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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Little Bit Nutty

The town of Ripon, California is known for being home to the annual Ripon Almond Blossom Festival and less known as the spawning ground for the family that gave us classic California wines such as Franzia and Two Buck Chuck. Despite the attempt of some politicians to proclaim Zinfandel as the "official wine" of California, you can't deny the impact a box or two of Franzia has had at family events, weddings, and all-night parties.

While you won't find too many wine snobs in the town of Ripon or bottles of Two Buck Chuck (since there are no Trader Joe's there), you will find plenty of nuts, uh, I mean almonds, or as some say "am-mund". Around this time each year, flowering almond orchards surround the town in a blanket of white that stretches for miles, giving the illusion that you are somewhere it snows. But it doesn't snow in Ripon. I doubt it rarely freezes.

A civic parade and festival has been an annual event in Ripon at least since its incorporation in 1945. However, it wasn't until 1963 when the Ripon Chamber of Commerce took over the event and moved it to the last weekend in February that it became the Almond Blossom Festival, mostly to promote the town's almond barons.

Unlike the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Stockton Asparagus Festival, and the Castroville Artichoke Festival, Ripon's Almond Blossom Festival has absolutely zippo to do with almonds.

There are no almond tastings, no almond recipe contests, no almond cook-offs; not even free almond samples. There is an Almond Festival Queen, but exactly what she rules over is dubious. There's a baking contest - whether it has anything to do with almonds is unknown or perhaps only known to a few. Had Bruce not made Almond Biscotti to take to the potluck, I could've gone the whole weekend without ever tasting an almond.

Which brings us to the real reason we attend the Almond Blossom Festival each and every year: Aunt Paula's potluck shindig. In fact, the whole parade/festival is just an excuse for all of us to gather at Paula's, eat pretty much the same thing each year, have a few drinks, and then venture on over to the parade, craft booths, food vendors, and carnival rides. Often, the Almond Blossom Festival is the only time the whole family, or most of the family, gets to see each other. Mark and Rodger often will fly down from Portland and Uncle Mike will fly in from Texas. Chet and Cheryl will drive down from the Delta, and of course, we'll drive down from the City.

While the food usually consists of pasta and potato salads, deviled eggs, ham and cheese sandwiches, baked beans, and chips and dip, sometimes there are a few new surprises like Jennifer's cheddar and parmesan cheese pennies, Cheryl's nopalito salad, and Bruce's muhammara.

Often there is so much food I can barely even think about the food booths down at the festival grounds, but this year I made an exception and held back.

Before the parade even began, I snuck over to the community hall where the Ripon Christian school was serving tri-tip sandwiches. Without knowing who was serving them, I was lured in by a large sign that said Tri-Tip Sandwiches ($4.00 for half a sandwich). I'm still not sure if the whole sandwich thing was a big proselytizing effort or if it was to raise funds, but either way they didn't gain a convert and I probably won't even claim the sandwich as a deduction on my 1040 form.

I realize tri-tip is big in the Central Valley. In fact, you could call the area a Red State and just be talking about the excessive beef consumption. But as tri-tip goes, there are few winners and many losers. For example, the tri-tip sandwich I ordered tasted like cold roasted beef that was thinly sliced and put between a doughy, sweet, white bread bun. There was no barbecue flavor. Not a hint of dry rub, and it was overcooked.

In fact, what the tri-tip from the Ripon Christian school needed was a little more Jesus.

It needed to be cooked slow and low until it was smoking with the Holy Spirit. Instead, it was as bland and uninteresting as Lucifer in a Leisure Suit. Or worse, a Christian biker.

I don't know, perhaps these Christians were Bruderhof (a strict religious sect that foregoes spices on food), but if so, shouldn't they have warned me? Maybe I should've asked the Dunkards (the "Amish" of the Central Valley) running the dried fruits and nuts stand.

Good tri-tip should be rubbed like Buddha's belly with a mixture of spices and sauces and then allowed to sit before being hot smoked for hours. It should be flavorful, fresh from the smoker, succulent, and damn tasty...and that is MY final answer!

