Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Après Film Pho Dan

My bowl of # 42 A bun

This meal involves another après film dining session, and for the life of me, I cannot remember which film R and I went to see. I do remember liking it. The film really doesn’t matter, as this blog is about the food and the what-not. We went by Tâm Deli, and for some reason, they were closed (see previous GUSTIDUDE entry for the Tâm Deli report). So, not that far 
down the road to the north is Pho Dan, and we were already in a Vietnamese frame of mind, so north we went. Pho Dan is one of my go-to spots for pho, since they have good broth and lots of options. It sits in the strip center on the southwest corner of North Lamar and Braker Lane. That intersection, and general area, is a good food oasis of sorts, since Peace Deli and Bakery and Rice Bowl Café are in the same strip center, and Balkan Café and Grill and Santorini Café are a quarter mile up North Lamar to the north. Taquito Aviles is directly across North Lamar to the east, and a block south, at Kramer Lane, is MT Market, with TC Noodles (Teochew style Chinese), Duy Vietnamese, First Chinese BBQ, and New Fortune Chinese (seafood). Some folks love Lily’s Sandwich and Baguette House in the same shopping center for their bahn mi, but I prefer Tâm Deli, further south. You will not want for a good plate of food in the general area.

Sauces and accoutrement

I think the bozos who bitch online about service at Pho Dan are off-base. It is a simple restaurant, geared more towards turning tables while providing good food. The interior is stark and modern; not a spot designed for you to linger. Admittedly, service there is rudimentary at best, but relatively efficient. It involves a waitperson coming by to take your order, delivering your drinks, and someone dropping off your food when it’s cooked, and not necessarily the same person you’ve been dealing with already. You get up and pay at the register when you’re through. The odd part is that you don’t see your bill until you get up to the counter. That service model doesn’t bother me in the least, though I would expect a tab to be dropped of at the table, so that I can review it before arriving at the register. 

Small # 27, with egg noodles

Allow me a small rant. I’d like it even better if I could write my own order ticket, or enter my order code into a computer tablet, get my own drink from a beverage kiosk, and pick up my order from a counter when my number is called. I go to restaurants to eat and enjoy the companionship of my fellow diners, not interact socially with servers. I like my server to zip in and out, delivering what I need unobtrusively. Anticipate my needs, don’t screw up my order, give me a spoon with my set-up, lobby with the kitchen on my behalf if they are in the weeds and the food’s coming out slowly, give me a ticket when I’m ready to go, and we will all be happy when I leave. I reward a server who accomplishes that relatively simple goal handsomely for their attention. 

Side of meatballs, and the broth from the #24, option 31...

As for the meal, R and I started with A2A, fresh spring rolls with shrimp, and A7, fresh spring rolls with charbroiled beef. The rolls are plump and fresh, with a nice ratio of noodles to vegetable and filling, and served with a full bodied hoisin-peanut dipping sauce. The fried Vietnamese spring rolls (A1) were fine. Wrapped in lettuce and dipped in the nuoc cham sauce, they were a crispy counterpoint to the fresh spring rolls. If I had any complaint, it would be that the pork in the fried roll is ground too finely for my taste, but I quibble.

Fried spring rolls, and grilled lemongrass spring roll, and shrimp spring roll....

The whole trick with a bowl of pho (and it is pronounced “fuh”) is the richness and depth of the broth, and the kitchen at Pho Dan obviously takes care in producing theirs. Both the chicken and the meat broth are first rate. We ordered a # 24 soup with rice noodle, “dry”, meaning the broth is delivered on the side (known as the mysterious “option 31”). It comes with grilled pork and shrimp, and roast chicken, and a small bowl of rich chicken stock on the side, perfumed with scallion. We ate that as a bowl of noodles, like a bun, while I hogged the broth. We also got a small # 27, with egg noodles, chicken, pork, and shrimp. The pho is available in three different sizes, so you can tailor your meal to fit your appetite. We also got an order of meatballs in broth on the side. I really like their meatballs. They have that hand-pounded, dense texture that is the hallmark of a proper Southeast Asian meatball. I also ordered a #42 A, a big bowl of bun (pronounced “boone”), with rice noodles, topped with glazed grilled pork and fried eggroll, to eat later on that evening. The bowl has a nice layer of lettuce and cucumber as the basement for the rice noodles, and the glazed grilled pork and the eggroll on top are quite tasty. 

Small # 24, "dry"

It wasn’t Tâm Deli, but it sure works in a pinch when you’re hungry for Vietnamese food, and I really enjoyed that order of bun later on, curled up with some HBO. Apparently, Pho Dan has recently expanded, with a new location in Round Rock. My guess is that their new location is just as popular as the first one. Maybe now that they have two locations, they can spring for the cost of a website, and post their menu online. There’s just no excuse for a restaurant these days to keep their potential customers in the dark when it comes to their menu, their hours, or any other pertinent information a diner might want to know.

