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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Bi-Rite Creamery Can Do No Wrong

I never thought I could feel animosity toward a place that serves gourmet ice cream, but I was wrong. When we were in San Francisco last week, Mango Mama’s cousin Mushroom Maven took Empanada Boy, Flava Flav, Mango Mama and me to try Humphry Slocombe, the relatively new, highly-touted ice creamery, featuring flavors like “Secret Breakfast,” “Jesus Juice,” “Government Cheese” and “Boccalone & Prosciutto.” There were a bunch of people mingling outside with their ice cream when we drove up and probably about 25 people inside the store. But just as we were walking up to the door, an employee with cropped bangs walked out from behind the counter and locked the door without even glancing up at us through the clear glass door. It was 10:20 pm, and the sign on the door said they closed at 10 pm! Thinking quickly, we pulled out a pad and wrote in big letters: “WE CAME FROM NEW YORK TO EAT YOUR ICE CREAM!” Mushroom Maven held it up against the window as we knocked to get the server’s attention. She walked back to the door shaking her head and pointing to her watch. “We’re closed,” she mouthed to us through the door. Oh, the indignity! I acknowledge that they were indeed supposed to be closed, but it’s not as though we walked up to the door at 10:01 pm and found it dark and locked with no one inside. It was 10:20 pm, meaning they had left the place open to allow a few stragglers to get ice cream. We were the only ones waiting to come in: was it really necessary to close and lock the doors in our faces? Mushroom Maven said she would never go there again, and though I am intrigued by their flavors, I might have to agree.

Luckily for us, San Francisco has no shortage of gourmet ice cream shops, and we were not far from Bi-Rite Creamery, an equally popular producer of artisanal ice creams, which is an offshoot of the organic grocer Bi-Rite Market down the street. Before I go into detail on the delicious flavors and excellent (friendly!) service we received, I want to digress a bit to explain why I think artisanal ice cream—and food in general—just tastes better in California. The reason is pretty simple: So much of the fruits and vegetable eaten in the U.S. are grown in the fertile soil within a couple hours of San Francisco. Bi-Rite gets all its organic cream, milk and eggs from the Straus Family Dairy, which is only 45 miles away from its shop. The farmer’s market we went to in Bernal Heights was a vivid testament to the freshness of Bay Area food. Piles of the sweetest citrus fruit around sat next dainty fronds of spring asparagus, feathery heads of lettuce, exquisite Chinese long beans, perfect Japanese eggplants and spiny nopales (cactus paddles). The amazing thing about it was that everything was cheap! I can say with some certainty that our four bags of produce would have cost double that price at a farmer’s market back in New York. So while New York chefs may be some of the best trained and most creative in the world, they simply don’t have the same high quality of raw materials to work with. This is why California (and even Oregon) win my taste test almost every time.

Now, back to Bi-Rite. When we got there, the line extended to the end of the block, but it moved pretty quickly. Before we knew it, we were up at the counter and trying to decide from among the numerous flavors scrawled in black erasable marker on the glass case. When I got to the front, I realized the regular cup came with two scoops. I had only selected one, so I picked ginger to go with my honey lavender. These were both delicious, vibrant flavors, entirely true to their names, but the two didn’t pair as well together as say ginger and spicy Mexican chocolate might have. Next time I will plan my pairings better. Mushroom Maven tried ginger and the awesome roasted banana. EB paired his honey lavender with the toasty brown sugar with ginger-caramel swirl. Mango Mama and Flav added the rich and ultra-caramelly salted caramel to the mix.

Bi-Rite may not have had creative names for its flavors, and it may not have employed ingredients like red wine and Coke (ahem, Humphry Slocombe), but its ice cream was pretty damn good. We even found a nice table to sit at in the bustling shop. Best of all, it was open past 10 pm on a Saturday night—just the time of night that most people are jonesing for a cup or a cone filled with something sweet. Good ice cream is not a fad, so I’m pretty sure Bi-Rite will be around for many years to come. I can’t promise I’ll never go back to Humphry Slocombe once my outrage simmers down, but you can be sure that this visit was the first of many I’ll take to Bi-Rite Creamery.



