Monday, November 24, 2014

Sticker Sunday and Oblivious Harpies

Yesterday I had to go get my truck’s inspection sticker replaced. I could have waited, but that would have meant a longer wait next week, due to the Thanksgiving holiday and the end-of-the-month rush. I knew I was going to the Rapid Lube at the corner of Billbrook and Slaughter, just east of Manchaca. These guys are fantastic. They’re quick, since they get paid by the car and not by the hour (unlike the morons at Jiffy Lube right down the street, who keep you waiting for no reason). They also never try to hard-sell you on crap you don’t need (Jiffy Lube, again), and always turn off the “maintenance required” light that pops on when you need an oil change (unlike Walmart). I had an issue with a turn signal bulb that had fried, and somehow ended up inside a small chamber in the headlight cover. Took these dudes 30 minutes to fish the spent bulb out from a near-inaccessible space, and they didn’t charge me an extra dime. Love these guys.

I also knew that Mi Ranchito II was on my way back home, and it was lunchtime, so it was not a hard decision to make. The place was packed, and unfortunately, I was in line behind a large family of designer logo-encrusted white folks, and every time I thought they might be finished ordering, another one would show up from somewhere and cut in line, and then get confused about the menu. I stood in line behind a stream of them, waiting to order for about 7 or 8 minutes, before one of the restaurant owners took pity on me, and let me shout out my order over the heads of the indecisive herd. Their group consisted of granny, mom, dad, a random boyfriend or husband or two, and four carbon-copy, stair-stepped daughters. Unfortunately, they settled into two four tops and a deuce, all adjacent to the deuce that I had staked out. Thankfully, my order was delivered before theirs was.

Huevos revuletos con machaca taco, green sauce on the lower right.....

Sooner than expected, I was gazing upon a platter of stewed pork cubes in jalapeño green sauce ($8.99) and a machacado taco ($2.19). The plates were fortified with ramekins of spicy green avocado and chile árbol with roasted tomato salsas, and a dish of pico de gallo, all from their excellent self-serve salsa bar. I started with the overstuffed taco, filled with moist, fluffy scrambled eggs and tender, shredded machaca sun-dried beef, topped with cilantro and onions, and shredded Colby Longhorn and queso blanco cheeses. Two of these would make a meal, and a very delicious meal at that. Next up was the oversized platter filled with chunks of meltingly tender pork swimming in a shallow pool of a spicy, rich emerald-green jalapeño sauce. Flanked on either side were portions of savory red Mexican rice, and a pool of tender, bacony, frijoles a la charro. Three fresh flour tortillas and a salad of lettuce and avocado were riding shotgun. It makes a totally satisfying plate of food, and one of my favorite Mexican dishes in town.

Puerco in green jalapeño sauce...seriously good

The only damper to the meal was the nearby cacophony created by the shrill, harpy-like females in the 9-top. They all held matching white iPhones, which they texted on feverishly, as they each tried to talk louder than the others at their table. The dad looked totally beaten down, and it occurred to me that he probably endured this madness any time he was at home. Dude probably “plays golf” or “fishes” a lot. I sure as hell would. Mom was the loudest of all, and the only relief I got was when she would shut up long enough to waddle up to the counter to get continuous refills of her 32-ounce soft drink cup. How the seams on her white slacks held together around the pressure from those plump, stumpy legs is a mystery that NASA engineers should be looking into.

Their group was so loud that they even drowned out the screaming, pissed off, two year old mija a couple of tables down. When they got up and filed out, a couple of the tables remaining actually started applauding. It was as if a blissful, Zenlike calm enveloped the dining room upon their retreat, and everyone remaining (including the staff) gave a collective sigh of relief. Thankfully, it was a peaceful end to a really great meal, which was almost spoiled by a crew of self-centered, inconsiderate, and clueless dolts. God can only save the audience at their next stop, the “outlet mall”, but much better in San Marcos, with the outlet people, than anywhere near me.

