Ever notice how hard it is to taste something, really taste it? If you don’t get it on the first or second bite, well — it’s like trying to catch up to a paper napkin on a windy sidewalk. Impossible.
Take coffee, the first thing you taste every day. There’s only a brief moment when you can actually taste it, taste it with focused attention, I mean. After the Krups machine has let out its final wheeze, and the last spurt of water has settled onto the black slurry of grounds. After that, when the coffee’s in your mug, and you’re alone in the kitchen, there’s a second when you get the aroma: malty, caramel-sweet, with a whiff of tar from the roaster.
In that first sip the taste is as clear as the tinkling of wind chimes: bark-like richness, near-metallic acidity, bitterness as reviving as the smell of morning out the front door. With your nose in the mug, hands wrapped around it for warmth, you get it.
But by the third sip it’s gone. You’re still drinking hot liquid, but the taste is now muddy. Maybe you’re distracted by thoughts of checking on your husband, that he hasn’t fallen back asleep to the hum of NPR on snooze. Or discovering that the cat’s been sick on the carpet. Maybe you’ve started to look at the paper. You’re still sipping from the mug, but the coffee’s taste is now as vague as your reflection in a fogged mirror. It’s just bitter.
Pour yourself a fresh cup but it’s hopeless: No amount of concentration can help you squeegee away the desensitizing fog. Any nuance, all subtlety — they’re just gone.
That phenomenon — the way the sense of taste becomes numb after a brief moment of attention — that phenomenon is something that people who write about wine know only too well. “During the first moments of tasting a wine, you will form distinct impressions about its taste and bouquet,” observes food writer Richard Olney. “But these impressions are bound to be transitory, and even a wine expert may find it difficult to remember them for long.” Thus the usefulness of tasting logs, notebooks where you can jot down associations after the first or second sips from your glass, in comments as spontaneous and unfiltered as the observations of a Zen roshi. Supple. Nutty. Moldy. Flabby
Harold McGee, who writes about the science of food, hints at the intricate choreography of sensations that even a tiny sip of something sets off. Taste buds clock salts, sugars, acids, savory amino acids and bitter alkaloids, but it’s the sense of smell that allows for subtlety. “Nearly all food aromas are composites of many different molecules,” McGee writes. “In the case of vegetables, herbs and spices, the number may be a dozen or two, while fruits typically emit several hundred volatile molecules. Usually just a handful create the dominant element of an aroma, while the others supply background, supporting, enriching notes.”
Reading McGee, you get the feeling that the act of tasting, of sorting through those volatile molecules, requires so much attention, such an extraordinary effort of focus, that it’s impossible to sustain it after an initial spurt of energy. Your senses simply can’t maintain the effort.
That inevitable fading of focused attention has its own poignancy. It was the elusiveness of taste that sparked a literary and esthetic revolution last century. Marcel Proust used taste as a turnstile into his six-novel epic of memory exploration, Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator slurps bit of cake crumbled into a spoonful of herb tea. The first taste conjures the house he knew as a child springing up about him, and sparks over 2,000 pages of reflection. The late cookbook author James Beard used Proust’s famous moment with cake and tea as inspiration for his own 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices. “When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt,” Beard wrote, “it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes.”
Well, Beard cast a huge shadow—literally.
But that so-called Proustian moment: it’s the feeling you get standing in Safeway, when “Billy Jean” kicks on over the PA. Suddenly you’re no longer squinting to read the cost-per-ounce of Special K Red Berries. Suddenly you’re in the dark, on the bench seat of a Chevy Nova, lost in the aroma of Herbal Essence shampoo in the hair of a girl you used to date. When you used to date girls.
Pure magic, but fragile. “I drink a second mouthful,” Proust writes, “in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic.” Taste is a balloon you can’t tie closed: The more you handle it the quicker it collapses. But in the collapsing, there’s the possibility of poetry.
Imagine that, in the murky light just past dawn, when the newspaper guy’s battered car is stop-starting down the street, and there’s the thwack of newspapers on front steps. When the Krups machine is pulsing its trickle of coffee into the carafe, and the cat is moving sinuously against your calf, your senses are all converging into something with more or less the charge of poetry.
