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Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Restaurant Right Below Me

ChilaquilesThis is my last post as a resident of Chicago. As I write this, I am on a train with all of the clothes I own (and some of Empanada Boy’s) to New York City. I’ll arrive in time for the orientation for the M.A. program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. EB will join me in a couple weeks. We have spent the past week or so trying to say goodbye to our friends and relatives in Chicago. We’ve even said goodbye to some of our favorite restaurants, like Tanoshii, the sushi place where we had our first date (which I didn’t know was a date). But I decided my last post in Chicago would be devoted to a restaurant that EB and I had never visited until last weekend. Though we had never eaten there, we were intimately familiar with it. We know this restaurant almost as well as we know our own kitchen because we live above it. And after two years of smelling the sausage frying every morning, we decided to stop in for breakfast at Ravenswood Restaurant. My friend Berry Jamb, who lives in the neighborhood and couldn’t believe we hadn’t tried it, came along.

Guatemalan breakfastYou may be wondering why it took us so long to try a restaurant that was just sitting there below us. There are a number of reasons. First, it isn’t open very late for dinner, so we usually turn to Erick’s Tacos across the street. Secondly, I almost always prefer to make food in my house if I’m not going out for a special meal. We never order in, and when we do pick up food nearby, we almost always bring it home. Finally, I always assumed that Ravenswood Restaurant was a dive-y diner, serving greasy home fries and mediocre omelets, which is how it looks from the outside. In fact, Ravenswood Restaurant probably does have these items on its rather encyclopedic diner menu. What I didn’t know is that it also has a fantastic section devoted to Mexican and Latin American breakfast specialties, obviously the foods the cooks and servers actually eat at home. Needless to say, we ordered from that section.

Huevos MexicanosBerry Jamb had raved about the Guatemalan breakfast (second picture from the top), which he ordered again and let us sample. It comes with scrambled eggs, black beans, fried plantains, chorizo or longaniza links and warm corn tortillas. The longaniza that Berry ordered was definitely the highlight of the dish— full of spice and juicy flavor. EB struck gold with the Guatemalan chilaquiles (pictured on top). These were thin layers of fried corn tortillas spread with a smoky chili-infused sauce and stretchy cheese. Rice and refried beans came with it. My dish— Huevos Mexicanos— was eggs scrambled with tomato and green pepper with sides of beans, rice and corn tortillas. It was a little less enlightening than my compatriots’ meals, but it could beat a standard diner breakfast any day.

Perhaps the most delightful part of the meal was the two homemade salsas served alongside the food. The red was hot and dusty from smoked peppers. The green one was even hotter, burning our mouths and making our eyes water. Our waitress came by to ask about our meals: “Is the salsa too hot for you?” “No way,” we replied. And she smiled. It’s the little things, like the extra heat in the salsa that let you know you’re eating something approaching authentic. And to think, it was waiting just two floors below us all along.

Ravenswood Restaurant
1968 W. Lawrence Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640
773.561.9010

Ravenswood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

From High Tea to Humble Fish and Chips

Fish and chipsThere is an old saying that Victoria, B.C. is “more British than Britain.” When Empanada Boy and I arrived there for our honeymoon two weeks ago, we found that saying to be largely true, especially when it comes to food. While wild salmon, halibut and locally harvested mussels are all more prevalent than meat pies and bangers, many restaurants and tourists attractions serve formal high teas, complete with scones, cucumber sandwiches and clotted cream. Unfortunately, Victoria also retains the British tradition (which a good part of Britain has largely abandoned) of boring, sometimes bland, over-priced food. This is mostly due to its status as a tourist town, catering— as one blog put it— to “newlyweds and the nearly dead.” Don’t get me wrong, EB and I had a wonderful time in Victoria. We just didn’t find any great restaurants (until we decided to drive 45 minutes away to Sooke Harbour House and had one of the best— and most expensive— meals of our lives). After a night of middling fare and a day of splurging on afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel, we decided to go British, but low-brow, for our next meal. We asked our host at the bed and breakfast where to get the best fish and chips. He thought for a minute and said: “Well, there always Barb’s out on Fisherman’s Wharf.” It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but we decided to give Barb’s Place a try.

floating restaurantOur long walk through Beacon Hill park, down to the water and around a good part of the Inner Harbor (“Harbour” in Canadian) eventually led us to Fisherman’s Wharf. While nowhere near as big as San Francisco’s tourist trap of the same name, this is a similar type of place. Small gift shops, ice cream parlors and junk food joints line the walkways. One main difference is that Victoria’s wharf is entirely floating in the water. As you can see from this picture, Barb’s is actually a house boat. You walk up to the window in the little house and place your order for one of the many, primarily seafood, options. Classic fish and chips comes with haddock, halibut or salmon. Feeling poor after high tea, EB stuck to haddock. I started by ordering a steamed half dungeness crab, but was soon informed that that steamer was broken. Instead, I opted for oysters. I probably should have just bitten the bullet and ordered them fried, but I decided to be healthier and try them grilled. Each came with one of four different seasonings: teriyaki sauce, Cajun seasoning, garlic butter and Thai sauce. We got a pager after ordering and sat down at one of the communal picnic tables under the neighboring tent to wait.

