Saturday, December 26, 2009

Duff's Famous Wings, Buffalo, NY

Is there something about eating food in the city after which it was named which makes it taste better? I've never had a hamburger in Hamburg, or a cheesesteak in Philly, but since moving to the US, I've had several opportunities to enjoy Buffalo wings on their home turf in Buffalo, NY. I don't know if they are actually the best wings I've tasted, but something about digging into a plate of them in northwest New York makes them seem impossible to beat.

Buffalo is located along the most direct route between my current residence in Pittsburgh and both Toronto and Montreal, and on one road trip, a quick internet cellphone search pointed our group toward Duff's Famous Wings, conveniently located only five minutes from I-90. Craving an alternative to the McDonalds-infested rest stops along the New York State Thruway, we decided a short detour was in order.

From the outside, Duff's seems to meet the requirements one would expect from a solid wing establishment. Neon lights? Check. Giant marquee advertising both how hot their wings are and the upcoming football game? Check and check. Inside there are more promising signs: televisions everywhere (including in the men's room), a bubble hockey table, and very large patrons wedged into cushy leather booths.

On all of my visits, ordering has been simple: wings and beer, and plenty of both. The wings come exactly how I like them. Wing flats and drumettes are deep-fried until crispy on the outside while staying juicy and tender on the inside. Then, from the fryer, they get tossed in lots and lots of sauce. Look at them glisten!

Before elaborating, let me digress by listing my six rules for a great order of buffalo wings. Duff's adheres to these rules pretty closely.

Rule #1. Wings shouldn't be obtained from undersized birds. I don't want wing flats that are so small that I need tweezers to pick out the meat from between the two bones. I want to be able to tear off most of it with my first bite so that I can wedge a finger in there to pry the rest of the meat loose.

Rule #2. Wings shouldn't be obtained from oversize birds. On the other hand, I don't want anything that looks like it came from a turkey. There should be a couple good mouthfuls of meat on a drumette, and that's it. Anything bigger, and I'm going to have too much meat in the interior that's under-seasoned and not in contact with any sauce.

Rule #3. The wings shouldn't be overcooked. I don't want wings that are dry, tough, or leathery. Too long in the deep fryer or too long sitting under a heat lamp and the wings are ruined.

Rule #4. Wings should be accompanied by fresh, crisp, chilled celery and blue cheese dressing. Buffalo wings are warm, the celery shouldn't be too! And is there anything less refreshing than limp celery? The creamy blue cheese dressing is great not only for dipping the celery, but for offsetting the heat with an occasional dip of a wing.

Rule #5
. Sauce quality: I want them spicy, and I want some decent acid content. I don't want teriyaki wings, I don't want honey-glazed wings, I don't anything mesquite or dry-rubbed. Just emulsify a vinegary cayenne pepper-based sauce with some fat and go nuts. Keep it simple!

Rule #6
. Sauce quantity: the sauce should be plentiful. I can't stress this last point enough. I hate it when an order of Buffalo wings comes with just a few tablespoons of sauce dripped over it. I want every square inch of wing surface area drenched in sauce. I want enough sauce on the bottom of the serving plate to swish my wing in both before and after taking that first bite. I want enough sauce to dip my celery in too. And if the sauce is good, I'm likely going to want to dip my fingers into it and lick them clean. I once had a roommate who used to keep the leftover liquid at the bottom of the bucket from our local wing take-out joint and incorporate it into his homemade pasta sauce. While I don't go that far, I do appreciate the sentiment and similarly treat a good sauce like the valuable commodity that it is.

So, how do Duff's Famous Wings fare? Perfectly sized and perfectly cooked, positively drowned in a quality sauce and accompanied by cool, crunchy celery and creamy blue cheese dressing. 6/6! I've had the medium, the medium-hot, and hot wings. I'd recommend the medium wings for people who like a bit of heat but have relatively sensitive palates. I didn't notice much difference between medium-hot and hot wings. Both caused a healthy amount of mouth and lip tingling without bordering on being unpleasant (for me), but I have a pretty high heat threshold. Some of my dining companions have struggled with anything hotter than medium. The folks over at the Hot Sauce Blog have tested the Armageddon Wings and their advertised 850,000 Scoville Heat Units, but I haven't been that brave yet. Maybe next time?

Duff's draft selection is relatively uninteresting, but I don't think you can go wrong with pitcher of Sam's Adam Boston Lager. Straightforward American beer for a straightforward American food in a straightforward American city. Since that first visit, a drive to or from Toronto or Montreal isn't complete without a quick pit stop in Buffalo.

Duff's is located at 3090 Orchard Park Road in Buffalo, NY. It's a 5 minute detour from I-90 and worth the side trip. Call (716) 674-7212 for more information.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

One year and counting!

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Hungry Canuck! I wanted to write a quick post to thank my few regular readers for their support, suggestions, and comments which have helped me build this site up to its current nearly respectable status.

In one year I managed to review establishments in five states, four countries, and on three continents (counting a day trip to the Asian side of Turkey). Personal highlights include my Southern road trip through Tennessee and transcendent Grilled Cheese in London. I seem to be attracting about 20 readers a day (hi guys!) except the two times that I have been tastespotted when about ten times that amount swarm to the site. My post about Boustan in Montreal gets the most hits which is great, since it's one that I am happiest with. I'm glad to be another resource for stoned college kids at Concordia and McGill when they get their midnight cravings

I have optimistic plans for the next year, including some extensive traveling and eating in new parts of the world. Stay tuned for details! It's also likely that in a year's time Tam and I will be living away from Pittsburgh, and there must be a dozen restaurants in the city that I want to write about before we hit the road. I'll try to get to a few of them each month in the new year.

