Monday, September 14, 2015

Sap's (Not so) Sweet and Sour 9.08.2015

I had to do some banking last week, which almost always means a stop by Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine on Westgate, since my credit union is cater-corner from Sap’s, in the shopping center from hell, right across Ben White Boulevard to the northeast. While perusing the menu I was waiting for gustatory inspiration, and it came from the vegetables that accompany the sweet and sour dish (S-P28): green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, crunchy cloud ear fungus, and fresh chunks of pineapple. I ordered the dish with ground pork, which matches well with the sauce, but I also love it with shrimp and squid. 

Most Americans immediately associate the term “sweet and sour” with that gloopy, overly sweet stalwart that coats chunks of battered and deep fried chicken or pork in the typical Americanized-Chinese restaurant. The neon-orange sauce that’s adorned with water chestnuts, vapid canned baby corn, and onion, and tastes more like ketchup than anything else. Although the Thai version originated in China, it tastes nothing at all like the American-Chinese version (nor does the original Chinese version for that matter).

Sap's Sweet and Sour with Ground Pork

The taste profile of the Thai (and the original Chinese) version is savory, with a hint of sweetness from the pineapple, balanced nicely with vinegar. Umami arrives courtesy of the fish sauce in the Thai version, and soy sauce in the Chinese version. And rather than coating greasy, battered chunks of meat, the Thai version is a quick stir fry of whatever protein you’ve chosen, matched with the still crunchy vegetables and that complex sauce. If you glaze over looking at a large menu, the dish is a culinary revelation and easy to find; just ask for S-P28. It is even more delicious when consumed with the rich, nutty flavor of Sap’s brown jasmine rice.

The ideal tabletop match would be a platter of pad sea-ew noodles (S-F3; AKA phat si-io, phat see yiew, pad see ewe, pad si ewe, pad see-iw, etc.).  You need to think ahead on this one, because you have to choose not only the protein, but the type of noodle. I went with chicken and sen yai, or wide, flat rice noodles (sen yai means “big strip” in Thai). Like the previous dish, pad sea-ew originated in China, but was morphed by Thai cooks to create a uniquely Thai flavor profile. The name of the dish translates to “fried with soy sauce” (referring to stir frying in a wok and not deep frying).  The soy sauce referred to is not Kikkoman, but a thick, slightly sweetened, sauce called Sea-Ew Dum in Thai (or Kecap Manis in Malaysia).  The dish is popular as a street food dish, and is common on restaurant menus. Think of it as a “dry” (meaning broth-less), version of lard nah (AKA rad nah), a dish with the same ingredients, but accompanied with a thickened, rich stock that’s seasoned with ground white pepper.

Pad Sea Ew with Chicken (with sen yai noodles)

The key to a good pad sea-ew is cooking the noodles in a very hot wok, so that they get slightly charred; often referred to as “the dragon’s kiss”.  It’s a tricky process, since the noodles would love to stick to the surface of the wok. The typical protein is pork, chicken, or shrimp, mixed with some fluffy scrambled egg, and the only vegetable is Chinese broccoli, which is thinner and slightly more bitter in flavor (some even accuse it of having a slight metallic taste). The sauce is composed of a mixture of thick soy sauce, light soy sauce, a touch of sugar and vinegar, and lots of garlic. Some vendors and cooks will add a little oyster sauce as well. When it gets to the table, I add a little fish sauce and lots of Thai roasted chile paste to adjust the flavor to my desired taste settings. It’s a fantastic noodle stir fry that never fails to impress.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine is my favorite Thai restaurant in town. They have the most authentic flavors, and very reasonable rates with big portions. I highly recommend the sweet and sour dish. It’s a different flavor from what you probably expect. Over the years I’ve eaten every single item on the entire menu, and each dish at each visit has been excellent. Sap’s is my go-to dining spot, and that’s with all cuisines and all of Austin’s restaurants considered. Very highly recommended.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
· 4514 West Gate Blvd, (512) 899-8525
· 5800 Burnet Rd, (512) 419-7244

mick vann ©

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sap's on Burnet...A Walk on the Mild Side of Thai

Thai yellow or golden chiles (photo from eBay)

On Sunday, April the 12th, R and I went by Sap’s on Burnet Road. I needed to drop off some Thai chile seedlings I was growing for him: yellow-fruited, and orange-fruited. I had found the seeds from a rare seed dealer and couldn't resist ordering some, figuring that if I spread the plants around, folks could harvest dried seeds from mature fruit, and we’d all have plenty of seeds for the foreseeable future. The orange gets a little larger than the yellow, and both of them are excellent in Thai cooking, and are especially delectable when made into Thai sriracha sauce (vastly superior to that crass, unrefined Rooster brand crap). Aside from the seed delivery, I had a hankering to stuff myself on some authentic Thai food, and Sap’s is my favorite spot for that.

Thai orange chiles (photo from etsy)

R is a bit of a wuss when it comes to eating really hot food, so when we dine together, I tend to moderate my chile intake somewhat, spicing my plate to taste. She knew she wanted “that green bean dish”, which could have been the green bean salad I love so much, but more likely, S-P31, Amazing Green Beans, which I like to get with ground pork. It is essentially a hybrid Thai-Chinese stir fry, with garlic and shallot, chunky pieces of jalapeño chile, crunchy green beans (or long beans in Thailand), and a protein of choice. The sauce gets some chicken stock and fish sauce, and is anchored by fermented bean paste, which gives it an umami boost. The mixture gets some Thai basil right towards the end to add some herbal punch. It’s one of my favorite dishes at Sap’s.