Mi Ranchito II
1105 FM 1626, at the south end of Manchaca Road

Rapid Lube
9706 Billbrook Place at Slaughter Lane

Mick Vann ©   

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thai "Penicillin"


Yaksha demon protector, guarding a gold leaf-covered stupa from bad spirits at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)

Over the weekend I was attacked by the crud, and had mucus flowing from my body by the gallon, during almost non-stop sneezing spells, with slight chills, scratchy throat, and an annoyingly persistent cough. I work at the University, so I’m constantly surrounded by 49,000 students, who are well-known vectors for infectious diseases. I’m convinced that one of their sickly ilk touched a doorknob I later touched, or coughed upwind of me at some point. At any rate, I felt none-too-swift and spent too much of my precious weekend time under the covers. The whole time I was in my snotty cocoon, all I could think about was an aromatic, steaming bowl of tom yum gai from Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine. S-P10 on the menu is hot and sour (and spicy) chicken soup; it’s the Thai culinary equivalent to Jewish penicillin.

Tom yum gai, with brown jasmine rice, at Sap's (and sensibly served!)

How to NOT serve Tom Yum - Thais don't typically eat scalding-hot food, the heat overcooks the ingredients, and I don't want to smell Sterno with my food

Tom yum (or it can also be said tom yam) is a clear, spicy, and sour soup that is served in Thailand and Laos (and Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well). We used to cook huge batches of it at the Café, and sold out every time we made it. The name of the soup comes from an amalgam of two Tai words, tom, which refers to boiling a liquid, and yum or yam, which refers to a Lao and Isaan spicy, sour salad. Assemble the two words and you get a hot and sour soup, aromatic from the addition of fragrant herbs, which include cilantro, Thai or holy basil, Thai lime leaf, lemongrass, and galangal. The citrusy sour comes from lime juice, the salty umami bomb is delivered with the Thai fish sauce, and the heat comes from dried Thai red chiles. Shallot adds that sweet oniony flavor, and the mushroom slices are a soft, chewy texture to balance the denser chicken meat. It all swims in a broth of rich chicken stock; a perfect foil for the common cold and guaranteed to open up blocked sinuses and soothe a sore throat. You can get it with shrimp, or mixed seafood, or even with tofu, but I was jonesing for the chicken version. It comes with rice, and lately I’ve been hooked on Sap’s brown jasmine rice. It has a nutty aromatic flavor that is far superior to the white, polished version (and it's much healthier).

Fried tofu

I started the meal with an order of fried tofu (S-A11), which comes with a honey-sweetened and chile-laced sauce that’s balanced with some lime. It’s sweet and sour, spicy, herb-infused, and texturized with minced roasted peanut. The sauce is a perfect match with the golden brown, fried pillows of bean curd. Tofu was invented in China around 164 BC, supposedly by Lord Liu An (179–122 BC), although culinary historians are starting to believe it was developed much earlier. It first spread into Korea and then into Japan in the 8th Century, and then into Southeast Asia in the 10th Century, after being introduced by fishermen and boat traders from Fujian province. The accepted theory is that the popularity of tofu migrated along with the spread of vegetarian Buddhism, since the two go so well together.

Whoever took it to Thailand deserves a gold star, because the Thais really know how to make that oppressively bland (but healthy) ingredient delicious. I’ve been hooked on this dish since the 70s when I used to order it at a second story Thai restaurant called Chopsticks, which used to be on Airport Boulevard at Pampa Drive, just east of Guadalupe. It was owned by a retired Air Force guy and his Thai wife, and although they were forced to also have Chinese dishes on the menu, it was all about the Thai food. Unless I’m mistaken, it was Austin’s first Thai restaurant.

Satay vendor, Dutch Indies, back in the day (from Google Images)

Satay gai vendor's daughter, seafood noodle restaurant, Ban Phe, SE Thailand

Satay so good we ordered another round.....

