Gorging on Cal-Mexican Food: An Brief Look at Food and Place

Posted on March 8, 2012. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant | Tags: , , , , , |

My father pointed out that I came home with a bag of leftovers every day on my trip home to Northern California. “You seem a little bit obsessed with Mexican food, Hal B,” he said.

Big Art was correct. My Mexican binge was totally by design. I made a point to have a meal at a local Cal-Mex restaurant each day I was home, and I also made it a point to order more food than I needed; pozole, two tacos, a burrito all ended up wrapped and saved for a late-night snack. I stopped at a (pre-trendy) taco truck ON MY WAY to lunch–I could see the restaurant from the street where my hands were dripping with chile verde. My belly bulged on the flight home.

I think it’s terrific that, in this period of globalization, regional specialty food still plays prominently on the palate. Although there is a remarkable pizza maker just outside of Pittsburgh (and another delightful one just down the block from me), New York still haunts my dreams. Good BBQ is simply smoke, spice, and meat, and a exceptionally enjoyable one has just opened in Pittsburgh. Yet, the truly transcendent joints are the ones that perfume the air south of the Mason-Dixon line. And, for me, Mexican food is best from a strip mall/truck/hole-in-the-wall in California.

Why? People argue it’s the water that makes a New York pizza special. However, “imported” water, though not commonplace, feeds dough outside of New York. The pizza isn’t any better because of it.

A lot of this has to do with the food you “grew up” on. I have a deep preference for East Coast Angle-Chinese food; the greasy kind with iconic dishes. I judge by wonton soup and chicken & broccoli. My brother, who was 3 years younger when we left New York, has the opposite reaction. He prefers the authentic* Chinese food of the Pacific Coast. Less grease, thinner wontons, more seafood. This isn’t limited to childhood memory, either–though childhood influence in generally the strongest.

Specific geography can play a part in flavoring food. The first oysters I had were grown in the cold-water of Tamales Bay. Small, briny, deep mineral flavor. They FLOORED me. I figured I’d love all oysters after that, but that wasn’t at all true. The large, warm-water Gulf oyster didn’t make me dance inside. I learned that the size and flavor of an oyster are directly affected by the ecology of the local waters and the breeds that can grow in it.

I also think a lot of this has to do with the food-culture of the place. There was a recent New York Times article written by a vegetarian complaining about the lack of vegetarian food in Kansas City. He made some valid points, but he missed the big one–it’s a beef town. He went on to complain about the lack of “ethnic” restaurants in the city, ignoring the fact that Kansas City hasn’t been a historic center of multi-ethnic immigration. Does he think that “ethnic” should be ubiquitous? What a dink.

I’m fascinated between the connection between food and place. It’s an issue that I’m going to continue to explore. I hope you will, too. Share your stories.

*Authenticity is a complex concept, so I won’t spent too much time on it here. For the sake of this piece, let’s just say that it’s generally agreed that the Chinese food in San Francisco is characterized as “more authentic” than the food on the East Coast because it’s more directly connected to the foodways of China. There are holes to be poked in this argument–not to mention the fact that I’m totally lumping a heterogenous culture into one cuisine called “Chinese food”–but that’s the basic idea. 

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Chevy, Hamburgers, and Milkshakes

Posted on June 21, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, review | Tags: , , , , , , , |

The nice publicity people at Chevrolet offered to take me and a few other Pittsburgh food bloggers for a free ride in some of their 2012 vehicles. The clever people they are, they realized that just offering a free ride in a car wasn’t going to fill the seats, so they bribed us with hamburgers and milkshakes–also free. Well done, Chevy. Our Chevy Shakes and Sliders Crawl took us to three Pittsburgh spots for burgers and shakes: Brgr, The Sharp Edge Bistro downtown, and The Milkshake Factory/Edward Marc Chocolatier.

Brgr’s burgers have improved considerably since the last time I had one, which was shortly after the restaurant opened. My previous visit was a big disappointment, but this time it was delightful. It was clear in speaking with Chef Brian Pekarcik that he has a lot of pride in what he does. He was willing to listen and respond to early customer feedback. It takes cojones to admit you’re not putting out the best product you can, and Chef Pekarcik showed that by changing the way he makes his burgers. I’m impressed. The Button Buster burger was especially enjoyable: juicy angus beef, braised short ribs, cheese, belly rubs. Happy times. Brgr’s shakes were refreshing, but sadly only the King Shake (hello, Elvis!) was made with booze. This was odd, as boozy milkshakes are a big draw. I suppose this probably has something to do with a car company sponsoring our day out–boozy shakes and road tours aren’t an especially smart combination.

Our next stop, Sharp Edge Bistro, was a disappointment. Talk about trying too hard while not trying nearly hard enough. Sharp Edge is basically a mid-sized catering company masquerading as a restaurant. Almost all the food is prepared off-site in the corporate kitchen. It’s…sad. The Bistro Burger (50% bison, 50% beef, with some bacon mixed in) was way too salty. The Ostrich Burger (50% ostrich, 50% beef) was dry and mealy. The chef bragged about how lean the burger was. Great, but who wants a lean burger?! Please. The Duck Burger (50% duck, 50% beef) was OK, but the flavors didn’t quite work. Cherry in my burger? Why, Chef, why? Still, it was my favorite out of the bad bunch. Good thing Sharp Edge has the Beer Emporium in Friendship; I’ll still go there for the impressive selection of beer, but you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be eating anything. The crisp frites, while quite delicious, again highlighted the apparent ignorance at Sharp Edge. The chef bragged about how the fries were “twice fried,” as if that were something groundbreaking. Dude, almost all french fries are twice fried; it doesn’t matter if you call them frites or fries. (Unless you’re In and Out Hamburger, who only fry their fries once. And they’re quite well known for that because they deviate from the norm…)