I had no time to ponder the nature of tri-tip when I realized the parade was starting. I did realize, however, the total lack of mullets on the men and women in the crowd. If the infamous mullet were ever to show its face, it would've been in this crowd. Yet despite the abundance of Nascar fans, Mexicans, and softball-playing lesbians in the crowd, it seems the mullet as a species has vanished from the Central Valley Corridor. Of course with all extinct or soon-to-be extinct species, I blame Dirty Dick Pombo - that weasely little twerp and cheap date for Big Ag.

Yet, I digress far too easily.

The parade this year was noticeable for it's lack of beauty queens and overabundance of horses. No comment.

Also noticeable was the absence of the PT Cruiser contingent and the sudden appearance (after my 9 years of watching the parade) of the Catholic Church/Our Lady of Guadalupe contingent, which in this predominantly Protestant town either was lost or out there saying "Just bring it? Oh, it's been brought!"

Despite these disappointments, the Shriner's always put a smile on my face.

You gotta love these guys. I mean, I have no idea what they do, but come on! Dude! The hats! The go-carts! What's not to love?

Among the other contingents: the ROTC, the Jr. ROTC, friends of the ROTC, and former ROTC, women on horseback dressed as 19th century prostitutes, women on horseback dressed in Country-Western gear, women dressed in jene se qua on horseback, cops on horseback, kids on horseback, Mariachi singers on horseback, horse-lovers on horseback, 2006 cars from the local dealership, antique cars, clown cars, fire trucks, the Sheriff's mobile jail bus ("paid for by San Joaquin county drug dealers"), a bulldozer, a well driller, and the Friends of the Library.

After the street cleaner came by and swept away the horse poo and the last marching band played it's sad, but earnest, rendition of Eye of The Tiger, the parade was over. I have to give the organizers serious credit for keeping it well-balanced and timed perfectly. There were no noticeable gaps and corporate sponsorship, while present, wasn't overbearing.

After the parade, we headed back to Aunt Paula's for a bite to eat and good conversation. This is the time we officially are ready to eat, though I had to pace myself. And while I paced myself pretty well, those damn deviled eggs get me every time! It must be the mayonnaise.

Plus, I'm a sucker for a ham sandwich. Call me complicated.

Still, I managed to save room and, after an hour or so, Bruce, Aunt Carol, and I decided to head back to the festival grounds for funnel cakes and BBQ. Of course, we had to check out the "craft" booths, which include everything from Native American flute music, gourmet dog snacks, sunglasses, Hawaiian themed seat covers, and Make A Cast Of Your Own Hand, which of course someone had to do the bird. Mixed in with the crowd was this guy collecting petitions, for what cause I shudder to think, almost as much as I shudder to imagine the last time that outfit saw the insides of a washing machine.

In the end, everything worked out as Carol, despite protestations from others, got her strawberry funnel cake (which was delicious).

I went over and bought two tacos at Smokin Willy's BBQ; one with pulled pork and the other with beef brisket. Unfortunately, the barbecue sauce covered up the full flavor of the meat (of which there could've been more of), but from what I could tell, the pulled pork was the clear winner. Had I gotten the $10 pulled pork plate, I think I would've been better off, at least as far as being able to taste the pork on its own.

Then again, by this time I was stuffed and it was time to go gawk at the folks riding the rides.

If I had an eating disorder, I would've chosen to immediately board the Tilt-A-Whirl for instant vomiting satisfaction. But with so many lunch-hurling masterpieces of design aka The Ranger and The Zipper, what's a poor eating disorder guy to do?

Screw this. I decided to watch and soak in the atmosphere that is The Midway.

If I could fit all of this stuff, rides and all, into my living room, I would - minus the carnies, which incidentally I trust more knowing they are pre-screened for drug use.

After delighting in watching teens scream while being suspended upside down on the Ranger (which is perhaps the only time teenagers don't annoy me) and little kids go limp with terror on really, really scary rides, we decided to head back and then call it a day. Back at Karen's, we snacked on her famous cheeseball while challenging Jen and Aron in an action-packed game of Outburst.

Can you believe Karen and Bruce could only name two Elton John songs out of a possible ten? Feel free to mention this to them next time you see them.

Anyway, I wasn't ready to head back to the bay area without one last go at the food booths back in Ripon. In particular, the Lockeford Sausage booth. After a minute of deliberating, Bruce and I decided to head back to Ripon the next morning and grab a Lockeford Sausage before we got on the road back to San Francisco.

