Wednesday, May 26, 2010

about town/abq: Taqueria Mexico.

With all of the fantastic New Mexican food available in Albuquerque, it can be strangely easy not to go the trouble of seeking out any actual Mexican food. Thankfully, my attention was caught by the regular lines that formed outside of Taqueria Mexico, a tiny white shop tattooed with vibrant murals. It's location on Lomas, a street always pulsing with traffic in and out of dowtown, might not give it much atmosphere, but at least it makes it an easy stop for lunch.

We were lucky enough to arrive just as a table was being cleared. As soon as we sat down, more diners arrived, and were forced to wait standing between the formica tables and the lunch counter. The place was so small that our table was not that far from the kitchen-- the smell of which led me to order three tacos: 1 chicken, 1 carne asada, and 1 carne adovada. They arrived spilling out of their soft corn tortillas, with wedges of lime and a fiery dish of salsa on the side. The chicken was ok-- what was I thinking ordering a chicken taco?-- but the carne asada and adovada were delicious. The asada was perfectly grilled, and still juicy; the pork in the adovado was nicely coated in rich chile sauce. It was really too much food-- I ate it all, of course-- but next time I think two tacos would be a well sized order (especially with a glass of cinnamony horchata on the side).

There are a few New Mexican items on the menu, but keep it simple, stick to the tacos, and you'll have a fantastic meal.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

NM to TPE.

As of last night we have airline tickets booked, so our route for the next month has finally been mapped out. We're going to stick around Albuquerque a little longer, enjoying the clean dry air and the delicious green chile, then we're heading up to Utah (1) for a few days of camping among surreal desert landscapes. After a stop in Vegas for an even more surreal landscape, we'll be heading to one of my favorite cities in the world, Los Angeles (2), to hit up food trucks, hang out in well-styled cafes, and wish that we were staying permanently. Then at the end of June we'll catch a flight for our new home, Taiwan (3), where we'll be full-time teachers, and part-time street food explorers.

As much as I'm getting sad about leaving New Mexico once again, I am actually starting to get excited for the trip. Hope you'll join me along the way.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dispatches: Eating (May 21, 2010).

Dispatches from the world of food and eating.

School Lunch
Most of us are probably glad that we no longer have to eat lunch from the school cafeteria, but after seeing the school lunches from China and Malaysia that Robyn posted over on Eating Asia, we may start wishing we could enroll for 2nd Grade in Chengdu or KL. Aside from the pure aesthetic appeal of the images, the photos are worth examining to get a glimpse into the food culture of China and Malaysia. What we feed our children says a lot about how we think about food-- a rather troubling thought, if I picture the Salisbury steaks and soggy square pizza slices I got as a kid.

Pictured above is a school lunch I enjoyed while teaching in Taiwan last year-- tofu and braised pork eaten with wilted greens and thick slices of bamboo.

Crack an egg on it
I've been following ReadyMade magazine since it's third issue, and while its always been good, I've been blown away by how fantastic each issue has been over the past few months. Part of why I feel it's improved is that they're increasingly adding more and more features on food and cooking. They're really taking advantage of people's growing interest in knowing what they're eating, and where their food is coming from. Recent issues have featured articles on making your own vinegar, on raising chicken's for eggs, and on why you should have a a dough hook or offset spatula in your kitchen. And every recipe we've tried, like the breakfast pastry Bordeaux made in San Francisco, or the rhubarb tart I featured in yesterday's post, have been fantastic.

Now ReadyMade has even launched their own food blog, Feast, so you don't have to wait for the semi-monthly issues to come out. I've been visiting it daily lately, salivating over their pictures, and getting some ideas to implement at dinner. One tip they featured recently was that cracking an egg over certain dishes can instantly elevate the style and flavor of the meal. We'd actually been experimenting with that lately ourselves; our best successes have been egg on pizza (crack it on, then bake for a further 6 minutes to set the whites but leave the yolk runny), and poached over a salad of bitter leaves, which Bordeaux pulled off perfectly for our recent spring dinner.

