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Monthly Archives: April 2008

Pok Pok for Passover

Organic MatzoIf you’re not Jewish, you may have heard your friends complaining last week. And if you are, you were probably the complainer. I’m not talking about the normal whining about having to give up bread and other leavened products during Passover and eat only hard, dry matzo. The complaints I’m talking about came from people who couldn’t find enough matzo to eat. That’s right, this year there was a matzo shortage. I know this from experience and from an article in the New York Times. Mango Mama wisely stocked up with a full case the day after our 30-person seder consumed her first case. But when Empanada Boy and I came back to Chicago last week, we needed some of our own. We tried three grocery stores— Jewel (the major supermarket chain), our favorite Mexican/ Greek grocery and Treasure Island. Desperate, I called Whole Foods. The guy told me they had matzo. When I got there, I found about six boxes left. My choices: organic or whole wheat. Typical. I bought both. Both tasted more like cardboard than normal matzo.

Fish SoupNow I’ll segue to my real topic: a matzo shortage only highlights the need for more restaurants like Portland’s Pok Pok. I went there with Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and Flava Flav on my last night in Portland. It was Passover, and we wracked our brains to come up with a restaurant that would fit our Reform dietary standards. (We usually eat rice like Sephardic Jews and don’t bother with restrictions on corn oil or soy lecithin, etc.) Pok Pok, which specializes in Thai and other Southeast Asian street food, was a perfect fit. We even saw some other Jewish friends leaving as we arrived! Nearly all the critics (including me) agree that this restaurant is fantastic, serving exceptionally flavorful food like the delicious sour and spicy fish soup with evaporated milk, galangal and lemongrass, pictured here. Pok Pok was The Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year in 2007. There was a wait for a table, but that gave Flav and me a chance to sample some of the drinks. She had a tasty hot toddy (not technically kosher for Passover) because she was feeling sick. I had a plum drinking vinegar— a kind of sweet-sour drink made by mixing flavored vinegar with soda water. It tasted too much like a Jolly Rancher to me, but it was worth a try.

Game Hen verticalWe were hungry when we finally sat down. Mango Mama knew she wanted to order Pok Pok’s specialty, the Kai Yaang, a charcoal roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, pepper and cilantro and served with a spicy sweet and sour dipping sauce. This bird is so incredibly infused with flavor that you just want to tear it apart the second it hits the plate. The skin is perfectly crispy, and the combination of the seasonings on the meat and in the sauce makes for some blissful moments. We also tried the soup above and another chicken dish (called one of the best dishes of the year by Food and Wine) of wings marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar. These were also crackly and redolent of the pungent fish sauce, but I found them a little too sweet.

CatfishThat would have probably been enough food if we hadn’t been so swept up in trying more things. We went back to another old favorite, the Green Papaya Pok Pok, a spicy, fish-saucy salad made of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, chilies and peanuts. It has everything bright and bold you can think of, and the earthy, salty peanuts balance it out. We ate it with sticky rice. The final dish was a catfish marinated in turmeric and sour sticky rice. It sat on a bed of vermicelli (rice noodles, so kosher) with peanut, mints and other greens. The mint was wildly flavorful, but the catfish was disappointing. It was a lot milder than it sounded and couldn’t stand up to the other dishes on the table.

In any other context, I’m sure I would have like that catfish better. But the thing I love most about Pok Pok is the boldness of its flavors. This is not shy food! This food makes a statement, and it makes your mouth sing! And so we came away feeling sated and refreshed. Pok Pok’s fare ain’t no matzo, but it was kosher enough for me.

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division St.
Portland, OR 97202

Pok Pok in Portland

Eating Cart to Mouth

India Chaat HousePortland’s food scene has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years, with new local-seasonal, ethnic-regional spots opening to great local and national fanfare. Every self-professed foodie I meet counts Portland among her top destinations. New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, even devoted an article last year to the culinary courses being charted here. Empanada Boy and I squeezed in a few restaurant visits before (and even during) Passover while we were there this past week. But it was troubling to read reports in The Oregonian (Sunday, April 20) and Willamette Week (Wednesday, March 19) that cited economic trouble ahead for Portland’s restaurants due to a combination of higher food costs, cash-strapped customers and Oregon’s $7.95 minimum wage.

The worry is that the economic downturn might nip the city’s developing food scene in the bud. The problems are serious, but I don’t think the situation is dire. Portland seems to have escaped some of the economic problems of other cities. The real estate market has softened slightly, but the city is such a desirable place to live that it’s been relatively unscathed. Similarly, worthy restaurants will survive because Portlanders and foodies from all around will keep coming. And there is one sector of Portland’s signature foodie scene that will continue to grow despite the economy: the food carts.

