Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pete '08: The Year in Food

It's that time again. As the new year approaches we all must reflect on the restaurant meals we've enjoyed (or didn't) over the past year. At least I was informed last year that I had to reflect, so I started my series of year-end roundups. Of course, there's more to life than food, and this was a particularly interesting year to be living in America, so much so that the momentous election of Barack Obama almost overshadowed my finding a great vindaloo.

My discovery of the fabulous vindaloo at Tadka may have been the most striking culinary event of the year for me. Until you've had a true vindaloo in India, you don't really know how bad (and inauthentic) most U.S. Indian restaurant versions of the dish are.

In other news from the Indian front, reports of a great, authentic biryani at Sangam, in The Village, only led to disappointment. Happily, Devi reopened this year, after closing due to a rift with a former business partner, the owner of the mediocre Baluchi's chain, who was apparently skimming tips. I had another excellent restaurant week meal there, and I also got to see Devi's master chef Suvir Saran perform at the Times Travel Show earlier in the year. A trip to Richmond Hill, way out in Queens, gave me the opportunity to sample some Indo-Caribbean snacks.

I seem to have written a fair amount about Japanese food this year. In recent years New York has become a mecca for all sorts of regional and specialty Japanese restaurants. So while in much of America Japanese food pretty much means sushi and teriyaki, I was able to enjoy and write about yakiniku (table grilling) at Gyu-Kaku, Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen at Ippudo (where I nearly became drunk on their "liquid pork"), and an izakaya (Japanese eating pub) experience at Ariyoshi. I also got to try the traditional Okinawan dish of bitter melon, eggs and tofu at Suibi (now closed, alas), and my masculinity survived a couple of "ladies' sets" at Ise.

Those who know me, or who have been regular readers of this blog, know that perhaps my greatest culinary love is the cuisines of China. I kicked off the eating year with a visit to Shanghai Cafe, where I had the traditional New Year's rice cakes, nian gow. A second visit to Imperial Palace in Flushing convinced me that it is the best Cantonese restaurant we have in New York at the moment. Lucky Eight, in Sunset Park, a favorite of New York Magazine's Adam Platt, couldn't hold a candle to Imperial Palace. I was happy to find a couple of good bets for Chinatown-style roast meats near my midtown east office. Also near my office is Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden, where I had one memorable dinner. A visit from some vegetarian friends provided the opportunity to compose a purely vegetarian menu at John's Shanghai, Shanghai-style being perhaps the most vegetarian-friendly of Chinese regional cuisines. I traversed this great nation in search of Yunnan cuisine, and I struck gold in Chicago. In Riverdale I took a culinary time capsule back to the Chinese-American food of my youth at Golden Gate.

Though Florence's, the Ghanaian restaurant in Harlem that I raved about a while back, closed this year, I found excellent West African food closer to home at two Brooklyn establishments, Meytex and Mariam's.

I hit a number of interesting places with my monthly outer boroughs entourage. We were almost killed with calories at Milan's, a Slovak restaurant in Brooklyn. We had excellent, refined mezedes at S'Agapo, a Cretan restaurant in Astoria. In Elmhurst we visited Upi Jaya, for Padang-style Indonesian food. I finally wrote, with some difficulty, about Sripraphai, perhaps the city's most highly regarded Thai restaurant, and we tried a different side of Thai, Isaan food, at Zabb.

A smorgasbord lunch at the Norwegian Seamen's Church led to memories of my tacky bar mitzvah. A few forays into New York Jewish deli culture brought further Proustian childhood memories. The new Second Avenue Deli's pastrami didn't disappoint, and at Sarge's I had a rolled beef sandwich for the first time in years, leading me to wax elegiac about this endangered deli meat.

A hot summer day brought me to Coney Island for a final visit to the original Nathan's Famous, now history, I'm sad to say, where I was shocked to learn how many calories there are in an order of French fries. Yeah, shocked like Claude Rains in "Casablanca." Another hot day found me trying halo halo, the Philippines' great kitchen-sink ice drink.

