopping by to get a quick bite and possibly a drug deal or two.

I had to mention that last part because, admittedly, those folks hanging around the taco truck tents were a pretty rough looking bunch. This being the bunch that Karl Marx would call the "dangerous class" or the "passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society" (day-amn Karl! you're sooo bitchy!) who may be swept up in proletarian revolution but for whom it's conditions prepare it more for that of a "tool of reactionary intrigue".


Not that I have anything against "rough looking" people (Hell! Some of my relatives could be those people!), but personally speaking, it's not easy for me to enjoy my food in the presence of angry winos, young thugs, and barefoot women shouting "Goddamit Billy, where's my money!"

At taco truck Jessica #2 we had two tacos: the carnitas, or shredded pork, and the lengua, or tongue. The total cost: $2, and they were ready in minutes. Among the taco meat choices were cheeks, brains, and tripe. Now, I'm a pretty adventurous eater, but I feel slightly ashamed to admit to you that I still get the "ick factor" whenever I see these items listed. Believe me when I say that I'm trying to get over this and I was truly tempted to order these "meats", but in my moment of trial and weakness, I played it safe. So I ordered the tongue. I know. I'm a wimp.

This was my second time eating tongue. The first time was a tongue sandwich at the Second Avenue Deli in New York where, while I enjoyed the meat, the sandwich was pretty boring. At least I knew I liked tongue. Bruce, however, is no fan seeing as he had to eat tongue sandwiches one too many times as a kid.

Our tacos came out on a paper plate and wrapped in aluminum foil and we took these and went back to our truck, put down the back and ate our tacos. Bruce had the carnitas which was good but salty. My tongue taco had a rich, chile, slow-cooked flavor that was slightly spicy but not spicy hot, the meat was tender, and the tacos were pliable and hot. Sure, it was a little bit messy, a little bit greasy, and a little bit salty. Perfect if you ask me. And the carrots, radishes, and limes were not only a great addition/condiment, but the presentation value also scored a perfect 10. Hey, you eat with your eyes too, you know.

Carnitas and Lengua Tacos

After we were done, we drove by Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks and threw some firecrackers out of the window just for fun.

OK, no we didn't.

We actually drove over to get a picture of the popular "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" sign that proudly announces your entry to the other side of the tracks. Declining to crossover just yet, we made our way to the second taco truck confluence over on Crow's Landing Road. This was my first time in this part of town and I have to say, I loved it.

Unlike Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks, the trucks on Crow's Landing Road were not circled together, like a Western wagon train fending off the hordes of hostile gringos, but were spread out along the stretch of the 4-lane-wide thoroughfare. This area of Modesto is predominantly Mexican, with mercados, discotecas, strip malls, restaurants, and taco trucks running down the 2 or 3-mile stretch of pavement and fading out into the southern most margins of the city.

Crow's Landing Road Taco Trucks

The two highlights of this trip for me was the huge and immaculate La Perla supermarket and the taco truck Mariscos Sinaloa. La Perla is a supermarket that specializes in Mexican and Latino food and that, previously, I believed only had one location.

For the last few Christmas Eves, it has become tradition to eat tamales from La Perla in Riverbank over at Karen's house. But I found out not that long ago that La Perla was a chain when our friend Laura (of Laura and Tom) told us about one near her house in Burlingame.

We saw two La Perlas while driving on Crow's Landing, one of which had obviously been there for a while, plus the brand spanking new one we stopped at. Once entering the new La Perla, we encountered an abundance of fresh vegetables including ones we had never seen before, such as fresh garbanzo beans and something called Camote del Cerro. Nowhere had we seen such an incredible selection of dried chilies, fresh veggies, meat, and Mexican pastries. Like the other La Perla, this one had a hot food counter as well as tables and chairs to sit at. So much food, so little stomach.

La Perla

After leaving La Perla, we passed a taco truck called Mariscos Sinaloa. Sinaloa, I later found out, is a state in Mexico that runs along the Sea of Cortes and has a large fishing industry. In addition, it is also one of the largest drug trafficking regions in Mexico and is home to the infamous Tijuana cartel.

Isn't that special?

I don't know how long I stood staring at the menu, trying to decipher it with the limited Spanish I know. Eventually, I rolled the dice and picked something. Honestly, I had no idea what I was ordering, but I knew I couldn't stand there forever. Someone might think I was on drugs or something.

"I would like the campechana, please."

"Regular. With tostadas."

