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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Road Kill and Earthquakes

I think I ran over a cat once and I think the event has haunted me and my driving days since.

Then again, perhaps that bump I ran over wasn't a cat but a package of NASCAR's newly packaged meat by-products.

While my vegetarian/vegan friends are not amused my this latest development in sports entertainment (and here I'm thinking specifically of you, Larrybob), I think it is an excellent marketing device. Why I think so, I'm not sure. But it sounded good at the time to say this.

Besides, I know that when I think of a big hunk of crispy bacon or of plump, juicy hotdogs I think of a whole lot of tricked-out cars painted with advertisements speeding around in a circle for hours on end, perhaps culminating is some deadly crash that I might remember for 5 fleeting seconds.

The truth is, my whole mentioning of this topic is really just a selfish ploy to share with you my supposed new meaning for the term "NASCAR", which is:

Scavenged from

And that's when I crack myself up.

I know.

But thanks for bearing with me.

The big 100 year anniversary of the SF Earthquake is coming up and boy, am I excited!

There ain't nothing funner than elaborate cocktail parties, $500/person dinners, and staring at a bunch of photos of fallen buildings to commemorate the day the city realized unreinforced masonry, ie., bricks, were sucky building materials and that privatized Fire Stations run by insurance companies were pretty damn retarded.

But if you're like me, you just can't sleep in on the 100th anniversary of THE big one, which is why I've already called into work sick on Tuesday so that I can be up at the unholy hour of 4:30 that morning, which is when God DIDN'T spank the town for being overly frisky and WHY He spared Hotaling's Whiskey, ok? Hello, religio-freakazoids?

Other than that, I'm not going totally earthquake crazy, but I think I might have an Earthquake dinner Monday night, featuring Turkey Tetrazzini, Celery Victor, and perhaps some coffee with a little Looter blood spilled into it.

Since I live over here on Rincon Hill, I might set up camp on Tuesday or Wednesday (most likely, since that's when I get paid) in South Park where I will perhaps sponge-bathe and shave in public, like the Army soldiers stationed there after the earthquake did. If anyone from REI is reading, can I borrow a few supplies? I swear, I'm a member.

So what are you doing for the big one?


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Do Not Adjust Your Dial

Yes, that is a church in the background.

It seems as though I spend so much time in the Central Valley that this blog's homebase should probably shift from SF to Modesto.

Yes, once again, we were there – this time for Bruce's niece Lori's graduation party. She just earned her BS, which I didn't even realize was something one had to earn. I mean, I just BS so naturally (hardy har har), yet the highest grade I ever reached was 12th, and even that was achieved, according to my teachers, by the "skin of my teeth".


Lori's party was on Sunday, but we decided to come down early since the big Rodeo's in town (Oakdale) and we had never been to the Rodeo parade before. We rolled into town Friday night, starving and looking for food – any food. Most places in Oakdale close up around 9 PM, even on the weekends. There are a few taquerias and pizza places that stay open later, but for the most part the place is a ghost town after 10 PM.

Driving down the street looking for places still open, we saw actual cowboys! Hat's, jeans, boots, the whole works. Most of them were waiting in line to get into the town's sole cowboy bar, the H-B (pronounced H bar B), while others were walking down the street in groups with their lady friends.

It was kind of strange for me, actually. Basically, the whole town was taken over by a cowboy convention. Even the bag boys at the local grocery store were decked out in boots, jeans, buttoned-down shirts, and ten-gallon hats. Big pick up trucks carrying bales of hay were pervasive.

If you're looking for Brokeback Mountain jokes, sorry. Trust me, I've spent way too much time writing and then deleting them from this post than I probably should have. In fact, this damn thing probably would've been written already if I could've just resisted to begin with.

Moving on.

The next morning we went to the Parade and, other than the police officer with delusions of grandeur that we made fun of the whole time, it pretty much the same cast of characters as the Ripon Almond Blossom parade with a few more vaqueros thrown in for good measure. And to give Ripon some credit, theirs was also better planned (ie., no large gaps between contingents).

So, that was sort of a bust.


Later in the day, we cruised around the area and happened to drive past several ethnic markets, which we stopped in. Usually, one doesn't think of the Modesto area as being very multicultural, and actually, it use to not be. But, of course, times change.

Whenever we flip the channels on the TV at Karen's house, we always stumble on the Assyrian Vision channel. I always use to ask, where are all of these damn Assyrians? And, what the hell is an Assyrian?

For some reason or other, Assyrians have decided that Modesto, California, USA is their landing spot for the diaspora. Of course, they aren't the first. Before them it was the Italians, then the Portuguese, then the Armenians, and now the Assyrians and Indo-Fijians.

Knowing that the Modesto area now has these immigrants, seeing a storefront with the name "Babylon Market" gives me reason to believe that it may be more than an Arab-owned convenience store. And, in fact, my hunch proves to be true.

Browsing the shelves at the Babylon Market, I was surprised to see how many products of Russian origin there were. Of course, there were the usual displays of Middle Eastern food such as flat bread, cans of hummus, fresh feta cheese, chick peas, lentils, rose water, and pomegranate syrup, but then there were these funny shaped pastas.