In the mixology department, I decided that the Middle Eastern bitter citrus drink, Loomi, would go great with gin, and for those times when alcohol is out of the question I experimented with recipes for non-alcoholic gin. This blog gets several hits a day from people who are looking for a non-alcoholic gin recipe, so I'm not alone in my quest.

As always, travel always provides interesting eating opportunities. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I tried the national dish of Bhutan, albeit in a version that made concessions to locally available ingredients. It wasn't good, but still I relished the opportunity to try it. While in D.C. I visited two of noted chef José Andrés' restaurants; the pan-Mediterranean Zaytinya bowled me over while Jaleo, his tapas restaurant, left me totally cold. While in Montreal for the jazz festival I ate at a restaurant serving the cuisine of the French Indian Ocean island La Reunion. While in Chicago for the jazz festival, besides eating fabulous Yunnan food at Spring World, I ate Armenian meatballs with wacky poet Bradley Lastname, reveled in the deliciousness of Chicago hot dogs, and decided once and for all that Chicago deep dish pizza is the real dog.

I'm not normally a big pizza eater, but I was one Sunday in March when four of us went to Staten Island to try four pizzerias, a soda fountain, an ice cream parlor and a German bar. Denino's, probably Staten Island's most famous pizzeria, was a big disappointment, but the pizza at Joe and Pat's was fantastic.

Good but far from fantastic was the wildly overpriced $21 12'' personal pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana (above), in the East Village. The audacity of price inspired one of my more vitriolic rants, though perhaps not as vitriolic as the post about people who behave in subway cars as if they were in their own bathroom.

And what better way to end the year than with links to a couple of vitriolic rants?

A Pair of Loaves

I discovered this recently when I was going through some old, unpublished manuscripts. I don't know when this was written, but I'd guess the early 'eighties. It's clearly influenced by Gertrude Stein's "Tender Buttons." I think I decided at the time that it was way too Steiny for me to try to publish it. But here, on Word of Mouth, I have no shame.

This and that make a fine pair. This and that and a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread is more than this, and another loaf is more than that.

More than this and more than that, a pair is less than three. More than one and less than another. Another loaf and another one make two. That is two more.

Make two loaves of bread, make two, for we are having another. That is more and one is not enough. One is not enough for more than two, or three or four. Two will do.

A pair of loaves is more than before. Before was less than three. Two less. Two less and one make a pair. There is no more.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Late Harold Pinter, a Personal Note

Harold Pinter has died. He was my first real influence as a writer. I'd been writing before I read him or saw one of his plays staged, but it was with my reading of "The Birthday Party" in my second semester of college that something clicked. The professor was a pompous jerk, as were many of my English professors at Brooklyn College, but he did introduce me to this great writer at the end of the introduction to drama course I took in 1974, when I was 18, and for that I'm eternally grateful, even if I would have eventually found Pinter on my own. When I read this play I realized that it was fully permissible to write what I then considered "weird stuff," that it was permissible to write as I was inclined to write. I became a voracious consumer of Pinter. I read everything in print and went to performances of his plays, including "No Man's Land," in 1977, with Gielgud and Richardson, and a production of "The Birthday Party," in the 'eighties, that featured Jean Stapleton. I was able to quote long stretches of his dialogue. Though I gave up playwriting for fiction toward the end of my college years, Pinter's influence carried over into the moods, rhythms and pacing I favored. I think there's a little Pinter in all the "creative" prose I write.

Many deserving writers have died before they could get the "brass ring," the Nobel Prize, but Pinter got his in 2005. In his Nobel speech he talked a bit about his drama, but for the most part he took the opportunity to lambaste the U.S. for its arrogance and aggression on the international stage.

I'd like to think that in a couple of years from now he'd be delivering a different kind of speech if he were still alive.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Isaan It Wonderful?

