Friday, October 17, 2014

Ed Lee and the Gochujang Chronicles

Chef Ed Lee

This past Sunday I was invited to attend Ed Lee’s cooking class at Central Market Cooking School, where he would be cooking with a recently-released Gochujang sauce which he helped develop for Chung Jung One Company, a division of Daesang Corporation of South Korea, which is one of the world’s largest fermentation companies. You probably remember Ed from Top Chef, where he was the totally chill and affable fan favorite competing against eventual winner, Austin’s own Paul Qui. Ed really didn’t want to talk about the show much, other than to say that it was brutal, and a huge boon to his career, but that at the end of the day, “you had to remember that it was just a TV show.”

Jicama and pineapple pickle

His Top Chef days are over, and he’s concentrating on his growing restaurant empire (Milkwood and 610 Magnolia/The Wine Studio in Louisville, with a new restaurant opening in D.C. this coming spring). Lee is also the co-host of this season’s Mind of a Chef on PBS, which is without question the best and most creatively-engaging cooking show on TV. Narrated by Executive Producer and King Badass of all-things-cooking-show, Tony Bourdain, this year’s edition features Ed Lee and Magnus Nilsson; Ed takes the first 8 shows, while Magnus bats the clean-up position. Ed’s also very satisfied with the success of Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a New Southern Kitchen, his groundbreaking cookbook that was released by Artisan last year (for my May 2013 review in the Chronicle, see link below).

Short rib japchae

Another of Eds’ recent projects was doing some product demos and recipe development for 
leading Korean foods manufacturer Chung Jung One. That went well, so they invited him to South Korea for 10 days to consult on the development of their new Gochujang sauce, the traditional fermented hot chili paste. Gochujang was on everyone’s hot new cooking ingredient list last year, right up there with finger limes and freekeh. If you’ve eaten Korean food before, you’ve had gochujang (pronounced GO-chew-jong) and just didn’t know it. Gochujang is first-cousin to Sichuan hot bean paste, and is a fermented umami bomb condiment made from red chiles, a grain (glutinous rice, rice, barley, or wheat), fermented soy beans, salt, and a little sweetener, such as rice syrup.


Fermented and pickled vegetables and beans were introduced as early as 350 AD from China, but chile peppers didn’t arrive from Japan until 1620 (originally coming there via Portuguese traders in the 1530’s). Like every country in Asia, once chile peppers arrived, black pepper had to take a back seat, and Korea wholeheartedly embraced the red chile pepper. Everyone used to make gochujang in their backyards, fermenting in the sun in big pottery crocks, closing it up every night and anytime it rained, for 3 meticulous months. You could buy it at the market from small, artisanal producers if you didn’t make your own, but in 1972 companies started producing it commercially from powdered ingredients, making folks lazy, and now homemade paste in the homeland is a rarity. What makes Chung Jung One’s version stand out is that it is organic, gluten and MSG-free, and is made with fresh ingredients. The flavor profile harkens back 100 years, when every Korean family fermented their own paste, so the potential market applies to Korea as much as the States.

Creamy dual seaweed risotto

The class was sold-out, and Ed was on his game, riffing on pickles and his trademark Southern food with roots firmly planted in Asia, but this class was focused more on the gochujang. He started out making a zesty jicama, pineapple and pepper quick pickle, which would accompany the rice bowl later on. And that demo and the next dish was paired with a very drinkable, fruit-forward Beaujolais, the Domaine de Combiers Fleurie La Cadole 2012. Ed then quickly whipped-out a really tasty japchae made with sweet potato starch glass noodles, with braised short rib meat, shitakes, and julienned vegetables. I could have eaten a bucketful. The class loved the double seaweed risotto with clams and shrimp, which paired perfectly with the accompanying crisp, fruity Argiolas Sardinian white. The two different seaweeds load the rice with umami flavor, and I loved that his method is to add all of the liquid at once. Great dish, with no textural ill effects from the unfussy shortcut method.

