Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sap's 2.24.2013

Sap's umbrella ceiling.....

Sap’s 2242013

I stopped by Sap’s for lunch after making a night deposit at the cater-corner bank on Sunday morning, while on my way to work at the nursery. Sap wasn’t there but I ordered an all-time favorite, S-F11, Guay Teaw Kua Gai. It’s a street vendor and grandma dish made with wide flat rice noodles, beaten egg, pickled radish sprouts, mung bean sprouts, a mother sauce that’s soy-based, with fried garlic and the meat of your choice. Traditionally it comes with egg and chicken – it’s that whole egg and chicken thing -  but at Sap’s you can get it with any sliced meat. I prefer it with ground pork rather than sliced pork, or any other sliced meat for that matter. It comes with a mixed lettuce salad on the side, and a ramekin of a nice sweet-spicy Thai dressing to drizzle on the greens and over the noodles. I also ask for a small ramekin of the green chile and garlic sauce that goes on the Nuer Ob (S-P46); that chile sauce is a perfect match for the noodles. Sap should be bottling those sauces.

Some vendors, the real old school vendors, cook the dish over a charcoal fire, using porkalicious lard to precook the meat and then sauté the noodle part of the dish. Their cooking fire is blazing, with flames leaping up the side of the wok. They use a little bellows to fan the coals and get the fire glowing white hot. That’s what gives the sen yai (wide) rice noodles that much-loved “kiss of the dragon”; the charring and caramelization that makes the dish taste so damn good. With many of the vendors the dish is more egg than noodle, so that it ends up being more of a noodle omelet than a noodle stir fry with some beaten egg sautéed into it. Either way it’s a fine dish.

I also got a breakfast item of sorts: S-P33, Sweet, Hot Bamboo Shoot. It’s essentially a bowl of bamboo shoot strips that have been quickly stir-fried with beaten eggs, garlic, slices of jalapeño chile, some soy sauce, and brown sugar (or palm sugar). It is exactly what it says it is: bamboo shoots that are sweet and spicy, in a rich sauce.

Whenever you see a soy-based sauce in a dish, like in these two, it’s almost always a Chinese-based dish that got morphed into becoming a unique Thai dish.  The first major migration of Chinese into Thailand happened between about 700 to 1300 AD, Nanzhao and Dali people from Yunan that were being persecuted for some reason or another; the early Chinese were good at persecuting their own. The Tai people of southern China, Vietnam, and Laos have moved freely in and out of northern Thailand through the eons. Don’t forget that the Chinese started coming to Thailand (and the rest of the countries in SE Asia) to trade: by sea, into Bangkok and other cities via the rivers. Chinese junks sailed all the way up to Ayutthaya in the central plains. They also trekked with donkey pack trains overland, through what is now northern Thailand, into Burma, to reach the seaport trading centers along the Andaman Sea. They imported goods and set up markets, becoming a solid merchant class in Thailand. Naturally, they also brought their recipes and ingredients, and we’re glad they did.

Mick Vann ©   

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday Means Red Beans and Rice

Mick makes them Cajun style, guarantee!


Princess Di is the one that made the red beans, following my recipe. She found the smaller variety of red beans at the local HEB grocery. CBoy had procured some fresh andouille at Johnny G’s Meat Market, to add to the andouille I had already gotten at Smokey Denmark. So when everyone got home from work, the work was pretty much done, except for slathering some nice crusty peasant bread with butter, roasted garlic, and chives, and popping it in the oven. I decided that the Smokey Denmark sausage needed to be sliced and sautéed in a skillet, as a lagniappe topping to the bowls of red beans and rice, since it was smoked and Johnny G’s was fresh; it would make a nice contrast.

Bowls were portioned out, salad was brought out of the fridge and dressed, and some serious eating commenced. We ALL agreed that the red beans and rice were absolutely wonderful; I gotta say, they may have been the best bowl of RB and R that I have ever eaten. What follows is a recipe for same:

Red Beans and Rice

With Mardis Gras fast approaching, it’s only natural that for the day before, on Monday the 11th, you cook up a big pot of red beans and rice. Cajun-Creole red beans and rice are the classic dish eaten on Mondays all over Louisiana, because traditionally Monday was “wash day”, when all the cleaning chores were done, and a big pot of red beans and rice could be put on the stove that morning and simmer slowly on the stove all day without requiring much attention; there was often some leftover pork from the weekend that could be thrown in to fatten-up the pot. Washing clothes used to be a much more engaging task back in the day.