Isaan is the Northeastern region of Thailand. It's near Laos, and the Isaan people are of Lao descent. Isaan cuisine is somewhat distinct from the central or southern Thai food we're most familiar with, though some dishes, like labb (pungent ground meat or fish salads) have found their way onto most Thai menus. Zabb Queens, in Jackson Heights, serves a full menu of Isaan dishes (though they spell it Esan), mixed in with more familiar Thai dishes (no real distinction is made, so a little preparation and study, as well as assistance from the staff, is needed to maximize the Isaan ordering experience).

Zabb is a small, narrow place, and our party of eight dominated the restaurant on a quiet Tuesday night. We had the opportunity to try a good sampling from the large menu, but there's plenty more to return for. As salads are a major component of Isaan cuisine they made up a large part of our meal.

We ordered several items from the appetizers portion of the menu. The moo lob dann (fried seasoned pork with spicy sauce on the side) was basically pork McNuggets--tasty, though not really something I'd order again. The grilled beef "super balls" had a dense, appropriately bouncy consistency, like fish balls (could it have been from tapioca starch?) and provided a pleasant nibble. Grilled skewered chicken livers and hearts, served with dipping sauces, were a mixed bag. The livers were too dry, but the hearts had soul.

The som tum seafood is a green papaya salad with shrimp and squid, but by the time it got to me all that was left was the delightfully spicy and refreshing papaya shreds (it was also supposed to have salted crab, but I didn't see any on the plate). The mango salad with shrimp had an appealing sweet/spicy duality. The yum nam kao tod, a salad with pork and chicken skin and crispy rice, was my favorite dish of the evening. It had an amazingly complex mix of flavors and textures. Like most of the salads, it had a seriously spicy kick. I had asked the waitress to make everything "Thai spicy," which sat well with most of the diners, though the heat did challenge a couple of my companions from time to time. The chicken labb, a room-temperature minced meat salad, was perfectly spicy and astringent, without any of the unwelcome sweetness you'll find in the dish at most Thai restaurants in the U.S.

The fried rice with Thai sausage delivered more than the name promised, with a spicy but mellow overall flavor and small pieces of sweet sausage mixed in. Also excellent was what the waitress told me was the only Isaan noodle dish on the menu, basically a spicier, bolder spin on pad Thai.

I'd read in several places that the curries are best avoided, as they're not the restaurant's strong suit since they're not Isaan dishes. But we did order duck with red curry paste because another duck dish we had wanted was unavailable. It wasn't at all bad, but it was far from the highlight of the meal. The same can be said of the chunks of pig leg meat with basil, which had a sauce that was too thick for my taste. We had ordered this because the pig leg with Chinese broccoli and preserved mustard green was not available.

I think I made the right choice by leaning heavily on the salads, but the fried rice and noodle dishes were a very pleasant surprise. We also had sticky rice with our meal, the preferred rice preparation of the region.

The icing on the cake, as it were, was the very satisfying coconut ice cream with fried banana rolls (in spring roll skins) that most of us had for dessert.

Zabb Queens 7128 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Save the Butterfly Shrimp!

"I can't wait until we go to Golden Gate," I told Janice. "I'm dying to have butterfly shrimp again. It's an endangered species."

"It is? Then I'm not eating it!" she said, adamantly. My conservationist friend had obviously taken my words literally and assumed that the butterfly shrimp was an exotic sea creature facing imminent extinction.

"It's the name of a dish," I assured her.

Butterfly shrimp is one of those classic Cantonese-American dishes of my youth. You hardly see it on Chinese restaurant menus any more, but about five years ago I developed a craving for the dish, a craving that went unsatisfied until December 7, 2008. Along with my butterfly shrimp craving I had developed a general, nostalgic craving for old-style Chinese-American food, a remembrance of things past sending me in search of time lost.

There are only a few places left in New York that serve the dishes that defined Chinese food in America up until the 1970s. The two most often mentioned when the subject arises are King Yum, a venerable Chinese-Polynesian tiki bar in Queens, and Golden Gate in Riverdale.