Drink it in — you won’t be able to make it last. —John Birdsall
Thousands of miles from Piggly Wiggly markets, Waffle Houses, and discussions about side meat, Southern cooking shows up through one of two restaurant filters. First, as African American nostalgia food—plenty of home-cooked earnestness without much culinary finesse. And second, as exaggerated vernacular—a corny repertoire of oversized, y’all-come-back-now set pieces with cartoon names: hoppin’ john, red-eye gravy, burgoo. An approach to the down-home table typical of Food Network star Paula Deen, where canned fruit, enough sugar to trigger type 2 diabetes, and Marshmallow Whip coalesce into monumentally scary dishes like Ambrosia.
But a place in West Oakland is managing something rare: a fusion of African American home-style and Southern regional, with the skill of an experienced chef with serious chops and an obvious eye. It makes you think of Bette’s Ocean View Diner on Fourth Street in Berkeley. Already, just over two months after it opened, it’s not hard to imagine Brown Sugar Kitchen (“BSK” from here on out) inspiring the stiff loyalty Bette’s enjoys. Chef and owner Tanya Holland calls the restaurant’s style “new-style down home.”
The restaurant is currently open for breakfast and lunch only—the owner says she wants to perfect those meals first. Holland hopes to begin offering regular supper club nights as a way of easing into dinner service.
Holland puts the lie to any fantasy you might harbor about sapping your 401(k) to launch that little dream bistro. The chef trained in France, cooked at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Manhattan, and designed a French and Creole fusion menu at Le Theater in downtown Berkeley. In 2003 she published a cookbook, New Soul Cooking, and bolstered it with TV appearances on Food Network. The idea for BSK took root when she drifted away from Le Theater in 2004.
“The day I left, one of my colleagues said I’ll invest in whatever you do,” Holland told me by phone recently. She put together a business plan and scoured locations, doing catering I the meantime. It wasn’t until last summer that the space on Mandela Parkway materialized as a real possibility. “It’s been a long journey,” Holland said.
Funny thing is, Holland ended up in a location not far from where she lives. Island Café was a jerk chicken joint at the industrial end of West Oakland, on a broad stretch where a portion of the Cypress freeway structure collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. But Island Café never seemed to be open, and after the business officially folded, Holland inquired about the squat space on the triangular lot. It’s near a forklift showroom and mod-looking new condo developments; inside, it was an all-but-untouched diner, complete with pots, a smoker out back, and a 15-seat counter with bolt-down stools. “Pretty much the only thing I’ve done is paint and buy two waffle makers.”
That last purchase was an inspired one: Holland’s cornmeal waffle and buttermilk fried chicken is simply the best version of the Harlem classic you’re likely to taste. Credit the waffle. Lacy and ethereal, if offers texture without hotcake bulk, like a proper crepe or dosa in a fat, multi-indented configuration—a very impressive achievement indeed. The fried chicken (a wing and thigh, when I tasted it) gets your attention for something other than its craggy breading. The flesh underneath is steeped in a marinade that perfumes it with herbs and blackening spices, and seems to keep the flesh lush and moist.
There’s a plug of brown sugar butter softening onto the waffle, and a side of apple cider, spiced and reduced to slightly tangy syrup (for an extra buck, you can upgrade to pure maple). It’s a dish that reveals Holland’s experience like a resume: an African American dish pulled off with an attention to flavor and technique that’s strictly French. A dish worthy of the late Southern chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis.
Other dishes show similar restraint, the kind of discipline many Southern cooks abandon in favor of regional caricature. BSK’s smoked chicken gumbo ignores fireworks for flavor. The delicately viscous broth balances the earthy burr of brown roux, with the subtly smoky taste of the chicken, and a stock I suspect began with shrimp and crab shells. It contains a hefty flotsam of picked chicken meat, thin okra slices, and a single large shrimp, dipped in cornmeal batter and deep-fried. This is a very grown up gumbo, miles from some spiced-up, showboatin’ New Orleans version.
