Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Barbacco Trattoria in San Francisco

An Italian Gathering Place with Urban Sophistication
220 California St., San Francisco
Financial District
PH: 415.955.1919
Open weekday lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted, reservations only for parties of 6 or more

If I worked in the Financial District, I’d probably go to Barbacco every day after work. And from the looks of the crowd on the night I was there recently for an early dinner, everyone else in San Francisco feels the same way.

Barbacco is the new trattoria from the people behind Perbacco, which is right next door. The fine Piedmonte and Ligurian cuisine remains with Perbacco, while the rustic Italian cured meats moved into the shiny but narrow Barbacco.

A long bar runs down the restaurant with several small tables next to the brick wall (with lots of mirrors that initially confused me thinking it was another part of the restaurant). Despite the crowds, I was able to squeeze myself into a solo seat near the back of the bar right in front of a big flat screen TV showing a football game.

Barbacco being a trattoria, you can imagine the wine selection. And to get all fancy, Barbacco has uploaded its entire wine list onto iPads. So if you’re interested in ordering some wine, your server brings you an iPad where you can search for a wine by color, grape varietal and region. After browsing for quite a long time (OK, I admit I just wanted to play with the iPad), I ordered a glass of the Querceto di Castellina ($9), a 2006 Sangiovese that’s imported exclusively for the restaurant. It was a fantastic red that was smooth with just some slight tannins.

But onto the food. First up I got a plate of the Pesce Crudo ($9), or raw fish dish. The fish that night was halibut served up with thin slices of fennel and radish, and dressed with rock salt and olive oil. The fish was fresh and blended nicely with the fennel and radish, but I did feel the kitchen was a bit heavy with the extra virgin olive oil because there was a lot of it on the plate.

Put the crudo was just a warm up for the real highlight of Barbacco’s menu – the salumi selection. In this case, I had my eyes on the ‘nduja, a smoked Calabrian salame that’s spicy and served warm and soft with grilled crostini. Several artisan salumi makers have been making their own ‘nduja in town, so I wanted to see what it was all about.

The creamy ‘nduja basically comes out like a spread, with a few marinated peppers on top that helps cut into its richness. You can order a large or small portion (I got a small for $5, large goes for $8) and the small was more than enough for me. The server offered to bring more crostini, but I didn’t want more bread and instead just lathered as much of the ‘nduja I can get on each slice. I enjoyed the creaminess and spicy flavor. This is a dish that I would order every day with a glass of wine as a snack before going home for dinner with a smile on my face.

Along with the salumi and bruschette selections, there are a few large plates on the Barbacco menu. I really wanted to order the “angry mussels” dish, but it’s called that because it’s spiced up with ‘nduja. Since I already had a lovely dish of ‘nduja, I decided to order a pasta dish.

I went for comfort with the Lasagna Bolognese ($12). To offset what I expected would be a cheesy dish, I ordered a side of the seasonal heirloom tomatoes ($5), which were beautiful and just lovely by itself with no special dressing other than extra virgin olive oil and salt, and some sprinkling of basil leaves.

The lasagna was definitely creamy from the béchamel. Barbacco mixes it up by using spinach pasta for its lasagna. It felt a bit unusual eating lasagna with green layers, and I don’t know if the green lasagna really added to the dish, which was mostly brightened by the quality cheese and meat ragu. (I think I would have preferred real spinach stuffed in the lasagna instead of the green pasta sheets.)

Side note: Since I was in the back, there was just one server handling the back row of the bar and all the nearby tables, but he was friendly, efficient and attentive despite the crowd.

Perbacco has succeeded in creating a California trattoria in Barbacco, a place that’s comfortable for wine lovers with food that combines the techniques of Italy with the seasonal ingredients of Northern California.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (wine and food shine)

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

Barbacco on Urbanspoon

Related post:
Perbacco: “Rustic Italian with Refined Tastes.”

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Eats at Oakland's Eat Real Festival

So this weekend was Oakland's turn to celebrate street food with its Eat Real Festival at Jack London Square. Unlike last week's San Francisco Street Fest, Oakland's party is a three-day event filled with demonstrations, competitions, and lots of good eats.

Another edge Oakland has over San Francisco, of course, is the weather. I dropped by Eat Real on Saturday. And while it wasn't super hot like last year, it was still sunny and actually, with the breezy weather, perfect to cool off the crowds that squeezed into parts of the waterfront.

Also different in presentation from the San Francisco festival is that Eat Real emphasizes more of the food trucks instead of food booth setup. So many of the vendors drove up their trucks and lined up in various parts of Jack London Square.

