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Monthly Archives: December 2009

Beer Takes Flight at Hopworks

Beer FlightEmpanada Boy and I are up in Northern Wisconsin at his family’s lake house. It’s cold, and the snow has been falling almost nonstop since we arrived here last night. It all makes you feel like drinking warm beverages and curling up in front of the fire, but there’s one cold beverage you always have to make room for when you’re here, and that’s beer. Wisconsinites take their beer seriously. But then, so do Oregonians. The difference is that Oregon beer tends to be more craft-oriented and less mass-market than Midwest brews. This is evidenced by the small temples to the art of beer springing up in my home state everyday.

The last time we were in Portland, EB and I did a beer tasting with Flava Flav and Daddy Salmon at Hopworks Urban Brewery, a quintessentially Portland spot, decorated with bicycle parts hanging from the ceiling and the bar. When we were there, Hopworks was offering a great deal: 10 3-ounce pours of its proprietary brews for a mere $7.50. That’s just under two pints for about what one would cost you in New York. EB drank one whole sampler himself (obviously), but Flav and I shared and Daddy Salmon opted for a pint of IPA. Beers ranged from the Organic Hub Lager (5.1% alcohol by volume) to hoppy seasonal brews with more than 9% ABV and came on a tray lined with tasting notes. All were delicious and distinctive, but these are not weak, watery beers, and even the staunchest beer drinker cannot hope to get through a flight without some food to line the stomach.

PizzaDaddy Salmon, Flav and I shared a large pizza, one of the focal points of the Hopworks menu. We got the Gatherer topped with mushrooms, caramelized red onions, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, bell peppers and black olives. Unfortunately, the pizza sounded more delicious than it turned out to be. The crust was a little dry and lacked the chew of a wood-fired oven. Some of the toppings—olives, artichoke hearts—came from a can, and the mushrooms were basic buttons, not the more flavorful wild mushrooms that typically grow in Oregon. One noteworthy detail, however is that most of the ingredients are organic.

BurgerAs soon as I saw EB’s burger, I realized I should have ordered that instead. It was huge and cooked to a perfect medium rare. Tillamook cheese melted on top and large French fry wedges came on the side. The standout burger made me wonder about the other sandwiches on the menu like the one made with Pilsner-cured sausage or the laden Hopworks Sub. I’ll probably try one of those the next time I’m feeling like drinking a whole lot of flavorful Oregon brews and need something substantial to line my stomach.

Hopworks Urban Brewery
2944 SE Powell Blvd.
Portland, OR 97202

Hopworks Urban Brewery on Urbanspoon

Caracas Arepa Bar: Venezuela In NYC

Curiara La Popular“What is an arepa?” So asks the rhetorical question on the website of Caracas Arepa Bar. If you click on the link you learn they are “dense, yet-spongy corn flour rounds,” “pita-like pockets” “cake-swaddled melange” and “like a Latin Sloppy Joe,” among many other descriptors. But, as I found out recently the best way to really understand what they are is to try them yourself. I met up with my friend Onion there a few weeks ago to do that.

I learned about the restaurant from Sweet Tea, one of my colleagues, who is Venezuelan-American. I asked her if there are any good Venezuelan restaurants in New York City. She didn’t know of many, she said, but there was one great one I had to try. That place was Caracas Arepa Bar, which has outposts in Manhattan’s East Village and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The Manhattan location is small and nearly always crowded, there happened to be a table for two waiting for us when we arrived. (It was also pretty dark inside, hence the poor quality of my photos.) Onion and I scanned the menu of arepas and liked the looks of too many of them to narrow it down. So we ordered, a curiara (Spanish word used in Venezuela for “dugout canoe”) filled with three varieties. The one we ordered, called La Popular, included two halves each of: La De Pabellón, with shredded beef, black beans, white salty cheese and sweet plantains; La Reina Pepiada, with chunky chicken and avocado mix salad; and La Mulata, with grilled white cheese with jalapeños, sautéed red peppers, fried sweet plantains and black beans.

TequeñosOur server convinced us we needed an appetizer too, so we ordered tequeños—little fried dough sticks filled with melted, stretchy cheese. Those came with a slightly spicy dipping sauce, and they were satisfying (if a little too bland) in the guilty way jalapeño poppers and cheese fries can be, especially when eaten between swigs from our bottles of Negra Modelo.

