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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Return to the 36th Chamber

Gordon Liu: “Master... I've made up my mind. I have to learn.”
Master: “There are 35 phases sandwiches, where would you like to start?”
Gordon Liu: “I'm not sure! Which one is the best?
Shaolin Master Killer (1978)

As an astronuclear brainologist, science comes easy. Why just today I “deduced” a few things that I might as well tell you about:
1) Of all the voices in my head, Stomach screams the loudest.
2) Stomach is borderline OCD (obsessive compulsive delicious) and, unlike Ms. Slab, encourages me to overeat.
3) Stomach has recently jumped back on the banh mi wagon.
What does this add up to? A return, good reader... to the 36th chamber.

For those out of the late-70s Kung Fu loop, let me explain. In Master Killer, Gordon Liu escapes a Manchu attack and heads to the Shaolin Temple, where he learns the storied Shaolin fighting technique. Instruction involves passing 35 “chambers” (everything from “carry razor-spiked water jugs up pyramid, then repeat 1,000 times” to “head-butt boxing bags” to “walk on water for bowl-of-rice dinner”). Liu succeeds with flying colors, then starts his own chamber: the 36th, namely... bringing Shaolin style to the people.

In that way, The Porkchop Express is a kindred spirit: we train and stumble, bumble and pursue, and never give up on our relentless search for delicious... to share our findings with you, inquisitive reader.

Not always without a struggle, tho. Take the Banh Mi. We found our favorites months ago, and had a hard time believing any brash NYC New Jack could top 'em. So why bother? Or so “Bad Cop” whispered in my ear. But “Good Cop”? Bless that positive bastard. He was whispering just as loud when I got the call from cycling enthusiast, magnanimous chap-about-town, and Time Out New York reporter Josh “Money” Bernstein, who invited me along to sample four new spots that had cropped up over the summer.

The only hitch? We set out on what proved to be the hottest day of the year and, not coincidentally, the least smart day to bike around. By 4pm, I wasn't quite sure where I lived, much less what I had eaten or how I was going to peel the shirt from my back. So I laid low for awhile... weeks, actually... until fate again intervened.

You see, friend, The Porkchop Express counts among it ranks some of the most flavor-savvy readers in the world. And it just so happened that a recent, illuminating email from Andrew “Woodward” Landry sparked my banh mi curiosity anew by clearing up a few heretofore murky banh mi mysteries.

As Landry put it, the American Banh Mi is a far cry from its Southeast Asian counterpart. And I quote, “the approach here is totally different”–bigger and heavier, “similar to what Chicago did with New York's thin crust pizza.” Even better, his explanation why this was so actually made sense:
fresh, light, airy Saigon baguettes are delivered at around 5 or 6 in the morning to all of the carts that sell Banh Mi and Banh Mi variants. But the bread isn't toasted (as it is at every place I've been to in NYC). It doesn't need to be toasted, as it has just arrived a few hours ago, and toasting would only ruin the delicate texture of the sandwich. Also, vendors have limited grill space in their outdoor carts, which they save for important things like pork. [Priorities! –ed.] It also stands to reason that people aren't as excited to have a hot toasted sandwich in a city that hovers around 90-100˚ (F).
The Vietnamese Banh Mi: a product of its environment if ever there was. France introduces the baguette; Vietnam puts its own light, crisp spin on the loaf; small merchants (with even smaller carts) post up on street corners, where they receive early morning bread deliveries; breakfast sandwiches are graced with porky goodness and the usual trimmings, and folks start the day with a delicious, non-sleep-inducing bang of a meal. Win-win-win-win, good reader.

So armed with some fresh perspective and knowledge of a few new spots, The Porkchop Express felt it as good a time as any to return to the 36th Chamber... to bring more Banh Mi goodness to the people. Stay tuned, friend. We'll be hangin' tough with a few new kids on the block. One this week below, to get things rolling.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

» Thanks again to Bernstein & Landry. Catch Bernstein's musings in New York Press, Time Out New York, and here. As for Landry, he's probably eating a pork-based product as you read this. Oh, the humanity!

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches: Brooklyn

Nicky's is one of NYC's most popular Banh Mi destinations, which makes sense: family patriarch Nin Van Dang (who provides the recipes) used to run one of the Outer Borough's finest banh mi-arias, and his offsprings' East Village offshoot does brisk business.