In honour of the past year, here's one favourite picture that didn't make it into a full post: the slightly less than appetizing Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati institution. A mountain of fluorescent orange cheese, overcooked pasta, and seasoned ground beef. Somehow, I failed to appreciate its culinary value.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pittsburgh Rib Fest, Pittsburgh, PA

July 2010 update: While I haven't seen official word from the Steelers or Heinz Field, from what I can tell the 2010 festival will be held over Labor Day weekend, from September 2 - 6. The festival will kick off that Thursday evening (September 2) as the Steelers host the Carolina Panthers in the final preseason game.

August 2010 update: The Steelers have finally confirmed what I reported here weeks ago. The 2010 Rib Fest will indeed take place over Labor Day Weekend. See their press release for the full schedule of musical acts and activities. As usual, we'll be there getting our fingers messy with sauce!

As fall edges into winter here in Pittsburgh, I've been reminiscing about one of my favourite annual traditions in this city, the Pittsburgh Rib Fest.

At the end of every summer, barbecue teams descend on Heinz Field for a long weekend of outdoor grilling and competition. While awards are handed out at the end of the weekend for the best ribs, best sauce, and so on, the festival is moreover an opportunity for barbecue lovers to wander the area and sample some great ribs from around the country. Menus vary from vendor to vendor, with the one constant being pork ribs and sides like slaw and baked beans (although you should ask before you order since it seemed like most beans came from a can). Many also sell barbecue chicken and pulled pork, while brisket, beef ribs, and corn bread can be found too. Aside from the dozen or so barbecue joints, kiosks also sell Pennsylvania country fair staples like lemonade, funnel cake, and frozen custard.

But as regular readers of this blog know, I get most excited by barbecue. So every year, I make the trek down to Heinz Field and get 3-bone rib samplers (for $5-6 each) from as many different vendors as it takes to fill me up. If you're not craving a particular regional style of pork, there are many other ways to help you decide which ribs to eat. You can go with the stand with the shortest lines, the one that has the most trophies or award banners, order from the vendor with the catchiest slogan, or perhaps support the stand where the grillmaster is also pulling double duty as MC. It's hard to go wrong.

This year Tam and I started with Bad Wolf Barbecue ("The K.C. Legend", surprisingly based out of Toronto) which combined an impressive array of award banners with some kitchy statuary.

The Bad Wolf ribs were very good without being mindblowing. I'll give them points for the sweet sauce which made for both sticky fingers and a nicely caramelized, slightly charred crust on each rib. The ribs were also quite juicy, not having been cooked to the point of falling off the bone, and maintained a lot of richness from the fat which hadn't fully rendered out of the meat. Are they beautiful, or what?

We thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Not yet full, we wandered the length of the festival before deciding that our second stop should be at Ron's Ribs ("The King of Ribs"), based out of Mansfield, OH. A huge factor in our decision was this larger-than-life size poster of the King of Ribs himself.

There's a lot to be said for a man who can proudly don a crown on top of his chef's hat, epaulettes, a golden sash (literally proclaiming him the "King of Ribs and Sauce"), five medals (presumably for excellence in ribs and/or sauce), and white gloves (not very practical for a barbecue grillmaster), without a hint of irony. And is that a scepter he's wielding?

While waiting in line, we noticed that the King himself was manning the grill, thankfully having traded in his scepter for a pair of tongs and his crown for a King of Ribs ball cap. After purchasing our ribs, we settled down on the curb and pulled them apart with our hands. These were exactly my style. Achingly tender, lean, and with a perfect balance of sauce to smoky pork. Long live the king!

The Pittsburgh Rib Fest takes place outside Heinz Field and generally runs over the long weekend which contains the first Pittsburgh Panthers home football game in late August or early September. Check back on this page in the summer of 2010 for an update on the upcoming festival's exact schedule.

Similar events periodically take place across the country. The Kansas City Barbeque Society keeps an excellent searchable list of events they sponsor on their website.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Round Corner Cantina, Pittsburgh, PA

Tam and I were meeting a friend at a local bar for a drink in September when he made a passing comment about a new, excellent Mexican restaurant that had only been serving food for two weeks. Regular readers of this space may remember that I've often bemoaned the lack of quality Mexican food in Pittsburgh, so this news excited us tremendously. It took us about ten minutes to settle our tab before we raced down to Lawrenceville to check it out for ourselves.

The Round Corner Hotel had been a Pittsburgh dive for as long as anyone I know here remembered, until a trio of Lawrenceville residents bought out the previous owner and transformed it into the Round Corner Cantina, a bar which also happens to now serve the best, high quality, straightforward Mexican street food in the city. We enjoyed our first meal there so much that we went back with friends the next week. Then popped in for a birthday dinner the week after that. And met another set of friends there last week. This place has quickly become our go-to spot for a low-key, fantastic meal.

We've tasted most of the menu by now, and our favorite item is the escabeche, fresh vegetables lightly pickled with vinegar, cilantro, and a hint of fresh hot pepper, which we've ordered on each visit. It comes in a mason jar with the lid popped off. A few thin wooden skewers are provided for diners to spear their veggies. On our first visit in late summer, the escabeche featured local cauliflower and snap peas, but as we move into fall, the contents are shifting towards carrots, pearl onions, and baby turnips. The crunchy veggies in the jars offer a glimpse at what our local farmers are currently harvesting in Western Pennsylvania.

Another of our favorites is the queso fundido con chorizo, which is divine in its simplicity and is directly inspired by similar dishes in taquerias across Mexico. The Cantina's version consists of a tiny cast iron pan filled with chihuahua cheese and finely diced chorizo, broiled until completed melted and bubbly in the middle, and slightly crispy around the edges. A basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips is provided to help scoop up each bite. This dish is laden with grease from the melted cheese and salty chorizo, but the small serving size keeps it from weighing the diner down.