Lockeford Sausage seems to be at every festival and event in Northern California, so if you missed them at the Almond Blossom Festival, chances are you can catch them at the Lodi Street Faire, the Mountainview Art and Wine Festival, the Oakdale Chocolate Festival, the Pleasanton Antiques and Collectibles Street Faire, the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Delta Pair Fair, and so on and so on.

I didn't ask what kind of sausages they were, but I'm going to guess that they were beef (or a mixture of) since that's what my tastebuds told me, and I usually trust them. The sausages, at $5 each, are the definitely the best deal of the food court and I would venture to say the best food among those gathered. They are huge, hot, and with a great grilled flavor. Each bite was crisp and juicy and I think it would be fair to say I wolfed it down in a matter of seconds. It would've been good plain, but was delicious with sauerkraut (excuse me, "Liberty cabbage") and mustard.

The people running the booth have a store in Lockeford which I'll have to stop by next time I'm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. And perhaps I'll stock up while I'm there.

And with that thought, we leave Ripon, happy, full and content; reinvigorated until next year.


PS For more of my pictures from the 2006 Ripon Almond Blossom Festival, go here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Living Large

Like Sam over at Becks and Posh, I too have been trying to lose weight by dieting.

I realize that by losing a significant amount of weight I will be removing myself from the furtive glances of those who chase people of size, but this alienation is one I am willing to endure, if only because I'm tired of being looked at like a piece of fat.

In fact, I am more than willing to abandon the meaningless subcultures that go with being overweight to the point that I'm ready to scrawl on a t-shirt the words "I'm not a Bear, I'm just fat". This t-shirt will proudly join other items of clothing from earlier inner angst ridden days, such as the jacket I scrawled "I'd rather be alone than be a Clone" on.

Basically I wanna be the size I was back when I could choke out a hippie and then go for a long bike ride.

Ah, those were the days!

While Sam is doing Weight Watchers, I'm doing plain ol' calorie watching. Sometimes I watch these calories go from a trickle to a breaking dam, depending on my schedule that day.

I've found obsessive calorie counting the best way to lose weight, as well as your mind. Being part of the Reality-Based community, I know that basic science is behind losing weight of any kind. Simply, you consume less calories than you use. One pound of fat contains 3000 calories, so if you've eaten 3000 less calories per week, you'll lose a pound a week.

If only it was that easy.

Take for instance last week: I was up to around 800 calories during the daytime consisting of non-fat yogurt, a banana, a couple of carrots, a can of sardines, a cup of coffee, a rice cake, and a small cup of chicken soup. Then when I got home, I'd have maybe two pieces of chicken and some bread. I was doing pretty good and even lost a few pounds in just 5 days.

But that long weekend threw me off course.

After the duck confit, the rest of it was just a blur culminating in some Pork Adobo at Carmen's near the baseball park.

The culprit as mentioned.

This week was blown after I was pretty much forced to attend a co-worker's birthday party where I consumed what has to be one of my all-time favorite sandwiches - a Reuben; piles of hot pastrami on rye with sauerkraut, swiss cheese, and 1000 Island dressing. And then today, it was the marinated pork chops and spaghetti at a little dive that I'm currently investigating for a future blog post.

This weekend we'll be down in the Valley for the Almond Blossom Festival and you know what that means...funnel cakes!

Plus plenty of potluck food and cookies and you know, nuts are pretty damn fattening too.

At this rate, I'll end up at my goal weight when I'm 102.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Grind Your Own

This morning was the first that I noticed I didn't have the camera in my pocket, and the realization that I'd have to face the morning without being armed and ready to shoot wasn't lost on me.

However, to be truthful, I was starting to tire of constantly having to produce something each morning that, in my mind, actually had to have significance for those few hours between the shower and lunch time.

Is it a crime to say that perhaps there is something to be said about the benefit of wandering around aimlessly in life, at least part of the time?

So in a way I feel a chain has been broken, yet at the same time I miss it somewhat.

That empty hole should be filled with entertaining you all about my travels to stinky tofu land or picking olives in the middle of a Central Valley parking lot. Instead, I only offer up this ode to the joys of grinding your own meat.

