Thursday, September 30, 2010

My Favorite Thai Restaurant

seafood with Thai herbs (pad cha talay)

soft shell crab with mango salad

duck larb

The first time I went to Chao Thai, last year, I was so blown away by their chicken larb, the best version of the dish I've had outside of Thailand, that I wrote a paean to the dish and the restaurant. Since then I've been back a number of times, and I'm never disappointed. Give me Chao Thai over the much larger and much more well known Sripraphai.

The menu seems to represent multiple regions, but the restaurant shines especially with its larbs and Esan (Northeastern) salads. Many of the best dishes are not on the regular menu, but on wall signs, some of them in Thai only. Ask your server for recommendations. That's how I first tried the pad cha talay, a mixed seafood stir-fry with a mind-bogglingly complex mix of Thai herbs. I've had other larbs there, catfish and duck, but as good as they were I'd still recommend the classic chicken version. This summer I had the excellent soft shell crab with mango salad several times. I'm also quite fond of the pork num tok, which is seasoned like a larb, but with sliced instead of minced meat. I think the only really disappointing dish I've had there was a pad kee mao (also known as "drunken noodles"), sauteed broad rice noodles with basil and chili. This was uninspired, a little too sweet, a little too greasy. Also note that if you ask for your dishes Thai spicy they'll take you seriously. For many diners medium-spicy will be mucho spicy enough.

Chao Thai is conveniently located near the Elmhurst Avenue subway (R & M trains). If you love Thai food and you live in the New York area, you really should give Chao Thai a try. And if you're tired of the crappy Thai restaurants that predominate in the U.S., you might find Chao Thai a revelation.

Chao Thai
85-03 Whitney Avenue (off Broadway)
Elmhurst, Queens, NY

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unusual Seasonings Chicken

I first wrote about Spring World, in Chicago's Chinatown, in a post about Yunnan cuisine. The food was so good I knew I'd return when I returned to Chicago, and I did, and I did. The menu features both Yunnan and Sichuan dishes, and this intriguingly named item shows up on the Sichuan side. It really wasn't so unusual in taste at all, but it was wonderful. It's a cold dish with a mix of spices including Sichuan peppercorn, ginger and sesame seeds in what Sichuan menus often describe as a chili vinaigrette. This dish helped to confirm for me that Spring World is indeed one of the best Chinese restaurants in the U.S., with the added plus of the nearly impossible to find Yunnan dishes on the menu. Spring World is a particular favorite of Chicago Tribune food critic Kevin Pang, and he calls this dish his favorite appetizer in Chinatown.

I once asked a Chinese waiter if the dish called "amazing chicken" was really amazing. "Maybe not amazing," he said, "but really good." I'm glad I didn't ask the Spring World waitress if the seasonings in this chicken dish were really unusual, because if she had said no I might not have ordered it, and it would have been my loss.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Historic Restaurants of Chicago

I don't think anybody would dispute the claim that The Berghoff is Chicago's most historic restaurant. This German beer hall opened in 1898, was granted Liquor License No. 1 after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, and served continuously until the family decided to close it in early 2006. It was reopened shortly thereafter by Carolyn Berghoff, the fourth-generation family member at the helm, who added diversity to the menu while retaining many of the Teutonic staples. Unfortunately, the restaurant has little to recommend it beyond history and beer. The food is best avoided. I had the jagerschnitzel (Pork cutlet, sautéed with mushrooms, bacon and Jagermeister infused sauce, flanked on either side with caramelized root vegetables and spaetzles), which wasn't too bad, but the root vegetables were awful and the spaetzle was a veritable salt mine.

My dining partner, the wacky conceptual artist and poet Bradley Lastname, was seriously disappointed by his pappardelle ai funghi. An even greater dissapointment was the limp and cloying apple strudel. Even though the place was almost empty on a Friday night at 8:45 it took an eternity for somebody to seat us and the service, by bored automatons, was no better than the food. Granted The Loop is pretty dead in the evening, but you'd think a Chicago institution would have some business. I have to assume they fare better at lunch, unless everybody has figured out by now that the food sucks.

If not for my beer flight, 4- or 5-ounce servings of five different house brews, I'd have nothing nice to say about The Berghoff, which is clearly coasting on name recognition.

