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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pumpkin(s) of the Year?

Something came up, and the Slab had to head out of town. Back on the search for delicious in a week or two, with Vendy Street Vendor Awards coverage, a REAL Canadian Bacon tasting, and an apple battle royale (not necessarily in that order).

Some winning pumpkins to tide you over. Above, Ms. Slab's handiwork with the knife (note the signature “cute tooth”). Below, our buddy Griff pulled in top prize at the 8th Annual PUPkin contest in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He went as Ernest Hemingway, and made his folks proud.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Me Lyke Bree Beer

No matter how you measure, Ms. Slab is the tops. But sometimes her will is so unbending, her reserve so steely, that I can't help but wonder if an iron “heart” pumps cold, cold mercury thru her machine-crafted “veins.” Plus, she's big on what the Germans call schadenfreude. Case in point: Sunday morning when, awash in unsympathy, she flat-out refused to get out of bed and grab me a few Excedrin and an ice pack. Why all the head-pain? One word, curious reader: Brewtopia.
Two for the cause: Brewtopia volunteers are all smiles

In case you haven't heard or can't guess, Brewtopia World Beer Festival is a festival. Of beer. From around the world. As to what this means, well... I drew my own conclusions. Something along the lines of “Garden of Eden” meets “Cheers,” a candy-drop meadow of dewey green fields where mermaids and elves pour ale, lager and stout into giant fruit horns and everyone knows your name.

Now to be honest, I don't drink a whole lot of beer. Nor do I know much about the stuff (great with nachos, fizzier than moonshine). But this event seemed like it had flavor education potential. So The Porkchop Express bit the bullet and hit the road early Saturday, to see just what kind of Utopia the world of brew had built.

Sadly, there wasn't a dewey meadow in sight. Far from it, Brewtopia was held at Manhattan's Javits Center in a giant subterranean room with stadium-style lighting, grey industrial floors, and what looked like a three-story garbage bag making unholy love to a cement column. I think there was some music playing too, maybe Creed or Godsmack.

The first thing that came to mind? This wasn't the fancy food show. There were more similarities than you might imagine: same location and similar idea (a cosmopolitan assortment of 300+ beers from 100+ brewers, in what was labeled a “United Nations”-like atmosphere of friendship and good cheer). But this felt less like a world tour, and more like a half-assed frat party.

Still, appearances often deceive. And we were pretty optimistic because, atmosphere or no, there were a lot of folks (from brewers and sales reps to volunteers and enthusiasts) passionate about these products. So The Porkchop Express geared up to taste some beers, pick some brains, and share the findings with you, thirsty reader. What are folks offering, and enjoying, these days? What's tasty, what's innovative, and what's flat-out non-potable? We left our preconceptions at the door and vowed to find out.
So here's how it works: you have four hours in the room to do as you please. The only “requirement”? Trade in your ticket for a 4-ounce plastic cup, then hit the pavement...
Beware of fakes: when it comes to Pilsner Urquell, there is only one Real Deal

To get in the swing of things we started with something familiar: a few European drafts, including Pilsner Urquell (Czechoslovakia) and Stella Artois (Belgium). It turns out Stella is now The Most Popular Draft Beer in New York City and San Francisco. This was surprising. I used to drink it in Paris, but only because it was the cheapest non-French beer at my local Monoprix. Which made me realize there's a thin line between bi-coastal “urbanite” and French “hobo.”

