Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Day Good Luck Foods Manifesto (with recipes!)

New Year’s Day: The Good Luck Food Manifesto (with recipes!)

A fantastic and cheap Cava for New Year's Eve and Day: Ana de Cordiníu Brut Rosé

In the Deep South three dishes are requisite fare on New Year’s Day, and all three are based not only on culinary superstition and food symbolism, but the fact that they are abundant and cheap. Cornbread is colored gold, symbolic of riches and fortune. It also rises as it cooks and increases volume, which signifies increasing wealth. Collard greens are, of course, green, suggestive of folding money. Green is also the symbolic color of hope, and a color associated with natural growth: the new buds of a tree or new shoots in a rice field, for example. Black eyed peas, AKA “cow peas”, were grown in the rest of the country to feed cattle, but in the South they are a drought-resistant food staple that thrives in the hottest part of the summer. In the South we love our black eyed peas, and the good luck symbolism is apparent. Their shape loosely resembles a coin (okay, admittedly that one’s a bit of a stretch), but more importantly, they swell up when they cook, greatly increasing their volume, much as you want wealth to expand during the coming year. Some believe you're supposed to eat one pea for each day of the coming year.

In the South, we cook black-eyed peas with smoked ham hock, salted hog jowl, bacon, or pork sausage. Nothing expresses prosperity in non-Jewish and non-Muslim cultures like the pig. Pigs root and feed going forward, symbolizing progress without dwelling on the past. Pigs can feast on scraps, bear many young, and yield lots of meat, much of which can be preserved for later consumption; fatty meat equals a fat wallet.

One popular New Year's Day Southern American dish is “Hoppin’ John”, triple-blessed since it includes black-eyed peas, rice (the many grains signify abundance, and it swells as it cooks), and ham hock. A shiny dime is often thrown into the Hoppin’ John cooking pot, and the person getting the dime in their bowl is due an extra portion of good luck. On the day after New Year's Day, leftover Hoppin’ John becomes “Skippin’ Jenny”, and eating it demonstrates powerful frugality, bringing one even better chances of prosperity. Lots of Southerners believe that you’re supposed to put a face-up coin under the bowl of peas, or throw a coin into the black eyed pea cooking pot, the person finding the coin receiving extra luck.

Call it food for cows and farm animals if you want, but the triumvirate of peas, greens, and cornbread is not only a triple threat luck-wise, but absolutely freakin’ delicious when it hits the table. As for bringing good luck, who can say? All I know is that it can't hurt!

Collard Greens with Bacon and Balsamic Vinegar
Serves 4

A pot of collard greens is always referred to in the South as a “mess of greens”, and the vitamin-rich, bacon-seasoned savory broth in the bottom of the pot is called potlikker. Traditionally the white plantation owners of the South consumed the cooked and drained collard greens while the slave cooks, who understood the high nutritive value of potlikker, saved the broth to supplement their family’s diets. Nothing is better for soaking up the potlikker than a hot piece of crusty cornbread that’s been split down the middle and slathered with sweet butter.

The Great Potlikker and Cornpone Debate in February and March of 1931 pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey “The Kingfish” Long, the backwoods populist governor and soon to be U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris contended that Southerners must crumble cornpone into potlikker, criticizing Long as an unrefined rube, who contended that the cornpone should instead be dunked. What started as a lighthearted fluff piece in the paper turned into a 23-day long news event that captivated the South (and the nation), and ended up dealing with all manner of cultural affairs, including race, gender, class, and regional chauvinism. For what it’s worth, we prefer eating our cornbread potlikker-soaked, from a solid block of cornbread, eaten with a spoon.

2 bunches of collard greens, washed well, central ribs removed, chopped coarsely (or kale)
¾ pound thick-sliced bacon, sliced thinly
1 large onion, halved and sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups rich chicken stock
3 to 4 Tablespoons Balsamic vinegar, to taste
2 to 3 Tablespoons white sugar, to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
Cornbread to soak up the potlikker

In a large stock pot with a lid, sauté the bacon over medium low heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon golden brown. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds. Add the collards and stir well, briefly sautéing the greens in the bacon fat. Add the chicken stock, stir well, and place the lid on the pot. Allow the greens to cook down for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and add 3 tablespoons of the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and 1 teaspoon of the black pepper. Stir well for a minute and taste for seasonings. The broth should be rich from the bacon and stock, there should be underlying saltiness from the bacon, and the vinegar and sugar should add a subtle sweet-tart flavor. Cook for another 5 minutes and taste again, adding more vinegar, sugar, and pepper if desired. Do a final tasting for salt just before service.

Serve in a bowl with plenty of the pottliker. A piece of crusty hot buttered cornbread makes an excellent accompaniment.

Mick’s Mile-High Cornbread
Serves 4 to 8

This recipe originated with my pal Chef Ray Tatum of Austin’s Three Little Pigs trailer, but over the years I've modified it considerably. You can use all-white or all-yellow cornmeal if you like, or mix them in any proportion, half and half. If you make this cornbread in a preheated deep cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, it will develop a deep golden crust, and you want a deep golden crust, trust me.

