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Monthly Archives: November 2006

Hometown Cooking

MusselsMy plane from O’Hare landed in Portland at 10:40 am on Thanksgiving morning. I found the car (actually the big white truck we use to transport things to our family motel) that my mom and sister had left at the airport for me and drove straight to Cannon Beach.

We have a big family home on the quieter North end of the beach, which my grandpa used to visit with his siblings and parents as a child. One year his mother purchased it without telling her husband, and it’s been my family’s pride and joy ever since.

Our Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by my Mango Mama and my sister Flava Flav, was awesome, but then, so are most meals we eat at the beach. I guess it’s because all of the wonderful cooks in my family are relaxed when they come here and like to spend extra time on the meals. Nearly all the meals I’ve eaten at the beach have been home-cooked, in part because of this love of cooking, but also because there are no worthwhile restaurants in town.

One exception is Sleepy Monk Coffee, a wonderful roaster and coffeehouse, owned by our beach neighbors, Victor and Jane. My family members have spent countless lazy afternoons sampling the different blends and chatting with Victor and Jane as we waited for our coffee to be measured and weighed. Visitors can watch Victor roasting the organic, fair-trade beans through a glass window. Jane makes some of the most beautiful lattes I’ve seen, in addition to delicious muffins and breads. A top-notch coffee shop like this one is a rare find, especially in a small seaside town.

Another worthy spot is Seashore Bagels, just across the main drag from Sleepy Monk. These guys make the best bagels I’ve purchased in Oregon. That’s not saying much considering the bready, puffy, weak-excuses-for-bagels most often available here. But these are indeed exceptional. Their dense, chewy consistency is a result of the fact that they’re boiled in the manner of traditional bagels instead of being baked like regular bread as many of the “fagels” are prepared. The downside to Seashore Bagels is its inconvenient hours and its severely limited supply. The shop opens at 10 a.m., a late hour for any place vending breakfast staples. My dad (Daddy Salmon) has also been turned away many a morning when he wanted more than a dozen bagels, as the person behind the counter protested that there would be none left for the other customers.

Burgerville InteriorOn the way home from the beach on Sunday, Daddy Salmon, Flava Flav and I stopped off at the vaunted Northwest fast food chain, Burgerville, for some sweet potato fries. Burgerville is at 39-restaurant chain in the Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington. It runs on wind power, recycles its oil into biodiesel and provides all its employees with comprehensive healthcare. Burgerville’s menu uses all local, sustainably grown ingredients, including fresh Country Natural beef. In addition to the Tillamook Cheeseburger and other beefy standards, menu items include halibut fish and chips, a smoked salmon salad and some of the best milkshakes (made with fresh fruit) available in the Portland area. There is also a changing seasonal menu, featuring fresh strawberry shortcake, Walla Walla onion rings and this season’s specials, the pumpkin milkshake and the sweet potato fries.

Sweet Potato FriesThe sweet potato fries come in a large cup and are enough to make a lunch all on their own. They are earthy and deep in flavor with only very light oil and the perfect amount of salt. The larger ones are rich and filling, and the smaller are delightfully crispy. There is no need for ketchup or anything else on these fries. If anything, I might try mustard or vinegar to offset their sweetness. Flava Flav and I shared one order. It was the perfect snack.

That night my parents, my grandma (Trader Joanna), my sister and I met up with our good friends Brownie Benefactress and Mr. Slow Food and Empanada Boy’s twin sister and brother-in-law, Sushi Sister and Croque Monsieur. We dined at the Savoy Tavern & Bistro, a hipster hangout and cheap eats destination on Portland’s Southeast side. This was my first time visiting, but Mango Mama, ever the hipster, had brought Flava and Daddy Salmon there before.

The restaurant started off on the wrong foot by failing to listen to its voice mail where I had followed instructions and left my reservation for our large party. There would still be room for us, we were assured. We sat at a low table near the window of the dimly lit room while we waited for a few parties of smartly clad diners to clear out and leave. The decor here is simple with mid-century furniture and walls hung with mirrors and painted an orangish-brown

Cheese CurdsWhen we did sit down, about 20 minutes later, we ordered a couple bottles of a nice Rioja ($36 a piece). The wine prices here are a little more expensive than the menu, with most prices falling in the $30-$38 a bottle range. All entrees are priced at or below $12.