Other first-quarter observations? Leffe, a flavorful amber Belgian Trappist Ale with an oaky finish, is great if you want something a little stronger and richer. (As one guy put it, “the monks know how to do it right.”) By contrast, avoid Brahma like the plague. This “unusual” Brazilian lager (backed by the mighty InBev conglomerate) has a slick bottle that curves something comfortable in the palm. But ultimately, it's all about taste. And on that front, well... when the reps labeled the finish “papaya” it sounded more apologetic than descriptive. I'm not buying it, figuratively and literally.
Another sunny day at the Aguila booth

The same cannot be said for Aguila. This light, refreshing beer went down Billy Dee Williams-smooth. Number 1 in its native Colombia (with a 67% market share) and perfect for the daylong backyard barbeque, Aguila is making inroads in the US thanks to the day's Shrewdest Marketing Campaign Directed at 21-thru-98 year-old Men. It's hard to accurately convey the intricacies of their approach, but the bi-cultural polycentric thrust of their 28-tiered strategy boils down to this: three spandex-clad women handing out ridiculous Colombian-flag colored “racing hats” to guys, while telling them how “great” they look. It's as close as most people will get to living in one of those “dontcha wanta” Fanta ads. And judging from the crowds, they were on to something: Destapa la Alegria, indeed!
Julliard-trained Ale Blazer Lindsay Kane, pulling one for the team

Nearly as savvy and no less discreet were the good people from Newcastle. First tapped in Jolly 'Ole back in 1927, this reddish-brown ale is a personal favorite. It possesses that rare combination of flavoracity and heavydrinakability that should please both self-styled “aficionados” and PBR-styled “drunkards.” For that reason, it earned a nod as The Beer Mostly Likely to Bridge the Gap Between Snobs and Slobs.

Newcastle seems to know it, too. Hence their goofy army of “Ale Blazers” set loose upon the unsuspecting Brewtopia masses, handing out promotional whatnots (the best of which was the eye-grabbing “lingerie beer cozy”). 3 nights a week, the Blazers also hit nightspots and hawk their product.

This combo of really good beer and thuggish entrepreneurialism got us wondering: is there anything the English can't do these days? Maybe it was the ale talking, but I was starting to revise my impressions (marmite, dentistry) of our Last Ally In The World. If Newcastle is any measure, the Brits are blazing into the new millennium with a can-do, take-no-prisoners attitude!


But I was starting to get homesick. What were the Yanks up to? According to a few dozen half-drunk total strangers, quite a lot. The three beers with the biggest patron buzz were all from the U.S. and A.: Magic Hat, Bluepoint, and Dogfish Head.

If one of these three was the belle of the Brewtopia ball, it was Dogfish. Without a doubt, this won out as The Most Hyped Beer at the Festival. So we went to see what all the fuss was about.

Dogfish strikes a popular American chord: old-school craftsmanship paired with bold innovation. Hence their mantra “off-centered beers for off-centered people,” and their status as America's fastest growing brewery.

This double threat (uniqueness and tradition) was evident in the four beers I sampled: the popular 90 Minute IPA (boiled for 90 minutes); the Midas Touch Golden Elixir (a recipe from King Midas' tomb); the limited release Imperial Pilsner; and something I only remember as having a brain-crushing 18% alcohol content.

These aren't shy beers. The IPA is big and bold and hoppy, the Midas syrupy-smooth and sweet and fragrant. And at around 9% alcohol content, both meant business. Our favorite was probably the limited edition Imperial Pilsner, a deceptively strong mix that, unlike (say) Arrogant Bastard, doesn't flaunt its alcohol with reckless abandon. It had great piquant flavor yet remained eminently drinkable, and wasn't like any of the other pilsners I remember trying that day.

According to a rival brewer, the man behind Dogfish Head–Sam Calagione–is a “beer porn star.” Come again? Dogfish NY rep Elizabeth clarified: “he's got some wild beers.” And some experience to boot. Sam started brewing in high school, made his first beer-recliner (to keep bottles cold) in college, and now owns this brewery-on-the-rise. While my personal tastes admittedly run a little lighter, if you fancy yourself a “real” beer enthusiast, Sam's “concoctions” will no doubt “spruce your pooch” and “whet your whistle.”
Good People Make Good Cider: Doc's with the trifecta

After so much beer we started to branch out, and quite literally stumbled across our pick for The Best Hard Cider of the day: Doc's Draft. Doc's has a good thing going: they extract their juice from whole fruit (no concentrates here); use all-natural ingredients; never add sugars (unlike most US market ciders); and ferment with an effervescent champagne yeast. What does this amount to? Some mighty tasty alternatives.