2 cups white cornmeal
1 cup AP flour
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
3 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
3 large jalapeños, minced (seeds and membranes removed for less heat if desired)
2/3 cup fresh or frozen bicolor corn kernels, thawed
3 to 4 green onions, minced
1 1/2 cups Monterrey jack or pepper jack cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 425°F and place a cast iron skillet inside. In a large mixing bowl combine all of the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the oil, buttermilk, and eggs and incorporate, mixing just enough to blend the ingredients. Fold in the jalapeños, corn, scallions, and cheese. Remove the skillet and lubricate liberally with lard, bacon fat, butter, or vegetable oil (lard will give the best flavor and a crispier crust). Scrape the contents of the bowl into the skillet and lightly smooth the top. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. If the optional ingredients have not been used it will take about 30 minutes, and if they have been used, expect 40 minutes. The top should be golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle will come out clean.

Note: If you don’t have any buttermilk, you can fake it by these methods:
• Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice into enough regular milk to equal 1 cup. Allow this mixture to sit for 10 minutes to give it time to thicken before adding it to the ingredients.
• Mix plain yogurt with whole milk. To make 1 cup buttermilk, mix 3/4 cup yogurt with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Southern-Soulfood Black Eyed Peas
Serves 8

These black eyed peas are made using a smoked ham hock, but a leftover meaty bone from the holiday ham also works real nicely. In a pinch you can use smoked sausage, a quarter pound of some good, thick sliced smoked bacon, or even a rinsed slab of sliced salt pork. Fresh black eyed peas are always best, but finding them this time of the year is nigh impossible, so frozen is preferred over canned. Generally the “fresh” peas you find in the produce section of your supermarket around New Year’s are just dried peas that have been soaked and reconstituted You can do that much more economically on your own.

Add cooked rice to these black eyed peas and the dish becomes Hoppin’ John, a dish popularized with the slave laborers in the Old South. Slaves were imported from rice producing West Africa to work the rice fields in the Low Country and Deep South, and black eyed peas and field peas were grown to provide a cheap, plentiful crop to feed the slaves and the cattle. The slaves stewed the peas and rice together as they had in their native Africa, and the dish became popular in the period between Christmas and the new spring planting, when the fields were fallow and the laborers were given some much needed time to rest. Many speculate on the origin of the name of the dish, but no solid historical evidence has surfaced.

2 pounds frozen or fresh black eyed peas
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 pound smoked ham hock
5 cloves garlic, minced or mashed into a paste
1 large onion, chopped coarsely
2 celery ribs, sliced thinly
2 carrots, diced
2 to 4 jalapeno peppers, minced (seeds and ribs removed for less heat if desired)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

Place the black eyed peas in a stock pot and add the chicken stock, 2 cups of water, ham hock, garlic, onions, celery, carrots, jalapenos, salt and pepper to the black eyed peas and bring to a boil. Let boil gently for about 10 minutes and skim any froth that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to a low simmer, add the bay leaf and thyme, and cook while stirring occasionally, covered, for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until black eyed peas are tender. Remove the ham hock, let it cool enough to handle, and remove any good meat from the bone, shredding it and adding it back into the peas.

To reconstitute black eyed peas, pick through for debris, and cover with twice the volume of water, cover, refrigerate, and soak overnight. Rinse and drain and proceed with the recipe.

Here’s a link to a 2008 article I wrote for The Austin Chronicle that covers the New Year good luck food superstitions around the globe. Read it and you’ll see some definite trends emerge, regardless of the cuisine or culture:

Mick Vann ©

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hot Chocolate Barcelona-style

© The Sunday Times

When you’re in Barcelona during the cooler seasons, a popular treat for breakfast or post-drunk very early morning is a fried churro doughnut dusted with sugar and a cup of steaming, thick hot chocolate. Barcelonians take their chocolate very seriously, and some of the world’s best chocolatiers call the city home, so the chocolate they use is often of a very high quality and a high percentage of cacao. There is a chocolatería there called Cacao Sampaka where the hot chocolate is so thick that a spoon inserted vertically in the middle of the cup will stay upright. It’s more like a rich, decadent molten mousse than what we think of as a cup of hot chocolate (which sadly, is often made with a packet of Swiss Miss mix). Make the effort and whip up a steaming mug of this recipe, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Chocolate a la Taza 
                           with whipped cream: “Suissos”
Serves 5 to 6

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (64-70%), nibs, or in small pieces
¾ cup boiling water
2 Tablespoons high-quality cocoa powder
4 to 6 Tablespoons sugar, to taste
3 to 4 Tablespoons arrowroot, dissolved in ¼ cup warm water
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Garnish (optional):
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar
A few drops vanilla extract
Shaved or grated milk chocolate

In a cold mixing bowl, whip the cream until slightly thickened; add the sugar and vanilla and continue whipping until peaks form. Reserve chilled.

Place the chocolate in a 3-quart saucepan and top with the boiling water. Stir together and turn the heat on medium-low. Stir in the cocoa powder and sugar,  and then whisk in the arrowroot, milk, half and half, and vanilla. Continue to stir while the mixture heats up, using a wooden spoon at the corners and bottom, to prevent scorching. Continue heating until the mixture is hot and thickened, with little bubbles starting to form at the edges (do not simmer).

Pour 5 ounces or so into pre-warmed mugs. Top with whipped cream, and garnish with chocolate shavings (optional).


