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Bo Ssäm Doesn’t Quite Bring Home the Bacon

A couple of months ago, I received a note out of the blue from Jicama, a family friend and almost-relative who I pretty much only see at various West Coast events. He lives in Berkeley, California, but he said he would be coming to New York for a few days and wanted me to join him and his friends for a meal. The meal he had in mind wasn’t just any meal. It was the much-raved-about bo ssäm at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Bo ssäm is Korean dish, consisting of an entire pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) rubbed in sugar and salt and cooked on low heat for about six hours. At Momofuku Ssäm, parties of eight to 10 people can order them in advance for a total price of $250. Needless to say, I was in. I asked if I could bring a friend and invited Dan Dan Noodle to join me.

Ten of us arrived at the restaurant at around 5 pm, apparently the only time slot they had open for a large group. I had to take off early from work, but it’s the excitement of meals like this that reminds me why I work to begin with. The others in the group were mostly Jicama’s classmates from his not-too-distant undergraduate days at Brown. Indeed Dan Dan and I were by far the oldest, but there is nothing like a big piece of pork to unite the generations. We were seated at one of the larger tables, and the pork accompaniments soon began to arrive, including a platter of oysters. The pork would be falling off the bone, so we were to eat it with a little bit of rice, wrapped in some butter lettuce and topped with condiments. It is apparently also traditional to eat oysters alongside the meat in the little lettuce packets.

The lettuce was delivered as a lovely whole head, and it came with a variety of sauces, including two kinds of kimchi, scallion-ginder sauce and ssäm sauce, made with vinegar and fermented bean and chili pastes. When the meat arrived, our appetites had been whetted. Glistening and caramelized, the pork looked like heaven on a plate. We pulled off moist, tender chunks with tongs, assembled our little bundles and dug in. The lettuce was crisp, the sauces were vibrant, and the meat was rich and flavorful. But there was something lacking. It’s not that the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the meat was disappointing, it’s just that it became a little monotonous. I found myself wanting more texture in each bite. I wanted the charred edges and chew that you get with Korean barbecue.

With 10 ravenous people, even a huge hunk of meat goes quickly. Luckily for Dan Dan, who couldn’t reach the platter, I was somewhat aggressive in making sure we both got some meat before it was gone. For eight people, this might have been a huge meal, but for 10 it was moderate. I wasn’t starving, but I had been prepared to be much more full. All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample such a delectable treat with an interesting group of people, but if pressed, I think I would probably pick a barbecue place in K-Town or Flushing over the Momofuku bo ssäm for my next large-group Korean feast. I prefer to come to David Chang’s restaurants for his innovative dishes like fried shrimp tails or chili soft-shell crab with tomatillo and mole. That is unquestionably where he shines. For everything else, there are traditional cooks throughout the city that can prepare a more pleasant feast at a similarly modest price.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Reservations for bo ssäm are here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Portland Bagel Debacle

Every time a relative came from New York to visit us in Portland while I was growing up, he or she would come bearing bagels. Occasionally, there would be a chocolate babka or rugelach from Zabar’s, but the bagels were the one standing request. My mom’s favorites were (and still are) the bagels my uncle, Second Breakfast, buys at The Garden in Greenpoint. The reason was simple: there were no decent bagels to be found in Portland. Instead, we had what I have dubbed “faygels”—puffy white bread formed into a bagel shape. When I moved to New York three years ago, I also took on the responsibility of bagel delivery. I would freeze a dozen bagels from Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, or once I moved to Brooklyn, from Bagel Hole or Terrace Bagels in Park Slope, and bring them to work with me, convincing the guys downstairs in the cafeteria to keep them in the freezer for me. Then I would stuff them into my already overloaded carry-on bag and stash them underneath the seat in front of me. Thanks to my short legs, I made a fairly adept bagel mule.

But about three years ago, the bagel-delivery responsibilities of the New York contingent began to diminish. That’s because Kettleman Bagel Company, which was founded in 2006, began to expand throughout the city. Jeffrey Wang, the owner, (and a non-Jewish Chinese dude) studied under bagel masters in New York for 17 years before opening up in the midst of the Portland bagel wasteland. It’s not that Kettleman’s dense, chewy boiled bagels, were the only game in town. Tastebud, a fantastic pizza place, in Southeast Portland started making the slightly sweeter Montreal-style bagels in its wood-fired oven. But those could only be purchased at the restaurant and in limited quantities at a farmer’s market or two. (They are now available at select locations of New Seasons Market.) Finally, a good bagel had become widely available. The Jews and gourmets of Portland rejoiced! First, a Kettleman location opened up near my sister Flava Flav’s apartment, so she was put in charge of picking them up and bringing them over to my parents’ house for brunch. Finally, Kettleman opened up a shop near my parents’ house earlier this year. It was what we had all been waiting for.