We started with the Apple, a light, sweet, bubbly mix of 7 fruits, and a big hit with random tasters. We found the Pear, a 4-fruit, apple-based mix, a bit more tart and even more refreshing. But our favorite might have been the Raspberry. I'm not big on sweets, but this was a pretty unique cider, dry like a Bretagne but not as musky and way sassier. And, as the good folks at Doc's revealed, it also goes great with a scoop of sorbet. Could this herald a new age of fine American Cider?
Mead Men: Getting Medieval, y'heard!

If your interested in something more retro, the entertaining lads from the Long Island Meadery have you covered. In 2004, homebrewer Paul Holm got his start selling bottles at The Society for Creative Anachronism (jousting, wenching, getting medieval on datazz). He has since expanded, and now offers a variety of highly regarded meads–fermented honeywines often flavored with fruits or herbs. LIM pourer Tom's enthusiasm was infectious enough to earn their Blueberry Mead a nod as The Best Brew to Drink with Mutton.
Chuck Williamson, sampling the fruits of his labors

And last, but by no means least... let's just say, right at the closing bell The Porkchop Express found some kindred spirits: Butternuts Beer & Ale.

We liked everything about this Garratsville, New York-based crew: genuine passion for brewing, unpretentious vibe, good sense of humor. They stick to the basics (producing only two beers), use strategic cans (environmentally friendly, legal on boats and golf courses), and have some clever names. All of which is well and good, but co-Brewer/Owner Chuck Williamson is the first to point out the obvious: the proof lies ultimately in the taste. And this stuff tastes good.

Butternuts' offerings–Heinnieweisse Hefeweizen and Porkslap Pale Ale–and both are eminently drinkable. Which is really their guiding principle: craft fresh beers with quality ingredients that folks can drink every day. It's an idea just crazy enough to work. And it does, in the form of a cloudy, cleansing wheat and versatile, malty, smooth-sipping dark amber farmhouse ale.

As for the business itself, less than a year old? Chuck put it best: “I'm living the dream.” The dream? “Drinking beer every day.” Dream on, brother. Porkslaps all around.

And in that spirit, we present Butternuts with our final award. On a day filled with fine folks and beverages, they took home The Porkchop Express Most Likeable Beer of 2006.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab
Howard Stern's TV Crew busting multiple moves
A Six-Pack for the road...
  • A final, hearty toast to the man with the plan: Keith Reichenbach, President & Founder of Brewtopia World Beer Festival.
  • Tickets are between $45-$60, depending upon how early you buy. And yes, they're worth it.
  • If you're near the Catskills, check out the Buternuts Brew Pub and put back a fresh Porkslap.
  • Other crowd-pleasers included Saranac Pumpkin Ale and Abita Turbo Dog (Louisiana). A New Orleans chef recommended using the Turbo in a butter sauce with shrimp.
  • All things being equal, I'd probably drink Chimay. (And by “things” I mean “prices.”) It's also great for braising shortribs.
  • The only thing I would add next year? Team up with food vendors, to a) soften the kind of splitting headache I woke up with on Sunday, and b) showcase the versatility of beer when paired with food. Just a thought.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Upwards and Onwards

Everything looks like business as usual, but this has actually been a big week for The Porkchop Express. We made two Top-3 lists (on Eater and Yahoo), and received a nod in New York Magazine. And yesterday, we were actually the most popular food blog on the web according to Yahoo! Directory. Which is pretty confusing; initial readership was me, sum other Dood, and a guy known only as “Kaz.” (Note Ms. Slab did not make that list...)

Boring story short... thanks for the support.