Mick Vann ©

11220 N. Lamar Ste. B-11, at Braker; 512-837-7800

2711 La Frontera Blvd, at 45, Round Rock; 512-527-3699

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Complete Chinese New Year's Primer

this article first appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Feb 12, 1999.

Happy Year of the Fire Monkey, yr 4713!

Gung Hey Fat-Choy!: "Best Wishes for Great Wealth and Prosperity"

Anyone who has been in Austin and read the Chronicle for any length of time remembers the spectacular annual Chinese Lunar New Year covers that used to surface every spring. The covers were a complete series of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, drawn by internationally famous tattoo artist Rollo Banks. For 12 years, the Chronicle ran one to coincide with the arrival of each Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. Few Westerners understand the origin or significance of the occasion or the festivities and foods which accompany it. Hunker down with me here, open your mind to a wonder-filled blend of folklore, mythology, and contemporary practice, and prepare to learn its significance.

The Origin

The Chinese word Nian in modern Chinese language means “year,” but more importantly, it was the moniker of a horrible dragon-beast that terrorized and ate the people and domestic animals of ancient China every evening before the arrival of a New Year. Nian had a cavernous mouth and could swallow hordes of people and animals in one gulp. As you can imagine, this put a real damper on celebrating New Year's Eve and made it difficult for society to flourish, what with the annual reduction in demographics and all.

This yearly slaughter went on for generations until a mysterious and wise old man came along, offering to figure out a way to subdue Nian and free the populace from its horror. Just before the annual onslaught, the old man met with Nian and tricked him into realizing that the humans weren't a worthy opponent for a beast as powerful as it. Instead, it would find much more worthy opponents in the many beasts of the forest that plagued the humans and their herds on a daily basis. Nian realized the folly of his ways, and the other beasts, now too afraid to attack the humans, stayed hidden in the forests. This allowed the populace to flourish and prosper, and begin to live peaceful, productive lives.

Before the old man rode off on Nian's back to become a deity, he told the people to put up red (because Nian is deathly afraid of the color red) paper decorations on their windows and doors and to shoot off fireworks at each year's end to prevent Nian from reverting to his old ways.
The tradition of observing the tricking and conquest of Nian continues, carried on from generation to generation. Guo Nian today means “to celebrate the New Year,” Guo translating as “pass over” and “observe.” Using red paper decorations and blasting fireworks (the origin of our practice here in the States) still lives on today to scare off Nian, should he have a relapse and decide to feast on people again.

The Calendar and the Placemat

Most of us are familiar with the placemats in Chinese restaurants; you look at them, figure out which is your sign based on the year of your birth, and read the horoscope-like information. While waiting for your order to arrive, you nonchalantly ask your date, mate, or friends what their sign is to secretly assess whether you're compatible. But the placemats only hint at the complexity of the Chinese calendar, which is used to determine the ever-changing date of the New Year.

The Chinese Lunar-Solar calendar, which was adopted in 2,698 BC (by Western reckoning) is based first on a 60-year cycle with names like Tian Gian or “Heavenly Branch.” Within this 60-year structure is the 12-Year Cycle, the familiar animals of the Chinese Zodiac, which are half domestic and half wild to reflect the balance of yin and yang. On top of this, you add the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in 1912, and the “24 Terms,” which reflect the changes in nature through the year, and you end up with a wacky lunar-solar calendar system with 12 months (half with 30 days, half with 29). To make it correspond to the movements around the sun, a 13th month is added every two to three years. This is why, when I asked a Chinese student on campus what the date for the New Year was, it took him about five minutes on a calculator to figure it out.

Just remember that the New Year begins on a new moon somewhere between January 1 and February 19 inclusively (most often in the first week of February), and that the celebration lasts intensively for two to three days, and casually for 10 days to two weeks, ending with the Lantern festival. (Note to Capricorns and Aquarians: You should check carefully when the New Year began on the year you were born. Doing so taught me that I am a Tiger and not a Rabbit, as I had thought for the past 30 years or so, which actually makes more sense.

For more info on the Chinese zodiac:


Preparations for New Year's

A flurry of activity takes place to prepare for the New Year's festivities. Old debts and grudges are dispensed with, so that no bad karma which would set the tone for the coming year or unduly influence the gods on their visit is carried over. The family cleans the house thoroughly from top to bottom, so that no evil or bad will is left inside (possibly the origin of our spring cleaning). The house cannot be cleaned or swept for two days after New Year's or you risk sweeping out any new good luck that has accumulated. New clothes are purchased if the budget allows, and any necessary sewing is taken care of.

New wallpaper is popular, as is repainting the window and door frames (in red, of course, to ward off Nian). Windows and doors are decorated with ornate paper cutouts and poems with the themes of happiness, wealth, longevity, and happiness in marriage with many male children. The rice pot is emblazoned with a banner reading “Ever Full!”

This can be a stressful time for workers, because an employer shouldn't carry over any employee who is undesirable -- it's considered bad luck. So the owners of businesses often have their own versions of a pre-New Year's banquet, with chicken always featured. A big sigh of relief courses through the group when the owner takes the first piece of chicken. A chicken leg offered to an employee (called “unimpassioned chicken”) means the person has been given his walking papers and must be gone by New Year's.

The Money Tree, or Yao-Ch'ien-shu, has to be set up. This is a pine or cypress branch, threaded through a dried persimmon and placed in a pot filled with rice (the original Christmas tree). Branches are decorated with gold and silver foil, representing ingots. Garlands of seeds, nuts, paper cranes, and paper persimmon flowers are wrapped around the branches. Instead of an angel, the tree is crowned with a likeness of the benevolent genie, Liu-Hai, with five gold coins floating over his head. The tree is left up until the 16th day of the New Year, when it is taken outside and burned.

Many Chinese keep a picture of Tsao-Wang, the god of the hearth and kitchen, above their stove and pay homage to him throughout the year with small offerings. Just as every Western family has its own Santa Claus, each Chinese family has its own Tsao-Wang. It is his duty to keep track of the family's deeds and report them annually on his trip up to “the August Personage of Jade,” or Yu-Ti, the chief cook and bottlewasher. Yu-Ti is the one who assigns quotas of happiness or misfortune to every household in China. Tsao-Wang is his spy, who departs on the 23rd of the last month to fly up to the Jade Temple to make his yearly report on the family. For this reason, sweets are smeared over the mouth of the picture to sweeten his report. His old picture is then burned over pine twigs, a new picture is put up, and he returns on New Year's Day to begin the cycle anew.

The New Year's Eve Feast

On New Year's Eve, the entire family gets together for the most important feast of the year. The Chinese transit system is booked solid from everyone returning home -- much like our Thanksgiving or Christmas. Everything possible must be done to be home with the family on New Year's Eve. The banquet is the most elaborate possible or affordable, preceded by noshes of pickles, peanuts, and watermelon or pumpkin seeds. Next comes P'ing-P'an, a platter of artfully arranged vegetables and meats. This is followed by a series of stir-fried small dishes called Hsiao-tieh-ts-ai. Next comes the big guns: the main dishes, always in a lucky number: five, seven, or the luckiest, nine. The dishes are given auspicious names as a means to add to the festivities and celebration.

The foods themselves are selected mostly for their names as homonyms to prosperity, longevity, etc. Bak-choy sounds like the term for “great wealth,” so a dish with bokchoy would be included. Oysters are called Hao, which sounds like the word for “an auspicious occasion or event,” and Fu, as in tofu, sounds the same as “riches,” so a tofu dish is always present. Fish is always included, but this one gets a little weird. The Chinese word for fish is "Yu," which also means "surplus," something any family would want plenty of. The problem comes from eating your surplus, leaving the family with nothing. Often a spoiled fish is cooked in a spectacular fashion, as a showpiece only, not meant to be eaten. Sometimes a fish carved from wood is sauced to represent the fish course. Only if the host first breaks the fish into small pieces in front of them should guests ever eat the fish (or in the case of Yu Sheng -- Chinese New Year Salad -- where all the guests simultaneously toss the fish within the salad).

Certain dishes are always included in the mix. Dumplings signify a long-lost wish for a happy family (and many male children). Dried oysters are for “all things good.” Angel hair seaweed is for bringing prosperity, as is Yu Sheng Salad. Prawns are for liveliness and happiness. New Year or Pudding Cake is to ensure good luck with high hopes for the coming year. Sugar cane is often consumed after the meal while sitting around the fire. The leftover pulp is thrown on top of the coals to insulate them. The next morning, under the cane ash, finds Yuong-Huo-Chung, or “concealed fire starters,” glowing embers to start the New Year's Day fire with the lucky sign that the sweetness of the sugar cane would ensure sweetness and pleasure throughout the year.

The Eve

After the feast and knocking back libations of rice wine and beer (which might be accompanied by drinking games featuring construction of poems), the family sits around playing board games, telling jokes, and watching television. TV features nonstop programming devoted solely to events of the eve, with the Chinese version of Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest manning the helm for the countdown.

The windows are all thrown open to release bad spirits and allow good ones easy access. Lights are left on to light the way for deities of prosperity. As happens here, at midnight the sky explodes with millions of firecrackers and constant barrages of fireworks. Don't forget that the Chinese invented fireworks. This is just another cultural practice we “borrowed” from the Chinese. It's important to try to practice Shou-nien, or “guarding the year,” by staying up as late as possible, although the kids and old folks usually hit the bed shortly after the fireworks are spent.

The Day

Much like the Scots and Brits who practice the New Year's tradition of “first-stepping,” the Chinese feel that the first person one meets and the first words heard on the New Year will set the tone for the coming year. It is lucky to hear songbirds, especially ones colored red. The kids are up at the crack of dawn to receive their version of Christmas presents, "Hung Bao," or packets of money wrapped in red paper (Hung, or the color red, is a homonym for vast, liberal, or a flood -- as in “of money”). These are given to children as well as unmarried adults.

Sharp objects such as knives or scissors are hidden during the day and not used to prevent accidentally “cutting the thread of good fortune.” No sewing is allowed because you might prick a finger or draw blood, which would cause similar mishaps all year long. Little food preparation is done to avoid the use of knives. Most food for New Year's Day is prepped beforehand and simply reheated.

The family then goes door-to-door, first to relative's homes, then to homes of friends and neighbors, bearing best wishes and gifts of food and drink. Any disagreements are dispelled as quietly as possible. The colors white and black are never worn, as they are colors of mourning. Undertakers hide in their homes so that they don't bring bad luck to anyone.

The Dragon Parade

Most of us are familiar with the Dragon Parade. It is a huge event in cities with large Asian populations, such as San Francisco, New York, and Houston. In China, the parade is always held at noon on New Year's Day because the country is basically shut down, except for movie theatres. In the U.S., the parade is commonly held the first weekend closest to New Year's Day.

The Dragon is a three-dimensional papier-mâché rendition of Nian: large-headed, and followed by a long train of silken body held aloft by dancers -- 60 is the common number used in China. The Dragon undulates and darts about with much head shaking and posturing. He is accompanied by two lions, which are usually smaller. They are the two lions who are the keepers of the door to the Jade Palace. It's considered very lucky for the Dragon to bow in front of your business, your home, or you personally.

As the Dragon and the Lions do symbolic battle, millions of firecrackers go off, drums are pounded, and cymbals are clanged; it's a very noisy and celebratory affair. The procession is attended by Banner Bearers, small characters who taunt the Lions and Dragon, the musicians, and onlookers. Stilt-walkers, clowns, neighborhood drum and bugle corps, and musical groups add to the mayhem and merriment.

The Dragon dances from business to business, enticing the proprietors to come out and offer Hung Bao, the dancer's payment for their performance. Periodically the Dragon stops in front of a business to “eat.” He munches heads of lettuce (Sheng-ts'ai, or “lettuce,” is a homonym for the verb “to bring about wealth and riches”), which contain packets of money. They are suspended on long poles over the doorways in such a way as to make them very difficult to reach, and the crowd has a hoot watching the dancers try to reach the heads of lettuce. The more athletic and resourceful the dancers are, the more frenzied the crowd gets. The celebrations slowly wind down over the next week or so until the Lantern Festival, which is the denouement to the Spring Festival.

If you thought you were a little superstitious, rest easy knowing that you've got nothing on the Chinese. And, while I suppose it is possible that all the fireworks, spring cleaning, good luck food, Christmas tree, and first-stepping stuff developed spontaneously and independently all over the world, common sense would dictate that we have the Chinese to thank, and thank them we should.

Yu Sheng -- Chinese New Year Salad            serves 4-6

1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp five spice powder
Juice of one lemon

Half-pound of sushi-grade tuna, chilled till firm, sliced paper-thin, 2" long slices, against the grain
2 cups peeled, shredded daikon
2 cups peeled, shredded carrot
6 thin, quarter-sized slices ginger, shredded finely
1/3 cup sweet pickled ginger, finely shredded
1/4 cup pickled scallions, finely shredded
6 makroot (Thai lime) leaves, rib removed, finely shredded
2 large red jalapeños, seeded, finely shredded
1/2 bunch scallions, finely shredde
1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only
1/4 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, for garnish
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
1 lemon or lime, cut in half, seeded
Crisp-fried shrimp chips, for garnish

Marinate the fish slices by tossing. Place in the bottom of a large bowl or large platter. Put daikon and carrot shreds on opposite sides. Sprinkle everything else except garnish in bowl or platter. Squeeze lemon or lime juice over the top. Just before serving, have everyone toss the salad simultaneously with chopsticks. Taste, and adjust seasoning with sesame oil, lemon or lime, salt, juices from the pickled ginger, and scallion. Garnish with chips, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, February 5, 2016

Sap’s Mom’s Quick Sauce

Thai chiles, on their way to becoming Sap's sriracha sauce.....

I got a call from Sap Apisaksiri the other day, wanting to know if I knew of a good local source for sauce bottles. I touched base with J.P. Hayes, of Sgt. Peppers and Tears of Joy hot sauce fame, and got back to Sap with a source. While on the phone, Sap told me that I needed to drop by to sample some steaks he had bathing in his Tiger Cry marinade which he had come up with. We have been having an ongoing discussion about Thai chiles, and I had turned Sap on to some Thai chiles I had obtained from a seed source I have in Africa, specifically an authentic prik kee nuu, a Thai golden, and a Thai orange. The prik kee nuu is a little tiny chile whose name translates to “mouse dropping” or “mouse shit” chile, based on the size of the chile and its appearance when it is dried. The golden chile is shaped like a conventional Thai chile, except that it ripens to a chrome yellow. The orange chile gets a little larger and wider, ripening to a deep orange hue. I give chile seeds and plants to Sap, and then he provides the seed harvest to Chris Winslow at It’s About Thyme Nursery (see link), who is able to sow them and sell plants to select customers the following season, and also provide Sap with baby chile plants for his gardens. Those chiles end up in the dishes at Sap’s restaurants, and we all benefit. 