Bucking the growing “meatless Monday” trend, there is nothing meatless about red beans and rice; the stew pot usually holds a conflagration of pig parts. Red beans and rice should be rich, meaty, and spicy. The bean used typically is a red kidney bean, which comes in both large and smaller varieties. I prefer the smaller bean, the one that’s about the size of a pinto bean, because it gives you a better ratio of stew ingredients to bean and they tend to cook-up creamier; the larger kidney bean’s texture is grainier. The preferred Louisiana brand of red bean for the pot is Camelia; grab a bag if you see them anywhere. Some folks prefer pink beans (found all over the Caribbean and Latin America, and known in Spanish as habichuelas rosados), and some use pinto beans if that’s all they have on hand.

The vegetable mélange is made up of the Cajun Holy Trinity: onion, celery, and bell pepper, with plenty of garlic kicked in. You can add some smoked ham hock to the conglomeration of pork utilized in the dish if you prefer; others rely on salt pork or leftover ham. Some folks use reserved bacon fat to sauté the vegetables, but I love the taste of bacon, so I add bacon to the dish. Andouille (an-DOO-ee) or chaurice (shaw-REES) are the preferred sausages for the beans, but any garlicky sausage can be used as a substitute. If you have a little dark roux lying around, you can always add just a touch to flavor and thicken the pot of stewed beans, but it’s not necessary.


Locals would prefer you use homegrown Louisiana long grain white rice like Konriko (in local parlance it’s called “pecan” rice), but jasmine or basmati rice works just as well. To cook rice Cajun-style, use twice the amount of water as rice (or half water and half chicken stock), and add a knob of butter, a teaspoon of white vinegar, and a little salt, bring to a boil in a heavy pan, and stir constantly while boiling for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, leave on the burner, and completely ignore the pot for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff it up with a fork, and you have great rice.

The allspice in this recipe was a red beans and rice hallmark of “Surly Earl” Barnes, fantastic home cook and irascible father of our buddy “Princess Di” Winslow and her brother (and our pal, and everyone’s favorite sax player) Jeffrey Barnes, of Brave Combo renown. When the Barnes family lived down in Beaumont, and Janis Joplin and Edgar and Johnny Winter lived right down the block, Earl had a bunch of Cajun cooking and drinking buddies who insisted that he start adding a touch of allspice to the red bean pot. It only makes sense, when you consider the influence of the Caribbean on the food of New Orleans.


Chris and Princess Di’s nursery, It’s About Thyme, carries fresh allspice plants when you need a source for your own fresh allspice leaves.

Recipe: makes enough for 10 folks, or 5 hungry Cajuns

½ pound smoked bacon, diced
¼ cup chopped tasso (sub ham if unavailable)
1½ cups chopped yellow onions
¾ cup chopped celery
¾ cup chopped green bell peppers
1 pound andouille or chaurice sausage, 1-inch dice (sub Kielbasa or Spanish/Portuguese chorizo)
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 pound dried red beans, soaked overnight, drained, rinsed, and picked over
4 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
½ teaspoon cayenne (or more, to taste)
2 bay leaves
¼ to ½ teaspoon ground allspice (or 1 fresh allspice leaf)
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme (sub 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
2 Tablespoons dark roux (optional)
½ teaspoon salt, to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups cooked long grain white rice
½ cup chopped green onions, garnish
Shaker of cayenne, for garnish
Shaker of Creole seasoning, for garnish (optional)

In a large pot, sauté the bacon over medium-high heat until fat is rendered and the bacon is beginning to brown. Add the tasso and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the onions, celery, and bell peppers and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the andouille sausage and sauté about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute.

Add the soaked red beans, chicken stock, and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the cayenne, bay, allspice, thyme, and parsley. Cook while stirring occasionally over medium-low heat, uncovered, until the beans are tender and the stew starts to thicken, about 2 hours. If it gets too thick, add ½ cup of water at a time. If adding the optional roux, make sure the roux is hot before whisking it slowly into the stew.

Using the back of a large spoon pressed against the interior of the pot (or using an electric hand-held blender), mash or puree about a fifth to a quarter of the beans in the pot. Cook while stirring occasionally for an additional 20 minutes, or until the beans are thick and creamy.

