April 27, 2009

RIP Frankie Manning

Thanks for all the dances. We'll all miss you.

Posted by foodnerd at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2009

at last, real Hecky's

Tonight I am in Skokie Illinois. I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off because my 4pm client meeting ran well over 2 hours and I barely made it to the car rental shop before it closed at 7, AND i'd left both cell phones in my cube at the office. Dumbass.

Anyway, I was hungry and had a car and couldn't think where to go, so I thought about it for a minute, to try and remember what I really, really missed about Chicago food that was a) not Perez, b) not Blackbird, and c) vaguely might be sort of near or on the way to Skokie. And then I remembered my last trip to Hecky's on Halsted, which wasn't really a Hecky's despite the desperate baldfaced lies to the contrary from the manager.

The One True Hecky's is now the one in Evanston... a 10 minute drive from Skokie. Yay!!

I just finished off most of a half chicken and some cole slaw, and it was as dreamy as I remember it, just as spicy and tangy, the meat just as moist, and perhaps even smokier than the Halsted shop's. I scored a bottle of the sauce to bring home, to tide me over till the next visit -- hurray for having to check luggage anyway!

And I think I might head back tomorrow night, to get some rib tips... the adorable cashier kid at Best Buy busted into the hugest grin when I told him I was headed to Hecky's, and told me that the rib tips are at least as good as the chickens. I personally have never gotten past the chickens, so I think it's worth a second trip while I am trapped here in the northern burbs. In the name of scientific research and the greater good of humanity, of course.

(Update: the rib tips are pretty good. lots of bone and connective bits, with little nibbles of meatiness and the usual sauce. perfectly worthwhile, but I still prefer the extraordinary chicken.)

Posted by foodnerd at 12:49 AM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2009

kaua'i eating 2009

98/365 Light Crowd at Hanalei Bay

Kaua'i is perhaps the most awesome vacation spot on earth. I didn't expect Hawai'i to be like this; I had all the usual stereotypes of Waikiki in mind, and the mostly-rural but insanely-perfect vibe of Kaua'i surprised me when we were here in 2008. We loved it, of course. And once we took a surf lesson we loved it even more and couldn't wait to come back.

This trip we were surf-focused from the get-go, and we surfed every day except for the day we arrived, the day we flew interisland, the day we hiked Na Pali, and the day tallasiandude was down with the 24-hour flu. We are still noobs, but we are a lot better than we were when we started -- we are surfing on 10' 2" epoxy boards instead of the 12' soft-tops, so we are all proud of ourselves and stuff.

But you people want to know what we ate.

Kaua'i has some amazing food, and some that's less amazing. I was less dazzled by it all this trip, and have faced the fact that lots of Kaua'i's restaurants are simply OK... but that doesn't change the fact that I love island-style food in general, and will always go back to Kaua'i with nothing but joy.

Here's the rundown.

As is now our habit, our first stop was Hamura's Saimin. Having now eaten saimin in several other places, we know for sure that this stuff is worthy of its reputation. We got the special saimin with all its goodies -- won ton, egg, roast pork, veg, spam, kamaboko -- plus a couple bbq sticks and a slice of liliko'i chiffon pie. The chicken stick beats the beef stick by a nose, and that pie is nom nom nom with its crispy crust, cool whip topping and whispering passionfruit foam.

Another night, we tried a pho shop in Kapa'a, in the same little mall as the Long's and Safeway. Decent pho and bun, nothing crazy good, but light and enough to scratch the viet-food itch.

bun with spring roll and pork

After our first day of surfing, we made tracks immediately for Duane's Ono-Char Burger in Anahola, and ordered the same exact thing we had last trip: a Local Girl burger plus an Aloha Special for me and an avocado-cheddar burger and a vanilla shake for tallasiandude. A Local Girl burger is teriyaki sauce, mayo and a pineapple slice, with melted swiss. An Aloha Special is possibly the most refreshing beverage in creation, being papaya-pineapple-banana plus crushed ice.

