Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sothwest Louisiana: Part Two of the Food Travelogue


The next morning we went down to Johnson’s Boucanerie in Lafayette for a little pre-drive breakfast snack. Johnson’s is a BBQ, sausage, and boudin spot, but their breakfast sandwich has a huge following. It’s called the Nenaine Special (nenaine means “godmother” in Creole). It’s a huge buttermilk biscuit done grilled cheese-style with aged cheddar, filled with a fried egg and slices of boudin sausage, all glazed with their house made Creole-style BBQ sauce. One hell of a sandwich, and a great way to start a day of food scarfing. Their barbecue “tots” turned out to be hashed browns and not remotely similar to tots, but, what are you gonna do?

the Nenaine Special from Johnson's

Just down the road to the west, in Scott, sits Don’s Specialty Meats, a past winner for best boudin and cracklins. We were going to need some pork meat to snack on while driving north to Alexandria for lunch, for more pork. We went to the counter and ordered a couple of Cajun specialties to go along with our snack of delish spicy boudin balls.  A pistolette is a savory beignet-like dough that is shaped kinda like a jelly doughnut, and stuffed with boudin sausage at Don’s, before they get fried to a golden brown. Pistolettes are a specialty of the Lafayette area, and they are usually stuffed with seafood or crawfish. Tasty little units! A Cajun stuffed bread is like a savory pie-ish bread dough, mini cake-shaped morsel that is stuffed with a spicy, well-seasoned mix of ground pork and ground beef and fried or baked. Similar to Lasyone’s Cajun Meat pies up in Natchitoches, but those are a whole lot more like empanadas. 

Boudin balls...2" diameter

Pistolettes of spicy boudin

Slightly out of focus and torn open Cajun Meat Pie, from Don's

We loaded up on frozen packages of spicy boudin, tasso, pork sausage, and spicy andouille sausage for the ice chest, to make future batches of red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, and poboys. And we couldn’t leave without a bag of cracklins to nibble on while driving north to Alexandria. Don’s cracklins are more typical of the standard form, being little crispy golden brown rectangles of skin and pork belly with a kiss of salt and cayenne. The skin is definitely more toothsome than the belly portion, and they make a fine chewy treat on the road (and pair nicely with good bourbon later on). 

What Don's cracklins look like...tasty little porky tidbits

When I think back on the drive north, one word comes to mind: green. Everything is verdantly tropical green, whether it’s the trees, the plains, the bar ditches, the surface of the ponds, or the crops. Mostly fine textured and deep green, with an occasional variation thrown in, like a dark, swampy looking patch of water, or a farmhouse. Opelousas is really the only town of any size that you pass through, and we could have stopped there to eat at Pearl’s Country Kitchen, The Crawfish House, Billy Ray’s Boudin and Cracklins, or Mama’s Fried Chicken, but we were on a mission. 

The order counter at L'il Cajun Kitchen

A week before out trip, the 42nd Annual Cochon de Lait Festival was held in Mansura, which was off to our east in Ayovelles Parish, as we drove north to Alexandria on I-49.                
Cochon de Lait is a butterflied pig cooked on a vertical frame in front of coals from a wood fire. The “de Lait” part refers to the size of the pig, meaning they are supposed to be milk-fed. Little guys, still sucking on the sow’s teat. But typically the pigs cooked at the festival are more teenaged-sized (but not what might be called hogs). At any rate, we missed the festival, but I did find a spot in Alexandria that claimed to have the real deal, authentic cochon de lait poboys. That sandwich is always the crowd favorite at NOLA’s Jazz Fest, but it’s hard to find them on a regular menu year ‘round. Hence my excitement at hearing about Lil’ Cajun House.

Swamp Pop

Located at the end of a strip center, and just west of Alexandria’s mall, Lil Cajun House is an unassuming little joint, and their poboys are highly recommended. We decided to split a cochon de lait poboy and a roast beef with debris gravy poboy, and I wanted a fix of their red beans and rice on the side. They were pushing a local artisanal soda called Swamp Pop, and there was some weirdo hanger-on who felt like it was his sacred duty to describe his interpretation of the taste of Swamp Pop to anyone who would listen, but we were focused on pig. My name was called and I picked up our tray. We both went for the cochon de lait at the same time, and I was stunned. Art looked up at me and said, ”That’s probably the best pork I’ve ever eaten, and definitely the best pork sandwich I have ever eaten.” I heartily concurred between moans and groans of satisfaction. The best.

Cochon de Lait, bitches!

The bread was perfect, with just a kiss of heavy Creole mayo, thin tomatoes, and a little lettuce leaf, but the pork was ethereal. Melt in your mouth tender and moist, with a porcine flavor as if little roasted piggy angels floated down from heaven and popped in your mouth. It had bits of crunchy golden brown skin mixed into the juicy pulled pork. Outstandingly good pork. Not that the beef poboy was any slouch, but it never had a chance against that cochon de lait. Lil Cajun’s red beans and rice were exemplary, loaded with spicy seasoning and heavily flavored with lots of excellent tasso and andouille sausage. We could have eaten at Pamela’s Bayou in a Bowl, or at Clairese’s, but nobody can hold a candle to the cochon de lait at Lil Cajun House. It’s now on my all-time great list. 