My chance to try Golden Gate finally arose when I went to Riverdale to see my friends Howard and Pat perform a Christmas program with the Riverdale Choral Society. Howard and Pat have been ordering takeout from Golden Gate for some years, but they'd never actually eaten in the restaurant. There was some bad news, Howard had warned me in advance. They had recently redesigned the place, so it no longer looked like a relic from the 'fifties. They added a sushi bar and broadened their menu to become pan-Asian. Fortunately, however, they retained a number of their old-school staples.

After the concert five of us went over to Golden Gate. I assiduously avoided all of the Asian-fusion and pseudo-Szechuan dishes and ordered a meal of mostly retro classics. For appetizers we had barbecued spare ribs and shrimp toast. I'd read that Golden Gate was one of the best places in the city for Chinese spare ribs, a favorite dish of my youth. Spare ribs were surely the most popular Chinese restaurant item among New York Jews for generations. Somehow the ribs must have been given a secret amnesty from kosher law, because countless Jews who kept kosher at home ate spare ribs at Chinese restaurants on Sundays and on Christmas Eve. Golden Gate's spare ribs were indeed great, and brought back memories of Joy Fong, the spare rib standard-bearer of my childhood. They were moist, meaty, lightly charred and slightly sweet. I don't know how many hundreds of Chinese spare ribs I consumed in my youth, but I don't think I ever even knew about Memphis, K.C. or St. Louis-style ribs until I was at least in my twenties. When you were Jewish in New York in the 'fifties and 'sixties spare ribs meant only one thing.

Shrimp toast is something I never really liked as a kid, but you never know when you're going to find it again and all of a sudden it seemed worth ordering. Surely this is a purely American invention. A paste of chopped shrimp, water chestnuts and egg is slathered onto slices of white bread, and the thing is deep fried.

Then came the main courses, of which, for me, butterfly shrimp was the centerpiece. As I remember it from my childhood, it consisted of large shrimps split lengthwise ("butterflied"), and the split side was coated with egg and bacon; it was served with a light sweet and sour sauce (not the really sticky kind) and onions. The version at Golden Gate was served more like an omelet: a mess of shrimp in a pancake of egg and bacon. It was so good! After all, what's not to like about shrimp and egg and bacon? Everybody at the table agreed it was wonderful. What a relief. You go around for years with a Jones for a dish based on a distant memory and odds are as good as not you're going to be disappointed. I wasn't disappointed.

I was hoping to order wor shew opp, pressed duck which is breaded and fried then braised with shredded vegetables, but it wasn't on the menu. Instead we had hong shu duck, which is almost the same thing. In fact, you could have given me the dish, told me it was wor shew opp, and I'd have been perfectly satisfied. It was heavy but good.

I don't think I saw moo goo gai pan, which in the old days was an "exotic" dish compared to chow mein and chop suey, on the menu. They do have shrimp with lobster sauce and egg foo yung, but I said no thanks to both. When I was a kid I didn't understand why they called it lobster sauce, because it had no lobster in it. Then I learned that it was the same sauce that was used for lobster Cantonese.

I broke with the nostalgia theme and ordered two things I never ate as a child. One of them is a dish that is apparently a Golden Gate specialty, lobster with burnt pork, which every review of the restaurant seems to have mentioned, and which is definitely worth mentioning again. It's a bit of a misnomer, as the minced pork is not burnt at all.

As Eric Asimov wrote in The Times:

Finally, the lobster with burnt pork ($22) arrived, looking and smelling as impressive as I had hoped. The lobster was cut into pieces, with mounds of ground pork heaped around, giving off an unmistakable burned waft. Yet the pork didn't taste burned at all. In fact, it was highly flavored, seared quickly in a wok to seal in the juiciness of the meat and well seasoned with a touch of sweetness. And the lobster was superb, moist and tender -- fried quickly and then, what, braised with the pork?