Gochujang-kissed pork rice bowl

The main course was the rice bowl with jicama pickle and gochujang slathered pork loin, with lettuce and herbs. This is a spicy, satisfying bowl of goodness, and the glass of big, ripe, dark-fruit rich El Burro Kickass 2012 Garnacha from Bodegas Ayles paired nicely. A late treat was a coconut pudding with rice, almonds, sesame seeds, vanilla, and Thai basil matched with a fruity, nutty, lush, cream-textured Santo Vino from Villa Puccini.

Coconut pudding with rice and nuts

We all got to taste the gochujang and I loved it. The flavor is umami-rich and complex, with great depth and a really clean, spicy finish; a little too spicy for the wimps in the class. One taste and you can imagine dozens of uses for this condiment. Central Market has it on the shelf, so don’t hold back. You’ll love it. Ed’s class was entertaining, and the food was excellent. Once I tasted it, I remembered why I liked his cookbook so much. And if you haven’t been watching Mind of a Chef, you’re blowing it.

Mick Vann ©                               

Monday, September 15, 2014

Buddhist Blessing on Burnet

Sap's on Burnet....yummmmmm

Yesterday I was honored to be invited to the Buddhist blessing at Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine, the newest location at Burnet Road and 2222. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what to expect, and we had foolishly made plans to eat afterwards (we would later realize the folly of that decision). I’ve been to Thailand four times, so I have a working knowledge of Thai Buddhism and the rules about interacting with the monks. I even wore long pants! And it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how a restaurateur would want his new venture blessed by a priest from his religion, so I had a basic framework to operate within. When we got there Sap greeted us warmly and told us that if “it got too weird”, to feel free to step into the adjoining room. Now I was intrigued. How weird could it get?

The Chef and the Artiste

The kids at the temple in Northern Thailand

Our old pal Chef Emil Vogely and his better half, the effervescent Judy Jensen, were there also, and we all glommed together for the occasion. They will leave for Thailand in several weeks so that Judy can install the 9th of a series of 10 temple mural panels that she is reproducing for a small Buddhist temple in Northern Thailand; murals that were damaged in the earthquake several years back. The pictures I’ve seen of her work are remarkable; she does reverse paintings on glass. It’s god’s work.


The Blessing Ceremony

The monks blessing the meal they are fixing to dine on....note the two on the right are twins!

There was a pretty good-sized group of folks in attendance, and I knew my share of them. We all sat down and the monks got started with the chants; we of course did not know the Thai refrains that the majority of the crowd was call-and-responsing back at the monks, but we did know how to wai with palms joined, so we weren’t complete buffoons. The chanting was rhythmic, and I really got into the beat and cadence of it, zoning-out for a little while there. Maybe it was spiritual, maybe it was hunger? Who knows? About 45 minutes after it started, the monks rolled up the white rope that they were collectively holding, which started at the Buddha image, went to the ceremonial candle, through all of their hands, and into the golden urn. Monks eat first, so an incredible spread was arranged on the table before them, as they went around the restaurant with Holy water, sprinkling everything and everyone, blessing them as they went.

The food....leaf to right....table 1

The food ....left to right.....table 2

The food....left to right....table 3 (and table 4, I didn't get as shot of, but it had mass quantities of steamed jasmine rice, a 4-gallon pot of pud ped ga prao, and a huge salad)

The food.....table 5

The food....table 6

Once the monks returned and started eating, we got the high sign to attack the four tables loaded down with mind-freakingly delicious treats. The array was too large to detail, but know this much: every single dish that I tasted was soul-satisfyingly good. The only thing I passed on was the one dish with the little cubes of congealed pork blood. I don’t do filters, liver, or blood. But I loved the funky fermented bamboo shoot curry with chicken; definitely an acquired taste, but one that I acquired a long time back. There was also a fiery Southern curry that blew me away. It was all great, and really good to see an old friend’s newest venture get the okay from the higher spiritual powers, while getting to chat with a bunch of old friends. A very satisfying way to spend a Sunday morning: monks, friends, food, and a big blessing for all of it.