L'il Cajun's excellent red beans and rice, with roast beef poboy

With lunch out of the way, we were now headed south on Hwy 71 towards the small village of Lecompte for dessert. Lea’s Lunchroom is famous for their pie, and has been since 1928. They have a big, long glass dessert case full of pies, and pretty much every person at every table is eating pie at the end of their meal. After hearing the long list available, I went for cherry and Art asked for blueberry. They either heated the pies, or they could have still been warm from the oven, but I prefer my pie cool or at room temperature. The crust was flaky, with a nice flavor, but my cherry slice had an almond taste to it, like it had been juiced with some almond extract. Of course, I could have been in the process of having a stroke instead, but I think not. And the ratio of fruit to jell was a little whack. I wanted more cherries and less goo. Art definitely won the pie battle. His slice of blueberry was excellent.

Water glass at Lea's


Lea's blueberry pie

Heading south down Hwy 75, we took a left at the little town of Bunkie, heading west towards the little burg of Cottonport, situated on a bend of a lazy feeder stream that eventually joins the Mississippi. T Jim’s Market and Grocery is known far and wide for their cracklins and boudin, and they were conveniently on our way to an early evening supper in Baton Rouge. T Jim’s opened in 1964 and their specialty is boudin, especially red (blood) boudin, spicy boudin, pork sausage, smoked sausage, hogshead cheese (excellent), cracklins, and items like stuffed gogs (pig stomach stuffed with fresh sausage). I got a link of spicy boudin, which was excellent, and a bag of their cracklins (the densest of all that we had tried so far). Sometimes a little tough gnawing, but loaded with great flavor. The counter guy said that there was a maître d from a fancy hotel in New Orleans who drive up every week to pick up a big order of their cracklins for the hotel guests. Both the boudin and cracklins at T Jim’s are first rate. 

T Jim's butcher shop

Baton Rouge, view of Exxon Mobil Refinery just north of the central district, I-10 bridge downstream

We took a leisurely drive down little, narrow back roads, following the bayous just west of the Mississippi, all the way to the outskirts of Baton Rouge. It was a maze of truck farms and crawdad ponds, and green as all get out. After a slight navigational miscue on the dreaded I-110 in central Baton Rouge, we finally made it to Delpit’s Chicken Shack. The Chicken Shack is famous for serving “wet” batter fried chicken, like the much heralded Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans. Chicken Shack, as it turns out, is the oldest continually-operated restaurant in Baton Rouge, at 81 years of age. 

Delpit's, way back in the day.....

We got sidelined at the order counter behind some prissy, pissed off Nubian princess who couldn’t decide what she wanted to eat. Her frustrated boyfriend kept going through the lengthy list of sides available, and all the options regarding number of pieces and sides, and she would sorta whine and say “nuh” with each dish mentioned. I thought that the elderly Black lady running the counter was gonna climb through the window and tear Princess a new asshole, but she held her cool and princess finally made a decision and got out of everyone’s way. Bitch was thriving on the attention, while poor homeboy was embarrassed as hell. 

Wet batter three piece with greens, red beans and rice, and rice dressing, lemon chess pie and a yeast roll on the side

I ordered a three piece plate, with red beans and rice, rice dressing (think dirty rice without the “dirt” {liver}), mustard greens, and yeast rolls. I got a small lemon chess pie on the side. The batter was spicy and thin but crispy, with the chicken underneath exceptionally moist and flavorful. All of the sides were tasty as could be. It was my first experience with “rice dressing” and I liked it. The lemon chess pie was fantastic. With that, we got into the line of traffic heading back towards Lafayette on I-10. That day long leg of food treasures was well worth the effort.  

front of Delpit's catering truck....says it all, yo

That night I decided to check the Centex weather, and I am VERY glad I did. They were calling for massive, training rain storms from a closed-off Low centered right over Central Texas. We were going to begin the next morning with a leisurely starter of plump beignets and chicory coffee at Poupart’s Bakery down the road from the HoJo, and then slip a few doors over to T Coon’s Restaurant for an early Cajun meat and three (they are both at the corner of West Pinhook and Kaliste Saloom St.). Instead, we decided to hightail it out of Louisiana early the next morning, pushing hard to beat the coming rains. We hit some intermittent rain in Houston and near LaGrange, but the skies were ominously low and heavy, with the clouds sodden and ready to dump. The sky looked angrier the closer we got to Austin. When we got near COTA it decided to deluge, raining so hard that you couldn’t see the road. We escaped the western edge of it into Austin, and it was sunny all the way home to my place. But that afternoon and evening on TV coverage I saw US 71 AND 290 both get shut down due to flooding, with massive rainfalls of 16 inches around LaGrange, Smithville, and Bastrop. Everything washed away, lives were lost. So glad to have missed that, and not get marooned on the highway. 

I’d call the road trip a complete success. We tasted some amazing Cajun food, saw some landscape different from the usual palette of CenTex, and got to learn the true importance of gravy. I had the best pork of my life, and got to nibble and gnaw on all manner of cracklins. Other than the plague of nitwits running our motel, it was a very pleasant respite. 