Also, its hard to go wrong with the tacos. Served two to a plate in very lightly grilled corn tortillas, filled with the protein of your choice (with seitan available for vegetarians). I tend to prefer the carnitas, topped with queso fresco, thinly sliced radishes, diced onions, cilantro, and a wedge of lime. The pork doesn't have the salty crispiness of my favorite carnitas, but they are nonetheless sublime in their stewed smokiness.

The small menu will satisfy your inner carnivore with the carnitas or chicharrones, while vegetarians can enjoy interesting options ranging from a cactus salad and guacamole to elote.

The extensive drink list features over a dozen types of tequila and mezcal, inspired cocktails, and our favorites, the micheladas (we prefer the Mexican over the Spanish). The Mexican michelada consists of a mason jar of Mexican lager topped with a sprig of cilantro, a pinch of salt, a spear of hot pepper, and a splash of lime.

It didn't take long for word to get out, and the Round Corner Cantina has quickly emerged as a popular spot for drinks and bites among Pittsburgh's 20 and 30 something crowd. Early problems with understaffing seemed to have been sorted out on our last visit.

In the warm weather, the fenced in, grassy back yard takes on the feel of a mellow house party, with the wait staff shuttling out drinks and food from inside to the picnic tables and and benches filling the space.

Our same friend recently whispered a new rumour that the menu might be getting touched up for the winter. I know we'll keep checking it out, and suggest that anyone who's ever bemoaned the lack of good Mexican food in this city does the same. The drought is over!

The Round Corner Cantina is located in the beautiful Round Corner Hotel building at 3720 Butler Street in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighbourhood. You can check out their public Facebook page or call 412-904-2279 for more information. As a bar, entry is restricted to those 21 and over.

I apologize for the low quality of the pictures. The dim lighting and rich interior colours in the Cantina make for great atmosphere but difficult photography without a tripod.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kanlıca Yogurt, Kanlıca, Turkey

One of our more memorable days in Turkey was spent taking a ferry from the Eminönü docks in Istanbul along the Bosphorus to Anadolu Kavağı, on the mouth of the Black Sea. With the warm sun on our faces, any real life stresses rapidly sublimated in the strong sea breeze.

While the ferry made stops at several suburbs and towns along its route, a lone food vendor made his rounds, first selling simit, a dense sesame-encrusted, bagel-shaped bread, and then ubiquitous glasses of steaming black Turkish tea. As Tam and I were headed for the end of the line, we stayed in our seats, munching and sipping our purchases.

When the ferry pulled into the Kanlıca dock, we could tell from our perch on the rear deck that the town was special. Two boys were swimming in the water outside a cafe advertising yoğurdu. Even though I barely speak Turkish, yoğurdu sounded like it had to be delicious.

As the ferry pulled back out into the strait, the vendor started selling small tubs of yoğurdu (which unsurprisingly turned out to be yogurt) from a crate which had been freshly delivered on board. For two turkish liras (about $1.40 USD), the vendor popped off the lid and heaped two giant teaspoons of powdered sugar onto the surface of the yogurt.

The yogurt was thick, almost solid. Legend has it, it used to be sold in blocks which were cut by knife. The fermented whole milk (a blend of cow and sheep milk) was tangy and creamy, topped with a thick skin of milk solids. We blended the yogurt and sugar together, and savored every spoonful, each bite balancing the intense sourness from the lactic acid with the added sweetness. It was a fantastically refreshing summer snack.

Our ferry voyage ended at Anadolu Kavağı, where we explored some ruins on a cliff overlooking the Black Sea before hopping on a meandering bus back toward Istanbul. The bus route followed the Asian shore, through small coastal towns and past markets. Hungry, we decided to get off the bus when it passed through Kanlıca, and quenched our hunger with pide (perhaps the original "football pizza"?) and another yogurt from a small shop behind the town square. We took it to the waterfront and ate it on a park bench, savoring every perfect spoonful.

It's easy to make a weak, although still delicious approximation of this treat using widely available Greek-style yogurt, like Fage. Unfortunately, in North America, I've never tasted a yogurt as good as what they sell in Kanlıca.

Kanlıca-style yogurt
1 cup chilled thick, greek yogurt
2 heaping teaspoons of powdered sugar

Blend. Eat it in the sunshine, preferably somewhere where you can feel a sea breeze.

The town of Kanlıca is located 20 km north of Istanbul, on the Bosphorus' Asian shore. There are a handful of yogurt vendors around the small town selling tubs of creamy yogurt which you can order with sugar or without. For a heartier meal, the Kanlıca kebab ve Yemek salonu on Halide Edip Adivar Caddesi serves delicious pide from a brick oven and provided complimentary salad and friendly conversation with our meal.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fürreyya Galata Balıkcısı, İstanbul, Turkey

After attending a wedding in Scotland, Tamar and I took off for six days in Turkey for some much needed rest and relaxation. Our base was in İstanbul, where we took the time to see the city while tasting our way across its many neighbourhoods.

One evening, we took a walk from our hotel up towards the Galata Tower for an evening in Beyoğlu, as vibrant an urban area as I've ever seen. Before my trip, I had been regularly following the excellent Istanbul Eats blog, and after reading their review, we wanted to check out Fürreyya Balıkcısı (Fürreyya Fish House), which lies in the shadow of the tower. Upon our arrival, we sat at one of the tiny restaurant's two tables, underneath their red and white striped awning.

We were enthusiastically waited upon by Necati, a local university student who was eager to practice his English while explaining the menu. We opted for the kalamar (calamari) and balık dürüm, a fish wrap. The food preparation was done slowly and with care. The amazingly fresh seafood was cut and fried to order in the open kitchen with each ingredient lovingly transformed from its original state to an individual component on the final plate. While we waited, Necati engaged with us in conversation, exchanging anecdotes about our respective hometowns while he provided us with recommendations on what to do with our time in the city.

