Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dolly: a cook of many colors

Dolly Parton, while not a Texan, is still fabulous. And besides being a fantastic singer (Jolene is one of the best songs ever) and hilarious actor (after 26 years, 9-to-5 still feels fresh), she can also cook. White Trash BBQ writes that she has a new cookbook of Tennessee family recipes, and 100% of the net proceeds benefit the The Dollywood Foundation which promotes literacy to disadvantaged preschool children. But even better, if you buy the book you’re entered into a contest to have a bbq with Dolly and 100 of your closest friends. Good luck, and hopefully it’ll be you and not those people two doors down laughing and drinking and having a party.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Rachael papers

Rachael Ray is filming her new show across the street from my office in midtown Manhattan. And because we're so susceptible to even the slightest brush with celebrity, we often stare out the window and watch the tourists queue up to see Rachael live. Last week, one of my colleagues became extremely excited when he thought he saw Rachael herself talking to the people on line. Unfortunately, it was just a flack telling the people they hadn't made the cut to be in the studio audience. Alas, he'll have to wait another day to see his Ray of sunshine.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

There's the R.U.B.

It's taken me a year to gather up the courage to give R.U.B. (aka Righteous Urban BBQ) another chance, and after devouring some burnt ends and St. Louis ribs, I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Yes, it's amazing what a year does to a place. And never mind all the naysayers claiming that R.U.B. is an emperor in no clothes--believe me, things have changed. It's all about the smoke and they finally captured it. Each bite was a smoky, spicy, slightly sweet joy; no sauce needed. And after my meal I flossed but (contrary to my usual practice) I refused to brush just so I could continue to savor the smoky goodness. As for the sides--they're fine, (I had the onion strings and vinegar cole slaw) but BBQ is about meat, and R.U.B. knows how to smoke it. I'm glad I've rediscovered them, and delighted they're right around the corner. It isn't Kreuz's, but it's a more-than-decent substitute for any New Yorker looking for some 'cue.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Smoke and mirrors

A few months ago, Tom Ryder, the Chairman of Reader's Digest, took a BBQ tour of the Texas Hill Country. And even though he lives in Connecticut, he's no slouch on his 'cue credentials: southern, owns a chain of CT bbq joints called the Cookhouse and is a partner in NY's Blue Smoke. So I read his missives on my homeland with great anticipation. And most of the time he was pretty spot on in his descriptions, even though he didn't like Kreuz's Market and his party was upset when no sauce was served. But it's one's man's taste and one man's opinion. And even if you don't agree with his observations I highly recommend going through the full online package as it offers up a ton of information through words, photos and videos. And then you can be inspired to take your own BBQ tour of the Texas Hill Country.

Speaking of the Cookhouse, the NY Times reviewed the joint on Sunday. As usual when it comes to East Coast reviews of bbq, there was a humdinger of a comment that made me wonder where they find these writers. "The brisket is beautifully cooked but, served as it is without broth, its lovely flavor gets lost in the intensity of the smoke and sweet that pervades all the food here." Broth? With your barbecue brisket? This isn't grandma's Sunday brisket served with carrots and potatoes. If you don't know what something is, what gives you the right to pass judgment on it? The writer even concedes in the last graf, "The Cookhouse is not my style," meaning she doesn't know anything about bbq. So I still have no idea if the place is good or not, but I aim to check it out and pay my respects to Mr. Ryder.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Taco Tour: Los Mexicanos 14th Street taco cart

Is it possible to find redemption in a taco? It is when you find food this good. Los Mexicanos "La Poblanita" taco cart promises home cooking, and if this is what Mexican home cooking tastes like, I live in the wrong country. Unfortunately, only on Sundays will you find these ladies grilling meat, stuffing tacos, and even patting out fresh flour tortillas for deep-fried quesadillas. Their predominant customer base is the Mexican congregants of Our Lady of Guadalupe church on 14th between 8th and 9th Avenues, and along with the taco cart, there are other venders selling other Mexican treasures such as horchata, elote, and fruit on a stick. It's all very authentic, and everyone is super friendly.

Everything looked and smelled delicious, so I was having a difficult time choosing what to order. I asked the woman what was the best and she recommended the barbacoa. That makes sense, as barbacoa de cabeza is a traditional Sunday Mexican dish. I also ordered the pernil. While the flour tortillas were homemade, the corn tortillas were from a bag. But they threw them on the well-oiled grill so they were perfectly cooked with terrific texture, taste and support. They are generous with the meat and you also have the option to load up the tacos with three salsas, cilantro, onions and lettuce. But this meat is so sublime, you could get away with just eating the meat and tortillas by themselves, these tacos don't need any enhancements.

