Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A+ Birthday Bowl

Last Friday was my 64th birthday, and I received numerous well wishes from friends, especially Vera, Chuck, and Dave. But what I really wanted was a big, steaming bowl of mapo doufu (Sichuan spicy bean curd with minced pork), and nobody in town even comes close to the version served at A+A Sichuan China. The best version I’ve ever had was at a Bejing-style Chinese hole in the wall spot in Bangkok, called Ta Yang Grou (5/4 Soi Ngamn Duphli, 2 blocks east of the Lumpini Subway station). You walked down a half flight of stairs to get to the dining room, to find ten smallish tables and nobody that speaks English. Thankfully there was a picture menu, and their mapo doufu was spectacularly good. Henry Chung’s Hunan in San Francisco used to make an admirable version, back in the mid ‘70s, when it was a tiny little lunch counter joint on Kearny St. But I digress.

Two kinds of potstickers, dry cooked green beans, and luscious mapo doufu from Ta Yang Grou, in Bangkok

Cyndi and Ling from A+A, my own personal mapo doufu Sirens, were calling, and I could hear their distant song beckoning me north. It so happened that R and I were going to catch an afternoon showing of Birdman at the Arbor Great Hills, and then cruise farther north down 183 to the Anderson Mill exit and A+A after the movie. By the way, Birdman is excellent and I highly recommend it. It is one of the very few films that I will eagerly watch over and over again.

Once I had perused the specials board and the menu, I settled on a platter of pan fried dumplings (Appetizer #6), Beef with Cumin Sauce (B-10), the pre-determined mapo doufu (V-16), and Black and White Mushrooms with Baby Bok Choy (V-2). I was intrigued by a special on the board: pork with long beans. I love long beans (AKA asparagus beans, snake beans, yardlong beans, etc.) and you don’t see them that often around here. Unfortunately, they were sold out, so I settled for dry-cooked green beans with garlic (V-9) with shredded pork added. The dumplings were the first to arrive, and the pastry wrapper is obviously handmade. The filling is moist and porky, the wrapper toothsome and nicely browned on the bottom, but the dipping sauce could use more vinegar and ginger. Still, a nice start to a good meal.


Next aboard was the beef with cumin sauce, resting on a nest of chopped lettuce. This is a dish from Hunan, but cooked here with aplomb. The beef is very tender and aromatic from the cumin, and from the accompanying paper thin slices of garlic. The other players are ginger, chiles, rice wine, soy, and scallions. A very simple preparation, with huge, big flavors. My mapo doufu arrived nuclear hot and steaming in a big brimming bowl, so I was forced to only take nose hits until it cooled down just a bit, which meant we could attack the dry cooked beans with pork and garlic. The beans are just on the verge of becoming slightly shriveled, and loaded with charred sliced garlic and bits of red chile and Sichuan peppercorn. The strips of pork melt in your mouth in clouds of porcine delight. We both wolfed down the majority of that dish in nothing flat.

Beef with cumin sauce

The braised mushrooms with baby bok choy was placed on the table, with meaty chunks of shitake and pure white enoki mushrooms bathed in a rich, velvety stock, along with those cute little almost crispy baby bok choys. This dish has a nice difference between textures and the flavors really complement each other. Another winner. But by then, the mapo doufu was safe to eat and I attacked the bowl.

Black and white mushrooms with baby bok choy

Dry-cooked green beans with pork

I love the rich flavor, the spicy heat of the chiles, the numbing effect of the Sichuan peppercorns, the little textural highlights of the meaty pork and the scallion, and the soft pillow-like cubes of bean curd. The funky flavor of the fermented Sichuan chile paste, with broad beans, garlic, and chile just explodes on your tongue, and every now and then you get a little salty fermented black bean surprise. This all takes place against a background of garlic, scallion, reduced pork stock, chile oil, and soy. This whole dish is umami perfection, and since the early 1970s it has been my favorite all-time Chinese dish.

The magnificent mapo doufu in all of its jiggly glory

We left with big smiles on our faces and a few leftovers for later, and then R presented me with a Tupperware container full of my birthday surprise. A batch of my mom’s strawberry cake recipe, cooked as cupcakes. Every birthday, that was the only thing I wanted from my mom, a big slab of that super moist, strawberry-riffic cake, slathered with strawberry frosting loaded with strawberries, butter, and confectioner’s sugar. It is sinfully rich and fattening, and those little, gorgeous pink birthday treats that R baked were spectacular. Helluva birthday. Great movie, fantastic meal, wonderful dessert.

Mom's (and MJ's) strawberry cake, as cupcakes, courtesy of R

Post Script
As I mentioned earlier, it is really difficult to find a decent version of mapo doufu in a Chinese restaurant. Strange, because it’s really not that hard to cook the dish. My guess is that your standard Americanized Chinese restaurant doesn’t stock Sichuan fermented hot bean paste in their larder, and they try to fake the dish using their standard cooking supplies. Word. If you don’t have the stuff to make the dish, take it off of your damn menu! If you want to make the dish at home (and I know you do), here’s my recipe.

Mapo Doufu · Sichuan Spicy Bean Curd with Meat
Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Bean Curd

Serves 1 to 4

This dish is named after the pockmark scarred wife of a Chengdu, Sichuan restaurateur who was known as Old Mother Chen. She prepared the dish sometime during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) for the laborers who passed her roadside cafe as they transported loads of cooking oil to the city's markets. Traditionally the dish was made using pre-cooked ground beef, which is unusual in Sichuan, where pork is the dominant meat. Most restaurants here in the States make the dish with ground, minced, julienned, or thinly sliced pork, or the meat is omitted entirely for a vegetarian version. The traditional aromatic vegetable used is Chinese leeks, but scallions are commonly substituted. The dish should be served in a bowl rather than a plate, to better retain the heat. Mapo doufu is rich, very spicy, and warming, accented by the addition of Sichuan peppercorns, which add a spicy tingle to the tongue. Texturally it is soft, with crunchy accents of meat and scallions. This is a dish that is found on most American Chinese restaurant menus, yet one that is very difficult to find correctly prepared.