Our kalamar arrived first, and while unspectacular to look at, it was without a doubt the best that either of us had ever tasted.

Each ring was light and crispy, without even a hint of the chewiness or fishiness that often plagues frozen North American versions of this dish. The plate was garnished with a pair of cold sauces, one creamy yogurt-based sauce and a simple tomato sauce which provided contrasts in both temperature and flavour.

Next to arrive was our wrap. It consisted of fried strips of incredibly fresh fish, perfectly caramelized onions, and greens, wrapped up in a lavaş, a thin tortilla-like wrap, which was lightly toasted until it formed a slightly crisp shell. Each component in this wrap was expertly executed, and it was one of our food highlights of our trip.

Necati offered us tea, even though it wasn't on their menu,. When we accepted, he cheerfully went to the shop next door to procure us two glasses, without charge. Over our tea, we exchanged contact info with our waiter, and even made promises to become Facebook friends.

Buoyed by our meal and experience, we left Fürreyya Balıkcısı and wandered our way through this magical city, eventually crossing the Galata Bridge on the walk back to our hotel.

Fürreyya Balıkcısı is located at 2 Serdar-ı Ekrem Sokak in Istanbul. It can be reached by phone at (0212) 252 4853.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Borough Market, London, England

A Tale of Two Sandwiches

One of our first destinations in London was Borough Market, a paradise for food and food lovers. We did some shopping and gawking, admiring the sight of the portly pork pies obediently stacked in their glass display case, the smells of London's finest meats, cheeses, and food surrounding us.

We worked up an appetite with our wandering and were drawn to two different sandwich vendors which were serving up expertly prepared, simple fare. The first was the grilled chorizo vendor who was combining five ingredients to perfection. A short length of chorizo had been split open along its axis and grilled before being placed on a slightly grilled crusty bun and drizzled with a splash of high quality olive oil. Roasted piquillo peppers, which were both slightly acidic and sweet, and fresh nutty rocket contrasted with the salty sausage to yield a perfectly balanced sandwich.

The crusty bread and snappy sausage casings gave our jaws a workout with each bite.

Still hungry, we wandered our way through the market until the alluring scent emanating from a second sandwich vendor reeled us in.

We shared the most perfect grilled cheese sandwich imaginable. It consisted of two thin slices of Poilâne sourdough bread, a generous handful of grated cheeses (a mix of Montgomery Cheddar from Cheddar itself and Ogleshield), and several heaping teaspoons of minced leeks, red onion, and garlic. The bread was generously buttered, and pressed in a sandwich press until perfectly golden brown.

The cheese was pungent, salty, and pleasantly slippery while the bread was thin, crusty, buttery, and crisp. Cheese had leaked out around the edges of the bread, forming a delightfully greasy crust where it contacted the hot press. The crispy, fresh vegetables provided just enough contrast in flavour and texture to elevate the sandwich to another plane. Without a doubt, this was the best thing I ate in England. We took it next door and devoured it on the lawn of the Southwark cathedral.

Borough Market is located at 8 Southwark Street in London, England. It is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Visit their excellent website for directions and more information. The chorizo vendor is located at the front of the Market on Southwark Street, while the grilled cheese vendor is located at the rear of the market, adjacent to the cathedral.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Tamar and I are in London, England enjoying ourselves before a family wedding. We visited Borough Market last week and before our trip, were asked by her brother to try and find some fresh samphire to cook up for dinner that night. This English plant is in season now, but is only available for a few weeks every summer. It grows in salty marshes and coastal regions of England, and absorbs that ocean essence to provide a unique marine flavour that lends itself nicely to seafood dishes. Never having heard of it, we found some at the market stall Turnips, for the low low price of £29/kg (or $22 USD/lb). After overcoming the sticker shock, we picked up a few quids worth to eat later that night back at my brother-in-law-to-be's flat.

We also bought some beautiful salmon fillets at a fishmonger. That night, we seasoned the fillets with salt and pepper before roasting them skin side down in a pyrex roasting dish in a few tablespoons of melted butter and three cloves of coarsely chopped garlic until slightly underdone (about 15 minutes in a 350 F oven).

We then added the samphire to the bottom of the dish and tossed it with the juices from the salmon, the melted butter, and garlic. We baked it all together for five more minutes until the salmon was cooked to our liking. We served a fillet per person with a generous tangle of samphire. The samphire had soaked up some of the garlicky butter while releasing it's briny juices into the pan. It retained a lot of its natural saltiness, was ever so slightly bitter, and had a nice toothy bite to it.

Since that night, we've seen samphire on a few menus and ordered it yesterday. It had been blanched and came tossed in a salad with rocket, sauteed garlic, chili flakes, olive oil and was topped with two grilled scallops. The chili flakes added a nice zing, and the slightly crunchy samphire contrasted in texture with the soft scallops nicely.

I've enjoyed my samphire experiences over here, and hope to one day see it on menus and in markets back in North America. Does anyone out there have any other interesting uses for it? If so, please let me know!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

La Pasadita, Chicago, IL

One of the good things about graduate school is having the opportunity to travel to new places to present our research. On the downside, since we tend to be on the bottom of the academic totem pole, budget is a primary concern. As such, I found myself bleary eyed on the L from O'Hare to the Chicago Loop, having woken up at 5 AM to catch the most affordable early morning flight out of Pittsburgh to give a talk at a recent conference.

To make the commute longer, construction on a section of the L tracks required me to disembark the train, dragging my luggage onto a bus to complete the trip to my hotel. I was tired and cursing my decision not to take a cab, when a mural visible from my bus window at the intersection of Ashland, Division, and Milwaukee streets reminded me of the presence of La Pasadita, a series of three adjacent Mexican taquerias that I had enjoyed on a previous visit to the city.