Amazing green beans with ground pork

The main attraction of the meal was S-P50, or Sap’s Special Massaman Curry with Beef. Depending on who you believe, massaman (or mussaman) curry originated in the 1600s in the court of Ayutthaya, with the original curry developing from a Thai adaptation of a dish introduced by Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi. Another theory has the dish being introduced into Southern Thailand from Malaysia, by way of India, and that its name derives from the Malay word masam, which means “sour” (although the dish in its present manifestation is not a sour curry by any stretch of the imagination). There is little doubt that the dish was Muslim in origin, and the ingredients that form the curry paste are not typical Thai curry spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, cumin, bay, nutmeg, and mace. These combinations of flavors were brought to the Malay Peninsula by Muslim traders from the Middle East, India, and the Indonesian archipelago. Later on, Dutch, Portuguese, and French East Indian traders imported the spices. As it slipped across the southern Thai-Malaysian border heading north, the Thais combined that spice profile with dried chile peppers, white peppercorns, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, and sometimes turmeric to develop the flavors of the curry paste. This paste gets fried with the separated oil from coconut cream until fragrant, and then the meat is added. Thais typically cook the dish with beef, since pork is forbidden (haram) for Muslims. It can also be made with chicken, duck, mutton, or goat. Once the meat has braised with the paste to develop flavor, potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar, coconut milk, and peanuts (or cashews) are added. It is a dish eaten with rice or with roti (a crepe-like South Asian flatbread made from wheat flour), and a bowl of massaman tastes best eaten the next day, once the potatoes have absorbed the flavors of the curry.

Sap's Special Massaman with beef

Sap's Special Massaman Curry is made with slowly braised chuck steak that's so tender that it melts in your mouth (I cut mine with my spoon), and instead of using white potatoes, he substitutes Yukon Gold potatoes. The overall flavor is sweet and tangy, with many complex layers of spice and an assertively piquant background, and whole roasted peanuts providing a pleasant crunchy texture and nutty taste. Sap's Special massaman has deeper flavor than most of the typical versions, and is flat-out delicious. A highly recommended menu item.

REAL sweet and sour, with shrimp and tofu

When most folks think of sweet and sour sauce, they instantly get a mental image of a psychedelic orange, ketchup-based, gloppy, thick, sauce that’s way more sweet than sour. It’s the classic Americanized Chinese restaurant menu mainstay, and the safe thing to order for your kids, especially if it comes on fried chicken nuggets. True, the dish did originate in China, but as with all Chinese dish imports into Thailand, the Thai version adopts that special Thai culinary finesse, and avoids the pitfalls of Americanization. We ordered S-P28 with shrimp, and added tofu, and it came out aromatic and steaming, with green beans, Asian eggplant, onion, garlic, fresh pineapple, tomato, and cloud ear mushrooms. The sauce has a mildly spicy edge, and is savory and sour, with just a hint of sweetness from palm sugar. This is the sweet and sour stir fry that you always hoped you would get at a Chinese restaurant, but made so much better here, Thai-style.

Stir fried bean sprouts

Another mild dish at Sap’s is one that slips under the menu radar for most non-natives, S-P34. It is simple and light, but packed with flavor from fish sauce, garlic, scallion, barely stir- fried, nutty tasting mung bean sprouts, and whatever protein you selected (we went for chicken). This is a classic homestyle Thai dish, that’s more subtle than the typical Thai flavor profile, but just as delicious. We ordered Thai brown jasmine rice to go with the entrees, and it is so much better tasting (and healthier) than the average polished white jasmine rice. If you’ve never had it, you’re missing out.

Once again, we had a really delicious meal at Sap’s, and one that even R could handle spice-wise. It’s proof that not all Thai dishes are spicy, and you don’t need to fry your taste buds to enjoy a fantastic Thai meal.

Mick Vann ©

for some background on Sriracha sauce, see here:

Naam jiim Siracha: Siracha (Sriracha) sauce is a bottled table condiment originally made in Si Racha, a coastal town just north of Pattaya (down the coast, south of Bangkok). It's a reddish-orange sauce made from pureed and aged-fermented ripe chiles, salt, vinegar, garlic, and sugar, which is used especially with egg and noodle dishes. Thai brands are preferred, since they have the true Thai taste, which balances sweet and sour with the heat (and there are some Thai brands that also offer a mild version if you prefer less heat). "Vietnamese" brands, such as the common Huy Fong (‘Rooster Brand') are spicier, with more garlic, vinegar, and little sugar. Huy Fong, by the way, is made in Los Angeles, from ripe jalapeños and garlic powder. ‘Sriracha Factory Brand', ‘Grand Mountain', 'Shark Brand', and ‘Golden Mountain' (Sriraja Panich) are all good Thai labels of a proper Thai Siracha sauce.

Originally Siracha (Sriracha, Sriraja, Siraja) sauce was made with Thai yellow chiles (prik daeng), which many feel results in a richer, deeper-flavored sauce. ‘Golden Mountain' brand still produces a version made with these yellow chiles (which can range in color from bright yellow to medium orange), although it is hard to find. Impossible to find in the States. You'll recognize the lighter color of the sauce inside the bottle, and if you ever find any on the shelf in your local market, you'd be wise to stock-up. Siracha sauce is used especially for omelets (kai jaew), for general-purpose spiciness with noodles, and grilled and deep-fried items, and, only in the East, with lard na.