The first truck I visited was actually the San Francisco truck featured on The Food Network's "Great Food Truck Race." (Have you been watching it? It's like the Amazing Race but domestic and with food competitions.) Spencer On The Go is by Chef Laurent Kategely of the fancy French restaurant Chez Spencer in San Francisco. Last year he started his food truck to capitalize on the food truck craze.

At Eat Real, the truck was offering its escargot lollipops and this lobster bisque ($8). The bisque was actually sold as "Lobster Cappuccino" because it came with a foam on top. I tried this first because it was early and I was still working up my appetite, and this was a perfect starter for my day. Light and refreshing, the bisque had a definite lobster flavor that was very complex and tasty. The foam on top provided a nice cool creaminess to the overall bowl. It was one of the more expensive dish I ate at the festival (and I remember Kategely say on the show that "if you call it French, people will pay more") but thinking about the work that must have gone into creating this perfect bisque, I felt it was worth the $8.

There were some interesting setups, which made it feel like a food theme park walking around the festival. For example, this booth from Jim 'N Nick's BBQ looked like a street car from New Orleans. It was also smoking up a lot.

I decided to try Jim 'N Nick's pulled pork slider ($5) served up with a grilled corn on the cob. The bun was kind of small, so you can see the meat had a hard time staying on the bun. This was so messy to eat, but it was so good. The pork was tender with a very slight smokey flavor, not overpowering. I should have squeezed on more of the BBQ sauce (not that there wasn't enough, but I wanted to try the habanero-infused sauce but forgot). And the corn was perfectly charred, sweet and tender.

It was a porky morning for me, because soon after the slider I got this "Cajun Boudain" ($4) from a truck called 51st State (specializing in America's history of immigrant cuisine). The boudain was a pork and rice sausage served over a corn maque choux. The creamy corn was a nice summer side, but I have to say I was confused about the sausage. It looked nice and plump, but the texture inside was a bit mealy, making me worry that it wasn't fully cooked. Does anyone know if a boudain is supposed to be served that way?

I took a break from the eating to check out the many demonstrations occurring throughout the festival in smaller stages (last year they just had one big stage). Here someone talks about preserving. But really I was focused on how well behaved that chicken was sitting at the front crate. Turns out, it was a stuffed animal. But it sure looked real!

There were so many different foods that I didn't get to try, like this interesting Indian dish called bhel puri from the Soul Cocina booth. It's made with puffed rice mixed with heirloom tomatoes and mint chutney with a squeeze of lime. It was served up in a paper cone that you can hold in your hand while spooning into the bhel puri.

There were a mix of lines. Some places you could walk right up and others had super long lines, like the line for Gerard's Paella. He was making several large paella, including this massive seafood one.

There were booths everywhere. Near the end of the day I was nearly full and ended up walking near the water and found even more booths I missed earlier! Including this booth from Oakland's Chop Bar restaurant, which was serving up whole roasted pig.

One of the reasons I was full was this bun from the popular Chairman Bao. I've seen the truck before and always wondered why there was such a long line. It also had one of the longest lines at Eat Real. So I decided to see what the fuss was about. It took me about 15 minutes from standing in line to get my bun, which wasn't too bad. I ordered the Red Sesame Chicken bun ($3.50), which was served up with scallions and bok choy. It. Was. Amazing. I have to take back all my earlier suspicions on whether Chairman Bao is overrated. It. Is. Not. These tiny buns are so creative and tasty. The tender chicken is blended with the scallions and bok choy that tasted slightly pickled, giving it a nice contrast in flavors. I just wished I also got the pork belly bun, but that would have just pushed me over the edge.

I went hunting for dessert, and there were a lot of ice cream and popsicles (and surprisingly not as many cupcakes). I ended up getting a Red Velvet Shortcake from The Oakland Cupcake Company (which is opening a store on Lakeshore Avenue soon). The shortcake (upper left photo) was in a cup and was layered with whipped cream, which made it so good for the lightness. It was like eating a layered cake with cream. Later on a tried an alfajores from the Sabores del Sur booth, and it was so fresh. The sandwich shortbread cookie was so flakey and light and the caramel filling was so soft. The only thing was it was totally covered in powdered sugar and combined with the wind on Saturday, I'm pretty sure I dusted a lot of people around me.

It was a lot of fun exploring Eat Real. There were definitely crowds in certain parts like the aisle outside Boca Nova restaurant where it was a major clusterfuck. But otherwise, it was a beautiful day of eating and watching craftspeople celebrate artisan foods.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top Chef: Season 7, Episode 11

‘It got ugly the first day you walked into this place.’

Previously: They were cooking at the CIA with Ed aka Muffin Winthrope, and Angelo is using frozen puff pastry that CIA Director Leon Panetta says is too hard. If I were Angelo, I’d be worried about that clicking sound he’s hearing on his mobile phone. Tiffany wins, and Alex has his cover blown as a “poor chef.”

You know how you watch something over and over and then you pick up all the little details? Well, during the intro when they talk about all the prizes, Padma is wearing that really bright fuchsia blouse and I notice now that as she talks her shoulders are bumping up and down like a puppet master is pulling her strings. How much you want to bet Tom Colicchio is pulling the strings? It just looks weird. Now you’re going to notice it every time you watch this intro.

Opening scenes with cherry blossoms still at the basin, which is probably such a lie because the cherry blossoms only last about two weeks. And the weirdest thing is Ed is walking around in a yellow dress and Tiffany is cracking up like there’s no tomorrow. And literally Ed is walking for maybe a full five minutes before anyone explains if this is some kind of fraternity initiation or something. Turns out it’s Tiffany’s dress and that’s the closest he’ll ever get at getting into her pants, er, dress.

Then they get into the insecure comments of the remaining cheftestants, like Kelly who drew a target on Amanda’s head, and Angelo saying he has to clear his head after he landed on the bottom three. Then he says when he was a kid, he would cut out photos of four-star chefs, light a candle and then kneel down in front of the photos to pray. Hello stalker.

Amanda is teasing Angelo about how he does mantras as positive daily reinforcements. The way she talks is really childish like she’s in high school. I’m really getting tired of her. After Alex leaving last week, I hope she’s next to go so we can just focus on some good cooking.

The cheftestants arrive at Top Chef kitchen and there’s Top Chef Masters contestant Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas. I can’t remember if he won this past season? That show seems so long ago. I bet you there’ll be season three of Top Chef Masters airing even before this Top Chef DC reaches the finale! Anywho, Padma is saying things about “top dog,” “top banana” and “big cheese” and I thought it was all something to do with ballpark food but she says they are all food idioms.

So they each have to pick a food idiom that relates to a food product and cook a dish. The winner gets his or her dish frozen in memory as a Schwan’s home-delivery dish. Never heard of Schwan and I rarely eat frozen foods. Not because I’m snooty about it, but just because it takes so much energy to create frozen food that it’s not good for the environment.

They start scrambling to cook and everyone’s picking on Amanda, like how last week they all focused on Alex. So that’s a good sign because maybe Amanda is going home. Angelo, however, thinks Amanda is the dark horse and he thinks she’s smart. I think he just wants to get into her pants, er, dress.

Angelo is scrambling at high speed and is kind of talking to himself a lot this episode, but really all I notice is his black jeans are on the tight side.

Tasting. Here’s how it went and their food idiom they picked:

Ed: “Hot potato.” He made a hot potato gnocchi with spring vegetables. It looks really nice and Chef Rick asks about the herbs. Padma calls it a lovely spring dish.

Tiffany: “Spill the beans.” She made a pan-seared cod over stewed beans. Rick asks how she cooked them in an hour, and she admits that she used canned beans.

Kevin: “Bring home the bacon.” Does a trio of bacon, including chopped bacon, bacon with poached egg and a third that I didn’t catch (I really should tape these things, but then it would take me forever playing and pausing).

Kelly: “Sour grapes” (Oh, how appropriate) and she makes a pan-roasted chicken breast over carmelized brussel sprouts with grape sauce. Rick says “interesting” and it’s exactly in the tone you think.

Angelo: “Bigger fish to fry.” He makes a fried tilapia satay with Asian tartar sauce. Rick eats a lot of it but doesn’t say anything.

Amanda: “Big cheese.” So obvious that she makes mac and cheese but throws in bacon and jalapenos, and then serves it with a big pork chop on the side. Rick teases her that she made something “nice and light.”

Chef Moonen talks about what dishes were a mess, and they were Kelly’s chicken because the brussel sprouts with the grape juice was odd and the dish “didn’t sing.” And the other is Amanda’s sledge-hammer of a mac-and-cheese-with-pork dish, which really hit him in the gut. Amanda, of course, disagrees and then does this incredibly whiny voice that is worse right now than listening to nails scratching across a chalkboard. I mean, really, grow up! I will die if she doesn’t go home tonight.

Moonen’s top choices were Kevin’s bacon dish that reached a “new level of lightness and balance” (that’s a big accomplishment with bacon) and Ed’s gnocchi, which was well conceived and very light. I’m getting a feeling Chef Moonen likes his food light. He names Ed the winner, and his gnocchi will be frozen and served across the tables of lazy Americans every where.

Commercials. Samsung, please don’t show me close up shots of scale-y hands. Gross.

Padma says the cheftestants will be cooking for the oldest sports institution and that’s baseball! Yes, I love baseball. But I do not love the Washington Nationals, who I find have very boring players. Angelo says he’s part Dominican so baseball is in his blood. Funny, baseball is not the first sport I think of when I see Angelo.

Padma says they have to work as a team and run a high-end concession stand at the Nationals’ new stadium during the pre-game period. Amanda says the last team challenge didn’t go well, and they flashback to when they were arguing with Kenny and others for the farmers dinner challenge. Remember Kenny? Seems like ages when he was on the show, huh?

The cheftestants gather to strategize, but really it’s just Kelly kind of bossing people around and telling them what food they should make. It’s weird how the guys aren’t really saying much, and then I don’t really know what they're making and they just leave. As they leave they shout out baseball teams, like Go Phillies, Go Red Sox (boo) and ditzy Amanda of course yells out “go Dodgers?” Why am I not surprised that she’s a half-hearted Dodgers fan? (Right now all Dodger fans are probably half-hearted.)

They go shopping and Ed starts talking about growing up in Boston, and I see where this is going so I will now stop talking about Ed and his stupid favorite baseball team. Oh, Angelo is making steamed buns, like Chinese pork buns, but he’s not even bothering making the buns and just buy hot dog buns. I don’t see how it’s supposed to be Chinese steamed buns when the bun is already made and probably wasn’t even steamed. He’s still talking to himself while shopping. I’m kind of worried about his stress level.

Back at the Top Chef kitchen they start prepping. Tiffany starts talking about this amazing Italian sausage she had at a state fair so she’s doing a version of that but meatballs instead of sausages. Angelo talks to Amanda who’s asking about putting her tuna through the meat grinder to make tuna tartar. Everyone says she shouldn’t listen to Angelo like he’s the kiss of death after the same thing happened to those other people earlier in this season who I’ve already forgotten about, but I’m just recapping this episode. If you want to know who, then read my past recaps.

Ed is making a shrimp and corn poppers, and he needs to make 550 of them. Ed is talking really loud to Tiffany like an old man, asking something about a cart. Amanda, of course, has to share her opinion about Ed and again she does it in such a petty and evil tone. She really is showing her age in this episode, which will be her last [fingers crossed].

They’re done for the night and then they’re back home. In the kitchen, Amanda talks about having to run a service. Kelly sounds confused because she’s probably never been to a baseball stadium where people had to order food and then pay for them. Nobody wants to take the orders, and then Angelo eventually steps up and says he’ll do it.

Commercials. I don’t get why that Blackberry Torch commercial is making all those Moby Dick references. Is that supposed to be hip now? I was tempted to trade my Storm for the Torch until I saw that Blackberry partnered with AT&T. I’m likely to buy a phone with an AT&T contract like I’m likely to watch that gross “The Last Exorcism” movie. (Did I ever tell you my mom took me and all my siblings to watch “The Exorcism” because she loves watching scary movies, and did I tell you I was 12?)

The cheftestants head to Nationals’ stadium, and it looks like a theme park. They have a big concession stand with the Top Chef banner, and they start setting up and cook. Angelo is stressing out because he doesn’t know how he’s going to cook while taking orders, so he decides he doesn’t want to take orders now. So instead he starts passing out the order slips to everyone for them to take their own orders, and Kevin’s all “no way, that’s not going to work.” Then Angelo and Kevin gets into it for a bit and it went something like this:

Kevin: “No way, that’s not going to work. We need a system.”

Angelo: “Chill out, man.”

Kevin: “You chill.”

Angelo: “Oh, you’re the bad boy of the show. We know.”

Kevin: “Yeah, and you’re the pretty boy but we’re still not taking the orders.”

Or something like that.

Kevin really reminds me of those baseball players who just blows their steam so easily when the ump calls a strike or something.

Eventually Ed steps up and tells Angelo that he’ll help him cook his dish so that Angelo can fulfill his duties as the order taker.

Then Tom walks in with three of the players. Like I said, I don’t really follow the Nationals. I just know one of the guy is Adam Dunn, but don’t know the other two. The girls, well, just Kelly and Amanda are crushing over the guys. They’re no David Wright, but I guess they’re OK for Nationals.

Amanda’s tuna tartar is turning grey. Angelo says she should have put oil, and he says he should have helped but he didn’t have time and he needs to look out for himself. Kevin asks Tiffany to taste his dish, and Tiffany says she’s no Angelo so she has to be honest and she tells Kevin something about the salt.

It’s gets a bit crazy in the kitchen and Ed delivers the quote of the episode when Kevin says it’s getting ugly and Ed responds: “It got ugly the first day you walked into this place.” Perfect!

Service begins and the fans line up, but most of the people in line seems to be women. And they don’t even look like they’re paying. I think they’re just giving the food away. Wow, I wished Top Chef would come to town and just give away food at an event.

The three players return to try all the food. Of course, they love everything, except Adam Dunn doesn’t know how to eat Amanda’s tartar so he just sticks his finger into the mess. Aww, the big lug. They leave and tells some of the women waiting on the side that Tiffany’s meatball sub was their favorite.

Fans are eating and licking their fingers, and the players are doing batting practice. Then the judges arrives, Padma, Tom, Rick Moonen and Eric Ripert.

The judges grab all the food and go to the seats to try them. Rick says Amanda has a lot of “baseballs” to serve raw fish at a stadium. Apparently he hasn’t been to AT&T Park here in San Francisco where you can buy sushi for $15.

It’s getting late so I’m not going to get into every comment that the judges made for each dish. Basically they seem to like Tiffany’s meatball sub and Ed’s fritters, but felt Amanda’s tartar was grey and Kevin’s chicken skewers had soft shoestring fries and they spent a lot of time talking about Angelo’s buns.

Commercials. This week’s quick look focused on Angelo on his bed talking to his fiancée. We learn he must have a great phone plan because he talks to her for five to six hours every night, and she’s a mail-order bride from Russia.

It’s night time and they show the Nationals game going on and Adam Dunn hitting a home run. Then back at the stew room, Padma comes in and asks all six cheftestants to come to judges’ table and Amanda looks so shocked.

Padma asks Angelo about how he ended up taking orders, and he says he was happy to take orders. Tiffany calls him on it and says that’s not how it went, and then Angelo fesses up to how he changed his mind. Of course, Kevin had to chime in and say Angelo was wishy-washy, and to me it’s like the judges don’t care about all that drama.

So they talk about the food and Rick talks about Ed’s creamy center. His shrimp and corn fritter balls people! Eric Ripert says he liked the spiciness. Tom says Tiffany’s dish was messy but tasty, and Rick says it was fun to eat something messy. Then as the guest judge he names the winner, who is Ed, and he gets a cookbook from Chef Moonen and also wins an Australian trip.

Ed and Tiffany are safe and they leave. They talk about the rest, with Tom saying Amanda’s dish had nicely done vegetables but Ripert says the tuna oxidized and became black which gives the impression that the fish is not fresh.

Rick says Kevin had a great idea, but the ingredients were too many and didn’t come across. Eric says the skewer was so long in his mouth it wasn’t easy to eat, and we don’t want Ripert to hurt his pretty mouth. He also says the moisture from the chicken made the shoestrings fries on top all soggy.

For Kelly, they did like the crab cakes, but the only bad things they could say was that it was a little soft, not crispy, and that the bacon served with it was too big. So I think she’s safe.

For Angelo, Rick says the pork was cooked well but sauce sucked away from the bread. Padma speaks about the food for the first time and says it was too much sugar.

So are we done? Padma?

“That will be all.”

Thank you, and they all leave back to the stew room.

The judges talk some more but you know they’re just repeating themselves. Ripert is talking about the skewer in his mouth again. We get it, Eric. You don’t want to hurt yourself while eating. Then they focused on how Angelo’s dish was so sweet.

Commercials. If Justin Timberlake’s Sony commercials are any example of his talent as an actor, I want to watch him on the big screen. He is too funny.

Judgment time. You know, they went to a baseball park and Tom totally could have made so many baseball references, but looks like the cliché writers are off this week because Tom just gives a recap of what they already said, which is Kelly’s BLT didn’t come together, Amanda made an error by making her tuna a day early, Kevin had soggy fries and Angelo had a sweet and soggy bun.

Then Padma sends Amanda home. YAY! She swings, she misses, she’s OUTTA HERE!

Angelo looks really sad, or maybe he feels a bit guilty. Amanda says she went the farthest for a sous chef. Then she cries about how she’ll remember this experience for the rest of her life and how she’s going to push herself to work harder, but the hardest thing for her is leaving this show. Yeah, it’s not that hard for me watching you leave this show. That will be all.

Next: They head to NASA and I am so tired of these shows dusting off Buzz Aldrin and acting like he’s better than slice bread. But that’s what we have to look forward to for next week. Sigh, it’s going to be a long, cranky night for the Single Guy.

Top Chef airs every Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Check your local listings. Photos courtesy of the Bravo TV website.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I’m Calling it Chinese Okra

Sometimes I wish my Mom was better with technology. Because if she were, I could send her a photo to her mobile phone of this squash I saw at the farmers market and ask her to identify it.

This long and almost prickly squash was a vegetable my Mom cooked often when I was a kid, so I had a craving for it when I started seeing them at the various Asian vegetable stands at the Civic Center Farmers Market. It’s kind of like a huge okra because it has the same texture on the outside and the same squishy interior. It also has the same reaction to heat like okra, becoming a bit glutinous when cooked.

My Mom used to make this with clear rice noodles with some shrimp paste, and it would be a real comfort dish because of the mushy squash. This isn’t a dish I think most kids would like, but I was kind of weird and liked all sorts of vegetables growing up.

After describing this to my Mom over the phone, she says it’s a jeet gua (“gua” is the Chinese word for all squash, and I’m not sure what “jeet” means and I’m just spelling it phonetically so not even sure if I’m close to the correct name). So basically, I’m just going to call this Chinese okra until someone else out there gives me the proper name. Hope my Asian brothers can help me out! (UPDATE: I told my mom about the reader comments that this is a see gua and she says they're right and she thought I was talking about something else when she said "jeet gua." I think "jeet gua" is the squash with the slight fuzz on the exterior. I am not cooking with that!)

Now to eating it. Even though my Mom says to cook it by itself or with cellophane rice noodles, I felt that would be too bland. Instead, I felt the bland squash (it really is tasteless like okra) needed to be countered with something bold and spicy, so I decided to make this somewhat spicy ground pork dish below. This was really easy to make, quick and really hit the spot. It was kind of like a Northern Chinese dish, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that authentic so I don’t want to call it that and have people call me out on it! (You know you want to “anonymous”!)

Even though I call this Chinese okra because it reminds me of it, you can’t eat the skin like you can with okra. You have to peel it off, and it might seem weird peeling it because of the sharp ridges, but once you peel down the ridges, it’s no problem peeling the rest of the skin. It’s just a big squirmy to hold because the interior is soft like a sea cucumber. Enjoy!

Ground Pork with Chinese Okra Recipe

Copyright 2010 Cooking With The Single Guy

1/2 lb. ground pork, lean
1 large Chinese okra, peeled and cubed
1 1/2 T black bean sauce
1 t ground white pepper
1 T sesame oil
1 T soy sauce
1 T Xiao Shing wine or cooking sherry
1 t fresh ginger, minced
1 t hot chili oil or sauce
1 T Canola oil
1 T cornstarch
1/4 cup chicken broth
Pinch of salt

In a medium bowl, marinate the ground pork with white pepper, sesame oil, soy sauce, Xiao Shing wine and minced ginger. Blend well and set aside for about 10 minutes.

Warm Canola oil (or other non-flavored oil) in a large skillet or wok over high heat and then add ground pork (be careful not to throw in any extra marinade juices, if any, with the pork or else it’ll be too wet in your wok). Brown the ground pork, about 2-3 minutes each side, and break into smaller pieces if you like. Add black bean sauce and mix well with the ground pork.

Add Chinese okra and sprinkle a pinch of salt over the okra pieces. Then blend well with the pork and let cook covered for about a minute; bring down the heat to about medium during this stage.

In small bowl, mix the cornstarch with chicken broth to create a cornstarch slurry. You’ll use this to create a glaze or gravy for your pork dish, so slowly add the cornstarch slurry until you have the right consistency. Start by bringing the heat back up to high, and then slowly add the cornstarch to your wok and stir to see it thicken. If you add too much and it looks gloopy, then thin out the mixture with some more broth or water.

Remove wok from heat and then finish off the dish by adding the chili sauce or chili oil for heat (you can add more if you want it more spicy). Garnish with chopped peanuts on top (optional) and serve with steamed rice.

Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Serve with a glass of gewurztraminer.

TIP: If you use more fatty ground pork, you might have more oil residue during the browning stage. If that’s the case, when you’re done browning your pork, squeeze out excess oil and drain out from the pan before adding the Chinese okra.

IN THE ASIAN AISLE: This recipe includes a few ingredients from my Asian pantry. Black bean sauce is sold in the jar and is pretty popular and common these days. You can find it along with sesame oil at almost any store in Chinatown or in the Asian aisle at the grocery store. Xiao Shing wine is rice wine used for cooking in Chinese dishes. The spelling might be different depending on the brand, but it’ll usually say “rice cooking wine.” If you can’t find it, substitute it with any other cooking wine like sherry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday Pop-Up with Ken Ken Ramen in the Mission

UPDATE (9/28/2010): Ken Ken Ramen is no longer doing the pop up at Panchita due to a conflict with the restaurant owner. You can read all about it from SFoodie. Like I say below, be sure to check Ken Ken's Twitter feed for latest information on where they'll be.

Everybody loves the pop-up restaurant these days in San Francisco. With Twitter and Facebook, it’s easy to create a buzz for these temporary eateries set up in established restaurants on their nights off or in someone’s home.

When I heard about the Ken Ken Ramen pop-up at the Panchita No. 3 restaurant (a Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant), I knew I had to check it out. You know I can wait for hours for a bowl of ramen, so I freed up my Monday night to head over to the Mission neighborhood.

Ken Ken Ramen is only in operations on Monday nights. And it’s important to follow their Twitter feed because this month-old pop up is still getting up and running. There are Mondays when for scheduling reasons they aren’t open, so it’s better for your sanity that you check first to make sure they’re planning to open for that Monday.

I visited last week Monday after a couple of misses, and I arrived early at about 5:45 p.m. (The doors officially open at 6 p.m.) I had read blog posts about the long lines (you know those foodies like to invade the new pop ups) so I thought I’d claim my position in line and read a book while I waited.

But the doors were already open and the trademark red paper lantern was hanging out front signifying that Ken Ken Ramen was open. When I walked in, people were already being seated.

On this Monday, the Ken Ken Ramen team was prepared. The team, by the way, includes Revolver owner Robert Patterson, Stephan Roesch, and chef Kenji Miyazaki, who typically works as a line cook at Bushi-Tei in Japantown.

As I sat at the counter, the place looked roomy in the early hours when it wasn’t packed. The staff was a mix of Japanese speakers and some of the Spanish-speaking staff from Panchita. The menu, as you can imagine, is pretty simple with just four types of ramen offered at $11 each: miso, shoyu, vegetable broth, and on this night a spicy miso.

They also have a variety of beer and start you off with a complimentary plate of edamame. The edamame is prepared with a spicy sauce, which was different and tasty but a bit messy to eat with your fingers because of the oil from the spicy sauce. (Most times edamame is just served steamed with a sprinkling of sea salt.)

My ramen came just a few minutes later and it looked like a large bowl that was beautifully garnished with mizuno greens. Every ramen bowl (except the vegetarian option) comes with fresh bamboo shoots, cha siu pork, fish cake and a day-long-soaked soft-boiled egg.

The broth looked tasty from the get-go because I could see the fatty pork residue on the edge. I got the spicy miso ramen, and there was definitely a nice heat to the broth even though it didn’t look red like some other spicy ramen I’ve had around town.

The broth was rich but didn’t really have a strong miso flavor. I enjoyed it, though, because of the deep flavors.

The homemade ramen were thin and crinkly. I felt like they needed to be thicker to feel more substantive, but they had a nice taste and were cooked perfectly with some bite. The rich broth easily clung to every string of noodle.

The pork was nice and tender, but there were just one or two small slices (you can order extra cha siu for another $3).

But I have to say the star of the bowl was probably the egg — a marinated cooked egg that was like a cross between a soft-boiled egg and a poached egg. The white was cooked to maintain the egg’s shape, but when you broke into it, the yolk was soft and creamy, oozing out to color the rest of your ramen yellow. It was simply masterful.

I appreciated the quality of the ingredients used for the ramen at Ken Ken Ramen, but I don’t know if I can call this the best bowl of ramen I’ve had in the Bay Area. It definitely is good (especially the egg) and I found the experience fun and enjoyable. But I wonder if the ramen can compete with the bowls served up just a couple of blocks away at Nombe (I find the homemade noodles at both places fairly similar).

Ken Ken Ramen is worth checking out at least once, and maybe more if you live in the neighborhood.

Follow Ken Ken Ramen on Twitter for location and times.

Other ramen adventures:
Racking Up the Miles for Ramen
Ramen House Ryowa: Berkeley
Tanpopo in Japantown: San Francisco

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Invading the Streets for 2010 SF Street Food Festival

Saturday was the second year of the SF Street Food Festival in San Francisco's Mission District, put on by food entrepreneur incubator La Cocina. I had a great time last year when this major street fair celebrating street food brought together up-and-coming food carts and small plates from some of the city's most popular restaurants.

But last year it was a major clusterfuck, with hundreds of people squeezed into a two-block area of the Mission, with waits in lines lasting more than an hour and food running out by the early afternoon. This year the organizers said they learned their lessons, increasing the closed streets to another three blocks along with more vendors who supposedly were more prepared for the crowds.

I got there just as the festival got going at 11 a.m., and despite the morning fog, it felt great walking around without the crowds. It definitely felt more spacious, and even though some booths weren't up and running yet, I could walk up to pretty much anywhere and get food. Unfortunately, I wasn't that hungry at 11 in the morning. So I just wandered around checking out the vendors. But that was a big mistake because this is how it looked two hours later ...

Yep, the streets were filled with food-hungry people and it looked reminiscent of last year. But to be fair to the organizers, there really is no way you can get around all the people in the location of the Mission streets. If you publicize more vendors and more food, you're going to attract more people.

This year, despite certain parts of the festival being a mosh pit, the lines did seem to go by faster, and even though some booths were running out of food, there were still a lot of options in the early afternoon.

Some of the more popular booths included this one from food cart vendor Lumpia Cart, who was selling the popular lumpia (which is like the deep-fried spring rolls).

Just as popular were the fried chicken from Aziza, one of the city's more popular Moroccan restaurants. Here these happy helpers are flouring the chicken before it goes into the fryer, which really demonstrates my theory that everyone loves deep-fried foods at street fairs. Other booths with long lines included Nombe's chicken wings, Namu's ever-popular Korean tacos, Hapa Ramen's ramen bowls, and dessert from the Creme Brulee Cart.

Probably the more colorful uniforms were those worn by workers at the Purple Hibiscus, which sells Nigerian food. All the vendors offered up a small bite that ranged in price from $1 to $3, a large plate for about $6 to $8, and a beverage. So what did I eat? Here's the parade of food I ended up trying ...

Duck Prosciutto and Lardo Melon Salad ($3) from Flour + Water. Everything on this plate was amazing, even the little twigs of greens that had a hearty flavor, contrasting with the sweet summer melon and salty duck prosciutto. Where else in the country would you get this at a summer fair?

Traditional Japanese street food Takoyaki ($3) from the Nombe people. The bowl contained about five battered balls made of grilled octopus and then topped with bonito flakes, pickled ginger and special sauce. The takoyaki balls were soft and squishy, but tasty.

The challenge with the booths is that some of the food sounded really exotic, and the display describing it wasn't always that visible. So that meant I sometimes saw something on the banner of the booth and had to commit to standing in line to find out what it is. Case in point: This Guinea Fowl Poutine platter ($8) from Kitchenette SF. I saw the word poutine and thought it would be a plate of roasted hen, but it turned out to be a plate of French fries and cheese clumps smothered with a gravy sauce that included bits of the guinea fowl. The poutine gravy was amazing, and this bowl was the thing everyone would stretched their heads to check out what you were eating. But as some of you know, I don't enjoy eating deep-fried foods and I have high cholesterol, so this wasn't the smartest choice for me. I ate as much of the bits of fowl that I could in the sauce along with a few pieces of French fries but I had to toss the majority of this plate. Too bad, such a waste I know.

To make up for the carb-loaded poutine plate I just had, I got this Cebiche Classico ($7) dish from La Mar Cebicheria. I love La Mar, so was happy to see them at the festival. The cebiche was great, but I felt it looked more like a small bite than a large plate. I mean, I only ate four chunks of fish.

This is the grilled prosciutto-wrapped figs ($3) from Chez Papa Resto. It had a cream sauce as a base, so this was a nice snack.

I also tried the ume onigiri from the newish Onigilly, which appears regular at the Friday night Off the Grid street food fair. They specialize in the popular Japanese onigiri or musubi, which is a rice ball filled with a center of a variety of ingredients and wrapped in nori. This makes a great street food snack, and this ume version was especially good. The ume, or pickled plum, was fresh and intense in flavor, and the rice was nicely done. The pink wrapper was also pretty.

At one point the Hapa Ramen line didn't look so bad, so I decided to get a bowl of its baby ramen ($6). Hapa Ramen is the food booth at the Thursday Ferry Plaza farmers market created by Richie Nakano. After having a preview ramen at another mob-mash event earlier this summer, I wanted to see if Hapa Ramen is better now that it's running with all engines. The ramen actually didn't taste like ramen. The texture was flat and thin, but I did enjoy the broth with the fatty pork and rich flavors. There was a lot of depth to the broth, so a nice deal for $6.

At this point I was winding up my eating and went for some sweets. There were a lot of temptation with a whole block of dessert vendors, but I ended up with a simple scoop of Three Twins' roasted peaches ice cream ($3), which was just perfect for the summer day.

The SF Street Food Fest also brings out some of the city's best chefs, and for people like me who likes to geek out recognizing chefs, it was like a day of being a food paparazzi. I was amazed to see how many of the chefs actually manned the grills and worked in less-than-ideal cooking situations instead of just sending in their sous chefs. It's a testament to how much they want to make sure their food is always perfect, even at a street fair. Some of the chefs seen working the street festival included Thomas McNaughton (top left) of Flour + Water, David Bazirgan of Chez Papa Resto (top right), Mourad Lahlou of Aziza (bottom left) and Charles Phan of Slanted Door (bottom right).

I was really impressed by the selection of foods (but I really was confused by the booths for Pepto Bismo and Yahoo pimping Justin Bieber) and despite the major crowds later in the day, it did seem like a successful event with a lot of happy eaters. Here are more shots from the San Francisco festival. If you missed it, you can still get a taste of street food this weekend when Oakland throws its larger version at Jack London Square with the Eat Real Festival.