Saturday, August 15, 2009

Adventures in the Horn of Africa

When I lace up my shoes for work, I'm not going for any kind of statement. So when I needed a replacement pair recently, I headed to the Silver Spring DSW - where the plain, cheap loafer is perfectly constructed for the government employee just looking to fit in.

Shoe-shopping works up an appetite. With a box of new and shiny yet unmistakably conventional shoes in hand, I left DSW in search of a meal more interesting than my footwear selection. It was my first time in downtown Silver Spring, but its reputation for ethnic foods preceded it.

Taste of Morocco on Colesville Rd was alluring, but I settled on Abol, an Ethiopian place a few blocks away. The cuisine of the Horn of Africa has had the attractive force of a magnetic field over me ever since, well, the Horn of Africa - a food cart in Portland where a red lentil stew left me like an alphabet letter longing for a refrigerator door.

Inside Abol, I noticed a City Paper review that rated the restaurant one of the top 50 joints in the DC area. Abol, it said, means "authentic" or "original." I checked my shoes at the door and grabbed a table.

But the waitress/co-owner, Birtukan, and I got off to a rocky start. I wanted to order the very last item on the menu, the kuanta firfir - dried beef sauteed in berbere sauce and mixed with pieces of injera. Birtukan was against it.

"You will not like it," she said. "Trust me!"

"Okay, okay," I said. "But why won't I like it?"

"You just won't!"

The more she resisted, the more curious I became. Her broken english was emphatic but less than cogent. I told her that if she didn't let me order the kuanta firfir, I would go to another restaurant. Defeated, she stomped sullenly back to the kitchen to relay my order to the cooks.

The kitchen produced the dish quickly, and Birtukan placed it on my table with one last look of disapproval.

I peeled back a covering layer of injera expecting the worst. At the same time, I was intent on proving my exotic palate to Birtukan no matter what. I would finish whatever atrocity of Ethiopian cuisine she had tried to protect me from.

But underneath the injera there was nothing festering or discolored or slithering. Just dried beef with pieces of injera soaked in spicy berbere.

Still, Birtukan watched me anxiously as I took my first bite, probably waiting for me to grimace or spit it out. But the dried beef was crispy like bacon. Actually, it was slightly chewier, which was fantastic because it gave me more time to enjoy the smoky, blended flavors of chili pepper, coriander, and ginger. There will be no justice as long as we as a society allow naive Westerners like the one who ordered this dish before me - and protested it enough to psychologically scar Birtukan - the privilege of continuing to dine at Ethiopian restaurants.

"Excellent," I said to Birtukan from across the dining room. I saw her smile for the first time, beamingly.

Her husband, Belete, visited my table and explained that Ethiopians consider kuanta firfir to be a light meal and typically have it for breakfast. I admitted that as a Westerner I wasn't crazy about the idea of eating dried meat for breakfast, but lunch and dinner were another story.

Belete was quick to reward my enthusiasm for his food. At no charge, he gave me an extra side of yefasolia - string beans and carrots cooked with vegetable oil, tomato, garlic, ginger, and green peppers.

As if my visit to Abol wasn't already rewarding enough, as I was leaving the restaurant, I realized the significance of discovering the City Paper's Top 50 list: my guide to DC dining for the foreseeable future. I have now marked my refrigerator door with a printed copy of this list. If Julie Powell can cook 524 Julia Child recipes in one year, Marcy and I can go to 50 DC restaurants by March. The standard's been set high for the other 49.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Galician Clams

1. Alejandro Perez and his four younger sisters take the path through the pine and eucalyptus trees to la praia de Testal, the nearest beach to the town of Galicia, Spain. Scaling the small dunes, they look down on the wet sand that continues out to the sea. Before them in the sand they find three other children, crouching, digging into the dark wetness, red buckets at their sides. Alejandro throws a rock that skips off the tighly packed beach about a foot from the youngest child's foot, and the three young intruders yell insults over their shoulders as they scamper away, disappearing over the dunes. Alejandro watches them run, then turns back towards the sea. He knows that the water is shallow with no threatening undercurrents or surprise slopes. He finds irony in the beauty and calmness of the surrounding landscape. His clothes are sandy from yesterday's work.

Different parts of Testal have historic clam collecting rights bestowed on specific families, and it is an offense to remove even a single live clam from the beach if you don't have a license. Alejandro doesn't need his license, though. Everyone in these parts knows that the Perez family's terroritory extends from the tallest eucalyptus tree on the north side to the ice cream hut on the south side. The stretch of coastline belonging to the Perez family measures only 15 feet.