Their arrival in Brooklyn was therefore met with great anticipation, a sense of hunger, hope and longing that only increased as permit issues pushed opening day back more than a month. Was the wait worth it? Inquiring minds want to know!

The Porkchop Express has been to Nicky's Brooklyn several times, to notably mixed results. Take, for example, their “Classic” ($3.95). The first one was satisfying, a fine replica of the sandwich we liked in the East Village: good bread, solid execution, nothing overwhelming. But round two? The Vietnamese equivalent of Montazuma's revenge: clammy, cold (chilled?) roast (?) pork (?!), and disconcertingly large rectangles of rubbery, fish-flavored pork roll. (I tried to feed these bologna logs to a couple of squirrels outside, but even they weren't biting.) Add seriously uneven jalepeno pepper placement, and what do you have? A big letdown.
What's best at Nicky's Brooklyn? The Pork Chop Sandwich...
...shown here from the perspective of a local Brooklyn rodent.

Far better, and far more consistent, is their Pork Chop Sandwich ($4.25). The tender, somewhat sweet grilled meat is well-paired with shredded carrots, cilantro and cuke spears; it's just moist enough, and not overwhelming in quantity. While the size and freshness of the strips has varied (from very thin/a little dry, to a juicy quarter-inch), if you happen to get a piping hot fattie your day is set.
Beverage Case: possessed by the ghost of Banh Mi past?

Especially when paired with one of their verbosely-named “Fresh Lemonade with Lime,” a nice sweet-tart medley that cleanses the palate and screams “limon.”
Ambience: The fancy red says “on the go,” but the faux-palm shoots show they haven't forgotten their roots!

I went by today and noticed the owner admiring his convertible Benz parked outside, leading me to believe that they have already sold a few sandwiches. Some of those returns obviously went into the schnazzy decor, a slightly-underground alcove of national flag reds and plastic palms that fits the neighborhood just fine.

But as you know, we really could care less about decor if the eats are great. So... why all the repeat visits for this less-than-thrilling product? I live nearby. And for my money, this is the best Banh Mi in downtown Brooklyn.

If you want something more and you're feeling adventurous, hop on the nearby 67 Bus to Sunset Park. But if you just need a quick fix, and live around the corner? Well... know when to compromise, gentle reader, and life will be richer!

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches (Brooklyn)
311 Atlantic Avenue
(718) 855-8838

Pork Chop Sandwich: $4.50
Classic Banh Mi: $3.95
Fresh Lemonade with Lime: $1.75

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bacon Bits

Back next week on the search for delicious©®™. A few snacks to tide you over in the meanwhile.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Hard at Work
Ever wonder about our training routine at The Porkchop Express? Positive thinking, a zest for tomorrow, an iron-clad will, and a whole bunch of rocks. Watch and weep, friend... watch and weep.

Techno Pig
The '06 Bonzo mix.

Porkchop Sandwiches
Back in the late-90's, Ms. Slab and I made our way to Slim's Y-Ki-Ki, an old school Zydeco hall in Opelousas, Louisiana. A guy had posted up outside with a smoky weather-beaten barrel grill. Two dollars got me one of the most delicious grilled porkchops I've ever had the pleasure of eating, served on a folded slice of white bread. He called it a “porkchop sandwich,” but the bread wasn't much more than a glorified napkin. (Watch the speaker volume on this one, NSFW language...)

Hey kids...
it's Mr. Porkchop!


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Oh Canada

What does it mean to flavor? To search for delicious? To be makin' bacon? And would a breakfast meat by any other name taste so sweet?

These were just some of the classy thoughts I had Sunday morning while drinking a beer and searing slices of Canadian Bacon. But confusion reigned. Canadian Bacon, whose charms I herald and virtues I sing... that I pair with farm fresh eggs, and top on grilled burgers... that I have literally dreamt about three times this summer alone... well, rumor has it the stuff is neither Canadian nor Bacon.
A Traitor in our Midst?
One of these so-called “Canadians” is fakin' the funk... and the answer might shock you!