Stomach now growling, I continued my way to my downtown hotel, only to be told my room wouldn't be ready for a few more hours. I left my bags at the front desk, and immediately hopped back on the shuttle towards the airport to La Pasadita to get some breakfast. By ten AM, I was the lone customer at the 1132 North Ashland joint. Not holding back, I ordered the super carne asada burrito, figuring that would satisfy my now raging hunger.

The ever-present taqueria tortilla chips were served with my drink, along with their two house salsas: green and black. I enjoyed a few chips while watching the morning shift set up the restaurant for the day, the waitresses and cooks flirting with one another, catching up on last night's gossip. The black salsa was particularly excellent, flavoured prominently with roasted peppers and garlic, searing my lips and tongue.

Before long, my burrito was served, and even though this wasn't my first La Pasadita burrito, I was impressed. The giant tortillas were expertly packed with loads of beef and rice, and perfectly proportioned quantities of lettuce, tomato, sour cream, grated cheese, refried beans, and guacamole. Unlike a lot of lazily packed burritos, these ingredients were evenly distributed such that every bite had a nice ratio of beef to everything else.

Having estimated the size of the impressive burrito to be almost 9 inches in length and 5 in diameter while tipping the scales at close to two pounds, I settled into a slow, comfortable pace, squirting a little of the hot salsa before each bite. Squirt. Bite. Squirt. Bite. I savoured the well-seasoned, nicely seared meat, and the garlicky guacamole. I was full after I had finished the first half, but persevered until my plate was empty.

The assembly proved not only to be flawless in its ingredient distribution, but in terms of structural integrity too. The foil-wrapped bomb didn't tear, didn't crumble, and didn't leak or spill a drop of its precious goodies.

La Pasadita is unique in that once its popularity proved to overwhelm their original location, they opened up a new branch, not in a different part of the city, but first two doors down, and then across the street to better serve their existing clientele. You can choose from one of three storefronts within 50 feet of one another, and regulars all seem to voice their preference. I'm told that during rushes, there are lines into all three locations.

By 11AM, the restaurant had slowly started to fill with a mix of hipsters getting breakfast and labourers eating lunch. I slowly waddled to the register to the pay my $10 tab, including tip. Not bad for enough calories to feed me for the rest of the day.

La Pasadita has three adjacent locations located at 1132, 1140, and 1141 North Ashland Avenue in Chicago, IL. All stores are open from 9AM to 3AM daily. You can check their website for more information and for individual store phone numbers.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pittsburgh Garden Update: June

We had a cold, late spring in Southwestern PA but the growing season in Pittsburgh has been underway for well over a month now, so I thought I’d provide a quick update on how the garden is doing. On a recent misty morning in my hilltop neighbourhood, I took the camera down to the yard to snap a few pictures.

The peaches on my tree are starting to plump up, and are now as big as walnuts. This is the eight foot tree's third summer since it was planted, but it has yet to produce any fruit to maturity. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for this year, and am dreaming of juicy fruit, still warm from the summer sun. Is a late July harvest in the forecast? If anyone is looking for advice on pruning and growing peach trees, I have been following these very scientific instructions and I seem to be right on schedule.

The tomatoes and peppers are growing like crazy these days. I’m still pinching the flowers off my hot peppers (jalapeno, cayenne, and banana) until they are tall enough to produce a bounty of fruit. The tomato crop this year includes San Marzano for sauce (two plants), the NYTimes-hyped Ramapo (two plants), and one plant each of Cherokee Purple, Early Girl, Green Zebra, Miracle Sweet, Sandul Moldovan, Snow White, and Yellow Pear. Summer salsa season is on the horizon.

The herbs have grown nicely too. The basil has been going in our pasta sauces and salads for a few weeks now. The mint, sage, lavender, and lemon thyme (pictured below) are now edible too, and have been used occasionally.

The best is yet to come!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Neighborhood Fruit

This week's New York Times Food section had an interesting article on new networks dedicated to sharing or locating fresh produce in your area. One such resource is the site, which allows users to post descriptions of the fruit ripening on their property.

The idea is that if you have, say, more peaches than you know what to do with for a few short weeks in July, you can register your peach tree and post an announcement when they are ripe, allowing your neighbors to come at a designated time and pick some of your bounty. Then, when their apples or blackberries are ripe later in the summer, they return the favor, building bonds in your community as well as diversifying the fresh produce available to you, free of cost.

Another section of the site allows you to map the location of known publicly available fruit in your city along with the dates when the fruit is ripe. There's a stand of mulberry trees in a park near me and the fruit usually goes to waste, so I posted their location online so any Pittsburghers interested in using the fruit can stop by and pick their fill. No other yinzers seem to be using the site yet, so I urge anyone who lets fruit in their yard rot or knows of public sources of fruit to register their trees so they can be mapped online.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Crescent Moon Pizza, Minneapolis, MN

Last month, I found myself traveling solo to Minneapolis for a conference where I was presenting some of my newer research. I was too cheap to pay for a rental car that I may or may not end up getting reimbursed for, so I commuted between the conference and my hotel by foot, which ended up being a considerable hike.

After a long day of seminars and networking, I was searching for interesting eats on my evening return to my hotel room, when I stumbled upon this promising storefront.

Inside, the place was sparkling and new. I ordered a lamb kebob sandwich to go, and took it back to my hotel room to devour it. It turned out to be quite simple, but good. Gas grilled chunks of lamb, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes filled a grilled, lightly charred and slightly oiled flatbread. Two little plastic cups containing the prescribed condiments were included so I obediently added them to the sandwich. The first consisted of a minty tzatziki-like yogurt sauce, while the second was a thin, cilantro-chili pepper sauce. Almost like a salsa verde, but with a middle-eastern twang. Did I detect a hint of za'atar, or was I dreaming?