Super Superette
Cape Town has always had some great cafes, but none as wonderful as the fantastic Superette, which opened up last year. Located in the grungy neighborhood of Woodstock, Superette was worth a visit if only to relax in the cafe's sleek interior-- gray concrete floors, a homey communal table, local artist's work on the walls, and an old-fashioned lunch counter showcasing the salads of the day (it shouldn't come as a surprise that the cafe's owners had previously founded a gallery, a design collective, and the wonderful Neighbourgood's Market). And the ever-changing menu, which focused on local organic produce, always had something good on it- like home-made cereal with preserved guavas, or a rich bread and butter pudding. Unfortunately, I won't be getting back in for a meal anytime soon-- so I was happy to find out that they've got a blog going, showing the activity their kitchen is up to. Even if you won't be visiting Cape Town soon, their blog is worth a visit just to admire their style or to get some inspiration for your own kitchen.

PS- If anyone has seen any great recipes, cooking blogs, or food photos online, I'd love to hear about them! Share in the comments.

Friday, May 21, 2010

In the kitchen with primitive: a tart for spring.

I never really used to like either pies or tarts, but lately I've been developing an interest in them. Partly, its because they seem more seasonal than any other dessert. Cakes are generally the same throughout the year (aside from some specific holidays), but tarts are so reliant on what's fresh and in season. So last night when my family had a small spring dinner, I had the perfect opportunity to try making a tart fitting the season.

I chose the one featured on the April/May cover of Readymade, a ginger ricotta tart with rhubarb and strawberry jam. I still feel that in many ways I'm just finding my way in the kitchen, so I like making dishes that help familiarize me with new skills or ingredients. This tart was great because it knocked two things off my list: making my own ricotta cheese, and cooking with rhubarb.

I'd been curious to make ricotta because I'd heard it was the easiest cheese to start with. I especially like the idea of making my own cheese in Taiwan, since good cheese in Asia is rare, expensive, and usually imported. I found a recipe at Epicurious, which got an incredible number of reviews saying how easy it was to make, and how delicious the end result was. Making the ricotta would, I think, have been as easy as the reviews said-- had I gone to the somewhat necessary step of making sure we had cheesecloth at home. We didn't. Which had me making a mess of the kitchen just after midnight last night, trying to strain it out through different means. Coffee filters really didn't work at all, but squeezing the liquid through a clean tea-towel sort of did. Anyway, it worked out (mostly, sort of), and I'd love to try making ricotta again (with a cheese-cloth, next time).

But I think this tart would honestly be just as good without making your own ricotta. Buttery flaky crest flavored with ginger, a creamy cheese-cake like filling, and a sour-sweet topping of seasonal fruit. Perfect to celebrate the height of the season.

Anyone else have any favorite spring pies or tarts?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Downtown in Las Vegas (NM).

About 70 years before Las Vegas, Nevada was founded, there was Las Vegas, NM. If you didn't previously know that there is a Las Vegas in New Mexico, you can be excused-- there are a few good reasons. 1) There's not really a whole lot going on there- and -2) The town is a little creepy. On our visit there seemed to be a lot of mentally unstable people lurking around downtown (we almost thought we were going to get knifed at one point). But it is still a rather beautiful town. So if you decide to stop in, be sure to visit the old town plaza, which is surrounded by some incredibly well preserved historic buildings-- like the above-right Plaza Hotel, established 1881. The square offers a near perfect picture of a frontier American town in the late 1800s. Just watch your back.

On the road in NM.

We've actually been spending most of our time in New Mexico since we returned to the US-- my home-state just hasn't made it onto the blog recently because I'm super bad at remembering to take my camera with me when I go out. The only times I've really remembered to take any photos were on two road-trips-- one to the north-east, the other to the north-west. While the two trips focused on very different spots, the highlight of both were very tasty meals flavored with New Mexico chile.