A car engine sputters behind him, and he turns to see Jorge rolling over the dunes in his 4x4, the barrell tip of a homemade mac-10 visible by his shoulder. The two echange nods. Alejandro spits as the 4x4 disappears out of view. Jorge and the rest of his "shell police" patrol the beach in uniform all year looking for thieves. They take a 10 percent cut of the Perez family's proceeds in exchange.

Alejandro sets his bucket down, crouches and begins a long day of digging his fingers through the soggy sand. His sisters follow suit. The clams are a couple inches under the surface. It is autumn, time for the seafood-loving world to turn its attention to Galicia's famous clam harvest.

2. Seven hours later, Alejandro picks up three full buckets, two in one hand, and starts back towards the dunes. His body jerks awkwardly with every step - his muscles might curse the bounty of his catch, but his mind barely registers the strain. His ripped shirt sleeves flutter with the wind like flags raised to celebrate the day's harvest. Soon, he hears his sisters' footsteps scraping the hot sand behind him. They walk quickly, showing the urgency of lawyers punching up a brief for a COB deadline. Somewhere inland someone is waiting for them.

They trek miles into the forest without speaking, vines and mosses cracking underfoot, through a clearing and back onto the path that leads eventually to a boiling-hot paved road. It's by the side this road that Kelvin Cochran has parked his minivan. Kelvin is the 23-year old former fraternity brother of Don Harris, Jr. Don Jr. is the grandson of Don Harris, Sr., who came to Spain as a U.S. Navy chaplain in 1965, and after retirement, started a mail-order company called La Tienda.

Alejandro and his sisters set six buckets on the ground, and, one-by-one, Kelvin inspects them and throws the good ones into an icebox in the back of his van. Twenty minutes later, Alejandro dumps about half the buckets - the discards - into his filthy backpack. Kelvin knows Spanish and Alejandro English, but the two 23-year-olds conduct business in silence as usual. Kelvin pays his supplier 1,000 pesos and then Kelvin's cell rings: it's La Tienda's pick-and-pack facility in Alicante, Spain, wondering where their delivery is. Behind Kelvin's back, Alejandro and his sisters take handfuls of the bigger clams back out of the ice box and slip them into the backpack.

3. Kelvin zooms his La Tienda minivan alongside the Duero River to the closest airport, 40 miles away in Santiago de Compestela. He drives right up to a bright blue midsize plane on the runway and unloads the icebox filled with Perez family clams, in addition to fourteen other iceboxes that look just like it, into the arms of the American pilot. Minutes later, Kelvin watches the plane bump along the runway and then wobble into the air and kiss the setting sun. He examines the interior of his thin wallet and heads towards the black volcano sand for a night of drinking at various shacks that dot the feet of the Cliffs of Los Gigantes. Beats studying for the LSATs back in the States.

4. The blue plane touches down on a runway a couple hundred yards behind the pick-and-pack plant in Alicante, where the clams are taken off the ice and quickly poached in sea water. They are cleaned by hand, placed one-by-one in small gold cans, and moved onto another, larger plane. Destination: Williamsburg, Virginia.

5. I sit on my couch in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I have already eaten two dinners this evening, but, perversely, I am still thinking about food. I leaf through Gourmet Magazine and find an article urging me to visit La Tienda's website for the opportunity to spend $64 on a 5.3 ounce can of 12 Galician clams. Almeja Blanca, or white clams, are one of the kings of European seafood, and 100% satisfaction is guaranteed. I go to the website and, twenty or so punched computer buttons later, I become one of the thousands of people who buy "Los Peperetes" clams from La Tienda each month. Los Peperetes is an example of a long Spanish tradition of canning gourmet seafood, the La Tienda website explains. Unlike in other parts of the world, Spaniards have just as much respect for canned seafood as for fresh, especially for the fish and shellfish of Galicia.
Don Harris has written a special note on his website about the quality of La Tienda's food. It's signed, "Tu Amigo, Don Harris."

6. Five days later, I pull into a driveway in Port Republic, Maryland. It leads to my friend Lolly's cabin, which sits in a thin forest and looks down on the Chesapeake Bay. I grab my beach bag, which contains the gold-color can, and I head down to the water. It's the end of the day and the sky and water share the same shades of pink and glaucous. Bald cypress trees with smooth gray bark cast great shadows over patches of wildflowers.

We get the can open, revealing a pungent sea salt smell that dominates the milder scent of the Chesapeake, with its mixture of Atlantic Ocean salt water and fresh water from various rivers and tributaries.