1 package soft (“silken”) or medium bean curd (14 ounces), 1-inch cubes; simmered 10 minutes.    in lightly salted water; drained
3 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
6 ounces minced or ground beef or pork
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 Chinese leeks or scallions, green parts included, cut on the diagonal into ½ inch slices
1 Tablespoon dried red Sichuan chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 to 4 Tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste (dou ban jiang, toban djan)
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and drained, mashed slightly
½ tsp ground Sicuhan chile paste (optional)
1¼ cups pork or chicken stock
½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
Salt to taste
3 to 4 Tablespoons cornstarch made into a smooth slurry with 6 Tablespoons chicken stock
½ tsp dry-toasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns, for garnish
Finely minced scallion for garnish
Steamed long grain white rice for service

1. Heat the wok until very hot and add the oil, swirling to coat the interior. Add the ground meat and stir-fry the meat for 2 minutes, or until cooked and crisping, but not dried-out. Add the garlic and stir-fry 15 seconds, and then add the leeks and chiles and stir-fry 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium and add the chile bean paste and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the black beans and chile paste (if using) and stir-fry 30 seconds. Pour in the stock and stir well, then gently slip the bean curd into the mixture, stirring gently by moving the back of the spatula from the outside in towards the center; do not break up the bean curd. Season with the sugar and soy, stir well, and taste for salt (use caution, the chile bean paste is salty, as are the black beans). Simmer for 5 minutes. Stir the cornstarch slurry (it settles while sitting) and add to the mixture while stirring gently, waiting to see how thick it has become before adding more. The sauce should cling to the meat and tofu, but not become cloying.

2. Garnish with the Sichuan peppercorns and scallion and serve hot with steamed white rice.

Sichuan chile bean paste is a paste made from fresh “two golden strips” chiles (erjin tiao) and fava beans (not soy beans, as many believe) which is then aged and fermented. The best and most famous paste is made in a town on the outskirts of Chengdu named Pixian. The fresher the sauce is, the redder the color will be. Paste which is aged and fermented the most will acquire a purplish hue. Generally the sauce is aged between 3 and 5 years. The sauce goes by the name Sichuan chili bean sauce, chili bean paste, toban djan, and toban jhan, and is available in cans, bottles, ceramic jugs, and plastic pouches. Good brands are Chuan Lao and Sichuan Dan Dan but they can be hard to locate. Lee Kum Kee or the brand that comes in the 6 ounce blue can are acceptable if that is all you can locate, but they lack the fermented funkiness and the heat of the real deal bean paste.

This link will take you to the brand of Sichuan Pixian Broad Bean Paste that Hunan and Sichuan cooking expert Fuschia Dunlop recommends, which is sold by in 16 ounce pouches:

The real deal Pixian Fermented Broad Bean Sauce with Chilies

A+A Sichuan China
13376 N Hwy 183, Ste 100, 512/258-5445      this is the old link, but it gets you to the menu a lot faster than the current link, which is in perpetual slow motion for some reason   

My previous Chronicle review from 2011:

Mick Vann ©   

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pad Kee Mao and Tom Klong Gai at Sap's

Last Thursday I bounced a little early from work to run a few errands and since it was conveniently on my route home, and the weather was in the 30s, windy, and rainy, and I hadn’t eaten all day, Sap’s on Westgate drew me in like the Sirens. I didn’t even look at the menu, as I had decided what to order on the short drive over; a double dose of spiciness to heat me up from within, and to get my stuffy, cedar pollen-afflicted sinuses reopened.

Pad Kee Mao (S-F5) is a popular stir-fried rice noodle dish served throughout Thailand and the direct translation is “drunkard’s noodles”. When you order this dish in Thailand, rest assured that it will be very spicy, loaded with chiles and basil, and the preferred way to eat it is accompanied by a large icy beer (although over there, the beer might be poured over ice). The dish is just as popular with the Thai whiskey drinkers, whether it’s Mekhong or Sang Som whiskey, Sang Thip rum, lao khao (“white liquor”), lao theuan (“jungle liquor”), or yaa dong (rice-based herbal liquor). I suppose you could also include the Thai fruit wine drinkers (many different kinds of tropical fruits are made into sweet wines), and perhaps the legitimate Thai varietal grape wine drinkers as well (Thailand has a rapidly growing wine industry, using varietal grapes grown on the temperate mountain slopes). The legit varietal Thai wine drinkers over there tend to be a little on the hi-so (fancypants) side, but hell, even the Tuppies love pad kee mao.

Pad Kee Mao is a versatile dish. It can be made with rice noodles, wheat spaghetti, without noodles and served over rice, or as fried rice. The main protein can be beef, pork, chicken, tofu, or seafood, or with mixed meats, or only vegetables; you name it. Kee mao is a cooking style, not a particular dish, although most Westerners think of the classic stir-fried rice noodle dish when they think of the term kee mao. In Thai, pad means to stir-fry, and kee mao means someone who likes to drink too much. Kee literally means “shit”, and putting kee in front of any verb indicates it’s a bad habit. Mao means drunk. So, a kee mao is someone who has a bad habit of drinking way too much, or a “shit-faced drunk”.

Pad kee mao, with pork

There are many theories on how the dish or the cooking style got its name. Drinkers in Thailand prefer very spicy dishes, especially carbo-rich dishes, when they’re getting their drunk on, or on their way home from getting their drunk on, and pad kee mao is considered an excellent hangover treatment. Believable theories, all. Others, especially Westerners, feel the dish is so hot that the eater has to be drunk to be able to stand it, or one becomes drunk trying to drown out the heat with alcohol, or it’s so hot that the spiciness makes one feel drunk. Considering the wide assortment of ingredients that can be in the dish, the cook must have been drunk to have combined them in the first place, or the original cook was drunk when he first cooked it, so he didn’t realize how hot the dish was until later. Yet another theory is that the “wobbly” nature of the noodles themselves gave the dish its name. Any of those theories could have led to the name of the dish.