Johnson’s Boucanerie
1111 St John St, Lafayette, LA 70501; (337) 269-8878    

Don’s Specialty Meats
730 I-10 S Frontage Rd, Scott, LA 70583; (337) 234-2528
104 Hwy 1252, Canreco, LA, (337) 896-6370        

L’il Cajun House
2154 N Mall Dr # A2, Alexandria, LA 71301; (318) 787-6046

Lea’s Lunchroom
1810 US-71, Lecompte, LA 71346; (318) 776-5178    

T Jim’s Market and Grocery
928 Dr H J Kaufman Ave, Cottonport, LA 71327; (318) 876-2351        

Delpit’s Chicken Shack
413 N Acadian Thruway, Baton Rouge, LA 70806; (225) 383-0940 (+ 2 other locations)      

Mick Vann ©


Southwest Louisiana: A Travelogue in Two Parts

Art and I both got bit by the “get outta town bug” between semesters, so we decided to take a two day jaunt around Southwest Louisiana at the end of May, in search of good food. Neither of us had been in that neck of the woods in a long time, and it was the right distance away to make it anywhere but here, but still not an epic journey. After calculating routes, finding a couple of reasonable cheap motel rooms, and researching food options along the route, we took off, heading towards Houston and points east. 

Kolache counter at Weikel's, looking sideways

NO trip along 71 east, twixt Austin and Columbus is complete without a stop at Weikel’s for a tray of kolaches. On a previous trip we made the mistake of stopping at Hruska’s across the highway, and found them to be pretty damn pedestrian when compared to Weikel’s. We got suckered into Weikel’s lemon bars the last time we were in there, which led to the great powdered sugar fiasco. Folks still speak of the horror. By the time we had each eaten a lemon bar while driving, the entire front cabin of the SUV looked like a powdered sugar bomb had been deployed. There was powdered sugar everywhere. As much as I love me a great lemon bar, and Weikel’s makes one that’s truly exceptional, I will never try that again unless I have an apron completely covering my front, goggles, and gloves, with maybe a washdown hose on standby, like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It will require sheets of plastic, like a murder scene from Dexter. I went with cherry, peach, and apricot, while Art succumbed to blueberry, prune, and poppy seed. Weikel’s makes a damn fine kolache. But I digress. We had cross-Houston traffic to contend with, but amped-up and sugar-fueled by excellent kolaches, it was of little concern.

The "Golden Triangle"...refineries as far as the eye can see

The further east we went into “the golden triangle” of Orange, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, the more repugnantly fragrant the air became, and the more frequently we saw huge oil refining plants with distillation towers piercing the sky, and massive flames leaping from burn-off pipes. Every body of water we traversed had a barge holding tanks of some flavor of petrochemicals. Food stop number two was coming up in Lake Charles, and we were amazed at how good the roads became as soon as we crossed the Texas border into The Bayou State, where every truck stop and gas station, no matter how small, promises untold fortunes to be won in their casino. And they all have a “casino”. The Louisiana highways didn’t stay that good, but they say it’s all about first impressions, no?

In Lake Charles we were headed for Hackett’s, a meat market of some repute, known for their plate lunches. What we didn’t know was that the plate lunches are so popular that they sell out pretty damn early, and we were definitely on the tail end of the lunch rush. We settled for a spicy sausage po boy, figuring a meat market should know there way around some stuffed gut. In my research, I had watched a short Southern Foodways Alliance film about the plate lunch scene in Lafayette, which had a segment about the religious respect Cajuns have for a side dish known simply as “rice and gravy”.
It will usually be a nutty, long grain Cajun rice like Kon Riko, Cajun Country, Creole Rose, Falcon, or Zatarain’s. But at Hackett’s it’s the gravy that makes the dish, and this is in-your-face, intense beefy goodness that is concentrated by long reduction. Some folks cheat and thicken it with a bit of dark roux, but it’s really supposed to be about braised beef juices, seasoned with a little thyme, bay, cayenne, and the Holy Trinity, reducing down to become the elixir of the gods. She asked me if I wanted beef or chicken gravy, and I asked, “…which is better?” She cocked one eyebrow and replied, “Well, we do lotsa beef here, so……” Beef it was. 

Great sausage, really crappy bun

I have eaten a lot of Southern soulfood beef gravy in my day, and have produced tankers-full quantities of demi-glace in various restaurant kitchens, but never have I had gravy this good. It had the thickness, and substance, and body of demi-glace, but tons more flavor, with a cleaner mouthfeel. It’s darker in color, like the funky mud on the bottom of the swamp, and so intensely flavorful and complex that it boggles the senses. The sausage was really delicious, but tough to bite through, and the bun was a poor excuse compared to the proper buns which would follow. No Cajun could be proud of that bun. But that gravy and rice was worth the drive all by itself. To quote Justin Wilson from his Cajun cooking show from the 1950s, “Heh, heh, heh, heh….I’mma told you what!!!!” 

Gravy of the Gods, from Hackett's

While we were eating a sunburned, grizzled old coot approached the counter. I was curious to see what he ordered, and was instantly flummoxed but fascinated. He was speaking what sounded vaguely like English, in a gravely tone affected by a couple of packs of cigs a day, but I could not understand a single word he said. Counter lady taking his order didn’t even blink. She knew what he wanted and dished it up forthwith. I’d imagine that many folks in those parts sound just like him. I would love to have an accent like that, but would definitely require a bottom screen crawl with subtitles in English if anyone needed to know what I was saying.

Hackett’s is also known for their cracklins, small rectangles of pork belly and skin deep-fried until golden brown and crispy, and then dusted lightly with some cayenne and maybe a touch of salt. You buy them by weight, served in a brown paper bag. The cracklins at Hackett’s are almost like piece of a spicy very thick strip of bacon, if you could get the texture to come out like a toothsome cheese puff. These are some great cracklins, but different than what most think of when they picture Cajun cracklins. Instead of Hackett’s we could just have easily gone to catch lunch at Mama Reta’s Soul Food or Tasterite Jamaican Restaurant, but that gravy made our choice a wise one.