Lou Mitchell's, a classic lunch counter, coffee shop, diner, what have you, is on the National Register of Historic Places in its Route 66 section. There are always long waits, made easier by the complimentary donut holes and Milk Duds passed out to the hungry, queued multitudes. Actually, if you don't want to wait for a table, especially if you're solo, you can get a spot at the counter pretty quickly. I had planned to have my last breakfast in Chicago there, as it's a stone's throw from Union Station, but, alas, they were closed for Labor Day. But I did eat there some years ago and had an excellent mess of scrambled eggs and sausages and hash browns, served up in a skillet.

Army and Lou's, a soul food restaurant on the South Side, opened in 1945 and is one of the oldest black-owned restaurants in the midwest. It was one of Mayor Harold Washington's favorite spots. I went with pianist extraordinaire Billy Foster, who drove up from his home in Gary, Indiana to join me at the Chicago Jazz Festival that day. I always enjoy Billy's company, but I also appreciated the ride, as it saved me an hour-long bus ride. I had no idea Chicago was so long from north to south until I checked the CTA trip planner. It was 9 miles from my hotel on East Wacker down to 75th Street, and there's lots more Chicago north of Wacker.

My smothered pork chops, for a whopping $10.95, came with a delicious oxtail soup and a choice of one side. I figured ordering mac and cheese on top of smothered pork chops would be coronary overkill, so I went for the healthy choice, creamy cole slaw. Everything was delicious except the mediocre rolls and dry corn bread.

So, I smothered my arteries. So what?

If you're visiting Chicago I highly recommend a meal at Army and Lou's. It's worth the trek.

And definitely skip The Berghoff. Or stop in for a quick beer and eat elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Great American Canelé

Ever since I first tasted one at the Dijon Foire Gastronomique in 2005 I've been a fan of the canelé (also spelled with a double n), a classic Bordelais pastry. It looks like a tiny bundt cake, but it's a thing altogether different. A canelé has a crunchy, caramelized outer crust and a fluffy interior that's sort of a cross between a cake and a custard. At the top it has somewhat the consistency of a French cruller, and further down it morphs into a moist custard. The play of textures makes for a wonderfully sensual experience. The classic version is flavored with rum and vanilla. My favorite rendition in New York can be found at the Petrossian Cafe, but without a doubt the best I've had in the U.S. are available at the La Boulange bakery and cafe chain in the Bay Area, where the photo above was shot.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Traveling the Old-Fashioned Way

As John Houseman would say, I earned it.

Literally. I used Amtrak points to book a sleeper on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco. This is one of America's greatest scenic train rides, with hours of spectacular vistas in daylight through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. If I had paid for the trip it would have cost nearly $1500. My bedroom featured a sofa that turns into a bed at night, a comfortable chair and a private toilet/shower combo stall. Also included with my ticket were all meals, so my only expenses for the two-days-plus ride were tips and alcohol. And the steak at dinner was surprisingly good.

The bedroom, on the upper level, had fine views out the window, but I spent much of the day in the Vistadome panoramic lounge car, admiring the scenery and talking with other travelers. For the first day and a half there was a group of Amish folk from Goshen, Indiana. The Amish may eschew modernity, but they love to laugh. They were off to a resort in Colorado.

I spent a lot of time talking to Cliff, a San Franciscan returning home from a family visit. He's working on a midlife career change, studying Chinese medicine, and at one point, after he had gotten to know me and felt comfortable enough, I guess, he asked if he could take my pulse. With his fingers on my wrist he proclaimed, "Your appetite is healthy!"

"All of my appetites are healthy," I replied.

Whether he really gauged this from my pulse or whether it had something to do with the fact that I'd been talking about food for two days, I'll never know.

The biggest surprise of all was that the train, which is perennially late, arrived at the terminus in Emeryville, California five minutes early.

A serendipitous addition to the old-fashioned travel theme was the deal I found on For $60 a night I scored a room at the Hotel Majestic, San Francisco's oldest continuously operating hotel. It has that distinction by virtue of its location at the corner of Sutter and Gough. Gough is two blocks west of Van Ness, which was the line of demarcation for the seismic and fire devastation of the 1906 earthquake.