I wish I had more time to ask the proprietor/cashier questions like "what" and "why" and "how" and what the heck is up with all of the Russian stuff, but we had to get going. I nervously said "shukrun...right?" to him. He smiled slightly and said "shukrun" in return. Knowing nothing about Assyrians other than many of them are from Iraq, I assumed I could get away with saying this word, but I probably shouldn't say "insha'allah" or any of the few other Arabic phrases I know that might be seen as culturally/religiously insensitive, or in my case, ignorant.

As we left the store, I heard one of the older women shoppers say something to him and say "al Arah-bia", obviously in reference to what I had just said and perhaps complaining a) "why is he speaking Arabic to you" or not complaining b) "oh, he knows some Arabic. That's nice."

I tell you, people. It's like tiptoeing through a cultural minefield out there. Only, I probably shouldn't call what I do tiptoeing – it's more like stumbling.

Afterwards, we headed over to the 9 Islands Portuguese Bakery in Riverbank to pick up some more hot pepper sauce. While we were there, I also purchased some salt cod since it was so cheap.

Don't worry. I don't even try to speak Portuguese. And I have no idea what I'm going to use the salt cod for. Any suggestions?


The real exciting food event for me happened Sunday, the day of Lori's party. Lori's dad, Dwight, is an expert in tri-tip barbecuing.

I've said it before, but let me say it again in case there are some dense or distracted amongst you: tri-tip barbecuing is the regional, unique barbecuing style of California, in particular the Central Valley of California. In general, tri-tip often gets overlooked by people who talk and write about barbecue, probably because when most people think barbecue, they think of the South. They think beef brisket or beef ribs from Texas, pulled pork with slaw and vinegar sauce from North Carolina, or pork ribs from Tennessee. But when it comes to our barbecued tri-tip, we Californians get no respect.

Well, what is tri-tip, anyway?

Tri-tip is a cut of beef (usually around 2 pounds) that is triangular in shape, boneless, and part of the bottom sirloin. There are only two tri-tips per carcass. In most of the country, this cut of meat is generally cut up into chunks or used for ground beef since there isn't enough demand for whole tri-tips. However, perhaps due to the fact that California has many cattle ranches, whole tri-tip is widely available, especially in those areas and towns that lay in close proximity to the ranches.

Tri-tip isn't necessarily cheap, but neither is it very expensive. Here in SF, one conventionally-raised 2-pound tri-tip at Safeway can cost anywhere between $14 and $16 ($7 - $8 per pound). Because the of prevalence of beef and the overwhelming consumption of it in the Central Valley, tri-tip can sometimes be found for as low as $4 a pound, but on average I've seen it mostly at $5 per pound. Grass-fed/finished, "organic", tri-tip prices can swing wildly from $8 per pound, $13 per pound, and all the way to $21 per pound.

While some of these prices, especially for the organic, grass-fed stuff, seem high, take into consideration that one 2-pound tri-tip can easily feed two to three people.

While I suppose tri-tip can be roasted in the oven, it is best barbecued. Dwight's barbecued tri-tip is some of the best I've ever had, and I sincerely mean that. While I'm not sure how much of a role the marinade plays in the flavor of the finished product, I'm pretty sure his rig plays a huge role.

Dwight, by trade, is a union-certified diesel mechanic who services road-building equipment. He didn't come to barbecuing by accident. He says that it began one day when (my memory's a little fuzzy on this part) his co-workers were planning a big barbecue dinner for 100 guests due to one of them retiring. Somehow, Dwight got picked to organize the barbecue portion of the dinner, despite the fact that he had never barbecued for that many people before.

Having easy access to welding equipment and steel barrels, he and a few of his buddies set about building a few of these upright barbecue rigs. Though the design of the barbecue rig was not his own, he did tweak it around a bit and eventually ended up with the one he has today.

Before the barbecue dinner was to happen, he says he barbecued after work, out by the bar near the union hall, 3 days out of every week for 6 weeks straight, while perfecting the marinade, the cooking temperature, the time, the amount of charcoal, etc. During this period, he says people would just invariably show up, sometimes out of the blue, once that barbecue smoke permeated the air. I guess it got around that some good California barbecue was going on down at the union hall.

Dwight isn't sure how many barbecued chickens and tri-tips he went through in that 6-week period, but by the end such a frenzy of excitement was whipped up over his barbecuing that over 200 people showed up at the event.

It cracks me up to see this barbecue rig of his.

From the outside it literally is a rusty steel drum that if your neighbors saw it sitting in your front yard, they would probably call the Department of Public Works in an attempt to have it removed. While it may look like the poor ugly stepchild (sorry, stepchildren) or fancier, cleaner, and bigger barbecue rigs, in its simplicity it is a work of genius.

It's like the Zen barbecue rig. Or in Kung Fu Theater terms, it's like the drunken old man whom everyone believes is the town bum, but is really a famous kung fu master who just so happens to have mastered the drunken monkey style, which he then teaches to a young, impressionable youth, who then goes on a drunken monkey killing spree against gangsters and corrupt politicians the likes of which the people of the province haven't seen since the infamous and bloody Tong war of 1825.