The Milkshake Factory/Edward Marc was heavenly. This is a shining example of a local food business doing something so very very very right. The current owners are 4th generation family confectionists–they are in the business of making people happy. Happy happy happy. Oh happy. Milkshakes, ice cream, and chocolates. Seriously. I love my family and they are great and good, but couldn’t Grandpa Benji have opened an chocolate factory instead of working in corrugated cardboard?! We were offered 7 flavors of milkshake: PB&J, Cajun Chocolate, Carrot Cake, Classic Vanilla, Red Velvet, Strawberry Banana, and Chocolate Raspberry Truffle. The effusive (and perfectly named) Marc Edward explained why, in a mix of creative flavors, he offered us vanilla: “When someone gets a vanilla right, you know how good their milkshakes are.” Well, Mr. Edward, you make a pretty perfect vanilla shake. Your milkshakes are beyond good. Especially the Red Velvet shake. Although I might as well had been born southern in many of my favorite foodways, I’ve never quite understood the red velvet cake. Chocolate-like cake with red food dye? Confusing. Milkshake Factory, you have opened my eyes. This was…the best milkshake I have had in my life. Bold statement. True statement. It’s been over a week, and I’m still thinking about it.

Let’s talk cars. It’s the least I can do, since Chevy sponsored the event and everything. There were four cars for us to drive around in (Camero, Tahoe Hybrid, Equinox, and Cruze) and one for us to look at (Volt). Sadly, we didn’t get to test the Volt. Shame, because it looks pretty amazing. I’m a big fan of futuristic gadgets and gizmos that promise sustainability. Ah well. I’m also a fan of fast cars that unfortunately do not promote sustainability–cruising in the Camero was a good time! The Equinox is pretty badass, too. Well, as badass as you can be for a compact SUV. It gets great gas mileage, and the Bose noise-canceling system makes for a you-can-hear-a-pin-drop-quiet ride. I’m a bit more BLAH about the Tahoe Hybrid. It’s GIANT. Most people don’t need anything half as large as this machine, yet the Chevy product dude was pushing it hard. Yes, it gets better gas mileage than an old-timey SUV, but I still question the necessity of mass marketing such a giant. Overall, I’m glad Chevy is still making cars. Say what you will about the auto bailout (or don’t…it worked…), it’s a good thing people are making cars in America. I only spent a little bit of time in each car, but from what I can tell, these are pretty sweet machines. Even the massive Tahoe Hybrid. Also, the cars come equipped with OnStar, and it’s super-hilarious to call them for directions.

Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.
If you’re wondering who else was there, check out:

Culinary Cory (Cory is also one of my classmates in the Food Studies program at Chatham University.)
eatPGH
PopCity
I Heart PGH
Vanilla Icing
The most excellently named Mr. Bacon Pants

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Spring into Green Dinner

Posted on May 4, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, local, review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |


I celebrated my birthday by attending Wild Purveyors Spring Into Green dinner. The dinner was held in a barn at the Beechwood Farms Nature Preserve, and was a benefit for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. All the food was either foraged by Cavan and Tom from Wild Purveyors or sourced locally. Blackberry Meadows Farm provided much of the produce, and Horizon View Farms provided the beautiful grass fed ribeye steaks. Food was prepared by Restaurant Echo.

There were about 40 of us in the barn. It was a dreary late spring day, with temperatures in the mid 50s. Happily, we were warmed with beer, not-too-shabby locally made wine, and Boyd & Blair’s ramp infused vodka. The meal itself was a bit uneven; certain items (braised pork shoulder, luscious goldenrod honey sherbet, strawberry and rhubarb panna cotta, pickled wild ramps) really shined, while other items (I’m looking at you oddly savory and BabyFoodLike chilled pea soup) missed the mark. If the meal was uneven, why am I posting something about it? I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and it’s really not too terribly terribly interesting that I spent my birthday drinking and eating in a barn. Believe me, there are much crazier birthday stories.

I’m writing because the event itself was something important. Foraged food and respect for farmers. Each course was preceded by a little story about where the food came from. Although this might sound silly or boring to some people, it’s important. I’m not saying that every time you eat you need to hear a tale about sunlight, water conservation, and moonbeams. But it’s good to know where your food comes from. We live in a society that’s so disconnected from our food supply, and we’re not going to be able to change that unless we make an effort to connect those who eat with those who grow. And that’s what an event like this does. When you’re hearing stories about the heritage seed saving efforts of Blackberry Meadows or sitting next to the parents of the dudes who did the foraging, it’s hard not to be inspired to think more about where your dinner came from.

I should point out tickets to this were superduper expensive. I was lucky enough to be given a wonderful birthday gift and get to go for free. But the sad fact is most people who would benefit from a reconnection to their food wouldn’t be able to afford to go to something like this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fancy-pants parties, and for having those who can afford to attend them donate to support organizations like the Audubon Society. I’m not knocking it at all. It’s good. This was a super fun evening. People who can afford events like this need to be connected to their food too, and will hopefully use their economic and political influence to make the system better. But while we celebrate spring and foraging and rainbows and pickled wild ramps, we also need to make sure we’re working on solutions to the problems food deserts, cheap calorie processed foods, and educating people that meat doesn’t come pre-packaged in a Styrofoam tray. Change needs to happen from the top-down and the bottom-up.

Finally, an update on my quest to become a Less Picky Eater: I tried mushrooms. Three times in one night. Mostly without the “I’m Not Going to Like This” face. Foraged morels. They were…well, not too bad. In two cases, I more or less enjoyed them, though the aftertaste wasn’t quite as nice as the first bite. Would I try them again? I do believe I would.

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