Pad kee mao is widely available at street food stalls very late at night and very early in the morning, when the unofficial or hidden bars are emptying out, hence, the preferred dish of drunkards. In most Thai cities there are curfews on how late bars can serve, but it’s common for underground or late night bars to do business way past curfew by offering bribes to local officials to look the other way. There is a subculture of illegal after hours clubs, often located in second floor walkups, which serve all night long, with many of them not even opening up for business until 3 or 4 am.

Regardless of how the dish got its name, the cooking style and dish originated in an earlier version in China, and was brought through Southern China by traders and immigrants into both Laos and Thailand, spreading first through the Chinese immigrant communities, and then adopted into the Thai community at-large. It is a common dish across Thailand, and is most frequently found being sold by street or market vendors, or in shophouse cafés with limited menus. A shophouse is a typical Thai row building, 2 or 3-story, with a business on the ground floor and living quarters above. If that business is a small café, it will usually have open-air seating, covered by the building above, with a small street vendor-type kitchen set up in one corner, or on the edge of the sidewalk. It can also be found on the menu of regular restaurants, and if a bar has a kitchen, it will be offered to the bar’s patrons.

The dish itself involves the aforementioned choice of protein and blanched (pre-cooked al dente) rice stick noodles, especially wide (sen yai) noodles. Some prefer rice vermicelli, feeling it gets coated better with the sauce, and spaghetti noodles aren’t uncommon, especially in the cities where Italian restaurants are quite popular. Whichever noodle is used, it’s best if the noodles get slightly charred in the cooking process, to get that smoky “dragon’s kiss” from the wok. It can also be prepared as fried rice, or served over rice as a sauce. The dish has lots of chopped garlic cloves, especially Thai garlic, which is smaller but more pungent than American garlic. The heat comes from lots of chopped fresh Thai chiles, especially orange Thai chiles (phrik daeng), usually combined with some phrik pat (roasted chile paste), or phrik pon (dried ground bird chile). The dish will be very spicy, unless the vendor tones it down because you look like you can’t handle the heat. Depending on the cook, it might also have phrik thai onn (fresh green peppercorns). There is an assortment of vegetables that can be added at this point, depending on the choice of the cook: mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, etc. Traditionally the dish is not terribly vegetable-centric.

The sauce is usually a mother sauce made-up in advance, of fish sauce, black soy sauce, oyster sauce, and white sugar. It’s not uncommon to include Golden Mountain Sauce, which has been made in Thailand for over 50 years. It has a taste similar to Maggi Seasoning Sauce, but is more authentically “Thai” in overall flavor profile. At the last minute, holy basil is added so that it gets wilted and infuses the dish. Many prefer holy basil since it amplifies the spiciness of the dish (which, in the case of this dish, is a good thing). Thai basil can be used instead of holy basil; if so, it gets tossed in as a garnish.

Sugar, phrik pat, and naam som phrik

On the table sits the vendor or shophouse café’s khreuang puang, literally “circle of spices”. It's a reference to the standard condiments on the Thai table, especially where noodles are served: naam plaa (fish sauce), phrik pon (chile powder), phrik dong or naam som phrik (chile slices in vinegar), and white sugar. Vinegar isn’t normally added to a wok during the cooking process, as it could affect the cooked on non-stick “seasoning” of the metal. Vinegar is usually added by the diner at the table. If the vendor specializes in pad kee mao, the chiles in vinegar would likely be Thai orange chiles, a sweet-sour, fruity chile that still packs a wallop, but not the stinging heat of Thai or bird chiles (prik kee nu). For the most part, the chiles added to the vinegar as a table condiment are milder Thai chiles like phrik chii faa (‘sky pointing’ chiles) or phrik yuak (‘banana stalk’ chiles). At Sap’s they are serrano chiles, which have a similar heat profile. You’d also find some chile paste, or phrik phat: fresh ripe Thai chiles which are sun or oven-dried, roasted and ground, and then sautéed in a little bit of oil to produce a dry, almost paste-like consistency. It's used as a table condiment. The flavor is very spicy and smoky, and the taste of this condiment goes with literally any dish. The most common adjustments that a pad kee mao diner would add are a sprinkle of sugar, a little vinegar, and some additional heat, either from chile paste or chile powder (or both, which is what I prefer).

Thai orange chiles, from

I made a great choice with the noodle section of the meal, telling my server that the kitchen could make it 3, 4, or even 5 chile hot, and I got it with sen yai wide rice boodles instead of spaghetti. A wonderful dish, especially when you’re not drunk.

The other dish that I knew I had to have was a steaming, aromatic bowl of tom klong gai (S-NS15), which is first cousin to the much more famous tom yum gai, or Thai hot and sour chicken soup. Tom klong is not that common in the States, especially a version this good. Tom klong is one of my favorite Thai soups, but it can be too hot for several of my dining companions, so I usually end up getting it when I’m dining alone, or when I’m eating with a fellow chile-head.

Tom klong gai

With tom klong, the lime sourness is boosted by tamarind, which gives the soup a slightly fruity edge. All of the aromatics, such as galangal, lemongrass, shallots, and Thai lime leaf are fire-roasted, giving the broth a pleasing slightly smoky and bitter element in the flavor profile, to go with the charred, dried Thai chiles, and the numerous and delightful very thin slices of garlic. The overall taste is spicy, sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and rich (from a very worthy, long-simmered chicken stock). Normally it comes with your choice of noodles, but I omit those and opt for rice on the side, which keeps the intense flavors undiluted. At Sap’s it gets chicken or mixed seafood added at the last minute, but over in Thailand it can come with chicken, seafood, shrimp, or with dried or smoked fish. This is the ultimate soup if you’re feeling like you could use some liquid penicillin. It’s chicken-rich, very spicy, and overflowing with vitamins and robust flavor. I highly recommend this soup. Get out of your tom yum gai rut!