Kinda like that.

Again, the construction is steel. Both ends of the barrel have been cut out, with the top end reserved to act as the lid (a stainless steel handle has been fashioned and welded to the top) and a bottom piece fashioned with legs so that it rests off the ground as a separate unit.

A detachable disk from a disk harrow used to prepare the soil for farming serves as a holding plate for the charcoals. Three stainless steel rods are held horizontally through three slots cut opposite of each other near the top edge of the barrel while two 3.5" round, closeable vents lay opposite of each other near the bottom. The rods at the top serve to hold the tri-tip (or chicken), but also act as handles in order to pick up the barrel.

To begin with, Dwight prepares the coals (in this case, 20 pounds) on the bottom plate and allows them to burn until they're nearly white with ash. By mistake, he picked up what he thought was regular charcoal starter but ended up being this creamy, napalm-like, orange-scented stuff which ended up being useless. Despite this, they seemed to stay lit and burned well. Personally, I use hardwood charcoal and use a chimney starter to get them lit, but then again, that's on my little Weber bullet and not something as big as this.

Once the coals were ready, he then loaded the marinated tri-tip onto steel hooks which hung from the steel rods.

He wouldn't divulge what was in his marinade, but from seeing him dry rub a pork shoulder about a year or so ago, I imagine a little bit of everything. However, while it's not the only ingredient, I have a feeling this probably figures in there somewhere.

When the tri-tip had been hooked and hung, the barrel was then picked up from both sides by Dwight and Aron and then placed over the hot coals.

At this point, it was all about monitoring the temperature of the barbecue rig. After placing the lid on top of the barbecue, Dwight used one of those fancy, high-tech instant read laser thermometers to determine the heat of both the top and bottom of it, making adjustments to the vents as needed.

Once the temperature was stable (250F), it was left alone for at least an hour and 45 minutes. Around that time (or it could've been a little longer since I lost track of time – oops), he checked the tri-tip by slicing into one.

Yep. These are ready to take off.

It was all I, and those standing around me, could do not to grab a whole piece and start gnawing on it! These babies looked and smelled wonderful!

None of us could wait for Dwight to get these puppies sliced so that we could start chowing down. They were a little pink on the inside, which is just I how love it. Not cold or bloody, but medium to medium-rare. The color on the outside also was just amazing and the whole piece of meat was smokey, tender, and juicy.

This is the stuff I wish we could get here in the Bay Area, but as you see, it has to be done down in the Central Valley. Maybe Dr. Biggles does it this way? Or at least knows someone with some good tri-tip.

I think I would've died and gone to heaven if this had been served as a tri-tip sandwich, but then there was so many other good sides to go with it. Good meat like this needs good, simple sides, like garlic bread, a salad, a pasta salad (has to have mayo!), and some smokey, porky baked beans.


This is comfort food at its finest.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Good Morning Star Shine!!

Let the faux-fur start flying Baconteers!!

Michelin has just announced they are back on the slash and burn trail, only this time it ain't New Yawk but San Fran-cizzo.

And I for one can't wait for all of the pouty, petulant faces and serious back-patters to emerge. Oh, this is going to be good! No doubt this will be talk of the town for insufferable Chowhounders, the Children of the Damned (aka those who work under Michael Bauer), and foodies who take themselves way, way, (did I mention way?) too seriously.

Hopefully there will be no suicides, but if there are, hopefully they won't be "death by Golden Gate Bridge" cause we are soooo tired of this stupid "suicide barrier" discussion. Please, I myself may reserve the option to jump from that sacred spot should anything catastrophic ever happen. It's my right too.

Of course, being San Francisco and all, I'm sure there will be some folks who'll attempt to subvert the dominant paradigm and go about casting their own stars for everything from upstanding Muni Drivers to Best Massage Parlor To Get A Happy Ending.

The Board of Supes (or is that Soups?) will probably pass a resolution decrying 3 stars as "numerist" or "symbolistic" and cause a mandatory knee-jerk from the right-wing reactionaries who will sue to prevent the Board from commenting on future Michelin ratings.

Maybe that guy over at Dive will even dole out a few for best dive food in a neighborhood you're most likely to disappear and never be heard again from.


Me? I'll be pestering my Corsican former co-worker who seems to know everyone who remotely speaks the language of love in this provincial town to see if any strange fellows happen to be floating about inquiring if Horse is on the menu.

Other than that, I'll be waiting for the ax to drop...and drop with a mighty thud I pray it does.

My guesses for who gets sweet lovin' and those who get to sleep on the cold, wet spot:

Sweet Lovin':
French Laundry
La Folie
Chez Panisse

Cold Wet Spot:
Slanted Door
Gary Danko
(or practically any ethnic restaurant that isn't French)

Oh boy. Talking about a political year. Forget the governor's race, there will be more mud slinging, chicken squawking, shit talking, and general politicking over this Michelin thing than this tiny town has seen in a long time, and I for one will be enjoying every single minute of it!

Stock up on your wetnaps people, cause this city is about to get messy.