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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Unfortunate Skin Tofu

Does your mother have bad skin?

Is it so bad that you've often wondered why someone hasn't created a spicy hot recipe with tofu and beef to extol your mother's bad skin virtues?

If so, you are not alone.

The following recipe is a Chinese restaurant staple. It's called ma po dou fu ("pock-marked Mother Chen's bean curd) and is a regional dish from the Sichuan province of China, which you may know as producing some of the hottest Chinese food around, such as Kung Pao Chicken. Unlike traditional Cantonese cuisine, Sichuan cuisine liberally uses spices to flavor a dish, as well as using beef instead of pork for many other dishes.

Often in American Chinese restaurants, when one is served Mapo Tofu, what one recieves isn't the Sichuan dish, but a Cantonese interpretation of the dish (actually, on the menu it's usually called something else, but if you ask for ma po dou fu, you'll get it). For one, true Mapo Tofu uses ground beef, not ground pork. Second, dried red chilis are used for heat, not any other kind of chili (I've been served the dish with jalepenos). Third, Sichuan peppercorns are used liberally in the dish to create the "hot-numbing" flavor which is one of the many signature flavors of Sichuanese food.

Since finding this classic dish in its authentic form is so hard to find in the U.S., I've decided on making it from scratch using the fabulous new cookbook by author Fuchsia Dunlop. The book is titled "Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered In the Chinese Province of Sichuan" (2003, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.). Even though it's checked out from the library, this one is definitely going on my wish list. So far I've tested the Mapo Tofu and Kung Pao Chicken recipes and, boy, are they hot, and spicy, and flavorful, and did I say hot? Something I also love about this recipe that may turn off some Westerners, is the abundant use of oil in cooking which, along with the corn starch, makes a silky, smooth, and yes oily, sauce.


Oh, wait, heart attack!

No, I'm fine.


According to the book, Old Pock-Marked Mother Chen (you just gotta love her!) was the wife of a Qing Dynasty restauranteur who would prepare this oily, spicy dish for laborers, who would lay down their loads of cooking oil, to eat while on their way to the city's markets.

I usually don't gush over cookbooks, but Fuchsia has written a book that has opened up a whole world of cuisine that for the most part has barely travelled beyond China's borders. For that she should be praised! (Although after a few of these hot and spicy dishes, your nether-regions may not be so quick to salute!)

"Land of Plenty" is a must for anyone who seriously loves to eat and cook Chinese food, especially those who yearn to seek out the authentic flavors of the dishes we are so familiar with, yet aren't really.

OK, my only one complaint is this picture:

This is the photo in the book of the "ma po dou fu" recipe. As you have seen and will see from my results, it looks nothing like that.

One ingredient used in this recipe is the famous (or infamous) Sichuan peppercorn, which for many people who have heard of it, only few have seen it, let alone used it in cooking. Those who have seen it perhaps may have only seen it many, many years ago, or perhaps only recently. This is due to the fact that the Sichuan peppercorn is not really a "peppercorn", but a member of the citrus family. For decades, all raw citrus products have been banned from import into the United States, including Sichuan peppercorns. The ban against the peppercorns wasn't actually enforced until a few years ago, when the only peppercorns you could find were smuggled in by means I don't want to know about (and here we are back to the nether-regions...).

Currently, Sichuan peppercorns are allowed into the US, but only if they've been brought to a temperature of 160 degrees before export out of China. How this affects the quality and freshness of the peppercorns, I don't know, and so far I haven't heard of any professional studies proving or disproving anything.

What I do know is that the fragrance and flavor Sichuan peppercorns bring to a dish is like no other I have ever encountered before. And yes, it does numb your mouth, which is just weird. You can find Sichuan peppercorns in most places in Chinatown that sell spices. However, sometimes they are unlabeled. You can try asking for Sichuan peppercorns, but sometimes they are called "prickly ash berries". One dollar will buy you enough to last a long time.

To use Sichuan peppercorn in a dish, always toast the peppercorns at a medium temperature just until they start to smoke and become fragrant. I find doing this to be pretty easy by toasting them in a cast-iron skillet, giving them a good shake every once and a while. After they've been toasted, grind them up in a spice grinder (or clean coffee grinder) until they are powdered. After that, you're ready to use them. However, if you aren't using the spice anytime soon, you should leave the peppercorns untoasted and unground until you are ready to use the spice.

The other crucial ingredients to use in this recipe are fermented black beans and chili bean sauce. These items also can be hard to find and I've even found locating them in Chinatown to be slightly difficult (but I'm still just getting my feet wet there).

The fermented black beans are common in many Chinese dishes and sauces and have a very characteristic flavor to them. Any dish that calls for them or a sauce made from them (the most common is the garlic black bean sauce) would be impossible to make with their ommision. The chili bean sauce (you guessed it) is also made from fermented black beans and, that's right, chilis. However, it's not as hot as you might believe, but it's still pretty spicy. I found these two ingredients at a market on Stockton Street near Broadway. The beans were 89 cents (and more than I could ever use), while the sauce (which I could use on anything!) was $1.89. Make sure you look for the expiration date on the beans!

If you don't live near a Chinatown, here are some places on the web that you can find these ingredients (Note: I found them doing a Google search – I can't vouch for their service or quality).

Sichuan Peppercorns

Fermented Black Beans

Chili Black Bean Sauce

The only other comment I have to add about this recipe is that, in the future, I think I'm going to make it with a little more tofu than the recipe calls for. This is just my personal taste. Also, I used regular dried red chilis for this dish, but DANGER, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, because you can really go overboard quickly. I suggest using only a very small amount (and with the seeds removed) the first go around. Trust me, I found out the hard way with the Kung Pao Chicken! (and we're back to the nether-regions...)

Last night was my third attempt at making this dish in the last 2 weeks, and written down here is the recipe, as translated by me (don't worry, no significant deviations).

