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Pickles, Oysters, Red Bean Cakes—Oh My! (Or The Many Fried Things On Sticks I Ate in Japan)

Yes, my friends, you’re seeing it right. Pictured here is a REALLY HUGE PICKLE on a stick. I bought it from a street vendor in Kyoto on the road leading up to Kiumizudera, a prominent old temple complex that’s sort of like the Acropolis of Japan. Anyone who knows me well knows that I absolutely adore pickles. (Longtime readers of this blog know that I even make them myself.) Luckily for me, Japan is a veritable pickle paradise, and cucumbers are just the tip of the, um, cucumber. Whether it’s vegetables like burdock root and cabbage or fruit like the brutally sour umeboshi plum, Japanese cuisine is replete with cured items. As a result, there are also a lot of stores selling pickles, with most of them cut up and placed in bowls to enable patrons to taste before buying. Taste I did. But I am going off on a tangent: Pickles were only one category of the many fascinating and delicious street foods I ate in Japan, a country where even the tiniest detail (or bite, as the case may be) receives a stunning amount of attention.

Another major class of street food was what I like to call “fried things on sticks.” Among these was the maple leaf-shaped treat pictured here, which had a sort of rubbery tofu-like texture and was studded with pieces of octopus. Momiji, the maple leaf, is the symbol of Hiroshima and its neighboring island Miyajima, because of the area’s stunning fall color. To be quite frank, this particular momiji looked much better than it tasted, but perhaps the other flavors, which included shrimp, cod roe, sea eel and cheese, would have redeemed the concept. Other fried treats were far more successful. At the open-air Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Daddy Salmon got something that looked almost like a Twinkie on a stick. Inside the fried shell was a rich, soft squash filling, which was such a pleasant surprise that it prompted Mango Mama to take a few extra bites, all while declining to get her own, despite Daddy Salmon’s protests.

For a country that supposedly frowns on walking while eating, handheld creations were not difficult to come by. Another favorite came in the form of steamed buns with characters edibly imprinted on their plush, rounded tops. The first one of these I tried, in Miyajima, was stuffed with a mix of conger eel and vegetables. The bun had a pleasant chew, giving way to the warm, soft filling, but I found the flavor of this one to be a little meek and the texture a little mealy. Later in the trip, when descending from Kiumizudera in Kyoto via that same road that yielded the pickle on a stick, we found another stand selling similar looking buns. This time the filling was beef with burdock root, and I purchased one for each of us. These were deeply savory, well spiced and had a great textural contrast, thanks to the mushroom-like pieces of burdock root. I could eat these beautiful buns for breakfast, lunch or dinner and at all points in between.

Of course, this being Japan, seafood was another major street-food category. One of the best street snacks we tried were fried oysters in cream that we happened upon during a rainy-day walk in Miyajima. Rich and molten in the center, these were like eating a rich oyster chowder in a glorious handheld pocket of friedness. But probably the most impressive bit of street fare we tried was a baby octopus on a stick. Called tako, these guys are delicious, tentacles and all. It took us until the first person bit into it the head to realize that this octopus’s noggin was stuffed with a bright yellow, hard-cooked egg yolk. The yolk was perfectly done, not chalky in the least, and the textural contrast between the taut octopus meat and the gentle softness of the egg bordered on a revelation.

Last, but not least, let us turn to desserts. We didn’t eat much street food in Tokyo, but I was astonished by the uniformly high quality of the Parisienne-style bakeries there. At one particularly museum-like spot where the counter ladies all wore impeccable uniforms, I ordered a near-perfect creme puff, paid the ladies, nodded courteously and then walked outside and proceeded to chow down. Heavenly! In Miyajima, the momiji makes its most famous appearance in little maple-leaf shaped filled cakes, known as momiji manju. While the most common fillings are red bean, green tea and chocolate, I also tasted strawberry, orange and a few other wacky flavors. Call me a purist, but I liked the red bean one best. That’s because it strikes the best balance between sweet and boldly savory without the overwhelming saccharine sweetness of flavors like strawberry or the weakness of the chocolate. A final favorite dessert was actually part of our breakfast sampler at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Having refused to buy her own fried, spiced squash thing on a stick, Mango Mama spotted a sign that said “Tofu Doughnuts.” Intrigued, she ordered a bag of them. These were tasty, light little fried rings of dough. We didn’t quite see where the tofu came in—maybe they were made with soy milk—but we were more than happy to eat them, nonetheless.

Report: Man Bites Dog at Bark

I am a fan of the classic New York hot dog. They may not be quite as good as my beloved Vienna Beef Chicago dogs or the beer-boiled brats I eat when I go to Wisconsin, but sometimes a hot dog from one of the Sabrett carts on every New York street corner can really hit the spot. One of those times is late at night after a few drinks. Unfortunately, many street-corner hot dog vendors have packed up by then. That’s the genius behind Bark, the carefully sourced hot dog spot on the edge of Park Slope, that is open until 2 am on Friday and Saturday nights. Empanada Boy and I stopped in on Friday on our way home from seeing “Sleep No More,” the fascinating interactive production of the story of Macbeth being staged in a Chelsea warehouse. We had an early start time for the performance and had not had time to eat beforehand. We also had drinks at the venue’s bar, including potent absinthe and elderflower cocktails. The combination was enough to have me conked out on the subway. Only food could revive me at that late hour. Bark was open and ready to receive us.