Cajun meatloaf, a lunch special one day, was more about beef than any blast of bayou seasoning. The big slab of slightly coarse-textured meat actually seeped juices. And although a glaze of spicy ketchup established its Louisiana pedigree, its accompaniments were marvels of restraint: sauteed zucchini, and barely sweetened mashed yams—more like a satiny puree, as if it had been worked through a tamis, a fine French sieve.
A half rack of baby back ribs from the smoker out back were pinkish, plush, and only moderately smoky. The came scattered with a pineapple salsa whose elements had been meticulously diced. A po-boy sandwich of cornmeal-battered shrimp was tasty. With entrees, you get to pick a side. Black-eyed pea salad was remarkable for its legumes, which were thoroughly cooked but without the ubiquitous breakage. Cast-iron skillet cornbread was nicely unctuous.
Of course, the down side of Holland’s light touch is that some dishes seem, well, boring, despite—perhaps because of—their carefully controlled elements. A breakfast sandwich, a thin, flat omelet, cheddar, and either ham or bacon on a soft, whole-wheat bun, was in dire need of a spark. Red-skinned home fries seemed so engineered to avoid the pitfalls of short-order versions (greasiness, and the lingering funk from a crusty griddle), that they came off a tad sterile, despite caramelized onions and a drift of Cajun spices.
But hey, with French press coffee from Blue Bottle roasting company, perfect buttermilk biscuits, and fantastic baked goods from pastry chef Tinna Manansala, breakfast offers plenty of delights. In fact, Manansala alone should put BSK on the map. Her apple cake is a large-crumbed, cinnamon-scented monument to traditional American baking. And just as I was ready for dessert after lunch one day, a baked-that-morning sweet potato pie was deemed cool enough to cut. Its sweetness and spicing didn’t obscure the taste of its yams, and the crust was browned and crumbly even underneath the filling.
Without the slightest risk of inducing sugar shock, it was a slice of pie that could restore anyone’s faith in the Southern kitchen. —John Birdsall
Brown Sugar Kitchen. 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland, Calif. 510-839-SOUL (7685); brownsugarkitchen.com. Hours: Tue–Sun, 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.
Even kimchi’s fiercest fans can’t deny it: The ubiquitous Korean pickle is stinky. Indeed, like Asian fish sauce or a properly ripe livarot cheese, an aggressive smell is all part of the charm. For centuries, Koreans sank their kimchi underground, muffling the gassy reek of the mostly cabbage or daikon-leaf pickles within trashcan-sized clay jars sunk in dirt. But modernization ushered the funk indoors, into refrigerators, where the pickle’s farty aura invaded just about anything in a wide proximity. That’s where the charm of the stinky ends.
Enter the kimchi-neng-jang-go, or kimchi fridge, the hottest appliance to sweep South Korea since the electric rice cooker. It’s a refrigerator annex, like the ubiquitous wine fridge in American kitchens, designed specifically to quarantine kimchi and prevent its heady fragrance from seeping into the kitchen at large — one manufacturer, Dimchae, calls its appliances “fresh fridges.” Since 2001, South Koreans have been buying more kimchi coolers than regular refrigerators. But it isn’t just the upwardly mobile of Seoul who’ve embraced the fresh fridge. More and more, kimchi-neng-jang-gos are banishing the funk from North Oakland, too.
On a recent afternoon, shoppers at Kitchen Plus, the housewares annex at Koreana Plaza — a bustling supermarket in the heart of Oakland’s Korean restaurant and shopping corridor along Telegraph — browsed electric fish grills and gingko-leaf chopstick rests. Pink-smocked store clerk Okhui Lee was in full sales mode.
“There’s a filter here,” she said, raising one of two doors on the Dimchae model 225L, one of five on display here. It’s clad in stainless steel with a sleek, semi-matte finish, and either caramel- or burgundy-colored front panels, and is about the size of two side-by-side dishwashers. “The smell can’t escape, and you can make it cold or not so cold, whatever you want.”