Ma Po Dou Fu


1 block of tofu (1 pound)
2 small or one large leek
½ cup of peanut oil
½ pound of ground beef
2 ½ tablespoons of chili bean sauce (also called "paste")
1 tablespoon of fermented black beans
2 tablespoons of ground dried chilis (I add them whole and in quanties I know will be comfortable to eat)
1 cup of stock (I use beef, but the recipe calls for chicken)
1 teaspoon of white sugar
2 teaspoons of light soy sauce
salt to taste
4 tablespoons of cornstarch diluted with 6 tablespoons of cold water
½ teaspoon of ground Sichuan peppercorn

1. Cut the bean curd into 1" cubes and leave to steep in very hot (almost boiling) slightly salted water. Slice the leeks or leek at an angle into thin slices.
2. Add the oil to a wok, a cast-iron pan, or a dutch oven and heat over high temperature, just until it begins to smoke. Then add the minced beef (or ground beef) and sautee until crispy but not dry.
3. Turn the heat down to medium and then add the bean sauce and stir-fry. After 30 seconds, add the dry red chilis and fermented black beans and fry for another 30 seconds.

4. Then add the stock, stir well, and then add the drained tofu. Mix gently. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the tofu has absorbed some of the sauce.
5. Next add the leeks and stir in. When they are just cooked, add the cornstarch a little at a time. You may not have to use the whole amount. Only use enough so that the sauce clings to the meat and the tofu. Finally, spoon everything into a large bowl or serving dish (or plate individually) and sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorn spice over the top.

Serve with hot tea and lots of towels to wipe your forehead with!


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Um, Waiter, There's A Fly In My Zuppa

I don't know how it is in other parts of the city, but it seems like the food and restaurant atmosphere was better in the South of Market during the dot com boom.

At least that's how I remember it.

I don't know. Maybe it's because it's been a while since I've been to a trendy and pricey restaurant. Maybe it's because I've found it hard lately to be satisfied with any dining out experience, excluding New Woey Loy Goey in Chinatown.

Perhaps it's just that I miss some of the restaurants that were around during that period. One of those restaurants was in what I call the "restaurant graveyard" on the corner of 3rd and Folsom (320 Third Street). Bruce and I have lived in the city for over 6 years now (though we have worked in it much longer), and it seems like almost every year there's a new restaurant there. So far we've seen the following different cuisines represented in the same space: Spanish (Catalan), Argentine (Latin fusion), Asian fusion, Sushi, and now Indian. The Asian fusion place was called the SOMA Café and is the one I miss because it was just so damn good, reasonably priced, the entrée's were professionally presented, and the chef even came around to ask folks what they thought and how they liked the food. Nevermind all of the soju we drank there!

The other place was Infusion (555 Second Street), which for a while was not only a cool bar (and a cool bar concept), but also a cool bar with good food. The gimmick was all of the infused vodkas, made from scratch, which sat in gallon-sized jars above the bar. It was always interesting to see what they were infusing, but my favorite was a cucumber vodka that made a killer Bloody Mary. Mind you, this was not the same as the new flavored vodkas Smirnoff has been pushing lately, most of which just sound gross. Unfortunately, I think that when 21st Amendment opened it just sucked away all of their business. Either that or the regular clientele resented being situated so close to what is the typical MoMo's crowd (please don't ask for explanation).

And last, but not least, there was Café Monk (564 Fourth Street), who despite having a hideously neon green 7 foot painting that overshadowed their main dining room, served some of the best American/California cuisine around. I’m not kidding; the chicken potpie was to die for.

And while it was consistently busy, it never felt crowded, even if you were sitting at the large communal table on the bottom floor. Of course, sitting upstairs by the large warehouse windows was always a favorite experience of mine. I remember us being there during the cold rainy season (probably December). It was slow and, besides a few other diners, we were the only ones seated upstairs. Around us were empty tables covered in white, with small candles flickering light off of the crystal clear wine glasses and polished silverware. The light in the room was subdued, used mostly to illuminate the portraits of various jazz musicians hanging from the brick walls. The light shining against the windows was that streetlight peach. It was raining and small streams of water were running down the windows. Cars and buses below splashing through large pools of water played along with the "ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch" of the jazz drummer hitting his high-hat cymbal. Wintertime in San Francisco has a whole other meaning. And while it was apparent at the time that we were living through the winter of the famed new Gold Rush, we had no idea that this was also the beginning of winter for Café Monk.

All of these memories about Café Monk and of the food from a few years back came up last night when Bruce and I decided to venture into Zuppa, a new Southern Italian restaurant that has opened in the same spot Café Monk use to occupy. The restaurant basically has the same set up as Café Monk (minus the horrible painting, though it's replacement was also another "abstract" piece), only there seemed to be more tables squeezed in. It isn't as bad as Fringale but, nevertheless, when you've got a lot of junk in your trunk like I do, it can be slightly uncomfortable. Also changed is the entrance to the restaurant which, instead of being right off of 4th, is further down the side street. In my opinion, this is a bad layout. First, there's no lobby (as small as it was) anymore to wait in or, as I like to do, decompress in. Second, it must be disruptive to the people who live right across the street (it's a very small street) to constantly have people hanging out, coming and going.

Your eyesight is perfect - the picture is fuzzy. Sorry.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Beforehand, I brushed up on reading what little reviews there are of Zuppa since it opened in June. Probably like you, I'm always curious as to what other people are saying, even though I try to take any review with a grain of salt. The reviews I've read all (for the most part) said that while the food was great and plentiful, the service was off.

Let's first tackle the aspect of the service being "off". Actually, the service was the best I've had in any restaurant in a long, long time. I know it's silly, but one of the standards I use to measure a restaurant is how often my water glass is filled. So, taking that into consideration, can I just say that for the whole meal I never once saw the bottom of my glass?