A scene from a sauce factory near Chonburi, not too far north of Si Racha. These cases hold oyster sauce. They wouldn't let me take pictures of the sriracha sauce being made. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

China Dynasty and Dynamic Hot and Sour, 4.14.2015

After a grueling, ritualistic laying down of the numbers on my 1040 form last Tuesday afternoon, Art and I bounced around the corner from his house for some Chinese food at China Dynasty. It’s in the shopping center anchored by the HEB, on the northwest corner of Manchaca and Slaughter Lane. Here’s what makes the place so special: it’s an Americanized menu Chinese joint, but they know and respect the value of basing their sauces on a rich, well-prepared stock. Most lesser Chinese restaurants these days take the huge, flavorless shortcut of using their own version of the ubiquitous “brown sauce” as a soup base. It is basically watered-down soy sauce with some aromatics thrown in. Saltiness, sure. Depth and richness, definitely not. By contrast, Dynasty slow simmers big batches of chicken and pork stock until they are loaded with rich flavor, and those stocks are the base of every sauce and soup.

Hot and Sour....the real deal

The meal began with soup, with me getting a larger than normal portion of their hot and sour. Let me divert a bit from the script and yammer on about hot and sour soup in general. It hails from Sichuan province and is typically served as a mid-meal dish in a multi-course dinner, rather than as a starter, like it is in the West. Hot and sour soup in America has been in a serious quality decline for decades, and finding a good one these days is as rare as hen’s teeth. Back in the day, before hot and sour was added to the list of free soups given away with the daily lunch or dinner schedule, it was a separate menu item, almost always served in a big bowl meant to be shared between two or more. That meant that it was cooked-to-order by the chef, and not dipped out of a five gallon batch being held for hours on the steam table.

The beauty of hot and sour soup back then was that most Americans had no idea what it was. They were content with cups of pedestrian egg drop and won ton. If they were feeling frisky, they might opt for the sizzling rice soup, but that was usually more about seeking attention for themselves in a crowded dining room than a craving for the flavor of the dish. Hot and sour soup was sitting safely on a pedestal, immune from the plebiscites, and a safe bet for the flavor junkies that knew what it was.

But as Chinese food became more mainstream in the American diet, more and more of the chow mein, sweet and sour, and moo goo gai pan crowd figured out what they thought hot and sour soup was, and they thought they wanted it. In typical fashion, most American Chinese restaurants decided to give their diners what the diners wanted, which was a flavorless, meatless, soulless version of a loose approximation of what hot and sour should be. And over the years, it’s gotten dumbed-down and dumbed-down so much that it’s unrecognizable from the real deal. Its trendiness became its death knell, yielding a dull, gloppy sludge with softened vegetables, based on soy sauce and not pork bones, with nary a hint of heat or sourness.

My bowl of hot and sour at China Dynasty was so rich and aromatic you could taste the pork bones simmering for days. The brightness of the vinegar joined forces with the heat from black pepper and Sichuan chile paste, and the crisp vegetables were joined by just-cooked slivers of actual pork meat and meltingly soft tofu. This was a bowl of old school hot and sour, a rarity these days, and so refreshing and satisfying when you find one. It was reinforced by a batch of freshly ground, brilliantly scarlet chile paste that tasted overwhelmingly of fresh, ripe chile peppers. Another rarity.

Egg roll and pan fried dumplings

We moved on with some of Dynasty’s porky, crispy, flaky egg rolls and split an order of their excellent pan fried dumplings. The egg rolls were fresh and plump with ground pork and vegetables. The dumplings were nicely browned on the bottom, and juicy from the pork filling within. Dynasty even makes a great soy-ginger dipping sauce with just the right touch of sugar and vinegar, perfect when bumped up with some of the chile paste.

Chicken with fresh mushrooms, lunch menu

The General, lunch menu

I opted for the chicken with mushrooms while homeboy selected the General Tso’s chicken. My dish was loaded with fresh mushrooms and tender chicken that had been kissed by the sear of the wok, and the brown sauce was chicken stock based and very rich. Their version of General Tso is the authentic brown sauce version (a lot of places seem to confuse General Tso’s chicken with orange or tangerine peel chicken, with a few fried red chiles thrown in). What I really like about Dynasty, is that for their fried chicken dishes, such as General Tso, they use boneless chicken thigh, which has much better flavor than breast meat.

Pork Egg Foo Young!

For some reason, we also ordered a pork egg foo young, which is a dish that’s hard to find these days. Chinese chefs tell me it takes too long for some kitchens to mess with, so they just eliminated it from the menu. Out of sight, and outta mind, so, after not seeing it anymore, it slithered out of diner’s minds. Trust me. You want a good egg foo young? Moist inside, and loaded with slivered pork and crunchy vegetables, all swimming in a rich garlicky-gingery brown sauce? Go to Dynasty.

We also had the luxury of bumping into our favorite waitress, who is the niece of Johann, who used to own Java Noodles on Oltorf. The servers at Dynasty always manage to provide excellent service without being obtrusive. LOVE the Dynasty, and it’s only a couple of blocks from Art’s house.

