Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Pottery Barn-ization of Boulangerie

When I used to live in San Francisco (now I’m just across the bay in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood), I used to love going to the Boulangerie on Sunday mornings. I know. I’m crazy, because Sunday mornings are when this tiny French bakery on Pine Street is the busiest, with people double-parking outside waiting for their significant other inside maneuvering to get some fresh artisan bread, pastries or other delights. (My usual was a loaf of the kalamata olive bread.)

The person behind Boulangerie, Pascal Rigo, became the star baker in town, which led to a cookbook and a few restaurants. Now Rigo has created a baking empire known as The Bay Bread Group and has duplicated the Boulangerie concept into similar cafés or bakery/cafés all around town. Over the years he’s opened six of these La Boulangerie, and last month he opened his seventh in the trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Every detail of Rigo’s La Boulangerie is carefully crafted to reflect the well-established brand of the original Boulangerie. That means a lot of French country influences and baking accoutrements. The brand has been extended to coffee and cake mixes, which is why I titled this post “The Pottery Barn-ization of Boulangerie.” Boulangerie’s success has made it close to a chain, which means on the flip side it may seem like it has lost some of its charm of being the local tiny bake shop.

Still, that didn’t keep me from checking out the new La Boulangerie at Hayes (at a very prime spot at Hayes and Octavia facing the new children’s park). No matter that La Boulangerie has become the food version of Pottery Barn, if they continue to serve up such quality, tasty treats, I’m there!

Here people are lined up one afternoon to get one of the many treats offered at La Boulangerie, including a full menu of soups, salads and sandwiches a long with all the various bread and pastries in the counter.

The artisan breads are all made with organic ingredients. But like most popular bakeries, you’re out of luck when you arrive in the afternoon, when much of the selection is gone. Here’s what they had left.

The bakers behind La Boulangerie make incredible tarts and stuff. Once I had this incredible peach and goat cheese tart during the summer from the original Pine Street location. I still dream of that.
This is something new that I see offered at La Boulangerie—these colorful madeleines (or at least I think they're called madeleines. I know the sign had something with an "m"). The colors are so pretty. I think next time I’m going to try that Black Currant flavor at the end.

Like I mentioned, throughout the café were various branded products, such as these La Boulangerie coffee beans near the checkout. You can get some really precious birthday or Christmas gifts the next time you come in for a sandwich.

I sat down for an afternoon snack with this luscious goat cheese quiche with chorizo ($4). It was a very nice individual size (I would say about 5 to 6 inch in diameter) and sooo tasty with just the right texture in the crust. They can warm it up for you, but be careful to not burn the roof of your mouth (speaking from first-hand experience).

Along with my individual-sized quiche, I got a cup of the day’s soup, which was this beautifully presented French Onion Carrot Soup ($3). I don’t know what kind of carrots they were using, but it gave the soup such a striking orange color and such a strong carrot taste that I was tempted to believe there must have been some food additives used to pump up the flavor. But I’m sure it’s just really fine carrots.

On the weekends, La Boulangeries around the city can be a real chaotic scene. But on this weekday afternoon, La Boulangerie can be a relaxing escape to Paris. Sit by the window counter to people watch.

The addition of La Boulangerie at Hayes has really made this neighborhood a growing food destination. Just a few doors away you’ll find True Sake, one of the city’s only premium sake store; Sebu, one of the best sushi restaurants; and the original Fritz Belgian Fries. Just a block down you’ll find the very first Blue Bottle permanent stand (unlike the carts at the farmers’ markets) in the city. With the park on Octavia, all you need is a visit to Blue Bottle and La Boulangerie and you’re set for a relaxing Sunday in San Francisco.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: Episode 4

We Don't Mind Copying Top Chef

Previously on the NIC: The Chairman is reviewing the eight tests he’s created to find his next Iron Chef, but I’m confused because I don’t remember seeing anything about “attain greatness” or “lead and inspire.” And what exactly was the test for “attain greatness?” It’s like the Chairman wants to wrap this competition up already and is pretending we saw something we didn’t. Well, we did see last week Chefs Gavin Kaysen and Morou eliminated after a grilling cook-off. Tonight, we see Alton Brown in front of this huge-ass Lufthansa jet. Talk about product placement. The final four chefs are saying things are getting tense, and they no longer look like they’re as friendly in the kitchen. The fun is over guys.

We start off with the typical interviews of why these chefs want to be the next Iron Chef. Chef Michael Symon says he wants to grasp the title of Iron Chef and then “tear it up.” Huh? I didn’t realize he was such a masochist? Put yourself through the ringer and win the competition only to rip it all apart? Not my route, but good luck with that. Chef Big Easy (John Besh) and Chef Buzzer (Aarón Sanchez) says something typical about being more than you are, or something to that effect.

The final four is gearing up for traveling, and boy do they look like they’re going to Florida for spring break with their T-shirts and shorts. Even Alton Brown, who meets the four at a Culinary Institute of America darkened room to send them off, notes the four’s casual civilian attire.

Brown plays the Chairman in The Box, who tells the four chefs that an Iron Chef must be able to create under pressure. (Unlike the stress-free tests they’ve been given thus far?) They’ll be asked to redefine a style of cooking that affects people around the world every day. This vague description would be even more useless if we didn’t already see the big airliner in the first few seconds of this show. So why not just come clean, Chairman? Instead of saying more, the Chairman says something in what I guess is a foreign language but sounded more like one of those made up languages school girls use to communicate with each other and not let the adults in on what they’re saying. (Uoy wokn thaw I mean?) Anyway, the subtitles reveal that the Chairman supposedly said: “I wish you much luck and much fun.” Chef Sanchez gives a look like, “Watcha talkin’ about Willis?”

So it’s goodbye CIA (it must be weird to say you’re a graduate of the CIA) and hello to JFK as the four chefs try to figure out where their “culinary odyssey” (Brown’s words) will take them. They find out it’s Munich (which we already knew from last week’s preview) and the four cheftestants board what looks like a really empty plane. Chef Symon says he’s worried about Chef Big Easy, who says on the plane that he’s going to “whoop” Symon in this competition.

When they arrive in Munich, they’re still at the airport and they go into a hanger, of course. Alton Brown is already there standing in front of a huge Lufthansa jet, which he calls the secret ingredient. Symon’s like “how are we going to cook that?” Brown then goes into the wonders that is Munich (and I’ve never been to but even I’m interested in going after hearing this spot from the Munich tourism board) and says the chefs won’t be seeing any of them. Now that’s just brutal. This is why I hate business travel. All work, no play.