Mick Vann ©

Friday, January 9, 2015

At Peace with My Palestinian Chow

Peace Bakery and Deli
11220 N Lamar Blvd. (SW corner of Braker and N. Lamar)

Lamb shank, beets, and hummus

Near the upper end of the long, downward sloping strip center, on the southwest corner of Braker and N. Lamar, sits Peace Bakery and Deli. It occupies a bi-level spot, with the ⅓-sized bakery on the upper level and the ⅔-sized restaurant on the lower level. The owners are a family from Palestine, by way of Beaumont, and mom, pop, and daughter are usually all there, work the linet. I have no idea if the guy working the grill, or any of the bakery folks are related, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they were. These are very nice, friendly, hard-working folks, and the more of them that there are, the better off we all are.

Bakery counter, left side....

...and right.

I had been hearing good things about it for a while, and it’s surrounded by some pretty good eats. Peace sits a few doors away from one of my favorite pho joints (Pho Dan), a quarter of a mile south of the excellent Balkan Grill (I still need to try the little Greek place next to Balkan), immediately east of the dynamic and delicious Taqueria Aviles, and a block north of MT/Chinatown and all that it holds, with Cuban Sandwich Café a short blast to the south, and TAM Deli a little south of that. Right across IH 35 to the east is a branch of Rio Grande Tortillería, which is certainly no slouch, and a Filipino bakery sits cater-corner on the opposite side of IH 35. Bottom line, I was seduced away from Peace for a little while, by the Balkans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Vietnamese tempting me, but hunger pangs which set in after a film viewing finally drew me towards the light (Imitation Game, highly recommended BTW). My favorite Middle Eastern café used to be Byblos, before it closed down, and Peace reminds me of the old Byblos in many ways.

Menu, top half......

....and bottom.

The bakery lures with shelves filled with all kinds of sinful looking treats, most of which I could hazard a guess about, but really had no idea what they were. It was getting dark and all the real food action was located on the level below us, so down the ramp we went, stopping at the menu board that’s hanging on the far left of the dining area, a little inconvenient if you don’t know what you want and have to keep referring to it (hint, take a phone pic and save yourself the trouble of having to walk back and forth).  A cursory glide down the cafeteria style line to check out the offerings, and a last glance to the menu picture on my camera, and we were ready to assault the line.

a portion of the line

...and some more.

We ordered one plate of the braised lamb shank, which was rich, succulent, and falling apart tender. This is some lamb-errific meat, served on a bed of rice to capture all of the aromatic juices. We ordered that with three sides, a well-balanced and delicious roasted beet salad, and a warm braise of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, swimming in tomato sauce and olive oil. There was also a portion of the regular style of baba ghanoush, with tahini and garlic, all very delicious and authentic.

warm braised eggplant salad

I was intrigued by several offerings, especially the saffron-colored and herb crusted, rotisserie-roasedt half chickens with garlic sauce I saw a lady buying for takeout, but settled on the kebab trio, since it came with three sides, and offered a taste of several dishes at once. The three kebabs were a skewer-formed ground lamb that was juicy and well-seasoned, a marinated beef cube kebab that had great beefy flavor, and was tender and moist, and a skewer of marinated chicken cubes. Normally, chicken kebabs in Middle Eastern joints end up being dried out and tough, but these cubes melted in your mouth and excellent depth of flavor. My guess is that marinating in yogurt might have been the tenderizer. The platter was lined with shredded lettuce, shaved red onion, and thin tomato wedges, for building a wrap if you’re so inclined.

hummus and baba ghanoush with mint, peppers, and parsley

fried cauliflower

For my three sides, I got a massive hummus, topped with olive oil and green chile, which was probably the best hummus I’ve had since Byblos closed down. I also chose a style of baba ghanoush that was made with roasted peppers, parsley, and mint, that was unique from the regular style, and equally as tasty. And the final prize was fried cauliflower, served with tzatziki sauce ( I LOVE me some fried cauliflower). Pita is self-serve, but mom brought us out a basket of hot pita right out of the oven. It is fluffier, thicker, and softer than Malek’s pita at Phoenicia, and that could just be the difference between Lebanese and Palestinian baking, or the fact that Phoenicia is a big commercial baking process. Nothing against Malek’s product (I’ve enjoyed it for decades), but I did like their pita very much.

Peace pita

We tried a couple of sweets. One was a kanafa-style roll made with spun/shredded filo filled with ricotta-like cheese (with maybe some marzipan added?) and chopped pistachios, drizzled with rosewater syrup. A dozen more of those wouldn’t have disappointed me in the least. We also had a fresh, crunchy cannolo, stuffed with ricotta, flavored with orange flower water, half dipped in chocolate, and topped with sliced almonds. An excellent cannolo.

just two of the many sweets offered

I saw falafel that looked fabulous, and the shawarma was tempting as hell. The vertical roasters held chicken and beef, both made from marinated thin cuts stacked on top of the central skewer; I saw no pre-formed cone of pressed and chopped beef mixed with lamb, like you so often see. The cabbage salad with mint was intriguing, as were a lot of the other dishes on display. Unfortunately, they removed the eggplant with pomegranate, because nobody ever ordered it. Bummer. But according to rumor, they cook mansaf as a special on Fridays, with lamb 
cooked in fermented yogurt jameed broth, served with rice on a big flatbread called markook, topped with sauce, and garnished with almonds and pinenuts. That special has got my name written all over it. 

my triple kebab platter

Here’s what I discovered from my first visit. Very authentically prepared Palestinian food, cooked by very nice folks that know what they’re doing and work their asses off, and served cafeteria-style in big portions, at pretty reasonable prices, in a casual spot that‘s spotlessly clean. In my book, there’s not a whole lot more that you can ask of a restaurant. I loved my first meal there, and will return often.

Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Summoning of the Luck, Rancho Winslow New Year's Day


Mick's Mile-high Skillet Cornbread

Southern Soulfood-Style Blackeyed Peas

A mess of collard greens and potlikker

Tradition dictates that on New Year’s Day I venture forth to Rancho Winslow, with seasoned cast iron Dutch ovens at the ready, to cook skillet corn bread, with big batches of black eyed peas and collard greens. It’s a Southern thing, and my way of forcing my friends to have good luck in the coming year. The way I figure it, I clear the way with a massive dose of Southern good luck grub, and the rest is up to them. I’ve done all that I can.

Chiminea aglow with delightfully aromatic piñon pine wood

CBoy and princess Di hold court, and the rest of the gang included Tom and Caroline Colwell, Baker Britton and his squeeze Kayla, Jeff “Mr. Saxophone” Barnes, his wife Gina, and her Austin bud Jennie, Grover and Jill Swift, Sarah Winslow and her golf pro pal Kevin Ostrowski, and me. Usually CBoy selects some form of pork to go with the meal, since the thought of just cornbread and vegetables making the meal seems wrong somehow, like a violation of our Southernossity. The powers that be, the saints up above, and the angelic hosts all agreed a long time ago that a New Year’s Day feast required the addition of some type of meat. Usually it’s some of Grover’s excellent sausage, but this day it was a couple of big pork tenderloins, which I slathered with salt and pepper, garlic powder, comino, and a healthy dose of chipotle meco powder, blended into some oil, to form a marinade.

Marinated pork tenderloin outside, venison backstrap inside

Chimayó New Mexican red chile sauce

When Baker and I were discussing the cornbread recipe, he mentioned that he had some venison backstrap in an ice chest in his car, harvested from the family ranch a few days before, so I suggested that he mix it in with the pork to get some marinade on it, and we’d cook it all together. I browned them all in the skillet, and then finished them in the oven, before they got a 15 minutes rest prior to slicing. The pork was moist and spicy, and the venison perfectly rare to medium-rare. That stuff just melted in your mouth it was so tender. I had also thrown together a rather frisky New Mexico red chile sauce using my stash of Chimayó heirloom red chile powder, which tasted great with the pork and venison (see recipe below). We also had a pan full of fresh garlic pork sausage, and some poblano and cheese chicken sausage, which I roasted off in the oven. The cornbread was assembled by Kayla and Diane using my recipe, and we included some pickled serrano, garlic and scallion, monty-cheddar cheese mix, and some bicolor corn. The collards were made with onion and garlic, smoked bacon, chicken stock, and balsamic vinegar with a little black pepper for heat and a touch of sugar to balance the vinegar.

Kayla's guacamole

Caroline's spiced pecans

The festive fruit and nut plate

The blackeyed peas were loaded with bacon, chicken stock, carrot, celery, onion, and garlic, seasoned with some black pepper, thyme, and bay leaf. Diane had assembled a really nice green salad. Kayla made a huge batch of guacamole to nosh on, and Jennie had a decorative fruit and nut tray. Caroline had brought a big box of freshly roasted spiced pecans to nibble on, and these was plenty of leftover rum (excellent mixed with hot chocolate, by the way), and even some beer and red wine to go with. Someone had plated a block of cream cheese and covered with some sweet and spicy, crunchy, pickled jalapeño relish, which was nice on crackers. Out on the covered deck outside the cast iron chiminea had been set up by Sarah and Kevin, and there was an aromatic and thigh singeing blaze going in there, fueled by chunks of piñon pine that made the whole backyard smell like New Mexico.

Di's salad

Cream cheese and jalapeño relish

My meat plate...note yummy rare venison

My bowl of greens, with cornbread soaking up potlikker....note golden brown crust from the hot cast iron skillet

Every single dish was fantastic, and each bite oozed with good luck and portent for the coming year. I hate to brag, but we kicked ass with our lucky foods, and with the hard part over with, all we have to do this year is sit back and reap the benefits. THAT’S how you do it.  

For the recipes, see:

For some backstory on good luck foods around the world, and where out good luck food traditions came from, read this article I wrote for the Austin Chronicle and trends will begin to reveal themselves:

For information on chipotle and Chimayó chiles:

Meco chipotle chiles, left, and morita chipotle chiles, right

Chipotle / Chilpotle                                     2,500 to 10,000 Scoville Units
Chipotle chile’s name derives from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli, which means “smoked chile pepper”, AKA chile ahumado, chile meco, and chilpotle. It is believed that the thick fleshed jalapeños were smoke dried because they tended to rot before drying. In its dried form, the traditional chipotle chile is a dull tan to deep coffee brown in color with a wrinkled surface. The chipotle is usually 2 to 4 inches long and 1 inch across, with medium thick flesh. The taste profile is smoky and sweet, exhibiting subtle tobacco and chocolate flavors with a Brazil nut finish, and deep, complex heat. The piquancy is rounded and slowly fading, not sharp and intense, and usually in the 5,000 to 10,000 Scoville unit range. Chipotles are commonly used in soups, stews, sauces, salsas, marinades, salads, stuffed with fillings, and these days, in desserts.

There are two main types of chipotles: morita and meco. Morita, which means “small mulberry” in Spanish, is grown primarily in Chihuahua State, and smaller than the meco, with a dark reddish-purple exterior. They are smoked for less time, and considered inferior to the meco. Most of the chipotles consumed in the States are moritas.

The larger chipotle meco, also known as chile ahumado or típico, is a grayish-tan in color with a dusty looking surface. Some say the color and finish resembles a cigar butt. They tend to be smokier in taste, and are the preferred chipotle of most natives. They are also sometimes called chile navideño because they are reconstituted and stuffed to make a very traditional dish popular at Christmas time. Most chipotle meco never makes it north of the Mexican border, although you can occasionally find it for sale here in Mexican and specialty markets, and from online specialty vendors.

