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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

One of Life's Great Questions

A little something from the Smackdown vault, an exchange that began (back in January) with a very simple question...And an unrelated answer...
And some “true grit” journalistic follow-up...
And a quippy reply...
So I called.

Long story short? Cracker Jacks were started by a German guy named F.W. Rueckheim who did not, in all likelihood, refer to white people as “crackers.”

Mystery solved!


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Green Power

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Guttin' It Out

If you missed this year's Big Apple BBQ Block Party and need some consolation, click this:
It's a pic of part of one line. To get some hush puppies. (In the “FastPass” lane.)

But what did you expect? Logistical hassles are a tradition at NYC's annual Barbecue festival; what you take from the experience depends sorely on your “personal patience” to “love of smoked meat” quotient.
$8 = “the new $2”?? Underwhelming fare from New York City's own Blue Smoke

Alas, both patience and love were tested from go with the “Kansas City Ribs & Pickles” from co-founder Kenny Callaghan's Blue Smoke. We wanted to like this hometown entry but it just wasn't very good: two lean ribs on a slice of potato bread, with a few pieces of pickled okra and carrots... for $8. (As another pitmaster put it: “Two ribs... two ribs?!”)

You know how folks say white people are light in the buttockular region? This was the smoked meat equivalent of Olson Twin ass: underwhelming, and a bit annoying. Unless boney, slightly tough, unmemorable ribs gussied up with a few schnazzy pickles puts “blood in your sausage.” Maybe the restaurant is better, but nothing about this dish left us curious.
Despite quintuple fryer action...
...these puppies were slowwwww

Fortunately, City Grocery's Smoked Crawfish & Okra Hush Puppies were more satisfying: a bit heavy on the cornmeal, but intermittent bites of plump crawfish and gooey okra spruced up the party. They also had a nice spice and great price ($4). But they did not – I repeat, not – justify that brutal line. Which isn't to say these puppies sucked; it's rather to question the organizational forethought of serving “fry to order” food at such a ridiculously crowded event.
And yet... it didn't really matter. We were here for the smoked meat, and found two terrific entries to write home about. First up? Our favorite pulled pork of the festival: Yazoo City, Mississippi's finest Ubon's “Champion's Choice.

Ubon's is a fifth generation-and-counting Roark family operation, and current pitmaster Garry has been with his team for over 25 years. Their experience shows. This is one fat mean bbq machine, a fine-tuned ode to time-tested flavor traditions. They told me their style is more Southwestern Missouri than Mississippi (a nod to the family's origins), but we didn't know what they meant care. Good meat is good eats, no matter the origins.

So why was Ubon's superlative? Their intensely flavorful pork shoulder was supremely well-cooked (10-15 hours of hickory smoking) and terrifically textured. Pulled pork sometimes tastes steamed, especially when chopped to a soggy, shredded mess and drowned in sauce. But Ubon's delivered the real deal: nice big chunks pulled straight from a plump shoulder. I was fortunate enough to get a hand-plucked piece hot from the smoker and almost passed out from the excitement. But there was more to be had. Such as...
Mess with TexasNo Nonsense
A slab for the Slab: Joe Duncan of Baker's Ribs

Our favorite of the day: Baker’s Ribs from Dallas, TX. Baker's served three of the best ribs I've eaten in recent memory, and singlehandedly made me rethink the “St. Louis” cut as a preferred alternative to baby back. This was delicious stuff: plump, succulent meat enhanced by a great rub, and brought to life with terrific smoking/grilling technique. Add a thin, slightly spicy sauce that elevated the whole experience, and we were – for once – left with absolutely no complaints. Even their spartan peppery slaw satisfied in a no-nonsense sort of way. These guys are no joke, and it was a pleasure to enjoy the ribs of their labor.

Afterwards I spent some time talking with pitmaster Joe Duncan and got a few pointers. For one, BBQ isn't brain surgery – but it is difficult to execute. There are three main variables (quality of meat, spicing, cooking) and Baker's nails every one. This was inspirational to behold and taste, especially after our Blue Smoke mishap. Baker's has been hickory-smoking in Dallas since 1978, and their Texas roots were on full display: dry cooking technique, strong pride in quality meats, and a complementary (yet unnecessary) sauce.