Mick Vann © 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Khao Soi, for the "Cold" Front: A Primer

In honor of the approaching “cold” front, and because I was ravenously hungry and needed to stop by my nearby bank, I went to Sap’s South a few days ago for a late lunch on the way home. Sap’s does an excellent version of Khao Soi, that magnificent Northern Thai red-curry noodle soup. And while I was there, I also got an order of Pad Ped Nor Mai with Pork, which is a stir fry of julienned bamboo shoot strips, garlic, fish sauce, stock, jalapeño, roasted Thai chile sauce, cilantro, and Thai holy basil (which accentuates the heat of chiles). I love this dish. It’s got the perfect combination of spicy and salty, with an underlying herbal sweetness, and an umami-laden porkiness to offset the funky crispness of the shoots. As good as it is, it’s even better when you eat it with steamed Thai brown rice, which is nuttier than Jasmine rice, and a bazillion times healthier, since the bran layer is intact.

Pad Ped Nor Mai (with PORK!)

Steamed Thai brown jasmine rice...loaded with antioxidants

Khao soi is one of those dishes that you fall in love with the first time you try it. The history is long and involved, but at the heart of it, khao soi is a dish that is uniquely Thai, born from several imports and morphed by Thai cooks to make it better. It started up in Northern Thailand, and spread nationwide (although the experts insist that any version not made in Chiang Mai is an inferior imposter).
The dish was introduced by ‘Cin-Haw' (Chin-Haw) Muslim traders from Yunnan. Han Chinese called the Cin-Haw ‘Hui' to distinguish them from non-Muslim Chinese; ‘Cin Haw' are the Thai words for ‘Chinese Hui'.

The Cin were originally descendants of Uzbek warriors who were brought by the Mongols into China to help with the conquest of Yunnan province. They were known as consummate traders, who for hundreds of years regularly plied their heavily-armed mule caravans over the trade routes from Southern China into Laos, Northern Thailand, and, eventually Burma. The Cin-Haw population in Northern Thailand and Burma further increased after the failed Panthay Rebellion - an uprising against the Yunanese Qing Dynasty, which caused refugees to flee Yunnan.

Several factors reinforce this Cin-Haw likelihood. There is a somewhat similar dish eaten in Burma, known there as ohn no khauk-hswe (khauk-hswe, which is phonetically pronounced similar to khao soi, and simply means ‘noodles' in Burmese). This may account for the adopted name of the dish in Thailand. The Burmese dish is similarly spiced, and uses coconut milk in the broth (an unusual trait for Burma), but is thickened with chickpea flour, a decidedly Indian cooking method.

Another vaguely similar version exists in Malaysia and extreme Southern Thailand, known as nonya laksa lemak , a coconut milk and seafood broth with egg noodles, served with prawns, a garnish of thinly sliced egg omelet, scallion, and ginger (lemak refers to the presence of coconut milk). The dish is thought to have been introduced in the South by Haw Sino-Muslim traders or refugees, who later interacted with the Nonya: ethnic Chinese who resettled and intermarried into Malaysia and Singapore culture.

Perhaps the best evidence of the origin of khao soi come from the statements of the founder of Chiang Mai's famous Lamduan Faham Khao Soi , which has been serving the dish on Faham Road for more than 60 years (Faham is known as “Khao Soi Road”). The founder, who is now in her advanced years, says that she was taught the recipe by some Haw Chinese Muslim immigrants who relocated during the war, first to the area near the town of Fang, and then to Chiang Mai, “It was the Haw Chinese that showed me how to make the distinctive yellow noodles, as well as the soup.” Lamduan altered that original recipe so that it would appeal more to the Thai palette, but the dish was eaten for many years before that, all over the North. It is important to note that the dish was originally cooked only with chicken or beef, never with pork, which also reinforces the Muslim origins. Today, some non-Muslim Thais offer the soup made with pork, but this is an anomaly which is not typical.

Khao soi is sold up north in noodle shops that specialize in the dish; traditionally they were open from morning to the early afternoon only. The shops are usually unassuming affairs, with modest signage. It's a word-of-mouth type of dish, and insider information is key to finding the best versions. One of the pleasures of khao soi is that no two noodle shops or vendors will serve exactly the same dish; every cook has their own subtle variation, and every khao soi aficionado has their favorite venue for dining on the luscious noodle soup. Arguments over who serves the best version can get heated, and everyone has a personal opinion.

A steaming bowl of majestic Khao Soi!