I had forgotten, or perhaps never fully noticed, that we have a meat grinder attachment for our Kitchen Aid mixer. I had used the attachment once a long time ago to stuff sausages, but I had ground the meat in the Cuisinart. In hindsight, that was dumb, considering I had a perfectly good meat grinder. But then, hindsight is 20/20.

No. Not the news program. I mean, it's clearly seen looking at it from the perspective that it's already happened to you. Like, "man, had I known what that pepperoni and olive pizza was going to do to my lower gastrointestinal tract, I would've had the mac and cheese. I wish my chafed ass could've seen this coming instead of being crippled over in pain watching it try to leave."

Kinda like that.

The pasta/meat grinder attachment comes with the necessary implements to make like a mad Italian all day and night long with various "plates", or the thinga-mabobs that the pasta/meat get pushed through, to make everything from fettucini to coarse-grind meat to hiding the body of Joey Spiglamonti, former president of the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, your cousin Angelo bumped off the night before.

It's pretty simple to piece together and all you really need is some space, some time, and a good recipe. A good lawyer with a gambling habit is useful to have around as well.

I used the Sweet Fennel Sausage recipe from Bruce Aidells' Complete Sausage Book by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly (2000, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA).

First, and most important, the meat.

Oh, My, God Becky!
(here it comes…cue music…now)

I like big butts and I cannot lie
You other foodies can't deny
That when you look in the supermarket case
And a big round thing in your face
You get sprung
Oh, baby I wanna get with ya
And take your picture
My doctor tried to warn me
But that butt you got
Make me so horny
Now you got me making Food Porny

So Foodies (yeah!), Foodies (yeah!)
Has your butcher got the butt? (hell yeah!)
Well shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake that healthy butt
Baby got back

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

My "butt" (aka shoulder) is approximately 3 pounds and well-fatty. Aidells' recipe calls for an additional ¾ pound of pork back fat, but as this piece of meat was well-marbled, that was completely unecessary, especially since I'll be using the sausage to add to pasta dishes.

The key thing Aidells stresses, and is important whenever working with meat, is to keep the temperature of the pork cool. I wasn't too worried about my room temperature since it's been a pretty chilly week and I rarely crank the heat, but I suppose if it's the middle of summer, you might want to take extra precautions, especially if you're curing the meat later.

First, after you've assembled your grinder and have the necessary tools ready, you want to cube the meat. This could take a while, especially if you have a lot of meat, so it's important to have a sharp knife and work quickly.

Next, after everything is cubed, stick the meat in the freezer to keep it cool while you assemble the dry/wet ingredients. I also stick the bowl I'm going to grind the meat into in the refridgerator.

The dry/wet ingredients are:
½ cup of dry red wine (I used Port, which is definitely a deviation from this recipe)
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons of fennel seeds (mine are wild and given to us by Mark and Rodger, hand-picked from their mini-Wild Fennel farm up there in Portland, Oregon. Thanks guys!! I bet you never thought you'd see me use them!?)
1 tablespoon of freshly ground black pepper
4 teaspoons of kosher salt
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon of allspice

Next, comes grinding the meat.

This part was pretty damn simple and hardly even warrants these few sentences. Simply load the meat in the hopper with the machine running on low. Slowly, force the meat into the grinder and wait for it to come out the other side.

Try to mix the pieces of mostly fat with the pieces of mostly meat as much as you can so that the ground pork stays evenly mixed between the two.

It helps if you have someone to help photograph this while you do it so that you don't have to keep stopping. Lost orphans or drifters with a criminal past take excellent photos and you hardly have to pay them!

After it's all ground, take your dry spices and sprinkle half of them on top, then mix with one hand. What is the sound of one hand mixing meat? Don't ask disgusting questions, that's what.

Next, add the rest of the dry spices and then work in the wine.

After it is all mixed, let it marinade for a few hours to overnight for best flavor. I immediately packed mine in ziploc containers, labelled them, and stuck them in the freezer to eat later on in the week (or longer).

Of course, I also had to try a little.


I can't tell you how excited I am about all of this. Really! This whole meat grinding thing is a piece of cake (of course, you gotta have the right tools and all) and I feel like kicking myself for not doing it earlier.