What I got for my $6 was a medium-sized styrofoam cup with a lid covering something liquidy and fishy smelling, four tostado shells, a lime, a spoon, and some napkins. Once I opened the lid and took a few sips, what I tasted was a slightly spicy, cold, tomatoey soup with small-diced cucumber chunks floating up. What I thought I had gotten was a type of gazpacho. It wasn't until I started to dig around that I realized I had gotten more than what I expected. Just beneath the surface of the soup were huge chunks of octopus and shrimp and more green veggies. Wow! Basically, the campechana is a cold seafood cocktail made up of octopus and fish, in this case shrimp. This was a real refreshing treat and afterwards I patted myself on the back for being lucky enough to choose it. Maybe I should've assumed that I couldn't go wrong at the taco truck Mariscos Sinaloa. I'll know better next time.

Campechana from Mariscos Sinaloa

On our way back, Bruce wanted to take a quick jaunt down 9th Street to see if a place he remembered going to when he was younger was still around. On our way there we passed several more taco trucks, and then the ultimate of ultimates: A taco bus! The taco bus, Viva Taco, was an old Bluebird school bus converted into a restaurant on wheels. The inside walls were paneled in "quilted" stainless steel and shone brightly. Several stools lined both sides of the inside of the bus, while a cook stood in back of the bus, where the kitchen is, and a man took food orders in the front. If only we had the appetites to convince us to stay. Viva Taco: please roll through my town! You would be much loved here.

Viva Taco Bus

Who would've expected such greatness from what some naysayers call "roach coaches"? Not I, but now I've changed my tune. From now on I'll sing the joys of taco trucks, kebab vans, and the like. Over those contented, wealthy train tracks, far from that black and white world of food, is a rainbow-colored food world where taco dreams do come true. And the next time I'm in Modesto, you'll know where to find me.

On the other side of the tracks.


Monday, April 25, 2005

Bulls and Beans


This entry was going to be about the fantastic food at last weekend's Portuguese bullfight. Unfortunately, there was nothing, foodwise, to write about. No spicy octopus stew. No deep-fried sardines. No linguica sandwiches. Oh, there was a marinated pork sandwich that Seth and I shared, but it wasn't anything to blog about. Dang it!

Part of the whole excitement about going down to the Central Valley for the Festival Taurino/Festa de Santo Antao was the great Portuguese food we would be having. Instead, I ended up having bland chorizo and eggs at the Mexican restaurant next door to the Placa de Toiros, or bullring. Too bad, because Seth and I had told our companheiros, Bill and Tania, all about how great the food was going to be. Later on, after a brief conversation with the woman sitting in front of us, we found out that the good food comes out later in the season. Well Geez! You'd think they could put that on the flyer! Still, I guess we have until October to get our bullfight grub on.

I think Seth, Bill, and Tania thought I was a little nuts for wearing a cowboy hat to the bullfight. That is, until we actually approached the gates and standing there were 5 or six big Portagees all with cowboy hats on. Later on, I let Tania be the honorary cowgirl since she looked better in it than I did.

For those of you who've never been, the Portuguese bullfights, or corridos, occur from April to the end of October and coincide with religious festivals, or festas, of the Catholic Church. Beyond coinciding with the religious aspect, the corridos are a cultural event that brings together the Portuguese American community in California, most of whom are centralized in the San Joaquin Valley and most who are originally from the Azores (Acores). The Portuguese corridos, unlike the Spanish and Mexican corridos, are bloodless and focus mostly on the skill and bravery of the participants. There is usually a full brass band and the participants vary, depending on the type of corridor. Usually there are three acts: the matador, the cavaleiro (rider on horseback), and the forcados (don't ask). For the Festival Taurino, there were only the cavaleiros (a father and sons team from the Azores) and the forcados from Turlock.

However, let's get something straight: I came for the food. Yes, it's great to be at a cultural event such as this and cheer on the bravery (or insanity?) of the guys about to be head-butted by a ton of pissed off bull, but I'm more interested in what that bull might look like on my plate. So yes, I was a little disappointed that this time we had to eat (surprisingly) mediocre Mexican food next door instead of eating good Portuguese food inside. But at least I was in good company. And at least I was comforted in knowing that, because this was really a warm-up to future festas, the food would be getting better later on in the season.

As far as beverages go, you are looking at sodas, beer (Bud light) and wine (Carlo Rossi, straight out of the gallon bottle). Fortunately I was able to get in a bottle of good tawny Port, which we enjoyed along with Portuguese cookies I made, called Rosquilhas Secas or Dry Rings. It was a good thing I brought the cookies, since we were able to share some with the couple in front of us who, in return, offered us some blackberry brandy (and I guess, according to Tania, a little gossip about one of the forcados?).

Blackberry brandy...yum! Of course we were discrete with the drink, though I did flash my homemade cookies around in front of the eyes of the hungry crowd, purely for the showoff effect.

Hey, I was just seeing who might charge! Ole!