Humphry Slocombe
2790 Harrison St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

Bi-Rite Creamery
3692 18th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

Alemany Farmer’s Market
100 Alemany Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94110

Humphry Slocombe on Urbanspoon

Bi-Rite Creamery and Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Pre-Passover Pig-Out at Simpatica Dining Hall

In most ways, Passover is a great time to visit Portland. Empanada Boy and I get to have the seder with my family and visit his sister and her family. The one major downside is not being able to devote my usual time to sampling the new Portland restaurants on my list. This year, however, we arrived a few days before Passover, leaving space in the schedule for a few restaurant visits. We had a great dinner at Bar Avignon with EB’s family, including his parents, who were also visiting. On the Sunday before Passover, we celebrated Flava Flav’s birthday with a brunch at Simpatica Dining Hall, a locavore’s dream, housed in a simply furnished, softly-lit half-basement of a building in Southeast Portland that was once the grunge/alternative music venue La Luna.

Simpatica does catering and serves reservation-only prix fixe dinners on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays it serves a Northwest-inflected Southern-style brunch until 2 pm. On its website, Simpatica says it takes reservations for parties of eight or more, but they gave Flav a pretty hard time. She tried to make a reservation for 18 people at 10:30 am and was told 11:30 am. Later, the restaurant called back to make it 12:30 pm, and then it called a final time—mere days before the event—to change it to 1 pm. When we got there, we ended up having to wait for yet another 45 minutes. That part was pretty irksome, but we largely forgot our annoyance when the bloody Marys started to arrive. These were tall, spicy, thick drinks with a nice balance of alcohol to tomato juice. But the best part was the garnish, which consisted of beautiful homemade pickles— beet, olive, green bean, asparagus and carrot—on a skewer perched across the top of the glass. A few of Flav’s friends ordered garnishes without the drinks just to eat the pickles.

Feeling better with some pickles and alcohol in our stomachs, we waited for our meals to arrive. I ordered the hash with andouille sausage and ham hock (best to indulge all un-kosher urges before Passover arrives) made at the owners’ own charcuterie and butcher shop at the nearby Laurelhurst Market. Also in the hash were spinach, turnips, apples, fennel and caramelized onions. All came topped with two over-easy eggs. It was a hearty feast, juxtaposing spicy-fatty, smoky-fatty, earthy and sweet. Fried chicken and waffles with rhubarb syrup was the dish of choice for EB, Mango Mama and a number of others at the table. It was a bit more savory and complex than the traditional greasy fried chicken (good) and Bisquick waffle (too sweet) version of this dish we tried when we lived up in Harlem—an overall improvement, in my opinion. The chicken was succulent beneath its crispy skin, and that tangy sweet-sour rhubarb syrup kept the whole thing from tipping into bready overdrive.

Speaking of bready overdrive, the same potential danger was lurking for the pork schnitzel with polenta cake, which Flav ordered. The excellent buttery polenta and the pancetta, nettles, persillade and over-easy eggs that came with it were only able to cut this starchy effect to some degree. The dish still came out tasting a little on the heavy side— not that there were actually any dishes I would call light. The fried chicken with biscuits and country gravy, which another one of Flav’s friends ordered (but which I couldn’t reach my fork far enough down the table to sample) may have been the most egregiously weighty dish. But then, I am never a huge fan of gravy after the second or third bite. In general, the carb-heavy aspects of the menu—which also featured chicken-fried bison topped with country gravy—didn’t bother me as much as they might have because I knew Passover was just around the corner.

Indeed, the food was sufficiently delicious, despite it all, that I ate every last bite of my dish and a few bites off other peoples’ plates. Simpatica Dining Hall turned out to be just the right place to celebrate Flav’s birthday and also overdo it just enough to not mind being deprived of non-matzah grains for at least a few days.