For one thing, it's statistically safer than buying it at the store. I mean, if any rat poo finds it's way into my hamburger/ground pork it'll be because I put it there! And trust me, you won't be finding rat poo in my spice rack, at least not to my knowledge.

Second, I can control the amount of meat to fat ratio or types and amounts of spices that go into all of my ground meat recipes, so that's another added bonus.

And lastly, it can be cheaper and tastier than the sausage you buy already prepared in the supermarket.

Hey, I'm sold!

(Insert bad pun about getting back to the "daily grind" here.)


Sunday, February 19, 2006

If You're Gonna Ride, Ride The White Elephant.

When Debbie told us there was a White Elephant preview-sale in Oakland and it was being put on by the Oakland museum to raise funds, I immediately wondered why the good folks at the Oakland museum were suddenly dealing heroin to support the arts.

I took me a while to remember that heroin goes by the name "white horse", not white elephant. But with all of these weird new drugs coming and going, how the hell am I suppose to know and remember what's what?!

Can't everyone just go back to huffing glue?

Anyway, the White Elephant preview-sale is now going on and basically, for the next couple of weeks, it's the biggest thrift store in the bay area. We got into the sale because Debbie knows everyone including God, but if you wanted to go now you could just show up and donate stuff in exchange for a one-day pass.

We caravaned over to Oaktown with Debbie and Bill on board and with the threat of rain and cold not deterring us in the slightest. Once we got off the Fruitvale exit, it was but a short drive to the warehouse where the sale was being held.

Once inside, we huddled, made our plans of what time to meet, and hi-fived each other shouting "go team" after which we scattered to various points of the warehouse like a shop-hungry militia storming new territory.

I headed for the shoes and clothes (duh!), while Bruce typically headed towards the books, Debbie and Lisa off to furniture, and Bill towards electronics.

After finally landing in housewares and scouring over each and every item in whatever section that mattered, I came away with what I considered a score.

Take for instance these vintage saucers and bowl that I spent $1 each on:

Clockwise from top left: Silesia china saucer, Syracuse china bowl, Haviland France china saucer, and Lefton china saucer

Yet, the real deal came earlier when, by stroke of luck, I caught these out of the corner of my eye.

"Village People" salt and pepper shakers at $1 each. The only issue I had with buying them wasn't figuring out which one was the salt and which one was the pepper, but which one was the top and which one was "the wife". It would've been much easier to figure out had they been cowboys.

I guess I'll cross that mountain when I come to it.

I think my most special find was this old recipe card holder...with the original handwritten recipes still inside!

Yeah. It's kinda creepy in a way. It's like snooping through someone's sock drawer. Or like the photos of a 1950s Cuban kid's birthday party (that I have on my fridge) I bought at a rickety junk sale between St. Pete and Tampa. It's kind of sad in the same way you see someone's old wedding photos for sale at the bottom of a box of old photos in a second-hand store.

The recipes, which date from the mid-1960s to the late 80s are a who's who of standard American fare ranging from Sloppy Joes, Beef Stroganoff, Rice Cassaroles, and dishes containing, but you would never guess of containing, a can of "Cream Of Fill-in-the-Blank" and a touch of Kitchen Bouquet. Nevertheless, I am excited about this treasure chest, if only that it proves my suspicions were true. My suspicions being that, indeed, there was a worldwide conspiracy to overcook all vegetables and make Worchestershire sauce the number one ingredient. However, the good thing about treasure chests is that you can always bury them.

And really, isn't that what "donation" is all about?

Next, I stumbled into the book section, which was large and impressive but a major Caveat Emptor out the wazoo. I only scoured the cookbooks, but Bruce checked them all out. And while he found a few that he would've bought, they were moldy or the spine was broken.

The Cookbook Section

I also found some cookbooks that I would've bought, especially older and more unusual ones, but they were also tattered and moldy. Being tattered isn't so much a problem, but stick a book with mold spores next to your others and you're just asking for complete ruin.

I did find one, however.

It's the one my Chinese-American friend, Bill, would later excoriate me for being an "orientalist" for buying.

Uh, excuse me, but I don't know a damn thing about carpets, ok? I mean, really Bill. What beef can I truly have? I like the designs! Even the ones you can buy at Ikea!