Our friend Sarah says she doesn't usually like clams, but she likes these. Lolly says they remind her of oysters. I like the texture combination: the gills on the surface are unusually tough, the fleshy organs on the inside unusually soft and creamy. Each clam is large and plump. Their taste is simple and appealing like the faraway sea they come from.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mexican Hot Dogs and Popcorn Ceviche: An Evening at Las Peliculas

I was recently inspired to recreate classic junk food as a fine dining dish. I wish I could say that the inspiration came from some ironic life experience like happening to walk past Gramercy Tavern while eating a Twinkie, but it was actually just a quickfire challenge on Top Chef Masters.

Lachlan Patterson from Boulder, CO, who won a James Beard Award and Best New Chef from Food & Wine, made a popcorn ceviche for his appearance as a contestant on Masters. I decided to steal his idea. And the other junk food I was craving? Hot dogs. Apparently it's been a while since I went to the movies.

But how do you turn hot dogs into a gourmet plate? Has anything remotely sophisticated ever been paired with dogs? If so, was that a wise decision? As inclined as I am towards innovation, I was not prepared to be the first person in culinary history to waste caviar or pate upon a wiener.

Mexican hot dogs would have to suffice. These francos double the guilty pleasure of the relatively tame American version. They're wrapped with bacon, stuffed with jalapenos, beans, tomatoes and onions, and caressed with mayonaisse, ketchup, and mustard. I used Smart Bacon and Smart Dog JUMBO Veggie Protein Links because the judge, Marcy the vegetarian, likes her hot dogs intelligent.

The menu was already pretty theateresque with my popcorn and hot dogs, and I decided to embrace the movie theme. A South American movie theme, at that.

I paid a visit to a movie theater in Chevy Chase to pick up a few accessories for the dinner table: Good & Plenty's and Raisinets. I also wanted some empty drink cups to serve the popcorn, but Jarrod, the pimply counter boy, was apparently angling for Mazza Gallerie employee of the week and refused to give me the cups free of charge. After a tense five minutes arguing that he was wasting his youth unless he rebelled against the corporate machine, I paid nine bucks for two empty soda cups.
Back home, I got to work on the ceviche. I'd already bought some black tiger shrimp from A&H Seafood Co in Bethesda and marinated it in orange and lime juice. I now mixed this marinade with a sauce of tomato juice, sriracha, cilantro, onions, and suprisingly good avocados. Surprising, because I found them at Giant. I ladled the finished product into a couple of martini glasses.
I tore open a bag of popcorn, drizzled it with olive oil and sprinkled on some cayenne pepper. Some of the popcorn was applied as a garnish for the ceviche, the rest filled the exhorbitantly expensive soda cups.

At 8:30, just as I'd added the final touches - adorning the placemats with the movie candy - there was a knock at the door. I'd purposely scheduled a late dinner to ensure that Marcy would be hungry - typically guaranteeing a 1-2 point spike in my grade - and we wasted little time before diving in. The hot dogs were excellent considering that they were made out of soy, wheat gluten, and "evaporated cane juice." Marcy said the highlight of the ceviche was the avocado, although I noted that the sauce had turned it slightly soggy.

It was time for my grade. For all this creativity and attention to aesthetics, would you believe that I was rewarded with nothing more than a lowly 93? Marcy deducted points because she suspected a low degree of difficulty. Were my verbal fisticuffs with Jarrod not difficult? She agreed to raise the score to a 95, but I continued to sulk before reviving my spirits with multiple handfuls of Raisinets.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ali Baba Gets Mainstream Props

My friends Mohamed and Nordin of Ali Baba Falafel have become Wisconsin Avenue celebrities.

As Mohamed made my falafel – which, thanks to the most recent of Ali Baba’s many falafel evolutions, now includes red cabbage – he detailed the star treatment he has received over the past few days. Customers have asked him for his autograph, and they’ve taken photographs of themselves with Mohamed’s bright green parakeets, Sharazad and Shahryar.

All thanks to a good review by Catherine Cheney in Wednesday’s Washington Post. “The difference is amazing,” says Mohamed. He estimates that he usually gets about a hundred customers on a given week day. Since Wednesday, that number has doubled.

But Mohamed hasn’t let his new rock-star status go to his head. He’s as friendly and generous as always. I’m used to receiving Mohamed’s gifts of free beverages, side dishes, and deserts. But I saw some newcomers regarding Mohamed’s offers with suspicion. They took their free food and drink tentatively, seemingly checking for bear traps.