To learn more, I called the Embassy back in July. But it was “Canada Day,” and everyone had taken the week off. So I bided time until the Fancy Food Show, then headed to the Canadian wing to speak with someone known only as “the meat guy.” Now I have no idea how someone who shows precisely zero interest in a bacon-related question gets to call himself “the meat guy” (*cough* sleep your way to the top *ahem*), but he was useless and demoralizing. Back to the drawing board......and the Embassy. This time, the receptionist deported me to an Information Center in Ottawa, where a mellifluous young woman answered the line. She informed me (with sincere regret) that she had just moved to Canada from the Côte d'Ivoire, and knew little about “the thing called bacon.”

Back to the embassy! Who now recommended I contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade at the Canadian Consulate General in New York.

I promptly lost interest for a solid 2 months, before calling said Consulate General on a whim the other day.

The Consulate has an automated line with a whopping 9 choices, most of which are entirely uneventful. I pressed buttons for the Cultural Affairs liaison (on vacation), “Trade Related and Investment Inquiries” (automated message), and the Media liaison (does not answer her phone), all while a recorded voice assured me: “your call is important.” (I had my doubts.)You know those “bodegas” that only sell things starting with ‘nickle’ and ‘dime,’ and only to people they know? I was starting to feel out of the loop, friend; strategically ignored. So I summoned my courage and dialed one last option–the gravitas-laden #3, emergency services for Canadians in distress–and was told that someone would be with me... immediately.

Yet a mere 7 seconds later (before I even had time to mull the ethical implications of tying up an international emergency line under dubious pretenses), the phone went “click”: emergency services had hung up.

Fear not, gentle reader, I still had an ace up my sleeve: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. After two wrong numbers, I found myself chatting with someone in Ottawa, a CFI Agent named Mike.

Mike was a great sport, and he quickly settled a few scores. In Canada folks eat “back bacon” or “peameal bacon”: namely, unsmoked tenderloins taken from the pig's back, trimmed lean, lightly brined and salt cured, rolled in ground cornmeal, and sold uncooked.

There you have it. This, it would seem, was the inspiration for our own Canadian-style Bacon (which, because it is smoked, is actually closer in style to an Olde English version).

Still, Mike insisted that it was pretty hard to say which bacon name reigned supreme up north. After all, the east coast calls it one thing, the west coast something else; these can be totally different cuts of meat, or even (he insisted) animals; bacon varies from district to district; it changes with territories and dialects, moods and whims; and this didn't seem to faze him in the slightest:
“After all, perception’s everything, as I always say.”
Meat is what you make of it, I suppose. And as for the misleading Canadian Bacon label? “Could be a trade thing,” he sighed. “Maybe they add maple syrup, eh?” (mild laughter, followed by thoughtful pause) “For some, American bacon might look like a dollar sign for all I know. As I said, perception’s everything.”

Well-said: when it comes time to decide what makes a “bacon” Canadian, perception really is a big part. And honestly, does it matter what folks in Manitoba or Manhattan call it, so long as it ends up on my eggs benedict? Wouldn't thin-sliced tenderloin, juicy and seared, taste as good by any name? In any country?

Oh yeah.

Til Tuesday,

–J. SlabStill hoping you might learn something?
  • Bacon in Canada–peameal or back bacon–is: unsmoked, pickle-brined, taken from the hog's back, trimmed, and rolled in a cornmeal crust. It is sold uncooked, and owes the “peameal” moniker to the ground dried yellow peas (now corn) that originally helped preserve the meat. Rumor has it this stuff is super plump and juicy.
  • You can find the real deal at the aptly-named the REAL Canadian Bacon Co. President Ken Haviland, originally of Ontario, attributes America's Canadian-style Bacon confusion to a marketing move. (Something akin to calling mayo and ketchup “French Dressing”?). Check out his site, or call 1-866-BACON-01: he imports peameal and ships it to folks from Troy, Michigan. He also offers recipes, answers questions, and sings a mean “Oh Canada.”
  • Misleadingly-named Canadian Bacon, more accurately Canadian-style bacon (smoked tenderloin, English in origin), is the norm in America. Avoid anything that looks unnaturally round and overly processed: these rubbery, water-added renditions taste like old ham. Not aged... old. Like soggy sweatsocks, or moist leather. Or a bunion.
  • In NYC, you can find tasty Canadian-style renditions at your favorite Polish butcher. We like a few places in Greenpoint. And our hands-down favorite comes from Flying Pigs Farm; look for a package with tender fat clinging to the sides, then cook it quick (in butter or rendered strip bacon) before Ms. Slab gets home.
  • Confusingly, according to Google Trends the top 4 cities searching for the phrase “Canadian Bacon” are Canadian; Chicago narrowly edged out Montreal for the coveted fifth spot. Neither “peameal” nor “back bacon” registered enough hits to be counted.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Extra Fancy

If you're like Ms. Slab you're a creature of habit. Every morning, she goes to the corner store and buys the same three things: quart of milk, 6.5 ounce bag of cheese puffs, 750 ml of fine champagne.