Our first daytrip took us to the town of Las Vegas, NM. Despite the really incredible Victorian architecture in the city's historic downtown, the city had a rather depressing feeling about it. Luckily, we had a good lunch while we were stopped there. We dropped by Charlie's Spic & Span Bakery and Cafe, which unlike the rest of the town, was filled with people. We had massive breakfast plates for lunch-- I got the carne adovada, pork stewed in red chile, which were topped with an over easy egg. It all went perfectly with Charlie's freshly baked tortillas (we could hear them slapping out the tortilla dough behind us while we ate).

Our next daytrip was to the hotsprings in Jemez. Trips to Jemez were a regular part of my childhood, not for the hotsprings, but because the pine forests up there are a great place for picnics. On the way, we'd usually make a stop at a beautiful red-cliffed spot where women from the reservation would sell fry bread, loaves of bread baked in hornos, or cinnamon dusted cookies. Luckily my nostalgia linked up with Bordeaux's stomach, so we could both agree to make a stop. We opted for an 'indian taco', the somewhat silly name for a dish that I won't pretend not to love. Puffy frybread is topped with ground meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and, per our selection, green chile. It was surprisingly spicy, but practically worth the trip alone.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

24th Street, Mission.

To close up my coverage of San Francisco, I'd like to share a few spots around my favorite neighborhood: the Mission. While there seemed to be great restaurants, cafes, and shops all over the neighborhood, 24th Street in particular stood out as a great all-around destination.

What makes the Mission's 24th Street so exciting is its curious mix of inhabitants; a Thai-Chinese grocery might sit next to a taqueria, and across the street from a hipster coffee shop. This mix is unfortunately endangered, as rising rents are forcing out the traditionally latino community, but for now the vibe persists, in freshly painted murals (1) and corner groceries (2) specializing in latin american ingredients. Mexican restaurants (3) still outnumber the hispter joints. Right at the head of the street Taquerias el Farolito (2779 Mission, at the corner of 24th) offers raved about tacos filled with a diverse selection of meats (chorizo, lengua, beef brain...). Also worth keeping an eye out for at the intersection are the 'tamale ladies', who peddle their delicacies just up the steps from the Bart Station.

Further down the street, Local Mission Eatery (3111 24th) offers a changing menu based on what's being grown seasonally in the SF area. On our visit, I ate an unbelievable sandwich (4) of asparagus and poached eggs on freshly baked brioche. Yum. The relaxed, dimly lit interior offers a calm break from the pace of the street outside.

After lunch, you'll be spoiled for options for dessert. My pick is to head down the street to Dynamo Donuts (6) (2760 24th), for a donut in maple bacon or lemon thyme. Also worth the wait in line is the ice cream at Humphry Slocombe (just off 24th, on 2790 Harrison), where scoops comes in a staggeringly diverse selection of ever-rotating flavors, like Thai Chili Lime, Peanut Butter Curry, or Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee. Or, cross the street from Local and pop into La Reyna (5) (3114 24th) for a tasty Mexican sweet bread.

If you're like me, and think that something sugary is best followed by a cup of coffee, then follow the sounds of typing to Haus (7) (3086 24th), where you'll be welcomed into the starkly minimalist coffee shop by the glowing lights of a dozen hipsters all on Macbooks. The menu is small, but the coffees are beautifully made. If it's a nice day, you can even sit out back in their bare-bones patio.

Editor's note: Want to know one of the weirdest things about this neighborhood? It reminded me a lot of Los Angeles. I could almost have been in Silverlake or Echo Park, though admittedly there were a lot more people walking around here. Which makes me think that as great as San Francisco was, if this was my favorite SF neighborhood, then I might actually still just be an LA kind of guy...

Friday, May 14, 2010

SF signs.

