Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Category: food

Mango Chicken Curry For Wintertime Existential Despair

mango curry done 2

I’ve spent many years as a sworn enemy of fruit in curries. Too often, adding fruit to a perfectly adequate, flavorful Asian or South Asian dish renders it a sickly-sweet abomination geared towards the kind of people who think garlic powder is exotic.

However, I made an exception for this South Indian-ish chicken mango curry,  and I’m very glad I did. It’s delicious, easy to make, and produces superb leftovers. The combination of coconut milk, toasted Indian spices, and chili with fresh mango chunks produces complex, tropical flavors that are a pleasantly aromatic antidote to the pure existential misery of winter.

It is eminently adjustable to different palates and spice-tolerances, which makes this dish a good choice for both your flavor-phobic in-laws from Nebraska, and your chili-obsessed expat friend visiting from Southeast Asia who has thoroughly seared all their tastebuds off. (That would be me).

Due to either the boon or horrible imposition of globalization, depending on your political affinities, you can get a decent fresh mango most anywhere in the winter months. I guess you could use frozen mango if you were desperate.

Dark meat chicken is heavily suggested. The curry leaves are a brilliant addition if you can find them. The frozen ones work, too. It would be pretty good with shrimp if you were so inclined.

mango chunks detail 2

Chicken Mango Curry
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 pounds of dark-meat chicken, skinned and cut into chunks
1 ripe fresh mango, peeled and cut into chunks.
1 can of full-fat coconut milk (low fat is for weenies)
1 serrano or Thai green chili – add more if you like super-spicy.
Tablespoon of sambal chili paste.  Sriracha is a fine substitute. Omit if you come from the Delicate Stomach tribe.
2 large yellow onions
Tablespoon of fresh ginger
2 to 3 garlic cloves, according to taste
Vegetable oil – olive oil works fine.

1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 cardamom pods, broken open. 1/2 tsp of cardamom powder works fine as a substitute.
Curry leaves (if you can find them)

Chicken

If you have the time, marinade the chicken overnight in yogurt, combined with a tablespoon of curry powder. No one will die if you do not have the time to do this, so don’t sweat it.

Curry paste

1. Finely chop – using a knife or a food processor, I’m not judging – and then combine the whole Serrano chili, ginger, onion, and garlic. Set aside.

The Main Event

2. In a large, deep pan or skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Throw in the mustard seeds, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and curry leaves, and cook for roughly a minute, until the mustard seeds begin to pop. If the oil is too hot, the mustard seeds will ricochet into your face, which is exceedingly startling.

3. Add the curry paste. Add the turmeric, curry powder, and cumin. Add the cardamom powder if you weren’t able to find the pods. Cook until the vegetables are aromatic and soft.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

4. Add the chicken, and stir until it’s reasonably browned – roughly 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Add the can of coconut milk and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust the spices if needed. Add more chili paste if needed. Add salt and pepper as you see fit. Cook for 15 minutes covered at low heat.

6. After 15 minutes elapse, add the chopped mango. Cook for 5 more minutes at low heat.

Should look like this. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

Should look like this halfway through. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

7. Taste again, and adjust as needed. Uncover, turn the heat up to high, and reduce for about 5 to 10 minutes until thick and slightly caramelized looking. Keep stirring it to avoid burning.

8. Eat it. I like to serve this with a raita made with plain Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, olive oil, and lemon. Good with basmati rice as well.

This makes beautiful left-overs, so I suggest making more then you can eat in one go, and keeping it aside for the next day. It also freezes very well.

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Some Thoughts on Cooking Beef Rendang

Beef rendang. You should try this.

Beef rendang. You should try this.

There was a time when I was convinced I would become a professional food and cooking writer. I had a food blog through my teenage years, and read lots of classic food writing – M.F.K Fisher, in particular – and figured it was my destined path in life.

This all changed at age 18, when a certain Iraqi professor at my first college verbally tore my head off over it, when I told him I was really just interested in food journalism, thank you very much. “There is all this suffering in the world, and you want to write about FOOD?” he shouted at me.

I cowered. And rather quickly shifted gears.