If you’re lazy yet still want a decent cup of rich, thick hot chocolate, here is my recipe for making your own instant mix, with good ingredients. It makes a decadently rich and fast mug of hot chocolate that is far FAR superior to Swiss Miss or any of those others.

Mick’s Instant Hot Cocoa Mix
Makes about 13 cups, or ~ 40 servings

4 cups powdered sugar
2½ cups Dutch-process cocoa powder (Droste or similar)
5 cups powdered milk
1½ cups heavy cream powder (or powdered non-dairy creamer)
4 tablespoons arrowroot
2 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
Hot water
Mini marshmallows, or whipped cream, plus shaved chocolate for garnish (optional)

Sift all ingredients together into a large mixing bowl and distribute evenly. Portion into resealable bags and shake to re-distribute before measuring-out (in case it has settled); keeps indefinitely in the pantry. Fill a mug half full (about 1/3 of a cup) with the mixture and pour in hot water. Want it thicker and stronger, stir in a little more. Stir to combine. Top with mini marshmallows, or whipped cream, and shaved chocolate.

PS: it’s also good with some Kahlúa or Tia Maria, Bailey’s, Amaretto, Luxardo Espresso Liqueur, Frangelico or Nocello, or Godiva added to the cup!

Mick Vann ©  


Friday, December 13, 2013

¡Hamburgesa Gargantua y Qualidad!

CSC, Cuban Sandwich Café, has moved to much spacier digs, surrounded by other food options, instead of the playground at Harris Elementary School. The old location was in a tiny 50’s strip center on Briarcliff, just off Berkman (my old stomping grounds way back when). Now they are in the strip center on the NW corner of Rutland and N. Lamar, where the sadly departed le Soliel Vietnamese used to hold court, directly opposite Voss Seafood and Grill, across Lamar.

 Enrique’s new spot ensures that you get a roomy, comfortable table and the girls give excellent service. The bakery counters are facing you when you enter, loaded to the brim with éclairs, flan, tarts, and all manner of other goodies. But los dos homies were there for the magnificent, towering Cubanito Burger  ($7.75). Diego showed up a little later and wussed-out, ordering the Cuban. Shane had heard my praises about the Cubanito, but was shocked when it arrived.

Cubanito, with the lid lifted up a little......

On a wonderful fresh house-baked bun sits a vertical column of meats: there are several thin layers of ham, topped with Mr. Reyes’ amazingly moist lechon roast pork, lots of lechon. A hand-formed burger patty sits atop the pork, draped with several slices of bacon. It gets cheddar and swiss cheeses, pickles, mayo, lettuce and tomato, and comes with a side of crispy fries. It’s a work of art, and the juices will flow down your forearms as you eat.

Patata relleno and Yuca con mojo....

Interior view of the Cuban....

We foolishly ordered it with two massive orders of yuca con mojo (tender stewed chunks of yucca swimming in a tart sauce of vinegar and lots of garlic). Shane got a couple orders of patata relleno, a huge golden-fried potato croquette filled with a savory picadillo ground beef stuffing. Both side orders are delicious, but the burger stole the show.  Diego’s Cuban looked fantastic: a long homemade loaf filled with ham and lechon roast pork, pickles, swiss, mayo, and mustard.  We left there very full and very happy. I will definitely be back for the ropa vieja, oxtails, palomilla, and I’m just guessing here, but Enrique’s pollo frito fried chicken is probably gonna be a true delight. This place rocks, and should have lines out the door.

Enrique Reyes hissownself....nice guy, great baker and chef..

Cuban Sandwich Café
9616 N. Lamar, (512) 669-5242

My previous review of Cuban Sandwich Café in the Austin Chronicle:

 Mick Vann ©

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rancho Guajalote 2013

Once again the annual Turkey Day gathering commenced at Rancho Winslow, with fairly decent weather and an abundance of spirits. The usual suspects were present, with a couple of exceptions. Everyone’s favorite retired veterinarian/bon vivant and Rancho Winslow regular Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham was MIA, reportedly somewhere in the hollers of NorCalina. But as an unexpected bonus, and no slouch in the appetite department hisownself, Jeffrey Barnes, the saxophone virtuoso of nuclear polka Grammy-band Brave Combo, and his charming better half Gina, were dropping in. Aviline, CBoy’s mom, who had just celebrated birthday number 95, came with her compadre and fellow mom, Nancy Barnes, mother of Princess Di. Daughter Havalah showed up with number one daughter spawn, and Christian, her charming ex. R popped out a little later with her son Ross, making his first RW appearance. It was a small but solid crew, dedicated to giving some thanks, celebrating, and chowing down.

Princess Di, the Martha Stewart of Manchaca, and I had been cogitating about the menu, and made some grandiose plans, but as the day approached, we came to our senses. The turkey was originally going to be brined, spatchcocked, and grilled, but our head griller, CBoy, insisted on non-grilling. It didn’t get butterflied and brined because it wasn’t thawed in time, so instead, it got its cavity stuffed with celery, carrots, onions, garlic, thyme, sage, and parsley, and then settled down to a long, warm golden-brown slumber at 350°F, with a frequent basting of butter and turkey schmaltz. The ham got crisscrossed-slashed and baked, and then got a finishing glaze of habanero-pineapple jam, apricot jam, German mustard, brown sugar, and roasted garlic.