Often khao soi shops will also serve chicken, beef, or pork satay (pork only if they are non-Muslim), skewers of spice and coconut milk-marinated meats, grilled over coals, and served with toasted white bread, and a peanut curry sauce and a sweet-sour relish of shallot, cucumber, and chiles. In the rest of the country, specialty khao soi shops and vendors exist, but the popularity of the dish causes it to be included on many standard noodle restaurant menus.
When a bowl of khao soi is placed in front of you, your senses take over; it's a work of culinary art. Visually you'll see a subtle reddish-orange colored liquid, topped with golden-yellow fried noodles, garnished with pinkish-red shallots, light green pickled Chinese mustard, and deep red chile. It's fragrant with the aromas of combined Thai and Indian spices, coconut milk, chicken broth, citrusy lime, and smoky chile. The taste is ambrosial: rich, spicy, sweet, salty, and sour, all at once, and in perfect harmony.

My favorite version, like the one served at Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine (shown here), is made with a base of rich chicken stock, to which thick coconut milk is added. You can get it with either chicken meat or stewed beef meat, although these days, pork is also offered. The spices are a blend of a paste made from garlic, shallot, galangal, lemongrass, makroot zest and fruit pulp, with a small amount of shrimp paste and palm sugar. To this paste are added bay leaf, curry powder, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and turmeric.

Fresh dan mien Chinese egg noodles, lo mein-style, which are flat and about ¼-inch wide (a little more narrow than a fettuccine) are added to the liquid. These same noodles are also deep-fried until golden and crispy, and placed on the top to provide a textural accent. Before indulging, you must garnish the bowl with the accompanying sliced shallot or red onion, slices of sour and salty pickled mustard, a vigorous squeeze of tart lime, and a spoonful of the smoky chile sauce made from roasted red Thai chiles. Sap's version garnishes with fresh, crisp mung bean sprouts, and places the pickled Chinese mustard in the bottom of the bowl; an addition that we like.

A bowl of excellent khao soi is hard to beat, a synchronous blending of Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavors, in a rich and sensual broth, with complex layered flavor and interesting texture. It is truly perfection in a bowl, ideal for sultry or cool weather, and uniquely Thai in flavor profile. Pair it with an order of P-32 with pork, and a side of Thai brown rice, and you’re one with everything.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, September 5, 2014

Grover’s Paradise: A Sausage Odyssey

Grover, left, Chris "C-Boy", right

Sunday the 31st was a big day. My old chum Michael “Mickey” Corenblith was in town from a film site on the Eastern Seaboard to help celebrate his dad Louis Corenblith’s ninetieth birthday. Louis and Lois are like my second set of parents, so I’d never pass up the opportunity to drop by and BS with Mick, catch up on the happenings of the big time motion picture scene, congratulate Louis on his circle around the sun for another year, and give his beautiful bride Lois a big, sweaty hug. And as much as I’d have loved to stay well into the evening, there was smoked sausage waiting for me in deep, deep southwest Austin.


The Appetizer Swirl

Grover Swift is a bear of a man with a raucous laugh that registers on the Richter scale. He and his long-suffering wife Jill, own and operate Johnny G’s Butcher Block, the premier butcher shop in South Austin. They make some of my favorite sausages, as well as steaks, and all the rest, and I keep hoping that when he gets sick of venison this deer season, he’ll throw some love my way in the form of surplus deer links. The dude knows meat. Plus, he sells a damn-fine custom grind of hamburger meat that he named after me (“Mick’s Mix”). Grover and his crew keep a big chunk of South Austin’s carnivores fat and happy, as well as the customers of a whole bunch of restaurants around town. 

Jill, left, Princess Di, right

Several weeks back, when Diane “Princess Di” Winslow’s brother Jeffrey was in town from Little D, and partying at Rancho Winslow to celebrate his birthday, Jill and Grover had stumbled over from Rancho Groovo, immediately to the south; Ranchos Winslow and Groovo share a common back fence. The Swifts slurringly alluded to a future sausage fest that they wanted to host at Rancho Groovo, and the date was likely gonna be Labor Day, so half-assed commitments were made over a rousing game of drunken moonlight bocce ball, for not only the Swifts to host, but for all of us to attend.