India Chaat SpecialIn nearly every urban neighborhood, there are at least a few of these vans and little portable shacks-turned gourmet kitchens. An enterprising Portland writer has even devoted a blog to them. According to The Oregonian, it costs between $200 and $500 to get the permits and equipment to start one of these operations. The lunch crowd is reliable, and the margins are good. Food carts are most numerous within a few downtown blocks where they are churning out everything from paninis, to pierogies, to tamales and bento boxes. One of my favorites is India Chaat House on the corner of 12th and Alder. It’s one of the most established carts, and I’d place it among the city’s best Indian restaurants. The meal pictured here, consisting of rice, naan, a rich cauliflower curry, delicious savory lentils and a beautifully spiced chickpea dish, is enormous enough for two, and as the daily lunch special, sold for a meager $5.50.

Mexican CartMango Mama works a block away from India Chaat House and likes to go there when she hasn’t brought a lunch. She also frequents the tiny taqueria next door (pictured here), which has a great selection of fresh, homemade taco fillings. The block encompassed by 9th and Alder is perhaps the most notable food cart center. Carts with home-roasted espresso (Spella Caffe) sits next to gyros stands and yakisoba vendors. It was there at Snow White House that I first tasted crepes. I remember telling Mango Mama how much I loved them. I have since eaten crepes on the streets of Montmarte in Paris and have become pretty good at making them at home, but those food cart crepes will always be my first.

The cart scene makes Portland unique. L.A. has its taco trucks, and New York has its hot dog and gyros stands, but neither can offer the quality and variety all within walking distance of the area where most people work. Similarly, Chicago has great ethnic food, including some top-notch taquerias, but I have never seen a single food cart anywhere. Perhaps they fear the winter cold, or maybe the city has an ordinance against them. Whatever the reason, their absence is noticeable. These are great little businesses that improve everyone’s quality of life— even when the economy takes a turn for the worse.

India Chaat House
804 SW 12th Ave.
Portland, OR 97205

India Chaat House on Urbanspoon

Coney Inland

Postcard from Coney IslandI just returned from two and a half weeks in New York today. I’m feeling tired and glad to be with Empanada Boy again. It was hard not having my trusty sidekick as I explored the hipster hangouts of Williamsburg and lunched at cute cafes in Nolita. But Empanada Boy and I did have our share of food adventures before he left and before I assumed my babysitting duties. Among these, as I mentioned in a previous post, was a trip to Coney Island. Or at least the original idea was to go to Coney Island and get some of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, but that’s not quite how it worked out. We set off from the Guggenheim Museum, which EB was keen on visiting before he left. According to our plan, we met EB’s good fried Vladimir Pudding in the in the first car of the Q train. That train normally ends at Coney Island, but the weekend construction schedule would have meant switching trains to get there. We decided to get off at Brighton Beach and walk the rest of the way.

PiesI had heard about Brighton Beach from old movies and stories about Russian Jews immigrating to the United States. These Jews were World War II refugees, concentration camp survivors and their descendants. More recently, there has been another influx of Russian Jews whose culture is more similar to residents of the former Soviet Union than to the tightly-knit Jewish communities of earlier decades. Non-Jews from Russia and other former Soviet countries have also moved to the neighborhood where Russian is already the language of choice. Brighton Beach, which has also been called “Little Odessa,” is full of beautiful shops, restaurants and street stalls, offering all the traditional Russian delicacies. Not having had lunch, Empanada Boy and I couldn’t resist. We bought two fried dough pasties, one filled with cabbage, the other with chicken. I preferred the former because the filling had a bright, acidic bite to it that helped to cut the doughy richness of the exterior layer.

WrapVladimir Pudding had explored Brighton Beach a few times before, and he knowingly led us through a couple magnificent grocery stores. Unfortunately, my camera was running out of batteries, so I couldn’t quite capture the beautiful colors of the bounty that filled these stores. The first place we visited was almost like the Trader Joe’s of Brighton Beach. It sold every kind of packaged cookie or cracker for which one could possibly pine from the old country. There were large bins filled with myriad dried fruits, candies, nuts and spices. There were canned goods and halva (purchased by EB), breads and cheeses. Vladimir Pudding bought a tangy, crumbly sheep’s milk feta, olives and a special Russian bread. I bought some dried papaya and pineapple slices. While EB was waiting outside for us to finish shopping, he bought another fried pastry (pictured here). This was wrapped in a buttery, flaky phyllo-like dough. The filling remains a mystery to us. At first we were convinced that it was some kind of ground beans or root vegetable, but then we were sure we detected a meaty flavor. Was it a hint of chopped liver? Perhaps.