I asked the waiter, but the most he would reveal was that it was an old Cantonese recipe, which, he said, was available nowhere else.

I felt that we needed a green vegetable (a feeling I never had as a child), and I ordered the baby bok choy with Napa cabbage. This was the least satisfying item of the meal. The vegetables were limp and served in a sauce that was superfluous. Lightly sauteed with a little bit of garlic is the way to go with baby bok choy.

I had gone to Golden Gate on a nostalgia trip and really wasn't expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. The food was much better than I had expected. Back in the '70s I wouldn't have given this food the time of day. It was the old, inauthentic Chinese food that was being relegated to the dustbin of history by Szechuan and Hunan cuisine (or Americanized approximations thereof). Now that this food is nearly extinct, and now that the miserable childhood that accompanied this food has become little more than fodder for amusing anecdotes, I can enjoy it again. Sure it isn't "authentic" Chinese food, but now it can be celebrated as heritage American foodways!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ode to a Candy Store

My tribute to Fred and Rudy's, the favorite hangout of my early years, has just gone up on the website Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. The site, run by writer Thomas Beller, features nonfiction writing about New York City, and stories are keyed to an interactive map. The latest batch of tales also includes a piece by my good friend Peter Wortsman.

The candy store of which I write was not the kind of place you went to for chocolate truffles or Whitman Samplers. In New York, for many years, the candy store meant the local luncheonette/newsstand. When the Shangri-Las, three girls from Queens, sang "I met him at the candy store," this was the kind of place they were talking about. I don't know how widespread the term "candy store" was outside of the New York metro area. In some places the equivalent institution was known as the soda fountain or soda shop.

In other Cherches literary news, elimae has just published a teeny-tiny piece from a series-in-progress. Also in this issue are pieces by old friends Mike Topp and Bonnie ZoBell.


I Left My Youth at Fred & Rudy's Candy Store

from Trio Bagatelles

Friday, December 12, 2008

Have a Ding Dong Dandy Christmas Redux

I originally posted this two years ago, along with a downloadable file of one of the tunes (no longer available here). I'm reposting it for this holiday season with a link to the Psychotic Leisure Music blog, which has the full album available for download. Just make sure you read the instructions carefully.

As a result of my original post I was contacted by a woman who found this because her husband is also related to the Nevins brothers, and she had been doing genealogical research on the family. Through her I found out all sorts of things about my father and his family that she had dug up in public records. So now I know that my father's birth name was Aaron, not Harry. My father died when I was two years old, so I never really knew him. My mother apparently didn't know everything either, as the revelation about his name came as a total surprise to her.

When I was a kid this was the only Christmas album we had in our secular Jewish household. The only reason we had a copy was because two of The Three Suns, Al and Morty Nevins, were my father's cousins. We were on a comp list, and RCA Victor sent us every new Three Suns release. I never actually met the Nevins brothers, and both are long gone. Perhaps it's just family pride, but I consider "A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas" the greatest Christmas album of all time.

The Three Suns got together in the early forties. The trio consisted of Al on guitar, Morty on accordion, and their cousin Artie Dunn on Hammond organ. They had a number of hits, beginning with "Twilight Time," an original instrumental eventually better known for the Platters' vocal version. Among the Suns' many fans was Mamie Eisenhower, who once said they were her favorite musical group. The original trio toured and recorded for about a decade, but by the mid-fifties there were, in essence, two parallel Three Suns. Artie Dunn kept a touring trio together, and Al Nevins produced of a number of studio albums featuring augmented instrumentation and arrangements that often went over the top. These Suns albums are coveted by contemporary fans of "lounge" or "space-age bachelor pad" music.

Al Nevins himself didn't play on most of these later recordings. He had made a very successful move to the business side, both as an A&R man for RCA Victor and as the young Don Kirshner's partner in the Brill Building's hit factory Aldon Music. Among the songwriters in the Aldon stable were Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil.