Now I write about depressing things related to geo-politics and drones (so much with the drones) – but occasionally, the desire to write about food again re-emerges. In this case, it’s because I made a really fantastic beef rendang and I’d like to let everyone know about it.

Rendang is probably the best known Indonesian dish out there, derived from the excellent, spicy Padang cooking of West Sumatra. In simplest terms, it’s a caramelized coconut milk beef curry that is braised for a very long time, breaking down the beef and giving it a remarkably deep, complex flavor. If you’ve had Thai massaman curry before, it’s a lot like that, but better.

While easy to find in Asia and Australia, for some perverse reason, Indonesian cuisine has yet to become popular in the US. So you’ll have to make it yourself. Let me explain. For this dish, I modified it to my own taste from a few different versions online. I believe the fresh curry leaves were probably my brightest idea, as they lend a delightfully peppery,  smoky, South Indian influence. They are well worth hunting for.

Most credit  is due to Saveur’s version, which had the brilliant idea of using macademia nuts. Some other versions include toasted coconut, star anise, cardamom pods,  and Kaffir lime leaves, among other modifications. You can find all the ingredients listed below at any half-decent Asian/South Asian grocery store.

It's kind of hard to make cooking beef rendang look alluring, as I found out.

It’s kind of hard to make cooking beef rendang look alluring, as I found out. Trust me.

My first rendang tasted good but came out much more soupy than the versions I’d had in Indonesia. I realized my error was cooking the rendang at low heat for the entire four to six hours I let it go – it needs a period of reduction at higher heat to really get the caramelized flavor. The cooking technique, conveniently, helps to preserve the meat for long periods, and beef rendang tends to mellow pleasantly over the course of a few days. Make lots.

WHAT YOU NEED:
2 lbs beef. I used half beef spare ribs, and half chopped beef stew meat. Chicken will do nicely as well, although it will require less cooking time.
1 whole nutmeg, roughed up a bit in a mortar and pestle.
5 whole cloves.
3 chopped Thai chiles (green). Dried chiles work as well, or Mexican chiles.
5 chopped shallots.
1 tablespoon palm sugar. You can buy dried “cakes” of it at the Asian market, which can be simply thrown into the pot.
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, moistened with water and zapped in the microwave for a minute.
5 macademia nuts.
3 cloves of garlic
Tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger
6 or 7 fresh curry leaves. Frozen works, too.
Minced lemongrass – roughly a tablespoon. If you can get whole lemongrass, trim a stalk, tie it into a knot, and throw it in for flavoring.
2 cinnamon stick, broken in half.
2 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk.
Salt and pepper at your own discretion.

Chop the cloves and nutmeg until fine in a food processor – and yes, you use the entire nutmeg. Add the shallots, Thai chiles, ginger, minced lemongrass, garlic, and macademia nuts to the food processor, and run it until you’ve got a nice paste.

Throw the paste in a skillet and sweat it for a couple of minutes at high heat, softening up the vegetables. If you’re using a big soup pot for this dish, which I advise, put some oil in the pot and begin to brown the beef on all sides as you are stirring the vegetables.

What a curry plant looks like.

What a curry plant looks like.

Put the softened vegetable paste into the pot with the beef. Add the coconut milk, which will ideally cover but not drown the meat. Put in the tamarind pulp, the palm sugar, and the fresh curry leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Stir it, taste it, and modify it as you see fit.

Let it cook for at least 3 hours, preferably longer, ensuring the meat is very tender. After at least 3 hours have passed, raise the heat to a medium rolling boil. This will reduce the sauce. Let it rip for about 30 minutes, stirring every 4 or 5 minutes or so to ensure it doesn’t burn. (This is a good time to catch up on TV).

Once the sauce has reduced and taken on a dark appearance and a richly caramelized flavor, it’s ready to serve.

Garnish with curry leaves if you’d like. It was nice with eggplant sauteed with sweet soy sauce, and an Asian slaw.

 

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Chengdu: The Museum and Some Hot Pot

Jinli Walking Street in Chengdu.

Jinli Walking Street in Chengdu.

I woke up in Chengdu and immediately realized I should get a Chinese SIM card, as well as a bus ticket to Kangding. The SIM card seemed more immediately approachable, and I walked out the door in search of one of Asia’s ubiquitous, usually slightly cleverly-concealed cellphone shops. 100 RMB later, I had a SIM card for my iPhone with a nice 3G data plan. I suppose I had expected to have to fill out paperwork and then being yelled at by someone in a starched Mao suit in exchange for the privilege, instead of handing a lady a bill and being up and running nearly instantly.

It was already lunch-time and high time for touristing, and so I hopped in one of Chengdu’s pleasantly cheap cabs and headed for the Chengdu Museum, continuing my life-long love affair with provincial museums with dodgy signage.

Chengdu dinosaurs.

Chengdu dinosaurs.

In search of a pre-museum lunch,I briefly walked along the river and looked through Chengdu’s interesting antiques area, which is spread along the water and featured many interesting small things, from jades to black beaded necklaces to vintage Communist literature and posters. No restaurants or snack stalls apparated, though. I tried the string of restaurants across the street: one featured real Sichaunese food downstairs and was totally full, with Western food for depressed tour groups upstairs – no go. Another had excellent looking food that only came in party-size portions. I finally settled for a Xinjiang place, where a very loud and very good-natured Uighur man served me an enormous bowl of pulled noodle soup for 14 RMB.

Vegetables with bugs on them, a theme in Chinese fine art.

Vegetables with bugs on them, a theme in Chinese fine art.

I crossed the semi-deadly street to the museum, which was thankfully emptied out of tour groups in the late afternoon. I was even more pleased to find that the ticket was free after I flashed my drivers license. The collection featured a T-rex skeleton in the basement. More gorgeous ivory carvings of bug-infested vegetables, a beloved motif in fine Chinese art.

Tibetan shamans use animal bones as ornaments.

Tibetan shamans use animal bones as ornaments.

However, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually do, as was distracted and increasingly concerned about my inability to speak Chinese. This was compounded by my inability to find anywhere I could buy something approximating a phrasebook. I began wondering if I was going to starve to death on the Tibetan plateau, unable to say anything but “Thank you” and “where is the bathroom?”

There wasn’t too much time for language based existential terror, however, as a friend of a friend via Twitter had answered my request for assistance with navigating the vast territory that is Sichuanese cuisine. That’s how I met up with Kevin Lee.

Snack ladies in Chengdu.

Snack ladies in Chengdu.

A young Chengdu native, Kevin is one of China’s few Mormons, a fact he volunteered eventually as I asked him about his years of life in the Mountain West of the United States – he was attending university at Brigham Young University’s Idaho branch.

. Being a Mormon in China, he said, was not a very comfortable business. “You can’t really talk about it. If you’re talking about what you believe, you can mention you’re a Christian and then say you’re a Mormon, maybe.”

Attired in a white polo shirt, Kevin spoke with a California-accent with a vague Mexican inflection and plenty of entirely current West Coast slang, picked up from his overseas mission in the Sunshine State, prior to his enrollment in BYU. In fact, he had served in Sacramento, which happens to be where I went to high school – one of those bizarre geographical confluences I’ve become almost accustomed to in the course of international travel. “Oh man, Inn and Out Burger,” he said, a look of profound nostalgia on his face. “I get those whenever I go to Utah. Bomb-ass food.”

Candy art on Wide-Narrow Street.

Candy art on Wide-Narrow Street.

The other food in the West, he said, was less compelling. He admitted to going to Panda Express, but only because there were no other options. He also had taken to driving and road-trips, although he said that driving in Chengdu – in the midst of a sea of new drivers with a very limited understanding of road rules – was too much for him. “I do have a car. No other way to pick up girls for dates, right? You can’t just call her up and ask her to pick YOU up.”

He hadn’t been back to Chengdu in about three years but was happy to be home. “The city has changed so much,” he said, referring to the madcap pace of expansion and the immense and light-festooned buildings that were sprouting in every possible direction. “I mean, there’s as many people here as New York City.”

Costume guys on Wide-Narrow Street.

Costume guys on Wide-Narrow Street.

We hopped a surprisingly clean, if crowded bus, which cost 4 yuan, and headed to Wide-Narrow Street, a walking and shopping area of long-standing that has been renovated and airbrushed into a major tourist attraction for China’s many domestic travelers.

True to the name, there were two parallel streets, one rather narrow, and one considerably wider, with cobble-stone floors and traditionally built buildings. The businesses were rather less old-fashioned, with an exceedingly elegant Starbucks, various and sundry fancy nightclubs with young Chinese men belting out American songs, and a sea of luxurious looking restaurants. We stopped for a snack of an entire potato deep-fried on a stick with chili powder, and watched various tourist demonstrations of tea-pouring, traditional candy making in the shape of crabs, phoenixes, and oxen, and the production of Chinese crafts.

Standard hot pot operating procedure. His shirt is on, though.

Standard hot pot operating procedure. His shirt is on, though.

For dinner, we stopped at a very popular and very large hot-pot restaurant. Kevin was surprised I was interested, noting “My Mexican friends love hotpot and spicy foods, but the white kids…man, they don’t like it.” (I ventured that this was at least in part a function of being in the Mountain West in the US, the land where Flavor Goes to Die in Solitude and Disrepute).

hot pot table 2 (1 of 1)

Many of the male clients had taken off their shirts, a seeming prerequisite to successful hot-pot consumption. We ordered tofu, beef, pork meatballs, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and bacon, which were brought to the table raw. The half-and-half hotpot came out in a ying-yang shape, with one side filled with a mild pork broth with green onion, jujube, and spices, the other side filled with the vaguely evil looking Sichuanese standard of chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilis, and onion.

Bridge at Jinli Pedestrian Area.

Bridge at Jinli Pedestrian Area.

In the evening, we headed to the Jinli Walking Street, which was recently renovated. “It definitely wasn’t like this five years ago,” said an obviously impressed Kevin, as we walked down alleys filled with craft-makers, designer clothing outlets, fast food restaurants, and yet another very high-end Starbucks.

Lanterns on Jinli St.

Lanterns on Jinli St.

There were yet more expensive pubs, including one where a handsome young Chinese man sang American songs in front of a Confederate flag. I’m guessing they’re not aware of the context, though to be fair, it seems many Americans aren’t either.

We were far too full to eat anything, but we were both impressed by the long strip of snack places, featuring the full range of Chengdu specialties. “I want to come back here and eat everything,” said Kevin. I seconded that emotion.

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Taiwan: Taipei Night Markets

cooking night market

Night markets are likely Taipei’s most iconic attraction, and probably the one most visible to those who have never visited the country before. Food Adventurers like Anthony Bourdain regularly traipse through them with a camera crew following behind, sampling this and that from different carts, beneath a canopy of red-and-yellow lights.

Not that I’m going to be contrary, regardless of my opinion on Xtreme Travel television shows. Taipei night markets are awesome, and the food is unmissable. They’re huge, walking food-courts, and if you do manage to find a place to sit and eat, they provide remarkably pleasing people-watching, with all of Taipei’s different subcultures on display.

All are united by one thing: the desire to eat something inexpensive, tasty, and preferably exceedingly fully-flavored. And they do mean full flavored: as a friend of mine observed to me yesterday, “I think Taipei is the stinkiest city in the world.” (In the good way).

Kids gambling for prizes.

Kids gambling for prizes.

We visited a few different night markets in Taipei but were particularly taken with the Ningxia street variant. It’s an easy stroll from the Shuanglian or Zhongshan MRT stops, and you’ll know it when you see it from the surrounding commotion on any given evening. Friday evening found the place packed face-to-back with strolling, hungry people, perusing the wares from stands that seemed to be intentionally packed uncomfortably close together.