Oysters, three waysEB’s fish and chips turned out to be something of a mixed bag. The haddock itself was sweet, fresh and just firm enough to hold its shape, but soft enough to melt away when bitten. Unfortunately, the fried exterior was too heavy and limp. It came off in large, bready chunks instead of crisply breaking away. A light hand at the fryer is hard to come by, but it makes for the best fried fish. Luckily, the tartar sauce had a nice zing. The fries were decent, but nothing special. My oysters were fine, but not as good as I would have expected for a restaurant literally sitting in the water. The grill hadn’t done much for them; I might have preferred them raw. Of the various sauces, I liked the simplest ones— Cajun seasoning and garlic butter— the best. Teriyaki was goopy and interacted strangely with the oyster. Thai sauce seemed week and too sweet— more Canadian-Thai than Thai.

And thus our search for a truly good, affordable meal in Victoria continued unfulfilled. And so it would remain until our visit to the stunning waterside dining room at the Sooke Harbour House where the menu changes daily to adapt to locally available ingredients and when edible flowers are incorporated into a number of dishes. Barb’s Place was fun, but it didn’t stand up as being worthy of its institution status. Next time we come to Victoria, we’ll rent a place with a kitchen and cook our own delicious and affordable meals.

Barb’s Place Floating Seafood Restaurant
Fisherman’s Wharf, Erie St.
Victoria, B.C., Canada
250.384.6515

Meat Like Your Mother Never Made It

Meat SamplerI am writing to you, dear readers, for the first time as a married woman. Empanada Boy and I were married in a wonderful beach ceremony in Cannon Beach, Oregon on August 3. We then paraded through town behind members of the world-class Mama Digdown’s Brass Band to a reception at the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce. There was dancing, speeches and, of course, great food and drink. EB and I spent most of last week honeymooning in Victoria, B.C. (more to come on the food we ate there), but we had plenty of time to visit some Portland restaurants during the week before the big day. Top on my list was Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen, located in the relatively new and incredibly hip Ace Hotel.

Wall of SodaMy favorite restaurant in Portland used to be Ken’s Place, a small, casual spot on Hawthorne Ave. Chef Ken Gordon served home-style comfort food with highlights like stellar fried chicken and a warm calamari salad that I couldn’t help but order every time I came. The best part was that if you stayed late enough, Ken would come out and chat. He would opine about the best place to get certain delicacies and about the importance of providing diners with a pepper grinder on every table. Ken closed his place a few years ago to fulfill his dream of opening a New York-style delicatessen, exactly what Portland lacked. His dream was shared by Nick Zukin, a prominent Portland food blogger (extramsg.com). Together they started curing their own meats and baking their own rye bread and bagels. They baked rugelach and babka. They even brought in a bevy of small batch sodas (pictured here). The results are like nothing New York has seen— at least for a long time.

BorschtEmpanada Boy, Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and I spent a long time perusing the lengthy menu, trying to decide which combination of the impressive variety of meats to put onto our sandwiches. There was pastrami, corned beef, tongue, beef salami, even chopped liver. How would we decide? Then Mango Mama happened upon a great solution: we could order the Meat Sampler for four and get to try all of them! EB and Daddy Salmon decided to start things off with some borscht. It was wonderfully refreshing and packed with sweet beet flavor. EB was especially pleased to find crunchy apple slices among the chucks of beets floating on top. As good as the borscht was, though, I knew I needed to save my strength for what was to come. I was right. Thanks to my mom striking up a friendly conversation with Nick Zukin when we walked in the door, we were given a pile of pastrami so large, rich and fatty that it alone would have been enough for lunch. The pastrami was like none I’ve ever tried before. Its edge crackled with peppercorns; its luscious fat striped and marble through each tender, moist and salty slice. The corned beef was also delicious, coming apart in smaller crumbled chunks. Tongue was succulent and smooth, while salami was salty with a touch of spice. Chicken liver was appropriately decadent. This mound of meat came with house-made half-sour pickles, mustard and a gigantic platter of sliced rye bread. It was far more than the four of us could eat. We took about a third of it home in a box.

Almond cakeNick Zukin, who later took EB, Mango Mama and me on a tour of the kitchen, insisted that we try some dessert. Immensely full as we were, we couldn’t decide between the honey almond cake and the cheesecake. (I would never normally order cheesecake, but Zukin said it was the best dessert on the menu.) We ordered both, and both were phenomenal. The almond cake was moist with honey and full of toasty flavor. I could have eaten more despite my increasing fullness. Much to our surprise, the cheesecake was indeed excellent. It was far lighter and more mousse-like than the dense, heavy versions served at places like Junior’s in Brooklyn. The bottom crust was also flavorful and soft enough to eat, unlike the cardboard slab graham cracker crusts that line most cheesecakes.

I can truthfully say that our meal at Kenny and Zuke’s was one of the best I’ve had in my life. As our kitchen tour confirmed, every element at this restaurant is carefully tested, researched and planned before being served to customers. Meat is cured according to a traditional, yet precisely formulated method. Pickles are carefully barreled and stored. And bagels are made to meet a gold standard of toothsomeness. Ken Gordon and Nick Zukin are not only purists when it comes to representing the genre, they are also perfectionists. And the result is near heavenly.

Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen
1038 SW Stark St.
Portland, OR 97205
503.222.DELI (3354)

Kenny and Zuke's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon