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Dish of the Week: Eggplant & Tofu Bánh Mì (& then some) at Strip-T’s, Boston

Technically, it’s in Watertown. Historically, Strip-T’s was your basic neighborhood hash house—long-standing, fiercely local—but its future is unfolding as a local-boy-makes-good game-changer involving the owner’s son, a David Chang protégé by the name of Tim Maslow. And truthfully, I was led there by culinary Pied Piper MC Slim JB last week—but there’s not a chance in a million I’ll encounter a dish as satisfying as this one in the next few days. Behold the eggplant bánh mì.

What a category-defying thing of beauty. Layered on a crusty-chewy, locally baked baguette were spears of Japanese eggplant roasted to a near-spreadable goo & squares of now-crisply golden, now-pillowy tofu; though garnished in classic Vietnamese fashion with pickled carrots & cilantro plus a smear of spicy mayo, the sandwich as a whole triggered a cascade of sensations that seemed to come out of nowhere. Its combinatory powers were its own.

And the duo that followed was very nearly its equal. Roasted cauliflower’s verging on cliché these days, but Maslow could single-handedly pull it back from the brink. Both his technique & his creative process were beyond me: How did he brown the cauliflower so deeply & evenly while upholding its essential cruciferocity? How did these unlikely ingredients come together so seamlessly? But they did: smooth & smoky chorizo puree, salty crumbled cotija, & sharp, bright pickled red onion somehow made thoroughly savory sense.

Likewise cut from whole cloth, a special of pickled, fried mussels topped with deceptively airy, cool dollops of coconut mousse & accompanied by lightly charred stalks of asparagus & green onion had buoyancy & zing to spare. One can imagine Maslow nodding ever so slightly to the New England classic of fried shellfish with tartar sauce on the one hand & Southeast Asian seafood curries on the other, but his imagination transcends his influences.

With one seeming exception: interestingly, the only slight disappointment was also the least original dish. It came almost as a relief to Neptune Oyster’s #1 fan (that would be me) that what appeared to be an homage to Michael Serpa’s buttermilk johnnycake with smoked trout tartare, honey butter & caviar didn’t quite achieve the same multilayered harmonies. The johnnycake, here made with blue corn & figs, was just too dense & sweet for its topping of sliced, delicately smoked rainbow trout with crème fraîche & trout roe; neither flavors nor textures were fully integrated.

Still, at this level of unabashed playfulness, the guy’s allowed an oops or two. I’d say run don’t walk, but you’ll have to drive or take a bus, then wait around a while for a table. Worth it. (There’s a liquor store on the corner, & the front seat of a car doubles as a perfectly acceptable barstool.)

Strip-T's on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Braised Pork Buns at JoJo TaiPei, Boston

So much & so little has changed since I left my dear adopted hometown 5 years ago for rockier, mile-higher climes. Return visits to Boston never fail to yield delightful surprise after delightful surprise, & this one was especially fruitful—every other thing I stuck in my mouth could qualify as Dish of the Week (as you’ll see in posts to come). For sheer hidden gemminess, though, I’ve got to hand it to JoJo TaiPei.

Back at the turn of the millennium, when I lived there, Allston was—to put it mildly—no great culinary shakes. But what a difference a decade makes, eh? On a drive-by tour, pal MC Slim JB pointed out all the Burmese & Afghani & Korean & Pakistani joints that would’ve eased so much grad-student agony had they existed then, in place of the sticky dives & greasy pizza parlors. Among them, this lovely little Taiwanese storefront honored me with a farewell meal to remember.

I knew what I’d be having before I even got through the door, thanks to a chalkboard marked with the daily special: rabbit with chestnuts. That’s it on the left: a clay pot chock-full of bone-on bunny chunks & soft, chewy whole chestnuts, strewn with scallion tops, fresh ginger slices, dried chilies & star anise in just enough of your classic brown stirfry gravy to recast the usually delicate meat into something darker & richer without blurring its essence.

But I also knew I’d be having something else, & the options on the long menu nearly broke my heart for lack of time & gut space. Salty duck with “special sauce” & roasted beef-scallion pancake. Three-cup cuttlefish & pork-stuffed eggplant. White-turnip pastries &, of course, all the dumplings you could shake your rump at. Finally, I closed my eyes & pointed to something called “braised pork with steamed bun tops with peanut powder.” What I got, pictured on the right, were like nothing I’ve ever quite tasted before.

Beautifully moist & robust shredded meat in a spongy steamed bun is one thing—easy to come by, easy to crave. But these played a whole new ballgame—or bao-game—with the inclusion of crushed peanuts & a mysterious garnish of sauteed, chopped dark greens that utterly transformed the humble little pockets into things of multifaceted grandeur, at once tart & sweet—if they weren’t sprinkled with both vinegar & sugar I’ll eat crow (especially if prepared by JoJo).

So there you go. So entranced was I by the whole experience that I wound up craning my neck around the room to see what I could get to go—& bingo. Ever had mofongo?

Well, the fried or boiled & mashed mound of green plantains served in various Latin American contexts looks like this—& so, almost exactly, did the beglazed cylinder I saw on the table behind me. My server called it “bamboo-cap rice pudding” (which turns out to be a thing); I called it mine. Granted, it didn’t look as pretty in its takeout form. Nor was it quite as intriguing as the preceding dishes, bite for bite. Once you got past the crunchy browned exterior, it was pretty much a monochrome of broth-enriched sticky rice in a sweet & spicy tomato-based sauce.

Still, I’ve not only got no regrets, I’ve got a jo-jones for the place right this second.

Jo Jo Taipei on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Mark Special, Charlie’s Front & Back Door, ABQ

Two joints in one—the cozy, family-oriented Front Door & the dark, boozy Back Door—Charlie’s opened 45 years ago (in 1966) & has remained my sentimental Albuquerque fave for about half that time. Is it the city’s 5-star best? I can’t honestly say it is, since the red & green chile are inconsistent—& red & green chile are, of course, the be-all-end-all of Southwestern & especially New Mexican cookery. But when they’re good, they’re great, & everything else rocks all the way out, from the chicken & jocoque (a type of sour cream) enchiladas

to the como se llama with Polish sausage & beans to the torta de huevo—a sort of frittata in red chile—to the Navajo taco & all the oddities in between, containing such incongruous stuff as pastrami, sauerkraut, & 1000 Island dressing.

Still, I met my match this week while in town for Thanksgiving: the Mark Special.

It starts with carnitas whose crisped chunks, like good barbecue, almost slide unctously apart rather than break up in strands. These are scattered across generous mounds of chopped fideos—think soupy, ultra-comfy Mexican spaghetti; cheese-smothered calabacitas—think succotash, here with squash & corn; quelites—think sauteed spinach; potatoes fried with onions; & of course frijoles. But don’t, as you eat it, think at all; just take giant forkfuls of everything, separately & mixed together, letting a rich bit of this enhance the flavor of a tangy bit of that, combining & contrasting until suddenly you find you’ve eaten nearly the whole thing. Then scoop up that last bite with a piece of 1 of the fried dough squares known as sopaipillas.

Then squeeze some honey from the bottle on the table into the rest of the pocket & munch until your eyeballs pop out.

If you’ve got another millimeter or two of space, snitch a little of your mom’s smoky, indeed practically blackened, chiles rellenos

or grab 1 more chip to dunk into the guacamole or the kill-you-softly salsa on the appetizer sampler. (I’m not such a fan of the queso, done Texas-style with Velveeta, though I realize it’s not illegit.)

Then take a nap & have kaleidoscopic nightmares about how on earth you’re going to stuff down turkey with all the trimmings the next day. Yes, do it all exactly like that. Such are holidays in the Land of Enchantment.

Charlie's Front & Back Door on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week 7/5–7/11: Catfish at the 11th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament

To catch up for last week: I do believe this picture says it all. More about my adventures at the annual wackfest in Paul’s Valley to come.

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Dish of the Week: new potatoes w/ garlic & onions + J.J. Prum Kabinett Riesling

I learned some cool shit this weekend while taking the Level 1 Wine Certification class at the International Wine Guild. Such as: Madeira is patriotic! And Madeira is awesome. And The Stereoisomers would be a good name for a band.

And that not even good old, plain old potatoes—roasted in plain old fat with plain old onions & not enough garlic to complicate matters—pair with absolutely everything (take, duh, a light-bodied sparkling wine).

But they sure go beautifully with this.

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I suppose that should be equally duh in the sense that Germans do have a storied way with kartoffeln as well as Riesling. But beyond a geographical rationale, I wouldn’t have thought that a semisweet white would shine so clear & bright against that oily, earthy landscape; I’d have guessed it would sort of…make a dull smear.

Try the pairing yourself, tell me if I lie. Dare.

Dish of the Week: Prune-Stuffed Gnocchi, No. 9 Park

Last week, for the 1st time since the series launched in the fall, I didn’t name a Dish of the Week. It wasn’t for lack of nominees, believe you me. On the contrary, the embarrassment if not downright mortification of riches we encountered during the Bacchanalia that was our jaunt to Boston left me feeling all but helpless to choose. The same goes for this week, really; I could close my eyes & throw a dart at this post on Russell House Tavern or this one on Neptune Oyster, for instance, & come up with a winning candidate.

So I’ve decided to beg the question a bit by featuring not a new dish but a true classic. There isn’t a serious diner in the city who isn’t familiar with this longtime signature of Barbara Lynch’s powerhouse dining destination No. 9 Park (of which more to come)—& who, I wager, wouldn’t include it on a list of Boston’s all-time greatest dishes (along, perhaps, with pizza from the original Pizzeria Regina, Clio’s lobster & sea urchin cassolette, Oleana’s fried mussels with hot peppers & tarator sauce, oysters in black bean sauce at Peach Farm & so on).

And on May 3, 2010, the prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras, vin santo & toasted almonds proved every bit as extraordinary as it did the 1st time I tried it some 8 or 9 years ago,

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as impossibly luscious in flavor as it is uncannily silken, almost delicate, texturally.

Famous as this luxury item is, however, not a lot of people seem to know it’s actually inspired by a humble snack from Fruili–Venezia Giulia: gnocchi di prugne can be found throughout the streets of Trieste, the cuisine & architecture of which strikingly reflects its Austro-Hungarian legacy. Pulling one out of a paper bag from a bakery & biting into it in a sunny piazza one morning a decade ago in that remarkable city remains among my dearest & most revelatory (not to mention stickiest) culinary experiences—so the chance to relive it, albeit in decidedly more extravagant fashion, at No. 9 Park is always a thrill.

Dish of the Week: Chorrillana

Having just formulated my policy against naming anything eaten outside of the US as Dish of the Week for practical reasons of availability, I’m breaking it for chorrillana, an insane scramble of french fries & chunks of beef fried up with egg & onion; after all, it would be so easy to recreate at home. I tried it twice in Santiago—once at Galindo (see here) & once at El Parrón, where the topping seems rather to have been sauteed in a red wine sauce.

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Given its location in a giant modern mall, El Parrón has a surprisingly swanky air about it;

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it’s apparently well-known for its traditional Chilean cuisine, particularly parrillada, an extravaganza of mixed grilled meats we were still too stuffed from our seafood blowout at the Mercado Central that afternoon to attempt—although we somehow made room for what I guess translates literally as queso de cabeza, or head cheese (edit: an expert tells me it’s actually called arrollado, meaning “rolled”),

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& pastel de congrio, a sort of crab casserole that was unfortunately rather gruel-like in comparison to the custardy versions we had elsewhere.
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Still, the chorrillana was the be-all end-all—what’s that, ser todo terminar todo?

Dish of the Week: Fiesta Morning Sandwich, Flying Star Café, ABQ

In town for less than 48 hours, I as usual spent about half of them drinking up the free WiFi juice the Flying Star at Paseo del Norte & Wyoming pumps out. Of course, it came with actual food; as I’ve suggested, the New Mexican–American deli/diner/coffeehouse repertoire of this wildly popular citywide franchise, rounded out by a bakery counter bestowed with many a local blue ribbon, is highly likeable—as satisfying as could be, really, under the presumably corners-cutting circumstances of such a high-volume operation.

For instance, even artlessly photographed in its takeout container for the road trip back to Denver, the Fiesta Morning Sandwich is a beauty, eh?

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Spilling over the sides of the huge housemade “cheesy chile bun”—extra-chewy, with a nice hard yet thin crust & a strong hint of onion—is a fine mess of cheddar, green chile &, usually, egg, but in this case tofu that I’d have sworn was a bit curried, though that may have been a trick of the hue. In any case, the mixture was so bold, funky & moist it didn’t really need the chipotle salsa (also distinctive for being far smokier than it was spicy). And I didn’t need to eat again til home.

Dish of the Week: Large Terrine Board, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, NYC

For a complete description of not only this spread of 4 terrines—guinea with morels, rabbit with prunes, pork with pistachios, & head cheese, accompanied by piccalilli, cornichons, mustard & crusty bread—but also the savagely cool hotel bar whence it came, click here.

But you can pretty much get the full story just by feasting your eyes.

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Dish of the Week: Crudo di Seppie, Il Punto, NYC

***Published for the week of 1/18/10, edited on 1/25/10.***

Seppie usually translates as “cuttlefish,” but our server at Il Punto in Hell’s Kitchen translated it as “calamari”—i.e., of course, squid, but since calamari was also listed in a couple of dishes on the menu, I’m all in a muddle as to whether she just didn’t want to give me pause w/r/t some spooky sea creature I’d never heard of or whether they just use the words & concepts interchangeably, however inaccurately (sure, squid & cuttlefish are relatives, but that’s not the same as the same). Granting that I can’t swear on dead people that I’d know the difference in a taste test, I choose to think a) that deep down I would & b) that the 2 dishes I ordered in the course of 2 visits (full review soon) referencing seppie indeed contained cuttlefish.

Then again, I could totally be convinced these were flakes off a layer of skin from an angel flayed alive in outer space.

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How could something sliced so thin as to be translucent, possessing a flavor so exquisitely delicate & washed clean, hold up to slivers of sundried tomato & roasted pepper, petals of marinated artichoke heart? But it did; along with spritzes of lemon juice & frisée with a touch of lemon vinaigrette, the dish was a study in the compelling presence of the barely there.