All the kimchi-neng-jang-gos on display here have separate compartments for holding different types of kimchi, each with a separate temperature control. “Some people like kimchee really fresh,” says store manager Patricia Lee (no relation to Okhui), meaning they don’t want it to ferment much further in cold storage. “Other people like it stronger, so they’ll keep the temperature a little bit warmer,” essentially allowing the kimchi to go on fermenting. A control panel has buttons labeled “slow ferment” and “more ferment,” next to a drawing of one of those clay kimchi jars, the ones Koreans used to bury in the ground.
“Even second-generation Koreans love the kimchi fridge,” says Patricia Lee. “It keeps the kimchi smell from getting into their milk.” Since June, Kitchen Plus has sold five kimchi-neng-jang-gos. Not bad, considering the 225L carries a price tag of just under $2,000, the cost of a 50-inch plasma TV.
For that kind of money, even second-generation kimchi eaters just might consider putting up with cereal doused in funky-tasting two percent. —John Birdsall
Amazing how resilient the diner is. You can stack it with Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruitys and corporate shift managers with safety-pin nametags and it won’t die. You can blister Bisquick flapjacks on a crusty flattop reeking of onions, brew up watery Folgers in a wheezy percolator, and it won’t die. Nope, we go on loving our diners, even as we demand so little from them, not noticing or caring that they’ve been remade with the impure products of big-box America: frozen choco-chip cheesecakes and chemical whip topping, butter-flavor griddle fat and machine-extruded fries.
And yet, despite all we’ve done to help destroy them, diners abide, like the smell of stale grease in rubber kitchen floor mats. So when a single, small diner somehow manages to get it right — respects the genre but throws in a bit of original flavor, without smacking of forced or fancy — it’s a situation tangled up in awesomeness.
In early 2007, Rico Tiongco pulled the plug on mee krob and geared up to do what he’d always wanted: open a diner. Less than a year before, Tiongco opened Thai Corner (his first restaurant) in an elongated slot of a space in the heart of Oaksterdam. But running a Thai place kind of sucked; Tiongco’s heart wasn’t in it. “The first idea I had was a diner, but I didn’t listen to myself,” he says.
The 38-year-old self-taught chef has a knack for designing and making stuff. He’d already stripped the space down to a condition of slightly austere minimalism. With a buddy he tiled and welded cool glass-panel shelves. He commissioned mid-century-flavor chairs with square chrome legs and pebbly black nauga, chunky walnut tabletops, and mothball pendant lights. For the launch of Rico’s Diner, he tweaked the look with elements that suggested the 1950s and ’60s, the quintessential diner era: a wall of vintage-y auto license plates, and smart-aleck window graphics by San Francisco artist Brian Barneclo. There’s the whistling wiener Hot Diggity, and Burgerman, a squat, mustachioed sandwich flexing a sailor’s bicep to flaunt its “Mom” tat —Mad Men–era whimsy with a shot of skate-shop cool.
Barneclo, whose angular city-silhouette murals perk up the SF restaurant Nopa, creates the perfect frame for Tiongco’s cooking, which straddles retro and modern without breaking a sweat. Rico’s Diner manages to be classic without retreating behind self-conscious nostalgia in the style of Mel’s and Johnny Rockets. Yup, there are shakes (milky, thick, and — in the case of the beige-colored chocolate variety — aching with the corn-syrup sweetness of Hershey’s). Yup, there’s something called Mom’s Meat Loaf — there’s even an actual mom, Tiongco’s mother, Gina, who works the order counter with soft-spoken niceness. And yup, there’s Yankee Pot Roast, which is mouthwateringly salty and stringy, seeping dark, semi-gelid gravy.
And then there’s vegan Vietnamese banh mi. Say what?
Tiongco says he has lots of friends averse to munching on animals and their secretions. His three-page menu comes with a page-long annex of cruelty-free eats: tofu scramble and a soy-protein pulled “pork” sammy, among others.
That gentle-karma banh mi is deliciously fierce. Yeah, its tofu “chicken” is best quarantined within quotation marks, where the unsuspecting won’t stumble onto it by mistake. Wisely, the kitchen buries this stretchy, spongy protein under a stiff heap of tangy slaw, and (if you ask for it hot) searing slices of jalapeno that unleash a thrilling tide of cruelty on the tongue. The warm, toasted Acme torpedo roll makes it all feel comfortably diner, even more so if you opt for a side of Tater Tots. You end up thinking, How could a diner on a funky Oaksterdam corner not have a vegan banh mi?