Sriraja Panich, the original sriracha sauce, from Si Racha, Thailand

All of this relates to my quest for more of the excellent yellow chile sriracha sauces I have tasted in the past. Sap made one of those sauces, and the other one I stumbled across on the shelf at the Asian market. I am of the school of thought that a genuine Thai sriracha sauce, made in Thailand from red, ripe Thai chiles, is far superior to the unrefined, Vietnamese Rooster Brand sauce, made in Southern California from red jalapeños. Give me a bottle of genuine Thai Sriraja Panich or Shark Brand any day (see my previous article, linked below). But even those pale in comparison to the exquisite flavor of a golden hued Thai sriracha sauce made from yellow Thai chilies. The flavor is incredible. It’s a shame the stuff is so hard to find, and maybe with some luck, Sap will be turning me on to another bottle in the near future. I hope he ends up bottling it commercially. 

Prime ribeye, tiger cry style, and pork loin gai yang

My UT work buddy, Shane, and I dropped by the Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine location at the southwest corner of Burnet Rd. and 2222 (or Northland Dr., or Allandale Road, or Koenig Lane, or whatever other name it goes by), to see what all this tiger cry hubbub was about, with these steaks that Sap had mentioned. We sat down and perused the menus, and then Sap popped by to let me know he was bringing a little steak for us to taste. He came back a little later with a platter holding a pile of Prime ribeye slices, which had been marinated for two days in tiger cry marinade. On the other side of the platter were slices of pork loin, which had been marinated in a gai yang marinade (gai yang is the traditional Northern Thai grilled chicken marinade). The two dipping sauces in the middle were tiger cry (roasted rice powder, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, lime leaf, fish sauce, soy, etc.) and Sap’s Mom’s quick dipping sauce of chopped Thai chiles with Maggi sauce and a little fish sauce.

The two meats just melted in your mouth, especially that prime ribeye. Soooo tender. The gai yang pork was perhaps even better than gai yang chicken, which I am a huge fan of. Both sauces were excellent, and although I really love tiger cry, his Mom’s Maggi-based quick sauce with fresh chiles may have been my favorite, especially on the ribeye. On the side was a bowl full of roasted yellow new potatoes and mushrooms, to go with the steak. They were perfectly caramelized, and absolutely delicious.  

Caramelized roasted spuds and mushrooms

We also had an order of S-F11, Guay Teaw Kua Moo, with pork and sen yai (wide) noodles. For all of you pad thai junkies that are afraid to order anything else on a Thai restaurant menu, I strongly urge you to get adventurous and branch out. It comes with a side salad and a great dressing, but the noodles are cooked with bean sprouts, beaten egg, fried garlic, pickled radish sprouts, and a soy based sauce. Fantastic, and one of my favorite noodle dishes. We split a bowl of Sap’s incredible Tom Kha soup, S-P11, with chicken. It is rich, thickened from coconut cream, and aromatic with galangal and makroot, spicy from the chiles, with just a kiss of tart from lime. This is an amazing version of tom kha. 

Guay teaw kua moo sen yai

Tom kha soup

We also split a bowl of Gaeng Prik with chicken. Gaeng prik is a thinner-style, soupy curry from Southern Thailand, spicy as hell, and cooked with lots of turmeric and no coconut milk. It’s perfect with some nutty brown jasmine rice. We had to waddle out of there, stuffed to the gills. But the pain from gluttony was worth every single bite. Damn fine meal!

Gaeng prik gai

Mick Vann ©

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Rancho Winslow New Year’s Day and the Quest for Pies

HEB pies....note the pen marks on cherry pie label

I wanted to get some pies for dessert from Texas Pie in Kyle, but they had closed down between Xmas and the day after New Year’s Day, as did Wimberley Pie Co, so I was forced to go to HEB. I wasn’t about to fight my way through traffic north to try to get to the Austin pie outlets. In retrospect it might have been easier, because I foolishly decided to go to the mega HEB in Kyle early on the morning of New Year’s Day, thinking I could beat the rush. The parking lot was a madhouse; perhaps as bad as I’ve ever seen it. I thought I’d make a quick exploratory probe into the fringes of the parking lot and see if I could easily find a parking spot. If I did, I’d stop, and if I couldn’t find one, I’d figure out another easy dessert option for Rancho Winslow. Amazingly, there was a parking place opening up just as I got to it. Even more incredible, no one was perched there, waiting for it, so I zipped right in. 

I exited my truck and hadn’t traveled five feet before some bedraggled, beat-down looking man heading away from the store locked eyes with me and said,” Don’t do it. You’ll really regret it if you do.”  A few feet further, and some lady with a cartful of goodies mumbled, “It’s bad. Really bad.” Everyone I saw going back towards their cars looked pissed, exhausted, totally freaked out, or all three. I got to the entrance, and if there hadn’t been a battle worn employee returning at that very moment, pushing a long row of carts from the parking lot, there would have been no carts available, where there are usually hundreds stacked up. None. I quickly snatched one, and knew that I only had to penetrate the store for a few dozen yards or so to get to the outskirts of the bakery and pieland to grab some pies, and could then make a tactical strike to the 20 Items or Less checkout lines with my three items. Easy in and out. Stealthy and fast.