Serve over hot rice and garnish with minced green onions and a sprinkle of extra cayenne. Some folks use a hot sauce like Tabasco, Louisiana (Red Dot), Crystal, or Trappey’s; personally, I don’t like the vinegar flavor it adds to the stew, preferring the cleaner finishing heat of cayenne.
Some folks like to garnish with a light sprinkle of Creole seasoning, for an extra flavor boost right at the end. Popular brands include Zatarain’s, Tony Chachere’s, Rex, and Konriko. To make your own Creole seasoning, combine:

2 Tbl hot paprika
2 Tbl garlic powder
1 Tbl freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbl onion powder
1 Tbl cayenne
1 Tbl dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano

Mick Vann ©


It’s About Thyme Nursery: 

Fresh herb plants

Smokey Denmark:

Andouille, Creole sausage, Boudin

Johnny G’s Meat Market:
Fresh andouille

Stuffed Cajun Meat Market and Specialty Foods:
Andouille, Tasso, Camelia beans, Konriko rice, etc.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Niki's Pizzeria Up North

Okay. We were way the hell up north to test out some dim sum, and it occurred to both of us simultaneously that we weren’t THAT far away from Niki’s Pizzeria, one of our favorite pizzerias in town. The last time we did a big pizza round up and tested a bunch of them, Niki’s surfed along way up towards the top of the bunch, perhaps the closest to a real New York City style of pizza. Pizza’s really not that hard to do correctly: you need good flour and water and living yeast, a simple tomato sauce that actually tastes like tomatoes, quality cheese, and an oven that gets hot enough. Anything beyond that is gravy. If you have those simple things and a modicum of good sense, you should be cranking out great pizzas. Niki’s does crank out great pizza, and it’s amazing how many of the other pizzerias in town don’t, yet they somehow manage to stay in business.  

All that aside, we stopped in at Nikki’s North, which is in the Techridge Shopping Center (Tech Ridge Shops, 1100 Center Ridge Dr. #320, 512-989-6868), http://www.nikipizza.com/
The other location is in Dobie Mall, down by the UT campus. Niki's is exactly like a NYC pizzeria: there is a long counter with portions of cooked pies on display (ready to go into the oven if you want a slice heated up), a couple of huge pizza ovens, ten tables or so, a commercial stove, a soda dispenser, and a mountain of folded pizza boxes. Niki’s pizza tastes exactly like the great pizza I’ve had in NYC: thin crispy crust with patchy mottled charred spots on the bottom. The crust sits on the bed of the oven, not on one of those metal pizza screens. The red sauce is judiciously applied and not over-thought; it tastes like ripe tomatoes were smeared across the top. You want oregano, or garlic, or crushed red pepper? All of that is on the table in shakers; throw some on your pie if you like. The cheese melts beautifully and has good rich flavor. No pools of grease; no fake flavors.

We opted for Italian sausage, which is sliced rounds here, not the crumbles (the crumbles usually have a percentage of soy filler, or come IQF frozen in a 10-pound bag). The sausage tastes like fennel and pork and ham, just like it’s supposed to. The grated parmesan on the table tastes like real parmesan, with a rich nutty flavor. Niki is using good stuff and making good pizzas. The other thing? Affordability: a 16-inch large with one topping was $11 bucks more or less; somewhere in that range. They run all kinds of specials, and also have the usual selection of pastas and pizza-generated sandwiches (calzones, stromboli). I haven’t eaten any of the other menu items except for a nice, crisp salad one visit, but if they are as good as Niki’s pizza pie, they’re great.

Mick Vann ©     

Ivy's Deli Dim Sum

Ivy's Deli
201 University Oaks Boulevard, STE 1350,
Round Rock, (512) 574-4608

Yesterday we headed north into the hinterlands of Round Rock in search of the elusive xiao long bao soup dumpling (look for the Austin Chronicle feature coming soon, including a sidebar on where to find them). There, behind the Ikea store, in a cluster of shops situated next to the dining deck, kind of out in the middle of everything, sits Ivy’s Deli. I’m still not 100% sure, but it was probably originally at Spicewood Springs and 183, and then it was and then wasn’t a yoga studio with food, and it moved over here to where it has been for the last 9 months. It may or may not have a different menu from the smaller cafe with the same name that may still be close to Asia Café and Chen Z Noodles. It’s confusing. The owner gave ambivalent answers.