Also joining my meal was an order of satay moo (S-A7), an especially fantastic version of the Malay-influenced Southern Thai dish of spice and coconut milk-marinated pork skewers served with a curried peanut sauce, ajat (pickled cucumber and shallot), and toast points. Moo in Thai indicates pork, but you can get it made with tofu, beef, chicken, or shrimp. In Thailand, satay vendors are found on the street or in food courts, but they are also situated next to many open air restaurants. The satay vendor works in collusion with a restaurant, while operating next to the outdoor seating area, using their own grill. The waiter handles the transaction seamlessly, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think the satay came from the restaurant’s own kitchen. My guess is that the vendor pays the restaurant a generous tax to operate there, since it effectively reduces the food that the restaurant could potentially sell.

Satay at Yaeng Diew (Single Rubber Tree Restaurant), on the Pasak River, near Bang Pa-In, Central Thailand

Grilled fresh water prawns at Yaeng Diew, the dish they made them famous all over Thailand....note limpid pools of molten head fat

Satay is a dish of confusing origin, with some experts claiming it originated in Java and Indonesia, as an adaptation of the Indian kebab brought to Indonesia by the seafaring Muslim traders (the kebab having come to India from the Spice Route trade with Muslim traders from Southwest Asia and the Middle East). The name satay is said to have come from Indonesian sate and the Malaysian saté or satai. Others think the name had Tamil origins, since the dish didn’t really become popular in the Dutch East Indies until after the arrival of Muslim Tamil Indian and Arab immigrants in the early 1800s. The meats preferred by Indonesians and Malaysians are the same mutton and beef which the Arabs prefer. Another, less-popular theory has the dish being introduced by Chinese traders, who preferred the use of pork and chicken.

Pork satay at Sap's....excellent

As the theory goes, the dish migrated through the Malay Archipelago, and by the mid-1800s had crossed the Strait of Malacca into Malaysia, Singapore, and Southern Thailand. As it entered each new culinary region, the spices used in the marinade and the sauce morphed slightly, while the meats used were based on availability and religious preference. Eventually it ended up in Bangkok, with Sap learning how to cook it, which eventually led me to order it and savor every tiny morsel.

A proper set of tableware, at Sap's

Allow me a rant on the side about something that’s really starting to piss me off. As I sipped my water and unrolled my tableware, it occurred to me how practical the Thais are when they dine, preferring that superior universal eating tool, the spoon. Oddly, they like to use one of the most inefficient tools for eating noodles, but the Chinese introduced both pasta and chopsticks to Thailand, so I forgive the Thais this minor error.  An alarming restaurant trend over the last few years has been the elimination of the spoon from the restaurant set-up, providing instead, the fork and the knife. Now, every time I eat at a restaurant that is not a Thai restaurant, I have to ask for a spoon. This trend makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot eat gravy with a fork or a knife. I can eat peas or beans or mashed potatoes with a fork, but it’s so much more efficient and tidy  to eat them with a spoon. I can’t remember the last time I used a knife to eat anything. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if I NEED a knife to eat my meal, unless it is a steak or a sausage, the restaurant probably cooked it wrong, or they purchased tough, low quality product.

It’s not that I recommend a big influx of sick people to all of a sudden rush to Sap’s for a bowl of spicy soup, but I can tell you that when I pushed away from that table, I felt 100% better. And although I was probably already on the mend by then anyway, after that bowl of wonderful, delicious tom yum gai, my cold was gone in a day. Thai penicillin indeed.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
4514 Westgate Blvd, 512/899-8525
5800 Burnet Rd, 512/419-7244

Mick Vann ©

Friday, November 14, 2014

Paella Fest 2014....LOTS of Paella

......just one of the spinning pigs

This past Saturday, November 8th, I was fortunate enough to secure a coveted position as one of the six judges at the 12th Annual Paella Lovers United 2014 Paella Cookoff, which was held on a ranch out Webberville Road. About 600 devotees in attendance were just as delighted as I was. The cooks manning the flat, shallow paella pans take their paella cooking very seriously, and a bite of any batch will immediately indicate that they know what they’re doing. I was flabbergasted at the number of teams of Spanish provenance that entered, as I had no idea that Austin was that prolific in its population of Spaniard ex-pats.