Impressed enough by the sandwich, I decided to give Crescent Moon Pizza a second chance two nights later, when I once again had no dinner plans. This time, I decided to try out their "famous Afghani football pizza", advertised on the flat screen monitors at their register. Never having had either a football pizza or an Afghani pizza, it was hard to resist. There was something about the juxtaposition of the Midwestern All-American sport of football and the central front of the so-called "war on terror" that was irresistible. Plus, who doesn't like football? Or pizza?

I opted for the "house special", which included Afghani beef, diced green peppers, and diced onions. I brought it back to my hotel room where I slowly ate it while watching my beloved hockey team embarrass themselves in the playoffs.

The pizza turned out to be the best part of the night. The Afghani beef was ground, seasoned, with a touch of heat, and pre-cooked before being spread on an flatbread crust topped with a layer of tomato sauce and mozzarella. The diced peppers and onions provided a bit of crunch, and the whole thing had been cooked until the cheese bubbled nicely and the crust was chewy and crisp. It also turned out, as you might have guessed, that a "football pizza" is approximately shaped like a football.

My only criticism was that the tomato sauce was sweeter than I would have liked, but otherwise, this was a good pie. A nice touch was that a small plastic cup of same green cilantro-based sauce that I had enjoyed with my lamb kebob was offered, and in case it was unclear what I was meant to do with it, the pizza was cut into rectangles that were perfectly sized for dipping in the cup. The mild heat from the beef combined with the spice and acidity of the sauce made for a great combination of flavours that I wouldn't have expected in a Minnesota pizza.

Crescent Moon Pizza is located at 1517 Como Avenue SE, near the University of Minnesota Campus in Minneapolis, MN. Call 612-767-3313 or visit their website for more info.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Resto La Banquise, Montreal, QC

Since we started dating, I had been telling Tam about my hometown, which she had yet to visit. One thing she couldn't wrap her head around was the appeal of poutine, the province of Québec's most well known culinary contribution. Why anyone would want to smother their fries with cheese and gravy instead of malt vinegar, or, in a pinch, ketchup, didn't make sense to her.

"Not just any cheese, but cheese curds," I would try to explain. "The fresher the better. And with time, the piping hot gravy starts to melt them so they get a bit gooey." I could have continued to delve into different points of view on the important matters crispy versus soggy fries (I much prefer crispy, although armies of people adore La Belle Province's soft, fat fries) and ideal plating technique (I prefer it to be spread out over a largish surface area so that the fry-to-gravy ratio is uniform but some like it packed in a styrofoam bowl so that the cheese gets really hot and fully melted), but I could tell from her facial expression that she was uninterested and a little bit disgusted by the whole idea.

The only way to convince her would be to try it, so when we recently visited the city, I took her to La Banquise, an east-end diner that specializes in the dish. While not the most traditional establishment (they offer 25 different poutine variations while most places only have one) it is my favorite.

Although quite crowded on a Sunday March evening, we were immediately seated in the colourful dining room. A proper introduction to poutine should really be the straightforward fries with cheese and gravy (refered to on La Banquise's menu as the "Classique"), but we opted instead to share their award-winning "Poutine B.O.M.", which, in addition to the aforementioned cheese curds and gravy, also includes sautéed onions, bacon, and merguez sausage atop a heap of fries. We ordered two Quebec microbrews, a Tremblay and a Coup de Grisou, to wash down our salty meal.

A few minutes later, our plate arrived.

Tentatively at first, Tam started taking bites. After carefully considering what she was eating, she proclaimed it really good. Soon, we were both attacking our meal, making sure to get a good potato/cheese ratio as well as enjoy the little extra bits of bacon and sausage that this decadent poutine had tucked in between crispy fries.

We had ordered the smaller portion size, but it was more than enough to fill the two of us up. Our beers didn't blow us away since we're spoiled by the wealth of exceptional microbrew offerings available at any decent bar or beer distributor in Pittsburgh these days, but the Coup de Grisou was a nice, light, citrusy wheat beer. The Tremblay, despite its local microbrew status, might as well have been a Labatt Blue or other mega-brewery lager. Next time, we'll stick to the Unibroue offerings, which are always excellent.

It's fair to say that the poutine initation was a success. Next time we're in town, we'll knock off another Montreal food institution: the legendary smoked meat and grumpy waiters at Schwartz's.

La Banquise is located at 994 rue Rachel E, in Montreal, QC. Call 514-525-2415 or check out their webpage for more info.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Boustan, Montreal, QC

“Every sandwich has to be right. I treat each one like it's my sandwich. As soon as my eyes are happy, I know it's ready."

Boustan owner Imad Smaidi, McGill Tribune, 11/18/03

Let's cut to the chase. My favorite food destination on the planet is a nondescript Lebanese basement sandwich shop in my hometown of Montreal. Even though the menu primarily deals with Lebanese street food, which is found in dozens of similar restaurants around the city, the philosophy and attention to detail at Boustan, outlined in the above quote, elevates its fare miles beyond its competitors into some of the best food you will ever eat.

Boustan has reached such a status with me that it's the first place I visit every time I return home, and I usually manage to squeeze in two meals there every time I'm in town. You'll want to order the chicken shawarma sandwich, which is a handheld culinary marvel. Each sandwich is handmade to order and consists of a hollowed out pita, filled first with chicken shaved from the vertical spit of meat rotating within inches of a hot gas flame. The stack of meat, three or so feet tall, consists of layers of marinated chicken breast seasoned with tomatoes and onions that release their juices as they slowly cook. The edges of the stack get crispy as they rotate next to the flame and the shaved pile is a perfect mix of crispy skin, bits of fat, and lean, juicy white meat.