Brown tells the chefs that they’ll have to stay at the airport and conceive the “ultimate first-class meal” to be served in Lufthansa’s new Airbus A380 superjet. (Ironically, this is the same airplane that got lots of play when Singapore Airlines was the first to use one this month in a commercial flight. It’s so huge you can fly a whole city. Well, maybe just everyone in city hall.)
Of course, none of the chefs have cooked for an airliner. (And like I mentioned in the message boards on Top Chef when they were the first to do this similar challenge, how is this a mark of a top chef? Sure, lots of chefs are consulting with airlines to develop menus, but really, I’m sure they’re in it for the moo-lah and free trips to Paris. BTW, doesn’t this feel like those old sitcoms where all of a sudden the storyline on “Gilligan’s Island” will appear on “The Brady Bunch”?)

Commercials. Reruns, people. Save your time and fast-forward on your Tivo.

Back at the Lufthansa in-flight service kitchen, Alton Brown looks at home doing his “Good Eats” presentation. He’s wearing a hairnet and popping his head in and out of the camera shot with little innocuous food facts, such as Lufthansa serves 40,000 coach meals every day. I know, I didn’t care either.

So Alton continues with his “Good Eats” tour of the prep, cooking and freezing process of typical airline food. FYI, I flew on Lufthansa once on a trip to Spain and the food wasn’t that memorable. Although I did like the dinnerware they used. I know, I didn’t care about that fact either after sharing it with you.

Let’s get to some cooking. Brown finally meets up with the four cheftestants and tells them they have 90 minutes to create three courses, which will then be served from the Airbus to the judges.

There’s a guy from Lufthansa who tells the chefs that when cooking for airline passengers, they have to keep in mind that the altitude makes food less tasty, so they need to be aggressive with the seasoning and spices. This explains all the curry chicken and over-sauced salmon you’ve eaten on flights.

Chef Big Easy (Besh) says he’s going to “vow them” (he means “wow” but he’s doing a Wolfgang Puck imitation), and Chef Bad Boy (Chris Cosentino) says there’s a lot of protein to choose from in the kitchen but he wants his capers and anchovies to make his food “pop” in the high altitude.
The chefs get cooking, running around the kitchen and grabbing all sorts of meat, but mostly venison. (I’ve never eaten venison but looks like they’ve cooked a lot of it on this series.) People are grabbing lobsters, I see white asparagus, Chef Sanchez is swearing because someone took all the lemongrass. It’s just a big chaotic scene.

Which all explains why I haven’t really been satisfied watching the chefs cook on this series. Because they’re such sophisticated chefs using sophisticated ingredients, I really want the commentary that we get during regular Iron Chef cookoffs. On this series, the viewers at home are left seeing a blur of food being chopped, cut, marinated and fired up. It all looks pretty impressive but doesn’t help me connect with what’s happening. In between, we just get quotes from the chefs talking about how the challenge is very stressful.

Commercials. That ready-to-eat Philadelphia cheesecake filling looks soooo fake. And I usually love cheesecake. But that’s just saturated fat on a spoon.

Back in Munich, the chefs are still busy in the kitchen. And they’re not as friendly and joking with each other like the last few episodes. In fact, Chef Bad Boy is getting a wee bit upset with the camera people who are getting in his way. He does a Britney, pushing them back. But really, he better get used to it if he plans on being in kitchen stadium. (On Michael Ruhlman’s blog, Cosentino explains that the German crew was getting too close and he didn’t want them to get hurt by all the knives and cooking, etc. Check out Ruhlman’s blog for more behind-the-scenes tidbits.)

Chef Symon is making something with salmon, and Brown asks if he’s ever had a good piece of fish on an airline. Me thinks Mr. Brown has had a bad experience with salmon on a flight to Denver or something.

Cosentino is still fending off the paparazzi and that actually scares off Brown, who’s cowering around a corner afraid to talk to Chef Bad Boy. But Cosentino coaxes him out and tells Brown that he won’t bite him, then he tells Brown that he’s making a venison loin with crucifers and a white asparagus dish with some fancy-sounding sauce.

Commercials. I hate that Comfort Inn song. Now I can’t get that dang song out of my head. “I’ve been every where.” There, now you’ve got it.

13 minutes remain and everyone is still scrambling. Chef Symon is looking for foil to wrap up his trays of food and we get about two minutes of him getting frustrated with ripping the plastic wrap and now he’s barking at the camera guys. You know, I get frustrated too when you open a new box and can’t find where it starts so you can rip it nicely. Why can’t they invent a plastic wrap where the first layer has a green bar or some color where you can see where it begins? (Saran Wrap, if you use this suggestion, please cut me in on the royalties.)

Now the four chefs are sprinting to the finish, literally, as they push their container carts to the freezer like the typical average traveler trying to make his connecting flight. Chef Symon wins the race and Cosentino picks up the end, but they all get their food in on time.

The food gets loaded onto the plane and then the cheftestants take turns prepping their meals in the galley of the Airbus while Lufthansa flight attendants look on in a very disinterested way.

The three regular judges (Andrew Knowlton, Donatella Arpaia and Ruhlman) are in the hanger in front of the plane. What? Shouldn’t they be in flight thousands of miles up in the air to really test the taste levels of the dishes? Wimps. They’re joined by Bernd Schmitt, the executive chef of product placement Lufthansa. Again, Brown is going on and on about the challenge and explains what the chefs had to do, and we all know this so why are we wasting precious minutes? I get so frustrated that I actually took out my timer to see how many seconds Brown killed by this repetitive nonsense. 35 seconds. Huh, seemed like minutes! Still, that’s 35 seconds too long.

Chef Bad Boy is up first with his Sicilian play on Vitello Tonnato, which I find out is a chilled veal dish in tuna sauce. But instead Cosentino offers up seared tuna with venison loin and tomato. He also serves a white asparagus with lobster gribiche (I love white asparagus) and roasted venison loin with cauliflower and romanesco.

The guy from Lufthansa felt Cosentino went overboard with the chives in the first dish, and Ruhlman mysteriously asks Cosentino about how he likes his cauliflower cooked. Chef Bad Boy says he likes it “al dente” and you can tell that’s not how Ruhlman likes his done.