The inside of the restaurant is typical Brooklyn minimalist, with a number of long, high communal wooden tables and a few smaller individual tables. Patrons sidle up to the counter and order from a large chalkboard menu. This includes hot dogs with seven or eight different toppings, such as the bacon cheddar dog and the chili cheese dog. There are also burgers and other sausages like brats and weisswurst, in addition to various kinds of French fries, shakes and a few other sandwiches. Always one for a classic, I orders the Bark dog, made with sweet pepper, onions and yellow mustard. EB went for the pickle dog with two kinds of house made pickles, mayonnaise and mustard. We also asked for one order of fries to split between the two of us and sat down at one of the high tables to wait.

The dogs and fries were delivered in short order, and we ravenously began to dig in. The hot dogs, made exclusively for Bark by Hartmann’s Old World Sausage in Rochester, NY, had a commendable snap to them, their skins releasing flavorful juices with each bite. But the toppings on my dog were fairly unimpressive: Chopped red onions were pedestrian, and sweet peppers were few and far between. EB’s toppings were a little more noteworthy. His dog sported crunchy sweet and sour pickles, which set off the richness of the mayonnaise. The buns had more flavor and more satisfying chew to them than your average street corner hot dog, but nothing can replace Chicago’s traditional poppyseed bun in my mind.

Nontheless, we downed those puppies in a matter of minutes, pausing only to snag some of the thin, crispy fries. I like to dip my fries in mustard (ketchup being a little too sweet for my taste), and I was delighted to find both plain yellow and Dijon varieties on the table. There was also malt vinegar, another favorite condiment of mine. According to the detailed “Resources Menu” section of Bark’s website, all condiments are house made except for the ketchup (Heinz’s), yellow mustard (French’s) and mayonnaise (Hellman’s). Bark doesn’t hold a candle to Chicago favorites like Hot Doug’s in my mind, but for a New York dog, this is about as good as it gets.


Bark Hot Dogs
474 Bergen St.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Bark Hot Dogs 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

In a (Garlic-Dill) Pickle

PicklesI rode my bike over to Chicago’s Green City Market on Saturday with one goal in mind: to find the makings for homemade pickles. That meant 4lbs. of pickling cucumbers, dill heads and a bunch of garlic. I ended up getting three different varieties, including round, white globe cucumbers.

That I am a serious pickle lover has never been in doubt. Mango Mama sometimes tells the story of when she took me to the fireman’s benefit dinner in Cannon Beach as a little kid. There were bowls of pickles on the tables, and I ended up eating all of the pickles from the dish in front of us. From then on, I have always been convinced that I could live on pickles alone if necessary.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to get good half-sours most places outside New York. Harvestime, our local Mexican grocery, which also caters to Eastern Europeans, has some pretty good ones in a vat above the deli case. But these don’t come anywhere near the crunchy deliciousness that I get from making my own refrigerator dills.

Mango Mama and I got the idea to make our own pickles from an article in The Oregonian food section two years ago. The recipe printed there was adapted from Portland’s own father of local and organic, Greg Higgins. He makes these at his excellent restaurant Higgins. I don’t can mine because I think they lose their crunch. I just leave them in the fridge until I’m ready to eat. If you like pickles, you should try making these at home. The only drawback is that you have to wait a few weeks before you can actually eat them.

Damn Good Dills

4qt. pickling cucumbers rinsed well
16 lrg. garlic cloves peeled, sliced
4 fresh dill heads halved
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes


1 qt. cider vinegar
1 qt. water
1/4 cup pickling spices
1/3 cup pickling salt
2 tblsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 cup. chopped fresh dill heads


* Note: Do not use aluminum or iron cookware for this recipe. The acids in the ingredients could react with the metal, giving the food an off-taste.
* Wash 4 quart or 8 pint jars. Keep hot until needed. Prepare lids as manufacturer directs.
* Pack the cucumbers into the jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Divide the sliced pieces of garlic and halved heads of fresh dill among the jars. Add a pinch (about 1/8 teaspoon) of the dried red pepper flakes to each jar.
* To make the brine: Combine vinegar, water, pickling spices, salt, sugar, turmeric and 1 cup chopped fresh dill in a pot (see note). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
* Put 4 cloves of garlic into each jar. Strain off the seasonings from the brine then ladle the hot brine into 1 jar at a time, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe jar rim with a clean, damp cloth. Attach lid. Fill and close remaining jars. Let cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator.
* The pickles are ready to use after 3 to 4 days of aging, but they will continue to improve for several weeks. They keep, refrigerated, for about 1 year.
* For storage at room temperature: Process the filled jars in a boiling-water canner 10 minutes for pints, 15 minutes for quarts (15 minutes for pints, 20 minutes for quarts at 1,000 to 6,000 feet; 20 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts above 6,000 feet).
* This recipe yields 4 quarts or 8 pints.