Rosquilhas Secas

2 tablespoons of yeast
½ cup of warm water
1 cup of milk
2 sticks (1 cup) of butter
3 tablespoons of sugar
2 large, room-temp eggs
5 cups of flour

1. In a small cup, disolve the yeast in the water and set aside for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the milk with the butter and sugar in a one-quart saucepan. Place over medium-low heat until butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved.
2. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Gradually whisk in the hot milk. Mix in 2 cups of the flour. Add the disolved yeast and enough of the remaining flour to form a medium-textured dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Cover well and set aside in a warm place to rise untile doubled in size.
3. Repeat the last process then preheat oven to 350 degrees.
4. When ready, pinch off golf ball size pieces and using a gentle touch, roll into balls, then rolling into ropes about 6 inches long. Make the rope into a circle and pinch the ends together. Widen the inside of the ring with your fingers to make a shape that resembles a bagel or a donut. Place on a baking sheet (preferably on top of a Silpat).
4. Place in the oven and bake at 350 for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 300 and bake until they begin to color. At this point, lower the heat to 250 and bake another hour.
5. After an hour, turn off the oven, but leave the cookies in to dry out. Don't let the cookies get dark brown. They should be dry, but not hard and overbaked.

At this point you can eat as is or decorate with a frosting. I spritzed them with water and dusted with powdered sugar, then I let them sit for a while to cool. Put them in a paper lunch bag and loaded them up for the road trip down to the Central Valley.


This last week has been centered around the fava bean as I've found a shop in Chinatown that sells them at 79 cents (sometimes 59 cents) per pound. Apparently, the fava bean is also known in Chinese cuisine as the horse bean, where it is made into a spicy bean paste called dau ban jeung. But when I see the fava bean, I often see a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.

What to do? Well, I did come of up with two recipes, and guess what? I'm going to share them with you here.

Horse Bean aka Fava Bean

But before I do, did you know that fava beans are potentially fatal to some people? Favism is an inherited disease in which a person lacks an enzyme called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). When these people, usually of Mediterranean, African, and Southeast Asian descent, eat fava beans, they develop a condition called hemolytic anemia. This anemia causes red blood cells to break apart and block blood vessels. When such blockage occurs in the kidneys, it can result in kidney failure and even death. The good news is that the majority people find out they have this condition in childhood, but if you are concerned about possibly having it, your doctor can perform a blood test to see if you're at risk.

Also, some people are allergic to raw fava beans and eating them, in extreme cases, can result in a coma. It is believed, though, that cooking counteracts the allergic factor in the beans.

Lastly, did you know that there's some research that shows that eating fava beans can help control the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease? It seems that an active chemical that occurs naturally in fava beans, called Levodopa, is the same chemical used in many medicines used to control Parkinson's Disease.

So, now that you've learned those little tidbits of useful information, here are the recipes I promised you.

What you are about to witness are my two best efforts to befriend, flirt with, and snuggle up against the bean. One note: preparing fava beans is time consuming. Think: peeling and de-veining shrimp. It's about that long.

With every recipe, you have to open the pods and remove the beans. Then you blanche/parboil the beans in boiling water for a few minutes (depending on whether they will cook longer later on). After you've removed them from the water and they've cooled a bit, you then peel the skin from the bean. Now you can use them in your recipe.

Pizza alla Broadway and Stockton Street

I dedicate this particular pizza to the produce shop at the intersection of these two streets.

First, get your pizza dough ready. Here's what I did: I added to a large bowl 2 cups of white flour, ½ cup of semolina, ½ cup of durum, 2 tablespoons of corn meal, and a little sourdough starter. Into this I added a tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of yeast, and a cup of water. Since what I ended up with was too wet to work with, I kept adding white flour until I had a workable dough. I kneaded this for a minute or two and then oiled the doughball, placing it in the bowl and letting it sit in the oven with the oven light on. After about an hour or so, I punched it down. I let it rise again, then punched it, worked it into a ball, and wrapped it in plastic. I then put it in the fridge while I prepped the toppings.

The sauce is a fava bean pesto. I used about 2 cups of fava beans (that's probably about 3 pounds of fava beans in the pod). Once they were prepped (see above), I put them in the food processor, added some olive oil, some lemon juice, some roasted garlic, some salt and pepper, and some honey. I mixed this, adding just a little water to get a good spreadable consistency.

The toppings: 1 chayote (aka Buddha's Hand squash aka fat su), 1 half of a large yellow onion, 1 8" long smoked linguica link. Peel the chayote (optional) and slice horizontally into ¼" slices (the seed is edible, but you may want to remove it since it can be slightly chewy). Slice the onion the same way. Lay these out on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast these under the broiler until browned. Cut your linguica into thick coins and in a skillet of hot oil, fry up your linguica. Remove to paper towels, blot, then chop.