Sometimes a grand hotel of the past can be a fleabag of the present, so I wondered whether I'd be in for an unpleasant surprise. Happily, I got the most pleasant of surprises: a charming hotel in a non-touristy but still convenient neighborhood with a clean, cozy room furnished in Victoriana.

The bathroom even had a clawfoot tub, which for some reason I keep thinking of as a clubfoot tub.

My hotel in Chicago, the Club Quarters, at 75 East Wacker, is not a historic hotel, but it is in a historic building, the Mather Tower, a designated landmark.

The leisurely cross-country train trip and the historic hotel stay inspired me to do much of my dining on a theme, seeking out the most historic restaurants in Chicago and San Francisco. Reports on those will follow shortly.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Farewell, Old Voting Booth

I voted last night, not without a touch of sadness. Sadness not for anything to do with politics per se, though there's plenty of that sort of sadness to go around, but rather nostalgia for a bygone era, sadness for the demise of the old New York voting machine, the voting machine I had cast every prior vote on, having always been a New York City resident.

For me, that machine was a fitting symbol of our democracy and of our place in the body politic. Even for an atheist like me there was an appeal to the almost sacred and most assuredly ritualistic nature of those old machines. For me those machines and voting went hand-in-hand. There was something majestic about the big red handle you'd pull to the right to close the curtains. And then you were inside a zone of privacy, almost like a confessional, where you would exercise your sacred duty of citizenship. Flip the little black levers down for your candidates of choice. Then, after all of your choices were made, pull the big red handle back to the left to register your votes and open the curtains.

That was the kind of voting machine my mother took me into by the hand as a tyke, to watch her exercise her civic duty, perhaps when I was four, when she voted for JFK. My first time in the booth as a voter was 1974, the year of a gubernatorial race, when Hugh Carey was the victor. I probably voted Socialist Workers that year. I know I voted for the Socialist Workers' candidate, Peter Camejo, not Carter, in 1976, my first presidential election. Over the years I've rarely missed a general election, and hardly any primaries either.

Marking an ephemeral paper ballot last night I truly felt a great sense of loss. And, I suppose, of advancing age.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Frushi and Pancake Flights in Chicago

Orange ("Contemporary Brunch with a Peel") is a mini-chain of brunch-only restaurants in Chicago, serving 7 days a week in the mornings and afternoons. One of the first things that caught my eye when I checked their website was their pancake flights, a weekly themed selection of four kinds of pancake inspired by the wine flight. Unfortunately, when I ate there last Sunday the theme was chocolate bars. I'm sure that would a-peel to many, but I'm not a big chocolate fan, especially in the morning, and besides, chocolate happens to be a Prilosec-resistant gastric bete noire for me. So instead I chose the orange-rosemary French toast. It was OK, but something was missing--I suspect not enough salt in the bread or eggs; perhaps a bit more orange tartness in the mix would have saved the day.

Much better were the delicious chicken apple sausages.

But what really impressed me was their signature "frushi" (they've trademarked the name), which is, as the name suggests, fruit sushi. I think it's a brilliant, fun concept, and quite reasonably priced. $2.50 will get you an order of two pieces of the week with fruit garnish, and each additional order is $1.50. Last Sunday they featured strawberry with coconut rice and grapefruit atop what I think was a pineapple juice-infused rice.

The French toast misstep notwithstanding, I really liked Orange, and plan to return next time I'm in Chicago. I appreciate a restaurant with inspired whimsy. Did I say whimsy?

Thelma Todd : Oh, Professor, you’re full of whimsy.
Groucho : Can you notice it from there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

My Cleansing Diet

You wanna hear about my cleansing diet? I'll tell you about my cleansing diet. I eat whatever the fuck I want, then I shit it out.

For some reason, among all the quackery and faddishness in the health world, the mania for cleansing diets and the bogus premises behind them really stick in my craw. Maybe I need a craw cleanse.

Really it all boils down to squeamishness and the ability of snake oil salesmen to capitalize on it. People who live in terror of the natural messiness of life want to believe that they can clean everything up with a magic bullet. But most sane medical practitioners tend to agree that not only are cleansing diets potentially dangerous, they're probably useless too (see this article from Web MD). Anyway, there's a great system for cleansing the human body, and it's the human body itself, a generally efficient, integrated system for processing nutrients and disposing of waste.

I don't even want to think about what cleansing diet proponents must be like in bed.