And if you're new, welcome! Check out the grape rant this week (below). And if you're perusing the archives, consider the following:

Thanks again. One Pork, upwards and onwards.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab


Today I want to get serious, friend. Forget terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction”; the real threat lies so low under the radar that we don't even have a Terror Alert Color for it. Mushroom-cloud brown? Spinach green? No, gentle reader, think purple: the color of grape.

I can hear the skeptics now: What's your problem, Slab? Grapes never did anything to me. And I like the taste! To which I say, hush wino, drop the raisin bran and get real to the facts.

An alarming 75,866 km of Earth is overrun with grapes. (That's 1 out of every 2,000 km of good solid non-grape land, or more than 3 km of grapes in Delaware alone.) And remember, grapes don't speak English; they don't pay taxes; they like to sit around and get drunk; and many hop the first bottle they can overseas, faster than you can say “Thomas B. Welch.”
All Things Grape: America's fascination knows no bounds

But really, who cares? Most folks love grapes, so maybe this “grapedemic” isn't such a bad thing. After all, as Johanna Brandt wrote in The Grape Cure (1928),
The grape is highly antiseptic and a powerful solvent of inorganic matter deposits, fatty degeneration, morbid and malignant growths. It acts as a drastic eliminator of evil while building new tissue.
Drastic eliminator of evil?

A septuagenarian later, in the Food and Agriculture Organization Report “Grape Production in the Asia-Pacific Region,” Ram B. Singh added
It is a great… privilege for me to… take this opportunity to extend… warm greetings… on… myself. Special thanks are due to… me. [Furthermore,] Grape is one of the most important fruit crops of the world.

If you believe the National Grape Cooperative, “the history of the grape is at least as old as the history of mankind.” Adaptive, diverse and curative, grapes date back to the Bronze Age (predating even old friend radish). They thrived in Asia Minor and the Caspian Sea, and were cultivated by the 4th Dynasty in Egypt. The Mesopotamians loved 'em; the Phoenicians brought 'em to the Greeks, who let 'em ferment. Vines were tended by Adam and Eve, Noah, Dionysus and Bacchus, their fruit labeled ambrosia.

Sounds great! But how do they taste? We headed to our local Greenmarket to find out.The Porkchop Express has devoted an abnormal amount of thought to grapes lately, and much of the blame falls squarely on the good shoulders of Ken and Eileen Farnan. The Farnans own Buzzard Crest Vineyards & Barrington Cellars, where they bottle everything from Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot to Riesling, Ice and Peach wines. From a region (upstate New York, near Penn Yan) ripe with wineries, they have also cornered a most delicious market: table grapes.

The Farnans have been been graping since 1971, and for the past 20-odd years they have brought boxes of their fresh-picked organic fruit to NYC, which they share every year for an all-too-brief 3-months. The good news? Those 3 months are now.
Ken Farnan, talkin' grapes

Buzzard Crest actually has buzz. Their arrival in September was met with visible excitement in Prospect Park. Because the season is so brief (Labor Day thru Thanksgiving) and the product so good, they have developed a passionate, loyal clientele. It's entertaining to watch peoples' eyes light up as they survey bins of purple and green globes. Seasoned veterans strike with hawkish precision, while eager-eyed newbies work thru indecision with impromptu samples.

What makes these grapes so different? Standard supermarket varieties tend to be somewhat non-descript: firm, sugary globes, sturdy enough to withstand cross-country shipping, and pleasant enough to pop for an instant energy fix... yet nothing to write home about.

The Farnan's fruit is an entirely different creature altogether. For one, these grapes are incredibly juicy, their flavors far more intense. In part, Ken attributes this to the topography. Buzzard Crest lies in a unique spot, on steep slopes literally perched over the y-shaped Keuka Lake. This translates into severe and surprisingly diverse growing conditions (especially for New York), a pseudo-Bermuda Triangle effect highlighted by cool, flavor-inducing nights. You can taste the difference in the final product: robust and concentrated, sweet and tart, with delicate flesh and thinner skins. Nothing to eat lightly, let alone forget.

