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.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Monell's, Nashville, TN

It's been a busy few months, and unfortunately I haven't had a chance to write in a while. While work has been hectic, this period was highlighted Tamar and I getting engaged in January! Did the mountains of pork and Mexican food that we've eaten together contribute to our love? Perhaps...

While it's been a while, I have a backlog of past meals photographed and ready to write about, and I also have upcoming trips to Minneapolis, Montreal, Chicago, and Europe in the summer to look forward to. I hope to post at least once a week for the foreseeable future.

This is the fourth of several accounts of outstanding meals that Tamar and I enjoyed as we traveled across Tennessee during Thanksgiving week, 2008.


When we arrived at Monell's for breakfast on Sunday, it almost felt as if we were late to a neighbourhood block party. We walked through the crowded side garden to the rear entrance and put our names on the waiting list, which ended up being about 20 minutes long. The garden was filled with children running amok or playing on swing sets while their parents kept one eye on them, catching up on the past week's news. Family by family, they were eventually called in to the restaurant to be seated.

Eating at Monell's is a unique experience. The restaurant is on the ground floor of a converted home, and consists only of 4 tables for 10-12 diners each. The protocol is as follows: an entire table is cleared, and then the next 10 or so people waiting are seated at once, together. After our wait, we were led to a table in what used to be the house's dining room. Our breakfast companions were a diverse group consisting of a large African-American family to our right, and on our left, an Asian graduate student from Vanderbilt was taking his girlfriend and visiting mother out for a meal.

The table was initially set with a tray of sticky cinnamon rolls, orange juice, tea (both sweet and unsweet), and a bowl of homemade peach preserves. Table etiquette is briefly explained to us: all cellphones must be turned off, and when food is served, you should help yourself, and then pass the platter to your left. The meal is family-style, and everyone is to share from the same serving dish.

The first item to arrive was a giant baket of still-warm biscuits and accompanying gravy. The biscuits were easily the best I'd ever tasted. Impossibly light and fluffy, with a rich buttery flavour. While that first bite of biscuit is clearly imprinted in my memory, the rest of the meal was blurred by the dishes that seemed to constantly flow from the kitchen.

Stacks of pancakes, scrambled eggs, breakfast meats (bacon, sausages, fried ham), hashed browns, corn pudding, and cheese grits were all served and made their slow journey around the table. If I had only had the biscuits, corn pudding, and bacon, it would have stood tall with any meal I've ever had. The corn pudding may have been prepared as simply as just taking the very sweetest corn available, and cooking it until thick with a little cream. It was unbelievably delicious, and had a strong, pure, sweet taste.

Bacon from a plastic pouch at the supermarket can be fantastic; this bacon was beyond written description. It almost felt like there must be some Nashville folk hero equivalent to Paul Bunyan, and instead of a Blue Ox as a companion, he had a giant pig who had been sacrificed to feed us. I know that logically each piece wasn't actually as long as my forearm or 1/4" thick, but it felt that way. Thick, crispy, salty, smoked perfection.

Just when we'd settled into our meal and were starting to fill up, out came a wicker basket of skillet-fried chicken. I think Tam uttered a prayer of thanks under her breath, as fried chicken is always one of her guilty pleasures. She decided that the best way to enjoy it was to dip her chicken into the peach preserves, the sweet-salty combination reminding her of the chutneys of her fatherland. I know I ate my chicken with biscuits (probably my fifth or sixth biscuit by that point) but to be fair, I also ate my biscuits with corn pudding, with eggs, and with peach preserves. Did I mention that I liked the biscuits?

While this may be the only time that I include a post without pictures, taking any would have felt like I was intruding on a private moment. Passing food around the table to complete strangers, and debating the dishes in front of us gave a certain intimacy that I didn't want to violate by whipping out my digital camera.

A sad reality of the South apparent even on our week-long trip was that even in cities, there are still areas and institutions where you won’t see people of different races mixing. Monell’s thankfully shatters that world as people of all colors and creeds sit around a table and share a glorious meal with one another.

Monell's is located in the historic Germantown neighbourhood of Nashville, TN at 1235 6th Avenue North. Their Country Breakfast is served on Saturday from 8:30 AM - 1 PM, and on Sunday morning from 8:30 to 11. They also serve dinners, and you can see the daily menu on their website. All you can eat for $13 per person. You will not leave hungry.