Regardless, the charming couple that own Ivy’s Deli is originally from Hong Kong, and ended up in Nicaragua for several years, with three restaurants there, before heading up to the ATX. I went there for soup dumplings, but even more intriguing is fish skin dumpling, a dumpling where the wrapper is fish skin and the filling is fish paste. I’ve had fish noodles and dumplings where the wrapper is made with fish paste in Thailand, but have never eaten dumplings where the wrapper is fish skin. I attempted research on fish skin dumplings and there’s not a lot of info out there, except that they are available in the Bay Area (but what isn’t?). Ivy’s has a fairly large menu of dim sum items, and we settled on four of them.

The owner brought out a little dish of kim chee as an amuse bouche: spicy and not as tart as some versions, but still enjoyable.

We ordered the spicy and sour wontons (D12), which were plump and filled with seasoned pork, with chewy handmade wrappers, sitting in a bowl of a soy-based dipping sauce that had ginger and garlic, a touch of sugar, and rice vinegar.  There was a sesame seed garnish on top, and these little puppies were tasty. We dumped on some of their excellent house made chile oil, which is a thick paste of roasted chiles that are ground up with peanut oil and soy, with whole garlic cloves added to the mix. It has a nice flavor that rises above the piquancy.

The fish skin dumplings (D15) were intriguing. The texture was dense enough to know it wasn’t a thin pastry dough, and the overall package tasted of fresh seafood. I expected a touch of sliminess, which wasn’t present. The tasted great and I would definitely order them again. I’m still curious about these; a few folks reference them on the web but I can find no background info. 

The soup dumplings (D17) were good, but the broth could have been a little richer, and the filling a little more seasoned. A little dab of vinegar dipping sauce (which needed more ginger) and a touch of chile paste and they were a delight. One of three places in ATX that offers them.  

We finished up with Sui Mai Supreme (D02a), which are open top steamed dumplings filled with chunky shrimp, minced pork, and crab, and you could definitely spot the yellowish pieces of crab fat through the thin wrappers. These are fantastic, and the owner pointed out that they are his biggest seller from dim sum menu world. Oddly they didn’t come with a dipping sauce, but we had leftover sauce from our other dumplings.  We came here for soup dumplings, but fell in love with the fish skin dumplings and the size of the whole dim sum menu. We also love that they are available everyday, like they ought to be. Ivy’s Deli you ask? I’ll definitely go back when I’m up that far north.

Mick Vann ©


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Di’s Albino Chili

Before we went to see Los Lobos several weeks ago for my birthday, Princess Di (AKA, The Martha Stewart of Manchaca) had crocked up a pot of her famous white chili for us to eat before leaving for the show. This is a delicious blend of chicken and chicken broth, garlic and onions, orange bell pepper, corn, celery, and sour cream which grooves along happily in the slow cooker, and then right at the end, so that they retain some of their crunch, edamame are thrown in, along with some cilantro. The texture looks a little soupy at first glance, but there are garnishes that get added once it’s in the bowl.

The chili gets topped with crunched up totopos from Tortilleria Rio Grande II (the best totopos in town), unctuous diced avocado, and shredded pepperjack; adding salsa is a personal option. You get all of those garnishes in there, and you have a delicious bowl of mildly spicy goodness, with strings of melted cheese roped off of every spoonful. It was the perfect meal on a chilly night before a rocking Latino-themed concert.

Los Lobos were phenomenally good, and the only hiccup of the affair was the nervous nelly sitting directly behind us that was obviously on a fist date with whoever she was. He talked non-stop throughout the entire show, and even managed to serenade us (and his date) when he knew the words to any song they performed. A pox on you and any children you both may sire! If you’re wondering if you were that offending party, ask yourself if you had a large quasi-annoyed white guy turning back and glaring at you periodically through  the concert.

Waiting for our band of  hungry listeners when we got back to Rancho Winslow was a birthday cake that Di had made: moist and aromatic spiced apple with a fresh apple, sugary glaze. This stuff is addictively good and much loved by all who eat it. Di proclaims it as her favorite cake. I would agree. Thanks again Princess Di (and CBoy)!

Mick Vann © 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sap's -- As Fine as it Ever Was

Sap’s Thai – As Fine as It Ever Was

A couple of weeks ago Art and I had a meeting about a new cookbook we are pitching to our agent and needed to combine that meeting with nutrification. Nothing nutrifies as good as Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine does. In our quest to eat the entire menu (a little at a time, not all at once), we decided to order the amazing squid, beef gaeng pa, masaman curry with pork, and tom yum gai with vermicelli noodles.