Couscous and spinach salad

I pulled into the drive of Rancho Groovo and the festivities were barely underway. A few guests still hadn’t arrived, but most were there already, and the bar was definitely open. I can tell when Grover has downed a few brews, because his infectious laugh gets even louder and more frequent than it normally is. Havalah was there with not one, but two guyfriends, one of whom was a newbie, a classical guitar artiste I’m told. We all passed judgment and declared him suitable, not that she would care what we thought, one way or the other. They were all liquored-up on Rosé Champagne. Chris Winslow and Grover were knocking back the beer, Scott and Rose were doing fine with sodas and the occasional beer, Jill and Diane were sucking down Wolfberry Rum and 7’s. Di said that when she asked the clerk at Spanky’s Liquor Store in Rockport if the wolfberry rum that was on sale was any good, he replied that he couldn’t personally attest to it one way or the other, but that 1,000 sorority girls couldn’t possibly be wrong. So a new summer drink for the gals was created.

This shit is tasty!

 I had brought a bottle of something that the FedEx driver delivered to me out of the blue. It was a bottle of Jimador Tequila Lime Liqueur with Silver Tequila. I vaguely recall telling someone I’d be glad to taste it, but didn’t expect to get a bottle delivered to my door. Jill got out a pile of tequila glasses, and I cracked the bottle open, and we all decided that it was pretty damn good; so good that we kept pouring. Lime-forward, sweet and tart, with a thick texture that coated the throat with a nice tequila taste, and cradled the cranium with a nice tequila glow. I could see where having a bottle or two of this stuff around could lead to all kinds of trouble. Recommended. It went great with the Hatch green chile queso, and the three different salsas to slather on the white corn tostados and the jalapeño potato chips. 

Fresh mozzarella, basil, and cherry tomato salad

But I was there for some smoked sausage, and Grover came through, with big batches of his Bratwurst, his Andouille, and his Spicy Hot Gut-style, all slowly cooked over oak coals to smoke-kissed perfection. The aroma was driving everyone nuts while we waited for the German potato salad to heat up. Di had done a pot of Golden Triangle-style red beans and rice, following her dad Surly Earl’s recipe. Earl’s Beaumont buddies were all Coonass good ole boys, and they taught him that a proper pot of red beans needed a tiny soupçon of allspice to make it right with God. Di’s batch was loaded with hambone goodness and Andouille; a superlative batch that would have made Earl (and his Cajun buddies) proud. It may just have been Earl goofing around, but for some reason the camera gods were angered and 86'd my picture of the red beans. 

Ginger-lime slaw

She also made a crisp slaw that had a sweet-sour lime and ginger dressing that was big fave of the crowd. Mike and Teresa had brought a really nice couscous and spinach salad, and Jill made the potato salad, assembled all of the accoutrements (pickles, mustards, pickled chiles and onions, dips, etc.), and herded dogs around, put up with Grover, and all the rest. Rose helped ramrod the kitchen operation and made a delish mozzarella, basil, and tomato salad, and Scott asked when the food was going to be ready; dude was seriously peckish and his back was on the fritz. Rose also made some addictively-good egg-free chocolate cookies that just melted away in your mouth like cocoa clouds.

Andouille on top, hot gut below

Bratwurst world

The sausage was sublime: a nice snap to the all-natural casing, the texture of the meat was medium coarse to coarse, depending on the variety (as it should be), and the smokiness perfectly balanced with the flavor of the meat and the zippy spice profile. Excellent, excellent sausage. My favorite was the Andouille, followed by the Hot gut, which tied with the bratwurst schmeared with some hot mustard. All of the food was fantastic, the lime-tequila liqueur was great, and the crowd was a bunch of old pals that really enjoy hanging out together, with no pretensions whatsoever. It was our own little South Manchaca Grover’s paradise (with apologies to Doug Sahm).