Remove your pizza dough from the fridge. Don't be surprised to see a dough ball about to burst from the plastic, that is if it hasn't already. Don't use a rolling pin. Instead flatten out the dough to a round pizza shape by working it with your hands, pulling and stretching and slapping it from hand to hand. Throw it up in the air, and feel like you just don't care. Say ho!!! Get that round thang in your face and slap it like a big ole behind, Sir Mix-a-lot! Be sure to avoid getting thin spots. I stretched mine out to fit a large 16" pizza screen.

Place your baking stone in the oven on a rack in the middle. I use unglazed terra cotta tiles. Preheat your oven to 475 degrees.

Spread your fava bean pesto to form an even layer on your-a pizza pie. For the cheese, I used Fontina (about 2 cups, shredded, loosely packed), plus a ½ cup grated Parmigiano Regiano. Lay down the fontina, then place your ingredients on top. Next sprinkle with the Parm. Place in the oven on top of the stone. It takes about 10 - 15 minutes, but stay with it and watch it. It can turn black really quickly! When it's done, remove from the oven and transfer from the pizza screen to a cutting board. Cut and serve.

The pizza bread has a crunchy crust but is light and airy. The pesto shines through, while the chayote and onions are a mild addition. The linguica adds a smokey flavor.

Cauliflower and Fava Bean Love Fest

Prepare your fava beans. Cut a large cauliflower up into flowerettes (I see these in Chinatown at $1.29 a head right now). Parboil them for a minute. Remove and cool under running water. Take a small bunch of basil and 2 garlic cloves. Wrap them in plastic wrap and pound the shit out of it with a rolling pin (this releases the aromatic oils). Remove from the plastic wrap and chop roughly. In a casserole dish, lay down some of the cauliflower, then some fava beans then basil/garlic mix. Repeat. Grind some pepper over. Then sprinkle with a cup of Gruyere, then some Parmigiano Regiano. Bake at 400 degrees on the top oven rack until the tops start to turn brown (feel free to turn on the broiler towards the end). Once you remove it from the oven, sprinkle lightly with coarse salt (such as Fleur de Sel) and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

I served this with pork chops that I had marinated with garlic slices, crushed juniper berries and dried pomegranate seeds (anardana). Made a pretty tasty weeknight dinner!

And that ain't no bull!


(Additional photos by Seth)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Gold Rush Town

We were there for a tenant rights workshop. Seems noble, right? Seems very conscientious; a righteous move to uplift, educate, and bolster the strength of the urban, landless, working class, (commonly known hitherto and furthermore as "yours truly") against the predatory, market-driven, "it's just business", faux-nobility (commonly known hitherto and furthermore as the "landlord").

But let's get real.


The real reason we were in the Mission on a Saturday morning was Tartine. Now, a lot of people reading this may say, "ho hum, been there", and if this describes you, please stop reading this and start reading this. However, while I had heard about Tartine for the last couple of years, and while Seth brought over one of their killer chocolate soufflé cakes for our election night cry-fest/support group (heavily-caloric desserts do wonders for depression), I had never actually been there. Occasionally, I'll pop on over to the SF Chowhound message board and see postings bellyaching the rudeness of the staff or bemoaning the particular poster's inability to score their personal favorite baked good. And after awhile, I began to believe what I was reading.

But wait, didn't I just tell someone the other day that just because something's published on the Internet, doesn't make it true?

"Wait, I've got to get the arty shot!"

Let me back up. Our building's being sold, and because this concerned us as renters, my neighbor Anita and I decided to attend a workshop held by the San Francisco Tenant's Union on what to do when your building is sold. This is a big issue in this town, as many renters end up being displaced (though not as much now as when the dot com boom was happening) by speculative real estate investors who buy whole buildings and then "Ellis" them in hopes of converting them to Tenancies-In-Common, then ultimately converting those into condo's, many of which can sell for $500,000 or more (these also destroy rent-controlled apartments). You know SF is a gold rush town, and property continues to surpass gold and dot coms as the true and lasting motherlode. For being the crown jewel of Northern California leftist activity, many forget that this is the town that raw, unbridled capitalism built. That's as true today as it was back in the 1850s.

Anyway, so this workshop was going to be happening at the Women's Building, which incidentally is right down the street from, you guessed it, Tartine. Ah, if one were ever to have a great excuse….this is it. Bruce tagged along for the decadent Tartine breakfast and skipped the workshop, so really he is an unrepentant hedonist. We arrived at Tartine around 10:30 AM and while the place was busy, it wasn't bizzay. There wasn't a line out the door, and we found a place to sit outside. Actually, that was the only place to sit, so yeah, it wasn't dead or anything. While standing in line, we oohhed and aahhed over the desserts and pastries. Oh look! There's the chocolate soufflé for the party! And what's that there? Wow! Are those éclairs? As we moved forward through the line, leaving fog marks where our faces touched the glass, our food-induced hysteria magnified as we saw the melon-sized gougeres, savory breads, and bread pudding.