Mohamed is a nice guy, but he's also a shrewd self-promoter – he has already laminated the Post article and a series of other reviews for display by the side of the stand. He isn’t the only self-promoter, though. I’m currently printing out my first blog about Ali Baba so Mohamed can laminate my review, too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taiwanese Burgers at North China Restaurant

I had a bad cough towards the end of last week. Neither of my parents’ doctoral degrees came in medicine, but that didn’t stop them from announcing that I probably had whooping cough. I decided to spend the weekend in the confines of my apartment to rest up, conquer my illness, and prove that, although my immune system might get caught napping once in a while, it gets up quick.

I tried to get friends to come over and watch movies, but telling them the whooping cough story wasn’t a wise choice.

Bored alone in my shadowy apartment, I contemptuously watched through my windows as people enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day. I took another swig of Tropicana and became consumed with self-pity. Figuring that comfort food would improve my mood, I cooked a big bowl of spaghetti for lunch, but all I could think about was how poorly my pomodoro compared to the version at Scarpetta (picture, below).

After reattaching myself to the couch, I sat through a heart-wrenching screening of Rachel Getting Married. It was now dinner time, and after vicariously living Anne Hathaway’s fractured relationship with her family, I craved comfort food more than ever.

It was time to call in the big guns: dirt-cheap, Americanized Chinese food. Is there anything more reassuring than the salty, greasy goop of your typical corner-store Chinese restaurant? You know, the thousands of hole-in-the-wall joints offering the same, time-tested menu perfectly designed for our unsophisticated American palates? If a swamp of starch and MSG thickened hoisin sauce can’t revive your spirits, you know you’re in some serious trouble.

I hadn’t tested out any Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, so I got on Google, and my first search result was a place called North China on Georgetown Ave. A quick scan of the menu triggered a Pavlovian rush of endorphins. Hunan shrimp, kung pao beef, moo shi pork – all the right classics to help a sad soul.

I picked up my phone, dialed the delivery-line, and was placed on hold. Then my evening took an unexpected turn.

Reading through the rest of North China’s website, I found a series of other menus, mysteriously labeled “menu 2, menu 3, menu 4.” At first, the scanned versions looked like every menu you’ve ever seen at a cheap Chinese restaurant: low prices printed in red font on thin paper, good for slipping into your to-go bag. But then I noticed that the generic categories were gone. “Healthy Diet” and “Chicken Dishes” were replaced by strange words like “Traditional Chinese” and “Taiwanese & Shanghai Style.”

“Hello?” came the voice at the other end of the line.

And the dishes in these categories totally defied Western expectations. My jaw dropped as I read down the long list of exotica: braised fish stomach, tomato shrimp with scrambled egg, smelt with peanuts, and so on. No kung-pao? Where was General Tso? Was the war over?

“Hello? Sir?” I realized that North China was about to hang up on me and stammered through my order as I admired the options.

“That’ll be 57 dollars and 23 cents,” the girl said. I snapped out of my trance and realized I’d ordered no less than six dishes! I don’t know if it was the need for comfort after fighting whooping cough all day and two hours of Ann Hathaway in tear-smeared make-up, or just the thrill of anticipating interesting food, but I felt like I would need every bite.

A little later, the delivery guy handed me two bags stuffed with smelt, jelly-fish, hamburger Taiwanese-style, crispy intestine, conch in red hot sauce, and cherries with beef.

I pried the to-go lids and sampled. All were interesting and generally good, but the third, the hamburger Taiwanese style, or gua bao, was fantastic. The burger consists of fatty, melt-in-your mouth, braised spare-rib. It’s like a shot in the arm especially when you’re expecting an average, dried-up beef paddy. And it’s topped with salty-sour pickled cabbage, relish, and cilantro. Not to mention the ingredient that really puts it over the top: they sprinkle it with that peanut-sugar powder that works so well in Pad Thai. The bun is fresh and steamed, and lightly touched with, I think, oyster sauce. I promptly added this dish to my list of 6,348 reasons to stay away from McDonald’s.

Next, I tried the crispy intestine, which was fine – I liked how they fill the hollow parts with white onion – but I kept thinking about that burger, which, sadly, was completely devoured. How had I never heard of these things before?

An internet search suggested a possible explanation: few people have. I only found two acknowledgements of their existence. One was a quick write-up in the Los Angeles Area Digest Weekly that called them a “madly wondrous thing.” The Digest shows good taste but doesn’t register a blip on the culinary radar screen.