China Dynasty
Tanglewood Village Shopping Center
2110 W Slaughter Ln, Austin
(512) 280-7153

If you want to make a great bowl of old school hot and sour soup in your own kitchen, here’s my recipe:

Hot and Sour Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens and Pork Shank
Serves 8                                 

Traditionally a thickened soup like this is served as a starter in the West, or as a mid-meal banquet course in China. In Sichuan this soup is spiced using an inordinate amount of black pepper, but I combine the pepper with fermented chile paste to create the piquancy. The flavor of the soup is complex and layered, with the base of rich pork stock, the bright contrast of the vinegar to balance that richness, the spiciness of the pepper and chiles, and the contrasting textures of the ingredients.

Pickled mustard greens (suan cai) have a sour, salty flavor that balances the richness of the meat while blending well with the seasoned broth, and adding umami from the fermentation. You can find the greens at Asian markets in jars or plastic packets. Long braised and unctuous beef shank adds not only rich, tender meat to the mix, but creates intense gelatinous stock, all in keeping with the traditional role of hot and sour soup as a Chinese banquet dish.

This dish involves cooking the shank the day before, but it is a simple procedure that doesn't require much attention at all. Once you taste the unctuous meat and the broth you'll realize the process was well worth the minimal effort.

Advanced Praparation
Braised pork shank:
4 to 5 pounds pork shanks, rinsed and trimmed of excess fat
¼ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup shaoxing rice wine (medium-dry sherry or sake can be used if necessary)
3 cups water
4 scallions, each tied in knot
4 slices ginger
6 cloves garlic, crushed
12 Sichuan peppercorns

Shank Method:
1. Combine all ingredients in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the fire as low as possible, simmering gently for one hour. Flip the shanks over, add additional water if necessary, and simmer an additional hour, or until meat is tender. Let shanks cool and refrigerate in the sauce overnight. Remove shanks from the gelatin and cut against the grain into thin slices. Reserve pork and gelatin for soup.

1 Tablespoon duck fat or lard, or peanut or vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced very thinly
1-inch section of ginger, peeled and matchstick cut
Reserved shank cooking liquid, heated, strained, combined with enough pork or chicken stock to yield 1½ quarts 
1 Tablespoon shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 block medium tofu, 7 to 8 ounces, ½ inch dice
⅓ cup Sichuan preserved mustard greens or cabbage, drained and thinly sliced
5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked 30 minutes to soften in hot water, stems removed, thinly sliced
¼ cup cloud ears, soaked 30 minutes to soften in hot water, thinly sliced
½ cup fresh bamboo shoots, matchstick cut
¼ cup dried lily buds ("golden needles"), soaked 15 minutes to soften in water
½  to 1 teaspoon Sichuan fermented chile paste
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Half of the reserved sliced pork shank meat
4 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed into a smooth slurry with 6 Tablespoons chicken stock
1 large egg, beaten
3 to 4 Tablespoons black Chinese vinegar
3 scallions, green part only, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Soup Method:
2. In a large wok or saucepan, heat the oil over high heat and sauté the garlic and ginger for 30 seconds. Add the stock and bring to a boil, skimming away any foam the forms on the surface. Add the rice wine, soy sauces, tofu, preserved greens, mushrooms and cloud ears, bamboo shoots and lily buds, and the fermented chile paste. Reduce the heat to medium and maintain a low rolling simmer. Cook the soup for 5 minutes to allow the flavors to develop and then taste for salt, pepper, and chile paste. It should taste assertively spicy, savory, and rich.

3. Stir in the reserved shank meat, allow the soup to come back up to a low boil, and add the re-stirred cornstarch slurry in batches, adding a little at a time while stirring, allowing 15 seconds between additions to allow the slurry to thicken the broth. Not all of the slurry may be necessary. The finished texture should be glossy and thickened to a sauce-like consistency, but not gloppy. Stir in the vinegar to taste; it should have a mellow background sourness and just a blast of a vinegary tang.

4. Turn off the heat and slowly add the beaten egg while stirring very slowly; the egg should form thin strands, or what the Chinese call "egg flower".

5. Evenly divide the scallion and sesame oil in the bottom of 8 bowls and mix to combine. Ladle the hot soup over the garnish in the bowls and serve immediately, accompanied by chile oil, or by additional Sichuan chile paste.

One half pound of matchstick-cut lean pork, marinated for 30 minutes in ½ teaspoon shaoxing wine and 1 teaspoon light soy sauce may be substituted for the shank meat. Substitute pork stock for the shank broth. Add the pork to the boiling stock 1 minute before thickening with the cornstarch slurry.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 3, 2015

Renteria's Smoke Causes Tears….for Austin's ‘Cue Lovers

Last night Sabino “Pio” Renteria pursued his manic obsession against Austin’s barbecue restaurants and grilling food trailers, and the amazing thing to me is that he succeeded in getting his proposal to the next level. From listening to him yammer on, it’s apparent that the whole thing stems from the gentrification of East Austin. I hate Californians zooming in and snatching up the eastern side of our city as much as the next guy, offering cash for the asking price on the same day that a property hits the market. It displaces all of the old timers that can no longer afford to live there, and the increase in taxes is forcing old eateries out of the area. If you think the McMansionism of the ’09 zip code was bad a couple of decades back, I would urge you to hop in your lowrider and do an extended cruise around the eastside today. elected him, District 3. Happy now?