Chipotle grande is a smoke dried Huachinango.chile with a similar flavor profile, but the chile is larger, and they cost more. Fresh in the market, they sell for 3 to 4 times as much as a jalapeño, when you can find them. A Huachinango is a fresh red jalapeño grown in Puebla and Oaxaca, measuring 4 to 5 inches long by 1½ inches wide, with a thick, sweet flesh and a rounded, complex spiciness. A chipotle tamarindo is even larger than the grande, acquiring its name from the shape of the tamarind fruit pod. It costs even more than the grande, and is the most prized of stuffing peppers. When you see a chipotle labeled jalapeño chico, it is a jalapeño that was smoked while it was immature and still green. Every now and then you might find chipotles capones (“castrated chipotles”), referring to a smoked red jalapeño without seeds, which tend to be much milder. In the market you’ll find chipotles as whole chiles, as powdered chile, and canned (packed in adobo sauce). Chipotles are principally grown and smoked in Véracruz, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, South Texas, and Southern New Mexico.

La Morena Chipotles en Adobo (from

Americans are most familiar with the canned variety, packed in adobo sauce. Adobo sauce originated in Spain as a marinade or food preservative, and was widely adopted by all of the areas visited by the Spanish explorers. The adobo sauce used with canned chipotles is technically a marinade, in this case, usually made of tomato, powdered dried ancho or guajillo chiles or paprika, brown sugar, salt, onions, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, and oregano. Some brands and home cooks add a small amount of sesame oil. La Morena brand has the most intense chipotle flavor and the best flavored adobo sauce, with accents of rich tomato, garlic, dried chile, and a touch of sesame. San Marcos is the brand known best in Austin stores, and probably next best of the many brands offered, including La Costeña, Goya, Herdez, Embassa, El Mexicano, La Victoria, Roland, etc. San Marcos (and other brands) also makes a canned chipotle sauce that is basically pureed chipotles en adobo, which is easy to use straight from the can. Canned chipotles are often of the morita type, because the smaller size is easier to fit whole into the small cans. In Central Mexico, when chipotles are preserved in a sweet-tart brown sugar and vinegar marinade, they are called chipocludo. Chipotles canned in a seasoned sauce are called chipotles adobado, or en adobo. Chipotles are typically used in salsas, queso, soups and stews, chile con carne (chili), cooked sauces, pickled vegetable mixes, salads, scrambled eggs or chilaquiles, stuffed and baked, added to cake or brownies, etc.

Chimayó New Mexico Red Chile Powder

Sun dried Chimayó chile powder, left, and machine dried right, from

Any of the New Mexico green chile varieties listed in the fresh chile list above can be left on the plant to ripen to deep crimson, to then be sun or oven dried, and then sold whole or powdered. The ratio of mild to hot chiles included in the grind determines the final heat level of a powder (there are New Mexico chile varieties that go all the way up to 70,000 Scoville Units), so the heat of a red chile powder can be very pronounced. New Mexico chiles are grown outside of New Mexico in Chihuahua and other northern Mexico states, with some specialty crops grown in the Rio Grande Valley. It is 5 ½ to 8 inches long by 1 ½ to 2 inches wide, and a deep red, glossy, thick-fleshed pod that can be straight or curved. The flavor is unique from other red chiles, with an earthy, rich, sweet, mild to spicy flavor and a hint of smoke. Of the red chile varieties available, Sandia is probably the most common. Chimayó is considered the best, however.

New Mexico red chiles drying in the traditional ristra form (from

The Chimayó chile and the village of the same name just north of Santa Fe, takes its moniker from the Tewa Indian word for “flaking red stone”. This red chile has been in New Mexico so long that most consider it an indigenous native, but the backstory insists that colonial entrepreneur Don Juan de Oñate brought this special heirloom variety to Chimayó from Mexico in 1598 when he settled the area with a land grant from the King of Spain. Chimayó chiles are known for their unique, rich, earthy flavor with a hint of complex sweet smokiness and a medium piquancy. The plant is a smaller fruited, fast maturing variety, adapted to the chilly nights and early freezes of the area’s valleys. Although most people are familiar with the deep-crimson ripe chiles, they are also eaten green, but difficult to roast and peel because of their twisted shape and thin skin. When the ripe chiles are picked, they are strung on ristras to hang outside to dry in crisp fall sun and the arid breezes. It is said that if a ristra is the height of the person stringing it, it should be able to provide enough red chile for the coming year (assuming the chiles are tightly-packed). Sun dried chile powder is more of an orange color, but the flavor is the most authentic. Oven dried chile is darker red, caused by the roasting process. Chimayó powder is considered one of the best in the Southwest and the supply is limited, so prices tend to be quite high. With increased demand, more farmers are planting the Chimayó heirloom seeds to increase production, but it’s best to purchase Chimayó chile powder from a reliable, local source that guarantees authenticity, such as El Portero Trading Post (AKA “The Vigil”), which is located in the small mountain valley hamlet of Chimayó, New Mexico.         

Chile Rojo · Chimayó New Mexico Red Chile Sauce
Yield about 3 cups

When your server asks the famous NewMex question: “Red or green?” this is the “red” in question. If you’ve ever been to New Mexico, you’ve seen the brilliant dark red chiles drying in the sun, hanging stringed together in what are called ristras. You’ve seen them in artwork and -on postcards, but it goes beyond aesthetics. This is how the chiles were hung and sun dried in the old days. Red chile is classified by heat level when you buy from a reliable source, determined by the chile variety, the conditions under which the chile was grown, and by how many of the seeds and ribs were left in when the dried chiles were ground into powder. Hatch chile gets all of the buzz these days, but when it comes to red chile, the red chile powder from chiles grown around Española and the little village of Chimayó are considered the very best and most desirable (both towns are about 30 miles north of Santa Fe).