The RCA Three Suns albums utilized several different arrangers, but the wildest charts were penned by a true genius of instrumental wackiness, Charles Albertine. Albertine is responsible for the arrangements on the Christmas album.

Here are the original liner notes:

Is there one person you like? Not just like, but really like? Is he a pretty swingin' guy? A pal who gets a kick out of things? A kid who spends a lot of time learning that life, after all, is for fun? This album is for those people. It's a gone album, gang, with the kind of melodic surprises we've come to expect from The Three Suns.

The Suns have remained the same over the years. But, as on other of their recent hits, they've added instruments. They've got some novel ones here: chimes, bells, an oboe and two tubas.

The result of this lineup is a collection of melodic Christmas songs with a real crazy rhythm. The beat is Cha-Cha, Merengue and Rock 'n' Roll, all wrapped up in one. These are not carols, mind you, just songs. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hangs out here, and so does Alvin, star of The Chipmunk Song. Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town in this album, going through a Winter Wonderland to the tune of Jingle Bells as he takes his Sleigh Ride—all to the fun arrangements of Charles Albertine.

If, after listening to these, you think you've heard everything, hold still a minute as the Suns and their helpers bring a weird, exotic sound to White Christmas and such other lovely tunes as Skaters Waltz and The Christmas Song.

Santa Claus has been pushing his staff at the North Pole hard all year with only one thing in mind: fun. If you want to lend him a helping hand, give this album to someone you really like this Christmas. If he's spirited, if he's swingin', if he's a ding-dong dandy guy, he'll love it.


Check out Michael Toth's wonderful Three Suns tribute site.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stalking the Elusive Yunnan Cuisine

The cuisine of Yunnan province, in southwestern China, has multiple personalities. As the northeastern part of the province borders Sichuan, many dishes are influenced by Sichuan cooking. But in the south Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, and there are also many ethnic minorities in the province, all contributing influences to Yunnan cooking. Yunnan cuisine (also known as Dian cuisine) doesn't get it's own place in the traditional four or eight schools of Chinese cuisine; rather it's considered a subclass of Sichuan (or Chuan) cuisine.

You won't find many Yunnan restaurants in the west. I don't think you'll even find many in other parts of China, though certain famous dishes, like "crossing the bridge" noodles and steam-pot chicken may find their way onto the occasional menu.

The first time I tried Yunnan cooking was in 2005, in France, of all places, at the Foire Gastronomique in Dijon. Yunnan was the international guest of honor at that edition of the fair, but while the restaurant the Yunnan contingent set up at the convention center had a large, impressive menu, only a few of the dishes were actually available. I did get to try steam-pot chicken (qi guo ji, chicken in a broth flavored with Chinese herbs, steamed in an earthenware pot), one of the iconic dishes of the region.

The next time I had Yunnanese food was last year, in Brooklyn, of all places. I was thrilled to discover Yun Nan Flavour Snack, a tiny place in Sunset Park that specializes in spicy homemade rice noodle soups. The noodles are spaghetti-shaped, and the broth, with your choice of meat, ranges from pretty hot to incendiary, depending on how you instruct them to season it. This humble snack bar is run by a charming couple from Kunming, the major city of Yunnan. Aside from the noodle soup, there's not much else on the menu, but the dumplings in hot and sour soup are fabulous. Thin-skinned, half-moon-shaped pork dumplings are served in a broth that betrays the province's proximity to Southeast Asia, as it has a tanginess more reminiscent of a Thai or Malaysian tom yum than a Sichuan hot and sour soup.

One Saturday afternoon, as I was waiting for my soup, I got into a conversation with another customer, who was born in Kunming. It turns out that he lives in White Plains and drives down to Brooklyn every weekend because this is the only place in the area where he can find a taste of home, and we all know how nostalgic the tastes of home can be. I asked him if he knew any place to get crossing the bridge noodles, which I knew to be the most famous of Yunnan dishes.

"Not in New York. Chicago, I hear. And L.A."

