Tiki Memories

Posted on February 20, 2012. Filed under: booze, hodgepodge, travel | Tags: , , , , , , |

As Tiki Month draws to a close, it seems appropriate to pay homage to the great Tiki cocktail culture. I’m not a mixologist, so no recipes today; instead I’ll share a bit about my two happiest Tiki memories. It beats working on my thesis, right? (Note: I actually really love working on my thesis.)

My experience with Tiki bars goes back nearly as far as I’ve been (legally) visiting bars. Shortly after graduating UCSD, I moved home to San Francisco to attend a summer-long acting (ah…drinking) intensive. My classmates and I quickly discovered the Tonga Room in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. We learned that timeless Tiki classic had an amazing deal: a super cheap (I think it was $5) all-you-can-eat happy hour buffet. For super cheap young actors, this was a beacon of frugality in the sea of an expensive city. Plus, we were told the menu featured potent, easy to gulp tropical cocktails. And there were intermittent indoor rainstorms. If that’s not a way to draw a party-happy dude of 21 into Tiki drinking culture, I don’t know what is. For the next two years, I spent many happy happy hours at the Tonga Room. And many stupefied Muni rides home.

Years later, I moved to the heart of Tiki culture: Los Angeles. Don the Beachcomber, the first Tiki bar in the continental United States, opened there in 1933. Although there is a chain of knock-off Tiki bars with the same name, the original Don’s is long gone. Luckily for me, I lived an easy stumble from the greatest Tiki bar left in the city, Tiki Ti. The 12 seat bar is located in the nether-region between Los Feliz and Silverlake, right near the PBS studio. It’s tricked out in Tiki paraphernalia, and it’s smoke-filled; Tiki Ti is exempt from the longstanding CA indoor smoke ban because the only people who work there are the owners. Michael Buhen (and his sons) carry on the legacy of Ray Buhen, who opened the bar in 1961 after working for years as one of the original mixologists at Don the Beachcomber. (Read a bio of Ray Buhen.) The drink menu is as large as the bar is small–over 92 (mostly rum-based) tropical drinks. If you’re overwhelmed, ask someone behind the bar; if you’re especially adventurous, ask a regular. Just remember, these drinks are terrifically potent. Pace yourself. Or don’t. Arrive early and be prepared to wait in line. Unlike the silly boom-boom-pow clubs a mile down the road in Hollywood, this place is worth the wait. Really.

So there you go. My little homage to Tiki. Want to hear more thoughts on drinking? Read my column in Pittsburgh City Paper and follow me on Twitter @ThisMansKitchen.

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Chevy Sonic Sweets Tour

Posted on December 5, 2011. Filed under: community, dessert, hodgepodge, travel | Tags: , , , , , |

My friends at Driving the Northeast invited me to another “Drive a Chevy and Eat Some Free Food” event. This time, they were promoting the Chevy Sonic and treating us to sweets. The premise: we drive the Sonics to Sugar Cafe, Dozen Bakeshop, and Gluuteny. Then, we write about the good times we had with General Motors.

I didn’t drive a Sonic. Instead, I was able to drive a Volt. It was sitting there, looking like it was going to remain in the parking lot where we met to start the tour, so…me being me, I asked if I could drive it. They said I could. Wicked. I’m a big fan of innovation, and a hybrid gas/electric vehicle represents a big leap forward in transportation sustainability. They did a pretty terrific job with this car; aside from how quiet it is, you’d never know it was running on electricity. The Chevy Volt is no golf cart, either–it actually drives like a real car. This is important to me–I believe the path forward to convincing people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle isn’t about telling people “NO! Bad things! Do without,” but rather “Good! Yes! You see how this is better than the unsustainable thing you’re doing because it’s the thing you’re used to doing?”  If I had a parking spot with an electrical outlet and $41,000 to spare, I’d be all over one of these cars. Well done, American Auto Industry! Enough about cars.

The first stop of the tour was Sugar Cafe. It’s located in Dormont, an up-and-coming Pittsburgh community. My friend Cory takes people on food tours there–you should go on one. But if you’re just interested in a tasty snack, you can’t go wrong with Sugar Cafe. They serve a selection of sandwiches, La Prima coffee, and of course there are many many sweets. The lemon pound-cake was the highlight of our sampling; it’s tart and buttery, with just enough sugar to feel like you’re having a treat. The vanilla macaron was a delight, too; crisp and chewy, resting on a bed of homemade raspberry jam. Sadly, the Irish Car Bomb cupcakes were less successful–perhaps I was biased though, as I’d just written a piece on Cocktail Cupcakes a few days prior to the tour. My standards were high.