Once you get over the closeness of the situation, you quickly realize that English signage has been provided for your convenience (well, probably), making it a bit easier to determine what you’re actually getting. Not that it’s too important: if it looks good, point at it, pay a rather nominal amount of money, and you’ll be eating it within five minutes.

taiwan oyster pancake

Taiwan has unusually fantastic oysters – tiny and briny, with a delicate texture. It’s considered essentially mandatory to order oyster omelette at the night markets here, which is made with egg, oysters, green onion, and some starch to give the whole affair a characteristically glutinous texture.

making oyster pancke

The starch is tossed into the skillet, the eggs come next, and then come the oysters. It’s all served with a slightly sweet, savory sauce that’s placed on top, and there’s chili sauce on the table. It’s a pleasantly filling and briny comfort food, the sort of thing I wish you could just order ordinarily for breakfast at American diners.

spicy chicken nuggets

They didn’t really look like much, but it turns out that the Taiwanese have, through some dark pact, become some of the finest chicken friers in the world. We were exceedingly impressed with this bag of dark meat chicken nuggets, coated with a pungent dusting of five spice powder, chili, some sugar, and who-knows-what-else. Also keep an eye out for fried Taiwanese chicken served with a distinctive vinegar sauce, an elegant combination of flavors.

sea urchins

Seafood is an immense draw at the nightmarkets, with great assortments of prawns, lobsters, sea urchins, and oysters large and small displayed on ice and ready for grilling or stir-frying.

grilling scallops

It’s beautiful, fresh seafood that would be the envy of any locavore snob with a fixed gear bicycle in San Francisco. (Taiwan, of course, has its own complement of people with ironic facial hair who ride fixies and have very strong opinions about food.)

squid stands alone

Both squid and chicken cutlets are flattened to remarkable dimensions and flash-fried here, providing one with a conveniently hand-held slab of protein custom built for walking around and looking at things. Sitting while eating is not considered particularly important in Taiwan.

stir frying

We also tried the “aboriginal style pork sausage,” which tasted pretty much like a standard Asian style sweet sausage but was quite tasty. Beyond that, we simply wandered around taking in the energy of the place, and enjoying the photographic potential one is accorded by a place with a whole lot of different kinds of lighting.

Night time in Taipei.

Night time in Taipei.

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Today I Went to Taiwan

chiang kai-shek memorial

On Monday, I arrived in Taipei.

I have gone through the airport in Taiwan many times on the way to Phnom Penh, because it’s a convenient Eva air hub and a nice place to get noodles and beer as you await onward transit. But I had always wanted to properly visit Taiwan, bolstered as I was by collective family memories of visits back in the seventies, where one could gaze upon things like magnificent horse scrolls and a giant jade cabbage.

“The Kuomintang took all the good stuff from the Forbidden City and brought it here ahead of the Communists,” my mother explained. That was a good enough reason to visit the country in itself. I was planning to return to Asia at the first opportunity after I graduated from Stanford, and my planned return coincided neatly with a business trip my father was taking in Taipei. I decided to meet him here. And here I am.

Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.

Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.

My first impressions of Taiwan, thus far: the drive in from the airport encompassed tons of healthy-looking greenery and clean blue skies, a far cry from the dystopian misery of most city-approaches from Asian airports. Everyone was following traffic rules. I immediately wondered if I had even returned to Asia at all.

I fetched up at the hotel and woke up my dad, and — thanks to a surprisingly pleasant plane ride — I was ready to go and tourist within an hour or so. We headed to the MRT station, wrestled briefly with the go-card machines, and boarded the trains. Predictably, for a first world Asian city, they were clean and well-marked and pleasant, and put the San Francisco Bay Area BART system to such earth-shattering shame that the two barely belong in the same sentence. (Such is the pace of development).

Chiang Kai-shek looking benevolent.

Chiang Kai-shek looking benevolent.

We headed for the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall first, a few train stops away from our hotel. First opening in 1980 to commemorate the 1975 death of the Kuomintang leader, the Hall sits in an immense space that was (we were told) built over existing military property. In the modern era, the space was used for pro-democracy protests, and is now a popular tourist attraction that reminds one very much of the Lincoln Memorial if you squint a bit. This was intentional.

We watched the Changing of the Guard, along with dozens of aggressively photographically inclined Chinese tourists, then descended the stairs to the museum which described Chiang Kai-Shek’s life and times, from his calligraphy to his evening slippers.

It's quite the likeness.

It’s quite the likeness.

We chatted with a friendly English-speaking docent as we admired a replica of Chiang Kai-shek’s office, complete with a figure of the great man himself in wax. She described to us how roughly 40 percent of the Taiwanese population (in her estimation) absolutely prefers to be separate from China in all things, while the others are more on the fence. She also mentioned she had lived in San Jose for a decade, and I said I’d just got a masters from Stanford, to which she responded with a sharp, amused bow. “Do you know the Stanford shopping center?” she said. “That’s my very favorite.”