I fought my way into the SuperHEB in Kyle and procured the last few packages of fresh turkey thighs, and
a package of chicken necks. They would join the turkey neck in the pot with celery, carrot, garlic, onion butts, and herbs, for some rich, slow-simmered turkey stock. I used it to make the dressing, this year made with sausage, onions, roasted garlic, celery, sage, thyme, parsley, walnuts, dried cherries (plumped in the turkey stock), day-old French bread cubes, a couple of bright gold-yolked RW yard eggs, and that turkey stock. CBoy declared it the best dressing he had ever eaten, which speaks volumes, considering his advanced age.

There was a dish of baked sliced red sweet potatoes and apples, topped with toasted pecans and a spiced topping of butter, honey, brown sugar, and dark rum; a nice little combo. Di made her famous slaw of cabbages and broccoli stems, sweet onion, and a ginger-lime dressing, garnished with toasted sesame seeds. I blanched some beautiful green beans for 6 minutes, and then sautéed them with butter, turkey fat, thick-sliced mushrooms, and then finished them with roasted garlic and touch of turkey stock. There was huge platter of fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, pineapple, and red grapes).  Nancy made some of her wonderful cranberry relish, to go with the canned cranberry jelly that Havie insists on (not bad on a PB and J by the way). While all that stuff was cooking, Nancy had thrown together a nosh of her famous slow-cooker chile con queso, scooped up with Frito’s.

There was plenty of Old Forester, an inexpensive ($18 per fifth) and very highly-rated bourbon, which I heartily endorse and recommend. Di and Gina had a big bottle of Monoplowa Vodka and the makings for cosmos. Monoplowa was originally made in Poland (the name means “State Monopoly”) but has migrated to Austria. It’s made from spuds and is a bargain at the low price ($12.50 for a fifth), if you happen to be a vodka drinker, which I am not. Vodka is watered-down Everclear and LOTS of overblown advertising.

I had brought some Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, one of the finest India pale ales, to go with CBoy’s Shiner White Wing (which is pretty damn good in its own right).  I brought a box of Big House White, a bottle of Borsao Garnacha (an old standby Spanish red at a great price), and two of Silver Range Malbec (excellent, considering the $8.50 price tag). I wanted some white, just in case there were white drinkers, and Spec’s NEVER has the better box wines (I went there looking for Jack Tone White, Silver Birch NZ Sauv Blanc, or R. Müeller Riesling; Big House Great Escape Chard was the fallback, and they didn’t even have that, not that Big House White is horrible). Di had grabbed a bottle of Apothic and a Beaujolais, so we were set.

There were store-bought rolls to pop in the oven and some soft butter for schmearing, and Nancy brought one of her famous pineapple upside-down cakes, to go with one of HEB bakery’s finest pumpkin pies (and some Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla). Sorry, no dessert pics; I was in a tryptophan, Dogfish Head, Old Forester, and Malbec haze by then.

The turkey came out very moist and tasty; ditto for the ham. The meat from the turkey stock turkey thighs was saved for some turkey mole enchiladas further down the calendar a bit. The dressing was superb (as declared by CBoy), and the accompanying gravy rich and luscious. All of the side dishes soared above expectations; same for the accompaniments. We put a serious dent in the spirits supply, and the crowd was especially jolly. UT even beat Tech. Many thanks were given, and old friends reconnected, and epoxied together with new friends. Nobody hit deer or got hit by deer on their way out. All things considered, Turkey Day at Rancho Winslow was a huge, delicious success.

Stuffing with Dried Cherries, Sausage, and Walnuts:           
serves 6 to 8

1 medium onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup celery, minced
2 tablespoons butter
8 cups bread, cubed, let air-dry
1½ cups rich turkey or chicken broth (homemade, highly preferred)
¾ cup dried cherries, plumped 30 min in hot turkey stock, drained
1¼ cups cup cooked sausage, chopped coarsely
1 cup dry-toasted walnuts, chopped
¼ cup parsley, chopped
3 eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon sage
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon salt (or a little more, to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper

Cook sausage in skillet until browned, breaking it up as it cooks. Sauté onions, garlic, and celery in butter until soft. Transfer to large bowl. Moisten bread with broth and add to sautéed vegetables. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. If the mixture seems a little dry, add a bit more broth. Transfer to buttered casserole and bake 35 minutes at 350°F.

Sausage can be ground breakfast sausage, Italian sausage, or any type of cooked link sausage. To make it extra special, use the amazingly good smoked turkey sausage from Billy Inman, of Inman’s Ranch House BBQ in Marble Falls.

Mick Vann ©   

Friday, November 15, 2013

Tam Damn That's Good

In our continuing saga to sample Vietnamese food around town, gravity always pulls us back to our dependable standby, Tam Deli. Opened in 1999 by sisters Tam Bui (Tam and I worked together at the UT COOP way back in the day, too many years ago to admit) and Tran Ngoc (Tran is the sister that wears glasses; who appears to have the slightly more serious demeanor). Tran’s husband Nick can often be found waiting on tables and helping out; he’s the tall guy that always has a huge grin pasted from ear to ear, who is always cracking wry jokes and making-wise. I go into Tam Deli and it instantly feels like home; everyone is welcoming and friendly.

