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


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 ©