We waddled on down the road to our base camp in Lafayette while nibbling on cracklins, and checked into our crappy but delightfully inexpensive Howard Johnson’s motel. The son working the check-in counter was efficient and easy to deal with. His dad, on the other hand, was a complete dick and managed to take 5 times as long as his son to perform the identical task, while making it three times as difficult. Plus, the key card didn’t work when I got to the room, and I had to go back to the desk and repeat the process all over again. Twice.

Bon Creole exterior (note empty sign holder on roof, and faded mural)

We took a brief bourbon-fueled break from driving, while deciding where to eat for supper. That decision was compounded by the fact that most of the Soul and Cajun meat-and-three joints close at 2, which left us the option of expensive seafood at Poor Boy’s or Don’s, or Lao chow at Mae Sone Noodle House. As tempting as Lao sounded, we were there for Cajun-Creole-Soul, so we headed down the road south, to New Iberia, in search of the legendary Bon Creole Lunch Counter. The directions looked simple enough, and the map on the screen matched my notes, but when we got to where it should be, it wasn’t there. We circled the block a couple of times, looking in vain while driving right by it repeatedly. I finally hollered to a younger dude on the sidewalk, a half mile past where we should be, asking him if he knew where Bon Creole was. With no hesitation, he directed us exactly where to go, telling us that we had picked one of his favorites. He said, “Yeah, it’s easy to miss. Their sign blew down a while back in one of the big winds, and they just never put it back up. Hell, everybody in town knows where it is anyway. Don’t really need a sign.”

Bon Creole kitchen

Sure enough, right where he said it was, we found a faded mural of shrimp on the exterior of an old block building, with not one, but two empty sign holders. One on the roof, and another on the edge of the parking lot. When we got inside, the kitchen was spotless, and the folks working the counter as friendly as could be. We decided on “small” versions of the oyster poboy (for Art) and the mixed seafood poboy (for me) and that we’d split a crawfish burger. We also each got a “small” gumbo. I selected chicken and andouille sausage, while Art went for seafood. Add a couple of Abita root beers and we were set. 

Bon Creole menu

While we were waiting, the older woman at the next table asked us who we were and why we were there, introducing herself as Bea. Not in an accusing way, simply interested in our story, and we obviously looked like a couple of out of place oddballs. She was just finishing one of Bon Creole’s cheeseburgers (½ pound for $6.99, with fries) which she said were the best anywhere around (it did look fantastic). She unfolded from her chair and asked if we were going to be around for 10 minutes, and then mumbled something which we couldn’t understand, except for the part about “…nobody but me makes it anymore…”, and she left. Confusing, but we were now starving and were concentrating more on waiting for what promised to be a great meal.

"small" Oyster poboy from Bon Creole (approx. 7" in length)

They called my name at the counter and I got the tray, not believing what I was seeing. The “Half” poboys were probably 7 inches from end to end, and so packed full of seafood that the bread was held apart at a 90° angle. The loaf was perfect, with a light, airy interior, and a thin, crispy, shattering, golden brown crust. My poboy held over a pound of oysters, crawfish, shrimp, and catfish, all perfectly cooked and delicately coated with a golden brown crust. There was just the right amount of heavy mayo, a couple of tomato slices, and a little bit of crisp, torn iceberg lettuce. This was a magnificent, delicious poboy sandwich, and it came with a side of thick French fries.

Bon Creole's "small" Mixed Seafood Poboy in all of it's GLORY!

The crawfish burger had a 1 ½ inch thick layer of crispy crawfish tails, and the gumbo was dark, rich, and scintillating. About ⅔ of the way through the meal, Bea returned, bringing us a bottle of homemade spicy ketchup that she makes herself. It was really piquant and tasty, but we were blown away that this older woman made a special trip home and back to give two strangers some homemade ketchup for our meal. What a sweetheart. We were stuffed to the gills, and every single bite had been a delight. If I lived anywhere near Bon Creole, I would eat there every day. According to scuttlebutt, they also do superb plate lunches, with two choices a day, Monday through Friday. Hell, I'd probably eat there twice a day. Plate lunch at noon, and poboy and gumbo, or burger and shrimp salad for supper. It’s that good. 


The Crawfish Burger

 · · · continued in Part Two

2247 TX-71 Business, La Grange, TX 78945; (979) 968-9413    

Hackett’s  Cajun Kitchen
5614 Gerstner Memorial Blvd, Lake Charles, LA 70607; (337) 474-3731     

Bon Creole Lunch Counter
1409 E St Peter St, New Iberia, LA 70560; (337) 367-6181

Mick Vann ©  

Friday, June 10, 2016

Saturday at Sap's South

Pork satay...we messed up the symmetry of the toast slices on the plate....our bad. Looks messy, tastes great. 

A couple of Saturday’s past, Art and I met at Sap’s South for some lunch, and Leah was supposed to join us, but got sidelined somewhere. Unfortunately (well, not really) we had ordered for three before we knew she was a no-show. So we were in for a major league belly stuffing.

For an appetizer we chose Sap’s excellent satay (S-47, two orders) made with pork. The tender, charred skewers are loaded with complex flavor even before you dip them into the spicy curried peanut sauce, or adjust the taste buds with some of the sweet and sour ajad pickled cucumber relish with shallot. 