Duncan started with a love of cooking outdoors and discovered he could make a living at it. And while he was clearly a man of staid temperament and steady focus, his BBQ is all about the love. As he confided, “no one makes a dime up here. It's all charity, and all to promote good barbecue.” Make that great barbecue; stuff that's good enough to get you through a few bumps in the NYC pavement, en route to smoked meat bliss.

The 6th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party
Madison Square Park, NYC
June 7-8, 2008

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

It's On

Breaking News: Greek People Are Super Fun, Love To Hang Out & Eat Pork (This Week Only)

Here's a Hot Pork Tip (ayyyy) for anyone in or near downtown Brooklyn: the Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral Grecian Festival is on until Sunday, and it's worth hitting up.
Truth be told, NYC outdoor fairs usually suck because they: 1) have lousy, generic food; 2) are packed with morons wandering aimlessly down long traffic-blocking streets; and 3) don't serve liquor.

The good news? None of this applies to the Grecian Festival because it: 1) has terrific, unique food cooked by Michelle Tampakis (Pastry Arts Instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education) and a bevy of little old Greek ladies; 2) was packed with a warm mix of welcoming, hi-larious Greeks and local Brooklynites; and 3) serves alcohol (Greek wine, liquor, beer) at wholly reasonable prices ($3-$4).

Which is to say: the sign may have said “Festival,” but the whole affair felt more like Super Fun Mediterranean Party I Accidentally Stumbled Across. Which is actually what happened. I was running down Schermerhorn yesterday (true story) and smelled some pork grilling. I headed back later for lunch, and ended up returning for dinner as well. Because good people + good food + outdoors + catching buzz = my kind of Grecian formula. As to the food?
Do it Greek-style: pork souvlaki, ready for the eating

The smell that first caught my attention was none other than pork souvlaki. Some call souvlaki “The Hamburger of Greece”; I call it “delicious grilled meat stick with extra Slab appeal.” Juicy and moist. Marinated for a long time, with a seasoning that enhances (not overwhelms) the porkiness. By Zeus, I could eat this kind of thing all day. Especially stuffed in a fluffy pita ($6) and topped with a generous dose of their creamy, chunky, garlicky tsatsiki.
Platters with cheese: beef and eggplant moussaka (l) and spanikopita

But pace thyself; there is plenty more to be had. Head down the small alley (under the archway, next to the cathedral), and you'll see a row of tables (wo)manned by nice old Greek ladies and chipper young Greek students serving up heartfelt delicacies. We liked everything we tried starting with the unique dolmades (5 for 6$), aromatic beef-and-rice stuffing wrapped in tender grape leaves and washed in a terrific egg-and-lemon “avgolemono” sauce (a nice tart compliment to the savory filling). The tiropites (3 for 2$) were equally compelling, delicate buttery filo pastries stuffed with a creamy, salty blend of Greek cheeses. Nor did the main courses let us down. Platters of elegantly seasoned spanikopita and well-balanced moussaka (above, $8) had us thanking Hera's cow that these kind folks were sharing their home cooking.
Keepers of the Kourambiethes
The Loukoumades Ladies: Ms. Gavales and Ms. Apostolakos deliver delicious donut delight

Now whatever you do, save room for desert. Choices range from walnut baklava to galaktoboureko (honey-soaked filo stuffed with a creamy, lemony semolina custard). But good lord (wo)man don't leave without ordering the loukoumades. Because these Greek donuts (5 for $2) are so freakin' good. They are served fresh from the fryer, topped with a dash of powdered sugar and cinnamon and bathed in a honeyed syrup. Any self-respecting donut enthusiast out there should heed the word of the Slab: this is worth a serious detour.
Michelle Tampakis' daughter Sophia and friends/sous-chefs

As is the whole affair. These Greeks put the “festive” in festival, and their good cheer is wholly infectious. Everyone working is a volunteer, and everyone I met was associated with either the school, the cathedral, or both. Which makes sense. This community is close-knit and stretches back nearly a century – to the time when a small group of Spartan immigrants moved into an apartment on Hoyt Street in nearby Boerum Hill. In the 1920s they moved their church to Schermerhorn, and (in the 1960s) founded the Argyrios Fantis Parochial School. Soon after the community started an annual tradition: a Grecian Festival held during the first week of June, with food and drink, dancing and music, young and old alike getting down. It's a party over 40 years in the holding, and these folks do it right.