My (first) plate

Mick Vann©

Friday, August 22, 2014

Burger Not a Smash


Yesterday, while I was waiting on some reading glasses in Southpark Meadows, I had a little time to kill. I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving, and had a hankering for an Italian sub from Jersey Mike’s (they make great subs, by the way). But a couple of building islands down was Smashburger, and a buddy of mine had just told me about going there and liking their burger, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. He's the same dude that turned me on to Jersey Mike's.

pooch seems to like it, from

Smashburger started in Denver as an offshoot of Quizno’s Subs and they are one of the fastest growing franchises in recent history. They take a meatball of fresh Angus beef and smash the hell out of it onto the butter-laden griddle, forming it into a flat patty with one fell swoop. Supposedly it came to them in a flash of brilliance, and when they considered a name, Smashburger seemed obvious. Turns out the real Smashburger started over 50 years ago in Ashland, Kentucky, perched in the Appalachian Mountains. Dairy Cheer hamburger shop owner Bill Culvertson created the “smashburger” when a worker discovered that smashing the meat with a No. 10 bean can while grilling the patty was a great way to get the best flavor into a burger. Culvertson started his Dairy Cheer cafe as an offshoot of a DQ; he dropped DQ when they refused to let him sell hot dogs and burgers.

Culvertson eventually sold his Dairy Cheer smashburger business to Lou Compton, a woman in Pikeville who saw an opportunity to franchise the popular burger business. She and her husband opened a few stores, trademarking the motto “Home of the Smashburger”, and she collected royalties for 35 years. One day a customer came in telling her about a new Smashburger that had opened up in Lexington; same name, similar red and white artwork, similar cooking method. She sued and apparently got a good settlement, but the court outcome is mysterious.

Maybe the Colorado boys developed their project independently of the Kentucky folks, and maybe they didn’t. I’m more inclined to see Smashburger as a rip-off of Five Guys (the burger smasher looks very similar), and I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen and read about a lot of old-time smashburgers around the country on George Motz’s burger show, so it’s not a unique idea, or even an original concept, but you can’t use a trademarked name without coughing up some bucks.

I’ll also admit to being predisposed against meat manipulation. I’m a big believer that when you cook a hamburger, you do as little as possible to the meat. You mix it as little as possible, you form the patty as gently as possible, and you don’t jack with it once it hits the grill, except to lovingly turn it over one time during the cooking process. Smashing is not in my vocabulary. But the smashing wasn’t my real problem with this burger.

But, back to my burger at Southpark Meadows. I got a “Big Classic” with cheese and bacon. Lettuce and tomato are options for some reason, at no extra cost. I don’t really understand that angle, other than thinking that if they are optional, people might forget to ask for them, and the company can save some money. The patty stuck out the sides of the bun, extruded outward by the smashing process, and it was juicy and beefy tasting. The cheese had no flavor to speak of; certainly not a cheddar taste, with a texture and flavor more like a processed cheese. The apple-smoked bacon was thick-sliced, and crispy, and gorgeous, and there were three slices applied, but, oddly, it didn't really have much bacon flavor. The pickles, tomato, lettuce, and red onion (chintzy application of this item), were stars of the Big Classic show. The egg bun was stale and little on the chewy side, with no flavor to speak of; it was more of a containment device than a flavor contributor. First bite and I was ambivalent, and after eating the whole thing, I gave it a solid “It was okay.” It was juicy, but after examining the puddle in the basket, it was totally clear and oily (perhaps the “butter” they cook the meat in on the griddle?), with no signs of colored meat juices. It was a grease bomb, which normally wouldn’t repel me, but it managed to be greasy with no flavor.

On the side I opted for their haystack onion fries, which are thin-sliced onions that are “hand-breaded” (how else would one bread thin sliced onions?) and served with chipotle aioli. The breading managed to stay on the onions, and they were crispy, but they tasted more of overly salted breading than onion and the chipotle and garlic in the mayo were way too subtle. Another big problem is that they are hard to get from basket to mouth without crumbling all over the front of your shirt. I’ll take a quality brand frozen, machine-breaded, big-ass, 
thick onion ring over these skinny puppies any day.

Bottom line? I got my glasses, spent $10.05 and tried Smashburger, and managed to navigate the traffic hell that is Southpark Meadows without incident. The burger was just okay, and I’ll probably never go back. Exact same thing I said about Five Guys. My guess is that the Dairy Cheer in Ashland, KY would make me a lot happier than either Smashburger or Five Guys, and yesterday, I really should have gone to Jersey Mike’s.