The List

The site where it was held is a ranch owned by Will and Rebecca Ponder, who were off celebrating Will's parents' 74th wedding anniversary. Their son Miles is an owner of White Hat Rum, which is an Austin-based craft-distilled rum, and one of the event sponsors. Miles gave Emmett Fox, one of the head judges, a couple of bottles of a special oak barrel-aged release, which was excellent sipping stock; kudos Miles, and thanks to Emmett for sharing.

We da Bomba, the Caribbean jerk-inspired "Keep Paella Weird" entry

The event is set up in a big corral with 13 cooking stations, and a central oak fire for the teams to pull coals from to heat their paella pans. The 24 competing teams turn in their entries sequentially, between 2pm and 7:30. As soon as the team presents their paella, and describes it to the judges and the judges extract a sample, it is offered to the throngs for tasting. The crowd is also feasting on roast pig, fresh oysters, tapas, and big, massive batches of paella prepared by the hosts. Booths offer beer, cider, sangria, and wine, and there’s a music stage pumping out flamenco and Spanish music, both live and DJ. It’s all Spain-centric, and all there in support of the paella.

La Santa Inquisición's squid ink paella, with polka dot team introduction and adorable tykes. The Grand Champion.

Paelleros Místicos, with their "Weird" category entry of "Forbidden" black rice, porcini, and pork (note the ring of unctuous pork belly circling the central cabeza)

The judging criteria is based on many factors, including team spirit. Some of the groups were as rabidly excited as a section of the bleachers at a Real or Barça soccer match, with choreographed cheers, banners, smiling children offering bribes, boom boxes with paella presentation soundtracks, etc. The more important criteria include appearance and presentation, ingredient integration, taste profile, texture and doneness of the rice and of the proteins, and presence of the critically important soccarat, that deliciously crusty layer of caramelized rice that forms on the bottom of the pan. Cook it just right and it’s orgasmic; cook it a tiny bit too long, and you’ve turned the whole batch bitter (and angered the rice gods in the process). Cook it less than required and you end up with a mushy mess devoid of crustiness. Timing is paramount, and all of the components must be in balance. A proper paella is alchemy involving the fire, the pan, the rice, the stock (to be considered as a separate criteria next year), the secondary ingredients (aromatics, vegetables, and proteins), and how all of that is manhandled and magically manipulated into the finished dish.

The entry from El Plat del Día, with juicy rabbit

We sampled paellas that were so authentic, they could just as easily have been cooking over a fire in Valencia, they were that authentic (these were entered in the most popular category, “Traditional”). There were batches cooked with all manner of seafood, as well as chicken and rabbit, pork and chorizo, lamb, and even one vegetarian version. Artichokes, fava beans, peas, green beans (not the flat Romano-style ones, unfortunately), porcini and maitake mushrooms, olives, peppers, and all kinds of other foods found their way into the pans. La Santa Inquisisión’s squid ink version was brilliantly composed, with rich flavor that complimented the moist seafood, and a seductive, crusty soccarat hugging the bottom. There were entries in the “Keep Paella Weird” category that rivaled the flavor of the traditional paellas. Jerk paella or a porky batch made with black “forbidden” rice sounds weird, I know, but you really should have tasted it.

Pepa (R), helping present the entry from Los Alarcanes de Alicante

To be completely honest, after tasting 24 different batches of paella (some spectacularly good, and none that could be considered inedible), I was starting to get a little burned out on paella by the end of the evening. It 
wouldn’t have been my meal of choice for the next week or so, but finding that much creative Iberian culinary talent perched over a bunch of smoky fires out in the floodplains of deep east Austin is a thing of beauty. It is definitely an event that you should be adding to your food event calendar for next year, and hopefully I’ll be judging again.

Langoustines chasing lobster, a traditional entry from team Berberechos and the last paella judged

Winners – Traditional
1. La Santa Inquisición (Overall Champion)
2. El Plat del Día (Second Place overall)
3. Cocina Gringa

Winners – Keep Paella Weird
1. We da Bomba (Third Place overall)
2.  Paelleros Místicos
3. Madrid in Austin – Students Beat Teachers!

Mick Vann ©