Tom Khlong

Tom Khlong (S-NS15) is our favorite soup, and you can order it with chicken (how we usually order it), tofu, Chinese broccoli, green bean or bok choy, or mixed seafood, which was our choice this day. Normally it comes with a noodle (vermicelli, wide rice, or bean thread) but we always get it with no noodles and brown jasmine rice on the side. Tom khlong is like a jacked-up version of tom yum, and spicy as hell. All of the robust aromatics, including galangal, shallot, Thai pepper, and thick slices of garlic are roasted first, which adds a ton of depth to the rich chicken stock. Lemongrass, Thai lime leaf, lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar round out the spice palette, before it gets garnished with fried red chiles and Thai basil. If you’ve never tried it before, do yourself a favor. I may get it next time with only squid. When poached in that stock, they are unbeatable. 

Guay Teaw Kua Gai (with chicken)

For a noodle it’s hard to beat Guay Teaw Kua Gai (S-F11). Sen yai flat rice noodles are stir-fried with a meat - I prefer ground pork - beaten eggs, bean sprout, pickled radish, and a Thai-Chinese mother sauce that is soy-based. It comes with a lettuce salad on the side, and you get a ramekin of a honey-flavored Thai dressing to dribble over the whole plate. Add just a touch of fish sauce, a dusting of ground Thai chile, and some of the roasted chile sauce, and you have a noodle dish that will kick pad thai’s ass any day of the week. It really bothers me when I see folks go into a Thai restaurant, any Thai restaurant, and pass up all of the amazing noodle dishes to order pad thai. Nothing wrong with pad thai, but live a little, you nimrods!

Pad Prik Khing Nuea

Pad Prik Khing (S-P22) is an old stand by for me. I used to cook it at home all of the time, and the crunch of the green beans fit nicely with the rest of the dishes at our table. We ordered it with beef, and got a big bowl of spicy dry curry glazed beef and crunchy green beans, flavored with Thai lime leaf and palm sugar. It is a delicious reminder that I need to cook it at home more often, and I need to find a source for brown jasmine rice. I’m hooked on that nutty flavor. 

Pad Prik Gaeng

Pad Prik Gang (S-P47) is a stir fried curry made with a red chile curry paste flavored with coconut milk, serrano chile wedges, Thai basil, Thai lime leaf, and crunchy, flavorful green peppercorns. We ordered it with chicken, and loved it. This a dish that will put some fire in your belly. I think it has 4 or 5 chiles on the special menu, but suffice it to say that between the serrano chiles, the red Thai chiles, and the green peppercorns (the original heat of Thailand before the Portuguese brought chiles in 1529) it packs a very tasty wallop.

Another excellent meal at Sap’s. Actually two excellent meals at Sap’s, because there were ample  leftovers for dinner later that evening! The photos would look better if I could remember to take the shots before we start loading up the plates.......

Sap's Fine Thai Cuisine
South: 4515 Westgate · 512-899-8525
North: 5800 Burnet Rd.· 512-419-7244

Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Après Film Pho Dan

My bowl of # 42 A bun

This meal involves another après film dining session, and for the life of me, I cannot remember which film R and I went to see. I do remember liking it. The film really doesn’t matter, as this blog is about the food and the what-not. We went by Tâm Deli, and for some reason, they were closed (see previous GUSTIDUDE entry for the Tâm Deli report). So, not that far 
down the road to the north is Pho Dan, and we were already in a Vietnamese frame of mind, so north we went. Pho Dan is one of my go-to spots for pho, since they have good broth and lots of options. It sits in the strip center on the southwest corner of North Lamar and Braker Lane. That intersection, and general area, is a good food oasis of sorts, since Peace Deli and Bakery and Rice Bowl Café are in the same strip center, and Balkan Café and Grill and Santorini Café are a quarter mile up North Lamar to the north. Taquito Aviles is directly across North Lamar to the east, and a block south, at Kramer Lane, is MT Market, with TC Noodles (Teochew style Chinese), Duy Vietnamese, First Chinese BBQ, and New Fortune Chinese (seafood). Some folks love Lily’s Sandwich and Baguette House in the same shopping center for their bahn mi, but I prefer Tâm Deli, further south. You will not want for a good plate of food in the general area.

Sauces and accoutrement

I think the bozos who bitch online about service at Pho Dan are off-base. It is a simple restaurant, geared more towards turning tables while providing good food. The interior is stark and modern; not a spot designed for you to linger. Admittedly, service there is rudimentary at best, but relatively efficient. It involves a waitperson coming by to take your order, delivering your drinks, and someone dropping off your food when it’s cooked, and not necessarily the same person you’ve been dealing with already. You get up and pay at the register when you’re through. The odd part is that you don’t see your bill until you get up to the counter. That service model doesn’t bother me in the least, though I would expect a tab to be dropped of at the table, so that I can review it before arriving at the register. 

Small # 27, with egg noodles

Allow me a small rant. I’d like it even better if I could write my own order ticket, or enter my order code into a computer tablet, get my own drink from a beverage kiosk, and pick up my order from a counter when my number is called. I go to restaurants to eat and enjoy the companionship of my fellow diners, not interact socially with servers. I like my server to zip in and out, delivering what I need unobtrusively. Anticipate my needs, don’t screw up my order, give me a spoon with my set-up, lobby with the kitchen on my behalf if they are in the weeds and the food’s coming out slowly, give me a ticket when I’m ready to go, and we will all be happy when I leave. I reward a server who accomplishes that relatively simple goal handsomely for their attention. 