At this point, one of the staff took our order. READ PLEASE: She was extremely nice, sweet, cool and what is up with all of these jerks saying how rude the staff at Tartine are? The young woman who took our order was professional and courteous and the woman who rang us up was a saint!! I have no idea what crack some of these folks who complain are on, but you know maybe they are precisely the types who expect to be coddled and patronized their whole way through life. Moving on….

Sitting outside with our food and coffee, enjoying the mild, sunny, and crisp morning weather, in the Ci-tay, watching the girls and guys walk by, was enough to make living here worthwhile. Granted, I do fantasize about leaving and settling down in the country with some chickens and a goat out back, but this was the conviction of the city, beckoning me with full force to reconsider.

The Spread

Never ones to nibble at small things, Bruce, Anita, and I forked over the moulah on what we initially said would be just our first pass through the Tartine line that morning. Anita had a Frangipane Croissant with brandy and almonds. Bruce had the Brioche Bread Pudding with seasonal fruit and slice of Pain au Jambon with gruyère cheese and smoked ham. And I had the Morning Buns with cinnamon and orange, and a Gougère with gruyère cheese. Anita's croissant was sturdy and sweet on the outside and had the most magnificent, moist, almondy inside. Bruce's bread pudding was sweet and caramelly, fruity and a bit eggy. His savory bread with ham, olives and cheese was a first for me and I loved it. It was "bread", but much more. The bread was merely the vehicle for the exorbitant amount of cheese, interspersed with olives and smoked ham. This was not French Toast, ok? My morning bun was rather boring, that is until I got to the heart of the matter, you know, where it all kinda swirls together. And at it's core it was fragrant and flavorful with a bold, but not overly so, orange essence and light lingering of cinnamon. The gougère was the largest I have seen so far and like most had the hollow interior where the best parts of the cheese hide. Oh, I bet you could fill those things with a little of this and a little of that and still not bastardize it too much.

After stuffing our face with baked goods and discussing Terry Schiavo, the Pope, and kept men, while running into more people that Anita knows (she's another one you can't take anywhere without running in someone she knows), we decided that perhaps we shouldn't make a second trip through the line. By the time we had left our table, there was a line beginning to form out of the door. Bruce says that later, when he walked by around noon, the line was well out the door and snaking down the block. Well, Geez, no wonder some folks complain about not getting a seat.

The Damage

Since we had a little time to waste, we decided to head to Bi-Rite, which is a little market down the block from Tartine. I had never been, but I loved the sign and it looked interesting from the outside. First of all, the folks who live on 18th street are some lucky bastards. You have in one block Tartine, Delfina, and Bi-Rite. Despite its 1950s facade, this is no holdover from that era. All of the deli food surpassed what I've seen in many high-end markets, the cheese selection was dense, and there seemed very little reason not to flee towards the Bi-Rite in case of a catastrophic disaster, like maybe where you want to spend the last few minutes of your life. While we were there only a short time, it was enough to make me extremely jealous of those who lived in the neighborhood, and also inspired seeing the standard of excellence a small, independent, neighborhood-based, market can have, given the right conditions. This was not a wealthy neighborhood, but it obviously had a clientele that could be depended on to buy Duck Confit and Manchego cheese. Higher average of busy singles? Higher average of upwardly-mobile couples? Higher average of gay men? Probably all of those things and more.

Well, off to the workshop, but not before hitting Paxton Gate and Community Thrift first. I won't go into the details of the workshop, but I will say that the Tenant's Union is an invaluable resource for anyone who rents in San Francisco. So support, support, support. After Anita and I parted ways, I came home only to get ready to go out again. This time it was to go to Le Charm for a friend of Bruce's birthday dinner. I'm not reviewing Le Charm here, but I'll say for the price ($28 prix fixe, 3 courses) it was decent. Frankly, it was hard to tell if I liked or disliked the restaurant and the food due to other extenuating circumstances, so I'll just leave it open to try again.

From Le Charm, we went to our room at the W Hotel. We had a room there because a friend of ours was in town for a convention and had booked two nights, but then later decided he only wanted to stay one. So, even though we live right down the street, we decided to take him up on his offer and see what $239-a-night buys you in this town. His criticisms were that the hotel was asexual and Gap-like. He said the hallways were dark and the interiors were all black and brushed aluminum. My take was that he was correct about the hallways. Something about blacklights and dark hallways at 9 in the morning doesn't scream hip as much as it does "what's your name again?" and "what do I owe you?". The rooms were much better, but led me to re-christen the hotel as the Pottery Barn Hotel, perhaps with an upwardly mobile pretension towards the West Elm hotel chain. I'm not complaining, I actually felt comfortable, but for descriptive purposes you see where I'm getting at. Beggars can't be choosers, but they sure can be disgusted at the rip off prices the W charges for basics. For example, to park your car overnight will cost you $43. Oh, that's nothing you say. OK. Well, if you think your stuff is so golden that you have to drink bottled water at $6 a pop, then by all means make a reservation today. While you're at it, have a Snickers bar for $4 and don't forget about the 20% "room service fee" they charge you to run down to the corner store to restock the snacks in your room.