Commercials. That Vicks early-defense nasal congestion spray should be required for all those co-workers who come into work sick and sneeze on you. Yeah, I’m the type that would wear a mask to work if it were fashionable.

Chef Big Easy serves up his three dishes (and a bonus dish) to the judges. He says in his interview that he’s worried his flavors might be too subtle for the in-flight meals, but then he makes a dig at his competitors and says everyone cooks alike and is predictable.

Besh strolls in speaking German and you can see Donatella go, “oooh, I like a man with a foreign accent.” Besh offers up chilled watermelon consommé with a poached lobster salad. His second dish is white asparagus just like Chef Bad Boy but he uses something called a tomaton vinaigrette. His main course is baby lamb with spaetzle and chanterelle mushrooms, and for a bonus he offers fresh fruit with a Madeira sabayon.

Brown asks Chef Big Easy what he did that was very Iron Chef-like, and he asks this same question to all the cheftestants in some form or another. Besh says he focused on traditional cooking but with a new and fresher twist.

Chef Sanchez comes in with scallop and coconut ceviche. There’s a discussion about why he used coconut milk instead of typical citrus juices, and he says something about it not being astringent. (I, on the other hand, would be wondering about the idea of serving raw fish on a plane where the refrigeration is really in those little carts that sometimes sit for a long time.) His next dish is a pan-seared red snapper over sautéed summer squash. Brown, again, says it’s risky serving fish on a plane. Enough with the fish talk, Alton. We know, you had a bad flight with fish, get over it.

Chef Sanchez’s last dish is seared sirloin over a celery root puree. Sanchez says he cooks like an Iron Chef because he’s not intimidated by the proteins and isn’t afraid to make dishes. But I have to say, his face looks pretty defeated and he interviews that he found this challenge extremely difficult.

Last chef is Symon who offers up a tuna crudo topped with a lemon, dill and fennel vinaigrette. (Again with the raw fish.) His other dishes are slow-roasted salmon with creamed leeks and curry-crusted venison over a parsnip puree. Brown asks Symon the Iron Chef question and he responds that his dishes traveled all around the world, meaning he’s more than a one-trick pony.

Then the judges deliberate about the dishes, and while there are no fireworks between the judges like last week, they do slap down a few dishes. Here’s how it went down:

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino): The Lufthansa guy couldn’t get past the limp fennel garnish on the dish while Ruhlman couldn’t get over the fact that the cauliflower was undercooked. “He should have called it crudité,” he points out. Knowlton seems really frustrated at Cosentino, saying he can’t seem to deliver more than one or two Iron Chef-worthy dishes.

Chef Big Easy: Ruhlman is getting back to basics and says Besh didn’t make a watermelon consommé as much as it was just sweet watermelon soup. He says a consommé should be clear and wonders if Besh, a nationally noted chef, really knows what a consommé is? That brings Donatella and Knowlton to Besh’s defense, saying it was a play on consommé. Ruhlman isn’t swayed.

Chef Buzzer (Sanchez): Donatella liked the coconut flavor and heat in his dish but the Lufthansa guy thought the snapper was like cardboard. Ruhlman thought the presentation with the skin on top was “ugly.” Knowlton says he would have sent the dish back.

Chef Symon: The Lufthansa guy thought the salmon dish tasted the best, and he gives it two big “wow’s”. Everyone agrees that Symon listened about seasoning in high altitude and was smart to cook the fish on the plane instead of reheating. (Although I’m pretty sure the flight attendants aren’t too happy about the idea of spending more minutes cooking in flight.)

The cheftestants return for the verdict, and Brown announces that the next round will be in Paris. There really are no surprises on these Food Network shows.

Brown says Chef Symon excelled by creating under pressure, and he’s named the winner of this challenge. Chef Big Easy is irked to no end. (And I have to say Chef Symon has now taken the lead spot over Besh. This is going to be a tough call on who’s going to win it all.)

Besh is told that his consommé wasn’t really consommé at all, but he survives to cook in Paris. Chef Big Easy says he may have been too industrious, so next time he’s not going to try as hard. Um, wrong direction Besh. Take some pointers from Symon, who I’m now going to call Chef Clutch because he cooks in the clutch and like I said all along from the beginning, he looks like he works on cars.

That leaves Cosentino and Sanchez. Cosentino says who doesn’t want to cook in Paris? Sanchez is stressing out. Brown says they’ve both walked to the very edge. Who is taking the step off?

Commercials. Oh. My. Gawd. Who put that shirtless picture of me in that new Calvin Klein Man commercial? LOL, just kidding. I’m not that tan.

Back from commercials, Brown tells Chef Sanchez that his sirloin was good but his snapper didn’t fly. For Cosentino, Brown asks why he always “sets off bombs in people’s mouths.” (I told him not to cook with fireworks.) Everyone’s squirming, especially Chef Sanchez, and with good reason because Cosentino is given a pass and moves on.

The editors play this really sad music in the scenes of Sanchez saying goodbye. I don’t remember them making it seem so dramatic in previous eliminations. Even I get a bit teary. Sanchez says he feels hurt, and I feel for him. Makes you realize that chefs are like any other insecure person wanting to be accepted by others.

In the plane with all four, Sanchez says his goodbyes and says that this could happen to anybody. And Besh remarks that it’ll happen again with two more people. Ouch, reality check. Sudden ominous sound effects. Da-da-dum.

Next time: The final three cheftestants are in Paris and Besh feels he has the leg up because he’s experienced with French cooking. They’re running all over Paris and it looks like they’re cooking a feast for Louis the XIII. Just two more episodes before we find out who will be (dramatic pause) the Next. Iron. Chef. And I can go back to sleeping early on Sunday nights.

The Next Iron Chef airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on the Food Network and repeats on the same time every Thursday. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Food Gallery

I call this photo "Spicy Hot." Not sure if they are, but I have a strong feeling they are. Or maybe the photo's hot. :)

Coming up this week (lots of treats, and a few tricks):

  • Tomorrow night I'll have another recap of The Next Iron Chef. Just two more recaps before the series finale!
  • Read my interview with chef and TV host Joey Altman. We lunch over tacos and talk about his show "Bay Cafe" and other food things.
  • Join me as I visit the latest outlet of La Boulangerie in Hayes Valley.
  • See what I think of dining at the tiny Canteen restaurant in Union Square.
  • And of course, recipes!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Dish to Go: Cactus Taqueria

Freshness and Value Draw the Crowds
5642 College Ave., Oakland
Rockridge neighborhood
PH: 510.658.6180
Open Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Credit cards accepted

Anytime after 6 p.m. on a weeknight, you’ll see a line coming out of Cactus Taqueria at the corner of College and Shafter Avenues right across from the Rockridge BART station. Many tired, business professionals line up to get a quick Mexican dinner to take home from this upscale-yet-casual taqueria.