As soon as we arrived (we had reservations for 8:15, but arrived closer to 7:55), we were seated. Immediately, we were greeted by the waiter who took our drink orders. Very soon after, we were asked what we would like to start with. We started with the cured meat appetizer of thinly sliced Soppresata, which is a spicier-than-usual salame, and the house-made fennel sausage served hot in cast-iron skillet. Soon after taking our first order, both appetizers arrived. The Soppresata was spread out over a wooden cutting board that sat on a stand over the table. Along with that came 4 large chunks of focaccia and some tomatoes that had been marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The combination of the three typified exactly what I love and expect from Italian food. My one, and only, comment about the focaccia was that it was too spongy and a tad too salty. Of course, L'Osteria del Forno has ruined me since having their uh, dyn-o-mite! focaccia.

The house-made sausage was mild, but also very good. The fennel taste was mild, but it definitely tasted of fresh fennel and not fennel seed. It was a tad oily, which is fine, but could have used something to balance out the grease, like say, a non-focaccia style Italian bread to eat it with. We asked one of the servers about the sausage and they were very forthcoming in describing it, as well as joking about how the chef often eats three of them at a time. In general, the staff we encountered were extremely competent, intelligent, nice, and down-to-earth. And to tell you the truth, even the customers seemed pretty nice and down-to-earth and, I'm like, am I in the same city?

After finishing our first course, we were ready to order our entrée's. It's a good thing we didn't order a pasta course, like the table beside us, because we would've totally overeaten. Zuppa seems like a place to either make like a hungry, hungry hippo, or share courses between friends. A lot of friends. The pasta course the table had next to us looked rather nice, especially in the large, uniquely colorful serving bowls the pasta came served in.

Forsaking the pasta and all of the countless other things on the menu that looked great, Bruce ordered the "Costoletta di Maiale con Conserve di Arance", or mesquite grilled double cut pork chop with an orange conserve; I ordered the "Agnello Arrostitto", or lamb t-bone with "sugu di funghi", ie., mushroom sauce. To tell you the truth, we actually realized we had entered the realm of Meathenge just a little too late, so we ordered a side of roasted potatoes to at least soothe our veggie-needing consciences.

After placing our order, Bruce and I sat and tried to talk over the loud din. Yes, the restaurant is loud; very loud. It doesn't help the noise factor that the chef and his team are yelling out orders ala Hell's Kitchen; something which caused Bruce and I to snicker at more than once. And speaking of Hell's Kitchen, where we were sitting was hot – very hot. The kitchen is open and has two live fires raging closest to the left-hand side of the restaurant as you walk in, which is where we were seated. This side is also closest to the door, yet the opening and closing of the door did little to cool things down. We were glad we weren't the only ones who felt we, as well as the food, were cooking, as folks on both sides of us were seen wiping their brows. This morning, my clothes from last night smelled smokey, as if I had been standing next to the grill. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate this whole "open kitchen" concept.

This photo has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

When our food arrived it looked great. Bruce's pork chop was at least 2-inches thick and came with a side of braised fennel (unfortunately the fennel was cold). My lamb t-bone steaks came paired, side by side, and smelled fragrantly of rosemary and mushrooms. Bruce's pork chop was cooked just the way I like it (slightly underdone), and while he liked it, it wasn't cooked enough for him. Although, Bruce likes all of his meat cooked well-done (sometimes he even asks the waitperson to ask the chef to burn it). To me, that's just ruining a good piece of meat, but then we argue about this all of the time. The compote, marmalade, or whatever you want to call it, that came with his pork chop was really delish, especially with the pork chop; only, although the menu said it was "arance", it tasted more like "limone".

Despite my preference for undercooking meat, my lamb was a tad bit too undercooked. I realize that lamb should be slightly undercooked, but bloody meat has no taste. It definitely needed more time to cook. As lamb goes, it didn't have a strong lamb flavor, which to some who hate the flavor of lamb would be a plus. However, I prefer to taste lamb which is why I often choose it over pork and beef, hello! Also, physically, it was slightly hard to eat and I had to resist with every ounce of humanity just going all neanderthal and chewing it off the bone. That said, it still was very filling, had a nice but light smokey flavor, and the mushroom sauce was definitely a good match. The roasted potatoes were simple, not overwhelming, and balanced with the meat nicely. As I said before, the meat portions at Zuppa are huge. So even though the lamb dish was $20, it was still a good value. After we were finished, I felt like someone had to roll me out the door. Is it too much to ask for valet service?

In the end, our total meal expenditure came to be $62, plus we left a $10 tip for the excellent service. By the way, perhaps it was due to the initial lukewarm reviews regarding the service that resulted in us having spectacular service (though I'd like to chalk it up to my good looks!), because Bruce and I noticed towards the end of our meal what appeared to be one of the owners pacing the floor, scrutinizing the service, and even delivering plates herself. That was nice to see.

While we still miss Café Monk, Zuppa seems like a nice, new kid on the block. Hopefully one that will get better over time and persevere.


Sunday, August 21, 2005

California's Gold

If you are like me and live without cable TV in San Francisco, you may see those two words and instantly hear "Cow-li-fornyuh's Gowld", which is the dialect of english Huell Howser speaks as he accosts innocent vacation-goers in California's national parks and recreation areas for his similarly named television program.

With microphone in hand, from Yosemite to Death Valley and Crescent City to San Diego, Huell, like a crazed towering Okie, wonders from historic site to site, startling unsuspecting German tourists and freaked-out potheads who thought they were in the middle of nowhere for his PBS show, asking them such question as "have yew ever sane this before?!" and "ware are yew from?"

When I first saw the show, I have to admit, he annoyed me. First of all, very few Californians have a Southern drawl. But soon after, he grew on me and now I fondly think of him as the Frank Chu of educational TV, travelling far and wide in order to add that special twang to any event or park he turns out at. However, unlike Frank Chu, if something happens and Huell isn't there, chances are it still happened. Whereas, in the City, if something, anything, happened, no matter how large or small, and Frank Chu wasn't there, it didn't happen.

That's the truth, folks.

Above: Frank and I at one of the 2003 anti-war rallies. Notice our proximity to the news cameras.