You know, what a disgusting society we live in that some jerk will pay $4 for a Snickers bar and $6 for "still" water (they call it tap in the W supply room) while schools and libraries are closing due to lack of funds. And you know these are the same folks who complain about paying taxes. I really don't get the mindset of these folks, though I think I can try. It's a superiority thing. It's the "I'll pay more for the same dog biscuit if only because it puts me in the category of those who can". It's laughable in a very sad way; like "bring in the clowns" way. I only hope that money is going to pay the worker's a living wage, but considering most of the San Francisco hotel workers are on strike, which is most likely the result of an industry-wide standard, I'm sure it's not. When the W opened, Bruce and I went to XYZ to have a drink. Again, rip off! $12 well drinks?! And speaking of being a gold rush town, there was so much gold digging in that bar they should've called it the Comstock Lode. I felt at any moment a pickaxe was going to impale me in the back.

The W Hotel

There you have it. Eatin' good in the neighborhoods, the best tenant protection laws in the state (other than Berkeley), but ridiculous hotel costs and amenities.

So come to San Francisco; the NYC turned inside-out. We are a great place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit here, at least not without a few grand to burn.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Should I Stay Or Should I Go: Part II

Celery Victor: Stay

When I hear the name Celery Victor, images of hand-to-hand combat between two leather-skinned, mullet-headed, bleach blonde/roots-showing, steroid-ridden "gladiators" in spandex run through my mind. I can see them up on some contraption high above the crowd, or in a steel cage, slugging each other with monster-size celery stalks in that classic faux-wraslin' way, with one waging vendettas, the other gloating in the defeat of his/her enemy of the week. This show is what remains of the Old America, the America that craves the pre-"reality", pseudo-reality melodrama and vaudevillian flash of the traveling sideshow where good and evil are easily distinguished from one another, despite reversing roles every other month. In our voyeurism we relish in taking sides, without much thought why, and joining in the tribal chanting of jingoistic slogans, while losing ourselves in the homogeny of the herd.

Celery Victor or Vanquished?

This is could easily be said for Celery Victor, the dish. Simple, old world, changing sides between hot and cold, lost in the homogeny of early 20th Century cooking, in which vegetables were always boiled until colorless and soft.

Yet despite all of this, despite my initial trepidation, I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that we can't pull the plug yet. This dish still has some comfort left, and a few surprises too. One such surprise was how well it pairs with hot food, especially beef and root vegetables. The other was that it actually improves it's flavor after sitting cold for a day or two.

Of course, there are caveats. One is to use real, or at least quality, chicken stock since the celery simmers in it and absorbs the flavors of the stock. In his original recipe, Chef Victor Hertzler simmered the celery in both chicken and veal stock. This show has several stars, one being the celery, one the stock, and the other the dressing. So the stock is very important. The original dressing was a tarragon vinaigrette, but I used a mustard vinaigrette I swiped from the latest Gourmet cookbook.

This dish has taught me that cold, cooked celery is actually pretty good. And with the dressing, it makes a nice little salad/side dish item. And like I said, it improved with time (though several days later it was on its way down). I could see taking this on a picnic or eating on a hot day. It's cool and refreshing and the celery flavor is, well, I don't know how to describe it. It's celery, but not as bright as raw. The tartness and zing of the vinaigrette pick it up, but it still has a savory under-flavor.

The night I made Celery Victor was the night we determined to be Hof Brau night. Something about the CV and the meat and root veggies I cooked seemed to transport us into that world/time/era. It's hard to describe, since the flavors spoke so much for themselves. Maybe it was the fact that this wasn't "ethnic food", which is the food we are so use to eating. This was old school cuisine that originated in hoity-toity, fine dining establishments and trickled down over decades to working-stiff stomachs, demoted to function in old age as mere schwag for happy hour swill-fests. This was as untrendy as Member's Only jackets... oh wait, that's still in fashion, nevermind. Anyway, this was soooo last century. I mean, this conjured up Prohibition, the War, McCarthyism... oh wait, that's still in fashion, nevermind. Well, you know what I'm getting at. And yet here we had the spirit of the side show on our plate, with the Beef and Potato Boys tag-teaming the Cold Celery Gang, the old duffers of cuisine, each vying for the right to pass into the 21st century. Luckily, they haven't met the Undertaker. What I needed was a cold, cheap, metallic-tasting beer, like MGD or Schlitz.