But what Renteria fails to understand, is that most of the barbecue venues are leasing their spots, and with the meteoric increase in real estate values (and therefore, taxes) in the area, the rents that the landlords will have to charge will eventually price the barbecue folks out of the area, along with all of the locals. Not to mention the fact that the profit margin on barbecue is abysmally small, and these restaurants cannot afford to buy scrubbers, even if they wanted to. The hipsterification of East Austin will be complete, and only those rich enough to live there will be rich enough to pay the Dallas prices the remaining restaurants in the area will be forced to charge.

When Renteria suggests that instead of wood as a fuel, the restaurants should instead use natural gas, or that smoke scrubbers should be installed on every pit smokestack, he shows what a moron he is when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the meat smoking art. It is a delicate and carefully choreographed dance between wood, fire, and air, and you start jacking around with that tango and you lose the flavor. Even raising the height of the smokestack changes the dynamics. A stack scrubber would be catastrophic.

Most of the hubbub seems to center around Terry Black’s on Barton Springs, and la Barbecue in east Austin. Read this from KXAN’s report on March 30:  “Last year, Terry Black’s Barbecue on Barton Springs Road received two TCEQ complaints alleging smoke nuisance. When TCEQ staff checked the restaurant, the smoke observed was not considered a nuisance and no violations were cited….La Barbecue has seen visits from TCEQ as well. In 2014, there were two complaints regarding smoke and in both instances TCEQ staff determined there was no violation.”

Holiday House WAAAY back in the day.....

It’s really unfortunate that Terry Black’s is one of the featured violators, because I've eaten their barbecue, and it is sub par at best. But the fact remains that the location has been a restaurant since at least the very early ‘60s, cooking flame-kissed burgers over charcoal (Holiday House started in Austin a long time ago). The time to bitch about the possibility that a barbecue restaurant might make some smoke, and that you lived right behind it, on the edge of a limestone cliff that would prevent the dispersal of said smoke, would have been during the months leading up to the opening, when there was near constant news coverage of the joint starting up. Or the public disclosure or posting of their impending alcohol permit, for that matter. Complaining a half a year later, after they've spent a butt load of money, just doesn't work.

This whole situation reminds me of the folks that raised hell about airplane noise when Bergstrom AFB became ABIA. Airplanes make noise, and believe me, B 52 bombers and KC 135 tankers make a HELL of a lot more noise than a puny airliner; we used to live under the approach to the north end of the Bergstrom runway when I was a kid, and it would shake the entire house to its foundation when one flew over (which was frequently). Unless you lived out there before Bergstrom was established, keep your mouth shut. You don’t move next to an airport and bitch about noise. Just like you don’t move close to a barbecue joint, and bitch about smoke.

John Lewis is talking about relocating his pits a little to help disperse the smoke more efficiently. A magnanimous gesture if you ask me. He was granted a certificate of occupancy for that new location, and went through all of the required steps from the City and the Health Department. I also saw some news footage from some guy bitching about the smoke from a smaller mobile food trailer. There are existing zoning provisions which cover that situation: “Neighborhood Planning Contact Team or a Neighborhood Association can adopt additional regulations that regulate the distance and hours of operation of mobile food trailers near residential areas…” No new rules need to be imposed.

Here’s the bottom line, back in the day, getting really excellent barbecue usually required a 30 minute (or more) drive out of Austin, and today we are blessed with a ridiculous bounty of great barbecue within our city limits. Pitmasters like Aaron Franklin, John Lewis, John Mueller, Tom Micklethwait, Lance Kirkpatrick, Bill Kerlin, Evan Leroy, Daniel Brown, Tom Spalding, and the rest have helped Austin’s national reputation as one of the best food cities in the country, as well as one of the nation’s focal points for excellent barbecue. That brings in tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of publicity to Austin, which benefits us all, whether you like barbecue or not. In considering the effects of Renteria’s proposal, I can’t think of a more wrongheaded, discombobulated move for Austin’s City Council to make. If you agree with me, I would encourage you to let him, and the rest of the Council, know about it. Next thing you know, they could be dictating what YOU grill or smoke in your own backyard.

Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Austin City Council, District 3

Mick Vann ©


Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Rabbit Rant


Belgian Giant breed of rabbit....THESE are the rabbits that we should be eating!

In today’s Austin Chronicle Food section, Anna Toon wrote an article concerning rabbits as food, and how several Austex restaurants are putting rabbit back on the menu. That article of course enraged the bunnypet bunch, who all started bitching about her article. They assert that rabbits were meant to be loving pets and should never be eaten, and wonder out loud, where normal people like me can hear them, what kind of a monster would even suggest such a thing. Those folks kinda got my dander up a little bit. I like eating rabbit, and don't really care what those people think.

Rabbit has been eaten by man ever since he was able to outthink the rabbit, which is no great feat. Rabbits have speed and camouflage going for them, but they are not blessed with superior intellect, their hide is easily peeled from their carcass, and they come in convenient, dinner-sized packages. Rabbits are a favorite foodstuff of pretty much anything that can catch a rabbit, from birds of prey, to any mammal fast or clever enough to subdue the wily beast.


We used to cook rabbit at the Clarksville Café back in the day, and every time we did, the customers would rave about it. It is a very healthy meat, high in protein, and low in fat. It tastes incredibly delicious when marinated and then braised, but if you don’t cook it correctly, it can end up a little on the tough side. My only complaint at the time was that rabbit cost too much for me to make much money on it, unless I charged what I thought was an excessive price. You were paying for a lot of bone weight, and you could get two good servings out of a carcass. The other thing is that rabbits can be kind of a pain to prep, because of the bones. The price per pound was high because there were very few folks raising rabbits back then for the restaurant trade.