Nor will you get bored. Eat these grapes for a few weeks straight, and you'll notice the flavors evolve. Most get sweeter as they ripen, while some succumb to adverse weather conditions. All of which makes for a pretty exciting food purchase spiked with elation (when the Concords finally made a leap to unbridled sweetness) and disappointment (when the wonderful Delawares fell victim to excessive moisture and molding).

Which brings up another point. Grapes, as natured intended, are extremely sensitive. As Ken put it, they will never look like they do upstate, unless he coddles each one in paper towel. Which leads me to think they must be drop-dead foxy on the vines, because they still look mighty fine at the markets. When purchasing, look for firm, tight clusters with little-to-no “splits.” Split skins ruin the texture, encourage mold, and impart a mildly fermented taste.
Pick 'em good!

Most of Buzzard's grapes are sold by the ton to nameless, faceless processing plants and giant companies. Yet come Fall, Ken and Eileen make the long trek to NYC (they start packing up Friday at midnight and arrive Saturday morning) to sell what amounts to a relatively small percentage of their crops at City Greenmarkets. Why, you ask? The love. Ken and company love to interact with their customers, to sell grapes directly to people who can't wait to get home to eat them. They have been trekking to Brooklyn since 1985, and aren't about to quit.

Which is great for us. Like I say, you still have a good month+ to get on the grapewagon. So to hasten you down the road to appreciation, The Porkchop Express conducted a tasting of 8 different grapes and two juices. Enjoy!
Blue seedless (above left): a “John Doe” grape which gets its generic name from circumstance. This fruit is still in a hybrid-development stage. And to be honest, it tastes a little half-done. Very distinctive, robust burst of flavor, with a notably acidic aftertaste.

Delaware seedless (not pictured): small, tightly clustered grapes with a reddish-purple hue. They look and taste like the champagne grape's older sibling. One of the first to be harvested, these are already done for the season. Too much water this year meant far too many splits. The grapes were literally bursting at the seams, which led to rotting, mold, discoloration, and a generally disappointing crop. (Tho Ms. Slab and I personally ate a few pounds, and didn't fret.)

Instead, try the Candice Seedless (above right). These are similar to the Delaware in taste and appearance, tho a bit larger and not quite as sweet.
Lakemont Seedless (above left): This green supermarket-style grape has a notably tart, concentrated flavor.

We preferred the Marquis Seedless (above right). Juicy and sweet from the start, these grapes have gotten plumper and tastier each week. Ken insists the excessive rainfall has dilluted the flavor, but we're not complaining. Look for a firm bunch with slightly yellowish skins.If you don't mind seeds, make sure to try the Caco (above left). Pronounced “Kay-koh,” this was a clear Porkchop Express favorite. As Ken described, it's an “old-time table grape,” what folks ate before the explosion of seedless hybrids. They have low acid (even when green), very sweet flesh, and a refreshingly tart skin. Can grapes have balance? This one sure does. In a word or two, it's super grapey. It imparts the essence of grapeness by using the grape's full grape-a-tude. Grapetastic! And rare. There are only 3 acres of Caco vines in the region.

Concord (above center): Pleasantly tart flesh, with a sweet skin far thinner than the globes you might find at the supermarket. These have gotten sweeter every week, and are now ready for prime time. America's #1 purple grape.

Niagara (above right): America's most plentiful green grape is also one of its most aromatic, especially when ripe. Husky, distinctive flavor with some afterburn. I saw a women nod with approval after tasting one on the spot, but it was a bit acidic for us. Look for bulging, plump yellow-tinged globes.

While you're there, grab a glass of Buzzard's fresh-pressed juice. I've never had anything like it. The red is fruitier, the white winey-er, and (like the grapes themselves) both change from week to week.