Hofbrau Nite: Drag Up A Stool

Don't worry. No one broke a hip. Celery Victor, has fallen, but it can pick itself up. And while it's not something I would enjoy all of the time, it's still satisfying enough to come back to occasionally, if only for the nostalgia, the simple flavors, and the flying body slams.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Houston, We Have Lift Off


Me finally got me sourdough made an it's wicked! And I owe it all to Ali G.

No, really, that's a lie. Honestly, and this is totally unscientific, but I believe I got a nice rise (yeah, baby!) because I made the bread on a day that it didn't rain. Remember my last unsuccessful attempt? Well, it rained then, and remember how I told you that's why it didn't work?

Well, this time my bread rose significantly better, even though it's the same starter. I began the day before by taking my starter out of the fridge and mixing in a cup of flour and a cup of water every 8 hours. On Saturday morning, I again added flour and water to get the starter really crankin'. That was around 7:45 AM. Around 1:45 – 2 PM, I made the first proof.

For the first proof, I measured 4 cups of flour (3 white, 1 whole wheat), 2 cups of starter, 2 teaspoons of salt, and about 2 cups of water into my Kitchen-Aid standing mixer. The rest of the starter I put into a clean jar and placed back in the refrigerator. In the mixer, I mixed the ingredients on medium-low until a good looking dough formed. Actually, I didn't add all of the water at once, but mixed in a cup first, then a little more as I saw the dough coming together. My goal was to have a wet, but consistent dough. A wet dough gives you large holes in the crumb that so many people, such as myself, like. Unfortunately, for the dough to be wet enough, it's virtually impossible to knead by hand, which is why the Kitchen-Aid was the only solution for this dilemma. So, after using the Kitchen-Aid to mix, I then used it to knead, keeping it on medium, to medium low, to medium high, back down to medium low, etc., while occasionally stopping and pushing the dough off the hook and starting over again. I did this for approximately 5 minutes.

After I was done kneading, I removed the dough from the hook and kept it in the mixing bowl of the Kitchen-Aid, covered it with plastic wrap, and placed it in the oven that was cold except for the heat of the oven light. There it sat for about 3 hours, or until it had doubled in size.

When I noticed it had doubled, I then had another dilemma. The first time I attempted to make sourdough, my shaped loaf was so wet it just flattened out like a possum on I-5. The second time, I made the dough a little stiffer so that it could hold it's shape, but because it didn't rise, it came out like a sour doorstop. This time, I didn't want to take any chances. I had heard of sourdough bread bakers using molds to bake their bread in. In Egypt, they use these things that look like big flowerpots. And actually, if I had thought of it soon enough, I would've gone out and bought a clean terra cotta pot. I've seen Acme use molds to make their circular loaves, so maybe I was on to something. Once I made my decision, I had to think; what did I have that was similar? The best I could come up with was a souffle dish and a loaf pan. At least I was going to get variety, shapewise. I prepared the vessels by spraying them lightly with Pam (oh, come on, it's just pressurized vegetable oil), and then dusting with flour, making sure to shake out the excess.

Next, I took the risen dough and not really punched, but gently pushed down with the help of a rubber spatula; pushing down the dough that was sticking to the sides of the bowl. It wasn't like punching down dough that had risen using baker's yeast. You know how when you punch down dough that 's been leavened with baker's yeast, it punches down easily and it releases all of this gas and makes a little silent-but-deadly farting noise? Well, this wasn't like that. It was leavened, but it was slightly resistant to punching down. In fact, it was stubborn, like an old goldminer named Gabby, and didn't they use to call goldminers from Northern California "sourdoughs"?

Next, I skillfully (yeah, right) transferred the dough to the "molds". How I did this I will never know or be able to described but let's just say the odds were in my favor that day. All I can say is that I probably could've gotten more dough into the soufflee dish, but I was lucky just to come away from the whole affair with only a little dough stuck to my hands and no real disasters. Once these were set, I covered them with plastic wrap and stuck them back in the "proofing box", aka the cold oven with the oven light on. In hindsight, the plastic probably wasn't a great idea, but it did work up until a point. The negative of using it was that when the dough rose to the point it touched the plastic, it stuck to it, which can tear up your loaf when you attempt to remove it. Fortunately, I caught it in time so that it didn't ruin my loaves. Instead, I boiled some hot water and poured it into a wide-mouthed bowl, which I placed inside of the proofing box with the loaves to keep the humidity high. Why go to all of this trouble, you say? Well, if the surface area of the loaves dry up, they'll form a crust and the bread won't rise to it's potential, you know, like the glass ceiling for women in the workplace. To remedy this, we have to keep the loaves moist and smash sexism in all of its ugly guises.

Farm Woman! Your work in the fields strengthens the spirits of those who are fighting.