Side of meatballs, and the broth from the #24, option 31...

As for the meal, R and I started with A2A, fresh spring rolls with shrimp, and A7, fresh spring rolls with charbroiled beef. The rolls are plump and fresh, with a nice ratio of noodles to vegetable and filling, and served with a full bodied hoisin-peanut dipping sauce. The fried Vietnamese spring rolls (A1) were fine. Wrapped in lettuce and dipped in the nuoc cham sauce, they were a crispy counterpoint to the fresh spring rolls. If I had any complaint, it would be that the pork in the fried roll is ground too finely for my taste, but I quibble.

Fried spring rolls, and grilled lemongrass spring roll, and shrimp spring roll....

The whole trick with a bowl of pho (and it is pronounced “fuh”) is the richness and depth of the broth, and the kitchen at Pho Dan obviously takes care in producing theirs. Both the chicken and the meat broth are first rate. We ordered a # 24 soup with rice noodle, “dry”, meaning the broth is delivered on the side (known as the mysterious “option 31”). It comes with grilled pork and shrimp, and roast chicken, and a small bowl of rich chicken stock on the side, perfumed with scallion. We ate that as a bowl of noodles, like a bun, while I hogged the broth. We also got a small # 27, with egg noodles, chicken, pork, and shrimp. The pho is available in three different sizes, so you can tailor your meal to fit your appetite. We also got an order of meatballs in broth on the side. I really like their meatballs. They have that hand-pounded, dense texture that is the hallmark of a proper Southeast Asian meatball. I also ordered a #42 A, a big bowl of bun (pronounced “boone”), with rice noodles, topped with glazed grilled pork and fried eggroll, to eat later on that evening. The bowl has a nice layer of lettuce and cucumber as the basement for the rice noodles, and the glazed grilled pork and the eggroll on top are quite tasty. 

Small # 24, "dry"

It wasn’t Tâm Deli, but it sure works in a pinch when you’re hungry for Vietnamese food, and I really enjoyed that order of bun later on, curled up with some HBO. Apparently, Pho Dan has recently expanded, with a new location in Round Rock. My guess is that their new location is just as popular as the first one. Maybe now that they have two locations, they can spring for the cost of a website, and post their menu online. There’s just no excuse for a restaurant these days to keep their potential customers in the dark when it comes to their menu, their hours, or any other pertinent information a diner might want to know.

Mick Vann ©

11220 N. Lamar Ste. B-11, at Braker; 512-837-7800

2711 La Frontera Blvd, at 45, Round Rock; 512-527-3699

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Complete Chinese New Year's Primer

this article first appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Feb 12, 1999.

Happy Year of the Fire Monkey, yr 4713!

Gung Hey Fat-Choy!: "Best Wishes for Great Wealth and Prosperity"

Anyone who has been in Austin and read the Chronicle for any length of time remembers the spectacular annual Chinese Lunar New Year covers that used to surface every spring. The covers were a complete series of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, drawn by internationally famous tattoo artist Rollo Banks. For 12 years, the Chronicle ran one to coincide with the arrival of each Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. Few Westerners understand the origin or significance of the occasion or the festivities and foods which accompany it. Hunker down with me here, open your mind to a wonder-filled blend of folklore, mythology, and contemporary practice, and prepare to learn its significance.

The Origin

The Chinese word Nian in modern Chinese language means “year,” but more importantly, it was the moniker of a horrible dragon-beast that terrorized and ate the people and domestic animals of ancient China every evening before the arrival of a New Year. Nian had a cavernous mouth and could swallow hordes of people and animals in one gulp. As you can imagine, this put a real damper on celebrating New Year's Eve and made it difficult for society to flourish, what with the annual reduction in demographics and all.

This yearly slaughter went on for generations until a mysterious and wise old man came along, offering to figure out a way to subdue Nian and free the populace from its horror. Just before the annual onslaught, the old man met with Nian and tricked him into realizing that the humans weren't a worthy opponent for a beast as powerful as it. Instead, it would find much more worthy opponents in the many beasts of the forest that plagued the humans and their herds on a daily basis. Nian realized the folly of his ways, and the other beasts, now too afraid to attack the humans, stayed hidden in the forests. This allowed the populace to flourish and prosper, and begin to live peaceful, productive lives.

Before the old man rode off on Nian's back to become a deity, he told the people to put up red (because Nian is deathly afraid of the color red) paper decorations on their windows and doors and to shoot off fireworks at each year's end to prevent Nian from reverting to his old ways.
The tradition of observing the tricking and conquest of Nian continues, carried on from generation to generation. Guo Nian today means “to celebrate the New Year,” Guo translating as “pass over” and “observe.” Using red paper decorations and blasting fireworks (the origin of our practice here in the States) still lives on today to scare off Nian, should he have a relapse and decide to feast on people again.

The Calendar and the Placemat

Most of us are familiar with the placemats in Chinese restaurants; you look at them, figure out which is your sign based on the year of your birth, and read the horoscope-like information. While waiting for your order to arrive, you nonchalantly ask your date, mate, or friends what their sign is to secretly assess whether you're compatible. But the placemats only hint at the complexity of the Chinese calendar, which is used to determine the ever-changing date of the New Year.