The rest of the sandwich is stuffed with slices of tomato, lettuce tossed with parsley, neon pink pickled turnip spears, and a generous dollop of garlicky mayo. If you want a little heat, ask for it spicy, and watch as a spoonful of mystery sauce from an unmarked casserole dish is spread on your sandwich. It won't burn your mouth, but it will give your sandwich some extra zing. The extra touch that sets Boustan above its competitors is the last step. The filled sandwich is finally placed over a gas flame for a few moments to slightly char the pita, giving it enough crispiness and heating the ingredients inside just enough so that they meld together. The sandwich is carefully wrapped in a clean sheet of wax paper, and presented to you like the gift that it is.

It's hard to describe the perfect combination of flavours and textures in every bite of a Boustan chicken shawarma sandwich. The chicken dominates with its toothsome saltiness, dripping juices, and divine crispiness. The pickled turnip spears provide a touch of bitterness and ample crunch. The tomatoes provide acidity and moisture, the lettuce brings a cool sense of balance, while the mayo binds it all together in garlicky bliss. The pita provides a crispy shell and a hint of smokiness from the gas flame.

Frankly, this sandwich is so good, I wouldn't order anything else. People swear by their falafel, and they have a variety of other menu items. The garlic potatoes are good, but still can’t compete with the sandwich. One order consists of a small plate of cubes of deep fried potatoes which are tossed with salt and herbs, and topped with a generous spoonful of Boustan’s garlic mayo. To be sure, these are delicious, but the chicken shawarma is out of this world good.

The most popular time for a Boustan meal is at 3AM when the nearby bars and clubs empty, and the drunk masses stop for a late night bite before stumbling home. However, the best time to stop by for a visit is on a Sunday afternoon, when the rest of the city is hung over. You won't be rushed, and you can take a moment to examine the pictures on the counter which depict the various politicians and hockey players who have similarly enjoyed food bliss.

One close friend, a chef at one of the city's finest restaurants, has been known stop by Boustan after his shift ends to order a half dozen sandwiches to get him through the next few days. Even though I'd hyped it up relentlessly, Tamar insisted that it lived up to it's lofty expectations on our recent visit to the city and has since expressed cravings to return.

The service can be brusque, the basement dining area is sometimes slightly grimy and filled with drunk club kids, but order two chicken shawarma sandwiches, find yourself some space to sit down, and I promise you won't go home disappointed. I know that's what I'll be doing next time I'm in town.

Boustan is located at 2020 Rue Crescent in downtown Montreal, QC. They are open until 4AM and will often deliver to nearby locations if they aren't too busy. Call 514-843-3576 to place your order.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sofia's Mexican Food, Gila Bend, AZ

I recently visited Phoenix and Scottsdale for a conference where I was presenting some of my recent research. I arrived in town a day early, with the goal of getting out of the city to see the surrounding desert and also eating some good Mexican food, which Pittsburgh is lacking. I had identified the Sonoran Desert National Monument, about 40 miles southwest of the city as my hiking destination and Gila Bend, a city on the edge of the park, as my target for a Mexican pre-hike meal.

As soon as my flight landed, I dragged my luggage to the rental car garage, packed it into my subcompact rental, and immediately hit the highway. Ninety or so minutes later I was driving along the one main road of Gila Bend past motels and palm trees until I spotted Sofia's, a nondescript Mexican diner on my right.

The Saturday afternoon dining room was crowded, but I had no problem securing a window booth. It was pushing 1PM in Phoenix and I hadn't eaten anything since my 7AM (eastern time) Danish at my flight gate in Pittsburgh, so I ordered more than I usually would have. I went with an asada taco, a carnitas taco, a cheese and bean tostada, and washed it all down with a lime Jarritos soda. While I waited for my meal, some house salsa was served in a small pitcher, along with a basket of warm tortillas chips. The salsa was fresh, with a mild but persistent heat.

After a short wait, my meal arrived on a single platter.

I was most excited about the carnitas, so I started with them. They were exceptional. Perfectly crispy outside, nicely chewy inside, with a deeply intense salty porkiness. Nothing in Pittsburgh even comes close. Next, I moved to the asada taco, which was also terrific. The steak was freshly grilled and sliced, with some nice crunchy caramelized bits, but the flavour paled when compared to the lingering memory of my carnitas. I was starting to fill up, but still devoured the tostada. Unfortunately, I had made a tactical error finishing with the blandest dish of all and I was wishing that I had ordered a second carnitas taco instead. The beans were nice, but couldn't quite stand alone, and the cheese was some kind of orange shredded mild cheddar-like substance which didn't really bring much to the plate.

All three items were topped with diced fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and onions, while a lemon wedge provided some acidity to the meal. The taco tortillas were lightly grilled on the kitchen's greasy hot-plate, soaking up the oils and aromas from the meats that had preceded them.

As I made my way out to the 98F heat, I figured that I had better stock up on supplies before hiking in the desert so I picked up a few gallons of water and some energy bars at a nearby grocery store before driving to the trailhead where I was going to hike. Unfortunately, I was intimidated by the combination of the scorching heat, the road that deteriorated to a dry creek bed that was impassable in my rental car, and signs telling me to keep alert for human smugglers, so I only paused in the park to take some pictures but missed out on a hike. Next time I'll bring some friends and a vehicle with four wheel drive. I'll also stop back at Sofia's for lunch.

Sofia's Mexican Food is located at 616 W Pima Street in Gila Bend, AZ. Call (928) 683-6382 for information, and make sure to bring a four wheel drive and companionship if you want to hike in the nearby Sonoran Desert National Monument.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

PPQ Dungeness Island, San Francisco, CA

Recent work obligations took Tamar and I out to San Francisco for a long weekend, where we ate well and spent time with my sister who lives in the area. Luckily, it was also the height of Dungeness crab season. One of these days was spent up in the Sonoma valley. While driving there from the city that morning, we spotted some fishermen selling freshly caught Dungeness crab from the northern shore of San Pablo Bay. We had planned on spending the day doing a moderate amount of hiking and and immoderate amount of wine tasting, and then picking up a crab on the way home to cook up for dinner at my sister's place with a newly-acquired bottle of wine. Sadly, by the time we were on our way back to the city, the crabmongers had packed up for the day, and we went without shellfish that evening.