3 Tablespoons lard, duck or chicken fat, or vegetable oil
½ large yellow onion, grated on a box grater
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 to 2 Tablespoons harina de maíz (dry corn tortilla mix), or AP flour, as required
2 ½ cups light chicken stock, heated
¼ cup Chimayó red chile powder, medium hot (or a little more, to taste)
¼ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
¼ teaspoon comino (optional)
1 teaspoon salt

1. Add the lard, fat, or oil to a medium saucepan over medium heat and heat until shimmering. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 45 seconds. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add flour and whisk until smoothly incorporated into the fat, cooking while whisking until the roux begins to turn a light tan. Whisk together the stock and the chile powder in a separate bowl until all lumps are eliminated. Slowly whisk that combined liquid into the roux, making sure no lumps form. Whisk in the oregano, cumin (if using), and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and slowly simmer for 30 minutes, while stirring periodically.

2. Taste and adjust seasonings to preference. Reserve for service, hot.

Mick Vann ©

Sap's on Burnet, A Cold Rainy Saturday After Xmas

Let me set the scene. It’s blustery and cold, misty, drizzly, and raw, and I had a big hankering for a spicy late Thai lunch with R, who was in town piddling around at the studio; something about cleaning and re-taping the mats, although I’m not sure what that really means. I was really wanting some khao soi, but we were both starving, so we needed a couple of more dishes. We went to Burnet, since I figured that Sap might be there, and I wanted to wish him a Happy Holidays, but unfortunately, he was at Westgate. I should have called first.

Mulberry paper umbrellas, from Bo Sang, just east of Chiang Mai....Sap's signature ceiling

I decided to start with Yum Green Bean with Tofu, S-S5.
Yum Tua Kieow is a variation of a famous Thai salad which uses a vegetable called winged beans (tua puu or Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), a tropical green bean pod native to New Guinea, with four winged edges and a taste like a sweet, chewy green bean. In cross section they resemble a frilled, green I-beam. The beauty of the winged bean is that all parts of the plant are edible: tubers, stems, leaves, flowers, beans, and seeds, and why it isn’t grown and sold here remains a horticultural mystery. Since winged beans are difficult to locate on a consistent basis, green beans or long beans are often substituted to make this salad here in the States. In Thailand winged beans are sliced very thinly, while, to make the salad over here, green beans or long beans are lightly blanched and cut into bite sized pieces. The salad plate always has thin slices of hardboiled egg arranged around the sides, and is usually made with shrimp, shredded chicken meat, or fried tofu tossed with the beans. The shrimp or chicken is lightly simmered with lemongrass, lime, and honey, while the wonderfully balanced dressing is made from tamarind, palm sugar, roasted shredded coconut meat, fish sauce, peanuts, and a bit of roasted chile paste. We ordered it with tofu, which meant that the cubes of fried tofu were braised in the dressing, intensely flavoring what can be a bland protein. The dish is garnished with coconut cream, fried shallot, toasted coconut, and whole fried red chiles. If you have never had this dish, it should definitely be on your short list of Thai salads to eat, because it is fantastic. It is crunchy, rich, sweet, tart, and spicy. R had never eaten it before, and it’s now her new favorite.

Sap's Green Bean Salad with Tofu

Winged bean salad (center), at a great little riverside cafe in Bangkok, across from Wat Arun

Actual winged beans, whole and cross section, image from the catalog of

The one dish that I knew I wanted when I came in through the door was Kao Soi with Chicken, S-P15. Khao soi is one of those dishes that you fall in love with the first time you try it. The history is long and involved, but at the heart of it, khao soi is a dish that is uniquely Thai, born from several imports and morphed by Thai cooks into a soup noodle mutant infinitely better than any of its parents. It started up in Northern Thailand, and spread nationwide (although the experts insist that any version not made in Chiang Mai is at best, an inferior poser). They have not ordered khao soi at Sap's.

The dish was introduced by ‘Cin-Haw' (Chin-Haw) Muslim traders from Yunnan. Han Chinese called the Cin-Haw ‘Hui' to distinguish them from non-Muslim Chinese; ‘Cin Haw' are the Thai words for ‘Chinese Hui'. The Cin were originally descendants of Uzbek warriors who were brought by the Mongols into China to help with the conquest of Yunnan province. They were known as consummate traders, who for hundreds of years regularly plied their heavily armed mule caravans over the trade routes from Southern China into Laos, Northern Thailand, and, eventually Burma. The Cin-Haw population in Northern Thailand and Burma further increased after the failed Panthay Rebellion - an uprising against the Yunanese Qing Dynasty, which caused refugees to flee Yunnan.
Several factors reinforce this Cin-Haw likelihood. There is a somewhat similar dish eaten in Burma, known there as ohn no khauk-hswe (khauk-hswe, which is phonetically pronounced similar to khao soi, and simply means ‘noodles' in Burmese). This may account for the adopted name of the dish in Thailand. The Burmese dish is similarly spiced, and uses coconut milk in the broth (an unusual trait for Burma), but is thickened with chickpea flour, a decidedly Indian cooking method.

Another vaguely similar version exists in Malaysia and extreme Southern Thailand, known as nonya laksa lemak, a coconut milk and seafood broth with egg noodles, served with prawns, a garnish of thinly sliced egg omelet, scallion, and ginger (lemak refers to the presence of coconut milk). The dish is thought to have been introduced in the South by Haw Sino-Muslim traders or refugees, who later interacted with the Nonya (ethnic Chinese who resettled and intermarried into Malaysia and Singapore culture).

Sap's khao soi with chicken

Perhaps the best evidence of the origin of khao soi come from the statements of the founder of Chiang Mai's famous Lamduan Faham Khao Soi , which has been serving the dish on Faham Road for more than 60 years (Faham is known as “Khao Soi Road”). The founder, who is now in her advanced years, says that she was taught the recipe by some Haw Chinese Muslim immigrants who relocated during the war, first to the area near the town of Fang, and then to Chiang Mai, “It was the Haw Chinese that showed me how to make the distinctive yellow noodles, as well as the soup.” Lamduan altered that original recipe so that it would appeal more to the Thai palette, but the dish was eaten for many years before that, all over the North. It is important to note that the dish was originally cooked only with chicken or beef, never with pork, which also reinforces the Muslim origins. Today, some non-Muslim Thais offer the soup made with pork, but this is an anomaly which is not typical.