The docent had told us where to go to get good beef noodles and we dutifully walked out of the monument and through the streets to get there. Taipei’s streets are clean, walkable, and bizarrely quiet on a Monday afternoon, with almost none of the murderous motorbike or truck drivers I’ve become accustomed to in most Asian cities. It was hot and sticky, but we encountered regular gusts of cool air from the storefronts we passed.

Beef noodle storefront for future reference.

Beef noodle storefront for future reference.

I’ve always enjoyed Taiwanese beef noodles and this place was a good representative of the species – “Pot roast with noodles,” my dad observed, approvingly, as we dug in. We also ordered steamed spareribs with a tasty, spicy rice topping, and sampled a few of the side dishes displayed on the side.

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The setup is rather like Korean banchan, except that you point at what you want and a harried looking young man delivers the side-dish to the table. The best of these was the delicate, marinated eggplant..

Commit this storefront in Taipei to memory because the food was stellar.

Commit this storefront in Taipei to memory because the food was stellar.

We walked back to the hotel to make Dad’s meeting, and I spent most of the afternoon working and watching a truly impressive tropical rainstorm blow in over the city — something, I realized, I’d missed in the benign climes of northern California.
For dinner, one of Dad’s friends — a Taipei native — led us to one of his favorite restaurants in the neighborhood of our hotel, which had no English signage but which he informed me translated pretty much into “The Freshest Taste.”

Grim spectacle (that's a lie).

Grim spectacle (that’s a lie).

This was one of those delightful Asian beer-swilling joints with stools and an open front to the outside, where a somewhat desperate looking girl in an Asahi beer dress tried (without success) to sway us from the local Taiwan beer. The restaurant had a check-it-off menu of small plates, and the setup was very much like a Taiwanese variant on a tapas bar.
The food was absolutely superb, and we tried roughly a dozen dishes, which came out quickly and were summarily removed as we devoured them.

raw clams

Raw clams – amazing.

My favorites included braised tofu with oysters and black beans and chives in a delicate, sea-water infused sauce, fried and sliced tripe with peanuts and chili in the Kung Pao style, marinated raw clams of tiny dimensions and immensely subtle flavor, and flash-fried chicken with a light crumb batter and a vinegar sauce on bottom.

Braised baby squid.

Braised baby squid.

But it was all excellent — even the stinky tofu, although I continue to be unable to fully get on board with eating chicken blood. (Shame – a great source of iron).  Below is an exhaustive gallery of all the things we ate.


I ended the evening at one of the night markets, which was approximately like every other night market in Asia, except with many more shops selling toys in capsules. Taiwanese youth culture is very much like our own, with hordes of kids out late on a summer Monday night perusing shirts that featured things like Mickey Mouse giving the audience the finger and the characters from Adventure Time.

Capsule toy hell.

Capsule toy hell.

Of most interest were the food stalls, where people gamely queued up to buy chicken schnitzels as large as their heads, fried potato chips cut into patterns and mounted on a stick, and endless variations on the theme of sweetened grass jelly (marked with frogs here). I even walked by a Chipotle knock-off, titled California Burrito.

Watch palooza.

Watch palooza.

Somewhat dazzled by the sheer variety of Taiwanese youth culture and the vague feeling I was both too uncool and too jet-lagged to fully participate, I found myself a cab and returned to the hotel. Typically for Taipei, the cabbie was polite and turned on the meter immediately without being asked — a far cry from the bickering that ensues over such matters in many other cities. Thus far? I like this place.

Alley shopping.

Alley shopping.

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Korean Food at Myung Dong Tofu Cabin – San Mateo, California

Myung Dong Tofu Cabin
2968 S Norfolk St, San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 525-1484
Website

tofu cabin pork stew

Pork and kimchi stew.

