Friday, September 29, 2006

Here's the beef

Ah, summer love--so intense, so exciting, and yet, so fleeting. Perhaps that’s part of the thrill. But now that it’s autumn, I have to say good-bye to my summertime fling, the Shake Shack Double Shack Burger. I enjoyed those late-night rendezvous when it was just the Double Shack and me, no huge crowds of people also vying for its deliciousness. Yes, the long lines for Shake Shack are legion, but its popularity is well deserved: how can you not love thick and juicy well-seasoned meat, fresh green lettuce, bright flavorful tomatoes, oozing American cheese, all sandwiched between a perfectly proportioned potato bun. Shake Shack had me at first bite.

But as good as the Double Shack may be, I think the real reason I fell so hard was because it reminded me of a taste of home. There was something in the peppery meat and perfect balance that made me swoon. And even though the two are completely different feasts, something about the Double Shack reminded me of my first burger love—Whatburger.

I can’t get Whataburger in NYC, the company hasn’t expanded that far North. But for a fast-food burger, it somehow always tastes fresh and special. Perhaps because it’s made to order, on a grill with nary a microwave in sight. And they spice the meat at Whataburger, giving it a deliciousness not found in many other places.

I’ve enjoyed my summertime eating at the Shake Shack. For the cooler months, however, I’ve found a satisfying substitute—the Chelsea Gallery burger. It’s a diner burger, but rises above mediocrity with excellent beef cooked to order. They also provide fresh veggies and while the sesame bun isn’t perfect, it holds the whole sandwich together, no mean feat with a juicy, overstuffed burger.

Recently, many chefs have tried to outdo themselves with towering creations crafted from Wagyu or Kobe beef, stuffed with fois gras or bone marrow, but for me, just keep it simple: good beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato and bun. A burger doesn't need anything more.

Are you a Shake Shack fan? What's your dream burger?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Salt bagels and jalapeno cream cheese

Growing up in the Bible Belt, Judaism was under my radar, I'm ashamed to say. Yom Kippur wasn’t a school holiday, and hamentashen was just a buttery fruit-filled cookie. But even though I didn’t have a name for it, I was fascinated with Jewish culture as a kid. When my father’s friend's daughter had her bat mitzvah, I was eager to attend as Devo had played at Muffy Tepperman’s bat mitzvah on the TV show Square Pegs, therefore making the religious ceremony very cool. And in Woody Allen movies, I kept hearing about this mysterious sounding food combination called bagels and lox, so the first time I saw it on a menu in a Houston restaurant, I ordered it and fell in love.

Tonight at sundown is Rosh Hashana. And while I don’t have honey cake, I do have this: a book I’m eager to read. It’s called Matzoh Ball Gumbo, and it surveys what it means to be a Southern Jew from a culinary perspective. More cultural history than recipe tome, its central theme is that a culture is partly defined by the foods eaten and shared, something I certainly agree with. And when we’re displaced, how we readjust our culture to fit with our new surroundings--something I completely identify with being a Homesick Texan and all.

Perhaps I’ll write a book called Salt Bagels and Jalapeno Cream Cheese.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Hill Country Diet

Don’t read this web site, it’s bad for your health. That’s right, I’m a Homesick Texan who waxes nostalgic for Texan foods. And yet, it turns out that those foods are nonnutritious. I can’t believe that a huge slab of chicken fried steak drowning in gravy or a No. 3 Tex-Mex dinner oozing cheese juice and bacon grease isn’t part of a heart-healthy diet. I could have sworn I heard that Dr. Andrew Weil was going to narrate a Hill Country Diet documentary for PBS. I guess I confused Texas with Okinawa.