Anyway, back to the chop suey stuff.

It's called From San Francisco's Chinatown - Eight Immortal Flavors: Secrets of Cantonese Cooking by Johnny Kan and Charles L. Leong published by Howell-North Books, Berkeley, CA, 1963.

Written when late-night slumming in Chinatown was new and glamorous, this cookbook no doubt ended up in the hands of many a late 50s/early 60s suburban Gweilo, whose drunken memories of half-naked girls and Ronald Reagan sitings on Grant inspired her or him to buy this book in a vain attempt to regain those few lost weekend moments between acting like a complete ass and puking in the toilet at Kan's, which incidentally, is still in operation and whose location and décor hasn't drastically changed since.

And, I suspect from the fact Sam Wo's is still in business, neither have the crowds.

Though seemingly a quaint relic of another time, the book is a living testament of the food of Chinatown then and, sometimes, now. Not only are the recipes authentic (there are substitutions for the non-Chinese housewife), but someone (likely Mr. Leong) painstakingly went to the trouble of documenting and translating into pinyin the names of chinese herbs, vegetables, condiments, dried ingredients, and dishes.

Could you resist such a debonair and suave gentleman as this? He had me at hello.

This book is not only a treasure of Chinese-American culture, Cantonese cuisine, mid-20th Century Chinatown, 50s and 60s pop culture, but also of San Francisco history.

So, Bill. Talk to the hand.

And when I finally make Dried Abalone with Oyster sauce, Lotus Root with Beef, Oxtail Peanut Soup, and Diced Chinese Long Beans with Barbecued Pork, you are totally welcome to come eat at my table.

Ok, then.

Lucky for you and me, the White Elephant preview-sale is still going on and is open only to those who've received passes and/or have donated items upon entry. It is officially open to the general public March 1st, which is when the place really becomes a madhouse.

There is still time to do an ugly amount of shopping, so I suggest you get on down there before all of the good deals are snatched up.


PS: Remember that Duck Confit I started a few weeks back? Well, Bruce, Bill, and I had it for lunch after the sale. All that was necessary was to fry it a little in a pan and then stick it in the oven on 350F for a few minutes. I then piled it on top of some garlic/shallot potatoes sauteed in duck fat and baby spinach lightly flavored with pear vinegar and orange peel-infused oil.

Bill, whom I live the high-fallutin restaurant-going life I never had through, seemed to enjoy it. Especially the sauteed duck skin/fat!

30MP: Finale

Thanks for sticking with me during the 30 Mornings Project.

I'll go back to blogging about food now! Hope you enjoyed them.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

30MP: Oakland

Part of the 30 Mornings Project

Friday, February 17, 2006

Uh, Can I Get Some Dim Sum And An Amen?

Note: The first half of this post was started last Monday and wasn't finished until today. That should give you an indication of how much I slacked off this week.

Go me-ee! It's my birfday! Go me-ee! It's my birfday!

Yes, oh yes, my happy campers. Yesterday was yours truly's birthday!

The big 3-3. That's thirty-three years, not young, but old - and I have dragged my sad, sorry, behind through every damn day of it, damn it!

Last night, Laura, of Tom and Laura fame, cheerfully reminded me that 33 was the age Jesus was when he was crucified.


You know, it is true that, at times, I have resembled Jesus: The Dude. Like, there was that time I wore sandals a whole year straight.

Long hair? Been there! Well, it was a mullet really. Actually...it was a skullet. Had a beard, too.

Often I've been told to "get off the cross - we need the wood!" And while I'm not a Jewish carpenter who still lives with his mother, I do listen to a lot of Klezmer, eat Chinese food on a regular basis, and complaining satisfies me like no other, which kinda sorta makes me "jew-ish".

However, that's probably where the similarities between me and the Big J (aka Jay-Jay, Mac Jay, Jay One, One Dolla, or Straight Pimpin' as he's variously known in the hood or to his set, the 12 Apostles) end, since last time I checked ain't no hos been washing my feets as of lates.

But keeping Jay-Jay in mind, I've decided this year will be a year of change and transformation; of ascending, rather that constant descent into the same ol' same ol'.

This year is my "Jesus Year".