As I was planning my trip to Chicago this year, for the jazz festival, I did my research and learned that the Yunnan restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown is called Spring World, which also serves Sichuan cuisine. With a couple of confederates I headed to Spring World for lunch.

I was delighted to see an extensive list of Yunnan specialties and somewhat daunted. There were so many things I wanted to try, and there were only three of us. On top of that, the other two were not especially adventurous, so I had to steer away from dishes like "Hong Tashan" pig's feet with hot pepper, chef's special dry chili pork tripe, and spicy preserved pork.

I did order the "across the bridge" noodles. I was expecting the full treatment. The dish is traditionally one of those cook-it-yourself affairs. A big bowl of broth, with a top layer of vegetable oil to keep the heat in, is brought to the table along with a bunch of thinly sliced meats, vegetables, bean curd skins, and egg, which one adds to the broth, along with the rice noodles (the same kind of noodles used in the spicy soups at Yun Nan Flavour Snack). The soup is subtly flavored; it's not one of Yunnan's spicy dishes. The version I had at Spring World was pre-composed, and while pleasant, it was hardly the highlight of the meal. Spring World also serves steam-pot chicken, but I figured one soup dish would be sufficient.

spicy baby chicken with ginger at Spring World

The Yunnan pork ribs were excellent, though a bit scant in the meat department. They had a dry spice coating that included cumin and chili and reminded me of the cumin-coated lamb dishes I've had in Sichuan restaurants. The other Yunnan dish we ordered was not excellent--it was stellar. Simply called "spicy baby chicken with ginger and pepper," it could easily have been called "amazing chicken" if that name was not already taken by another, much less amazing, Chinese dish. Though I'm not sure what they mean by baby chicken, the dish consisted of diced, very tender, very flavorful meat with a seductive spice blend that included fresh ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies; something else--I think preserved brown bean--gave it a savory edge. I think Spring World is definitely in the same class as some of Flushing and Manhattan's best Chinese restaurants, and if I lived in Chicago I would be a regular. I'm dying to try more of their menu. Indeed, for a Chinese-food fanatic like me, this restaurant alone could make Chicago a worthy destination.

I learned about Z&Y Garden in San Francisco's Chinatown from Robert Lauriston. He was going to review it for S.F. Weekly and had asked me what I knew about Yunnan cuisine. I told him that crossing the bridge noodles and steam-pot chicken were the iconic dishes, and eagerly anticipated his review. Robert wasn't thrilled with the Yunnan offerings, but he thought their Sichuan dishes, which predominated the menu, were quite good.

chicken with explosive chili peppers at Z&Y Garden

When I visited Z&Y Garden on a recent trip to San Francisco the management had already changed, and the only Yunnan dishes on the menu appeared to be the two dishes I had told Robert about. I had a larger group than in Chicago, but I decided not to order crossing the bridge noodles. This time I did order steam-pot chicken (shown at top), which is enjoyable in small doses. Otherwise the dishes we had were all Sichuan-style, and I'm happy to say almost everything was fabulous. They had one of the best versions of ma po tofu I've tasted, with a remarkable flavor subtlety despite its numbing spiciness, as well as excellent dan dan noodles, and a dish called something like "chicken with explosive chili peppers" which found nuggets of absolutely addictive dry-spiced chicken under a hayloft of dried chilies. In Z&Y Garden Bay Area residents and visitors have a place for superlative Sichuan food where they can also try a couple of the most famous Yunnan dishes.

I rarely find myself in the L.A. area, but that may be the most fertile hunting ground for Yunnan cuisine, as there is a group of related Yunnan restaurants in San Gabriel, Monterey Park, and Hacienda Heights (Yunnan/Yun Chuan Garden). I just may have spend a week in Southern California. But first I have to get over my fear of driving.

Yun Nan Flavour Snack, 775 49th Street, Brooklyn, NY
Spring World, 2109 South China Place, Chicago, IL
Spring World on Urbanspoon
Z&Y Garden, 655 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA

Monday, December 08, 2008

Discord . . . Chaos . . . Cherches!