However, today I would like to share another piece of California's Gold with you and, no, I won't be shoving anything into your face or asking you where you're from.

My California gold happens to be that ever-present roadside weed that at this moment is going to seed and will be dispursing itself from the top to the bottom of California's Coastal range. That piece of gold, unlike real gold, isn't native to California and was introduced by European immigrants, probably the Italians.

That piece of gold I'm talking about is wild fennel pollen.

I've discussed wild fennel on this blog before. Usually, in the spring, it's a delight to harvest the fronds and the stems to cook with. As the season wanes, the fronds and stems get tough, but out of each one bursts a, well sorry to be blunt but, shitload of flower spikes. Each flower spike produces hundreds of smaller flowers that umbrella outwards and at the tips are sweet, sticky, and extremely aromatic golden granuals of pollen.

In Italy, they collect this pollen and dry it. The dried pollen is then used as a spice, often as a dry rub or sprinkled at the last minute over steamed, braised, or grilled vegetables. Unlike the fennel seeds, the pollen is so aromatic that only a small pinch is enough to season a dish. Because of this, understandably, the price per ounce for wild fennel pollen, while not as much as gold, is high.

Most of the wild fennel pollen for culinary uses, until very recently, has been imported from Italy. But now, several forward-thinking locals have been catching on and now there is a California supplier of wild fennel pollen, gathered from the wild fennel fields you sometimes see driving on Highway 101.

I decided this year to collect my own pollen from relatively clean sites around San Francisco. I say "clean" because most of the wild fennel you see growing grows by the highways or roads in empty lots, and that means serious dirt and pollution. The other downside to collecting wild fennel pollen is finding newly in-bloom flowers that haven't attracted a lot of bugs to it. Because the flowers are so sticky, often you see small gnats or flies stuck to it. Or you see aphids colonizing the plant.

After two unsuccessful attempts at harvesting the fennel pollen, I decide the easiest way was to dry them in an oven.

First, I went out in the early afternoon to collect the pollen. Using a pair of scissors, I would select and cut the flowers and toss them into an empty, gallon-size ziploc bag. To get a few tablespoons of fennel pollen, means 4 to 5 of these bags full of flowers. Often that means making extra trips or travelling to other spots. And by the time you're finished, be prepared to be covered with sticky fennel pollen. Also, fennel often grows on some pretty steep and rocky terrains, so good balance is important. Balance, as well as a good pair of boots, is important as you may, in some lots, need to contend with the wildlife who inhabit the empty lots you find yourself in. On my safari into the empty lot pictured below, I stumbled upon a Homo sapien-penniless, engaged in its grooming ritual, naked for all of nature to see. Avoiding eye contact, I narrowly escaped before he displayed his fighting stance.

Once safely home, I arranged the flower heads onto some baking sheets. After a few experiments, I found facing the flowers upward to be the best way of drying them out. You may naturally want to face them down since this is how the flower stem is shaped, but doing so often results in the pollen sticking to the pan.

I set the oven at the lowest possible temperature possible, which is 170 degrees for my oven. At this temperature, I dry them for about an hour or so.

At this point, I pick off the heads of the flower and massage them in between my fingers to break them up. All the while, I pay careful attention to separate any stems from the pollen. Once I've done this to all of the flowers, I shake them through a loose wire-mesh sieve. This part, and the next, takes some time and can be tedious work. The first pass-through leaves me with the fennel pollen, plus a lot of the dried out parts of the plant. To filter out the pollen mass again, I filter through an even tighter wire-mesh sieve.

Then end result often means a teaspoon or two of pollen (you'll still have some parts of the plant mixed in). Because of this, I can see why wild fennel pollen is so expensive. It takes quite a lot of fennel flowers and labor-intense work to get only a small amount.

Nonetheless, the end product is amazing. Everyone who comes to my humble abode and smells the fennel pollen is just astounded. For such a small amount, it is overwhelming to the senses. Upon opening the jar the fennel pollen's stored in, one immediately smells a strong, anise/liquorice-like aroma that is pungent and sweet and the same time.

Because of its pungency, it can be used to sprinkle over anything you wish to give a fennel flavor to. I imagine it would be great over any grilled meat as well as asparagus, cauliflower – over salads, etc. Oh, and let's not forget desserts! I could just imagine wild fennel pollen sprinkled over a crème Anglais sauce or over baked figs and vanilla ice cream.


Don't worry. You still have time to harvest the wild fennel pollen, but hurry up because the fennel plants are going to seed at this very moment. And good luck.

Next month will be the start of olive picking season. We had a very healthy and successful olive harvest last year and this year I'll share with you the three techniques of curing them, including my favorite method: salt-cured black olives with Herbs de Provence.


Monday, August 15, 2005

Now We're Cookin'

No visit by any serious foodie to San Francisco would be complete without visting one small, tucked away store simply called Cookin'.

Cookin is a "recycled gourmet appurtenances" shop on Divisadero in the lower Haight that is owned and operated by a Ms. J Kaminsky.

Walking into Cookin' makes you feel like a bull walking into a china shop since the store is stacked floor to ceiling with used kitchen appliances, doo-dads, pots, pans, plates, and practically about any cooking "appurtenance" you can imagine. Obviously, navigating through the store isn't easy, but Kaminsky makes it easier by organizing each category of cookware into it's own separate section. Nevertheless, that cookware section could include hundreds of cookie cutters merging into 20 various meat grinders merging into dozens of earthenware, etc.

Cookin' is the place you come to find that thingamabob your grandmother once had but was lost or stolen or swiped by that greedy cousin of yours. Though we forgot to ask, I bet she even has a few aebleskiver pans. The cool thing is that, if you ask Kaminsky if she has something, she'll know and she'll point it out to you; an impressive feat of memory since the store has thousands upon thousands of used cookware, large and small, sometimes buried underneath each other.