Uh, can I get witness? Uh, can I hear you testify? Uh,...is anyone still there?

Coincidentally, I also happen to be born on Abraham Lincoln's birthday - the former American president who, like Straight Pimpin', was murdered in the prime of his life. Nevertheless, despite the allure of top hats and gaunt facial expressions, something about having an "Abraham Lincoln Year" just doesn't seem appealing to me.

So, to start this year off right, what's a good jew-ish goy to do but go eat dim sum for his birthday lunch? And if I'm going to eat dim sum and not have to pick up the check, why not go to the somewhat famous and ever popular Koi Palace?

Koi Palace in Daly City is a pretty well-known Chinese seafood restaurant that's been around since 1996. If you hadn't already heard about it you might never know it existed, as it sits at the back of a shopping center completely hidden from view of the main thoroughfare.

I've wanted to go to Koi Palace ever since we lived in Daly City and often I've entertained the thought when Bruce and I have been around the Serramonte area. However, I've always assumed Koi Palace was too expensive to go to, and of course when I heard about the hour or two long wait for dim sum, I just brushed off the thought of going.

I can tell you now, it's neither expensive and the wait is tolerable, especially if you get there at the right time.

We arrived at 1 PM and were witness to a whole gaggle of people milling about in large groups near the entrance of the restaurant. Luckily, the parking gods were favorable to us and granted us a spot as close to the front door as humanly possible...and we didn't even have to say our usual parking mantra!

After squeezing our way through the front door and past those still waiting to be seated, we got our number and proceeded to stand next to the case displaying dried shark's fin at $500 a pound. After learning about the harvest of shark's fin, it somewhat unnerved me to be standing next to them, and had they been something else, like dried tree bark or something, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it. But then again, I'm also not the type of guest who goes into someone's house (or culture) and starts immediately criticizing the furniture.

That would make me an asshole.

Instead, I simply opt out of eating anything made with shark's fin. And, you know, if everyone followed this philosophy of "if you've got a problem with it, just don't do/eat it", the world would be a much better place.

The wait lasted 40 minutes, but it seemed more like 20 since there was so much activity and things to see just waiting in the lobby. The lobby, crammed with families and people coming and going and people brushing up against you, was remarkably a comfortable place to wait. Whoever their HVAC person is deserves a medal or something. And the restaurant was devoid of heavy, funky, bad, heavily-food, or even fishy smells despite the abundance of live seafood of every kind that greets you at the right side of the lobby entrance.

The design of the lobby (and later the restaurant as I would find out) was not only tastefully designed, but beautifully designed. The only things that seemed out of place were the mounted televisions showing some weird Kung Fu soccer fantasy soap opera.

Ah, ambiance.

The sound of numbers being called through the loudspeaker was muffled and tinny and slightly fingernails-running-down-the-blackboardy and seemed to have a little bit of a conversation going on in Cantonese before finally getting around to "table of ten" and "number 408". Large groups of people were called in the 400 number category, while smaller groups of 2 or 3 were called in the 100 range.

We were 148.

The clientele was about 90% Asian with many families and people of all ages. Large round tables dominated the restaurant which seats 400 people, though we landed a table for two right smack dab in the middle of all the action. A restaurant of this size made Bruce and I fantasize about the size and hectic action of the kitchen, or maybe kitchens (plural).

What is that freaky white dude staring at? Dang! Take a picture, freak-o! It'll last longer!

As soon as we were seated, we were asked what kind of tea we wanted. The options were many, including Bo-Lay (or Pu-erh), Jasmine, Oolong, Gok Fa, Dragonwell, and something called Monkey Picked Tikuanyin.

Not knowing where those monkey hands had been or if they were washed before leaving the restroom, we decided on the bo-lay, which is a fermented tea that, unlike most teas, is aged for 1-4 (but sometimes as long as 50) years. The tea is best after steeping for a few minutes, which darkens the color and brings out the rich, earthy, almost smokey, flavor of the tea.

Koi Palace isn't like most dim sum places, since no one wheels around little metal carts with steaming hot food on them. OK, there are a few carts, and there are plenty of waitresses walking around carrying steamer baskets full of dim sum, but for the most part you order from a little paper menu where you check off in pencil which dishes you're having.