I'm always a fan of vintage typographies and design, so in San Francisco my eyes were often trained upwards-- to take in all of the funky signs. Even the dry cleaners seemed to have great signs! These were a few of the favorites I spotted.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sweet City.

There was something so charming about San Francisco-- the picturesque hills of Victorian houses, the toy-like cable cars, the dapper gents -- that it felt a little like being in a children's book. So somehow it seemed fitting that all over the city there were little shops specializing in treats, sweet shops selling delicious pastries, ice cream, pie, or donuts. Over our week in the city, we sought out some we'd heard of, stumbled on another, and enjoyed some of the best sweets the city has to offer.

Our first stop in San Francisco was at Tartine, which more than lived up to its reputation (and more than deserved the long line that snaked outside onto the Mission sidewalk). The cafe's interior looked like a cozy environment to sit and savor a creamy latte, but we got our pastries boxed. We opened them later on a picnic in Golden Gate Park, and shared the wide variety of pastries we'd selected. Two of the best (pictured top) were an almond lemon tea cake, and a creamy tres leches cake.

Back to the Mission on another day, we stopped at Bi-Rite Creamery, where we once again found long lines, and were once again rewarded for waiting. The strawberry balsamic soft serve was a little disappointing (not quite enough balsamic flavor), but the traditional ice creams, in flavors like brown sugar with ginger-caramel swirl, roasted banana, and toasted coconut, were rather tasty. The winner: honey lavender, which balanced not-too-sweet ice cream with an herby perfumed scent.

The only dessert in this entry that wasn't found in the Mission, and the only one that we stumbled upon by accident, was perhaps the most unique treat we tried. The Loving Cup, in Russian Hill, specializes in making a seriously undervalued dessert: rice pudding. I selected a cup of rum and raisin rice pudding, which tasted charmingly old-fashioned and incredibly delicious. The ingredients they use are local and organic, and they happily show nutritional information to tout their low calorie products.

But the sweetest highlight of the trip was a stop at Dynamo Donuts, which I'd been wanting to try since first reading about them in Readymade magazine over a year ago. Back then, I'd attempted to make their lemon pistachio donut, which had been a bit of a flop-- luckily that was one of the donuts on offer on our visit, so I could compare. We picked up a box of donuts for the family, and brought them back home to try out.

The flavors, in clockwise order from top-left: candied orange blossom, chocolate star anise, caramel del sel, mystery apple (we forgot to note the exact flavor), lemon thyme, vanilla bean, chocolate spice, maple glazed bacon, and the aforementioned lemon pistachio.

We sliced them up, sampled each of them, and debated on the best. The caramel del sel was fantastically rich, and the bacon donut was suprisingly satisfying, but the best may have been the simple lemon thyme (though no one else would agree with me, probably).

PS- And, in related news, I've had to go on a diet and start working out since I've been back. Even all the walking we did in San Francisco couldn't counteract the incredible sweets available everywhere. But it was totally worth it!

Friday, May 07, 2010

Around town in American Apparel.

After a year of living in South Africa, during which Bordeaux and I each added literally 1 item of clothing to our wardrobes (but wore out all of our older garments), we're both in the process of rebuilding our closets. The good side of this is that we can basically start from scratch, focusing on certain styles and colors. So while in San Francisco, we made a few trips to hit up local-California store American Apparel. Not only is it a fantastic place to stock up on locally and responsibly made style basics fairly inexpensively, but because they make each item in a variety of core colors it makes it really easy to co-ordinate. So re-outfitted, we took to the streets of San Francisco to put our best colors forward.

X at the Golden Gate: Flex Fleece Zip Hoodie in mermaid green

B Downtown: Striped Fleece Zip Hoodie in purple and black (also seen in top photo).

Murals of the Mission.