Thanks for the easy segue, Hal. No problem, Hal.

I’d written the Cocktail Cupcake article on Dozen Bakeshop, which happened to be the second stop of the tour. We were treated to pumpkin gobs (delicious!), apple-cinnamon pop tarts (you’ll never eat a processed pop tart again after having one of these), an assortment of mini-cupcakes (buttercream frosting happy happy), and a cleverly designed push-up cupcake pop (clearly intended for small children, but the frosting had way too much bright food coloring and it creeped me out). I’m really happy Dozen is starting to find its way again. It closed abruptly last summer, shocking many people in both Lawrenceville and the rest of the city. Although the cupcakes were often dry (they’ve improved quite a bit under new head baker Lindsay Headley), their presence in the community was missed during the time they shuttered the store. It’s a wonderful place to sit with a cup of coffee and pastry, especially on a winter afternoon. Glad you’re back, Dozen.

The final stop on the tour was Gluuteny, a gluten-free and caesin-free bakeshop. I want to like this place. I really do. I feel horrible for people who have a gluten intolerance (an actual one, not one that was diagnosed by a lazy doctor following a health scare trend). No bread? No cake? No PIZZA?!?! This is a terrible thing. So when a company decides to try to add bread-like food back into people’s lives, I hope for the best. And, for being gluten-free, this is damn good stuff. But it’s never going to be able to replace a cake made with wheat flour. Sorry.

I must confess: I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I’d much rather have a slice of pizza pie than a slice of chocolate pie (and I would indeed have pizza for dessert). Still, sugar shock aside, it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

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Helping Out

Posted on July 18, 2011. Filed under: favorite, hodgepodge, travel | Tags: , , , , , |

A farm is alive. The land and the animals still need attention even if the people that are supposed to attend to it are missing. An entire growing season, a livelihood, can be ruined because of unexpected circumstances. But things can be saved when a community comes together to lend a hand.

The farm is about two hours from Pittsburgh. It’s on a beautiful piece of land in a beautiful piece of the country. There are chickens and goats and dogs roaming land speckled with bundles of hay and rows of corn. It’s the very picture that the massive monoculture agrofarms want to you to think about when you think of farmland, except in this case it’s actually the real deal.

But the farm was in danger of being overrun with weeds. One of the people who owns the farm is ill. Those that were left hadn’t the time or manpower to take care of everything. So a bunch of us took off from Pittsburgh, and drove through the rolling countryside, gloves and weeding tools in hand, ready to help. We spent several hours in the hot July sun pulling unwanted plants from the ground. I was in the cornfield, on hands and knees, clearing land so the late-planted rows of corn had a chance to grow.

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve paid a lot of lip-service to the theory that you have to physically work the land in order to really understand why it’s important to pay higher prices to farmers that choose to grow their crops sustainably. It’s not that I didn’t actually think that true; I respect farmers, I believe they are entitled to be paid a fair price for their work…but, I never physically understood the toil of farm work until last weekend. A farm field is a hot hot place in the middle of July. Weeding is taxing on the body. So is harvesting crops in the heat of a summer day. Anyone who chooses to do this for a living deserves our respect.

But this isn’t a story about me getting out of the kitchen/library and onto a cornfield. This is a story about people coming together to help other people in need. Phrases like “dust yourself off and get back on the horse,” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are often given as advice when someone is down. And it’s true, you do need to get up and get back in the game. But sometimes you have to put the word out, ask for help, and hopefully some friends & strangers will pitch in. It’s a wonderful thing. At the end of the day, the farm’s fields were a bit better off than they were before we arrived. There is still work to be done (the work never ends during growing season), and if they asked, I’m sure we’d all be happy to make the drive again.

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Home of Chicken and Waffles

Posted on December 29, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, review, travel |

I was exploring the Jack London Square farmers’ market yesterday (good market!), and a wonderful smell was in the air.  After much exploring, my nose led me to…Home of Chicken and Waffles.  Now, I might be a Yankee & a Jew, but I love soul food like a fella from Mississippi.  As soon as I walked through the door, I knew I was in the right place.