Simpatica Dining Hall
828 SE Ash Street
Portland, OR 97214

Simpatica Dining Hall on Urbanspoon

The Dream of Great Tacos is Alive in NYC at Tulcingo VI

I will admit it: I was wrong. More than once, I have ranted about the lack of authentic regional Mexican food in New York. In a city where Spanish is primarily spoken by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, it’s no surprise. But having lived across the street from an awesome taqueria in Chicago and having done most of our shopping at a well-stocked Mexican grocery store there, I was spoiled. I was also annoyed by the assertions of fellow New Yorkers that the generic gringo-infused Mexican restaurants of Manhattan and Brooklyn were “really good.” But as it turns out, I had simply not been looking in the right place for my tacos, tortas and platillos de carne asada. It was all right under my nose in my latest food neighborhood of choice: Sunset Park.

To be fair, I had known about the Mexican restaurants in Sunset Park for quite some time, but I had never made the move to try them. The New York Times, and a number of people I spoke with talked up Tacos Matamoros, but Empanada Boy tried it and was disappointed. If that was the best Sunset Park had to offer, I feared my standards would never be met. But EB and I decided to try our luck again last weekend. I found a informative article from Serious Eats about a taco crawl on Sunset Park’s 5th Ave. Two spots stood out to me. One ended up being closed when we got there, so we headed to the other: Tulcingo Deli VI. The name itself held promise, and when we walked into the nearly full restaurant and saw we were the only gringos, thing started looking even better. After we were seated at one of the empty tables, the waitress came over to take our order. Every non-native Spanish speaker knows about that awkward moment where you wonder whether the server will be annoyed at you speaking Spanish. Our waitress jumped right over that hurdle by immediately launching into Spanish. Gringos though we might be, we were speaking Spanish that night.

While we waited for our food, we sipped our beers andchowed down on the excellent chips and slightly sweet chunky salsa. We were later brought two other kinds of thin spicier salsa– one made with smoky red peppers and other made with chiles verdes. Both were nuanced and delicious, boding well for the tacos to come. All of a sudden, a group of mariachi musicians clad in white suits studded with silver fastenings stood up and started to sing and play at the front of the restaurant. I am not always a huge fan of mariachi music, but something about the way the band enlivened and excited everyone else in the restaurant (singing and clapping) caused the music to have a similar effect on me.

Just as the female singer launched into a Spanish-accented rendition of “Happy Birthday” (‘appy berthday to jou), our tacos arrived. I had really wanted to try the goat meat barbacoa taco, but they were out, so I ordered chorizo, suadero (wasn’t sure what it was, but was up for adventure) and al pastor. EB ordered al pastor, oreja (ear!) and lengua (tongue). These were big tacos, more sizable than the ones I typically ate in Chicago, wrapped in two layers of fresh corn tortillas. They were brimming with meat and topped with chopped white onions, cilantro and creamy guacamole. The chorizo was chunky, but nicely crisped and infused with chile, garlic, paprika and cumin. After that, the suadero, which turns out to be the soft, smooth breast muscle of a cow, was a little bland, but it did have a slightly gamey, livery flavor, which made it more interesting. When I got to al pastor, I was already feeling pretty full, but this taco brought the flavor back swinging with soft strings of well-spiced pork. I doused mine alternately with the red and green salsa, unable to decide which I preferred. EB’s oreja was tasty, if a bit cartiladgy. I preferred the lengua, which was tender and juicy. The guacamole on top of each taco added a nice touch of cooling lubrication to the mounds of spiced meat. I was in taco heaven!

After we finished eating, the mariachi band, which had been working its way around the room asking for requests in exchange for cash, came to stop at our table. EB sheepishly requested “Guantanamera,” and the band obliged with a particularly rousing version. When they asked for another song, we realized that was about the extent of our Mexican song library. That didn’t stop them; they played the Stevie Wonder song “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” which worked surprisingly well with the mariachi instrumentation. Everyone sang along. We walked out of the restaurant feeling like we had made some friends and found the authentic Mexico flavors we had been missing for so long.

Tulcingo Deli VI
5520 5th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Tulcingo Deli Vi on Urbanspoon