Over our week in San Francisco, we seemed to find a daily excuse to head back toward the Mission. Sometimes it was to pick up pastries or donuts, other times in search of a delicious local lunch, but mainly it was just to enjoy the atmosphere of the neighborhood. The murals for which the mission are so well known seem to seem up the Mission's diverse nature, their edgy illustrative styles reflecting both hip pop imagery and the neighborhood's heavily Latino culture. Many of the best murals are hidden in discreet alleys, on garage doors and the backs of shops, making for a perfect stroll after grabbing a lemon thyme donut.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

3 Binh My in SF.

One of the most surprising details about San Francisco for me was the way in which binh my, Vietnamese baguette sandwiches, have practically been adopted as a bay area specialty. We saw them sold everywhere and eaten by everyone, from non-descript downtown kiosks catering to local office workers, to the menus of trendy cafes and restaurants, to hole-in-the-wall Tenderloin shops where the queues were startlingly diverse. I love binh my, and likely could have eaten one every day, had I not forced a little restraint upon myself. But as it was, I was able to sample three different binh my, from radically different sources and in quite different forms.

I hate to say it, but the binh my I ate from Saigon to Hanoi might have made me rather particular. While each of the ones I tried in SF were great, I never found a perfect one-- though they came close. Any suggestions on where to try next time?

1. Binh My Pate, from Saigon Sandwich (pictured at top)
We swung by Saigon Sandwich to pick up binh my awhile before lunch-time, but even so there was already a line out the door when we arrived. And after unwrapping my sandwich and taking a bite, I could see why. The sandwiches had a great mix of salty, savory and spicy, with big slices of chili and a generous handful of cilantro. The only problem was the pate flavor, which had too much of a liverwurst flavor, which overpowered a little toward the end. Perhaps I should have ordered the combination pate and cold meats, for a more balanced taste.

2. BBQ Brisket Binh My, at Wexler's

When I saw the BBQ Brisket Binh My listed among the items on the US South-inspired menu at Wexler's, I knew I had to try it. Unfortunately, the result was a little disappointing. I should point out that had I ordered the sandwich simply as a BBQ brisket, I would have had no complaints: the meat was incredibly delicious. But the sandwich was really lacking the binh my flavor it promised. The cilantro and chili were barely present, the pickled cabbage not a perfect substitute for fish-sauce marinated carrots. A great idea, but not terribly well executed.

3. Hoi An Meatball Binh My, from Out the Door

Our first meal in the city itself was a fantastic Vietnamese lunch at the Slanted Door. After leaving, I glanced at their take-away cafe Out the Door, and noticed that they had binh my on the menu. So on our last day, I asked that we swing by the Ferry Building so I could grab one as a final lunch in the city. Though both the Roast Pork and 5 Spice Chicken sounded good, I opted for the Hoi An Meatball sandwich just to be a little different. And once again, the team behind the Slanted Door delivered with a fantastic sandwich that burst with the taste of Vietnam. My only complaint with the sandwich was that, unlike the sandwiches in the city it references, it had no spice. The binh my I had in Hoi An were always doused with a fiery chili sauce, which would have been a nice addition. Perhaps its available upon request?

Monday, May 03, 2010


When I suggested San Francisco as a destination for our family holiday, I did so for a slightly odd (and somewhat selfish) reason. I didn't think I really liked San Francisco. I'd been a few times over my life, and never felt any particular connection to the city-- most recently I'd visited the city on a decidedly miserable college road-trip that made the city seem grimy, bland, and populated by washed out hippies and aging beatniks. And admittedly, my fondness for LA might have spurned a little Nor-Cal rivalry. But recently I'd spoken with quite a few interesting people who love the city, making me wonder if there was something I'd missed. And during the developing of my interest in food, my researches kept pointing back toward San Francisco as a great food center. So I decided to give the city another chance.

I planned the trip rather closely with my sister, and we were very particular in our plans. We avoided everything that seemed too touristy (no bread bowls on Pier 39), skipped the Haight completely (ew), and sought out a mix of local cafes, restaurants, and bakeries to sample from. I wanted to live as much like a local as I could during our short stay, to gain a new perspective on the city.