The burgers evoke no such ambivalence about core proteins. The ground chuck is tasty without being doctrinaire (Niman Ranch beef is too lean for his uses, Tiongco says; if you’re not grilling up rare burgers, it ends up dry). They’re burgers you could make at home, if only you had the BTUs, a sack of Acme buns, and a heavy enough hand with the mustard and mayo to make anything tangy and unctuous. But sorry, dude: no way you could engineer fries as perfect as these in your countertop FryDaddy. The skin-on Idahos have sharply rendered edges that cook up crisp and greaseless. This is one meticulous kitchen.
Breakfast (which you can order till the place closes, at 3 in the afternoon) makes that meticulousness clear. Corned Beef Hash & Eggs is on the opposite end of the scale from the sticky, cat food cohesiveness of many a version. This one’s an original, a kind of chunky griddle-fry where big strips of meat mingle with home fries, and everything’s gilded with melted cheese — another example of Tiongco’s fearlessness about shaking up the short-order canon. Mostly it works because of the potatoes: chunky red-skinned taters parboiled and — instead of a heat-through on the flattop, which is most home fries’ downfall — crisped in the deep-fryer. In lesser hands that could mean a plate sweating Fryolator grease and speeded-up expectations for Plavix, but the kitchen here is a marvel of the steady temperature (which obviates greasiness) and the artful blot.
Hands down, bacon is the apotheosis of Rico’s artfulness. I know, right? Diner bacon: sometimes chewy, with stubborn clots of rubbery fat that failed to render, sometimes brittle and burnt-tasting from over-rendering. But even badly cooked bacon is never really bad — I mean, it’s bacon. Tiongco’s technique is a marvel. He precooks it on the griddle, and then, to order, tosses it in the deep-fryer. What emerges are strips so thin, so delicately crisp, you realize you’ve spent your entire life so far in love with something unrealized, and more or less shitty. Quite simply, Rico’s bacon lifts anything it shares the plate with.
That might include thick and velvety French Toast Sticks (made with Acme levain and garnished, on the day I tried them, with crisp wedges of Fuyu persimmon). Or the Oaktowner, one of those eggs-and-pancake or French-toast-and-meat-of-your-choice combos.
It’s the classic short-order matrix, in a restaurant where the owner’s love for the format combines with local flavor in a way that suggests the possibility of rehabbing a tattered genre. Amazing. —John Birdsall
Rico’s Diner. 400 15th St. (at Franklin St.), Oakland. 510-444-8424. Hours: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon-Fri; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat; closed Sun. Cash only.
Maybe the sense of discovery that hangs about Mérida seeps from the very structure of the city: streets of the Yucatán capital city hemmed in with blank, low facades, with or without the twisty churrigueresque touches of colonial baroque built more or less on the cheap. Gaudy paint heavily flaked, ponderous bars at the windows: No telling what goes on behind those thick, pocked walls—except when someone like Robert tells you, in a gay cantina, over beers. And plates of some of the best tamales you’ve ever eaten.
Here’s how it started. Perry and I were staying in a guesthouse run by some sweet, doughy guy from the Midwest. He and his perennially absent boyfriend had bought houses on adjoining lots, turned one of them into an inn for queer North Americans. You know the kind of place: rickety wicker castoffs from the States, free wine in the afternoons to grease the wheels of social interaction—though there was really no one to mingle with, since the Bears (the only other lodgers—a burly bearded couple who wore white athletic socks and tropical-print shirts) kept to themselves. That left only Robert—and he wasn’t even a paying guest. More like a hanger-on: slept at his own house but spent most days here, with the doughy Midwesterner.
Tall. Sixtysomething, though he looked a good fifteen years younger. Long hands, gray sandpaper stubble, battered panama. Robert had retired to Mérida from Manhattan, bought a house with his partner, who still worked in NYC and visited Yucatán when he could. Robert exuded boredom, a busybody constantly needing fresh material. He locked on to Perry and me at once.