But seriously, yes, eating lots of fatty, fried food, and not getting enough exercise is going to affect your health. Which leads me to Travis County. If you haven’t already heard, Travis County is debating a plan to use taxpayers dollars to perform up to 15 gastric bypass surgeries a year for its employees. The reasoning is that the surgery will be cheaper than the long-term healthcare costs for an obese person. Recently there have been many government and corporate initiatives in the fight against obesity. I commend these efforts. Not one, however, pays for an individual’s gastric-bypass surgery. I think the taxpayer’s dollars should go toward something that benefits the majority not the minority, such as fitness education or giving breaks to stores that stock local, whole foods instead of corporate processed junk. I’m not against either the government or the private sector helping its employees lose weight and lead healthier lives. But paying for surgery? That seems a bit extreme.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When Love comes to town

A block away from my apartment, Texan chef Tim Love is opening an outpost of his Fort Worth restaurant Lonsemone Dove Western Bistro. He's the kind of guy who prefers a cowboy hat to a toque and has done trail rides from Fort Worth to both coasts, cooking with ingredients from local markets along the way. Colorful guy. And by looking at the menu, it appears to be one of those high-concept cowboy places, the type where they combine fois gras with chiles and serve a kangaroo carpaccio. I'm curious. And this week, New York Magazine has provided a guide to his menu, asking Tim to define some of his more exotic culinary terms, such as "prairie butter," "fois gras shooter" and the ever-perplexing, "state fair sauce." Who knew...state fair sauce is exotic! He's also featured in Food & Wine this month if you want to check out some of his recipes. (He clearly has a well-oiled PR machine).

In any case, the restaurant is a typical New York space, long and skinny, dominated by a big oak bar that Tim built himself. It has exposed brick walls adorned with graphic oil paintings of Texan icons, such as boots and cactus. But my favorite piece of decoration is the huge longhorn trophy hung over the entrance to the bathrooms (I don't know if it was an intentional visual pun, but I like it). Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the pre-opening party. I was hoping to eat lots of food, but when you cram hundreds of people into a space that was meant for half that number, minus solid ventilation, well, you just don't have an ideal environment for eating cowboy haute cuisine.

After struggling past all the people packed at the bar, where they had huge plates stacked with watermelon slices next to split bones filled with marrow (a combination that seemed odd) we made our way to the kitchen entrance, always the best place to park at a party if you want to eat. And eat we did, at least a few bite-sized nibbles. I had the fois gras shooter with a fois gras tuile on top that was crunchy and almost bacony--a bowl of those would be the perfect snack food. I had the lobster cakes with black bean salsa. I had some sticky meatballs that tasted like they were coated in a chipotle honey sauce. I had the kangaroo carpaccio, topped with a dollop of goat cheese and I think I like kangaroo--hard to describe except it's fatty and rich and married with the pungent cheese it was very satisfying. And I had the perfectly caramelized "prairie butter" (buffalo bone marrow) on thick bread, very tasty. But it being a packed party and the trays pounced on by eager eaters as soon as they left the kitchen, there just wasn't enough food to satisfy--it was all a tease.

So, alas, not much to report on the food front, not that I would judge a restaurant by its party food anyway. And despite the appropriate soundtrack (two guys with guitars singing a bunch of original honky-tonk songs) and my endless amusement that no one I spoke with was actually from Texas (despite the abundance of cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats), after two guys from Michigan decided to instruct me on the proper way to form a "Hook-em Horns" with my fingers, and another guy from Nova Scotia told me the bull was a middlehorn, not a longhorn (um, yeah, maybe in Canada), I knew it was time to leave. I will return, however, and hopefully under more civilized circumstances will have a proper Tim Love meal.

Has anyone ever eaten at the Lonesome Dove here or in Fort Worth? What did you think?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ann Richards: 1933-2006

Good night, Governor. Thanks for all your wit, wisdom, courage and leadership. You were a true Texas treasure. You will be missed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What the butcher knows

This week, New York Magazine has a wonderful feature on butchers and their thoughts on preparing meat--which you can find in both the print and online editions. Molly Friedman and Helen Yun talked to eight NYC butchers (and one chef), about cuts, quality and cooking tips, with some personal histories sprinkled around for color and flavor. Accompanying the quotes are the fantasticly rich and real photographs by Hans Ginssinger who is probably my favorite raw-meat photographer. No one else can make bones and raw flesh look so beautiful.