I love California strip malls. Well, allow me modify that: strip malls of a particular variety and tone. The sort I’m talking about aren’t populated with dollar stores and sporting goods marts. The sort of strip mall I like functions as a small oasis of excellent Asian food, where multiple Asian restaurants cluster together, seemingly for protection — the equivalent of small natural bastions of biodiversity.

The excellent Myung Dong Tofu Cabin sits in one of these Asian food gallerias, next to a Chinese bakery and a pho shop. Owned and operated by a small crew of middle-aged women, the delightfully named Tofu Cabin specializes in Korean home-cooking, with a couple of DIY BBQ tables for those feeling fancy.

At this home-cooking — the heart and soul of Korean cuisine, if you ask me – this place absolutely excels. With lower prices by a buck or two than the other Korean restaurants I’ve found in the Peninsula, I believe I’ve found my new standby.

pork bbq myung dong

Spicy BBQ pork.

I’m usually a bit ambivalent to SoonDooBoo, perhaps because it’s often rather uninspired. The soondooboo here was a molten, flavorful, slightly creamy brew, with bits of beef. They took us seriously when we said “spicy.” My sinuses were rendered as open as the Panama Canal.  Pork BBQ was the right kind of greasy and exceedingly prolific in the full portion, with a potent dose of red pepper and sliced jalapeno. It was particularly good in a fresh lettuce wrap with some kimchi and a bit of hot sauce.

Seafood dolsot bibimbap was also excellent, served in a very large black stone cauldron, and filled with shrimp and squid. I was less impressed with the kimchi ji gae (pork and kimchi stew), which definitely featured far more kimchi than it did slices of pork belly.

banchan tofu cabin

The banchan selection is fresh, if slightly austere, and by austere I think I actually mean “healthy.” (Where’s my mayonnaise drenched noodle salad?) Sweet black beans are a rare site on these spreads in recent years. Still, where’s the tiny fish with equally tiny eyeballs? They defined my childhood. The kimchi is excellent. A Korean restaurant rises and falls upon the virtue of its kimchi.

Service is friendly and homey, and the food comes out pleasingly quickly. Free green tea and the correct kind of purple rice. I’ll be back, probably over and over and over. Korean food has a peculiar addictive quality for me, a Proustian madeline.

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Huong Lan Sandwich – San Jose, California

Huong Lan Sandwich
1655 Tully Road
San Jose, California

huong lan sandwiches

It’s hard not to love banh mi, as any Californian with sense will inform you. I tend to subsist almost exclusively on these sandwiches when actually in Vietnam, enjoying both the comically low price point and the delightfully variable flavor — every small stand manned by elderly women, turning out ever-so-slightly different variants on the theme.

BBQ pork, chicken, pate, mysterious but tasty headcheeses, served with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables and even, at times, some of that curiously unperishable Laughing Cow cheese. Chili sauce and fried shallots and jalapeno, and (if lucky), a bit of hot left-over juice from sauteed pork. I’ll eat it all. Happily.

You can get good banh mi in America, of course. Anywhere with a large Vietnamese population will inevitably have a clutch of banh mi shops, which fill the ecological niche of Subway with both style and considerable thrift.

huong lan interior

Huong Lan, in San Jose’s Little Saigon, is one of those sandwich-and-deli shops that I grew up with, and of which you know the type if you grew up in an area with a Vietnamese population. There’s a wide selection of prepared Vietnamese food, including Hue style rice cakes (banh cuon, et al), a profusion of spring roll varieties, and noodle bowls. There’s a hot fast food bar that offers rice plates on the go, with freshly fried spring rolls and catfish claypots covered with shrink wrap. There’s also a counter offering fresh BBQ meats. I was able to pick up some MSG saturated and delightfully nostalgic fried seaweed snacks, which made me happy. Curiously — I couldn’t find any fish sauce, although they did have shrimp paste.

huong lan banh mi

The sandwich was only OK, I’m a bit sad to report. It was lacking some sort of special oomph. The bread wasn’t warmed up and was not quite shatter-y enough, and that, in my mind, makes all the difference. Further, the fillings were a bit inadequate in volume. I like a good banh mi to make an intolerable mess of any surface I’m eating it over. What was there, however, was good: BBQ pork was given a garnish of peanuts and fried shallots, which added some earthy, oily crunch. For $3, I can accept an unremarkable sandwich.

huong lan meat

The real appeal at Huong Lan, then, is the counter serving up BBQ pork, duck, and chicken. Crispy slabs of pork with crackling still on. BBQ ducks, noisily chopped up on a big wooden block. I chose soy-sauce chicken, which cost me a little less than $5 for a pound, and was delightfully tender and flavorful. Why bother with those morose rotisserie chickens from Safeway? Here, they’ll even throw in the feet.