Not to be disrespectful, but Kaminsky is kind of like the Fred Sanford of used cookware. She can, no doubt, tell you a story behind each piece she has in the store. Of course, the trip to Cookin' wouldn't be complete without striking up a conversation with her. The first thing you might hear from her is "hello", as you're walking into the store. You may wonder at first who said it since, as she can hear you walk in, you can't see her from the pots and pans and other kitchen gadgetry.

That happened last Saturday when we paid her a visit. Walking a few more feet into the store, I see her sitting behind her desk reading what appears to be a mystery paperback. Her eyes are glued to the book, but her ears can hear every word of your conversation.

When I asked how long the store has been around, she replies "a long time". When asked how many items she thinks she has, she says "too many". When I ask her if I can take a few pictures of her store, she says "ok, but it'll be too dark to take a good one", and then she asks where I'm from. Telling her I was from San Francisco only brought on a look of consternation. When I tell her that I also take pictures of my food, she seems to write it all up to "he must be another kooky local".

A trip to Cookin' is like a trip to a museum. You can literally spend hours sorting through the cups, the cast-iron cookware, and the books. Aftwards, you'll probably have cookware fatigue. The stuff she sells isn't cheap, but the prices seem fair. And if you're wondering if she sells over the Internet, forget about it. Just entering the "SKU" numbers alone would take months of work using dozens of voluteers.

No, you'll just have to go there yourself. And if you do, have a list ready and a hefty chunk of change, because you certainly will want to spend it.

So, what did I buy?

How about this...

Kaminsky says, "so what are you going to do with this?"

I say, "A rice mold. Probably a seafood risotto, individual portions."

Subtlely, she seems impressed.

Brownie points!

Recycled Gourmet Appurtenances
339 Divisadero


Friday, August 12, 2005

Resistance Is Fertile

We at Bacon Press loves us some good boycott!

In fact, we came protesting straight from the womb, screaming "Hell No, We Won't Go!" In our youth, boycotts have included everything from not brushing our teeth, not eating our mac and cheese, and not lissnin' to mama.

So, in keeping with the fighting spirit of resistance to the Man (or the Mom), we thought we would highlight some recent boycotts for you to get uppity, defiant, and rail, rant, and rave over like a true San Franciscan.

The "Chinatown Restaurant" Boycott

Good sign number 1: Walking over to Hong Kong Clay Pot City in Chinatown today, I noticed a group of people standing with signs in front of the Chinatown Restaurant. Usually when I see a bunch of Chinese people with what look to be protest signs, it's usually a Falun Gong demonstration. However…

Good sign number 2: These folks were the Chinese waiters and workers of the Chinatown Restaurant who were passing out flyers in (passable) English and holding signs urging passersby to boycott the restaurant.


Here's why: It seems the new owners, Anna Wong and Jimmy Quan, have a taste for running sweatshops. Before buying the venerable building that has housed Chinese restaurants for over 86 years, they were in the garment business. When that went bankrupt, they stiffed over 240 workers out of 1.2 million dollars in back pay. When the toothless Department of Labor finally ordered them to pay, the DOL only required Wong and Quan to pay back $213,000...over a period of two years!

After failing (or did they?) in the garment industry, they decided to stick their sweatshop claws into the restaurant business and are the current owners of the tourist-heavy Chinatown Restaurant. The workers at the restaurant say they are already working 10 hours a day with very low pay. To make matters worse, Quan and Wong have been withholding wages for over a month.

What? You say? Chinatown restaurant owners are, once again, stiffing hard-working Chinese immigrants??

Well, no shit Sherlock!

Why? Because folks like Wong and Quan have learned the greatest lesson of all, and from none other than that fine American Sinstitution, the Department of Labor:

Crime pays because they don't have to.

The Badlands Bar Boycott

If you ever find yourself in the Castro with the urge to wrap your lips around a long one, just make sure it isn't in the Badlands Bar.

For the last year or so, Badlands has been at the center of a shitstorm regarding institutionalized racism in the Castro. Yes boys and girls, every minority community has it's share of bad apples. In this case, we're talking about a big rotten one named Les Natali who has systematically excluded black gay men and women from his bar for the past several years (or more?).

The campaign to expose Badland's policies began with a multi-racial group of friends sitting around and sharing some of their past experiences with the bar. When they pieced each story together and saw a pattern, they became infuriated. Pretty soon, true to SF-style, a campaign was launched, flyers were laid out and printed, and those listservs and phone trees were activated. The group launched a website detailing some of the discrimination faced by women and people of color including:

* requiring black clientele to show 2 forms of ID to enter
* applying dress codes and a "no bag/backpack policy" solely to black clientele
* discrimination in hiring
* and many, many more

Though initially no boycott was called, the group (now called And Castro For All) has launched a boycott that has been supported by and brought out City supervisors, political big wigs, and too many do-gooders to even begin mentioning to force Natali to institute a non-discrimination policy in the 3 bars he owns (including the Detour and the Patio Café).

Photos above courtesy of And Castro For All.org

Natali, for the most part, has only continued to dig himself deeper into the Roy Cohn Hall of Shame by refusing to negotiate with the community group and, on a level only attainable by Satan, by buying the Castro's sole gay bar frequented predominantly by black men (the Pendulum) and shutting it's doors.

In April of 2005, Natali was found guilty by the city's Human Rights Commission of discrimination, but in a turnaround, was found to be within the law by the State ABC board. Currently, penalties imposed by the city's Entertainment Commission are on hold provided that Natali participates in a community mediation forum.

I'm not holding my bladder.

The New Gallo Boycott

The next time you roll on down to Safeway at 3 in the morning for that jug of Carlo Rossi or Boones Farm, keep on truckin down the cheap wine shelf for a non-Gallo brand (and that goes also for their top shelf stuff).

From the very beginning, the Modesto-based Gallo wine family has opposed the unionization of their workers by the Cesar Chavez-founded United Farm Workers. In the early 70's, the UFW launched a boycott of Gallo that brought together millions of supporters who vowed to switch from Ripple to Annie Greensprings. On the other side of the labor equation, the politically right-wing (and in California at that time, racist) Teamsters union was favored by Gallo to represent farmworkers. A bitter struggled ensued, but despite the harrasment and violence against the UFW by the Teamsters, the local police, and organized goon squads, the UFW won the battle to represent Gallo farmworkers.