So imagine our surprise when, earlier this summer, Shawn Carter (a/k/a Jay-Z) put the kibosh on Cristal; ever since, life hasn't been the same. Cereal tastes flatter, the bathtub is less bubbly, and we've been watering our plants with water.

Don't get me wrong: Jay took a courageous stand and pulled off a truly remarkable feat (simultaneously being, and sticking it to, “the man”). We were still glum tho; boycotting $300+ bottles of bubbly seems an awful lot to ask. After all, we're only human. But we tried to play along because, on the plus side, this ban left us with a lot more cash to blow. So how best to spend it? I headed to the annual Fancy Food Show to find out!Yes, good reader, around the time that S. Carter butted heads with champagne magnates the 52nd Annual Fancy Food Show rolled to Manhattan's Javitts Center. In tow? 2,400 vendors, pitching edibles, drinkables, spices, condiments, intoxicants, and everything in-between. The Porkchop Express joined the fun–along with 30,000 other attendees–to taste samples and chew fat with fine food folks from around the world. Here's what went down.

The first thing I noticed had nothing to do with food, and everything to do with impractical architecture. Whoever designed the Javitts Center had a macabre sense of humor, because the place is really difficult to get to and nigh-impossible to navigate. It's like Venice (Italy) dropped in the Midwest (USA), a series of oddly-interconnected canals hopelessly landlocked near nothing of interest. I mention this only to justify my FFS strategy: sticking to the area nearest the entry, and dropping breadcrumbs to mark my route.As fate would have it, I landed in the foreign foods section. And tho I couldn't wait to get started, I was still a bit confused... What makes a food "fancy"? This is surely a question for the ages, but none of the press literature took a stab. Nor did the NASFT have a fancy little man in fancy pants, standing spry to answer my pedantic questions.
Life's Great Mysteries: the “dog” may have been “bad,” but why bottle it?

They should have; the answer is entirely unclear. Do you mean to tell me that Red Bull-style energy drinks qualify? Austrians sure thought so, peddling simulacrum with titles like Bad Dog and "[monosyllabic adjective] + [monsyllabic animal]." This brought to mind stuff you find in Tokyo: English product descriptions that lose something in translation, and rarely whet the appetite. Color me squeamish, but do I really want to be drinking something that color from a bottle with that label?
Uncle Joe's Mint Balls: Pushing the Envelope of Things I Might Eat

Speaking of which, how about the cheeky lads from Lancashire, England, who were pleased as punch to pitch their unfortunately-titled product. I've never met this Uncle Joe, but (if the picture above is any indication) he looks quite the “man about town.” Must I really taste his balls, minty or no? Even if they are, as the packaging argues, “pure” and “good”? And isn't this precisely what parents have in mind when they warn against strangers with candy?

An hour in, and I felt about as fancy as when I entered; not very, good reader, not very. On top of which, I picked up a headache trying to get a group of Canadian butchers to tell me what they call Canadian Bacon in Canada (this isn't over!). But the thing is, the FFS is really no place to get uptight. There are literally thousands of nibbles on-hand waiting to be nibbled, and it's been this way since the 50's (when my grandad used to trade stories and samples). It's just a surprisingly overwhelming experience. There are too many paths to delicious; you have to choose a route, stick with it, and make the most. So with that in mind, here are some brief observations in no particular order.
Greek yogurt tastes great. Plus, it's versatile. Try folding in a little mint, salt, and garlic (to eat with grilled kabobs); or add a little vanilla and superfine sugar for breakfast (or desert). The good news? Fage, which dominates the US market, is about to receive a bit of competition... other brands (like Dodoni, above) are on the way. Watch your step, kid.
Phat Hass: Aymara Avocado Oil