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Pancho Villa Taqueria – San Francisco

Pancho Villa Taqueria
3071 16th St, San Francisco
(415) 864-8840
Website

Whenever someone comes to visit me in the Bay Area, I am duty-bound to drag them to a taqeuria at least once. Decent tacos are one of the birth-rights of the Bay, up there with eery white Google buses, microclimates, and people who want to tell you about their IPO. Meanwhile, the majority of the US is a filthy taco-free desert, hostile to both civilized human life and actual flavor. So when my college friend Raj stopped by for a few days, we headed to San Francisco, with a taqueria stop built in — near the MIssion and 16th BART station.

pancho villa inside

I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t go to San Franscisco that much, although I do attend Stanford and could theoretically be spending more time there. Possibly because driving through the city during traffic hours is sort of like traversing a Hieronymous Bosch painting with the added risk of mowing down a tech hipster with an astounding litigation budget. Regardless, I figured we could probably find a good taqueria somewhere in the neighborhood, and we did: enter Pancho Villa, up the street a block from Hoff.

Long lines, even at 1:30 PM on a Friday, but no matter. The first thing I noticed was the seafood selection, and not the usual deep-fried and yawningly pedestrian stuff, either: red snapper, grilled salmon, and hot and spicy prawns. No cabeza (beef head), which is somewhat disappointing if you’re into the macabre and delightfully fatty,  but they do have lengua. B+.

You order your food from a slightly harried looking attendant and move up to the line to pay, walking past an impressive display of Jarritos and freshly-made Aguas Frescas in large jars. Prices in this competitive bit of town are good, with a massive plate of shrimp with black beans, rice, and fresh avocado retailing for a mere $10.25, and containing enough calories to fuel you for a weekend or two.

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The real allure of Pancho Villa is the incredible salsa bar, which is a rainbow-colored array of chile pepper confections, reminiscent of my absolute favorite kind of vegetable-powered candy shop. They’re not shy about this, this profusion of salsas: they’ve won multiple state fair prizes for these things.

I was particularly taken with the neon orange mango and chile salsa, which had a creamy texture and a slightly sweet bite. Also excellent was roasted green chili salsa, as well as creamy avocado. You could, if you were feeling frugal and a bit douchey, make an interesting meal out of just fresh-cooked tortilla chips, guacamole, and a veritable bucket of salsa here.

spread colorful panchovilla

Hot and spicy shrimp was truly excellent. Most Mexican restaurants just simmer shrimp in sauce, but here, medium-sized shrimp with the shell on appear to have been pan-fried then tossed with a smoky, pleasingly spicy sauce with both pureed and dried chili, as well as mushrooms, onion, and green pepper. None of the cloying sweetness of some camaraone ala diabla treatments, and definitely hot enough to wake you up if you’re feeling sort of boring and languid.

The shrimp were served with non-greasy black beans and sliced avocado, and perfectly accompanied with (extra charge) cebollitas, grilled green onions. I’d come back for this. And maybe try the tacos next time.

The clientele at Pancho Villa, like most places in this district, is aggressively Tech Bro — a sociological quirk that allows for great people-viewing if you have visitors in town.  We got to overhear a conversation between two very intense men in pinstripes at the table next to us. “You’ve got to let me know if you’re ready to make it big. To really GO for this,” one  man said, in between bites of a burrito. The other nodded quietly. “This could be IT,” the noisier one said, speaking as if about an apocalypse instead of what was probably a Highly Disruptive App.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged female marachi singer with a truly impressive, masculine baritone roamed the tables. I gave her a dollar, which she received in a pink gift bag. She smiled winningly at me, and moved on.

Pancho Villa: authentic (to San Francisco) in all ways.

 

 

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