It was quickly apparent from the fried cheese curds at the top of the menu that the Savoy is owned by a Wisconsinite. (I can’t escape them!) We shared a couple orders of those, which arrived in footed metal dishes with silver skewers for stabbing the curds. Sushi Sister and Croque Monsieur, the two with the most cheese curd experience agreed with me that these were a fairly standard variety— chewy and warm on the inside and crisply fried on the outside. Next came some nice fresh butter lettuce salads for those who had ordered them. I tried some of Flava’s, and it seemed tasty enough.

Our entrees took a while to come— do not come here if you want fast service— but they eventually arrived. The entrees listed under the top part of the menu come with two sides, such as mac and cheese, polenta, salad or greens. I ordered the mussels (see top photo), which came in a garlicky broth with toasted garlicky bread. Mussels are a favorite of mine, but these were the large meaty variety native to Oregon, and I think I prefer the smaller French ones for the moules marineres preparation.

SteakI tried some of Flava’s mac and cheese and some of Sushi Sister’s meatloaf, neither of which was very inspiring. Both the meatloaf and polenta cake on Sushi Sister’s plate were oddly tiny portions. I think my favorite of the other entrees was the flat-iron steak, which Mango Mama and Croque Monsieur ordered. Mango Mama’s was a nice, tender medium rare. She got a side of crispy fries and some tasty greens. It was fried chicken night, but all the fried chicken was at the other end of the table, so I never tried a bite. Mango Mama said it was just so-so.

For dessert we ordered the tiramisu, the pumpkin pie and the cherry pie. The pumkin pie was very basic and nothing special, but I liked the light and flavorful tiramisu, which came in a mini loaf pan and was enough to share with everyone. I also enjoyed the cherry pie— a nice Wisconsin touch. It was more tart and lively than the cherry pie I tasted at the White Gull Inn.

Savoy Tavern was enjoyable, with hearty food and very decent prices, but with so many wonderful Portland restaurants, I don’t think I’ll be going back again in the very near future. All in all, though, it was great to be back in the Northwest for the weekend— both for good food and for relaxing family time.

Sleepy Monk Coffee
1235 S. Hemlock
Cannon Beach, OR 97110

Seashore Bagels
1188 S. Hemlock
Cannon Beach, OR 97110

Burgerville (various locations)
9385 SW Allen Blvd
Beaverton, OR 97005

Savoy Tavern & Bistro
2500 SE Clinton
Portland, OR 97202

When no bread doesn’t mean low-carb

In the wake of the Atkins craze, I’ve come to associate the concept of a breadless sandwich with a misguided low-carb trend. Not so with the jibarito. Not only is this sandwich, which replaces bread with flattened fried plantains, a brilliant invention, it is also anything but low in carbohydrates.

The jibarito (translation: “hillbilly”) is an invention of Juan “Peter” C. Figueroa, a Puerto Rican who lives in Chicago. They can be found on the menus of a number of different restaurants in the city. A firm green plantain is swiftly flattened with a press, fried twice and brushed with oil and garlic. It is then lined with mayonaise, iceburg lettuce, tomato and a slice of American cheese. Next comes the meat, either pork, chicken or steak. There is also a vegetarian version, but I’m not sure what comes inside.

Outside Borinquen LoungeAs luck would have it, Figueroa also owns a restaurant, Borinquen, which specializes in the dish. Fomerly located only in the largely Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, it has expanded recently, thanks in large part to the popularity of the jibarito. Now there are three restaurants, including Borinquen Lounge in North Center, which Empanada Boy and I visited as part of day two of my birthday celebration.

The “lounge” descriptor is well placed in this case. The front half of the dim wood panelled restaurant is dominated by a bar with a TV playing sporting events. There are a few table here, but most are concentrated in a raised seating area in the back. The walls in the dining area are coated in mirrors, and fake red and white flowers sit in vases on the tables. The laminated menu doubles as a placemat.