Before making our way to a beach spot to snack on our treats, we stopped at yet another store. This one was more of a traditional grocery store, with a huge deli and butcher area, in addition to a large bakery section. Empanada Boy and I purchased crazy Russian sodas that were supposed to be tarragon- and pear-flavored. They both tasted more like sugar-water, although I could detect a hint of the intended flavors. Vladimir Pudding picked out some sausages and had them sliced for sampling.

Coney Island Google EarthWe ate our selections on the large black rocks of the man-made seawall at Coney Island. It was blustery and cold, but the sun was shining, and the food was great. We bit into the feta as if it were an apple and chomped on some of the sausage and olives, washing it all down with tarragon or pear soda. We ended up strolling over to the boardwalk and walking amidst the rides. EB couldn’t convince me to try the roller coaster. The hot dogs at Nathan’s looked great, but the Russian fare at the shops of Brighton Beach was like venturing into another world. Of course it wasn’t another world; it was just another sample of the many authentic flavors of New York City.

O’Rourke’s Redux

O'Rourke's ExteriorDespite what they tell you on the tours at Wesleyan, Middletown, Connecticut is not what I would call a restaurant town. You can count the worthy restaurants on one hand, and you might not need your thumb or pinky. Considering that, it may seem strange that I was itching to skip out on a free catered meal at a conference on food I was attending at Wesleyan over the weekend. But anyone who’s spent a day or two in Middletown can tell you that there’s nothing better than breakfast at O’Rourke’s Diner.

Pre-breakfast snackOpen daily from 4 am until 3 pm, O’Rourke’s is a tiny, old-fashioned silver diner on the south end of Middletown’s Main Street. It has been open for years, but according to some older alumni I spoke with, it used to be little more than a greasy spoon. That changed when Brian O’Rourke took over from the previous generation and turned the diner gourmet. Now O’Rourke bakes almost all his own breads, including wheat bread, Irish brown and soda breads and a host of breakfast breads like banana, lemon and zucchini. Patrons waiting in line outside the restaurant (inevitable on the weekends) are often treated to slices of Brian’s bread, still warm from the oven. And when you are seated, a small sampler of the sweeter breads keep you sated until the food arrives. The restaurant’s interior used to have a considerable coating of grease and a number of tiny little booths that seated only two people. The four-person booths had mini coin-operated jukeboxes. This all changed in August, 2006 when a fire during the night destroyed the entire interior. This, combined with a lack of fire insurance, forced the diner to close until just a few months ago.

Irish EmbassyI went this time with my friend Honey Roasted Peanut, who was also attending the conference, her boyfriend Pecan Pie, my cousin Leftover Girl and her friend from college. As we waited in line outside, we witnessed Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl departing from the restaurant with her son (Wesleyan class of 2011). She was in Middletown to speak at our food conference, so we weren’t surprised to see her there. Still, it was nice to feel vindicated in my love of O’Rourke’s by one of America’s foremost food authorities. The interior of the restaurant has changed. It’s cleaner, and the booths are a little bigger. The tabletops are covered in a retro-looking Formica instead of the old, authentic vintage stuff. Gone are the mini jukeboxes and the old counter stools. The menu also looks more professional, but, thankfully, it still contains the same favorite dishes. HR Peanut and I didn’t feel confident that we could finish anything on the menu. We decided to share the Irish Embassy (pictured here). It comes with two over-easy eggs, crispy bacon, smoky Irish ham, corned-beef hash, Irish brown bread and well-seasoned potatoes. One stab of the fork sends the egg yolks running over the coarse, hearty bread and dousing all of the succulent meats. Would you like a little cholesterol with your cholesterol? My favorite meat is the corned-beef hash, which comes in delightfully uneven chunks and has enough spicing to give it great savory depth. Needless to say, we were glad we’d shared.

OmeletThe other three members of our party ordered omelets. These are all huge and fluffy and come filled with all the freshest ingredients available. Pecan Pie went way gourmet with smoked salmon and asparagus, while Leftover Girl settled on this beautiful, vegetable-laden version. I don’t usually order omelets in restaurants, but O’Rourke’s incorporates complex, innovative elements that make theirs worth trying. Other popular menu items include such decadent concepts as banana bread French toast (on Brian’s own bread) and an entire lunch menu, which boasts great turkey and Reuben sandwiches. It’s also fun to put your fate in Brian’s hands and order “Brian’s Breakfast” or “Brian’s Lunch,” both of which are made of whatever Brian feels like putting on the plate. It may take you a while to work up to this level of trust, but if there’s one thing you learn from eating at O’Rourke’s it’s that the diner and its owner won’t let you down.

O’Rourke’s Diner
728 Main St.
Middletown, CT 06457

O'Rourke's Diner on Urbanspoon