Edam, fancypants crackers, artichoke dip

I grabbed three pies, pecan, peach, and cherry, and rolled with haste and singularity of purpose towards the east, cruising for the 20 Items or Less rows on the far end. I came upon lines backed up to the middle of the store at every register (and every single register was open). Keep in mind that this HEB at Kyle Crossing is the largest HEB in the entire state. The biggest in a big state full of big stores. I’ve never seen any grocery store this congested, or one this big. When I finally fought my way to the farthest end, cutting through an endless stream of register row queues, I was the tenth person in line. It was so crowded and frantic that there was a small herd of HEB management types anxiously taking digital pictures down the length of the checkout area. I don’t know if it was for posterity, to document a never-before-seen occurrence, or so they could do a post mortem, to try to figure out how to never let this happen again. 

Joolz, glazing the ham

Surprisingly, my line of less-than 20 items moved fairly quickly, and within 10 minutes or so, I was at the checkout counter. I put my three pies down, and as the gal is scanning them, she looks up and says, “You know this cherry pie is sugar-free, right? If it has red ink, it means that it’s sugar-free.” Well, of course I didn’t know. How would I, since there was no signage telling me that a label with red ink meant no sugar. And then, with a straight face and the complete disregard for logic and reality that only a teenaged, high school grocery checker can have, she asks me, “Do you wanna go back and get one with sugar?” I looked her square in the eye, and with as much incredulity in my voice as I could muster, said, “Uh, no.......It’ll be our little secret.”

When I got the pies to Rancho Winslow, we took a pen and marked through the no-sugar part on the label, so that Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham wouldn’t find out. He has a delicate sensibility for such a gluttonous eater.

Kale stuffed pastry doodads with dip

The Rancho Winslow group for New Year’s Day is normally much smaller than the Xmas or Thanksgiving crowds, and it’s all about establishing good luck for the coming year, based on something as simple as food consumption. There was a big chunk of Edam cheese, eaten with fancypants crackers and artichoke dip. The cheese is symbolic of gold. Princess Di had found these excellent frozen pastry straw doodads stuffed with kale (and maybe some cheese?), which came with a green chile ranch dressing dip. The things are addictively tasty. Hard to stop eating them, and the kale is symbolic of folding money, since it is green.

Boudin-stuffed chiles wrapped in bacon, broiled and sliced

Grover and Jill brought over some big jalapeños that had been stuffed with some of the Cajun Boudin sausage which they make at the butcher shop, and then the chiles were wrapped in bacon, before they got broiled in the oven. Dang, those little puppies were delicious. Rice, in the boudin sausage, is symbolic of prosperity, since it swells as it cooks. The chiles are green (money), and they get wrapped in bacon. Pork is considered lucky, since a pig always feeds facing or moving forward. 

Jill (L), Robert (C), and Princess Di (R)...
Contrary to appearance, Robert is not trying to stab Diane in the head

We baked a bone-in ham, with a glaze made from habanero jelly, garlic, brown sugar, mustard, and balsamic vinegar. Again, pork is considered lucky. With that bone inside, the meat cooked up moist and porkalicious. Excellent, really. Joolz made two pans of Mick’s Milehigh skillet cornbread, with corn, garlic, monty jack, and jalapenos. The yellow of the cornmeal, buttermilk, and corn kernels ae all symbolic of golden riches. I whipped up a pot of collards greens (green for cash folding money, and green for the color of spring). Di had cooked a pot of black eyed peas, which is the ultimate good luck food on New Year’s Day for Southerners.

Skillet cornbread

Collards  with bacon and balsamic

Back eyed peas!

The theory is that they swell as the cook, symbolic of abundance. They resemble little coins (frankly, that one has always seemed a stretch for me). But most importantly, when the Yankees came through and pillaged all of the food, they thought that black eyed peas were cattle feed (they are called cowpeas up North), and left them be. Those field peas kept quite a few Southerners from starving to death during and after the Civil War. The pies you know about already, and the tartness of the sugar free cherry pie was just the right amount of sweet. For grocery store pies, they were pretty dammed good. The wine selection was all bottles that we never cracked open for Xmas, and I brought back the bottle of bourbon to go with CBoy’s brewskis.

We all ate to the point of popping, knowing that CBoy, Princess Di, Robert, Joolz, Grover, Jill, and I were just about as filled up for good luck in the coming year as we could possibly be. The food has done all that it can do, and the rest is up to us. 

Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Spotlight on Tâm Deli Delights

the cast of Spotlight....