Food, health, nutritional value, inebriation; is there anything this crazy fruit can't do? Pick up one of our patent-pending Porkchop Express Quick Reference Guides (your official cheat-sheet to grapes), and head down to the market to see for yourself.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Special thanks...
to Ken Farnan, and everyone at Buzzard Creek, for taking the time to talk fruit and share stories. Grab their grapes (certified organic since 1990) every Saturday at the Union Square, Borough Hall, and Prospect Park Greenmarkets from Labor Day thru Thanksgiving. You can also order their wine anytime directly online.

And some final grapetistics...
  • America is the world's largest grape importer and third largest producer in the world (behind Italy and France).
  • The grape has what “scientists” call “genetic plasticity”: it adapts well to different growing regions, climates, topographies.
  • Grapes are high in anti-oxidants, flavonoids, potassium, manganese, and Vitamins C, B1 and B6.
  • The Delano Grape Strike (1965-1970) led to the formation of the United Farm Workers of America.
  • Thomas Welch, a Jersey dentist, was the first to process and pasteurize grape juice in 1869. He used Concords from his yard.
  • The Concord “went public” in 1854, the result of Ephraim Wales Bull tinkering around his yard and cultivating a crossbreed from local Massachusetts strains. It was an instant belle of the ball, a robust flavor that took Ms. Slab several years to warm up to. Nor is she alone; the skins can be thick, the acid content high. However, these are often (as Ken noted) clones: faux Concords developed with skins thick enough to protect the delicate flesh during shipping. Of course, Buzzard sells the real deal; and you can taste the difference.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Phở Sàigòn Restaurant

These are trying times we live in, good reader. Not much in this mixed-up crazy world makes a whole lot of sense. Except, of course, the fact that Vietnamese Restaurants usually serve lousy Banh Mi. After all, this is street food we're talking about, sandwiches wrapped in a little paper and eaten on the move. Hardly an experience enhanced by seats or tables or waiters.

That being said, the Vietnamese Restuarant Banh Mi (VRBM) we've tried in NYC always taste like awkward afterthoughts: loaves (dry from neglect) stuffed with obscure slices of gelatinous “meat.” In mathematical terms, where R represents Restaurant, B represents Big, and S represents Shiny, the formula goes something like this:

R + (BS) = lousy Banh Mi

Still, you know the old saying? The one about making and breaking rules? I mention this only because one of (if not the) best new Banh Mi in town just happens to come from Chinatown's biggest, shiniest new Vietnamese restaurant: Pho Saigon Restaurant, to be precise.

Pho Saigon stepped into a dubious space, 52 Bowery a/k/a the site of the old New Silver Palace Restaurant. This 900-seat former dim sum hall was perhaps best known for a long-running, high-profile Federal labor dispute. But that's all in the past; controversy has long faded, and the renovated interior is bright and pleasantly protest-free. Lured in by pictures of tasty-looking dishes above the door, The Porkchop Express was more than ready to try something new.
The #55 Banh Mi Saigon

We sat down and cut to the chase: one #55 Banh Mi Saigon (“House Special Sandwich”). It took a few minutes to prepare, and that boded well; this wasn't your typical pre-fab, hastily-made VRBM. Not at all. #55 came fully loaded with sliced ham, unobtrusive pork loaf, chopped chiar siu-style pork, peppery pork roll, and grilled BBQ pork. You sense the theme? Porky goodness, paired with the usual suspects (cilantro, carrot/daikon pickles, mayo, hot peppers).