Amazing Squid (S-P28) is a seafood version of the Amazing Green Beans dish, and has a sauce that’s spicy and salty, with an umami nutty richness from fermented bean paste. It has a very unique and addictive flavor and matches perfectly with the just-blanched tender squid and the crunchiness of the green beans. I love this dish, not matter what protein is paired with it.

Gaeng Pa (S-P26) is a “jungle curry”, a very old traditional dish from Northern Thailand. Traditionally it is made with no coconut milk, since they don’t grow up there, and the protein used in the dish was typically wild boar or water buffalo. Today it is more likely pork, or in this case, beef. The heat level is up there, from a combination of green Thai chiles, white peppercorns, and some fresh green peppercorns, and the holy basil in the dish only serves to accentuate and increase the effect of the spiciness. It is more soup-like than one would expect, meant to be eaten with rice. Excellent dish.  

Masaman curry (S-P13) is another ancient Thai dish, influenced by the Muslims in the far south of Thailand.  Depending on the source you want to believe, it originated either in 16th century Ayutthaya, brought in by Persian traders, and morphed into a Thai dish over time. It’s more likely the dish came in from the south, using Indian spices picked up by Arab traders on their way to Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s flavored with coconut milk and peanut, and has a very rich sauce that resembles red curry (but has much more refined dried spice nuance). I love it with pork, but I’m not Muslim.

Guay teaw tom yum gai (S-NS8) is one that we always get with rice instead, but ordered here with vermicelli noodles. However you eat it, Sap’s does a magnificent job with this dish, balancing just the right amount of fish sauce with the lime, all based on a rich chicken stock, and loading up on the lemongrass and makroot.

Word up, Sap’s is better than Mam’s. Sap manages his Westgate restaurant hands-on, and knows and appreciates all of his regulars. The food is authentic, consistent, and excellent, and he doesn’t take any shortcuts. Here’s another unapologetic zinger, Sap’s is better than Titaya’s, which is closed now anyway. You want first rate Thai food, you want to go to Sap’s. I’ve eaten Thai food all over Thailand, at non-farang restaurants, and Sap’s is the real deal.

Mick Vann ©

China Dynasty a Couple of Weekends Ago

China Dynasty 1.25.2013

The Spicy Dumplings
Art and I had some book business to deal with two weekends ago so we decided to head over to China Dynasty, which is a couple of blocks from his house in South Austin. It’s in the shopping center with the Cherry Creek/Tanglewood Village HEB, on the northwest corner of Manchaca and Slaughter. At this location for 24 years, the Chen’s restaurant is first rate; the best in South Austin we think. We were there for lunch, so ordered off of the lunch menu.

We both got bowls of soup instead of cups (which come with the lunch). We opted for their hot and sour, which is excellent: rich porky-chicken stock, tangy with just the right amount of Chinkiang vinegar, strips of luscious pork meat, and spicy from black pepper and chile paste. I always add extra chile paste, but I eat spicy. I think it’s one of the better hot and sour versions in town. We got a side order of their “spicy dumplings”, which are pork wontons swimming in a bowl of sweet and tangy soy with ginger and chile paste. We add the wontons to our hot and sour and take the hot and sour soup to the next level; we use the wonton sauce to add to our rice.

Their eggrolls are flaky and crispy and actually have pork inside, unlike most in town. They are killer here, with big porky deliciousness…..

I am a sucker for their chicken with fresh mushrooms, which is bathed in a rich brown sauce, while Art is a sucker for their version of General Tso’s.

They use boneless chicken thigh meat for their fried chicken dishes, and it’s far superior to boneless breast meat. Chicken breast is for suckers, and I can’t believe that so many idiots demand it. Thigh meat stays moist and has tons more flavor than breast. I suffer the idiots, but at least the Chens know better and use thigh meat.

I guess they were shamed by my mentioning in a Chronicle post that we had to bring our own fresh green chiles, so they have added a special dish called chicken with jalapeño. They brought us out a small dish of it to sample, and it is fantastic: rich with just the right spicy edge from lots of jalapeños, and dynamic jalapeño flavor. This dish is a keeper. Love China Dynasty.

P.S.: they don't have a website...we are trying to shame them into the 21st century by getting one, or at the very least, a business Facebook page, but if you go online and see a menuism link that claims to have their menu, it is BS!  NOT their menu, and much more expensive than they actually are, and the lackluster reviews are not for them. Menusim should be sued, and menipix copied menuism. Both are incredibly lame.

Mick Vann ©