As it turned out, we probably didn’t need an appetizer. Our arepas arrived in a wooden serving dish that was indeed reminiscent of a dugout canoe, but this one probably would have sunk to the bottom of the river because it was so filled with food. The arepas were chewy corn pockets that made for easy finger food. The only problem with this kind of finger food is once you start eating one, you can’t put it down for fear of it falling apart completely. Instead, I end up eating everything a bit too quickly.

My favorite arepa was the beef one. The salty cheese was like the crumbly Mexican cheese cotija, and it accented the slightly sweet beef and the plantains nicely. The chicken one was my least favorite; the meat was a little dry and the avocado lacked kick to counterbalance its fatty richness. (I added some of that hot sauce I’d put on the tequeños for some extra flavor.) The cheese and jalapeño one was more interesting, having great texture, heat and sweetness.

All-in-all, three halves of an arepa amounts to plenty of food for one person and enough variety to keep even the most indecisive eaters happy. If you still don’t know what an arepa is after reading this post, I suggest you go out and try one yourself.

Caracas Arepa Bar
93 1/2 E. 7th St.
New York, NY 10009

Caracas Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon

Burger Joint Behind the Curtain

Burger SignMuch has been said about the lack of good-tasting, inexpensive, food in Midtown Mahanttan, and for the most part, I agree. But I had been eager to try Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien since reading about its top-quality burgers last summer. Empanada Boy and I got the perfect opportunity to try it before a Carnegie Hall concert a few weeks ago.

To get to Burger Joint, you walk inside the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, one of Manhattan’s chic hotels. You look around, unsure of where you’re going, until a hotel porter clad in a dark suit wordlessly points you down a black-curtained corridor. You know you’re on the right track when you see the steaming burger neon sign hanging on the wall ahead of you. Then, suddenly, you’re in a small, funkily decorated, wood-paneled room, crowded with booths, tables and a counter, behind which a cook stood flipping burgers and frying French fries.

Ordering at the CounterThe line at the counter was fairly long when we walked in, but it moved pretty quickly. We ordered two medium-rare burgers, two orders of fries and a pitcher of Sam Adams (not a bad deal compared with the by-the-glass price). Besides one or two other drinks, there is virtually nothing else on the menu. It is not called Burger Joint for nothing. The guy behind the counter handed EB the pitcher. Unfortunately, every table was full. We stood menacingly near one of the booths making it clear we wanted them to hurry up and eat so we could have their seats. That happened just in time for the arrival of our food.

Burger and friesThe burger didn’t look that impressive on arrival. The bun was a bit smashed, and the iceberg lettuce seemed sad. The fries looked tasty, so I started with one of those. Indeed, they were perfectly crispy and salted on the outside with a pleasantly soft interior. I dipped them in mustard and noted that the restaurant only serves Dijon. A wise choice, if you ask me. Then it was time to try the burger, which came topped with tomato, pickles and a specially seasoned mayonnaise.

Medium RareWhen I bit into the burger, I was pleased to find it juicy and flavorful and cooked, as requested, to medium rare. (There are much fancier restaurants that can’t seem to get this final detail right.) The lettuce was flavorless, but provided crunch and, despite being smashed, the bun still tasted better than many I’ve tried. The pitcher of beer may have been a bit overkill, especially before a concert, but we almost managed to finish it off. Next time, I hope to try the milkshake on Burger Joint’s menu. I imagine it will be as pure an expression of the classic ideal as the burger and fries manage to be.

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien
119 W. 56th St.
New York, NY 10019

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien on Urbanspoon

Sandwiches That Are Anything But Bunk

Roast BeefIf Thanksgiving didn’t offer enough opportunity for pigging out, my family decided to preface the big dinner with a lot of great eating. Empanada Boy had already been in Portland for a couple days before my arrival late Tuesday night. Before we all headed out to our beach house in Cannon Beach the next day, we went out to lunch at one of Portland’s many new hipster hangouts: Bunk Sandwiches. Present were Mango Mama, Flava Flav, Daddy Salmon, Empanada Boy, Flav’s friend Sunbutter and me.