For so much action, this was a surprisingly light and balanced sandwich. The reason? Pho Saigon doesn't overdo any one ingredient, and the proportions are sound. Discreet slices and thoughtful chunks let the flavors blend without competing. And in such agreeable moderation, even the fatty pepper-pork roll (a personal unfavorite) sorta makes sense. Add some well-chosen bread–soft, airy French baguettes served crisp without being overtoasted–and you're left with a winner.
The #59 Banh Mi Nem Nuong

Whilst eating, we couldn't help but notice several folks ordering enticing plates of long grilled porkburger-type things. So we cleared the palate with a glass of sweet Fresh Lemonade ($1.25) and went for round two: a #59 Banh Mi Nem Nuong (“Roast Pork Vietnamese Sandwich”). The BBQ meat arrived fresh off the grill, stuffed in a baguette spread with some seriously tasty paté. This was all well and good, but I found myself wishing I had ordered it on rice, and reminiscing over the balance of flavors that made #55 so satisfying.

Regardless, one thing was clear: rethink the VRBM policy. Every once in awhile it's good to take stock of your assumptions and rethink your prejudices, and for The Porkchop Express that time was now. So we got up to shoot the breeze with Pho Saigon owner Phong “John” Lam, to get the story behind the fellow bold enough to break with tradition and serve a truly tasty NYC Restaurant Banh Mi.
Good peoples: Phong Lam spreads the cheer at Pho Saigon

Phong's route to the Bowery was long. Born in China and raised in Vietnam, he and his Wife moved to Portland, Oregon before heading East. He eventually opened a shop on Canal selling tourist goods, but a brutal fire in 2005 made him rethink the whole operation. The store (and everything inside) was ruined, so Phong switched gears and headed to Vietnam to regroup, eat, cook and gather recipes. He returned with a plan: souvenirs be damned, he would open a restaurant in February of 2006.

It wasn't easy getting started, and the high kitchen/waitstaff turnover hardly helped. But as stability set in, so did business begin to grow. And through it all, the Lam family stuck together. Phong, his wife and kids work hard, and their good-natured chemistry is hard to miss. They provide the place with a welcoming sense of calm, a feeling of harmony not always evident in Chinatown's giant bustling eateries.

This understated confidence also manifests itself in the food, and in Phong's adventurous spirit. He tinkers with different Banh Mi combinations every so often, testing and prodding en route to delicious. As a banh mi enthusiast and fellow conquistador of flavor, I for one applaud his efforts.

Pho Saigon is open til 10pm daily, so you can scratch that after-hours Banh Mi itch in style!

Phở Sàigòn Restaurant
52 Bowery Street
Chinatown, New York, NY
(212) 226-3751/240-9488
Banh Mi: $3.00

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Á Châu Deli

Have you heard the new Beyoncé? She named it B'Day! Because her names starts with a B!! And it's her day!!! Also, the album was released THE DAY BEFORE HER 25th BIRTHDAY!!!!

Now that I've totally blown your mind, you might be wondering why I bring all this up. Simple: a) her new single gets me in the mood to pork; and b) it was playing as I walked into a little Chinatown storefront that specialized in... wait for it... pork.

The place? Á Châu Deli. The product? Nothing less than the most highly touted new Banh Mi in NYC.

Á Châu opened about 4 months back to almost instantaneous praise. Eager banh mi enthusiasts were soon emailing The Porkchop Express, urging us to head to Chinatown to try this latest addition to the Vietnamese sandwich scene. So we did.
The most common thread linking all the emails? Á Châu's bread: readers really like these loaves. Delivered daily, they reasonably distinctive. Think what you find at Hanco's or Nicky's, but a bit more: more golden sheen, more crusty crust, a more chewy interior. It's relatively substantial: not “Sullivan street” Tuscan, but definitely not “creampuff light.” This generally serves the sandwich well, especially in some of the juicier combos.
Baby got back: the #2 Meatball sandwich

Take, for instance, the #2-Bánh Mì Xíu Mi a/k/a “Vietnamese Meatball with red sauce.” I have a real soft spot for meatballs, and by “soft spot for” I mean “utter lack of willpower to resist delicious.” Ideal meatballs are lightly-handled rounds with a moist, almost crumbly texture, seasoned to compliment (rather than mask) their meatiness. When done right, this is the stuff of sonnet, a gracious companion to any meal. But overhandling or mis-spicing renders little more than heavy lumps of heartburn-inducing rubber.