The family had to flee Hanoi to the south when the Communists took over the north in 1954, and then had to flee the south at the end of the Vietnam War when it was overrun. They started over with nothing, got degrees, raised families, and when the kids went off to college, the girls decided that a small restaurant would be the thing to do.


papaya salad with beef jerky

R and I went in one afternoon and Nick and the girls were all there.  R was a newbie at Tam Deli, so we decided to sample a big assortment, and cruise the menu. We started with a couple of excellent salads. The green papaya salad with beef jerky is a delight; the sweet-sour-salty dressing bathing the crunchy julienne of green papaya with the savory, toothsome homemade jerky as the counterpoint. We also had the Viet salad with shrimp and pork, on a bed of thinly julienned carrot and cucumber, all dressed with mint and nuoc cham; puffy shrimp chips add textural diversion.

shrimp and pork salad

Next came bahn cuon nhan thit cha lua, slippery steamed rice paper rolls stuffed with rich ground pork and shredded mushroom, each roll topped with a half moon slice of luscious smooth pork patê. We also got an order of bo bia, a fresh rice paper roll filled with steamed jicama julienne, carrot, lettuce, Chinese sausage, crushed peanut, and egg omelet strips. Radically different and delicious.

steamed rice paper rolls with patê

jicama spring rolls

We had to have an order of bahn xeo, the rice flour, mung bean, coconut milk, and egg omelet filled with ground pork,tender shrimp, and mung bean sprouts. Pack a bite with herbs from the platter (basil, cilantro, sprouts, fish herb), dip in the nuoc cham sauce, and munch away. Great stuff.  I had to introduce her to the bahn mi sandwich, and Tam Deli makes the best in town. It’s all about that perfectly crispy thin crust bread that’s moist and yeasty inside. We went with the grilled lemongrass beef, an option that is rarely found anywhere else, and it was magnificent: slivered jalapeno, mayo and butter, cuke and pickled carrot, cilantro, and that succulent lemongrass-kissed beef. Such a perfect delivery system for a sandwich.

bahn xeo

grilled lemongrass beef bahn mi

I had to get me some grilled pork and egg roll bun (noodle bowl). They do a nice version and don’t scrimp on the ingredients. I managed to eat about a third of it; I would have finished it but felt in danger of popping. We also ordered the tofu and vegetable sauté with spicy satay sauce, which was good, but the least dynamic of the entire spread.

bowl o' bun, with grilled pork and egg rolls

veggies and tofu with spicy satay sauce

We shared a glass of their amazing house special kumquat lemonade also: a most satisfying yet slightly unusual flavor. And no meal there would be complete without a couple of their bahn choux cream puffs, with that flaky, crunchy, golden-brown exterior, overstuffed with that just-right custardy cream filling.

the ethereal cream puff.....

I had to waddle out, carrying a huge to-go bag that I managed to graze off of for the next several days. It was nice seeing Tam, Tran, and Nick again, but even better eating their wonderful food. A little spot filled with big hearts and delicious food.

Mick Vann ©

8222 N Lamar Blvd,# D33; (512) 834-6458
(in the first strip center north of Research, on the west side)
10-8, closed Tuesday


Menu: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0By9z-mSVo7pXV1h3TkRwRjRXNTQ/edit?pli=1


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Whata Lota Bite!

Blake's "stickman" sign

I stopped in at Whataburger for a fast food fix on the way home a couple of weeks ago and discovered that they had green chile as an option on their burgers, so it was only natural that I ordered a double-double-double: two meats, two cheeses, and a double portion of roasted green chile. It was my standard order at Blake’s Lotaburger up in New Mexico back in the days when we used to frequent the Santa Fe-Las Vegas area (Vegas New Mexico, not Nevada). For a second there, the flavor reminded me of that first bite of Blake’s, as we would roll into town off of the high-octane, high desert drive up from Texas.  One of the first things I wanted was either a cheese and carne adovada-stuffed fried sopapilla, half red-half green and a side of posole with green, or a Blake’s double-double-double.

Whataburger green chile burger

The New Mexico trips started back in the UT COOP days, when John, JaneNell (and sometimes Jilly), Mikey, and me would all pack into the van, roll up a couple of dozen doobies, pop a black molly and a beer, and head north, usually to camp out, hike, and check out the art and sights of the Santa Fe area. If we weren’t going there, we were going to Big Bend. And then later I would go up and visit Buck and his pals (Maryanne, Scott and Libby, Vicente and Suzanne [and Jeanett], Lyna and Lou, and all the rest of the gang), or later go up with Buck to visit the homies.  A favorite past time back then was to plan a huge feast, pack up the cooking supplies we couldn't get up there, and the IH 35 Chef’s Association (Chris Shirley, Ray Tatum, and I) would head north to cook our asses off and grace the Las Vegas crew, and usually a herd of their friends, with some seriously good cuisine that they couldn't get locally.  And every single time I went up there, at least one visit to Blake’s Lotaburger took place. If it wasn’t in Las Vegas, it was in Santa Fe, and more often than not it was in both.