The Chinese Lunar-Solar calendar, which was adopted in 2,698 BC (by Western reckoning) is based first on a 60-year cycle with names like Tian Gian or “Heavenly Branch.” Within this 60-year structure is the 12-Year Cycle, the familiar animals of the Chinese Zodiac, which are half domestic and half wild to reflect the balance of yin and yang. On top of this, you add the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in 1912, and the “24 Terms,” which reflect the changes in nature through the year, and you end up with a wacky lunar-solar calendar system with 12 months (half with 30 days, half with 29). To make it correspond to the movements around the sun, a 13th month is added every two to three years. This is why, when I asked a Chinese student on campus what the date for the New Year was, it took him about five minutes on a calculator to figure it out.

Just remember that the New Year begins on a new moon somewhere between January 1 and February 19 inclusively (most often in the first week of February), and that the celebration lasts intensively for two to three days, and casually for 10 days to two weeks, ending with the Lantern festival. (Note to Capricorns and Aquarians: You should check carefully when the New Year began on the year you were born. Doing so taught me that I am a Tiger and not a Rabbit, as I had thought for the past 30 years or so, which actually makes more sense.

For more info on the Chinese zodiac:  


Preparations for New Year's

A flurry of activity takes place to prepare for the New Year's festivities. Old debts and grudges are dispensed with, so that no bad karma which would set the tone for the coming year or unduly influence the gods on their visit is carried over. The family cleans the house thoroughly from top to bottom, so that no evil or bad will is left inside (possibly the origin of our spring cleaning). The house cannot be cleaned or swept for two days after New Year's or you risk sweeping out any new good luck that has accumulated. New clothes are purchased if the budget allows, and any necessary sewing is taken care of.

New wallpaper is popular, as is repainting the window and door frames (in red, of course, to ward off Nian). Windows and doors are decorated with ornate paper cutouts and poems with the themes of happiness, wealth, longevity, and happiness in marriage with many male children. The rice pot is emblazoned with a banner reading “Ever Full!”

This can be a stressful time for workers, because an employer shouldn't carry over any employee who is undesirable -- it's considered bad luck. So the owners of businesses often have their own versions of a pre-New Year's banquet, with chicken always featured. A big sigh of relief courses through the group when the owner takes the first piece of chicken. A chicken leg offered to an employee (called “unimpassioned chicken”) means the person has been given his walking papers and must be gone by New Year's.

The Money Tree, or Yao-Ch'ien-shu, has to be set up. This is a pine or cypress branch, threaded through a dried persimmon and placed in a pot filled with rice (the original Christmas tree). Branches are decorated with gold and silver foil, representing ingots. Garlands of seeds, nuts, paper cranes, and paper persimmon flowers are wrapped around the branches. Instead of an angel, the tree is crowned with a likeness of the benevolent genie, Liu-Hai, with five gold coins floating over his head. The tree is left up until the 16th day of the New Year, when it is taken outside and burned.

Many Chinese keep a picture of Tsao-Wang, the god of the hearth and kitchen, above their stove and pay homage to him throughout the year with small offerings. Just as every Western family has its own Santa Claus, each Chinese family has its own Tsao-Wang. It is his duty to keep track of the family's deeds and report them annually on his trip up to “the August Personage of Jade,” or Yu-Ti, the chief cook and bottlewasher. Yu-Ti is the one who assigns quotas of happiness or misfortune to every household in China. Tsao-Wang is his spy, who departs on the 23rd of the last month to fly up to the Jade Temple to make his yearly report on the family. For this reason, sweets are smeared over the mouth of the picture to sweeten his report. His old picture is then burned over pine twigs, a new picture is put up, and he returns on New Year's Day to begin the cycle anew.

The New Year's Eve Feast

On New Year's Eve, the entire family gets together for the most important feast of the year. The Chinese transit system is booked solid from everyone returning home -- much like our Thanksgiving or Christmas. Everything possible must be done to be home with the family on New Year's Eve. The banquet is the most elaborate possible or affordable, preceded by noshes of pickles, peanuts, and watermelon or pumpkin seeds. Next comes P'ing-P'an, a platter of artfully arranged vegetables and meats. This is followed by a series of stir-fried small dishes called Hsiao-tieh-ts-ai. Next comes the big guns: the main dishes, always in a lucky number: five, seven, or the luckiest, nine. The dishes are given auspicious names as a means to add to the festivities and celebration.

The foods themselves are selected mostly for their names as homonyms to prosperity, longevity, etc. Bak-choy sounds like the term for “great wealth,” so a dish with bokchoy would be included. Oysters are called Hao, which sounds like the word for “an auspicious occasion or event,” and Fu, as in tofu, sounds the same as “riches,” so a tofu dish is always present. Fish is always included, but this one gets a little weird. The Chinese word for fish is "Yu," which also means "surplus," something any family would want plenty of. The problem comes from eating your surplus, leaving the family with nothing. Often a spoiled fish is cooked in a spectacular fashion, as a showpiece only, not meant to be eaten. Sometimes a fish carved from wood is sauced to represent the fish course. Only if the host first breaks the fish into small pieces in front of them should guests ever eat the fish (or in the case of Yu Sheng -- Chinese New Year Salad -- where all the guests simultaneously toss the fish within the salad).

Certain dishes are always included in the mix. Dumplings signify a long-lost wish for a happy family (and many male children). Dried oysters are for “all things good.” Angel hair seaweed is for bringing prosperity, as is Yu Sheng Salad. Prawns are for liveliness and happiness. New Year or Pudding Cake is to ensure good luck with high hopes for the coming year. Sugar cane is often consumed after the meal while sitting around the fire. The leftover pulp is thrown on top of the coals to insulate them. The next morning, under the cane ash, finds Yuong-Huo-Chung, or “concealed fire starters,” glowing embers to start the New Year's Day fire with the lucky sign that the sweetness of the sugar cane would ensure sweetness and pleasure throughout the year.