I came home to Portland for a quick visit on Thursday night. On Friday morning, Daddy Salmon went out to pick up some bagels from Kettleman. It was while I was digging into my tasty, though not-quite-as-good-as-New-York, everything bagel that I learned the bad news: Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, which owns its namesake brands as well as Manhattan Bagel, announced plans to buy Kettleman for an undisclosed sum at the end of November. Portland foodies erupted into outraged blog posts and Facebook tirades. Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative weekly, dubbed the controversy “BagelGate.” Confirming everyone’s worst suspicions, Einstein Noah stated in its press release that it “expects to rebrand all five locations into one of its other brands in the future.” In a rush to assuage distraught customers, Kettleman put out the word the following day that its recipe would remain the same, but it seems to me that the writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time before Kettleman becomes Noah’s and starts serving what the Portland Mercury (another alt paper) called “squishy bread.”

The Mercury also named Kettleman the worst sellout in Portland history. While I respect the desire of Jeffrey Wang to take his profits and retire, I might have to agree. When Kettleman becomes yet another purveyor of faygels, Portland will be taking a major step back in its culinary trajectory. A decade’s worth of bagel progress will be lost to time. And, at least until another enterprising bagel maker opens up shop, my New York relatives and I will have to resume our cross-country bagel transport.

Kettleman Bagel Company
2235 SE 11th Ave.
Portland, OR 97201
(and four other Portland locations)

3220 SE Milwaukie
Portland, OR 97202

Kettleman Bagel Company on Urbanspoon

Tastebud on Urbanspoon

Saying Cheese at Murray’s

La TurIf we were stranded on a desert island where baguettes grew on trees and La Tur—a soft Piedmontese blend of cow, goat and sheep milk cheese—could be netted in the waters, Empanada Boy and I might just live happily ever after. This was only one of the four amazing cheeses we sampled last week at a tasting and cave tour we attended at Murray’s Cheese, in Greenwich Village. Murray’s, whose earliest incarnation dates back to 1940, is a gastronomic temple oozing with fine cheeses. It is one of the few cheese mongers in the U.S. that stores and ages its own cheeses in temperature-and-humidity-controlled caves below the street level. When the Columbia University Alumni Arts League advertised a cheese tasting and tour there, we eagerly signed on.

Beekman 1802 BlaakLa Tur, described quite accurately in the tasting notes as being “like ice cream served from a warm scoop; decadent and melting from the outside in,” was definitely our favorite, but the other cheeses were among the most complex, delicious and thought-provoking I’ve tried. Our second cheese, called Beekman 1802 Blaak, is the first cheese attempt from the Beekman 1802 farm, based in Sharon Springs, NY. (The farm was founded in 1802.) The texture of the cheese was slightly chalky with a surprisingly subtle goat’s milk flavor. It didn’t quite pack the punch I was hoping for, but I suspect that was because it followed La Tur.

Pyrenees BrebisWe paired these first two cheeses with 2006 La Segreta Bianco from Planeta, a winery in Sicily. It’s a carefree blend of Chardonnay, Fiano, Grecanico, Sauvignon and Viognier. The second half of the tasting was paired with 1999 Domini Douro, a blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (Portuguese Tempranillo) from the Douro region of Portugal. Portuguese wine is still coming into its own, so it’s possible to get a bottle this old for under $12. This one had plums, blackberries and vanilla with soft tannins—pretty complex for the money.

Our next cheese, the Brebis, came from the Basque country and the Bearn region of the French Pyrenees. It was aged for four-to-six months (in an old railroad tunnel, no less) and had a beautiful, smooth and creamy texture with sweet, nutty notes. We saw numerous cheeses like this in one of the caves down in the basement on our tour. A cheese like this would probably have to have its rind washed in water or a saline solution every so often and be turned lovingly and cradled a few times each day. I’m telling you, these cheeses get a lot of pampering!