Avocado and Cheddar burger

We hit up the Kapa'a farmer's market and scored some tropical fruits: ice cream bananas, scarlet papaya, rambutan and mangosteen. The ice cream bananas are supercreamy and mild, and the scarlet papaya (i am pretty sure i have the name misremembered) was much sweeter and less funky-smelling than regular papaya. The rambutan and mangosteen were not as good as the ones we got in Hilo last trip, not as sweet and the rambutan didn't peel away from its seed properly so every bite had icky hard stuff on it. We still ate it all up happily.

farmer's market loot

We went back to Genki Sushi in the Kukui Grove mall. It wasn't quite as awesome as I remembered it, but I think that's because we were definitely there at a weird off hour and they weren't making much fresh stuff until we started asking for it from the waitress instead of plucking it off the conveyor. The garlic salmon and garlic ahi are still completely nom, and we had a hot-dog maki that was actually hilariously great with its dyed-red dog and egg filling and furikake sprinkle, just one of many local foods that should not be delicious but IS.

99/365 hotdog/tamago sushi

We also noticed that the Kukui Grove mall has mangosteen trees growing at the end of every parking lot row. How awesome is that?

mangosteen tree

Every morning on the drive up to Hanalei Bay to surf, we stopped at the Menehune gas station quickie-mart and bought spam musubi and a coffee for me, because I couldn't bring myself to cope with the cottage's coffee maker. These musubi were not as transcendent as the ones we used to get on the south shore, being much less teriyakied, but they were still pretty good and I have to tell you that rice+nori+spam is one of my very favorite ways to start a day. Any rice ball with filling, really, will do the job, but there is a beautiful everyday poetry to what spam becomes in this context. Just make sure you buy them before 10am (before 9am on a weekend) or they're gone for the day.

Spam musubis

We tried out the Korean BBQ place just north of Wailua, and found it to be pretty good, not the sort of traditional Korean food we're used to but a distinct island-flavored variant. There was macaroni salad, though it was hard to find any actual macaroni amid the potato and mayo. There was also something called meat jun, which is thin slices dipped in egg and pan fried. The kalbi was a bit sweeter than I'm used to. It was all tasty and tallasiandude had a butterfish with stir-fried vegetables that really hit the spot. My combo plate also had a very nice fried mandoo and some tempura shrimp that were crispy enough but not the freshest shrimps ever.

korean combo plate

I got some ahi-limu poke and spicy ahi poke at Dolphin Fish Market in Hanalei, and some tako (octopus) kimchi poke at the Foodland in Princeville. The tako was tangy and good, and the ahi pokes were also good but had a weird whiff of chlorine about them. Not sure what to make of that.

poke: ahi with limu, spicy ahi, tako kimchi

One day we were surfing later than usual and were too hungry to go off looking for a restaurant, so we took Nephi's advice and got kalua pig tacos from Pat's Taqueria truck parked near the beach at Hanalei Pier. Damn, that's a hell of a taco. Moist smoky pork shreds (theoretically baked in a pit but I don't care if he used a crock pot, that shit's delicious) with some cabbage and tomatillo salsa and guacamole on a couple of corn tortillas. Life does not get better than eating one of these on a surfing beach with a cold guava nectar or passionfruit orange drink.

kalua tacos from Pat's Taqueria truck

We got some shave ice at Wishing Well's truck in Hanalei. Tallasiandude tried some condensed milk on top of his here instead of ice cream, which was nice but I think if I am going for a dairy experience with my ice I'd rather have the ice cream. Wishing Well had really good mac nut ice cream, and we enjoyed our treats, though I think that some of their syrups taste a little fake. I think I had liliko'i + coconut + li hing this time, and the coconut was what really seemed chemically to me, especially when compared with some other shave ice we had on the trip (*cough* Aoki's *cough*). But that's a different post.

Wishing Well Shave Ice

Posted by foodnerd at 12:18 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2009

blackbird FTW

There is clearly balance in the universe, because to make up for last night's astoundingly, embarrassingly bad dinner, Blackbird just served me one of the most successful dishes I have ever eaten.