That night, our dreams were filled with crab. We awoke unsatisfied, and went online to find out where to go in the city to get our crab fix. One consensus choice was PPQ Dungeness Island. Convinced by the establishment name, we worked up an appetite with a beautiful hike along the coast in Lands End before making the short drive over to the restaurant in San Francisco's Richmond District for lunch. The blue crab on the marquee let us know we were at the right place.

Our order was straight forward. We split one peppercorn crab between the three of us, and accompanied it with some garlic noodles and green beans. Before the food arrived, tools were presented to us to facilitate our meal. A sturdy nutcracker to break up the shell and a small fork for meat extraction were all that would be needed for the crab. Plastic bibs (unfortunately with a generic lobster print instead of a majestic Pacific Dungeness) were also brought to us and immediately tied in place while we sat patiently waiting to eat.

After a short wait, our meal arrived. The crab had been roasted before having the legs and claws removed and segmented, and the body meat had been expertly hewn from the shell in large chunks. The entire crab, in pieces, had then been stir-fried in a wok full of chopped garlic, cracked peppercorn, salt, and scallions. It was then offered to us majestically with the hollowed-out shell perched atop the mountain of legs and meat. Truly, a work of art.

We settled into a relaxed, eating routine. A piece of crab was selected from the platter, the shell cracked open, and the meat transfered by fork of fingers from the shell to our mouths. It was excellent. The meat was sweet and firm, and the simple, light flavours from the preparation didn't overwhelm, but rather complemented the gentle crab taste. In the end, the forks were discarded as it was ideal to do the whole operation with our fingers, rubbing the garlic and pepper aromas from the shell onto our hands before licking them off with every bite.

The sides were noteworthy for their quality, but were not as exciting as the crab. The noodles were cooked perfectly and then stir-fried in garlic and oil until lightly toasted. The green beans were sauteed with hot pepper, garlic, and bits of wood mushroom. The three of us probably each ate an entire head of garlic that meal. Sadly, the bowls provided to discard bits of shell filled up as the platter at the center of the table emptied. Our crab had served us well.

Bibs were removed, hands cleaned, the table cleared, and our crab feast came to an end. Maybe next year we'll try doing it ourselves with crab from the seaside, but if not, we know we have a reliable back-up plan waiting for us at PPQ.

PPQ Dungeness Island is located on 2332 Clement Street in the Richmond District in San Francisco, CA. Call (415) 386-8266 for information or visit their website. Dungeness crab season varies from year to year, but generally runs from mid November to mid June and prices can fluctuate throughout the year.332 Clement Street
San Francisco, CA 9412

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

El Primo Productos Hispanos, Sevierville, TN

This is the fifth and final account of outstanding meals that Tamar and I enjoyed as we traveled across Tennessee during Thanksgiving week, 2008.


After a rainy morning hiking in the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee and debating whether to visit Dollywood (we declined because of the weather), Tam and I needed to eat something before hitting the road for our 9 hour drive back to Pittsburgh. Those of you lucky enough to have visited the area around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN know that the main roads are packed with plenty of tackiness, kitsch, and Americana, and the dining options reflect the landscape.

For some reason, this area might also be the pancake capital of the country, because it seems like every other business is a pancake house. Indeed, a quick Internet search reveals ten dedicated pancake restaurants within four miles of each other in Pigeon Forge, and nine more a few miles away in Gatlinburg. I love a good pancake now and then, but 19 pancake shops on a single stretch of road? Can anyone explain this phenomenon to me?

Not in the mood for flapjacks, giant all you can eat buffets, or willing to settle for sub-par barbecue after the excellent meals we'd eaten earlier on our trip, we spotted a nondescript Mexican grocery store/restaurant and decided to check it out.

El Primo Productos Hispanos is more convenience store, green grocer, and butcher than restaurant, but a few long tables topped with hot sauces, bowls of dried chilies, diced onions, and cilantro in a corner of the store let us know that food was being served. Being the only English-speaking people in the establishment (including the cashier, other customers, and waiter), our ordering options were limited, especially since there was no printed menu.

The basic ordering protocol involved communicating a dish to eat and having the chef in back prepare it with ingredients off the shelf from the grocery. I presume they also had a few soups and stews simmering away if we had wanted a bowl of something warm as well. Sadly limited by our Spanish, we had them fry up some chorizo on some fresh tortillas, and it came served with lime and sliced avocado. Coca-cola from a glass bottle (bottled in Central America and made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup) was available from the grocery display case to wash down the simple plate.

It's hard to go wrong when something simple is prepared so well. Not anxious to hit the road, we relaxed for a while and watched some telenovelas from the store's satellite feed before perusing the aisles and deciding to do our week's worth of grocery shopping.

Great avocados, limes, tomatillos, chilies, and cebollitas were purchased and were turned into salsa and guacamole in our kitchen later that week. We were also amazed by the vast selection of Mi Costenita spices and herbs including therapeutic products for everything from blood sugar regulation to hemmorhoid control.

We added our dinner tab to our groceries, and could hardly believe how affordable everything was. A week's worth of produce, some snacks for the road, and dinner for two was well under $20. If I'm ever in the area, perhaps to visit Dollywood on a sunnier day, I'll be sure to stop back at El Primo and see what else the kitchen can throw together.

El Primo Productos Hispanos is located along the main road between the I-40 interstate and the tackiness of Dollywood and Gatlinburg at 725 The Great Smoky Mountains Parkway in Sevierville, TN.