Did he fancy one or both of us? Did we promise fodder for gossip in Mérida’s queer expat ghetto (which, apparently, includes faded superchef Jeremiah Tower)? Couldn’t tell. I said I wanted to taste authentic Yucatecan cooking. “Nothing overwrought, and not, like, the tourist kind of ‘authentic,”” I said. “Just the real thing.” You know—stuff a tourist says.
Clearly, Robert didn’t know the first thing about food—he’d recommended a place because the owner personally shopped for veggies at the local Costco, as if it were a guarantee of the food’s quality. Still, Perry and I agreed to let Robert be our guide next day. He’d take us to his friend, a guy, Robert said, who could lead us to the real shit. Cochinita pibil cooked in a hole in the earth. Shark and tortilla pie.
“You’ll have to get up early,” he warned.
We got up early, slipped out to the sitting room half an hour before Robert had told us we’d need to be out the door. He was already there, wearing a CCCP tee, idly flipping through a magazine. “When do we go?” I asked. “Oh, we’re too late,” he said, barely looking up.
Fuck. I looked at Perry; I could feel the cochinita pibil slipping through my fingers.
“We’ll go see my other friend,” he said. “He knows all the places. No rush.”
I won’t bore you. The day was a succession of long walks back and forth through Mérida’s hard, canyonlike streets, through blasting sun and sticky heat. Sunday, and Calle 60 was blocked to cars—young Mayans with traffic vests over flimsy shirts manned the street corners. Luminous black eyes; brown skin shiny, varnished with sweat.
We found the friend: an artist—a short, smiling Yucatecan who painted surrealist images of the Mayan cosmos, set out on the sidewalk to tempt the occasional norteño, Yankees-capped, in shorts that exposed pink, flabby legs. But after our long trek, the pint-size Yucatecan dished out a bogus recommendation: Los Almendros—even our Rough Guide listed it. Crap. No Mayans crowding around some courtyard pit, wrenching hunks of cochinita from a steaming, banana-leaf-wrapped heap of deliciousness. Los Almendros promised nothing better than tourist-authentic.
We set off back to Plaza Grande. Halfway there, Robert had an idea: we slipped into a botana bar, a sprawling place, listless and deserted on a hot Sunday. We drank beer from the bottle; the waiter laid out ten botanas: fried tortillas, vinegared cucumbers, warm black beans, the ubiquitous Vienna sausages in tomato sauce, a searing chunky salsa of blackened habanero chiles and onion, and something unusual: hunks of fried beef heart and tomato, drenched with the juice of sour oranges. Declicious.
By now, Robert was opening up about the life of an idle homo expat. “Mexican men are so sexual,” he said. “Even the straight ones flirt with you. Sleep with you sometimes.” As if on cue, a waiter in a tight tee-shirt strode up to the table and shook Robert’s hand. “Nice to see you,” he said in English, like he was, well—making a move. When he left, Robert shrugged. “See what I mean?” he said. “Never even seen that guy before.” Damn. Perry and I went off to the men’s to take a piss. We had growing suspicions about our guide, and not just because our food trek was turning out to be a bust. I spotted the flirty waiter in the tight tee, laughing with the other waiters in an otherwise deserted patio out back. He glanced at me, slowly curled his mouth into a sneer.
We worked back to the city center, on narrow sidewalks clogged with Sunday-afternoon throngs. “Here,” Robert said, and we ducked into a long, dim cantina, where a dozen guys sat on barstools or slouched at tables against a wall half-clad with tiles in dirty shades of faded pink. “Hustlers may ask you to buy them drinks, but otherwise it’s okay here,” Robert said. He knew the smiling proprietor; they chatted briefly.
In the back, amid a jumble of empty tables, an aging butterfly of a thing was acting the coquette with a short, middle-aged guy sporting a skinny mustache and a crisply pressed shirt. You figure his wife ironed it for him, and here he was, spending the afternoon buying drinks for his worn-looking diva: bleached hair styled in a Liberace pompadour, wearing a flow-y, eyeshadow-blue pantsuit, scuffed white boots, and an expression of elegant detachment. You gotta love Mexico.