The latest issue of Mung Being is online. The theme is Discord and Chaos, and it includes my discordant, chaotic piece "Bulimia Mon Amour." I wrote this recently in a nostalgic nod to the style of my 1980s blockbuster "The Anorectic's Feast" (Part 1 Part 2).

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What's a Shmendrik?

Recently, in a political discussion, someone referred to Joe Lieberman as a maverick. "He's not a maverick," I said. "He's a shmendrik"

Now "maverick" is a word that, after this election season, has become meaningless. Totally useless. If someone calls himself a maverick, don't believe it. If someone else calls him a maverick, think twice.

But what about shmendrik? It's a word that certainly isn't suffering from overuse these days. Besides the play on words with maverick, I figured the shoe fit Lieberman. But I quickly realized that I had only a vague notion of the meaning of shmendrik, and I was clueless about its etymology. I figured it was somehow related to such other Yiddish words as schmuck and schmeckle.

I had always assumed the word "schmuck" came from the German for "jewel," with a layover at "penis." When I traveled in Germany and Austria it tickled me to see shop signs that proudly proclaimed, "Schmuck." But it seems that this etymology may not be so clear-cut (luckily my mohel was no philologist).

According to one website:

schmuck n.
probably not related to Schmuck "jewelry, decoration, adornment": a jerk, oaf, fool. This word would normally not be included here because it probably does not come from German, but so many people have asked me about it that I am including an explanation. The mildly offensive English word schmuck is from the very offensive Yiddish word schmock, shmok "fool, penis." This much is certain.

Most dictionaries say the Yiddish word probably comes from Polish smok "snake, tail," although at least one says it probably comes from Slovenian, which, like Polish, is Slavic, not Germanic. The problem is that schmuck looks German, and there is even a German word Schmuck. One could even draw a connection between the Yiddish and German meanings ("penis" and "jewelry" respectively) with the expression "family jewels," but this is probably pure coincidence.

To complicate matters, at least one dictionary says the literal meaning of the Yiddish word is "a pendant" (which again could be a connection to jewelry) and that it is related to Old High German smocko, from which we get smock, a garment that hangs around one's neck.

It gets worse: One dictionary I found said the Yiddish word does indeed come from German Schmuck (without even a "probably"). Go figure.

Many dictionaries avoid the question altogether (or are extremely honest) and say "origin unknown" or leave it at "Yiddish" (if they include the entry at all).

Though you could say that schmuck and prick ultimately boil down to the same thing, in my own hierarchy a prick is much worse than a schmuck. To me "prick" definitely implies a malicious individual. A prick is, without a doubt, a bastard. But a schmuck could just be a jerk, or perhaps a dork, which is apparently a derivative of dick. And how did certain names become associated with the male member anyway? Mine is one of them, though thankfully I was never kidded as a kid, despite the fact that Screw magazine used to rate porn films on the Peter Meter. And where the hell did Johnson come from?

Schmeckle, I always figured, was an endearing diminutive of schmuck. A schmeckle might be a fuckup, but he's no prick. All right, maybe a little one.

And then there's "schlong," which also refers to the penis and comes from the Yiddish for "snake." I've never heard anybody referred to as a schlong, however. Nobody says, "That guy's a real schlong." Why is this? Why hasn't schlong been enlisted into the insult service?

But back to shmendrik. Shmendrik, unlike schmuck, schmeckle and schlong, has no penile connotations. I discovered, through Wikipedia, that Shmendrik was the name of a character in a Yiddish theater piece dating back to 1877. The article describes the Shmendrik of this play as "an idiotic and clueless mama's boy, a hopelessly poor student at a religious school, whose mother is completely blind to his faults." A shmendrik isn't really a schmuck. A shmendrick is more lovable, more forgivable, than a schmuck. A shmendrick is closer to a schlemiel, a bumbling bungler.

I probably should have called Lieberman a schmuck.