The other was a chat room thread on Chowhound titled, “Where can I find Taiwanese burger in DC/Maryland.” Practically nowhere, according to the responses. “Good luck finding a place around DC,” said dwbengals. Bluejeans22 lamented, “I haven’t seen them on the menus anywhere in NoVa.” Strangely, no one brought up North China; I guess maybe this 2007 conversation predated their version. Chowhound reported only one Taiwanese burger sighting in the whole region: Bob’s Noodle 66.

I quickly saved Bob’s Rockville address as a note in my cell phone, grabbed my car keys, and charged the door, hoping that I’d get there before reason caught up with my feet and interfered with my stomach’s agenda. It didn’t work. I stopped in my tracks. A trip to Bob’s just didn’t make sense. Damn whooping cough. Plus I already had about four pounds of good Chinese food sitting on my dining room table.

I slumped back to my buffet and took care of business. The conch with “red hot sauce” had good texture, but I thought it was a little duplicitous to give American customers the expectation of Tobasco when the sauce was actually chili oil. The strips of jelly fish had just the right crunch and weren’t too salty. The smelt was your average dried fish but smartly paired with peanuts and the kick of sliced jalapeno. The cherry and beef dish was … well, I’ll have to tell you later. The five dishes that came before it had me pretty full.

When I hung up my chopsticks for the night, my cough was still there, but North China’s innovative Chinese comfort food had given my spirits a huge boost. When you’re sick and resting up, no matter how deprived you are of the sunny weather outside, know that you too can brighten your home by ordering a bag of Taiwanese burgers to your door.

Ali Baba Falafel Update

On my most recent visit to Ali Baba, co-owner Mohamed dropped his spatula and ran over to ask me how I’d been. The guy all but hurdled the counter and offered to make out. Mohamed, and his business partner Nordin, are usually full of personality, but today Mohamed’s enthusiasm had reached new heights.

It didn’t take long to find out why. “I have been meeting many of your co-workers!” he beamed. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to him that I was recommending Ali Baba around the office at work as a good lunchtime excursion. Mohamed reported that he’s been reaping the benefits: my apparently falafel-crazy colleagues first came in curious strolls, then stampedes.

I’d like to think that my co-workers view me as some kind of culinary prophet. You can’t fire the guy in charge of discovering good lunchtime hangouts, right?

But I’m not as sure as Mohamed that I deserve credit for the recent lunchtime pilgrimages to Wisconsin Ave. I may have given him the impression that I was roaming the halls at my job with a megaphone and disrupting meetings with rogue powerpoint presentations about falafels, but I only remember praising Ali Baba to maybe three people. Afterwards, they never said anything about actually having gone there. A few of my agency’s 200,000 employees might have acted independently.

But if Mohamed wants to believe that I am to Ali Baba as William Shatner is to and reward me with even more complimentary tahini dogs and falafel fritters than usual, so be it.

In any case, I’m sure my colleagues haven’t been disappointed. Mohamed has tweaked his technique for frying up his fritters, with exceptional results. He divulged his secret new method to me on the condition that I wouldn’t spill the fava beans on this blog. I can say, however, that the revised approach allows him to fry the fritter more deeply while achieving an exterior that’s light and crispy, not tough and burnt like Moti’s Falafel in Rockville.

And another recent change that works well: they now fry the falafels in sesame seeds, giving them a fuller flavor.

So, by the virtues of charm and innovation, the future for Mohamed and Nordin looks bright. There’s just one possible rain-cloud on the horizon. Mohamed explained that Nordin was absent from the falafel stand so that he could watch the soccer team from his home country, Algeria, compete for a spot in the World Cup. The only thing standing in Algeria’s way? The squad from Mohamed’s home country, Egypt. Could a soccer match really come between these old friends and business partners?

Nordin threatened that if Algeria lost to Egypt, he could never show his face at Ali Baba again and would start his own falafel stand. Mohamed said he wasn’t completely sure that his buddy was kidding.

A few days ago, I read that Algeria lost. That’s okay with me – there’s a nice grassy patch across from my apartment just waiting for Ali Baba #2.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Guest Blog Your Foodie Adventure

Are you by any chance traveling to California to hang out with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse?

Or did you just spend a week and a half in Sweden unwrapping delectable licorice?

These experiences were recently enjoyed by a few friends of mine, and I've been trying to convince them to blog their trips on this website. They acted like they needed invitations on a gold-plate. Well, I couldn't scare up any gold plates, but I expect points for using the classiest of the eight fonts that are available on Google blogger:

If you have any foodie adventures that you think I'd like to live vicariously, please feel free to write a guest blog. Keep in mind that I would like to vicariously live the vast majority of foodie adventures, so this shouldn't be too hard. Thanks!