The beers loosened Robert’s tongue. He began spilling secrets—how he paid young Mayan guys to come to his house to give him massages and, um, you can imagine. He developed a regular thing with a particular one, but the poor kid was a cokehead. “Oh, he was beautiful,” Robert said, rolling his eyes up in his head. Whenever the kid needed money, he’d come by Robert’s casa, and perform what Robert called one of his special “Mayan massages.” He got strung out, skinny.
By now the flowing blue diva was dancing with her romeo, doing a merengue or something to whatever was pulsing out of the jukebox. The proprietor brought us a tamale—a Yucatecan chicken tamale, squat and slippery, glistening on the banana leaf it’d been steamed in, a spoonful of tomato sauce on top. We cut it up with a plastic fork as Robert talked, speared pieces of it with toothpicks. It was fantastic—corn masa strained smooth, with a coarse filling that tasted dark and frankly chickeny, all suffused with the green, grassy tang of fresh banana leaf. We asked the patron for a second one.
“It was a weekend my partner was in town,” Robert was telling us. “We had friends form New York staying with us. One morning there was this pounding on the door. I knew who it was.” The Mayan kid had gotten really bad; he was yelling for Robert, needed money for drugs. Robert didn’t want to go to the door; their guests were uneasy, asking if everything was okay. Robert’s partner looked at him: What the fuck?
“I had to tell him everything. He went out and scared the kid away, told him he’d call the damn police if he didn’t go away. He never came over again.”
The tamale plates were smears of tomato sauce on banana leaves. Robert seemed tired of us as suddenly as he’d been interested. “I’ll walk you as far as the mercado,” he said, “and then you’re on your own.”
As we strolled through the mercado, with its almost overwhelming smells of overripe fruit and sweat, Perry said Robert had kind of creeped him out. Still, I thought, we’d managed to have a taste of something authentic. —John Birdsall
Homestyle Filipino cooking takes animal suffering to thrilling heights. The detritus of the slaughterhouse—liver, blood, intestines, even unborn ducklings, for Christ’s sake—become material for vinegar-and-garlic-stained intensities capable of provoking shudders. Even among dedicated salumi eaters.
Where you first sample this heady cuisine of studied cruelty tends to shade your feelings about it. Having your first taste of dinuguan (the infamous stew of pigs’ blood and offal, euphemized in Fil-Am households as “chocolate meat”) at a cafe table covered in greasecloth that lives up to its name—well, it can put you off the stuff for good.
Yeah, it’s irrational, but a vase of carnations and cloth napkins can soften the blow of a shocking cuisine. Which is why Patio Filipino in San Bruno offers comfort to the Filipino-food wary. The place is handsome; it sprawls over two rooms and, well, a patio. The Ilocano-tinged cooking is authentic while managing to skew contemporary, and without the tics of self-conscious fusion.
A couple of crunchy-skinned pork dishes are studies in gilded indulgence. Crispy Pata is a boiled and deep-fried pork hock—you pull rich, chewy pieces of meat off the bone and dip them in a sauce with a healthy presence of what tastes like sugarcane vinegar. Lechon Kawali is diced hunks of pork, nearly equal parts chewy meat and gnarled chicharron. It comes with pork liver sauce—smooth, cold, and tart-sweet.
Ginataang Sitaw at Kalabasa (a stew of long beans, kabocha pumpkin, and shrimp in coconut milk) is deliciously savory; Vegetable Kare-Kare is overwhelmed by a thickly emulsified peanut sauce that squelches any vegetal flavors; garlicky pork Lumpianitas offer no surprises. But Patio Filipino itself—a place that serves up well cooked, satisfyingly homey dishes in a setting nice enough to comfort Filipino-food novices—may be all the surprise you need. —John Birdsall
Patio Filipino. 1770 El Camino Real, San Bruno, 94066. 650-872-9888. http://patiofilipino.com/
Roses are things which Christmas is not a bed of. —Ogden Nash, quoted in Elizabeth David’s Christmas.