Photos below detail the violence (threatened and real) against farmworkers and their supporters during the early to mid-1970s.

Left to right: Deputies wrestled striking farmworkers to the ground; the mayor of Hollister is beaten and sprayed with Mace by police after attempting to come to the aid of a striker; a seventeen year old striker is handcuffed and detained by Kern County sheriff's deputies; Teamsters stomp on an effigy of Cesar Chavez in the Coachella Valley, 1973.

Photos from the book, "The Fight in The Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement", by S. Ferriss and R. Sandoval, published by Harcourt Brace, 1997

Today, Matt and Gena Gallo lay awake at night plotting and planning on how to crush the union and drive wages down so their personal fortunes will rise. One of their strategies has been to hire contract labor employees who have better benefits and favor over the union employees. Once the contract employees became the majority, the Gallos and their underlings attempted use them to decertify the union.

I say attempt, because in December of 2003, California state Administrative Law Judge Nancy C. Smith ruled that Gallo "violated California law when two of its supervisors unlawfully facilitated and encouraged the circulation and signature gathering of a decertification petition to rid the UFW as bargaining agent for all Gallo field workers in Sonoma. "

"Under California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, only workers can initiate such a representational election and management cannot in any way involve itself in the employee selection (or de-selection) of its representatives. Following California law, the judge ruled that this illegal conduct by Gallo and its supervisors tainted the entire election process and tainted any possibility of knowing whether the resulting votes were the free and un-coerced choice of workers, as opposed to the result of illegal company conduct. The judge further found that because of the importance of the election to workers, knowledge of Gallo’s illegal conduct would have spread to the entire workforce. Based on Gallo’s illegal actions, the judge ordered the dismissal of the petition."

Gallo appealed the decision to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and in November of 2004 had their appeal soundly rejected.

For the Gallos of Sonoma ("well, we're movin' on up!"), the UFW continues to be a constant headache, but seeing as we've spent many a morning puking our guts out at the bottom of Strawberry Hill, I'd say they have it coming.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Any Which Way But Sideways

Last weekend, oh wait…2 weekends ago Bruce, Karen and I took a road trip down to SoCal to visit the Danish-American town of Solvang. The trip was suggested by Karen who had a little time off and wanted to see if we were interested, to which I responded with a hearty "Hell Yeah!"

I had never been to SoCal. Well, I had stayed in Hollywood for about a week over 10 years ago, and I have been through SoCal on a Greyhound bus on my way to Oakland, and I have been all over Northern California, and I have even been to paradise but haven't been to me. But, until recently, SoCal was just a place I knew friends and co-workers to be from; who had escaped life from behind the Orange Curtain.

We left early Friday morning, which was a beautiful morning, and headed down 101 South. Looking on a map, I couldn't help but notice how many prison towns we would be driving through or by.

I'm pretty familiar with CA prisons since I, at one time, use to conduct legal investigations into the healthcare of California state prisoners, mostly at the men's prison in Corcoran (I've been in the GP, SHU, and PHU visiting rooms; plus the SHU hospital), and the two women's prisons in Chowchilla (the largest female prison complex in the world). Because I was involved with those issues for over 4 years, I became quite knowledgeable about the location of California's 32 state prisons.

Now, annoyingly, whenever I look at a California map or hear about a certain town, my immediate thought is that there's a prison there.

Grim, I know. Probably not high on the Chamber of Commerce's list of attractions.

I've been down a lot of roads and highways in California, but never have I seen so many farmworkers than driving down 101. You see them, hunched over in groups, in the middle of cauliflower fields, breaking their backs in the mid-day sun. Though it's hot outside, they are covered from head to toe in multiple layers of clothes to protect themselves from the sun and, sometimes, the crops they're picking.

Driving through the town of Gonzales, looking west, you see expansive green fields, with occasional groups of farmworkers surrounding a truck, and in the background a seemingly endless wall of mountains that bluntly jet upwards to touch the clear blue sky. We pass huge trucks hauling what look like chayotes, and almost get ran off the road by a truck hauling Dole broccoli.

Finally, we arrive in San Luis Obispo, which is well hidden from the freeway. After our pit stop there, we continue down through the beautiful beach town of Pismo, with its white monster homes and "Fisherman's Grotto" type places and suddenly it feels like what I imagined SoCal to be. You can see people actually swimming in the ocean. It was bright; so bright that I kinda got a little worried that the heavy presence of sun might kill me.

Pretty soon we arrived in Buellton, our destination, and checked into our hotel. Can I just say that getting a hotel within 20 miles of Solvang was a damn pain in the ass! Everyone was booked up, mostly for Saturday night. Rooms also weren't cheap.

After unloading our bags and cranking up the AC, we left the hotel and headed out to Lompoc to visit the farmer's market. Lompoc is known as the "town of murals" and they are not kidding. Murals are everywhere and on everything.

The white settlers who founded the modern-day town of Lompoc were hardcore tea-tottlers who terrorized the "wets" by routinely engaging in property destruction, kidnapping, and harassment. Eventually, the boozers outnumbered the God Squad (affectionately known as the People's Union League), but not before a bunch of crazy-ass women armed with axes hitched a rope to a makeshift saloon and dragged it out of town. Below is a mural of commemorating that dark night the buzzkills dragged off Pappy's hooch.