First, the barbacoa: I've been looking for proper bar-b-que in this town, and I finally found it. The meat tasted of smoke and spices, yet was so tender it melted in my mouth. The pernil, while not as delectable as the barbacoa, was still amazing. Crispy yet not too chewy, also perfectly spiced and with just enough fat to make me happy. The three salasa all had the perfect balance of flavor and heat, and were all so different I used all three. There were two green salsas, an avocado and tomatillo salsa (that was so popular they were almost out of it) and a brightly flavored jalapeno, cilantro, tomatillo and lime salsa. The red salsa was rich and deep, and tasted like a blend of pureed anchos with tomatoes and garlic. Los Mexicanos also has big buckets of cilantro, onions and lettuce--enough to make taco salad if you like. When you dress your taco, everything is in harmony. And the double tortillas are a perfect wrap to keep this meal intact. There's no place to sit, but I had no problem standing and eating--these ladies have mastered taco architecture. And they're also parked under a row of trees, so it's shady and cool, a perfect respite on a hot summer day.

I can't say enough good things about these tacos. All I know is that if I hadn't been full, I would have ordered everything else on the menu. Too bad I have to wait another week to return, but you know where I'll be next Sunday.

Recommendation: Barbacoa is sublime, but it's all good
Score: 9 (I wish they had fresh corn tortillas)
Location: 14th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, south side of street, Manhattan

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Taco Tour: Great Burrito

I decided to embark my Taco Tour in my own backyard, Chelsea. In a neighborhood drowning in high-end Mexican restaurants (Rocking Horse, Suenos, Crema) and Chinese-owned taquerias, I was surprised to find a true Mexican-owned hole-in-the-wall only a block away. I had passed this place many times, but had never been convinced it was worth a visit due to its lack of air conditioning and the swarming flies and dirty floor. But I've been to Mexico, and have eaten in places far worse for aesthetic value. And hey, when tacos are concerned, the quality of food can sometimes be in an inverse proportion to a restaurant's atmosphere. So I decided to give Great Burrito a chance.

I would love to report that I found a true gem a block away, but unfortunately, that's not the case. I ordered 3 tacos: el pastor, chorizo and carne asada. And one out of three wasn't bad. But that's the only good news. The rest was depressing. First, the tortillas. I saw the cook pull them out of a bag and throw them into a pizza oven (yes, the place also serves pizza, along with tortas, tostadas, burritos (natch) and enchiladas) for a few seconds. He shouldn't have bothered. The tortillas were cold, tasteless and yet still fell apart. Completely useless. So I ate my taco fillings with a fork.

Now what about the meat? Save for the pork, which was succulent, juicy, had a nice char, and a good cinnamon and lime flavor, the other two meats were inedible. The carne asada was all gristle with a bad "been sitting in the freezer" flavor. And the chorizo tasted like sweet, rubbery Italian sausage. The toppings were disappointing as well. Each taco was sprinkled with onions and cilantro--a good beginning and a fine ending. But Great Burrito also poured on some weird avocado salsa, that was like guacamole mixed with water and tomatoes. It had no flavor, no substance and no heat. And if any salsa was added (there was none on the counter for me to put on myself) I couldn't taste or see it.

Maybe Great Burrito makes great burritos. But I'd stay away from the tacos, save for the el pastor, and expect to eat it with a fork.

Recommendation: El Pastor taco. Request weird avocado sauce be left off taco.
Score: 3
Location: 23rd and 6th Avenue, Manhattan

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

NYC Taco Tour

Hungry for tacos? If you read last week's NY Times article, you might think you have to fly all the way to LA to enjoy this delectable dish. But it ain't true. While I am partial to my homeland's Mexican/Tex-Mex treats, I do believe there are some good tacos to be found in this town. And to prove my theory, starting today I am embarking on a taco tour of New York City. From the Bronx to the Battery, from Queens to Brooklyn and yes, I'll even take the ferry to Staten Island (which is rumored to have the best tacos of all five boroughs). I'll probably hit all the usual faves, but I'm hoping, in the spirit of discovery and adventure, to unearth some new gems as well. I won't put a time limit on this tour, but I will be posting often on what I eat. In the spirit of fair judgment, I will keep my tacos simple: tortilla, meat and salsa, with cilantro, onions and lime added if available. There will be no cheese, sour cream, lettuce or guacamole added to my tacos as not every place offers these extras. I will only be hitting places ran by Mexicans or perhaps the odd Texan or Californian, so you will not find any Fresh Tortillas or Taco Bell tacos on my taco tour. And my scoring will be conducted thusly: As in life, every taco begins with a clean slate. Starting at 10, points will be subtracted for quality of tortilla, quality of meat, quality of salsa and availability of aforementioned simple garnishes: cilantro, lime and onions. It's that simple. I'm not going to judge a place on atmosphere, service (unless it's completely abysmal) or location. I'm just doing this for the food. And hopefully, I'll find enough yummy ones that I can help other New Yorkers plan their own taco tours. Que aprovecho!