Despite the lounge feel, there aren’t many choices when it comes to alcohol. Empanada Boy and I ordered beers: Negra Modelo and Modelo Especial, respectively. The menu is full of Puerto Rican dishes that may be featured in a future Mango Lassie post, but we came for the jibaritos. We both ordered steak (only $5.95 each!). A basket filled with slices of airy white bread and butter was placed on the table to keep us sated.

Jibarito at BorinquenI was so excited to eat when the food arrived that it was hard for me to wait long enough to take these pictures before digging in. The sandwiches were truly amazing, much better than the ones I had tasted at Sabor a Cuba. I normally don’t like American cheese, but it served an important purpose here of adding a creamy touch to the flavorful meat. Most importantly, the plantains were wonderfully crispy and coated in a heavenly sheen of oil and garlic. It was that garlic, we both decided, that made these so good. It livened up the meat and when combined with the mayonaise on the palate tasted almost like the creamy yogurt sauce in a gyro.

The sandwiches came with yellow rice and pigeon peas, another Puerto Rican standard. At Borinquen, this rice is closer to orange. It has cured ham in it, in addition to the pigeon peas and a few flecks of green pepper. We asked the waitress what made the rice orange, and she went to the kitchen and brought us a package of Goya seasoning. No ingredients were listed on the packet, but it includes chili powder and cilantro. Traditionally, the dish has annatto oil, made from annatto seeds, which turn the oil red when cooked. This version may have turmeric and possibly some food coloring too. Nonetheless, it was delicious.

Borinquen is a great place to come for a hearty lunch or dinner that reflects the essential spirit of Puerto Rican cuisine. Even in North Center, nearly all patrons are puertoriqueños, which is a good sign.

Borinquen Lounge (various locations)
3811 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60618

Burgers and Custard: The Unkosher Wisconsin

Phallic decor at Elsa'sIn the (almost) year since I started dating a Wisconsinite, I have learned that Wisconsin culinary specialties go beyond cheese. There’s the beer-boiled brat, the Friday fish fry and the wild rice fixation, to name a few. Among the more sinful Wisconsin delicacies is the butter burger, a thin patty, served on a bun that is literally dripping with butter. The great thing about Wisconsin is that it’s real butter, not margarine or some other partially hydrogenated concoction. This is the dairy state, and they do things right.

With that introduction, you might think I am about to recount a decadent butter burger encounter. I am not. When Empanada Boy and I went to Milwaukee yesterday, we planned to stop at Solly’s Grille, an acclaimed butter burger spot. But when we got through with the lengthy matinee we had come up to see, it was already 7:15 pm. Solly’s closes at 8 pm.

We decided instead to take a recommendation from some friends of EB’s parents who had been sitting next to us at the play. They told us to check out Elsa’s on the Park, another burger joint, although these weren’t the butter variety. When I called Elsa’s to ask how late they were open, and the woman who answered said, “until 2 a.m.”

Interior of Elsa's That should have tipped me off to the fact that Elsa’s isn’t your typical burger joint. We drove right by it once, thinking it looked too much like a hip bar to be what we thought we were looking for. In fact, Elsa’s is a hip bar with irregularly cut glass bricks refracting beams of light on either side of the door and shimmery phallic statues in each of the front windows. Bartenders dressed in white whip up designer cocktails along one wall, and the walls are hung with brightly colored modern collages. Empanada Boy and I felt more than a little uncool compared to the young jet-setters of Milwaukee who packed the restaurant on that Saturday night, but we are cool enough for each other, and that was all that mattered.

Caipirinha at Elsa'sIt took a while for us to secure seats outside the smoking lounge, so we sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. EB had a beer (in a bottle as none are on tap), and I ordered a Caipirinha. Instead of adding sugar syrup to my drink, the bartender stuck in a piece of pink rock candy on a stir stick. The result was a drop-deadly strong drink. Luckily the sugar dissolved quickly, and it became quite pleasant.

When we were seated, we ordered our burgers. Ever the unconventional one, Empanada Boy ordered the Daisy Mae burger, featuring lemon-marinated turnip, radish and cucumber. Staying true to my heritage, I ordered the white-wine marinated Greek Maiden with feta, olives, mint and red onion.