You’ll see me there at times, but admittedly mostly on the weekends when I just got off the BART after spending all day roaming San Francisco and I don’t want to think about making dinner. Cactus provides a fresh alternative to cooking, but you won’t go broke unlike eating at other Rockridge establishments.

The people behind Cactus (which has a second location on Solano Avenue in Berkeley) really know their market. This place is clean, bright, and caters to a crowd looking for sustainable cuisine. All the meats are sourced by Niman Ranch and the poultry from Fulton Valley Farm. They also cook with vegetable or olive oil.

My friend Stella introduced me to Cactus awhile back because one of the key things about the place other than the food is the noise factor. There’s a lot of it, which means it’s perfect for a mom with kids (such as Stella and her young and rambunctious son, Lucas). Families can come here and not worry about making noise because everyone is making noise. Which is probably why I come to this place primarily for take out. :)

Cactus offers the typical Mexican taqueria faire, which includes burritos, tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tostada and tamales. There are several varieties of each dish, and a slight “have it your way” approach to ordering, which can be overwhelming when you look at the boards as you walk in for the first time. When you bite into the food, you know it’s fresh and home-made.

But now that I’ve given a general overview, here are some specifics about the food I typically eat (because when you go to a place often enough, you become a creature of habit):

The burrito mejor—this is the large burrito, which is the typical size of most burritos in the Mission District. Pictured is the Pollo con Mole Rojo burrito, which is chicken with red sauce of tomatoes, roasted chiles, ground nuts, and a hint of Mexican chocolate ($5.95 for the burrito, $7.45 for the plate). I got it with black beans, and it was packed nicely. I like a well-packed burrito because I hate it when it’s slightly loose and it ends up falling apart half-way through. But not this one.

The burritos are served with home-made chips that are slightly thick and are actually not my favorite chips around town. The oil, even though it’s vegetable and/or olive, still doesn’t look appetizing to me when the paper bag they’re in gets all drenched.

The crispy tacos are supposedly the popular item here and I love crispy tacos instead of the soft street tacos. However, the one time I tried Cactus’ crispy tacos, they were made overflowing with shredded green lettuce. I felt like I was a lawn mower trying to get to the meat inside the tacos. I don’t really recommend the crispy tacos, unless you’re into eating a salad with your tacos.

My mainstay for my takeout dinners at Cactus are the tamales. I’m a big fan of the cornmeal tamales. It’s like comfort food to me.

Most of the tamales are sold two for $4 or $4.45 or three for $5.25 or $5.95. I typically just order two tamales and they’re always filling enough for me. The tamales are served with salsa fresca, tamale sauce, pickled onions (tasty but really leaves a strong onion taste in your breath) and Mexican cream (so unnecessary IMHO). I usually go with the Chicken with Green Anaheim Chili Sauce, but sometimes enjoy the special pork tamales when available.

Tamales aren’t made to order, naturally, because they have to be prepared ahead of time. This means they can run out pretty quickly and unlike a burrito that’s assembled on the spot, when they’re out of tamales, they’re out of tamales.

Cactus also sells special drinks and Mexican desserts. The weakest link, however, for Cactus in my opinion is the salsa bar. I love salsa, and Cactus offers a variety to choose from, but most of the ones I’ve tried have been too “creative” for me. I like my salsa primarily medium or hot, but not with all the odd cabbages or pineapples I sometimes find at Cactus. For me, I’m the regular tomato, or the occasional salsa verde, guy.

Does Cactus offer the best burrito or tamale on the East Bay? I don’t think so. But it’s a clean environment with value meals that are perfect for a quick dinner on the run.

Single Guy rating: 2.5 stars (get fresh quickly)

Explanation of the Single Guy Chef’s takeout rating system:
1 star = Might as well cook yourself
2 stars = Nice to know it’s an option
3 stars = Definitely will return again
4 stars = I have its number on speed-dial
5 stars = Can I live here?

Cactus Taqueria in Oakland

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In The Kitchen: Real Easy Risotto

My “In The Kitchen” series is back from hiatus. OK, so some of you didn’t even miss it. But my three subscribers on YouTube probably did. :P

I started out doing these demos to share basic cooking techniques. But then I realized that my cooking style is pretty simple since I don’t like to do a lot of work. So really, I don’t use a lot of fancy culinary techniques. That’s when I decided to demonstrate some of my basic recipes. The challenge with that, I’ve found, is that it’s hard to explain the steps of the whole dish in 10 minutes, which is the max on YouTube. (I’m a little OCD with steps so I tend to over-explain things.)

Anywho, this frustration over what to do with my demos resulted in a lot of inaction over the months. But after I got my new laptop, I was inspired to crank up iMovie and do another demo. So here’s my primer on making risotto.

I’ve said before that I love risotto, and it’s one of those dishes that you can be really creative with, adding ingredients of the season to make your own signature risotto dish—as long as you have the basic risotto part down. So this demo shows the basic steps of risotto, and then you can build from there to create your own dish. For my part, I ended up making a wild mushroom risotto with speck. (See recipe below if you want to make it at home after watching my video.)

BTW, if you have any suggestions or special requests on what might make an interesting demo, send me an email at with your ideas. For now, turn down the lights and enjoy!

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Speck

2 to 3 cups of mixed mushrooms (chanterelles, tree oyster, shitake, etc.), stem removed
5 to 6 thinly sliced speck (about 2 oz.)
½ sweet onion, diced
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
2 ½ cups chicken broth
½ cup Parmegiano Regianno cheese
2 t fresh sage or thyme (dried version ok)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 T butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste

In a medium saucepan, warm butter and tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat and then add garlic and onions. Sauté until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Then add rice and stir to toast the rice for about a minute. Add wine and cook at medium heat until most of the wine has burned off. Then add two ladles of chicken broth with the sage or thyme, occasionally stirring your rice to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan. When the rice has absorbed almost all of the broth, add another two ladles until the rice is done. (About 15 minutes.)

In a separate sauté pan or skillet, warm a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and then add mushroom. (Cut larger sized mushrooms to quarter pieces to make it easier to eat.) Sauté the mushrooms with some salt to extract some of the moisture. Add to your risotto near the end when the risotto is almost done. (Save some mushrooms to garnish on top.)

When your risotto is almost done and you’ve added the mushrooms, remove your pot from the heat and add the grated Parmegianno Regianno. Season your risotto with salt to your taste. Let it sit for about a minute and then plate. Get your thinly sliced speck and rip the slices into pieces on top of your risotto. Garnish with your extra mushrooms and some grated cheese and serve immediately.

Makes two servings. Serve with a mixed green salad.

Pair with a glass of Barbera wine.

TIP: Speck is a leaner version of prosciutto. If you can’t find speck, you can substitute it with regular prosciutto.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Autumn Colors in a Bowl

The fall is the best time to make some of the best orange-colored soup, whether it’s pumpkin or, in the case below, my roasted butternut squash soup. This silky smooth soup (the color of a fall sunset) is paired with classic ingredients: pancetta, sage and chestnut.

I have to say, hunting for the chestnut was a bit of a chore. It’s like the squirrels had worked overtime or something and had stashed all the whole chestnuts. I’ve found that chestnuts are often available at Italian specialty stores, I guess because they use it a lot in their cooking. It’s often sold in jars or in the vacuum packs. I eventually found them in the vacuum packs at The Pasta Shop at Rockridge’s Markethall. (Ironically, mines came from France.) Enjoy!

Roasted Butternut Squash, Pancetta and Chestnut Soup

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 butternut squash
½ sweet onion, finely diced
3 oz. pancetta, diced
3 oz. whole chestnuts, chopped
1 t fresh sage, minced
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Cut your butternut squash lengthwise in half, and then cut it further into slices. Place the slices on a cookie or baking sheet and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with pepper and sea salt. Place in oven and cook for about 30 minutes until tender. Then sprinkle the diced pancetta and chestnut over your semi-roasted squash and continue cooking until pancetta gets crispy (about 12-15 minutes).

Remove everything from oven and spoon your pancetta and chestnut onto a dish and set aside. Let your squash cool.

In a saucepan, warm a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat. Add diced onion and sauté for about 3 to 5 minutes until translucent. Then add broth and water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, then add your roasted squash to the broth along with the sage. (Your squash should be so tender that you can just scrape it off its skin with a spoon.) Cook for another 10 minutes to warm your squash through and then remove the pot from the heat.

With a hand blender, puree the squash until silky smooth. (You can also place small batches into your blender.*) Once you have the texture you like, add the pancetta and chestnut (leave some for garnishing). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm and garnish the top with more pancetta and chestnut pieces.

Makes 5 to 6 servings. Serve with a field green salad.

Pair with a glass of Riesling.

* Do not place hot liquid in blender. Let the stock cool first. And never fill blender or food processor by more than half.

TIP: The squash can be like a potato with its starch factor, so the smoothness of your soup will depend on the right balance of broth/water to squash. So depending on how large your butternut squash turns out to be, you may need to add more liquid to thin out your squash puree or else it’ll taste like you’re eating mashed potatoes. You can thin your soup by adding more broth or, for an even creamier texture, some crème fraiche or heavy cream.

WHO’S STORING THE NUTS?: I find that it’s a pit tricky hunting for whole chestnuts for cooking. Near the holidays you’ll see freshly roasted chestnuts, but you don’t want to sit there and shell them. Instead, look for the whole, shelled chestnuts used for baking. They’re often sold in jars or the vacuum packs and are often spotted at Italian specialty stores or gourmet food stores.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: Episode 3

Please Pass the Salt

Previously on the NIC: The cheftestants get to experiment with chemicals, but they leave a bad taste in the mouths of some of the judges who send Chef Jill Davie (or as I fondly called her, Bandana Girl) packing. It’s back-to-back women elimination, so let the conspiracy theories begin! Tonight, two chefs will be eliminated as the secret ingredients will be chosen by their peers. Will sabotage be served? Let’s find out.

I just realized that every week the show starts off with two cheftestants talking about what it means to be the next Iron Chef. I thought they were the same clips, but turns out that each week features two different chefs. For this week, we have homeboy Chris Cosentino (of San Francisco’s Incanto) saying he gave up everything to get what he wanted. Um, so the lesson is even if you give up everything, you still get back something in return. Chef Cutie (Gavin Kaysen) says something about circles and boxes and getting out of them. It’s like he’s still in geometry class from last week.

The remaining six cheftestants appear in the kitchen in this weird, ghostly special effect. Looks like some editor is playing with his Halloween special effects a bit early. They flash on some unusual ingredients on the table in front of them (mostly dark leafy greens, which are good for you btw!). In enters Alton Brown, who refers to the interesting ingredients as wild. But it’s odd how he doesn’t mention the really odd ingredients and instead talks about “edible flowers and tasty snails,” which to me is pretty normal gastronomic faire. Then he turns on the Chairman-in-the-box to listen to this week’s challenge.

The Chairman talks about resourcefulness, and how an Iron Chef has to display that skill even if he has no kitchen. Right, since when did an Iron Chef not have kitchen stadium to cook in? Sure, an ice cream machine may go wrong and, yeah, Chef Bobby Flay was shocked a few times working in a faulty kitchen in the original Japanese Iron Chef series, but they always had heat. Anywho, I’m already getting cranky at the feasibility of this challenge. But we forage ahead.

Brown explains that the cheftestants will be grouped into pairs, and the partner will get to pick the secret ingredients for the other chef. Brown also mentions that the cheftestants have been “too nice” in the last two episodes (and have probably been frustrating the producers who want more drama) so he does a spiel about strategy and not squandering opportunities. Sigh, it’s no wonder the judges always get cheated out of air time when so much time is dedicated to hearing Brown explain the challenges. Finally, Cosentino—as last week’s winners—gets to name the pairs of cheftestants. This is how it went down: Chef Bad Boy matches himself with Chef Michael Symon; Morou gets paired with frontrunner Chef Big Easy (John Besh); and Chef Cutie (Kaysen) is paired with Aarón Sanchez (Chef Buzzer; see last week’s recap.)

The cheftestants each get some individual time to select the secret ingredients for their partners. This is where we can see who’s going to play nice and who’s really going to hose the other competitors. Oh, Chef Symon just gave Chef Bad Boy some purslane, which I personally don’t like because it’s really a weed (but everyone’s cooking with it these days in the Bay Area) so I think it’s going to add a bad taste to Cosentino’s dishes. Well played, Symon.

The most interesting ingredients are exchanged between Sanchez and Kaysen. Chef Buzzer selects some ugly green leafy thing called “goosefoot” while Chef Cutie picks escargot for his partner. Of course, we hear in the voiceover a minute later that Sanchez says he hopes he doesn’t get escargot because he hates the little suckers. (Me too, Chef Buzzer.)

The cheftestants pack up their ingredients in a big cooler and Brown leads them outside into the garden where there’s a row of charcoal grills set up. (It looks like a really sunny day, so if you think you saw lots of sweating in the kitchen in the previous two episodes, be prepared for this outdoor flopfest.)

Brown tells them they’ll have no water (ooh, bad hygiene issues), gas or electricity for this challenge and can only use the limited ingredients on the table, which includes butter and cream but very little else. Chef Cutie gets all excited because he sees all the fresh herbs in the garden, but apparently the Culinary Institute of America has put that off limits not wanting to have their precious garden trampled by Iron Chefs wannabes.

They have 60 minutes to prepare two dishes using only the ingredients in front of them.

Commercials. Oh wow, a different Kia commercial. Thank God. Oh, wait. People riding around with a big red ball on a stick. I don’t get it.

Back outside, the cheftestants immediately start firing up their grills even before checking out what they have to cook with. Oddly enough, we get a lot of time watching these men build fire. I can feel the ratings slipping with every match. They finally open their coolers and Chef Sanchez is in denial about his escargot, Chef Cutie gets frog legs and raspberries (that’s brutal) but Chef Symon is happy about his quail and Chef Bad Boy is fine with his squab. (Hey, I think those two guys are building an alliance!)

Chef Symon seems to be the only one thinking out of the box when he sees a box of cornmeal in the shared table and he’s the only one to grab it to start making polenta, which he clearly points out takes 40 minutes to cook. (Which is why I don’t make polenta, plus I’m not a big fan of grainy mushy food.) There’s a lot of marinating and rubbing of meats, but ironically none of it is along the traditional barbeque route.

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino) looks into his squab hoping for the innards to cook with. (Just a reminder, this is the man behind the Offal movement in the Bay Area, so he likes to cook with every bit of an animal.) He looks inside the squab and it’s empty. “Bullocks,” he says. Geez, Chef Bad Boy turns British when he’s angry. His partner in crime, Chef Symon, says under his breath, “no guts no glory.” And that is literally so apropos at that moment.

Brown comes around doing his little commentating-asking-annoying-questions thing. Has anyone else notice Brown is a bit more smug in this episode than the past? I think he thinks he’s the Chairman.

Commercials. Those teddy bears with the heads in the stomach are creepy. … Wow, Guy Fieri gets a second season of his Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. He’s the most successful of “The Next Food Network Stars” alumni. BTW, I just saw Amy’s “The Gourmet Next Door” and she’s just as nervous in her own show as she was competing on NFNS. Hopefully she improves in her remaining four episodes, but so far I’m getting annoyed at how she keeps making up words. (“Fancy-shmancy” is the least of it.)

Back to the fire-building, Chef Buzzer isn’t getting much heat with his grill, so Chef Cutie offers up his. (I guess Kaysen wasn’t paying attention to Brown’s lecture on not playing “nice.”) On a side note, Chef Symon in his in-studio interview shows off a big honking tat on his leg that says “I Live to Cook.” What a surprise.

The cheftestants start moving into the plating, and I have to say some of it looks really fancy like they’re being prepped for a restaurant. Chef Cutie even prepares some quail eggs by just grilling them in between the metal rods and letting the open fire poach the eggs. Now that’s resourceful.

Time’s up and Chef Sanchez is still talking about how Kaysen was out to get him with the escargot, but Chef Cutie chimes in that at least he gave him fire to cook with. Chef Buzzer acknowledges that and says Chef Cutie is back in his good graces, which prompts Chef Cutie to give Sanchez a big wet one (OK, maybe not so wet) on the cheeks. Sanchez recoils, of course. Boys.

This segment sure went pretty fast because here we have commercials again.

Commercials. Is that an exploding dog? A black dog walks into an all-white room and explodes into these various black dogs of every shape and size. The Hoover sucks them up. Tonight’s commercials are getting creepier by the minute.

It’s judgment time and it’s only fair that our panel of Andrew Knowlton, Donatella Arpaia and Michael Ruhlman must also sit under the glaring New York sun since the cheftestants had to cook under it. Alton explains to the judges the challenge, and again, why are we eating up time with him talking? We know what happened, the judges can get prepped by the producers, can we just get to the food?

First up is Chef Cutie and his frog legs lollipop with buttered leeks. For his second dish, he made a lovage salad with quail egg. The judges bite into the salad and they all look at each other shaking their heads. They also wonder why Kaysen didn’t make frog legs for both dishes.

Chef Symon begins by telling the judges his philosophy about outdoor cooking, which is “always give your guests a beverage” (he gives them a mulled berry drink while I would have preferred something with vodka) and serve the food family style, which is what he does with his polenta with wild mushrooms and quail with blackberry salad and grilled onions.

BTW, I have to say Arpaia looks really good with the long, straight hair. The sun is just bouncing off her blond hair. She should request all her judging occur outdoors.

Chef Big Easy (Besh) presents his grilled rabbit saddle and fried rabbit leg. His second dish is a rabbit salad with poppy flower vinaigrette. Ruhlman tastes some chickweed in the salad, which Knowlton tangentially remarks that rabbits eat chickweed. Huh?

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino) made a juniper-smoked squab and a dandelion salad with squab. The editors again offer little interesting dynamics about the judges’ interest in Cosentino’s dishes, other than Ruhlman saying the dandelion greens were a bit too big to bite into.

Very little is also said (or at least aired) by the judges when it comes to Chef Buzzer’s skewered escargot with garlic scape and his warm mushroom salad.

For the last chef, Morou, Brown asks Morou why he plated his grilled venison as pieces throughout the plate. (Oh boy, I hear echoes of “disjointed” from last week.) Morou says he looks at the plate as a white canvas and likes to cover it all up with the food components.

Commercials. Cheese with live active culture. You know, I know live active cultures in food are good for you (which is why I eat yogurt every night), but I really don’t want to have it in the name, thank you very much.

Decision time, and the judges are back in their usual castle room. And somehow they’ve all changed into different clothes and Donatella has curly hair now. What gives? Did they take a day off to think about their decisions?

Last week the judging went by pretty fast with very little interaction among the judges. This week we’re offered an inside look at the judges’ minds as we hear a bit of the debate about the dishes.

Knowlton seems a bit grumpy from having to sit outside for the first part of judging because he comes out with guns blazing. His first target: Chef Cutie and why he didn’t use frog legs for his second dish. Donatella agrees that she found that to be a lack of resourcefulness. Ruhlman says the food wasn’t seasoned, and he seems a bit offended that a chef of Kaysen’s level doesn’t know how to season food properly. (On Ruhlman’s blog, he offers some behind-the-scenes information and reveals that he found out Kaysen’s food was sitting on ice packs that melted and drowned his food, which explains why the salt may have been washed out. Kaysen says pretty much the same thing in his exit video on the Food Network site.)

The judges also grapple over Besh’s rabbit. They felt he probably was too ambitious trying to present rabbit in a variety of ways, and Knowlton says his rabbit loin tasted like “wet tissue.” You know, I’ve eaten rabbit that’s super soft that way so I know what he means. That’s why I generally like grilled or roasted rabbit. Just my tip to you, Besh. ;-)

Speaking of harsh, Ruhlman describes Cosentino’s squab as a “pro forma boring restaurant dish.” Ouch.

But the judges save their most heated debate for Sanchez's and Morou's dishes. Knowlton seems almost angry that Morou hasn’t improved from last week with this disjointed venison plating, while Donatella and Ruhlman didn’t think it was all that bad. For Sanchez, Ruhlman says he liked the taste of the escargot, which prompts Knowlton to say that all Sanchez did was skewer the escargot and grilled it. He says the good taste of the escargot should be credited to the farm in Burgundy who produced it. Hmm, for some reason I don’t think it was only the escargots that were skewered on this day.

They bring the cheftestants in for questioning and this has got to be the longest judgment segment so far this series. Brown lets out that the Chairman has purchased four tickets for the next challenge, so we know the final four are going to travel somewhere for their next challenge.

Brown eats up time again explaining the parameters of the challenges and yada yada yada. Ruhlman is stuck on whether Kaysen salted his frog legs. (He says he did, but Ruhlman says “really?” like he doesn’t believe him.)

The judges fire off one question after another. Can you only make one good dish instead of two? How do you like your rabbit cooked? What’s your approach to plating? Will Mel B. get kicked off “Dancing With The Stars”? (OK, that last one is for me. Please vote for Mel B. and Maxim!)

Morou says in his background interview that he’s hearing a lot of negative comments about his fellow competitors but not a lot of heavy questioning for him, so he feels safe. Ah, foreshadowing comes into play, my not-so-secretive Food Network editors.

I think we’re finally going to hear some decisions, but not until we hear more from Brown, who asks Chef Bad Boy if he really took advantage of his strategic win from last week for this week’s challenge. Cosentino says he think his “Jedi mind tricks” worked a bit this week, but Brown gives him that Yoda expression of “how sad you are young Skywalker for not learning all the tricks of the Force.” Still, Brown tells Chef Cosentino that he’s safe.

Brown then tells Chef Big Easy that the judges are getting tired of his Southern charm, but still Besh survives to charm them again.

Chef Symon is declared the winner of this challenge, and again, we learn that it pays off to offer any kind of beverage to the judges. (I’m also increasing my odds on Symon, who has stepped up to the challenges and I now consider neck-and-neck with Besh.)

Brown says he needs to talk to the judges again. So he sends the remaining three cheftestants away. Will this judging segment ever end?

Back from commercials, Chefs Morou, Sanchez and Kaysen are in with the other cheftestants in the kitchen awaiting their fates.

At the judges’ table, Knowlton still has a stick up his butt as he rips into the fact that Chef Cutie and Chef Buzzer both didn’t use their protein for a second dish. Donatella adds that it’s a sign of laziness and lack of resourcefulness (the theme of this challenge if any of you have forgotten by now, I know I have).

Ruhlman is still stuck on the salt, or lack thereof, in Kaysen’s frog legs. It’s a good thing Ruhlman and Knowlton are on opposite sides of the table because they both challenge each other’s taste as Knowlton goes on and on about Chef Morou’s venison and Ruhlman saying he just doesn’t get why Andrew loves it so much.

The remaining cheftestants come back in for the decision. Chef Cutie is lauded as a master technician who’s imaginative but has not yet developed the maturing in flavor combinations. (You can see where this is going.) Kaysen is eliminated. There goes the eye candy.

Brown then tells Chef Morou that his food was well cooked but the plating was a mess. For Chef Sanchez, he says he “shined and shown glimmer of brilliance” but he lacked imagination and passion. Wow, someone’s ego sure is getting a lot of punches. Where’s all the “good chefs have bad days” speech, Alton? Sanchez is a top-notch chef and I doubt that anyone would question his passion for food.

This messy judgment period comes to an end when Morou is given the boot. Morou leaves with a lot of dignity, saying that in this group of talented, award-winning chefs, you don’t really leave a loser.

Next week: The final four ends up at an airport hanger in Munich and stares at a big Lufthansa jet. Looks like someone’s going to be making airline food. (Hey, did the Food Network hire the segment producer from Top Chef?) Knowlton still looks like he has something stuck up his butt. I just hope it’s not the Eiffel Tower that I see in the background.

The Next Iron Chef airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Food Network. It repeats every Thursday at the same time. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rambutan: The Fuzzy Fruit

I don't know if the rambutan is more fuzzy than prickly. I mean, it sure does look like a sea urchin or a porcupine egg (if porcupines had eggs), but when you actually pick it up, the weird prickly looking needles are actually soft and doesn't harm you at all.

So doesn't this fruit look totally exotic? It's from Southeast Asia and is definitely a tropical fruit. I saw a lot of them in Vietnam, but even there it was considered a specialty so it was a bit pricey. I started seeing them this weekend in the Bay Area. They were selling for $7.49 a pound at the Markethall grocer in Rockridge and $4.49 a pound at a store in Oakland Chinatown. That's crazy expensive, but if you buy a handful, they're not very heavy and it's an impressive dessert for a dinner.

The rambutan is similar to the lychee or another white-flesh tropical fruit the Chinese called lung ahn (literal translation: "dragon eyes"). The rambutan isn't as sweet or juicy as a lychee, more like a lung ahn, but it's bigger than the lung ahn. The skin, once you get past the prickly needles, is thicker than the lychee, so it's easier to just cut into it with a knife. But it peels off easily once you make that initial slice. Just don't get it confused with your pin cushion.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Apple Season: Macs for the Picking

OK, so this isn't an heirloom apple, but it is a Macintosh. Here's my new MacBook from Apple! I've had it for a week and am just loving it! This is the iBook series, which is cheaper than the PowerMacs, but this small laptop carries a lot of power and has both a CD and DVD burner. I had to get a new computer because my 3-year-old iMac desktop konked out again a couple of weeks ago when I tried to connect to the Internet. I had this same problem a month ago and after a temporary fix from Apple support, it looked like the problem was still there. So instead of dealing with my mysterious ethernet issues, I decided to just get a new computer.

(BTW, if you're shopping for Apple products in the Bay Area, save yourself some frustrations and avoid the Apple Store in Emeryville. It's smaller and they recently went with this format where they got rid of their cash registers. So now clerks roam the store with hand-held registers to check you out. What this means is that there's no line and people aren't given a number for service, so it's mass chaos as people try to find a clerk with a hand-held to try to buy something. I tried to buy my MacBook last week from the store and all the clerks were overwhelmed, and as I waited I asked a regular sales clerk some questions about the MacBook. He was so unenthusiastic about helping me that I just got tired and left the store. I ended up buying my MacBook at the San Francisco store where I got in and out in 5 minutes with my new laptop despite the fact the store is bigger and more crowded.)

Here I am this morning at the Bittersweet Cafe in Rockridge hanging out doing some photo retouching work on my new laptop. I had just finished shopping at Markethall for ingredients for a butternut squash soup I'm making for this coming week's recipe post. It was quiet when I arrived at about 11 a.m. but it quickly filled up as usual. As you can see, I'm already breaking the first rule about computers by having liquids nearby. It's nice being able to work outside instead of my studio apartment, especially on a nice day like today. Only downside is Bittersweet Cafe didn't have free wireless so I couldn't connect and do this post in real time. Oh well, can't have everything. OK, time to make my soup!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dish on Dining: Vung Tau

Success Reflects Back on an Original
535 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
(South of Japantown)
PH: 408.288.9055
Open daily, 10 a.m.–3 p.m., 5–9 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

If there were a so-called dynasty behind the elegant Vietnamese restaurants Tamarine in Palo Alto and Bong Su in San Francisco, you could trace its roots to a non-descript, old coffee house-looking restaurant at the corner of East Santa Clara and 12th Streets in San Jose. That’s where you’ll find Vung Tau, the restaurant whose family went on to open two other similarly named restaurants in Milpitas and Newark and the aforementioned fine dining establishments.

Vung Tau was started by Chac Do in 1985 and since then it has grown into the Vung Tau Group, where family members have gone on to open and manage various Vietnamese restaurants around the Bay Area. I used to eat at Vung Tau when I worked in San Jose, and recently returned after many years for lunch with my friends Jessie and John.

The interiors were noticeably spruced up from what I remembered—a clear sign that the family is doing well with their many restaurants and they’ve funneled money back to where it all started. But it wasn’t really the renovated surroundings that caught my attention when I first walked in; it was the strong aroma of grilled meat that hits you like a brick wall. No matter how dressed up Vung Tau has become, I knew from the smell that it was still about the food.
Vung Tau offers an extensive menu with more than 120 items, ranging from the typical pho and bun dishes to rice plates and claypots (including a couple of frog leg entrees that I wished I had seen earlier before I ordered my lunch). Its flavors are typically Southern Vietnam (well, it is named for a resort beach town in South Vietnam after all) with a few Hue-inspired dishes from the central region.

We started with a plate of Cha Gio, the fried egg rolls that are served with lettuce leaves that you can wrap around the roll with some herbs. Since I don’t really eat fried foods, I only ate one roll. But it was the most plump and crispy egg roll I’ve had in a long time.

For our lunches, Jessie ordered the Tam Bi Suon Cha, a rice plate with a slice of omelet, shredded pork and grilled pork chops all over broken rice. It was the Vietnamese version of brunch food. I didn’t really remember the name of John’s dish, but it was similar to chicken curry with rice. John actually didn’t like the various spices in his dish, but I liked the aggressive flavor. It definitely wasn’t a dish I would expect to find in a Vietnamese restaurant (probably more Indian or Thai), but I thought it was nicely done.

I kept it simple for myself and ordered the Bun Thit Nuong, or grilled pork over rice noodles. This was typically the dish I ordered when I used to go to Vung Tau for lunch a few years back. I always enjoyed drizzling the fish sauce-based dressing over the bowl of pork and noodles, and then discovering the fresh herbs and pickled vegetables in the bottom of the bowl. Mix everything together and its like a refreshing noodle salad.

In this visit, the bowl of bun seemed larger from what I remembered, with a lot more noodles but less variety in the vegetables on the bottom. (I missed not having strips of cucumber.) It’s hard for me to eat a bowl of bun these days without being critical of the noodles since I ate the best bowl of bun at this Vietnamese restaurant. I like the noodles to be fresh and loose, playfully dancing in my bowl. But in most restaurants in the Bay Area, the noodles are sticking together in a clump, oftentimes because the noodles are prepared ahead of time and divided into serving portions to help the kitchen deal with the lunchtime rush.

Despite the noodles being a big clump of white carbs, the thinly sliced pieces of grilled pork on top were delightful. It had the slightest glaze of fish-sauce and sugar and was cut thinly to make the eating experience enjoyable.

Side note: Service was friendly and attentive. We had a late lunch and it was near the end of the lunch crowd, so the restaurant manager even stopped by our table to see how our lunch went.

After all these years, Vung Tau still draws the crowds of Vietnamese families looking for traditional dishes in a beautiful setting. While some might dispute the authenticity of some dishes (changed up I’m sure with California flavors), they’re still very tasty and filling. The prices are probably $1 or $2 more than what you might pay for at a hole-in-the-wall in the Tenderloin, but it’s still a worthwhile trip to visit an original.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (hearty family meals)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star
= perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Vung Tau in San Jose