Á Châu's meatballs certainly aren't bad, but nor will they make me “pull a Longfellow.” They're tasty, with nice texture... but a bit dull. (*Yawn*) In addition to the standard Banh Mi accoutrements, Á Châu slathers one side of the loaf with a mysterious “red sauce” which, from what I gathered, was thin, pleasantly oily, and tomato-based.

For all intents and purposes, this combo yields something like an Italian Meatball Hoagie Light (with cilantro). For this reason, I recommend it to the meatball-loving lactose intolerant crowd which, according to my studies, now numbers in the double-digits.
#3 Shredded Pork on stoop (in lieu of traditional “table” or “counter”): note the side of dipping sauce.

Next up to bat? Yours truly, this time taking aim at the #3 Bánh Mì Bì a/k/a “Shredded Pork Sandwich (Fish sauce optional).” The phrase “Shredded pork” is usually a cause for celebration: tender and meaty, this fine filling-choice turns the heads of discriminating sandwich eaters everywhere from the Carolinas to Québec.

To be honest, the taste was fine: more subtle than I had expected, and far less chewy. Perfect, I would guess, for the Banh Mi eater with dentures who likes things mild style. The side of dipping sauce was pretty exciting tho. It instantly transported me to the first time I ate a Chicken McNugget, and the thrill that to this day accompanies the use of dipping sauces. (Yes good reader, some things never get old.)

I was curious about both pork preparations, so I struck up a conversation with the folks behind the counter. To hilariously unproductive results, I might add. You know how teenagers have that reputation? Surly and too-cool-for-school? I never thought it was true, but I might have to reconsider. The two kids working had connections (their godparents are the owners), but were pretty tight-lipped.

I only pried loose a few facts: the owners hail from Vietnam; they got their permit in May, and opened shop in either May or June; and Á Châu may (or may not) mean “Asia.” As for questions about the meatballs, shredded pork, bread bakers, and most popular sandwich? Met with what I've often seen described as “stony silence.” To wit:
PE: how many sandwiches do you sell daily?
“No idea.”
PE: a couple hundred?
PE: More or less, would you say?
[shrug, silence.]
Smelled like teen spirit. But it also kinda added to the charm. This is a strictly business, takeout-only place; who has time to chat, present company excluded? Plus, they were too busy fielding orders and making Banh Mi. And most important, their prep skills were on point: these sandwiches are well-balanced; made spicy when asked; neither cold nor clammy; etc. So I went back one last time for the hat trick, and the #6 Bánh Mì Ðặc Biệt.
#6 Classic: Funk in the trunk

The #6 is Á Châu's riff on “the Classic,” replete with Vietnamese Ham, Steamed Pork, BBQ Pork, and Paté. By my count, that's four types of pork... which instantly made the #6 a contender for #1. And really, this was the best of the bunch. The chiar-siu flavored BBQ revealed solid roasting technique (moist chunks mixed with crisp chewy ends). The meat was a little fatty, but the flavor was good, and it wasn't overwhelmed by the other porks. Vietnamese Ham, thick cut and barely (if at all) smoked, was used in thoughtful moderation. And the veggies kept things poppin' fresh. Our only advice? Unless you love fatty boiled bacon consider removing the peppery, globular slices of “Steamed Pork.”
Another satisfied customer!

So there you have it, friend. A hotspot that kind of lives up to its rep. A small storefront south of Canal near the park, with big flavor and a lot of heart. A delicious deal at 3 bucks per meal. All this and Beyoncé to boot? Ta-dow, how you like them now!

Pretty good, Á Châu. Pretty darn good.

Á Châu Deli
82A Mulberry Street
Chinatown, New York, NY (212) 766-3332
Banh Mi: $3.00
Tasty Fresh Lemonade: $1.50

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