Burger at Elsa's on the ParkThe massive burgers (over 1/2 lb.) were served in elegant silver dishes with waffle-cut fries, a pickle and a few assorted fruits and vegetables. The beef was good, but nothing spectacular, although both were cooked a perfect medium rare as ordered. EB’s was a nice surprise. The acidic crispiness of the lemony extras added some nice texture and cut through the richness of the meat. My choice was something of a disappointment, making me wish I had ordered a plain burger. The feta was fine, although a little overwhelming in its saltiness. The olives were plain black ones from a can, not the kalamatas any true Greek maiden would expect. I also couldn’t taste any of the mint that was allegedly there. The fries were decent, and hey, burgers are burgers, and these were not bad.

After stuffing ourselves at Elsa’s, we could think of nothing more suitable than to stuff ourselves even more, but taking a detour to Kopp’s Frozen Custard for another Wisconsin specialty.

Despite its suburban strip location, there is an enclosed patio with a majestically-lit waterfall outside the Kopp’s we visited. EB and I heard a teenage girl coming out of the restaurant saying, in all earnestness, that she loved the spot so much that she planned to get married there. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m sure a fair number of first kisses happen on summer nights by the falls. The interior is like a large industrial kitchen with high school-aged staff dressed in white and a clean metallic look to the fountain and grill preparation zones. Customers stand at small round tables, eating custard and burgers.

Smile sundae at Kopp'sThe first time I tried frozen custard, I assumed it was the same thing as soft serve, but it’s actually a bit different. Frozen custard has egg yolk in it, making it richer and creamier. EB and I decided to share “The Smile,” a sundae made by chocolate coating the dish, then adding three scoops of vanilla custard, some caramel and marshmallow, more chocolate and some large peanuts. It was tasty, but not as good as other frozen custard combinations I’ve tried. Again, I found myself wishing I had just ordered a plain cone of custard. Most of all, I found myself so full I could barely move out to the car.

I tried to sleep off the uncomfortable fullness as the valiant Empanada Boy drove us all the way back home.

Elsa’s On the Park
833 N. Jefferson St.
Milwaukee, WI 53202

Kopp’s Frozen Custard (various locations)
7631 W. Layton Ave.
Greenfield, WI 53220

They don’t call it “Uno” for nothing

Deep Dish Spinach PizzaMy sister, Flava Flav, came from L.A. to visit me for the weekend. It being her first time in the Windy City, I felt it my sisterly duty to introduce her to some of Chicago’s signature fare. On the menu: deep dish pizza.

Now, introducing a unique regional dish or cuisine to an inexperienced diner is a fine art. You can’t talk up the food too much before they try it; the food should speak for itself. You also can’t make excuses for unique characteristics of the food or the establishment. Finally, and most importantly, you must take your subject to the eatery that produces the finest example of the dish. And for deep dish pizza, that’s Pizzeria Uno.

Empanada Boy and I first discovered the beauty of Pizzeria Uno (and neighboring Due) when my parents came to town. It’s not that we hadn’t heard of the place— this is arguably one of the most famous restaurants in Chicago, the site where deep dish pizza was invented back in 1943. We were just skeptical that such a tourist phenomenon could actually be good. EB had also tried the inferior pies at one of the Uno franchises in Madison and was disappointed.

We ordered a large spinach pizza and had to bide our time for an hour before a table opened up. We had to wait an extra half hour more once we sat down. I think they make the wait so long because they want you to order more appetizers and drinks, but if you know what’s good for you, you abstain. This is the cake of pizza, and once it comes, it will fill you up quickly.

The spinach pie was worth the wait. The dense, crunchy crust is so rich it tastes more like pastry than bread. In an order that goes against the common assembly of pizza, the crust is covered with the mozzarella and then topped with a layer of sweet, tangy basil tomato sauce with many of the skinned Roma tomatoes still partially intact. Next comes the spinach, which is generously sprinkled with a layer of Parmesan.

After a long day of touring the city and waiting for the pizza, the three of us managed to eat all but one piece. Then it was time to roll ourselves home for a nap. Eating deep dish pizza is not an everyday affair for me, but it is a special treat that reminds me what makes Chicago unique. I think Flava liked the pizza too, which was, in a way, a nod of approval for the city I now call home.

Pizzeria Uno
29 E Ohio St
Chicago, IL 60611