Which is to say: I really can't recommend this more strongly. It's still on thru the weekend, so try and make it down . They are spit-roasting a whole lamb on both Friday and Saturday, if that offers extra incentive (it should). And if not, they'll be doing it all again next year starting on the first Monday in June. Kali orexi, indeed.

The Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn Annual Grecian Festival
Where: 64 Schermerhorn Street (betw. Boerum Place and Court Street), Downtown Brooklyn, 11201
When: June 2-8; Friday 11am-1am, Saturday 1pm-1am, Sunday noon-4pm
What else:
  • Kali orexi is the Greek “bon appetite” - it (also) literally means “good appetite.”
  • This affair takes a full month of food preparation: slow eats are good eats.
  • The “old timers” carefully guard their recipes. (From their own kids even.)
  • The Fantis school has 130 students; Greek language is part of the curriculum.
  • Michelle Tampakis and her daughters are looking to open a Greek wine and desert bar in Red Hook in the next few years, so stay tuned.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Red Hook'd: The Interview

We recently sat down with Cesar Fuentes, Executive Director of the Red Hook Food Vendors Committee to discuss the upcoming Red Hook Soccer Fields Food season. A few points worth noting:
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents will look very different: out with the tents, in with the city-mandated mobile food vending trucks.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents will taste the same: as of our interview, each of last year's vendors is planning on returning.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents might expand their days and months of operation: the new permits are valid year-round.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents need your support more than ever: the new permits, fees and operating costs have more-than-quadrupled their expenses.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents are still not open: we're hoping for mid-June, and we'll let you know ASAP.
Taco interest piqued? Read on!

Porkchop Express: First things first: what is the latest vendor movement? Is everyone returning? And can we expect anyone new?
Cesar Fuentes: So far, everyone – including the Rojas – has expressed a willingness to continue. However, I cannot guarantee each vendor will be selling this season. It's become more a matter of being able to afford a mobile vending unit, and maintaining profitability despite this season's added costs. I am also taking applications for more South American food vendors; you'll be the first to know.

PE: What are the permit details? And how have costs increased?
CF: Our permit is secured for 6 full years. However, there are tons of regulations and provisions to observe. We can still lose our permit at any point for any reason Parks feels our operation is non-compliant. As for costs, the permit fee is currently the same as last year's ($10,500). Our RfP request negotiated the same rate, with a 5% increase each year of operation. Unfortunately, new (additional) permit requirements will increase the committee's operating figure by as much as $30,000 from last year. And this does not even include the $35,000 -$40,000 average cost per food vending truck per vendor.

PE: What is the best thing to come out of last year's struggles?
CF: Last year showed resiliency on the part of the vendors. It also brought to light the appreciation our patrons and the community have for our affair, fighting and advocating on our behalf. It has improved the quality of our business by making things legal and in compliance, all without fear of further persecution. And the best thing, of course, is that we won a 6 year permit that will allow us to continue our tradition for the near future.

PE: And the worst?
CF: Probably the fact that our victory was bittersweet. The physical, unique aesthetic - weather beaten tarps, an old world food bazaar and unique 'mercado' feel - couldn't be kept despite our appeals for its preservation. And the operating costs for each vendor to continue selling in the park may be prohibitively high for some.

PE: In terms of your own efforts, what are you most content with?
CF: I am content with choosing the right path of action: becoming a public voice and fierce advocate for the vendors, as opposed to standing still and watching our affair become another New York casualty of change. It certainly made a difference. Our friends and supporters heard this voice and amplified it immeasurably... and the rest is history.

PE: In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
CF: Unfortunately, this advocacy also brought a lot of headaches, personal challenges and opposition both within and outside of our group. The press took a generally supportive role, but some articles were counter-productive or just plain misleading and ill-informed [except The 'Chop, which is the greatest news source ever in the history of porking. –ed. note]. Some say 'the end justifies the means,' and I would agree in this case. Yet given a second chance, I would be more careful about what and to whom I spoke - just to avoid the headaches.