Rabbits in Aussieland

Rabbits are eaten by pretty much every civilization worldwide, and have been for thousands and thousands of years. Rabbits are really easy to raise domestically, and they breed like, well, like rabbits. They don’t take up a lot of room, and their manure is ideal for gardening. They can make a disturbing scream when they are dispatched, but that is why the rabbit punch was developed, to rapidly kill the rabbit before he knows what’s coming. As a plus, rabbit fur makes a dandy hat or a pair of gloves.

Rabbit hunter in Australia

Let a few rabbits escape in an area where they have no predators, and they will take over. Back in the day, the old Austin airport runways were overrun with rabbits. Ask the average Australian how he feels about rabbits, and you certainly won’t hear any sympathy for the bunnies taking over that continent. Introduced in 1859, they grew to such numbers that they caused the extinction of native plant and animal species, and led to erosion and siltation of waterways. They out-competed 
 with livestock for graze, and just generally became such a pain in the ass that they built the world's longest fence to try to contain the little peckerwoods. Rabbits still cost the Australian government $600 million annually, even today. 

So the bunnypet bunch can bitch all they want to about restaurants serving rabbit, and food writers writing about restaurants serving rabbit, but we all know that if we don’t eat those tricky bunny bastards they will overpopulate and leave us in an ecological wasteland. You don’t want to eat rabbit? Fine, don’t eat any. You start telling me what I can eat, then we got a problem. Personally, I loves me a plateful of bunny. Loves it.

Mick Vann ©


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Prickly Pear Cactus Points

The resplendent winter coloration of Ranta Rita Opuntia (O. gosseliniana var. santa-rita)
sold in the nursery trade as an ornamental

Photo from

Researchers tell us that the prickly pear cactus was one of the earliest food crops, with Mesoamericans cultivating Opuntia ficus-indica more than 9,000 years ago. Today in South Africa, the Maghreb, Sicily, and South, Central, and North America the cactus is being grown as a food stuff, as cattle feed, and for the intensely colored, flavorful fruit, known in Mexico as tuna. The Mexican word for the prickly pear cactus, nopales, is based on the ancient Nahuatl nohpalli.

Prickly pear cactus are farmed around the world
Photo by

Nopales are strips or cubes cut from the pads of prickly pear cactus; 114 different species grow in Mexico. They are sold as spineless, peeled pads in Hispanic markets, and can be used raw or blanched (too much cooking and they get mucilaginous, like slimy okra). Bottled or canned versions packed in brine are available in Hispanic markets and some groceries. These should be rinsed in warm and then cold water, and drained before use.

Nopales, ready to blanch, at the mercado
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For fresh nopales, obtain tender young pads about 4 inches long and ⅛ inch thick. Larger ones will be tough and have a papery skin that must be removed before using. Remove all of the small spines on the pads with the blade of a knife. It is easiest to hold the pads with folded-over newspaper or tongs to prevent getting stuck by the thorns while processing. Cook briefly in boiling, salted water until just starting to get tender but not slimy (see cooking method, below). To prepare the fruit, lay a prickly pear on a cutting board and cut almost in half lengthwise. Using a knife with a flexible blade, “filet” the flesh from the skin as you rotate the blade around the interior surface of the skin, much like you would a kiwi fruit.

Prickly pear fruit, or tuna
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Ripe tuna
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You can easily grow prickly pear cactus in your yard, and many ranchers in Texas consider the plant an invasive pest, but they provide a valuable habitat for many critters (including snakes, so use caution when harvesting). In times of extreme drought, ranchers burn the thorns off with propane torches as graze for their livestock. To grow your own, they require only good drainage and adequate sun. Nurseries sell desirable spineless and ornamental varieties, and varieties will soon hit the market that have been bred for larger, sweeter fruit. To grow the common local species you can just cut off a pad from a plant, let the cut surface scab over for a few days, and insert it into the ground. It will grow with a vengeance.

Different types of Opuntia fruit
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Typical ripe fruit interior
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The flesh of the pads is used in salads, in pico de gallo and salsas, with scrambled eggs, in tacos, with meats, and in other dishes. The fruit has a texture similar to watermelon, kiwi, or dragonfruit, and the sweet, tart flesh can be used in a similar fashion, or juiced and added to drinks (local soda company Maine Root makes a prickly pear fruit soda called “Pink Drink”). Prickly pear fruit also makes a spectacular sorbet. Health freaks will appreciate very high levels of Vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, and studies suggest nopales could help with diabetes and hangovers.

Huevos Revueltos con Nopales · Scrambled Eggs with Cactus Strips

Serves 1

The Northern states of Mexico are especially fond of nopales. The blanched or grilled pads are fantastic mixed with scrambled eggs, and then eaten as a breakfast platter, with beans, chile-dusted and browned diced potato, and tortillas, or you can just place the filling inside a hot flour tortilla for a classic Austex breakfast taco.

1 Tablespoon lard, bacon fat, duck or chicken fat, or butter
1 large or 2 small scallions, trimmed and sliced
1 large serrano chile, stemmed and julienned (seeds and ribs removed for less heat)
⅔ cup prepared nopales (see preparation method, below)
2 large eggs, scrambled
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 Tablespoons grated Chihuahua or Monterey jack cheese, for garnish
Salsa of your choice, as a topping

In a seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the lard. When shimmering, add the scallion and chile and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the nopales and sauté 2 minutes. Add the eggs, salt, and pepper, and using a heat resistant rubber spatula, scrape the eggs from the outside-in, just until the eggs are fluffy and set, but still moist. Place on a plate and garnish with the grated cheese, and top with your favorite salsa.