Now it was time for the bread to rise the second time, which was about another 3 or 4 hours. When it was ready to bake, I set the oven rack to the medium position and placed terra cotta tiles on it; our version of a gerry-rigged baking stone. The baking stone helps regulate and evenly distribute the heat of the oven. On the rack below it, I placed a full ramkin of water. Then I set the oven for 500 degrees. When the oven temperature was ready, I placed the loaves in and generously sprayed the oven walls with water using a squirt bottle. I then lowered the heat to 425 and sprayed the oven walls every 5 minutes twice afterwards. After 35 minutes, I took the loaves from the oven. Yes! They looked great! The tops were not dark, but they had a happy, brown color to them.

At this point, my stress level rose a bit, since it was now time to take the loaves out of the molds. They popped out of the vessels easily enough, and were slightly heavy. This worried me a little. You can't cut into the loaves immediately, as they have to rest for at least an hour or two. This is because the outside of the bread is hot and dry, while the inside is cooler and moist. When the bread is taken from the oven and begins to cool, the temperture and the moisture are redistributed throughout the loaf and it sets, or evens itself out. After about 45 minutes, I decided to cut into one, saying to hell with it. It was 11:15 PM and I couldn't wait any longer.

SF Sourdough, Red Onion Preserve, Mimolette cheese

When I saw those holes and the fluffy open texture of the bread, (yeah!) I knew Houston we had lift off. Yes! After 2 unsuccessful attempts (both of which took up full days), lucky number three had come through for me. While the bread is not as sour as it could be, or it's not as open and fluffy, it's still a great bread and smells great. And what's more, I didn't have a set list of instructions and did it mostly through knowledge I gathered from different sources. My next goal, or goals, is to improve on the flavor and the crumb. I'm also eager to get a really good crust and to be able to distribute the rising/baking process over two days, instead of it lasting from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed.

At least it's a start.

San Francisco, wild yeast/bacteria-captured, sourdough bread; IN YOUR FACE! Hoo-yeah!


Friday, April 01, 2005

I'm Not A Food Critic, But I Play One On TV

I don't eat out at fine dining establishments very often, but when I do, I eat well.

How well? Very well. Like Michael Bauer well. I eat like Michael Bauer, because, well, sometimes I am Michael Bauer. Or I am Paul Reidinger. If I have a friend of the XX chomosome with me, she is Meredith Brody, or Amanda Berne, or Karola Saekel.

It really depends on the restaurant and where I'm at at the moment. Obviously, you have to engage in a little planning and use common sense when you seek to eat like a professional. Like, you're not going to get away with being Michael Bauer at any of the big name SF restaurants, since most of them already know what he looks like. Using the big names is tricky, but it can often be done at little out-of-the way places that are upwardly mobile, but not in the loop so to speak. For "Michael Bauer", I usually head across the bay or down the peninsula.

Passing as "Paul Reidinger" works well in the Mission, though again, you have to be careful. There are a lot of Guardian readers there who can spot the real from the fake. If you're somewhere, like on vacation, and you're not sure or in a bind, go with the neighboring town's critic. Of course, you can be as gutsy as you want to be because, the last time I checked, impersonating a food critic is not only legal, it's done in the pages of the Chronicle and various dailies everyday. And with the advent and rising popularity of food blogs, the possibilities are endless!

Here's what you do: First, find your mark. Do a little research on it, then google it's name and the name of the critic you wish to impersonate. If nothing turns up, it's safe. Next, call the mark/restaurant and tell them your "name", oh, and try to sound constipated. That always works.

When you walk into the restaurant, remember who you are, or at least who you pretend to be. Judge the style and manner of critic by their reviews, then affect a manner that's likely to reflect them. Since you are making the reservation under your "name", behave like you imagine the critic would behave, but don't go to extremes. The fine art of acting is subtle (insert political pot shot here).

Next, sit back and enjoy your meal. Oh, it's gonna be good! And please, bring along your friends; they deserve to share in your bounty! Besides, friends always provide a good cover, but make sure they are in on it. Get them to play along, if possible. Later, when they complain about feeling guilty, remind them that they weren't wallowing in guilt when they were shoving mushroom-dusted sea scallops down their gullet. They weren't spilling crocodile tears when, already stuffed, they sent the waiter back for more crème brulee. When it comes time to pay (that is, if you have to), pay cash or have your dining partner/s pay. And on your way out, grab a toothpick and bitterly pick your teeth, while lowering your head and looking up, like a beaten dog. Bitch to your friends that you would love to go out later, but you'll be up all night in front of the keyboard.

Once you have your skills, go out and use them. I do. How else is a working-class foodie going to get ahead in this dog-eat-dog-tartar world? Besides, people share names in common all the time! Come on! Do you want to continue to eat like a plebe, or are you willing to eat like you should?

Don't ask me, ask "Michael Bauer".