The Eve

After the feast and knocking back libations of rice wine and beer (which might be accompanied by drinking games featuring construction of poems), the family sits around playing board games, telling jokes, and watching television. TV features nonstop programming devoted solely to events of the eve, with the Chinese version of Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest manning the helm for the countdown.

The windows are all thrown open to release bad spirits and allow good ones easy access. Lights are left on to light the way for deities of prosperity. As happens here, at midnight the sky explodes with millions of firecrackers and constant barrages of fireworks. Don't forget that the Chinese invented fireworks. This is just another cultural practice we “borrowed” from the Chinese. It's important to try to practice Shou-nien, or “guarding the year,” by staying up as late as possible, although the kids and old folks usually hit the bed shortly after the fireworks are spent.

The Day

Much like the Scots and Brits who practice the New Year's tradition of “first-stepping,” the Chinese feel that the first person one meets and the first words heard on the New Year will set the tone for the coming year. It is lucky to hear songbirds, especially ones colored red. The kids are up at the crack of dawn to receive their version of Christmas presents, "Hung Bao," or packets of money wrapped in red paper (Hung, or the color red, is a homonym for vast, liberal, or a flood -- as in “of money”). These are given to children as well as unmarried adults.

Sharp objects such as knives or scissors are hidden during the day and not used to prevent accidentally “cutting the thread of good fortune.” No sewing is allowed because you might prick a finger or draw blood, which would cause similar mishaps all year long. Little food preparation is done to avoid the use of knives. Most food for New Year's Day is prepped beforehand and simply reheated.

The family then goes door-to-door, first to relative's homes, then to homes of friends and neighbors, bearing best wishes and gifts of food and drink. Any disagreements are dispelled as quietly as possible. The colors white and black are never worn, as they are colors of mourning. Undertakers hide in their homes so that they don't bring bad luck to anyone.

The Dragon Parade

Most of us are familiar with the Dragon Parade. It is a huge event in cities with large Asian populations, such as San Francisco, New York, and Houston. In China, the parade is always held at noon on New Year's Day because the country is basically shut down, except for movie theatres. In the U.S., the parade is commonly held the first weekend closest to New Year's Day.

The Dragon is a three-dimensional papier-mâché rendition of Nian: large-headed, and followed by a long train of silken body held aloft by dancers -- 60 is the common number used in China. The Dragon undulates and darts about with much head shaking and posturing. He is accompanied by two lions, which are usually smaller. They are the two lions who are the keepers of the door to the Jade Palace. It's considered very lucky for the Dragon to bow in front of your business, your home, or you personally.

As the Dragon and the Lions do symbolic battle, millions of firecrackers go off, drums are pounded, and cymbals are clanged; it's a very noisy and celebratory affair. The procession is attended by Banner Bearers, small characters who taunt the Lions and Dragon, the musicians, and onlookers. Stilt-walkers, clowns, neighborhood drum and bugle corps, and musical groups add to the mayhem and merriment.

The Dragon dances from business to business, enticing the proprietors to come out and offer Hung Bao, the dancer's payment for their performance. Periodically the Dragon stops in front of a business to “eat.” He munches heads of lettuce (Sheng-ts'ai, or “lettuce,” is a homonym for the verb “to bring about wealth and riches”), which contain packets of money. They are suspended on long poles over the doorways in such a way as to make them very difficult to reach, and the crowd has a hoot watching the dancers try to reach the heads of lettuce. The more athletic and resourceful the dancers are, the more frenzied the crowd gets. The celebrations slowly wind down over the next week or so until the Lantern Festival, which is the denouement to the Spring Festival.

If you thought you were a little superstitious, rest easy knowing that you've got nothing on the Chinese. And, while I suppose it is possible that all the fireworks, spring cleaning, good luck food, Christmas tree, and first-stepping stuff developed spontaneously and independently all over the world, common sense would dictate that we have the Chinese to thank, and thank them we should.

Yu Sheng -- Chinese New Year Salad            serves 4-6

1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp five spice powder
Juice of one lemon

Half-pound of sushi-grade tuna, chilled till firm, sliced paper-thin, 2" long slices, against the grain
2 cups peeled, shredded daikon
2 cups peeled, shredded carrot
6 thin, quarter-sized slices ginger, shredded finely
1/3 cup sweet pickled ginger, finely shredded
1/4 cup pickled scallions, finely shredded
6 makroot (Thai lime) leaves, rib removed, finely shredded
2 large red jalapeños, seeded, finely shredded
1/2 bunch scallions, finely shredde
1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only
1/4 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, for garnish
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
1 lemon or lime, cut in half, seeded
Crisp-fried shrimp chips, for garnish

Marinate the fish slices by tossing. Place in the bottom of a large bowl or large platter. Put daikon and carrot shreds on opposite sides. Sprinkle everything else except garnish in bowl or platter. Squeeze lemon or lime juice over the top. Just before serving, have everyone toss the salad simultaneously with chopsticks. Taste, and adjust seasoning with sesame oil, lemon or lime, salt, juices from the pickled ginger, and scallion. Garnish with chips, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

Mick Vann ©