Ensalada de Nopales · Cactus Paddle Salad

Serves 4

Nopales make an excellent salad ingredient, and fresh shrimp, poached lightly in a chile-garlic broth, are excellent added to this salad.

1 ¼ pounds of blanched nopal strips
3 plum tomatoes, stemmed and diced
½ cup diced red onion
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 to 3 serrano chiles, stemmed and finely minced (seeds and ribs can be removed for less heat)
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
¼ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped
1 ½ Tablespoons lime juice
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 avocado, pitted and diced, for garnish
½ cup grated cotija or romano cheese, for garnish
Totopos (tostadas), for service

In a large mixing bowl combine the cactus strips, tomato, onion, garlic, chiles, oregano, cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and mix well. Taste for seasonings for salt and pepper and add to taste. Evenly divide the salad among 4 salad bowls, garnish with diced avocado and grated cheese, and serve immediately with fresh totopos. 

To prepare nopales: You can buy them brined in jars (which need to be thoroughly rinsed), but they are much better fresh. Look for prepped (thorns removed), firm paddles in the produce section of gourmet, specialty, or Hispanic markets. If you harvest and prepare them yourself, using tongs or gloves, take a paring knife and excise each group of thorns by slicing just under the surface. When both sides are cleaned of thorns, remove the outside edge, and cut into ¼ inch strips.
To blanch nopales:
1 ½ Tablespoons salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 ¼ pounds of nopal strips
In 4 quarts of boiling water over high heat, add the salt, baking soda, and garlic, stir well, and then add the cactus strips. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and cook until just starting to get tender, but not limp (about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on freshness). Pour into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process and rinse off any slime. Drain well and reserve.

Alternatively, prepare the pads as before and grill both sides over a burner or coals until the pad starts charring, turning yellowish, and starts to get tender. 
Cooked this way, they are called nopales asadosIn case you weren’t paying attention and got pierced with tiny thorns, take a piece of duct tape and lightly drag it across the skin, or put a dab of Elmer’s Glue on the thorns. When the glue dries, peel it and the thorns from your skin.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pambazo at the Happy Fruit!


Chorizo and potato pambazo at Fruta Feliz

Earlier this week an old pal of mine was in town from L.A., and we zipped over to Fruta Feliz to grab lunch. I like FF because they have fresh, authentic, handmade food, the prices are right, and it’s only a few minutes from Campus. They have every variation of Mexican fruit dish imaginable, and I enjoyed an especially delectable, tall, frosty, and refreshing agua fresca made with fresh pineapple and mango. Homeboy ordered tacos of chivo, picadillo (made with minced meat and not ground beef; their ground beef taco is called a “crispi”), and chicharrón on their handmade corn tortillas. All excellent, by the way. I went for delicioso tacos of chivo (luscious shredded goat), and picadillo, both topped with the requisite onion and cilantro. They had three dynamic and tasty salsas that day: a fiery red chile with a bit of chile de arbóI, the standard taquería green with avocado, and a very piquant jalapeño-serrano fresh green chile sauce that sizzled the hair right off of my tongue.


Homeboy's tacos

I also ordered a pambazo, a less well-known sandwich here in The City with the Violet Crown, but one that is a big favorite all across Mexico. The happy fruit taquería makes a nice version, using a bun with exceptional flavor and softness, to go with that crispy, guajillo chile-anointed crust. They offer several filling variations, and I chose the classic potato and chorizo, which was delightfully delish.

Picadillo left, and chivo (goat) right

This is a fantastic sandwich that more folks need to know about, so I’ve included a recipe from my upcoming eBook,
Favorite Dishes from Regional Mexico, Texas and the Border, and New Mexico

Pambazos · Guajillo Salsa-Dipped Potato and Chorizo Sandwiches

A pambazo (also spelled panbaso, pambazo, and even banbaso) is a type of torta. It’s too big and hearty to be an antojito, although on occasion, slider-sized versions of pambazos, called pambacitos, are made for use as appetizers at parties. The name comes from pan bajo, or “low-class bread”, a reference to a bread made from the lowest grade of wheat flour during the days of Spanish occupation (the Spaniards in New Spain were exceedingly class-conscious). It began as a meal for the commoner and the laborer, made from the dregs of the mill.

The bun itself is also known as pambazo, and is a hamburger bun-sized soft roll shaped like a football (an American football). They are typically made by the local bakeries, or panaderías, and the bakery will usually offer warm pambazos to sell as well. The sandwich has some regional variations but they are minor. In some regions the bottom half gets a schmear of refried beans topped with longaniza or chorizo sausage and extra sauce instead of just crema fresca and the potato-chorizo filling. In Veracruz it typically gets a filling of black beans, queso fresco, tomato, pickled jalapeño, and chipotle powder.