After the waiter comes by and picks it up, he takes it to some mysterious place and then brings it back with some mysterious scribble on the front.

Using a copy of the Rosetta stone I keep in my wallet, I deciphered it as saying "burn the British, sweep the kitchen, a cup of Joe," and "pin a rose on it".

Afterwards, the dim sum we checked off was brought to our table in no particular order whereby the waitress would stamp on our tab which category the dim sum belonged to, ie., small ($2.50), medium ($3.20), or large ($4.20).

First up was the cold Seaweed and Jellyfish ($4.80).

In general, I like the texture of jellyfish, although it can be a little too tough. This wasn't tough, but it was a little chewy. It had a definite crunch when biting into it and tasted light and fresh with a strong flavoring of sesame. The seaweed was definitely the winner on this plate as it was bright, sweet, crisp, and with the flavor of the sea. I could eat this often.

The next to arrive is was the Bee's Nest Taro Puffs (medium), which are these fragile, crunchy balls that are deep fried and delicate on the outside and filled with a hot gravy and bits of minced pork and taro on the inside. While these were very good and precisely the reason I go eat dim sum, I have to admit that the taro puffs at the less fancy Y Ben House in Chinatown were much larger and tastier than these. Nevertheless, bring 'em on!

Because Bruce has this thing for the pan-fried leak and pork dumplings (large), we had to order those, and actually it turned out to be a wise choice. Because (like a lot of what we ordered) these dumplings are dim sum staples, the regular eater of dim sum has no doubt come across many inferior versions of these. This is generally why I steer clear of them. However, like a lot of the dim sum staples we ordered at Koi Palace, these were exceptional. Hot, flavorful, fresh tasting, and not bitter like some.

The plate wasn't half-bad either.

Next up was the indomitible baked Char Siu Bao (medium), king of the dim sum. Also a dim sum treat that has fallen under many hands of incompetance and cheapness, this one has a tendency to be overly sweet on the inside, doughy on the outside, and made with inferior ingredients.

But not these. In fact, these were the best barbecue pork buns I've ever had. And instead of the normal behemoth char siu bao you get at many steam-table to-go places, these were petite and delicate with a superb sweet, but not overly so, barbecue pork center. If all char siu bao were like these, I think I would have to give up all other food and subsist on these alone.

Are you still with me? Cause we aint done eating yet!

Next came the green onion pancake ($3.20), which is a Northern Chinese specialty. Again, though region specific, this (like Kung Pao Chicken, Chow Mein, and Peking Duck) is found in almost all Chinese restaurants. What made this one stand out was its sturdiness. Often, green onion pancakes, which are less "pancake" than "fried bread" are too doughy or biscuit-like. These were perfectly pieces of fried bread and onions that complemented nicely with a little Chinese mustard or chili sauce.

If char siu bao is the king of dim sum, then Har Gow is most definitely the princess.

Sometimes this princess can be vicious and tyranical, striking fear into all who partake her sight and flavors. Sometimes she can be a spinster, an old maid, a washed up, little ol' bitty. Other times, like this, she can be a fresh, delicate, plump, juicy, shrimp-filled dumpling with a soft, velvety, translucent skin.

If Princess Har Gow and King Char Siu Bao could marry and have children...well, that would be incest. But let's just say we were in the backwoods of North Carolina, alcohol was involved, and "things just kinda happened", then I would be first in line to bow, or bao, to the next ruler of the universe.

These har gow were certainly worthy of royalty.

We should've stopped here, but we were bound to waddle out of there...or die trying. The last bit of dim sum that came was the pork ribs in black bean sauce (small). In fact, we should've stopped before we got to this point, if only because these were wasted on us, or perhaps just wasted. Not Bruce nor my favorite and we could've definitely skipped this one. All bones and gristle in an undistinguishable sauce.

If only Bruce would've let me order those damn chicken feet! I'm sure those would've been much better.

As our stomachs extended up and outwards, tables were being cleared and table tops were being lifted up and rolled away. It was about 2:45 PM and had we known when to come without dealing with a wait, we would've come at 2:30 since half of the place had cleared out by then.

As it was, we still ended up scoring the best seat and parking space at the restaurant! Hoo-yeah!

Yes, the gods were definitely with us that day.