Khao soi is sold up north in noodle shops that specialize in the dish, and traditionally they were open from morning to the early afternoon only. The shops are usually unassuming affairs, with modest signage. It's a word of mouth type of dish, and insider information is key to finding the best versions. One of the pleasures of khao soi is that no two noodle shops or vendors will serve exactly the same dish. Every cook has their own subtle variation, and every khao soi aficionado has their favorite venue for dining on the luscious noodle soup. Arguments over who serves the best version can get heated, and everyone has a personal opinion. 

Khao soi shops will often also serve chicken, beef, or pork satay (pork only if they are non-Muslim), skewers of spice and coconut milk-marinated meats, grilled over coals, and served with toasted white bread, and a peanut curry sauce and a sweet-sour relish of shallot, cucumber, and chiles. In the rest of the country, specialty khao soi shops and vendors exist, but the popularity of the dish causes it to be included on many standard noodle restaurant menus.

 Lam Duan Fah Ham khao soi, from The Bangkok Post

When a bowl of khao soi is placed in front of you, your senses take over. It's a work of culinary art. Visually you'll see a reddish-orange colored liquid topped with golden-yellow fried noodles, garnished with pinkish-red shallots, with green pickled Chinese mustard and deep red chile. It's fragrant with the aromas of combined Thai and Indian spices, coconut milk, chicken broth, citrusy lime, and smoky chile. The taste is ambrosial: rich, spicy, sweet, salty, and sour, all at once, all with perfect harmony in a thickened broth.

Our favorite version, like the one served at Sap’s, is made with a base of rich chicken stock, to which thick coconut milk is added. You can get it with either chicken meat or stewed beef meat, although these days, pork is also offered. The spices are a blend of a paste made from garlic, shallot, galangal, lemongrass, makroot zest and fruit pulp, with a small amount of shrimp paste and palm sugar. To this paste are added bay leaf, curry powder, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and turmeric. Lo mein-style fresh dan mien Chinese egg noodles, which are flat and about ¼ inch wide (a little more narrow than a fettuccine), are added to the liquid. These same noodles are also deep fried until golden and crispy, and placed on the top to provide a textural accent. Before indulging in Thailand, you must garnish the bowl with the accompanying sliced shallot or red onion, slices of sour and salty pickled mustard, a vigorous squeeze of tart lime, and a spoonful of the smoky chile sauce made from roasted red Thai chiles. Sap's version garnishes with fresh, crisp mung bean sprouts, and places the pickled Chinese mustard in the bottom of the bowl; an addition that we like.

A bowl of excellent khao soi is hard to beat, a synchronous blending of Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavors, in a rich and sensual broth, with complex layered flavor and interesting texture. It is truly perfection in a bowl, ideal for sultry or cool weather, and uniquely Thai in flavor profile.

Sap's Special Masaman Curry with VERY tender beef

The main attraction of the meal was S-P50, or Sap’s Special Masaman Curry with Beef. Depending on who you believe, massaman (or mussaman) curry originated in the 1600s in the court of Ayutthaya, with the original curry developing from a Thai adaptation of a dish introduced by Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi. Another theory has the dish being introduced into Southern Thailand from Malaysia, by way of India, and that its name derives from the Malay word masam, which means “sour” (although the dish in its present manifestation is not a sour curry by any stretch of the imagination). There is little doubt that the dish was Muslim in origin, and the ingredients that form the curry paste are not typical Thai curry spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, cumin, bay, nutmeg, and mace. These spices were brought to the Malay Peninsula by Muslim traders from the Middle East, India, and the Indonesian archipelago. Later on, Dutch, Portuguese, and French East Indian traders imported the spices. The Thais combined the spices with dried chile peppers, white peppercorns, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, and sometimes turmeric to develop the flavors of the curry paste. This paste gets fried with the separated oil from coconut cream until fragrant, and then the meat is added. Thais typically cook the dish with beef, since pork is forbidden (haram) for Muslims. It can also be made with chicken, duck, mutton, or goat. Once the meat has braised with the paste to develop flavor, potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar, coconut milk, and peanuts (or cashews) are added. It is a dish eaten with rice or with roti (a crepe-like South Asian flatbread made from wheat flour), and a bowl of massaman tastes best eaten the next day, once the potatoes have absorbed the flavors of the curry.

Sap's Special Massaman Curry is made with slowly braised chuck steak that's so tender that it melts in your mouth (I cut mine with my spoon), and instead of using white potatoes, he substitutes Yukon Gold potatoes. The overall flavor is sweet and tangy, with many complex layers of spice and an assertively piquant background, and whole roasted peanuts providing a pleasant crunchy texture and nutty taste. Sap's Special massman has deeper flavor than most of the typical versions, and is flat-out delicious. Highly recommended. 

Sweet Hot Bamboo Shoots with Egg


We wanted a crunchy vegetable and R had never had the Sweet Hot Bamboo Shoots with Egg, Palm Sugar, and Jalapeño, S-P33. IT’s a simple dish of stir-fried bamboo shoot strips with beaten egg, garlic, a soy-based mother sauce, brown sugar, and jalapeño slices. It’s crunchy from the shoots and chile slices, rich and sweet from the egg and sugar, salty from the soy, and spicy from the jalapeño. It complements the other dishes well, and provides a savory-sweet finish to the meal. Once again, another ass-kickingly great meal from Sap’s, and whether we eat it north, on Burnet, or south, on Westgate, it all tastes just as good.

Mick Vann ©

Lam Duan Fah Ham
Soi 58, Thanon Vibhavadi Rangsit
Chiang Mai, TH
8:30-3 daily, closed last Sunday of the month