Cabot Clothbound CheddarThe final cheese in the tasting was the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont. It was dry, crumbly and tasted strongly of the fresh cut grass the cows that made it had undoubtedly been eating. There was also a great balance between saltiness and sweetness in this one, helping it stand up to the robust wine. This baby was aged (and coddled) for a year to enable all the proper molds could grow—it’s good to be a cheese at Murray’s!

CaveWe discovered exactly how good it was once we donned our hairnets and followed one of the cave managers down into the depths of the store. There were four caves and a walk-in refrigerator. We toured through the three where the most action was happening. The first was filled with soft, ripe blue cheeses and was calibrated to let the proper molds grow. The second housed primarily hard cheeses with washed rinds and all different colors of mold (humidity: 93%). The final cave, which also had high humidity, was home to the rounds that aged for even longer like Gruyere and Parmesan.

The smell was strong throughout all three rooms, but what we were smelling was not the wonderful scent of stinky cheese I had expected. Instead, we smelled tremendous wafts of ammonia being released by the cheeses as they aged. My nose hairs trembled under the sheer power of it! If we were not already convinced enough, the smell reminded all of us that the cheeses we were visiting and consuming were, in many ways living, breathing, creatures. And like all living creatures, our trip to Murray’s reminded us, cheeses should be treated with appropriate respect.

Murray’s Cheese
254 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
888.MY.CHEEZ or 212.243.3289

Murray's Cheese on Urbanspoon

Taco, Oh How I Miss You

Tacos verticalThere are no taquerias to speak of in New York. By taquerias, I don’t mean taco restaurants dolled up with Dia de los Muertos decor and run by a hipster gringo chef. New York has its fair share of those. No, I’m talking about the authentic little holes-in-the-wall that used to be favored stomping grounds for Empanada Boy and me when we lived in Chicago. These did not have fancy decor. For the most part, they didn’t even have table service at all. What they did have was fresh corn tortillas, house-made chorizo, fresh horchata and marinated pork spinning on a spit for tacos al pastor. The flavors were authentic because there was no pretense to the operation. Mexican people were their primary customers, and there was no reason to be unconventional, only the best at evoking the flavors of home.

The dearth of truly authentic Mexican food (apart from the taco truck on 96th and Broadway and the places that undoubtedly exist in the far reaches of the outer boroughs) is obviously a result of the relatively small Mexican population in this city. New York’s Latino population is mostly comprised of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Los Angeles and Chicago, on the other hand, have the first and second most Mexican-born residents of any city in the U.S., respectively. As it turns out, Madison, WI, is also home to a large Mexican population, and the culinary offerings there reflect that.

On a recent visit to Madison, EB and I were reminded how much we missed being able to walk across the street for fabulous tacos. We went to Taqueria Guadalajara with EB’s friend Hamentaschen. He has been wanting us to try this local hangout for a while, and we were excited to find out why he was so into it.

SalsaOf course, we all ordered tacos, but I could tell I was going to like the place when I tasted their salsas. There were two different varieties, a salsa verde and another tomato-based one. Neither of them held back on the heat. This was obviously not a restaurant that catered to gringos, although there were a number of us there.

The tacos were delicious. I tried one made with carne al pastor, which was moist and spicy with a touch of sweetness to counteract it. I also tasted a taco de lengua, made with tender beef tongue and a chorizo taco. The latter was flavorful but didn’t quite have the crispy texture achieved by EB’s favorite chorizo chef at Erick’s Tacos in Chicago. EB ordered the tripe, which had a chewy center and a crispy exterior, making it better than the completely fried tripe we’d tasted.

Tacos horizontalEverything was fresh and vibrant. Hamentaschen, EB and I happily chowed down, devouring everything on our plates. These were the flavors we had been missing!

Until we can get back to Chicago or Madison, or the West Coast, or any place where more Mexicans live, EB make do as best we can. We grill skirt steak on our stove top griddle and heat store-bought corn tortillas on the meat-juice-coated surface. We grill onions and eat our tacos with some of EB’s homemade salsa made with tomatillos and guajillo and chipotle peppers. We never go out for Mexican food— it’s just too disappointing. We may be a couple of gringos, but after you’ve tried an authentic taqueria, there’s no going back.

Taqueria Guadalajara
1033 South Park St
Madison, WI 53715

Taqueria Guadalajara on Urbanspoon