Mick Vann©


Monday, August 11, 2014

Sichuan River, Replaces Tien Jin

So we dropped by the old Tien Jin/new Sichuan River for lunch on Saturday, just to try it out. I was curious, since there seemed to be some affiliation with A+A Sichuan China, and I had heard that it was a renegade defection (ironic, since that’s what created A+A from Asia Café), but also heard that it was a completely sanctioned and affiliated expansion. Turns out neither is true. One of the principals of A+A has partnered as an investor with the Sichuan River owner, but has not left A+A. The menus are different, and the stuff that they both do is even different.


Michael and Johanna Chau had run Tien Jin for the last 21 years, cranking out their fine version of Hong Kong-style Cantonese, one of the very few cooking this style in Austin. Their youngest son had just graduated high school, and Michael wanted to complete his Chinese Medicine degree, so they sold to the new folks. The name outside hasn’t changed, and nothing inside has either, except for the desktop-printed menus. They have two: an American-Chinese standard item menu, and the Sichuan menu. For a peek at the Sichuan version see here:
There is also a lunch special menu, pictured here:

From the American menu we ordered their Hot and Sour soup ($1.50 - SP3) which has a nice  rich, porky stock (but no actual minced pork), and good balance twixt hot and spicy, and sour It is a good version and the stock is rich and complex. The Wonton soup ($1.50 --SP1) features a rich chicken stock, with a homemade dumpling skin; the filling is a little on the bland side.

Steamed dumplings ($5.95 for 8 -- AP8) have a pierogi-like texture on the homemade skins (a little dense, a little thick). The filling is a little under-seasoned, but the dipping sauce is excellent, with good balances of vinegar, sweet, ginger, salty soy, and zippy chile oil. Oddly, the homemade chile oil has zero ma la flavor, that spicy numbness that is generated by Sichuan peppercorn. 

From Sichuan menu world we chose Stir Fried Smoked Pork ($10.50 -- PK6)  smoked pork belly slices with leek, garlic, and onion, fried red chiles, red oil, and a little brown sauce. It was excellent, with great mouthfeel from the baconossity. A minor complaint: the pork skin on the edge of the pork belly was a little on the tough and chewy side.

Fried Chicken Leg Meat ($9.50 – CK20). Finally, some boneless chicken thighs are being served by someone, and not that crappy chicken breast! The dish was loaded with sliced jalapeños, onion, garlic, zucchini slices, and brown sauce. It was a hit.

Ma Po Dofu ($8.25 – VG8) is listed as vegetarian, so ask for ground beef or pork if you want it included; we gave them the option and got ground beef. The dish has excellent flavor, with a good balance of richness, garlicky savory taste, bean paste and chile. It is a really good version.

Thankfully when we were there, we were one of only two tables of Caucasians, and the rest of the half-filled restaurant was filled with native speakers; that’s always a good sign as far as I’m concerned. It’s the same as lots of pickups and big rigs parked outside a roadside diner.

The interior can use some work, but the place is clean. Portions are large, and service was excellent considering she was running solo with a half-full dining room. I will definitely go back, and welcome some spicy Sichuan food in south Austin for a change, instead of having to go way north or northwest. But dudes, we need some MA LA!

Sichuan River
4534 W Gate Blvd, Ste 105

Mick Vann ©

Previous review of Tien Jin:

Previous review of A+A:                  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit III: The Chef's Knife

The Chef’s Knife

The Chef’s Knife is the all-around mack daddy of the cook’s knife kit, designed to perform all tasks asked of it. Originally it was meant to slice and disjoint big cuts of beef, but over the years it’s evolved into more of an all-purpose blade, or what the knife nerds call “general utility” It can be used for mincing, dicing, julienne work, slicing, chopping, and disjointing; you can even turn it sideways and crush garlic, ginger, or spices with it. It is not a specialty tool, but one that is designed to perform reasonably well at many different tasks. 