I don't go to a butcher for my meat (I shop at Whole Foods so I assume what I'm buying is decent quality), but after reading this article, with wisdom such as: "When you see meat at the supermarket, that's a select grade of beef. It has no quality to it. It's just a flat piece of meat." and all the recent supermarket-meat scandals lately, I think I need to check out my local chop shop. Do you go to a butcher? If you're in NY, which one do you use?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

NYC Potluck

Danielle over at Habeas Brulee is organzing a NYC food bloggers potluck for Saturday, September 30, whenever the majority can attend. If you're interested in eating some good food and meeting the faces behind the blogs, check out the details here.

A bit of soul on the Upper West Side

A couple of years ago, I was on real soul-food kick, and would spend the weekends eating at every place I could find in Harlem: diners, hole-in-the-walls, high-end establishments and even church dinners. Most of the food was passable, but one place was truly worth the return trip: Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen. It’s a small place with an all-you-can-eat buffet, and boy is it good. He’s got oxtails, deviled eggs, potato salad, collard greens, mac and cheese, cole slaw and some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. And he fries it up the right way: in an iron skillet with lard. You can taste how finely it’s been prepared—the crust is crispy and flaky with just the right amount of spice and the chicken is juicy and tender—even the white meat, which is no mean feat. A couple of months ago, Charles opened a place further downtown on Broadway and 109th Street, Rack & Soul, which he collaborated on with pitmaster John Wheeler. I was curious to see how his fried chicken would transfer 40 blocks down, and I was also eager to try this new bbq chef’s smoked meat. The place did not disappoint.

The restaurant has about 4 times the number of tables than Charles’ place uptown, in a cheery casual atmosphere with red vinyl booths and black-and-white photos of old Harlem. There’s also a stack of wood near the back of the house—a reassuring thing to see in a bbq place. When you first sit down, they bring you biscuits, and these are delicious—much better than the highly praised BLT Fish’s cheese biscuits. These are flaky, buttery, taste of honey and they melt in your mouth—two were not enough. I ordered the fried chicken, which came with a quarter rack of babyback ribs, and two overflowing side dishes of collard greens and macaroni and cheese. First the fried chicken: it made the trip downtown without any incident, and was as bone-gnawing and finger-licking good as it ever was; I couldn’t tear my mouth away from the bone. The ribs were fine. The meat was tender and tasted of smoke, but they basted them with too much sweet sauce, and I like them sauceless. The macaroni and cheese wasn’t that good—it was too soft and didn’t have enough cheese. But the collard greens were perfectly spiced and tender, and succulent with yummy pork delight. I couldn’t stop eating them and if I hadn’t been so full, I would have ordered another bowl.

Rack & Roll will leave you stuffed with plenty to take home. The portions are huge and the prices are very reasonable. It’s not as cheap as the all-you-can-eat buffet in Harlem, but if I don’t feel like going all the way uptown, I’m happy this place exists. I’m just glad it’s still 100 blocks away from me, otherwise I’d be there all the time, which might not be the best thing for both my heart and my waistline.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Brisket and a book

Want to read some amazing writing--writing so good it convinced the chairman of Reader's Digest to break bread with its creator? Here's your chance.But first, a bit of history.When I walked into the office this morning, Ken Wheaton handed me a takeout container filled with bbq brisket, ribs and pork from The Cookhouse, where Ken and his girlfriend were dinner guests of Cookhouse owner (and Reader's Digest Chairman Tom Ryder). How did Ken manage to score such a cool invitation? By his very fine writing, of course. As I've mentioned before, Ryder went on a bbq tour of the Hill Country, and posted an in-depth interactive travelogue on the Reader's Digest site. Ken writes a magazine column, and being no bbq slouch himself he decided to comment on it. And Ryder loved Ken's words so much, he invited him to Connecticut.

You can find Ken's writing in a new book called The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York. It's a collection of essays and stories edited by Jaquelin Cangro, with other contributors including Jonathem Lethem, Calvin Trillin, Francine Prose, among others. It's good stuff, perfect for a train ride. And Thursday night, there's a reading at Book Court at 8, 163 Court Street. So if you have nothing better to do, why not hop on the either the 2, 3, 4, 5, R or F train and give some of the stories a listen.