dorky 1970 Whataburger uniforms....Lotaburger workers would never wear anything that ridiculous

vintage Whataburger location

Of course, the green chile at Whataburger isn’t as spicy or as distinctly flavorful as the Hatch green chile that Blake’s serves, but the burgers are very similar in style and taste. Harmon Dobson started Whataburger in 1950 in Corpus Christi, and Blake Chanslor created Lotaburger in 1952 in Albuquerque. Both serve a 5-inch, two-handed burger that’s cooked-to-order, with a griddled, toasted bun, and both are great.  Blake’s started offering Hatch green chile as an option because so many locals came to Lotaburger toting their own roasted green chile to add to their burgers. Whataburger is new to the green chile game, but they have offered jalapeños for a long time, so some credit is due.

the spread at Blake's Lotaburger

If you pinned me down today, I’d definitely say I prefer the Lotaburger over the Whataburger; it’s all about the green chile, yo. But the nearest Lotaburger is a seriously long drive from here, so I suffer in silence and accept what I can access. 
As soon as I was tipped off, I started making a pilgrimage to the Bobcat Bite outside of Santa Fe during every New Mexico trip, for their amazing  green chile burger. The Bobcat Bite opened in 1953, and their sumptuous fresh-ground, massive, juicy, green chile burger has consistently ranked in the top 10 burgers in the US. The Bite sits on a rarified plane, far, far, far above the Whata’s and Lota’s.

Bobcat Bite green chile burger (courtesy of Wikipedia)

On June 9th the Bobcat Bite closed due to a dispute between the owners (the Panzers) and the operators (John and Bonnie Eckre). The Eckres took their griddle and relocated to downtown Santa Fe, inside Garret’s Desert Inn, opening as Santa Fe Bite.  It’s bigger (from 29 seats at the original to over a hundred now), with longer hours, alcohol, a bigger menu, and higher prices. I can’t wait to try it, and hope like hell it tastes as good as it used to out east of town, on the Old Pecos Highway. In the meantime, I’ll subsist on Whataburger’s seasonal green chile offering, or make my own.

Green Chile Cheeseburger

This is a knock-off of the famous green chile burger served at the Bobcat Bite, which used to be on the Old Pecos Highway, east of Santa Fe about 15 miles or so (John and Bonnie Eckre are now re-opened in Santa Fe, as The Santa Fe Bite). They would put about 3 tablespoons of green chile on each burger, but I like that distinctive  green chile flavor to really assert itself, so I use about ¼ cup to 1/3 cup per burger. About 8 New Mexico green chiles will yield a cup of roasted green chile once roasted and peeled. The Bobcat Bite famously ground their beef daily, from chunks of choice chuck and sirloin. Back in the day, the scraps were thrown outside for the bobcats that would come down to feed at dusk, hence the name of the diner. Their patty was about an 80-20, but I prefer a bit more fat for extra flavor and juiciness. The original griddle at the Bobcat Bite was an old cast iron unit, and John Eckre had a custom-built griddle made which also had a cast iron surface.

Per serving:
Cast iron stovetop griddle or wide cast iron frying pan
2-3 Hatch green chiles, roasted and peeled
10-ounce ground meat patty, fresh-ground, half chuck-half sirloin, 30% fat content
Salt and pepper
Thick slice of white cheddar
1 challah or brioche-style burger bun, 4¼ to 4½ inches in width
Melted butter and a pastry brush
Garlic aioli, made from rich mayonnaise, minced fresh garlic, and a touch of lemon
Red onion slice
Ripe tomato slice
Crisp lettuce leaf
Potato chunks, cooked in a skillet like hash browns, with garlic, black pepper, and paprika

To roast and peel the green chiles:
Using a pair of tongs, fire grill the chiles over an open flame or in a broiler until charred completely, so that the skin blisters-up but is not burnt through. Take the chiles and throw them into a paper bag, or into a covered bowl, letting them cool enough to handle. Using the dull back of a butter knife, scrape the charred skin from the chiles; you want to leave a few little bits of char on the exterior.  Remove the stem and scrape out about half of the seeds and ribs inside. The more seeds and ribs removed, the milder the heat will be. Reserve warm.

The patty:
Using wet hands, shape the patty slightly larger than the outside dimension of the bun you’re using, and make a slight depression (a sloping  ¼-inch dimple) into the center of the patty on both sides. The depression will swell as the patty cooks, leaving a flat surface on both sides. Don’t overwork the meat as you handle it; it will make the burger tough. Keep the patty ice cold until it cooks; this helps the fat stay inside, which makes it tastes better and juicier. Cook the patty on a hot cast iron surface, so that the surface caramelizes well, forming a nice crust. Season it liberally with salt and pepper on both sides as it cooks. Try to not flip the patty more than once or twice; handling equals dry meat. The interior should be 150°F for that perfect spot between medium-rare and medium and still juicy as hell. Top the patty with ¼ to 1/3-cup of hot chopped green chile and then place the cheese slice on top; the melting cheese will stabilize the green chile and hold it in place. Let the meat rest for 5 minutes before consuming.

The bun:
Dry-toast the interior of both sides of the bun until golden brown. Brush the toasted surfaces lightly will melted salted butter and dress and serve as soon as possible, so that the surface stays as crisp as possible.

Apply aioli to both buns. Place the red onion on the bottom bun, top with the meat patty-green chile-cheese combo. Place the tomato slice on the cheese, top with lettuce, and the top half of the bun. Secure with a long toothpick and serve with hash brown potatoes: the chunk style, not the shredded style.

Between the cheese and the tomato, add three slices of thick-sliced, crisply cooked, high quality bacon, such as Benton's or Nueske's.