The pambazo dominates in the center of the country (especially Veracruz, Puebla, Michoacán, and D.F.) but you can find them north to south. It is typically made with a doughy pambazo roll that is dipped in guajillo chile sauce and then fried on a flattop griddle in some lard to seal in the chile flavor on the outside, until the exterior gets crunchy while the interior remains moist and soft. Think of it as a lard-griddled French-dip. Some cooks stuff it before it gets fried, so that the cheese gets completely melted, and some stuff it after the frying, but the typical filling is chunky potato and chorizo, topped with shredded white cheese (queso fresco, panela, quesillo, Oaxaca, asadero, etc.). Some cooks add an extra bit of sauce to the potato mixture, to punch up the flavor. Some vendors try to economize by adding extra crema in place of the cheese, but the sandwich really needs the richness of the cheese to go with the potatoes.  Add some onion slices, shredded lettuce or cabbage, and a bit of salsa, and you have an appetite-filling behemoth.

The pambazo is eaten any time of the day, and it is sold by street and market vendors, by some taquerías, and by torterías, or sandwich shops. This sandwich really needs to be eaten hot, so if it is sold para llevar, or “to-go”, they’ll wrap it in foil to keep it warm. Since it is messy because of the chile sauce on the exterior, it really needs to be wrapped in foil so that you have a way to keep your hands clean while eating it.

Guajillo Chile Sauce                                       Makes about 2 ½ cups
15 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 plum tomatoes
½ medium white onion, cut horizontally
3 large cloves garlic
2 cups chicken stock
½ teaspoon comino

Potato and Chorizo Filling                             Fills 8 pambazos
1 pound red-skinned or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced ½-inch
Hot water to cover by 1-inch
¾ teaspoon salt
1 pound Mexican chorizo, homemade if possible (casings removed if necessary)
1 small white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh serrano chile, or 2 to 3 minced chipotles en adobo
Pinch crumbled dried Mexican oregano (optional)
About 2 teaspoons lard, bacon fat, or vegetable oil, if necessary

¾ cup crema fresca
1 ½ cups shredded queso blanco (quesillo, Oaxaca, panela, queso fresco, etc.)
½ cup thinly sliced white onion
2 cups thinly shredded young green cabbage or romaine lettuce
Aluminum foil, to wrap the bottom half of the sandwich
Fire-roasted avocado and tomatillo salsa verde, for service

1. For the guajillo chile sauce, heat a comal or skillet over medium heat and briefly dry-toast the chiles until they are fragrant; do not scorch. Place the chiles in a small pan with the chicken stock, bring just to a boil, turn off the heat and cover, and let sit until softened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic on the comal or dry skillet until softened and lightly charred. Add the soaked chiles and chicken stock, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and comino to a blender and puree. Place a sieve over a large bowl and pour the sauce through the sieve, forcing as much of the pulp through as possible, while excluding any seeds. Reserve for dipping the pambazo buns.

2. For the potato and chorizo filling, bring potatoes, water, and salt to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and cook potatoes until just starting to get tender, about 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and reserve.

3. Put the chorizo in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring and breaking up the chorizo, until completely cooked and lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Add the onions, garlic, chile, and oregano (if using), along with lard if chorizo hasn't rendered enough fat. Cook while stirring and scraping until the onions are translucent and soft, about 6 minutes.

4. Add the potatoes and cook until the potatoes are hot and have absorbed some chorizo fat and other flavors, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reserve hot for filling pambazos or tacos.

5. To prepare and assemble the pambazo buns, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of lard or vegetable oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Using a hand placed inside a disposable plastic glove or plastic bag, submerge the pambazo bun under the sauce for about 8 to 10 seconds. Remove and drip dry for a few seconds, and place bottom-side down in the skillet. Cook the bun until starting to brown, while pressing down with a spatula, and then turn over, repeating on the other side. Tilt the buns upright, so that they lean against each other, and cook each side until browned. You should be able to cook 3 to 4 buns simultaneously. Remove to paper towels to drain, and repeat with the remaining buns, until all are dipped and fried.

6. For assembly, slice the sauced and fried buns about 2/3rds of the way through, horizontally. Spread 1 ½ tablespoons of the crema fresca on the bottom bun and top with evenly divided amounts of the potato and chorizo filling. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the remaining sauce over the filling, and top with 3 tablespoons of the shredded cheese.  Add a few slices of fresh onion and ¼ cup of the shredded cabbage or lettuce, and then wrap the bottom half of the torta in aluminum foil. I prefer the tomatillo-avocado green sauce on the side for service, but a chipotle salsa, or a fire-roasted red salsa works fine also. Serve immediately.

For the buns, bolillos, teleras, hamburger buns, or Kaiser rolls can be substituted, but they are not nearly as good as a torta made with the genuine pambazo bun. The best way to dip the bun in the chile sauce is to use your hand, covered with a disposable kitchen glove or plastic bag.

For the guajillo chile sauce, you can use any dried chiles you like, but guajillo chiles are the standard. I like to add several chipotles to amp-up the heat level just a bit and add a bit of complex smokiness. Ancho, pasilla, pulla, cascabel, and mulatto chiles can be substituted for the guajillos, or used in combination with the guajillos. 
If you are extremely lazy, or pressed for time, a canned or bottled red chile enchilada sauce can be used instead of the guajillo sauce.

For the potatoes, you may prefer to omit the fresh chile and substitute 2 or 3 minced chipotles en adobo, or powdered jalapeño or chipotle chile instead. For even richer flavor, omit the salt and boil the potatoes in chicken stock (which can be saved for soup stocks).

Mick Vann ©

My previous Chronicle review:

La Fruta Feliz
3124 Manor Rd.; 512-473-0037