So a month ago or so, R and I went to see the film Spotlight. It was a plus for me, since not only was the film exceptionally good, and I spent some quality time with R, but the film also has Rachel McAdams starring in it, and I have a severe, puppy dog crush on Rachel McAdams. Before you criticize me for that, remember that R had her own movie eyecandy to appreciate: Mark Rufalo, Michael Keeton, Liev Schreiber, and a dozen more, so it all worked out for the best. Aside from the effects on me from Rachel’s presence, the film is very highly recommended.

Sticky rice with Chicken and Sausage

We passed on the usual garbage can full of stale popcorn from the snackbar, and opted instead for a post-film, early dinner, while we listened to our stomachs growl through the film. We wanted to wait until Ray opened at 5pm at Three Little Pigs, and had planned on having a few drinks at The Aristocrat before he started serving, but the bar didn’t unlock until 5pm either, and it was cold and too windy to hang for over an hour on the patio outback. It wasn’t a total loss, since we got to chat with Raymie for a bit, and I hadn’t seen him for a while. Let me just interject here that if you haven’t eaten at Three Little Pigs yet, you’re an Austin dining dumbass. So, after a Raymie visit, off to Tâm Deli we went.

Shrimp springroll with peanut sauce

Tâm Bui and I worked together at the UT Coop back in the early ‘70s. She and her sister Tran Ngoc own Tâm Deli (and Bakery), and quite often you’ll see Tran’s hubby, Nick, waiting on tables also. It’s a tight knit operation that’s been successful for decades, and it’s a big favorite of ours. On that exposed strip of North Lamar, the north wind was howling and cut right through you, so some hot soup was in order. But first we started with an appetizer of Sticky Rice with Roasted Chicken and Chinese Sausage, and we ended up fighting over every tiny little morsel.

Vietnamese salad with shrimp and pork

Next to arrive was the Vietnamese Salad with Shrimp and Pork. It is surrounded by a raft of airy shrimp crackers, and underneath is a delicious salad of just-poached shrimp and roast pork, with lettuce, cucumber, and julienned carrots, bathed in a rich nuoc cham dressing. That was competing with a pair of plump, overstuffed shrimp spring rolls, with a delicious peanut dipping sauce.

Rice paper dumplings with minced pork and cloud ear mushrooms, fried garlic on top

The next course was a big favorite of mine, rice paper dumplings stuffed with minced pork and cloud ear fungus, each one topped with a slice of pork roll pate. We literally grunted and groaned our way through the dish, appreciating every single nibble of the dish. It sounded like Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm scene at Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally. As good as those rice paper rolls were, the Grilled Lemongrass Beef Salad was even better. Each bite was loaded with big flavor. That is one hell of a good salad.

Grilled lemongrass beef salad

R got a cup of meatball soup, with unctuous beef meatballs swimming in a rich, aromatic chicken broth. I opted for a big bowl of the My Tho Rice Noodle Soup, loaded with shrimp, roasted pork, imitation, crab, and squid, sharing a lake of rich chicken broth with a nest of rice noodles. Steaming hot soup on a windy, coldass, winter day! Can’t beat it.  I had also foolishly ordered a grilled lemongrass bahn mi sandwich, and thankfully, it never made it onto the order ticket. Thankful, because I don’t think I would have been able to hold it, but regrettable because Tâm Deli makes the best bahn mi sandwiches in Austin.

Meatball soup

My Tho rice noodle soup

We did have just enough room for a pair of the exquisite cream puffs, and an order of sticky rice-wrapped banana with coconut sauce. Those disappeared as if we weren’t already stuffed to our gills, and then, a bit later, when I was paying out, I was further tempted by a box of their assorted cookies to-go. Hands-down, the absolute best almond cookie I have ever put in my mouth. So, to sum it up, a fantastic film that deserves every critic’s nod it has gotten (and with Rachel McAdams too!....see pic below), quality time spent with R, a chummy chit chat with old pal Raymie (and you should eat at Three Little Pigs, often....see weblink below), a stunningly delicious meal at Tâm Deli to top it all off, and some superb almond cookies to go with a shot of Angel’s Envy Bourbon later on. A very satisfying Sunday.

Banana left, coconut sauce middle, cream puffs right

Mick Vann ©






a parting shot of Rachel McAdams.......


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Yuletime Rancho Winslow 2015

Jeff "Saxman" Barnes (note festive HoHoHo tie!), as Il Medico della Peste

Once again, Xmas and Santy Claus made an appearance last December, and true to form, I was among those to celebrate at the festivities at Rancho Winslow. There was some early controversy when presents were opened. Jeffrey Barnes, brilliant sax man master of most musical instruments, had been given a Venetian Carnival mask (pictured), and apparently Santa Clause forgot to include the story behind the mask.