Mick Vann©       

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sea Dragon Dragging Itself Down

I used to like Sea Dragon back in the day. It was one of the first Viet restaurants in town, and we used to frequent the place regularly. I loved the ginger duck (which isn’t especially Vietnamese), and the soups. Never, ever would I eat the buffet; it was the same sad American-Chinese crappy fare that can be had at any Asian buffet restaurant, but the Vietnamese portion of their Chino-Viet menu still held promise. As late as a year ago it was still cranking out decently good grub, but a recent visit on my pilgrimage of local Viet joints left me seriously glum and cranky.

It started with a waiter that might have been 19 years old; one of a small herd huddled around the football game being shown on the flat screens. He came by to take our order 4 times in a span of 6 to 7 minutes, even after being told to leave us alone and let me decide what we wanted. I started with Cahn Chua, Viet Hot and Sour Soup, which for many years I ordered there with chicken. I know that it is a traditional catfish or seafood soup; I understand that. I’m not the one that put a chicken version on their menu in the past; they are.

But this waiter tells me that it is no longer offered with chicken “because it is a seafood soup”. I say okay, I can live with that, and that I’ll get it with shrimp. I also order spicy chicken with chile and lemongrass, some fried eggrolls, and Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef). I had requested that we get it in two deliveries: rolls and soup, then chicken and beef. In typical fashion, it all came at once (sort of).  First out of the gate was the chicken, half of which was onion and the chicken was overcooked. It wasn't especially spicy, or blessed with much lemongrass velocity either.  The accompanying steamed rice was a no-show.


Next to arrive was the Shaking Beef. I’m a huge fan of Bo Luc Lac and have been for years. This plate, though attractively arranged, was a real dud. The quality of the beef had plummeted, and a third of the dish’s volume was inexplicably mushrooms. Mushrooms. Not mentioned on the menu, and never in my decades of eating the dish and cooking the dish, have I ever seen mushrooms in Bo Luc Lac. Ever. What we have here is a disturbing trend that was to show its ugly face once more before the meal was over: adding mass volumes of a cheap ingredient into an Asian dish to stretch the perceived volume. Mushrooms are cheaper than beef, even shitty beef. The sauce was nothing like any Shaking Beef I have ever eaten; it literally had very little flavor (maybe washed-out from the liquid cooked out of the mushrooms?). Dunno, but a complete failure as a dish, and not a cheap dish at that.

Anyway, the rice arrived with the beef, and was immediately followed by the eggrolls, that had obviously been fried, then sliced on the diagonal, the re-fried to heat them back up before service. They almost seemed to have been dipped in a thin batter before the last fry; certainly not brushed with sugar water to caramelize the exterior. No nuoc cham dipping sauce was brought with; I had to ask for that. There was a very meager lettuce and herb plate provided, to wrap the rolls before dipping, and the filling texture was way too finely ground; almost pasty. Nothing about these fried rolls said fresh, from exterior, all the way to the filling.

Last to arrive, and with great ceremony, was the soup. Boiling hot, yet for some bizarre reason, on a propane burner, which was perched precariously on the edge of the crowded table. After several attempts to light it, waiter instructed me to leave it on “until it boiled”. The shrimp were cooked from what I could tell, so I asked him how to turn it off (info he had not provided me with). Once I turned it off, and he came back with a ladle, two bowls and spoons so we could actually eat the stuff, we gave it a taste.

Let me describe the disappointment.  Almost absent was the balance and interplay between the sweet of the pineapple and the fruity sour of the tamarind. Lacking was the spiciness from the chile. Gone were the slices of spongy bac ha (elephant ear stem) and our old friend, the okra slice. Shrimp were there, as promised, but the dominant ingredient in the soup? Shudder; I get the heebie-jeebies just saying it……celery! Not a few minced leaves or stems of the more petite Chinese celery, opr the subtle sweetness of lovage, but honest-to-gawd American, stringy, bitter-ass, dominatingly assertive celery; and BUTTloads of it. If I had to guess, I’d estimate 35% of the total volume was celery. The bowl sat 3/4’s unfinished. What a bummer.

To sum it up: obnoxious and crappy service, shortcuts taken in food preparation, and most grievous of all, adding gobs of cheap ingredients to dishes that screw up the overall taste and don’t belong there in the first place. Scratch Seadragon from my list. Too bad.

Mick Vann ©   



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taco More: Más y Más!

A few weeks back my boss at UT, Shane, and I joined Diego, our recently graduated and retired workstudy, for lunch at Taco More. We wanted to touch base with Diego after several months of his journey off into the real world. It’s not environmental law, but homeboy has landed a real job that pays him a living, so kudos for that.Ironically, he got hired once he deleted his degree from the application.

Taco More sits on the Northwest corner of Parkfield and Rundberg in north-ish central Austin, not that far beyond of 183/Research. At lunchtime the joint is pretty busy, but Diego was able to snare a table on the patio and had totopos (chips) and salsa waiting when we arrived. Neither Diego nor Shane had ever been there before, so I gave them a rundown on the menu. I had eyes only for posole and chivo.

