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Friday, June 27, 2008

I got nothin'

I went away for a week to the Raleigh-Durham area and suffered one of my periodic restaurant burnouts. There were dozens of terrific restaurants waiting for me just 20 minutes up I-40 in Raleigh but I just didn't have the energy. Maybe it was the pressure of choosing.

Some of the places on my list were:

The Irregardless Cafe - An irreverent long-time Raleigh classic using fresh local organic ingredients.

ShabaShabu - A trendy Thai/Japanese place that serves Shabu Shabu-style meat and veggies.

An Cuisines - An upscale Vietnamese place infused with European traditions.

Jibarra - A trendy Mexican place that serves ceviche, duck tostadas, rabbit taquitos and Mexican-influenced terrine of foie gras among other delicious things. I probably regret not going here the most.

Dalat - A Vietnamese place with more menu items than animals on the Ark.

Tuesday and Thursday nights I just went next door to the Food Lion and bought stuff like baby spinach and prosciutto and fresh mozzarella with grape tomatoes (leave it to a grocery chain in the south to put parsley in their caprese salad instead of basil) and made dinner in my hotel room.

I did however have the third best burger I've had all year after the Led Zeppelin at Kuma's Corner and the Christian's Bisro Kobe burger with bacon and swiss at the Cleveland Draft House, a sport bar-type place in Garner, NC, with an amazing selection of microbrews I've never heard of on tap.

I walked from my hotel to the Draft House on Wednesday night since all pints were $2.50, even the $5 stuff. After an IPA (Foothills) from Winston-Salem and an amber ale (Red Oak) from Greensboro I ordered the Hurricane burger. Whether it was named after the local hockey team or the annual weather systems that sometimes strike North Carolina doesn't matter. This was an 8 oz. burger topped with American cheese, chili and pickles. Delicious but nothing special, right?

The thing that made this burger outstanding was that it was actually served to me medium rare, just like I ordered. That is exceedingly rare. Even Kuma's overcooked my burger to medium. When a restaurant pays this much attention to its burger cookery, it has something going for it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Amigos lunch specials

Today I went to work without lunch since I had pretty much no food to speak of in my house, especially food that is somewhat portable that can survive in my circa 1980's cooler with a homemade ice pack for several hours. Lunch time still came and I was starving. I recalled that Amigos had cheap lunch specials and headed there with the three bucks I figured I could afford to spend.

The Wednesday special is 2 soft tacos for $2.49 or one Deluxe burger for $1.99. How about a latte for $1.49 or three glazed donuts for $1.59 since the Amigos near my work is now fully Kopeli-ized and Winchell-ized? Maybe coming soon as Amigos continues to try and make itself relevant in a far different market than it saw 10 years ago.

I ordered the two soft tacos which I figured would be just enough to fill me up until I went home early to clean gutters and hang drywall. Probably one soft taco would have been enough, but one is $1.84 so why not get two at those prices? Maybe I've never ordered a soft taco at Amigos or maybe they're bigger than I remembered. I'm talking soft pinto burrito-sized in girth and weight stuffed with ground beef, cheese, tomatoes (Amigos claims their supplier is from Florida and clean) and that damn hot lettuce.

Hot lettuce is probably my biggest food pet peeve and Amigos is the biggest offender. I used to like getting soft chicken tacos from there before they became as precious as gold price-wise (just goes to show how much more costly canned diced chicken is than really cheap ground beef) and they always nuked the things to near surface of the sun-like temperatures with lettuce in them. Getting a tongue burn from a piece of searing ice berg lettuce is no picnic. Plus, the hot lettuce has a taste that now reminds me of Amigos just like Subway sandwiches, no matter how hard they try with the toaster, still have this flavor that can only be described as Subway, and it's not a great flavor.

Luckily I was dining in so I had the Amigos ranch bar at my full disposal. Dousing the hot lettuce with ranch, salsa, pico and scorching cheese sauce (is there an ingredient in that stuff that raises the boiling point to 300°?) served to mitigate the hot lettuce taste but it also meant I couldn't finish both tacos so disgusted I was with myself. I once saw a man in the UNL Student Union drinking(!) the Amigos ranch from its little plastic cup. I don't want to be that guy.

The point of all this is this: Ask for no lettuce on anything described as "soft" at Amigos.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Metal Meat goes West Coast

My visit to Kuma's Korner this past weekend has garnered the attention of the famous pork snorklers at 3 Bulls!. More talk of Goblin Cock at Delish or Degust.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More Chicago Food: Lula Cafe

You can get this stuff in probably dozens of places around Chicago but the few times I've eaten at Lula Cafe have never given me a reason to try someplace else. Plus, it's just a few blocks from my friends' place and they use as much locally grown and raised food as they can.

I had the Moroccan Chickpea Sweet Potato Tagine. Maybe a little heavy on the cinnamon but refreshingly light after the Led Zeppelin from the night before. The arugula was especially peppery and crisp.