The Home of Chicken and Waffles began as a franchise of the famous Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles.  In 2004, the family decided to spilt from their parents and take the reigns themselves.  This was a smart move.  The strong family ties are evident on the wall- each menu item is named after a family member, their portraits (with the dish) are painted on the wall by a local artist.
The food is soul food at is best.  Although the protein is limited mostly to fried chicken, the array of sides more than makes up for the lack of smothered pork chops.  Truth be told, the fried chicken is so good that you might run the risk of missing it if you had other options!  Some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in fact!  It’s crisp, juicy, sweet, and without a hint of greasy.  As for the sides, it’s a hit list of soul food champions: grits, mac ‘n cheese, yams, greens, peas.  All menu items are accompanied with a suggested side or two.  While you can swap sides for 50 cents, you probably won’t feel the need to do so.  Oh, and the waffles?  Heavenly.  
Service at Home of Chicken and Waffles is fantastic.  Personable, fast, and funny.  They make you feel like you’re popping by their house for a meal.  Indeed, the diverse clientele all seem equally at home there.  Hipsters sit side by side with families on their way home from church.  Old and young enjoy the sweet sweet chicken.
I believe the join is always open, as hours aren’t listed and they tout themselves as the perfect place to go after a night out in downtown Oakland.  I couldn’t agree more.
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Review: Thai Basil

Posted on October 14, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, review, travel |

Thai Basil is a tiny eatery located in downtown Capitola, CA.  If there was no sign on the outside, you’d probably just walk by, thinking that an old Thai lady was serving a few friends a meal in her living room/speciality shop.  

I really wasn’t sure what was happening when my friend led me into Thai Basil.  It’s a tiny place.  Five tables, I believe.  One wall is covered in various imported sauces, all available for purchase.  I assume that these sauces are the base for many of the dishes.
Speaking of dishes, it’s pretty amazing that there is such a variety on the menu.  Amazing because…this place is run entirely by one woman, Tan Manichanh.  She takes your order, then walks into the kitchen an cooks it.  I suppose that’s why there are only 5 tables!
The food was hot, and fantastic.  Thai peppers and coconut milk seem to be the base for just about everything, and that’s alright with me.  We had a rich clear chicken soup (not clear at all- the soup was red with pepper), a sweet beef curry special, pineapple chicken, and a really interesting and intense mint noodle dish with roast pork.  My only complaint is that duck
 wasn’t available to throw into another dish!  
Overall, Thai Basil is a tasty, and unique experience.  I’m looking forward to returning and jumping deeper into the menu.  One thing to take note of- be prepared to spend some time here.  Ms. Manichanh might be a great at making Thai home cooking, but, that’s what you’re getting, home cooking.  Nothing is fast.  She cooks each dish to order, so even if it’s just your party and one other, things are going to take awhile.  It’s worth the wait.
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Sunday Night Dinner: Mandarin Restaurant

Posted on September 25, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, review, travel |

My family used to always go out for Sunday dinner when I was a kid.  One of our favorites was to get Chinese food at Mandarin.  It’s located in a large plaza in New City, New York.  You’d never find it if you didn’t know it was there.

When I visit New York these days, one of my culinary priorities is to rent a zipcar and drive 45 minutes to New City.  It might seem crazy to some, for me, there’s no doubt about it.  I have to have my Mandarin.  Sure, there are many that would argue that there are ‘better’ Chinese restaurants, but I would be hard pressed to agree.  Give me a this hole in the wall joint, serving Americanized style Chinese food any time.  So what if they haven’t redecorated since I was 5.

My meal started with wonton soup.  Glorious, flavorful broth, spiked with green onions.  The thick, east coast style wontons are stuffed with a simple pork mix.  Thin matchsticks of roast pork are the only other additions to the soup.  I think there might have been some spinach in there when I was a kid (I remember taking it out and putting it on the side!), but nothing else now.  Wonton soup the way I like it, simple and tasty.  You can keep your West Coast, loaded with 543 ingredients soup for yourself, brother. (Literally, brother.  We moved to CA when he was young enough to form his palate in a much more west coast style.  He prefers the western, more traditional Chinese food, to the eastern, more Americanized version.  Poor brother.)