I walked over there from the hotel -- I almost didn't even go for dinner because by 8:30 I had only the barest imaginings of hunger after the yummy carne asada plate I had for lunch at Perez (wooooo!). I had what seems to be my usual table, 4 or 5 in from the window along the wall, and I had a very congenial waiter, willing to indulge my nerdy questions and goofy enthusiasm.

The amuse-bouche was half a shrimp, topped with a mix of queso fresco and chives, in a very mild cilantro cream and topped with a fried shaving of trumpet mushroom. I liked the mushroom, and could happily eat them by the handful if they were sold as a snack, and the shrimp and toppings were good too, if not as exciting as some amuses I have had at Blackbird.

amuse bouche of shrimp, queso fresco, trumpet mushroom

My starter was a duck tartare with dried strawberries, A1, and tater tots. I think there was supposed to be celery but I didn't notice any. Apparently they cook the duck at 104F for 4 hours, then mix it with a duck-skin aioli, which gives it a creamy effect so it sticks together like real tartare. The A1 sauce was gelatinized so it would not pool out on the plate, but rather stand up in little piles. There were reconstituted dried strawberries and freeze-dried pink strawberry shards, 3 tater-tot cubes, and a strewing of microgreens. (For some reason, the mania for garnishing with microgreens bothers me not at all, while the 90s-esque garnishing of plate edges with chopped whatever makes me homicidal. Go figure.) This dish sounded so off the wall that it had potential to be awesome, and who can resist a tater tot?

duck tartare with dried strawberries and tater tots

The tots were indeed excellent, and the duck was delicious alone and with the strawberries, and with very small bits of the A1. Too much A1 nuked the taste of the duck, but carefully deployed it did work with the flavors of the rest of the dish.

But it was the rabbit and turnips that really blew the doors off. It was billed as roast rabbit with blood sausage, baby turnip, sourdough, pickled ramps and mustard. Very nice for spring, delicious when well executed, and just the thing for me, who LOVES turnips and ramps. Sounds like a straightforward Germanic-American sort of dish, yes?

And so it seemed at first glance, and even at first bite. The turnips were shaved on a mandoline and served with a braise of their greens. The mustard was presented as a dried, crispy tuile stuck into the slices of rabbit. But then I noticed that the microgreen garnish, which had been innocuously flavorless on the duck, was in this case micro-shiso, giving a distinctive floral twist to things. And then I noticed that the exquisitely delicious sauce soaking the bread had a familiar flavor to it... something I'd eaten recently... and then I realized the sauce was based on dashi. And then it all fell into place: shiso, dashi, turnips, pickles, mustard -- all of these are iconic Japanese ingredients, even while turnips and mustard and pickles are also standard mittel-european ingredients. The whole thing had been reimagined as a Japanese-flavored dish.

roast rabbit with shiso, turnip, pickled ramps, mustard tuile and blood sausage

And it was perfectly done. Every bite was delicious, every combination of flavors worked, everything serving together to create a perfect, harmonious whole, made just that much better by the wit of the presentation and the genius of the idea.

I was so giddy over this that I ended up ordering dessert too. I'd been tempted by the pear-cider donuts with hazelnut ice cream, and distracted by a pineapple-rhubarb sorbet with dark-chocolate hazelnuts, but I got talked into the banana cremeux with Gosling's rum/milk chocolate and molasses ice cream and a few bits of crisp-caramelized banana. I didn't regret it.

banana cremeux with rum and molasses ice cream

(yes, that is dill as the garnish, and no, it didn't work with the flavors. i tried, but it just looked pretty.)

Posted by foodnerd at 11:05 PM | Comments (1)

April 20, 2009

Dine (NOT)

There are LOTS of Hawai'i posts to come, because we ate a ton of good stuff out there. But tonight I am in Chicago, having flown directly here from the islands for work, and I was too tired to go out for dinner -- and I KNOW I'll be eating at Perez at least once for lunch this week, so even walking three blocks didn't seem strictly necessary, and I figured I'd try out Dine, the 1940's-brasserie style restaurant here in the hotel Crowne Plaza at Madison and Halsted.


OMG, I haven't had a restaurant meal this bad in years. YEARS. Shudder. I am eating Trader Joe salty chocolate almonds right now to get the taste of old, stale, jarred garlic out of my tongue.

Breadbasket consisted of a pretzel roll and a sesame roll, which seemed promising, but they were both pretty bland and probably either parbaked or industrially sourced. Oniony butter wasn't too bad. Both were about what I was expecting, to be honest, and so I wasn't prepared for the next two dishes.

A roasted asparagus salad with shaved parmesan and a roasted-garlic lemon sauce had nice enough asparagus, fresh and tender and not too charred, and a boatload of cheese and chives, but the sauce was somehow off. I couldn't quite place it, but it tasted funny and detracted from the otherwise perfectly acceptable asparagus and cheese. In retrospect it was probably the garlic...

...because the second dish had the same problem, 10 times worse. A tepid, faintly gelatinous braised veal cheek without much flavor was on a bed of "caramelized cauliflower puree" -- which should be delicious -- that was so nasty I couldn't bring myself to eat it. Not only was it reekingly sharp with the stale jarred garlic flavor, but it was strangely pasty and runny at the same time, overprocessed to a deranged smoothness. There was a "parmesan broth" that didn't manage to make much of a dent in the overall effect of EEEEEW.

I finished the salad, leaving as much sauce behind as possible (and those of you who know me know that i will lick sauce from plates at the least provocation), and I finished the veal but couldn't do more than a few forkfuls of the cauliflower, and that honestly only to make sure I'd accurately identified the nature of the ick.

Good grief. This place has been open well over a year, I can't imagine how they can still be this far beyond the pale. At 7:15pm on a Monday, the place was deserted, and the handful of diners were all hotel guests from what I could overhear. No wonder, really, given that Chicago has plenty of good restaurants and lots of them even within walking distance -- but I figured at worst I'd be getting a pedestrian but adequate meal, not the unmitigated horror that arrived. How can it stay open?

Posted by foodnerd at 09:12 PM | Comments (1)

April 06, 2009

san diego taco time

The first leg of our whirlwind vacation was the originally planned trip to San Diego for the Balboa Rendezvous. It's pretty awesome to dance in an old ballroom with a few dozen of the original dancers from the 30s and 40s hanging around watching, knocking back cocktails, and dancing themselves. We danced, we learned, we have very sore feet now.

We also ate a lot of tacos.

We didn't really know the city and we really didn't know what was good nor did we have much time to find out. And we didn't want to eat big heavy meals right before jumping on the dance floor. So we went with Adalberto's Mexican Food, on the highway en route, which looked appropriately open and divey. Everything was good, though the horchata was almost certainly out of a bottle or a mix, but the carnitas taco was a treat. They just scoop out refrigerated carnitas straight onto the griddle and ladle over a little oil... and it comes out succulent and crispy, ahhhh. And the taco is huge, full of pico de gallo and lots of unexpected guacamole and overflowing with meat. The adobada is also worth a try, in a taco or a torta. Yums. Cheap, fast, yummy and open late.

The last afternoon we had a little free time, and I finally remembered that San Diego is famous for FISH tacos, which I love when properly executed. So we did a little googly-moogly and found a recommended place not too far from our hotel.

El Zarape is right smack in the middle of a gentrified strip of University Heights, but fear not, them fishy tacos were very very tasty. The scallop taco was OK, interesting and good once you put on a bunch of lime juice, but the fish taco is for sure the draw. Super-crispy batter fried fish with shreds of cabbage and a light creamy sauce. Stays crunchy till the very end! Excellent alone, or with a spritz of the lime, or with a li'l droplet of the avocado-cilantro salsa. That salsa was awesome, and I drank the last bit out right out of the cup when I ran out of things to dip into it. Don't bother with a plate meal, the rice and beans are meh at best -- get chips and guacamole and as many fish tacos as you feel like eating. Just the ticket to fuel a drive up to Balboa Peninsula and a night of dancing to one of the best swing jazz bands in the land. Wheeeee!

(pictures coming -- i left the cable in the car and we won't have intertubes while on kauai... i'll post 'em as soon as i can!)

Posted by foodnerd at 04:00 PM | Comments (0)