Avocado Oil has potential. I've long referred to the avocado as “nature's bacon,” because both make everything taste better. But this oil, pressed of 100% Hass fruits from the fertile Aconcagua Valley in central Chile, was disarmingly rich. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed... tho to this day I keep reaching for it in the kitchen, to sprinkle on tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or drizzle on a ham sandwich, or rub on porkchops before they hit the grill. The Chilean guys also suggested dripping a bit on dark chocolate... to which I said, “slow down champ, we just met!” Zing!
Funk Carica

Carica is really tasty. But what does it taste like? Dubbed the “Chilean Golden Papaya,” it looks more like a blond guava... and tastes like both of those fruits “made it” with a mango. And something else. Tamaya Gourmet sells them by the jar, and I kinda wish I had a jar right now... because this is one delicious mystery.
I love smoked and cured meats. If there was a bad one in the whole building, I sure as hell didn't notice. As for the best? Depends on your taste, but my vote goes to old faithful, prosciutto di Parma. That's a story for another day tho.Expensive olive oil tastes great. And, I might add, there are many to choose from in this world. North and South American, European, Middle Eastern, Australian, African... no matter the country, spending a little extra pays off. I felt real heavy after sampling 20+ in a row, but there's no need. Trust your instincts on this one, distinguishing characteristics are easy to spot: fruity, pungent, sharp, smooth, acidic, rich. Just figure out what kind of aftertaste you like, and what kind of olives float your boat. Then buy some. We had great Italian, Spanish, French, and a sassy, classy Moroccan: Les Terroirs de Volubilis, served in small samples like a glass of wine (above).
Philippe and Nathalie Traber, Flavor Geniuses

I love eau de vie. And that goes triple for the fine flavors of Jean Paul Metté, a Ribeauville distillery that has made small batches of their wondrous elixir since 1916. Philippe and Nathalie Traber grabbed the reigns in 1998, and these folks are perfectly suited to the craft. Metté has, over time, introduced more than 80 flavors, yet (sadly) I only sampled a few. The 12-year old mirabelle was absolutely unreal, hands down the best I've ever had: strong fruit flavor that holds its own in a 45 proof liquor without resorting to sugary sweetness. But I could also wax on about the fraise des bois, and the poire william... and whatever the bottle was that I started chugging before the Fancy Food Police dragged me away, screaming vive la France!
Medalla de Oro: Pisco Sours and Good Times at the Rivadeneyra booth

I really like Pisco. This Peruvian liquor tastes like super-fruity grappa, and there's a reason: over 50 pounds of Italian grapes are distilled in each bottle. After tasting shots of three Gold Medal varieties (including a single-grape mosto verde), and sampling a wonderful pisco sour (blended with ice, lemon and sugar), I pledged to spread the good word. This was actually the first time that the fine folks from Rivadeneyra had made an FFS appearance, and it was memorable. Semi-open bar equals... the most... popular... booth... ever?!
So there you have it, a few things to look out for. Or not. Either way, I'm now ready to take a stab at what makes a food fancy and suggest the following:


But ingredients often matter (the rarer the better).

“Foreign” status doesn't hurt, either. (French fries... French dressing... )

And, sadly or no, style matters in this world. Especially with fancy food, where simple things like packaging and presentation can set a product apart from hundreds of other similar, high-quality competitors.

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of the reps. Things that work include:
  • A warm smile and/or laid-back attitude. I'm of the school that hates to be hassled, especially by overly aggresive vendors. But I also don't want to feel like an unwelcomed mooch, especially when I'm mooching without welcome. Also, I want my cake and eat it too.
  • Product knowledge. This seems like a no-brainer, but didn't always hold true.
  • Being from the country you are representing. Nothing is more oft-putting than, say, talking South American seafood with a guy who lives in a Van down by the East River, or listening to a French guy unpack the 'mysteries of Morocco.'
  • Spreading the love. In the end, nothing works better than good old-fashioned earnest enthusiasm. I'm not talking cheerleaders per se, just someone with genuine passion for their product. For this reason, producers and their families consistently made the best reps.
And last but not least, a hearty salud to the Italians, 90% of whom ditched their posts to cheer their team on to a World Cup Victory. Aiiight then!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Next year, the Summer Fancy Food Show will return to New York from July 8-10. You can also catch the festivities in Chicago and San Francisco, earlier in the year. Details here.

    And I quote, “The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade is a not-for-profit business trade association established in 1952 to foster trade, commerce and interest in the specialty food industry.”

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