We got it narrowed down to a choice between two, from among the classic Venetian Commedia dell’arte masks. I leaned strongly towards the mask of Il Medico della Peste, the doctor of the Plague. The long nose allowed the doctor to stuff the mask’s proboscis full of dried flowers, spices, herbs, and camphor, so that the herbs would purify the air that had been tainted by the victims of the plague, thereby preventing the doctor from falling ill. The theory of the time was that the plague was caused by vapors and “bad air”, the miasmatic approach. This was pre-germ theory, and nobody knew about the fleas and the rats yet. Ironically, the heavy, ankle length robes work by the doctors were instrumental in keeping the plague-infected fleas from biting the doctors. The other school of thought, Jeff included, decided the mask was of Pantalone de’Bisognosi, also known as Il Magnifico, or Babilonio. Sure, Il Magnifico sounds great, but he is a quite wealthy, elderly merchant who is obsessed with greed. All he cares about is money. The mask did have the hook nose, but lacked the telltale protruding fuzzy eyebrows and the pointed goatee, and Jeff was definitely not wearing the merchant’s classic knee length red socks (pantaloni). I’m sticking with Il Medico, and the other folks are just plain wrong.

The crew was composed of Chris and Diane (The Martha of Manchaca), Grover and Jill, and their pal Jack the Jeweler (who was on his way to the Coast), Joolz, Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham, me, Jeffrey and his better half Gina, Granma Aveline and Granma Nancy, Sarah and The Kevin (and their nervous pup Piper), Havi and her rugrats Vi, Connor and Scarlet, Raheem, Marie, and brother Nabil.

We had quite a lineup of beverages, including Real Ale Hans Pils and Angel’s Envy Bourbon (both highly recommended, by the way),as well as a slew of wines, including Honoro Vera Garnacha 2014 (okay after it gets a breath), Borsao Red Campo de Borja 2014 (my inexpensive go-to red for all occasions), Castillo De Clavijo Rioja Crianza 2010 (nice), Borsao Tres Picos Campo de Borja, 2012 (excellent, and a fave of the group), Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2012 (another keeper), and a very pleasant Cottesbrook Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014. Havie brought (I think?) a Sledgehammer Cab Sauv 2013 and an Ancient Roots Dark Red 2013, both of which were tasty. Robert, crafty devil that he is, gave gift bottles of Champagne, knowing full well we would hang onto them for New Year’s Eve. There was PLENTY of wine.

For pre-dinner nosh there was a tray of crudité with a couple of delish dips: tzatziki and creamy avocado. Normally I’m repelled by raw green bell peppers, but these were from the garden, and sweet as candy. There was also a fresh fruit platter with ripe strawberries and blackberries, big fat, juicy grapes, and sweet aromatic apple and pineapple. There was also an assortment of cheeses and whole grain crackers. Plenty of noshes for a herd waiting on the big feed bag.

Hangar Steak, Sausage, Chicken


Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce with chipotle and gochujang

This meal was based on tender and smoky barbecue, and featured excellent brisket (actually, hangar steak) and sausage from Chris, and wonderful ribs and chicken from Grover. All, melt-in-your-mouth stuff. I made a very zippy Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce to go with, which featured mora chipotle powder and Korean gochujang fermented chile sauce. Thankfully the heat mellowed out a little before service.  Di had a big pot of luscious lima beans, cooked with carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and savory, the wonder herb for beans. She also had roasted a pile of sweet, tender Brussels sprouts glazed with orange balsamic vinegar, and made a batch of crispy cole slaw with a honey-ginger-lime dressing.

Di's Lima beans

Roasted Brussels

Wilted baby greens with garlic

Slaw with mint

I whipped up a pile of barely-wilted baby wonder greens (kale, collards, spinach, and chard) with olive oil, garlic, and a touch of chicken stock. I was forbidden from using bacon, due to some persnickety dietary demands from members of the group (who I could have sworn had no problem sucking down pork ribs with abandon). Havi brought a couple of pans of her famous baked white yams and sweet potatoes in coconut milk, which is always a hit. Granma Nancy oversaw production of her Pink Stuff, the rose-colored marshmallow and fruit concoction that’s a requisite offering every Christmas. I marinated some sweet onion slices to go with the fantastic pickles from Grover and Jill’s butcher shop. And Di had made zucchini bread and whole wheat rolls that just really balanced the meal nicely.

Yams and sweet taters with coconut milk

Pink stuff

Marinated sweet onions

The pickles

Raheem’s mom, Marie, brought some desserts. There were yummy coconut macaroons with a dark chocolate ganache drizzle, along with some tasty pumpkin pies and whipped cream. She made an excellent Portuguese Rice Pudding, and there was another cakelike dessert she made which was covered with chocolate that I have no idea about, since I never tasted it. It looked delectable, I was just too full.


Rice pudding, Pies, and Assorted noshes in background

The mystery cake

I managed to keep up with Robert on the number of plates consumed, everybody loved their gifts, the libations flowed freely, the dogs, horses, and cats all got along just fine, the rain held off and the fire in the patio chiminea didn’t go out, the new dishwasher worked flawlessly, and most importantly, everyone raved, and I do mean raved, about their food. It was a very raveable feast, enjoyed by a tight group of pals. Martha of Manchaca once more proved her superior entertaining skills. We are not worthy.

Mick "Full as a Tick" Vann ©