Making SandwichesAs any good sandwich shop should, Bunk has made a name for itself because of its top-notch ingredients and winning, innovative, flavor combination. The line of about 20 people that stretched out onto the sidewalk was evidence enough that this place is more than a fad. Luckily for us, Sunbutter was already in the middle of the line. We snagged an outdoor table, warmed by the mild afternoon sunlight. There are only a few tables and a counter with stools inside the small, funky shop. One wall bears a blackboard with the menu. A lady at the counter took our orders while a man who looked like he took his sandwiches seriously assembled ours on the exposed cutting surface.

Pork BellyWhen the sandwiches started coming out to our table, sitting impressively atop plain brown butcher paper, next to a side of sea salt chips, I began to understand what this place was all about. Every sandwich we ordered was a work of art. My roast beef sandwich (top photo) was made with rare and juicy, hand-cut meat, sweet caramelized onions and tangy, tangy horseradish. EB and Sunbutter ordered the pork belly sandwich (pictured here), and it was just as unctuous as it sounds. The buttery meat was made even richer with the Gruyere and Russian dressing, but a bright heap of crunchy pickles kept things lively.

Italian 3Mango Mama’s sandwich looked like a salad on a bun, with vibrant lettuce, hot peppers and tomatoes. But beneath the fresh greenery were layers of salami and another Italian cured meat, along with provolone picante. Daddy Salmon continued in the picante vein with a sandwich made from roasted poblano pepper and delightfully stretchy melted cheese. The crisp bread and the soft smoky pepper made a perfect bite.

Now that I think of it, the creation of the perfect bite could sum up Bunk’s mission. And I’m willing to come right out and say that it’s a mission at which Bunk resoundingly succeeds.

Bunk Sandwiches
621 SE Morrison St.
Portland, OR 97214

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Gourmet, Unbound: December

Walnut Spice CakeAs most of you know by now, I am still in mourning over the demise of Gourmet magazine. In an attempt to channel my sorrow and frustration into something more productive, I’m participating in Gourmet, Unbound, a project that pays tribute to the magazine by tracking down and reviewing recipes from its past. Each month, participating bloggers are selecting one recipe from that month’s issue in any year of Gourmet’s history.

For December, I selected the Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze, originally featured in the December 1992 issue. The cake has everything going for it. It’s baked in a bundt pan (one of my favorite baking tools), has the lovely seasonal spice cake flavors of cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and incorporates the savory toastedness of walnuts, along with the bright tang of lemon. It would be as good for breakfast as it was served ala mode at one of my family’s many sizeable post-Thanksgiving meals at our beach house in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

The recipe turned out as deliciously as expected, but the lemon glaze was a bit thinner than I’d hoped. Just for appearance, I might add more powdered sugar the next time I make it, although the flavor was there. The only somewhat technical element was the whipping of the egg whites to stiff peaks, which is more a matter of having the right tools (a hand mixer) than having talents. One additional tip that Mango Mama passed along for ensuring your cake comes out of the bundt pan: melt some butter and paint it on with a brush. That way, all the ridges get their fair share of grease.

The cake was all but devoured by the 20-plus people at our party. Mango Mama even added a candle, so everyone could sing a belated happy birthday to me. It was a fitting reminder of the kind of pleasure a successful Gourmet recipe can elicit. Here’s to 11 more months of Gourmet commemoration!

Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze
For cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups sour cream
1 cup walnuts (3 ounces), toasted , cooled, and finely chopped

For glaze
1 cup confectioners sugar
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Special equipment: a 12-cup bundt pan

Make cake:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bundt pan.

Sift together flour, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Beat together butter and sugar in another bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about minutes in a standing mixer or 4 with a handheld. Add yolks 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low, then add flour mixture and sour cream alternately in batches, mixing well after each addition.

Beat egg whites in another bowl with cleaned beaters until they just hold stiff peaks, then fold whites and walnuts into batter gently but thoroughly.

Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top, and bake until a wooden pick or skewer comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then invert onto rack and cool completely.

Make glaze:
Whisk together confectioners sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Transfer cake to a plate, then drizzle glaze over cake and let stand until glaze is set, about 20 minutes.

See my other Gourmet, Unbound posts:
April 2010, Shrimp Scampi Pasta
March 2010, Chicken with Black-Pepper Maple Sauce
February 2010, Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream
January 2010, Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Pancetta