My friend had one of the brunch specials, smoked housemade kielbasa hash with sunny side eggs and baby mustard green salad. The Kielbasa was some of the best I've had but I've really only had the Hickory Farms ring kielbasa so what do I know? All I can say is, that Kielbasa sausage performed. The baby mustard greens were amazing.

Chicago: Kuma's Korner

Ever since I was in Chicago last summer for the Pitchfork Music Festival I've been wanting to go to this place and I finally made it this weekend. Kuma's Korner is a heavy metal burger place that serves great beer and terrific food and seems to me like the burger equivalent of Hot Doug's. The place is rather small and has a tiny kitchen so the wait on a Friday night can be long, like an hour or so, but you can easily pass the time enjoying a beer and checking out the decor, both on the walls and on the workers and patrons.

I went on a Friday evening with three friends and we were seated in about 45 minutes. The pressure was on. All the burgers are named after heavy metal bands and they all sounded delicious from the Pantera (Roasted Pablano Pepper, Bacon, Cheddar Cheese and Monetary Jack Cheese Ranchero Sauce and Tortilla Strips) to the Lair of the Minotaur (Caramelized Onions, Pancetta, Brie, Bourbon Soaked Pears) and everything in between.

One of my friends has a punch card that he has to fill out by eating a different burger every time he goes. He went with the Yob (Smoked Gouda, Bacon, Roasted Red Peppers, Roasted Garlic Mayo).

Another of my friends ordered the special, the Acid Bath, featuring a 10 oz. burger topped with crawfish, jambalaya and shallot mayo (Acid Bath was a metal band from New Orleans in the early to mid 90's). Unfortunately I do not have a photo of this burger. The gentleman sitting next to me, widely known as a finicky regimented eater, ordered his burger plain with onions and pickles. The lack of mustard packets at Kuma's Korner did not seem to faze him, however.

I spent at least 15 minutes agonizing over my decision, even considering the Goblin Cock (Bacon, Cheddar Cheese, ┬╝lb. Vienna Hot Dog, Tomatoes, Onion, Neon Green Relish, Sport Peppers, Pickles, Celery Salt Mustard), basically a Chicago-style dog on top of a burger but finally went with a classic, the Led Zeppelin (Pulled Pork, Bacon, Cheddar, Pickles). There's really nothing like topping a huge burger with two pork products. Later this same evening I finally figured out how to get my new camera to take good pics in dim lighting without using a flash but it was too late to really show the Led Zep in all its glory.

You can also get one of these heavy metal delicacies made with a chicken breast, a Garden burger or chicken strips. In any case, they all come served on a delicious pretzel roll. I need to find where I can buy these things. They are GOOD.

If burgers aren't your thing, word has it the steamed mussels are amazing and the mac and cheese sounds terrific as well. The main thing is, don't let the dark interior or artwork on the servers scare you. The staff was very friendly and helpful and the burger was probably the best I've ever had.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dinner: Sushi Thaime

Tako Su - Marinated octopus, seaweed, ginger and cucumber. Delicious.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lunch: Pikante

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday cookery

Thanks to my diligent use of my debit card as a Visa I found myself with a $250 Best Buy gift card which I blew on a new camera. What this means is the self-indulgent food photography index of this blog is about to go through the roof. I'm still learning how to get the new camera to do what I want it to do so some of these photos of my late Sunday lunch aren't as nice as I was hoping.

I started out with a wet rub of two finely chopped ancho chilis, the juice of half a lime, a teaspoon of kosher salt and a half teaspoon of garlic powder. The ancho wasn't quite dry enough when I chopped it last night so I let it dry overnight then gave it another good chop before making the paste. Next time I'll go a little lighter on the lime juice, too. The rub was a bit tart for my liking.

I then generously applied the rub to both sides of a couple of thin turkey breast cutlets. Why turkey breast cutlets? Well, I hadn't cooked meat at home for a long time so when I went to the store on Friday I was thinking pork chops but then these little things caught my eye. I guess they kind of look like pork chops.

While the cutlets were hanging out in the fridge post-rub I got to preparing one of my sides. I've been reading books about chefs lately so I decided to get kind of fancy with this preparation. I had an avocado and an Ataulfo mango that were about the same size. I diced the mango while keeping one half of the peel intact. While I was letting the mango macerate in a little lime juice, a pinch of salt and a half-teaspoon of sugar I sliced the avocado in half and removed the pit. I put one half aside and seared the other half on high heat in my cast-iron skillet for about a minute. The fat content kept the avocado from sticking but it got a nice caramelization. I then removed that half avocado from its skin, slid it into the mango peel and filled the pit cavity with the diced mango.

Then I seared the cutlets on very high heat for about a minute on each side. Since the cutlets were so thin this was enough to cook them to a safe internal temperature without drying them out. I then sliced the other half of the avocado and put those slices between the two cutlets.