PE: How much do you think race, language and immigration played into the city's crackdown?
CF: This is certainly a very touchy subject, and I have heard compelling arguments that these were some of the reasons behind the city's crackdown. I also believe the vendor's increased fame and notoriety accelerated this process, along with general changes to the area. It might also simply have been 'our time' to face compliance. I can't help but think that it was a collection of all these factors, and that one word sums it all up: gentrification.

PE: Speaking of which, the demographic has changed dramatically in under a year. There are way more non-Latino people visiting. How has gentrification of the ballfields themselves changed the Red Hook experience? And how have the vendors reacted?
CF: The demographics of our affair has certainly (and dramatically) changed. But change has been good. Actually, great. And here is why. For the longest time, the vendors thought they were simply a side attraction to the soccer games. Remember, for most of our 34 year tradition, it was about soccer and (mostly) Latino fans of the game coming to the park. Although changes began slowly in the 1990's, it was still a predominantly Latino clientèle. It wasn't truly until the 2000's that Non-Latinos began to 'discover' this hidden culinary treasure in a once neglected and forgotten corner of Brooklyn. Since many of our patrons now pay less mind to soccer than to Huaraches, the vendors have become the main attraction. When Red Hook was rediscovered, so were the food vendors. Still, vendors' reactions were mixed: some adapted quickly, others more gradually. Some were reserved and others were very outspoken. In all, the majority has come to accept and embrace the change of demographics. This is why despite soccer tournament attendance being at at an all-time low (which reflects fewer Latino customers), the vendors went ahead and invested their time, passion and resources to continue at Red Hook. They could have easily relocated to other fields in the city with a stronger Latino presence, but didn't – even if they felt anger or initial resentment towards the change. And in a very human way, the vendors have adapted to change in the way they operate and do business, welcoming new crowds without sacrificing their authenticity.

PE: A reader asked us about Lingonberry Horchata; how do you think Ikea will affect the ballfields? And has [nearby] Fairway already changed things?
CF: We will try to be good neighbors. We hope our crowds and the occasional double-parked vehicle won't affect flow of traffic on weekends. And while I don't expect IKEA or Fairway to affect our operation, the Baseball field food vendors (operating on Sundays) were removed from selling in Field #9 (right across from IKEA) for this season.

PE: For those who can't wait to get started eating, which of the vendors have permanent restaurants or sell their food elsewhere?
CF: Perez Mexican (Tacos) & Carcamo Honduran (Baleadas) still have their restaurants in Park Slope, Brooklyn - I believe you already have their addresses at The Porkchop Express. Martinez Mexican (Huaraches), Vaquero Mexican (elotes, fruits) and Soler Dominican\Salvadoran (Pupusas) also set-up satellite stands at Brownstoner's Brooklyn Flea Market, effective Memorial Day weekend.

PE: When you do finally open, what are the hours (and days) of operation this year? Will you serve food on Mondays and holidays?
CF: The best news of all is that OUR PERMIT IS YEAR ROUND! However, we probably don't expect to stay open 7 days or weather 12-inch snowfalls. Most likely we will remain open on seasonal weekends, long holiday weekends (including Mondays) and some weekdays. It's still in the works - we need to concentrate on opening, first! We're hoping for mid-June, but The Porkchop Express will be the first to know.

PE: So if you could, break rank and give us your top 3 NON-Red Hook tacos in the city.
CF: Of course. In descending order:
3) Any Taco truck along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens (along the #7 line, specifically between Roosevelt Avenue and Shea Stadium. There are several to choose from). [I agree. -ed. note]
2) The Taco truck on 96th street and Broadway (Super Taco) in Manhattan.
1) And finally, my favorite Mexican restaurant: El Coyote in Queens on Hillside Avenue and 180th Street. It's a hole-in-the-wall type of place, very small but cozy. Just about every thing is great, and in my opinion they have the best Cecina and Al Pastor tacos outside of Red Hook's own Perez Mexican.

Sorry, no tips about Brooklyn tacos - for obvious reasons. The best Mexican Tacos are in Red Hook Park!

PE: Is there anything else you want to share with the people?
CF: On behalf of the Red Hook Food Vendors, thanks to all of you for your love, care and support for our affair. You gave us the strength we needed to fight an uphill battle that is almost conquered. We are deeply grateful. And most importantly, remember that our victory is something for everyone to share. Over the next 6 years, our vendors will dedicate their authentic delicious Latin foods to each and every one of you.