Sunday, January 17, 2010

Patty King, Toronto, ON

Seventh grade was a big year. Growing up in Montreal, seventh grade meant high school, and for a pre-pubescent thirteen year old, high school meant being suddenly thrown into the same hallway with much larger, older, bearded seventeen and eighteen year olds, which was more than a little terrifying. In case thirteen isn’t an awkward enough age, my high school’s dress code mandated that we wear what seemed like an impossibly embarrassing school uniform. So I was undersized, felt like a dork in my uniform, and now had to function in an atmosphere where my female classmates had traded in their tie-dye t-shirts from sixth grade to experiment with cigarettes and push the envelope on the “pleated kilts must not be shorter than one inch above the knees” rule. Yes, in Montreal, there was a big difference between sixth and seventh grades.

Another difference between schools, which will eventually lead to the point of this entry, was the cafeteria. No longer limited to the brown bag or lunch box our parents packed for us in elementary school, now, the cafeteria served food. I can’t honestly remember a single meal they served for lunch (probably because I still brought in a packed lunch every day – thanks Mom!), but for a guy who was still many years away from getting the courage to ask out a girl, recess in the cafeteria was probably the most exciting thing about seventh grade. I think we had two options at recess (at least, I can only remember two): gooey, half-cooked (if you chose carefully), hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies and Jamaican patties. We only had fifteen minutes, but that was just enough time to race to the cafeteria, pick up either a stack of cookies and a cup of milk in those individual cardboard cartons or a Jamaican patty and eat it before our next class. I’m not sure how the Jamaican patty became a ubiquitous lunchroom staple in the WASPiest neighbourhood of Montreal, but their flaky crusts and spicy meat fillings provided a nice alternative or supplement to the melt-in-your-mouth cookies.

(And while I’m in the process of churning out 1000 words on transitioning to adulthood and Jamaican patties, if the Royal West Academy cafeteria still makes chocolate chip cookies and I could get my hands on a hot batch of them, I think I could produce the War and Peace of food blogging.)

For the uninitiated, Jamaican patties are a Caribbean version of the classic meat-filled-dough foodstuff. Ravioli, empanadas, Jamaican patties… all riffs on the same theme. Jamaican patties really only consist of two components, both of which need to be good to make a good patty: crust and filling. Patty crusts are flaky like a pie crust, owing to a high fat content, but thinner and lighter. If done properly, there should be just the slightest crispiest exterior covering pillowy, steamy dough. The crust is golden yellow due to the addition of turmeric to the dough. Patties are generally filled with ground meat, curry blends, and hot peppers. I grew up on beef patties, but chicken and vegetable patties are relatively common too.

I’m not sure why I bothered with such a long preamble to get to a post about Jamaican patties. Did they represent some newfound freedom that high school brought about? Not really, but they were really, really good and since the early ‘90s, the Jamaican patty has been a staple snack or meal for me. There were two patty shops only blocks away from my house throughout high school, and my father often picked up a bag of them for lunches on weekends or for sustenance during long car trips. In college, when I moved into my first apartments with my buddies, frozen Jamaican patties (Lloydies: inferior in every way to a fresh bakery patty but much more convenient after a night at a bar or studying in the library) were always in our freezer. So while moving to Pittsburgh for graduate school was a huge step for me academically, personally, for my maturity, and so on, I was also unknowingly leaving behind a steady stream of quality Jamaican patties. The only specimens I’ve been able to track down here are barely worth mentioning: frozen for so long in a grocery store freezer that the crust ends up brittle and crumbling and filled with a dry, pasty gray meat. Disappointing to say the least, and the end of the 12-year Patty Era in my life.

So when one of my high school friends moved to Toronto last year and gave me an excuse to drive up there periodically, the one place I asked him to take me on my first visit was his neighbourhood patty shop. And he obliged. The Patty King, in Toronto’s Kensington market, looks like dozens of similar bakeries across Toronto or Montreal which are run and frequented by expatriate Caribbeans and a generation of young Canadians who grew up on patties in our high school cafeterias.

The Patty King’s patties are better than most, and on each of my last three visits to the city, I’ve crossed the border back to the US with a dozen spicy beef patties in the trunk of my car. A new Patty Era is born! We try to make them last, but Tam and I usually end up finishing them off within a week or so. It’s not ideal, but zapping a frozen Patty King patty in the microwave and then baking it for a few minutes in our amazing new toaster oven beats anything that I can find in Pittsburgh by far.

The Patty King also serves up an array of Caribbean dishes and cakes: ox tail, curried goat, ackee, doubles, and so on, but I usually stick with the patties that I grew up on. One of my comfort foods.

Know a good place to get patties in Pittsburgh? I’d love to hear it!

Patty King is located at 187 Baldwin Street in Toronto's Kensington Market neighbourhood. Call (416) 977-3191 for more information.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Udipi Cafe, Monroeville, PA

At the end of the 1970s, George Romero put the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville, PA on the map by filming his Dawn of the Dead zombie classic at the local shopping mall. Around the same time, the opening of the Sri Venkateswara temple one mile from the mall was also establishing the area as one of the country's first hubs of Hindu and Indian culture. Since the 1970s, a handful of businesses have opened in the vicinity of the temple to provide services for worshipers, including, most deliciously, Udipi Cafe: an affordable diner-style restaurant specializing in South Indian vegetarian cuisine. Tam and her family have been frequenting Udipi for years, and we make regular visits for meals.

On one recent weekend afternoon, Tam dragged me out of my thesis-writing cave to enjoy lunch there with a couple of friends. I like to start my Udipi meals with a sip of salty lassi, a drink consisting of yogurt and milk laced with salt and whole toasted cumin seeds. Can you tell that I hadn't seen natural light in days?

We almost always start our meal with the dahi vada, an appetizer consisting of deep fried lentil doughnuts which are then soaked in water, chilled, and topped with yogurt, tamarind chutney, spices, and fresh coriander. This cool refreshing starter goes particularly well with a fiery bowl of Udipi's rasam.

Tam always orders her favorite, the chana bhatura (chick peas with fried bread). The chick pea curry comes served with raw onion and a piece of dough fried in oil until it blisters and puffs up with steam to an intimidatingly large size, like a deformed beach ball. It is always rushed piping hot from the kitchen to the table in its impressive inflated state.

Piercing the bhatura with a fork deflates the bread balloon which generally gets torn apart by hand and used to scoop up mouthfuls of curry and onion.

Udipi's dosas are excellent. They are large and expertly prepared: thinly spread like a crepe on a cooking surface until crispy on one side while being just thick enough (a few millimeters) that the other surface stays slightly soft. They are served wrapped or folded over a choice of curries and fillings, and accompanied with small bowls of spicy sambar and cool coconut chutney for dipping. The masala dosa filled with potato curry is particularly good.

Udipi is a no-frills Indian restaurant in the suburbs, but it probably serves the best Indian food in the Pittsburgh area. It's definitely worth a special trip, but you might want to keep your eyes on the Hindu calendar because on holidays, Udipi can be overflowing with worshipers enjoying a post-temple meal.

Udipi Cafe is located at 4141 Old William Penn Highway in Monroeville, PA. Call (412) 373-5581 for more information.