The finished plate, avomango and ancho-lime seared turkey cutlets with avocado served with some spicy cole slaw I made a couple of nights ago, and the magazine close up are below.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

FOX Neighborhood Bar and Grill

FOX or F*O*X (I'm not sure whether to pronouce it "fox" or "eff oh ex") Neighborhood Bar & Grill recently opened in the space formerly occupied by Slapshotz way down south off of 14th street just south of Pine Lake. The address is officially 1245 Libra Drive. Fox is probably appropriate since they are affiliated with the grand old Red Fox out on West O.

I'd been to Slapshotz a few times after work last year. When Slapshotz opened they were proudly smoke free and then the Lincoln smoking ban went into effect so the purpose of Slapshotz was moot. They hung around for awhile but of all the places claiming the smoking ban as their downfall, Slapshotz probably has the best case.

Well, that and the fact that the interior of Slapshotz was like a machine shed or small airplane hangar. And they didn't do much on Friday afternoons to get people to show up.

I had a late lunch at FOX on Friday. I was amazed by what they had done to the interior. The aircraft hangar atmosphere has been replaced by something approaching cozy thanks to a big false ceiling made of exposed timber. Putting in real booths was also helpful. Just breaking up the space made a big difference because the previous place was just full of random tables.

I stopped in on Friday for a late lunch, late enough that happy hour was just about to start. The two guys who came in after me had beers served in 32 oz. glass chalices. They also enthusiastically shot tiny hoops at the machines there. Too bad I had another four hours to work.

I ordered the cheesesteak with everything which had a catchy name I can't remember. It had onions, peppers, mushrooms, jalapeños, and diced tomatoes on it. I've eaten plenty of cheesesteaks in Lincoln and this one was close to the best since Chartroose Caboose. I've also eaten plenty of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia and the leg up that that the really good cheesesteak places in Philly has is the grill and the cheese and experience.

The cheesesteak I had at FOX was better than what I've had in Lincoln because the cheese was melted into the meat so much that each bite was meaty and cheesy. The fries with my sandwich were the batter-dipped type like you get at Amigos.

The menu was basic sports bar stuff but it had a few unsuspected things like shrimp scampi as an appetizer, probably due to FOX's affiliation with the Red Fox.

FOX, if you live in the SW part of Lincoln, might be a cool place to hang. Being within walking distance of where I work, it's a good option for lunch and Friday evenings.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Tomatoes? or just another member of the deadly Nightshade family?

I'd heard a little about the new salmonella outbreak earlier this week but nothing that gave me pause. Apparently tomatoes have stricken across at least 11 states and hit hard in Texas.

I talked to my friend at the USDA tonight and she told me a small batch of Mexican tomatoes imported into Texas were the culprit. The bad thing is, no one knows what type of tomato or from what producer. She sees this as a really, really bad year for tomatoes. Produce wholesalers in Texas have been getting their tomato shipments sent back out of fear. The sandwich shops in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have already stopped putting tomatoes on their products.

If you have a garden or a few tomato plants in pots, enjoy. It looks like I'll be on canned tomatoes for awhile.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Making of a Chef

You might have seen Michael Ruhlman on both of Anthony Bourdain's teevee shows, A Cook's Tour and No Reservations and you might have seen his most recent book The Elements of Cooking, patterned on the The Elements of Style. Years before all of this, he, as a fledging writer and journalist, made his way into the Culinary Institute of America determined to not just write about it but experience it as a student. The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute was the result.

A friend of mine loaned me the book last week and I just finished it up tonight. Just skimming it, I thought it would be a quick read; guy goes to cooking school and writes about it. It can be a fast read if you want it to be that way but there was so much information packed into it, especially in his opening chapters on the Skills class and later in the Baking, Garde Mange and service chapters, that I spent a lot of time digesting what he was learning.

It wasn't just the methods and techniques but the chemistry and physics involved that made me read slower than I normally would. It sort of felt like I was reading an abbreviated graduate course for Alton Brown scholars.

Parts of the book were less interesting, like when he was flying through numerous courses without having time to record much detail. Those are the chapters that flew by faster for me.

What this book has really done for me is gotten me excited about cooking again after about a year of not caring about it as long is it was cheap, easy and filled me up. For so long I've cooked with the notion that one pot was enough because I didn't want to have to clean the dishes and the kitchen that same night. Now I don't care. I'll do those dishes and wipe down the counters at night or in the morning before work if it means I had a terrific meal I made myself. Cooking something that you've put your care, love, taste and yourself into is worth the trouble.

Ruhlman has written a ton of books on cooking, but not necessarily cookbooks, since this one came out. I'm hoping the public library has those available so I can take them with me to Chicago next week.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Has anyone else noticed the small, yellow, wrinkled mangoes in stores recently? I did and called my friend who monitors mango, lime and watermelon imports from Mexico for the USDA to get the scoop. She proceeded to give me a 10-minute dissertation on Ataulfo mangoes and why they're awesome. They have almost no fibrous texture, the seed pit is tiny and they are sweeter and juicier than the big red mangoes we're used to. They aren't ripe until they're all wrinkly so don't let their ugliness put you off. I picked up a couple and they were so easy to chop up and eat. Apparently it's also common to just cut the top off and squeeze all the juice out. Best mango I've had in a long time.