Usually the blade length ranges between 6 and 14-inches in length, with 8-inches being the most common. The width is normally 1½-inches, but it can be wider. With Western knives there are two shapes of blades. The German blade is deeply curved along its length, from bolster to tip, while the French blade is straighter along its length, curving towards the tip. The German blade is made more for a rocking style of cut, while the French blade is used more for a slicing and chopping style of cut. It’s all a matter of preference, depending on how the user cuts with their blade. A typical Western chef’s knife is sharpened to a 20 to 22° edge, while a professional bladesmith will fine tune that down to 18° or even 15°, if he or she thinks the steel can handle that angle; it takes a harder steel to hold a finer edge. Most Western chef knives are made of steel alloys with a Rockwell Hardness scale of 58 to 60 HRC, while a Japanese chef’s knife, known as a gyuto (which literally means “beef knife”) are typically more in the 60 to 62 HRC range. The Japanese chef’s knife has gotten more popular with chefs lately, and the price of the gyuto has skyrocketed.

The blade of a chef’s knife forms a wide elongated triangle tapering to what’s called a “center tip” point. The center tip means that both the back of the knife and the blade are gently sloped until they meet in a sharp point at the tip; the blade slopes from top to edge, and from front to back. The blade should extend all the way through to the end of the handle; this is called the tang. A full tang provides a stronger knife with a better balance to the blade, which makes it easier to use over a long period of time. The handle needs to be made of a dense, durable, waterproof material, and the handle needs to be shaped to comfortably fit your hand. If the handle is made from two pieces of wood or some other material (called “scales”), it needs to be drilled all the way through the tang, and securely connected with metal posts; these posts resemble rivets.

Lots of chefs hold their blades by gripping the sides of the blade near the handle. The thumb goes on the left side, just in front of the finger guard, and the index and middle finger are on the opposite side, with the index finger extending down near the end of the blade, where the bolster starts, and the middle finger tucked behind the finger guard and right by the bolster. You get better control of the blade that way, especially if it’s a longer blade. Longer blades can be harder to control precisely, but will cut faster, and process larger items. When you only grip the handle of a longer blade, the blade can rotate on the vertical axis easier, which isn’t very safe. Shorter blades are easier to control from the handle, and enable more precise cuts, but can take longer to get the job done during prepwork.

my Henckel, with knife guard

My current chef’s knife is a Henckel Twin 4-Star 10” Chef’s that I’ve had for decades (currently $120 online). Luckily, I recently had Travis Weige sharpen it to a 15° edge; it is razor-sharp and a serious kitchen tool to be reckoned with. Contrary to what every older relative and friend with dull knives in their kitchen drawer ever told you, a dull knife is MUCH more likely to cause an accident. Anyone that cuts themselves with a sharp knife did so because they have developed bad, dangerous knife habits from using a worthless dull knife. I used to diss my Henckel 10-incher, but now I really like it again, and it’s because I got it sharpened. Lesson learned, and one to pass on. Travis sharpens knives by the way….

A quick note about knife guards. ALL knives should be slotted in a knife guard when they're being transported or stored. A knife guard, sometimes called a blade or edge guard, is a slotted plastic sheath that comes in varying lengths and widths, to accommodate the size of the blade it is protecting. Compressive tension holds the guard on the blade, and some are lined inside with a thin felt coating which helps prevent slippage. Every knife company makes them, and they can cost more than you’d expect for a piece of plastic. I use a couple of cost-friendly brands made by Ergo Chef and Mundial. 

a Travis Weige custom chef's knife (photo by Travis)

But I’m all moist and tweaking from waiting on my Weige 11-inch custom chef’s knife that I commissioned Travis to build for me earlier this spring ($375, and a complete bargain considering the cost of custom chef’s knives out there). It will have a lacewood handle that is custom-formed to my grip and my hand measurements, bitchin’ cool handle posts made by Sally Martin, and the blade will be forged from 440c steel alloy. I’ve got several months to wait still, but I know I will be very proud to own it, and very, very happy to use it.  Go to Travis’ website, look at the gallery, and you’ll get a good idea of what my new chef’s knife will look like, and why I’m all worked up about getting it:

The chef’s knife ought to hold a special place in the working chef or serious foodie’s knife kit. It’s the one blade that can do it all, and the one blade that you really shouldn’t skimp on.  

For a good website link on parts of the knife, see this:     

For my previous Austin Chronicle article on my custom chef knife to-be, local Austin-based custom knife genius, Travis Weige, and a lot of background info on custom kitchen knives, go here:

Mick Vann ©