And as a result, I will happily admit that I was wrong; San Francisco truly is a rather fantastic city. Though the best thing about the city is its vibe and atmosphere, I've isolated a few of the particular things that I loved most about San Francisco. Are they enough to make me spurn LA completely? Well, if I could ever afford an apartment in the Mission...

1. Eating well, locally

The creamy latte and sultana-studded muesli above were enjoyed on a sidewalk table outside Farm:Table, a minuscule cafe with a changing daily menu of straight-from-the-farm produce. San Francisco is not only an easy city in which to eat well, it's also an incredibly easy city in which to eat responsibly, as there are lots of opportunities to eat foods that are grown or produced locally.

There are fantastic cafes, like Farm:Table or the super-cool Local Mission Eatery, which feature menus that are not only fresh and creative, but also made up only of local, seasonal foods. One incredible resource for eating locally in the city is the Ferry Building, which houses enough San Francisco food artisans to put together an incredible picnic lunch. We took home camembert from Cowgirl Creamery, baguettes from Acme Bread Company, and several regional bottles from the Wine Merchant.

The Ferry Building also have a great farmer's market several times a week. One of the best meals we had on the trip was a fantastic breakfast tart Bordeaux made, using local salami, pancetta, eggs, asparagus, herbs, and heirloom tomatoes, all purchased from the farmer's market at the Ferry Building.

2. Asian culture

After having lived in Asia I've had to accept that I'll never be able to leave the continent behind completely; so a US city with a strong Asian culture might be ideal. San Francisco's location on the Pacific Rim was clearly obvious, in elements ranging from the iconic Japanese Gardens at Golden Gate Park (pictured above), to the simple every-day details, like announcements in Mandarin on city buses. It's also a great city for Asian food, with options ranging form rock-star restaurants like The Slanted Door and Burma Superstar!, to small hole-in-the-wall binh my shops.

3. Car-free living

I have really grown to love living without a car, and while I still see the use in having one for moving furniture or going on road-trips, I'd be rather pleased if my daily life was totally car-free. San Francisco must among of the very few cities in the American West where that's actually a possibility. We were lucky enough to rent a house in Nob Hill, from where we could almost everywhere; for longer distances, I loved the retro cable-cars that have been gathered from all over the country.

Not only was it personally enjoyable being able to get around on foot, but it created such a wonderful atmosphere in the city. The streets and sidewalks felt totally alive, because people weren't just ducking into their cars as soon as they got outside. People would pass us carrying groceries or bundles of flowers, walking french bulldogs, or going on their daily run. And all the people mingling on the sidewalks meant tons of opportunities for fashion-spotting among locals, who somehow all seemed incredibly beautiful and well-dressed. Maybe it's all the walking and jogging that makes them look so good...

4. Sweet City
Yet for a city that is so fit and healthy, there are an incredible diversity of places that make getting rather fat look quite tempting. There are bakeries, sweet-shops, and ice-cream parlors all over the city, most of them featuring artisinal desserts, creative flavors, and high-quality ingredients. Pictured above is an almond crossaint I wish I'd tried Tartine, where we splurged on a range of pastries to split over a picnic in Golden Gate park. I won't go on too much about the topic of San Francisco's sweet-shops now, because I have a lot more to say about it another entry...

Saturday, May 01, 2010

eating culture/eaten: In-n-Out Burger and Shake.

Last week I got to spend an incredible seven days around San Francisco and the wine country with my family. Our holiday was planned mainly around eating some incredible food, starting with a much appreciated stop at In-n-Out on our way from the airport to Napa. It might seem like a humble beginning to a holiday in one of the world's greatest food centers, but the meal really summed up what we were after: simple, satisfying bites of local California flavor. And anyway, if you've had a burger and shake from In-n-Out, then you probably understand.