(Mural says: People's Union League of Lompoc – Socialbility, Morality, Intellectuality)

Lompoc's farmer's market runs from 2 PM to 6 PM on Fridays, which is kind of an odd time if you ask me. It's located off of the main street next to an old church and a small park. Besides the produce vendors, there was one cheese vendor (Springhill Farms from Petaluma), a flower vendor, a barbecue guy, the local firemen selling baked goods to raise funds, a taco truck, and what apparently were random folks bringing out their flea market junk. There were a couple of organic produce vendors who offered nice looking veggies, most notably the biggest artichokes I've ever seen ($3 each). Besides the purple okra and the artichokes, nothing really stood out. The prices, for being in the heartland of agriculture, were no better than up here and there were no Asian vegetables (the folks at the Rice Bowl probably aren't happy about that). Sorry to be such a downer, but we're really spoiled here in the bay area when it comes to outstanding farmer's markets.

The drive to and from Lompoc was definitely one of the nicer stretches of road we encountered. Heading back towards Solvang, we drove past bright and colorful fields of blooming stock flowers.

Solvang is pretty colorful too. Settled by Danish educators in the mid 1900s, Solvang attracted Danes who sought to live an American cowboy-boots-by-day/wooden-clogs-by-night lifestyle. By the late 40's it had been discovered by tourists and, ever since, it's been a non-stop tourist destination for retirees, busloads of foreign tourists, college kids from SLO with their out-of-town parents, and even the Danish. While I was there, I heard Japanese, Italian, Spanish, and Polish spoken. Hundreds of white sneakers were seen pacing Copenhagen Street in search of miniature porcelain blue milkmaids with the town's name stamped onto their milk bucket. Or if not that, in the many bakeries eating Danish waffles, which aren't waffles at all but long, airy cookies with a super-sweet cream and raspberry filling. Because of where the town is located, there is also a considerable number of wine tasting rooms. Yummm; wine and aebelskivers.

What are aebelskivers? Aebelskivers (able-skeevers) are fried doughballs topped with raspberry sauce and dusted with powdered sugar. They are made with an aebleskiver pan, which resembles a cast iron skillet with 6 or so 2-inch round dimples. The aebelskiver batter is poured into the dimples and the aebleskiver cook takes a long aebleskiver stick, dips it in the batter, and then lifts up; kind of teasing the batter up and over to form a ball. We saw these aebelskiver pans for sale everywhere in Solvang, which sparked a long conversation about which surrounding towns had the most aebleskiver pans in their secondhand stores. I think we settled on somewhere in Ohio.

Our first meal in Solvang was at the Red Viking. Because we wanted the pure Denmark in America experience, we decided to forego any Italian or Mexican restaurants and settled on eating anything whose name contained random groupings of consonants. The food at the Red Viking (Yaarrr!) was what you would expect from any Northern European-in-America cuisine; meat, more meat, potatoes, and cooked cabbage. We decided to be adventurous; we all had the same thing, which was the Danish sausage, Danish meatballs, mashed potatoes with gravy, and cooked red cabbage. In other words, very hearty, stick to your bones, clog your arteries, grub. And this was the smaller lunch plate.

After stuffing ourselves, we decided to walk it off by strolling by closed shops and peering into the windows. Despite being a tourist town, most of the shops were closed by 6 PM...on a Friday night...with dozens of tourists willing to spend their dollars. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought it was strange, and just downright stupid, since I overheard a teenager complaining to his dad precisely what I was thinking. I mean, closing up shop before sundown on a Friday in a busy tourist area? Was I in Solvang or the hasidic area of Brooklyn? Oy, meshugge!

Driving back to Buellton, we decided to stop by the Hitching Post II to check out the bar. Big mistake. The bar area at the HPII is tiny, tiny, tiny, and there wasn't any bahn mi. The HPII was packed and booming. As we walked in, some suave jerk yelled out to his buddy, "there's Paul Giamatti" as he looked over at Bruce. Boy, that was a laugh riot. Right then, I looked around and noticed all of the Sideways-related crap for sale, including T-shirts and movie posters. A huge Sideways movie poster was hanging on the wall beside Mr. Intellectuality. We turned right around and walked back to the car. I think what was the most annoying part of our whole trip to Santa Barbara county was driving past wineries or walking into shops and seeing the obsequious "As Seen In 'Sideways'" signs everywhere.

The next day we ate aebelskivers at the Solvang Restaurant and there were no Sideways signs, thank god. Our waitress (not one of the ones in the pic below) was about as warm as a jar of pickled herring in cream sauce, which made us wonder if all of the waitresses in Southern California were of the same ilk. We'd had the same experience just the day before in San Luis Obispo and at the Red Viking. Despite the service, the aebleskivers were awesome, plus I had the "hot cake sandwich" which was a plate of Danish pancakes (think larger and thinner), two breakfast links, and a fried egg. Apparently they meant for you to assemble it yourself, which I did to uncertain success. While I carbed up, the rest of the gang had sausages and omelettes.

Afterwards, we hit the town again. While Karen checked out Rasmussens and several other shops, Bruce and I hit the bookstores and 2 thrift shops, or what we call "real shopping". Later we visited the Elverhoy museum, which turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Solvang.

In between sightseeing, we headed over to the Bit O' Denmark for a shot (or two) of Aalborg Akvavit, a caraway-flavored infused vodka popular in Scandanavia. I really liked the surroundings in BOD (even though the name is totally goofy) and decided that it was the place to quench your thirst in Solvang. Also, their smorgasboorg (or all you can eat buffet) looked better than the Red Viking's.

After regaining our courage, we checked out the Santa Ynez Mission by barging into the chapel where there happened to be an Irish Catholic wedding going on. Oops! Backing out quietly, we noticed how pretty and old the church is. We attempted to enter the other section of the Mission, but the watchdogs wanted a "suggested donation" and I suggested to my cohorts that the Vatican was rich enough for me, thank you. One would think Opus Dei could at least sponsor a free day once a month.

Onwards to Los Olivos which, had we been visiting to taste wine and buy art, we would've struck gold since literally half of the small stretch of town is either wine tasting rooms or art (lots of new agey) galleries. Hidden down a side street, we found a consignment shop that was super and from which I bought a ceramic container disguised as a head of iceberg lettuce. See below.

By the way, Los Olivos is where the "Back To Mayberry" special was filmed and apparently Aunt Bee liked the town so much she settled down nearby. The lack of "As Seen In 'Back To Mayberry'" signs was noticeable.