Next, roasted spare ribs.  Notice there isn’t a picture above.  I was so excited by the glistening pork goodness that I forgot to take out my camera.  By the time I remembered, all that was left were a bunch of stripped bones, and a fat & greasy me!  The ribs are roasted to perfection.  They’re unglazed, allowing the natural sweetness of the pork rib to shine.  Simply fantastic.

My main course was chicken & broccoli.  In my youth, the sauce was white.  Once day, they switched to a brown sauce, and I was very sad.  Since then, I’ve gotten over it, and then some.  This is the dish I dream about, the dish that propels me up the Palisades Parkway. Pure happiness on a plate.

The meal was finished with a fortune cookie (good things are coming my way!) and a nice cup of Chinese tea, smokey and strong.

Good thing I brought a bunch back with me, writing this made me crave more! 

Edit:  Mmmmmm, leftovers.  
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Eat Local (New York): Ronnybrook Farms

Posted on September 12, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, local, travel |

I visited the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan on Wednesday, and purchased some milk & yogart from Ronnybrook Farm.  What a joy!  Rich and creamy, the farm produces dairy products that taste like dairy should.

The dairy and creamery are located in New York’s Hudson Valley, one of the most beautiful places on the east coast.  Milk is made in small batches from hormone-free cows.  Ronnybrook was founded in 1941 by the Osofsky family, and is still family owned and run.

The milk is not homogenized, which allows it to be pasteurized at a lower temperature than homogenized milk.  The drinkable yogurt is made with 8 live & active cultures.  Compare that to your high fructose corn syrup ‘yogurt’ drink!  It’s marvelous.  Four of the cultures are buttermilk cultures, resulting in a flavor more tart than you might be used to.  By the end of the drink, though, you’ll come to appreciate the rich contrast between the buttermilk tartness and the sweet dairy cream.  Wonderful.

Supporting producers like Ronnybrook Farm is a fine example of a way you can easily transfer your eating/shopping habits back to local, non-industrialized food.  They can be found at several farmers’ markets, in many groceries in the Tri-State area, and at their own store in the Chelsea Market. 

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New York City

Posted on September 10, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, travel |

I’m in New York City to work on a pretty nifty film called, Stuck.  Due to jet lag and the need to reorganize my apartment, I haven’t had much time to cook/write.  Don’t worry, exciting new things coming soon.

I will say this about food, though.  I’ve eaten an insane amount in the last 48 hours.  45 pizzas, 13 servings of Chinese food, 72 egg sandwiches, and, look for me to eat about 150lbs. of corned beef and pastrami tonight.
Seriously, there are some places in the world where all you can do is eat.  Then there’s New York City, where all you can do is eat, and then somehow find time to eat more.  Did I dream about bagels last night?  Yes, yes I did.
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Review: Downey’s

Posted on July 7, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, travel |

You’ve probably never heard of Chef John Downey. This is by design. If he had wanted to, he could easily have been at the forefront of the local foods movement, revered in the pantheon of great California chefs as much as Alice Waters. Instead, Chef Downey decided to focus on perfection. I’m glad he did.

Downey’s, his namesake restaurant located in downtown Santa Barbara, is simply amazing. Chef Downey and his charming wife Liz have run the place for 26 years. From the start, Downey has been sourcing his food from local producers. Unlike ego driven chefs, Downey, quite correctly, gives much of the credit for the taste of his food to the growers. They’re even mentioned on the menu.

In keeping with his philosopy of delivering the most delicious food availibe, the menu at Downey’s changes daily. While this might lead to a slight disappointment, if, say, you were eying a fresh tomato soup online all week, only to find it wasn’t on the menu the night you went, this is quickly overcome when put the first bite of food into your mouth.

For me, that was the house-made prosciutto. Served over sliced cantaloupe, with a light ginger-lime dressing, it was simply fantastic. The salty, herbed pork connected wonderfully with the ripe fruit. This is the stuff that makes Italian ministers tremble with fear.

From that moment, it was a parade of amazing.  Garlicky artichokes, roasted duck with perfect sauce and grains, swordfish (not for me!  Those who had it loved it, though), peach chutney.  Even the side vegetables were prepared perfectly.  A bottle of lovely Cabernet from our friends at Chateau Montelena accompanied the feast.  We ended the meal with many desserts, the peach melba being a standout.
This was a terrific meal.  One of the best I’ve ever had.  Chef Downey deserves all the praise in the world.  If you’re ever anywhere near Santa Barbara, you owe it to yourself to eat at Downey’s.
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