We got more chips and raided the salsa bar inside. They usually have 6 different salsas and a whole assortment of other treats, like pico de gallo and radish slices. My favorite sauce is featured here in this shot: it is made from chile de arbol and crushed peanuts and is hot as hell but very flavorful. They also have the standard smooth green jalapeño-tomatillo-avocado that everyone is nuts about. The red sauce here is the raw tomato version of their casera (house) salsa, which is different from the cooked red salsa served with the totopos. They are all great.

This shot shows the griddled fresno chiles (they have a little bit of heat, but not very much) and the small fried, dried hot-as-hell smoky chiles japones that both grace the salsa bar. The green sauce pictured here tastes like pureed jalapeños with just a dab of tomatillo and big 
chunks of avocado; it’s mostly jalapeño and is quite piquant. The other component in this shot is onion pickled in a marinade with a little Mexican oregano and vinegar with a little sugar. The sweet in the sweet-sour is subtle, but they taste really good.

 Here is the taco de chivo in all its glory, topped with onion and cilantro. Rich, sensual shredded goat meat that melts in your mouth with just the right amount of funk. Taco More handles goat with delicious aplomb.

Here is the TM gringo, two tortillas stuffed here with tender, succulent pork carnitas and melty queso asadero. This combines for a fantastic gringo that could only be better with a homemade flour tortilla (the corn tortillas taste homemade by the way).

But these were just appetizers. What I really wanted off the TM menu was a bowl of their amazing posole. The “medium” is just over five bucks and comes in a mini bathtub cradling a rich, aromatic, complex pork broth seasoned with dried red chiles; it has a little bit of zip to the taste, but is more about chile flavor than heat. In the broth are white hominy and easily a half pound of the most tender braised pork  chunks you could ever want to slurp. The broth is loaded with hominy and pork. On the side they bring another full-sized plate covered with shredded lettuce, radish slices, avocado slices, onions, and cilantro, all of which get dumped ceremoniously into the bowl.  A smaller side plate holds three crispy fried corn tortillas to be broken up and added to the bowl. I am an eater of some renown and it is all I can do to finish a loaded medium bowl of this magnificent posole. It’s on par with their fabulous chickpea and goat meat soup that is also offered.

Not that many güeros seem to have discovered Taco More (a good thing); the crowd is usually mostly Latinos from the neighborhood, but trust me, if you are looking for a dynamite taqueria, Taco More is the spot for you (no matter your heritage).

Mick Vann ©

For my previous Chronicle review of Taco More, go here:

Friday, October 18, 2013

Spec's: Secret No More

Three story sign....the secret's out at our fave south burger joint

A little while back the Three Amigos were going to grab an early Thursday night bite and we wanted it to happen south, without having to suffer any traffic abuse; it’s absolute hell getting north anytime between 2:30 and 7:30 pm.  We rendezvoused and were going to hit up Royal India in Sunset Valley, since none of us had eaten there, but when we pulled up in front at 5:10 the joint was deserted. Turns out they open at 5:30 and it was sunny and hot as hell, so we decided to bounce. Heading west on the frontage road, Spec’s was the next turn heading north, so burgers it was.

Note the guacamole oozing at the bottom

Spec’s is the spot for fantastic burgers and sandwiches that nobody seems to know about, and wouldn’t you know it, we get there and they have a 3 story-tall sign on the front talking about how they make great burgers and what a secret it seems to be. Thankfully for us, not them, the place wasn’t crowded and we were able to saunter up to the counter and order at-will. Our buddy A went with the guacamole-Monterrey Jack unit, while chum S went for the bacon-grilled onion-cheddar burger. I am always a sucker for the bleu cheese-bacon burger, but at that second S’s choice sounded dynamite, so I seconded his selection; it may be my new favorite.

Thick cheddar and bacon....yummmm

We decided to each get a different side and share: fries, onion rings, and tater tots.  Any spot that has tots on their menu always gets preference from me; I LOVES me some tots, especially dipped into some yellow mustard. One of their incredible Reuben sandwiches on the side and a round of North Carolina’s  tart and bubbly 1917 original cane-sugar cherry soda, Cheerwine, and we were good to go. By the way, go to North Carolina and they pronounce it KNORR-kahlina and not GNAW-ER-kahlina.

Cheerwine, Norcalina's tart and bubbly real sugar cherry soda

TOTS!...need I say more?

Another advantage of the interior location is that the cheese section is right next to the seating area, so hors d’oeuvres of cheese samples are yours for the taking; there are always a couple offered. Our name gets called and we procure the baskets and settle in for some serious chow-down. The burgers are flame-grilled, smoky, moist, and made from high-quality meat. All of the components are first-rate: the cheddar is aged and rich, the bacon thick-sliced and apple-smoked, the tomatoes red and ripe. As a lagniappe in your basket you get a spear of a snappy, garlicky dill pickle. The fries, rings, and tots are all frozen, but of a premium brand and delivered hot, golden-brown, and crisp (and in mass quantity). The Reuben is one of the better versions in town, but we were so full I had to almost choke down my part of it (well, actually more than my part). Since the place is a deli, the tabletop condiment selection is off the charts; we used an old school label of Caribbean habanero sauce whose name escapes now, but you’d never find that on any other table in Austin.

Righteous Reuben...... 

Next time you think sandwich or burger down south (or midtown, at the Spec’s on MOPAC, just north of Research), you can’t do much better than Spec’s, especially when you consider the portion, quality, and price. Their secret is getting out.

Mick Vann ©