We left Los Olivos and headed to Santa Barbara, where we walked along the pier, had an ice cream cone, and stood befuddled watching a guy in a wheelchair and kids standing on the edge (there were no guardrails) fishing from the pier. We were hoping they wouldn't catch the big one, otherwise we would've had to call the lifeguard. I couldn't help notice how everything you have in a metropolitan city was the same in Santa Barbara, only translated into Beach-lish. They had the same spare-changers, only they did it "beach style" (writing "I won't lie, I need a beer" in the sand along the pier with a towel and bucket to catch the change). They had stretch limos, only they were hot-rod "beach style". And instead of the pasty white folks dressed in black, like we have here, they all were wearing the bare minimum and were so tan it made my skin hurt.

After leaving the pier, we had a pleasant dinner at (I totally forget the name) a restaurant connected to a hotel that was across the street from the pier. For a hotel restaurant it was pretty damn good and the food was plentiful and it was reasonably priced. Karen and Bruce loved their Sole Picatta and I was happy with my basil, olive, and cheese pasta. Best of all, we had a birds eye view of the pier and the passersby as we sat outside on the patio AND our waitress was this sweet young college girl who gave us the best service we'd had all weekend! Finally!

Leaving Santa Barbara, we arrived in Solvang at night only to discover that they were showing "ET: The Extra-Terrestrial" on a screen in the town park. Of course we stopped. In the park were at least 200 folks with their lawn chairs and blankets (lots of parents and kids) just hanging out watching the movie. It was pretty swell to say the least, especially since we had just been talking about how Bruce has never seen the movie.

The next day, we checked out of our hotel and headed back into Solvang one last time. We ate breakfast at BOD and were the only customers in the place. Afterwards, we dropped by the Ostrich Farm between Solvang and Buellton to pick up some Ostrich jerky and sausages. Ostrich eggs were available, but as one egg is the equivalent to 25 large eggs, I wasn't sure I'd be in need anytime soon.

So concluded our weekend excursion to the Old-New Country.


PS For those of you who are astonished that we were in Santa Barbara's wine country and didn't once try any wine, sorry. This just wasn't the wine-drinking crowd. However, if anyone wishes to invite me down for a weekend of wine tasting, you've got my email.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Sandwich Week: Friday


I meant to post last Friday.


In fact, I had this whole plan to surprise you with a non-SF sandwich, but I just couldn't get it together logistically. Since the weekend has been over, I've been shoveling shit at work and only now have I had a chance to engage you, my dear reader. So…

Anyway, (clears throat) Sandwich Week: Friday

Last Friday I wasn't in San Francisco. Friday I, along with Bruce and Karen, was in Southern California for a 3-day weekend of aebleskivers, sunshine, and surly waitresses. More about that later.

On our way down to Solvang, we stopped at the Corner View in San Luis Obispo. Before I get into that, are all college towns in California the same or what? SLO was like a smaller, condensed, yet more racially homogenous, cleaner, and less seedier Berkeley. In fact, you practically had the same characters, right down to the "punk-until-graduation" types and the loser spare-changers.

Granted, SLO was not Berkeley (less druggy, less transient murderer-ish), but noticing a whole busload of prisoners from the California Men's Colony riding through the middle of town on a sunny afternoon, perhaps maybe it's getting there. Because my initial knowledge of SLO was knowing there was a prison there, I always assumed it would be your typical California prison town ie., Corcoran, Chowchilla, Crescent City, and Soledad. However, low and behold, it was a damn college town!

Who. Would've. Thunk?

While the location of the Corner View was central and while we had a nice window seat (actually, a "corner view"), the first thing we really noticed was the lack of service. And when we got it, it was in the form of a very brusk waitress who seemed as if any minute she was going to snap. Good thing a prison's nearby.

Granted, we did get there shortly after 1 PM and maybe she had just busted her ass for the lunch crowd, but when we were there it wasn't that busy and doesn't the lunch rush usually go well beyond 1 PM?

The special for the day at the Corner View was a "slow roasted, pulled pork" sandwich with barbecue sauce. Now, being from the South, I have a completely different understanding than most "Westerners" as to what constitutes a barbecued pulled pork sandwich. First, you must be able to taste the pork, and you must be able to taste the smokiness (if truly barbecued) or roastiness (I know that's not a word, but) on it. Second, the barbecue sauce isn't that sweet (unless you're having the "Texas-style") and I'm a stickler for the vinegar North Carolina-style BBQ sauce. Third, the slaw goes on the sandwich. It's not an afterthought or plate dressing.

To make a short story even shorter, my BBQ pulled pork sandwich at the Corner View was overstuffed with something resembling the texture of pulled pork, though soaked in a sauce that seemed part ketchup, part Bullseye BBQ sauce. The slaw was a "Thai-inspired" slaw dressed with sesame oil. Talk about con-Fusion.

I didn't bother with a photo.

Bruce had the bacon cheddar burger. He says it wasn't "fabulous", but mostly that it was better than a fast food burger. *Now that's a standard to live up to.* I think Karen had the same.

So that was San Luis Obispo. A whole, what 45 minutes (?), and no, we didn't stop by the Madonna Inn.

Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!

More on the Solvang trip soon, but in the meantime, check out this fascinatingly disturbing article from this week's Bay Guardian about toxic Mexican candy.

And as a tease, check out the photo below of an old-school Chow Mein (read: gweilo grub) joint smack dab in the middle of Lompoc.


If they ever go out of business, will someone please start either (A) a tin toy store, (B) a joint to eat out of toilet bowls, or (C) a new and/or experimental music venue?

Note: Must demand original signage and possibly interiors.

Corner View Cafe
BBQ pulled pork sandwich / $8.95 plus tip
San Luis Obispo, CA

And that's it for Sandwich Week kiddos, because on the 6th and 7th day I rest. Sorry for the Friday delay and hope you enjoyed it!