Look at the jacket photo at the back of Elizabeth David’s Christmas (edited by Jill Norman, 2008: David R. Godine) to catch a whiff of the late English food writer’s appeal, if not her genius. That’s right: She looks frowzy—drunk, frankly—posed at the huge table in her densely cluttered London kitchen, a caricature of the sloppy pubfly. Enormous head hoisted onto her arm, mad grin exposing poor teeth, eyebrows pencilled in at angles both glamorous and a little giddy.
It’s a portrait at odds with the jacket’s front, all sticky-mint green, spangled with nauseatingly cozy line drawings: a roasted turkey, plum pudding, even an angel, for god’s sake, blowing a damn trumpet. But even writing about Christmas (the book’s a collection of David’s published writings about Christmas, with extended quotes she’d collected before her death, and a few original introductory pieces) David is sensible, canny. And anything but sentimental.
It’s clear she hated Christmas—the Anglo-American Christmas of sickeningly rich foods and forced family eating. The book is a plea for sense, a manual of sanity from a woman who, in a way, was all the things cozy drawings of mince pies and holly sprigs are not: David struggled through difficult relationships with men, never spawned kids, failed to be conventionally domestic. The searingly honest woman of the jacket portrait, whose food writing simply ignored the chirpy, service-journalism, home-ec template of the first three decades she was active, starting in the late 1940s.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, opening sentence of a piece that appeared in Vogue in 1959:
If I had my way—and I shan’t—my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.
You go, Mrs. David.
The impression you get from Elizabeth David’s Christmas is one of simple comforts that resist—but also, in a way, express—the melancholy of the season: a soup of lentils and pheasant, a dessert of apples cooked slowly in butter, jerusalem artichokes cooked with cream. They’re the recipe equivalents of the simultaneously sad and joyful little tracks the Vince Guaraldi Trio laid down in 1965 for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright—except when they don’t, and all you want is to get quietly sloshed, alone, in bed. —John Birdsall
At a bar in Alicante, Spain: facing a tapa of meaty cuttlefish (sepia) in a thick, sticky pool of its ink. Warm—it’s emerged from the microwave behind the bar—congealing slightly as it cools, deep with coppery saltiness, like the taste of blood. Per —my husband—doesn’t want more than a bite, and I admit, it’s a tad gory, too murky a concentration of flayed sea life for me to finish.
Later, in our hotel room, in a thick-walled arcade ringing the plaza in front of the ayuntamiente—the town hall—looking out onto a crude baroque clock tower, I flick on the TV before leaving for dinner—it’s a bullfight, a glimpse of the San Ysidor Festival, Spain’sWorld Series of matador-dom.
A boyish matador in tight turquoise pantaloons and a pink cape gaudy as paper roses: curly dark hair, handsome and sinuous, like gay guys we’d see around La Chueca in Madrid. Junk taped down, probably, like a drag queen’s—sexy and at the same time sexless. He’s ripe and precious, petulant as he prances gracefully in the ring.
Cutaway to an older torreador in a wide-brimmed hat, advancing with elaborate picks to stab the bull, already sprouting a plume of ribbons from where it’s been gored, taunted. Cutaway to the crowd in the stands: celebrities, politicians, the monied—in delicate straw hats, expensive-looking clothes and tans, a superhyped whiff of anticipation, the sleek turquoise ass of the boy matador, a delicious suspension in the load of ritualized violence about to drop.
The bull—El Pelillo—is following a predictable trajectory of impulses; the announcer lauds the beast for its bigness, its magnificence and courage. Like a climax prolonged to amp up its pleasure, the grave-faced, handsome old torreador slowly advances to El Pelillo.
But the deck is stacked against El Pelillo. He’s fucked—it’s all been a distraction. A picador on horseback deftly advances from behind the pissed-off bull, makes a deep, fatal stick. El Pelillo turns, tries to gore the blinkered, well-padded horse. Now the old torreador is running, drawing the bull away from the horse, and tries to make another stab, picks fluttering white ribbons; they wobble in El Pelillo’s shoulder, heave, fall to the ring.
The matador advances, wields a curved sword like a ballet student executing a move, but the bull’s done: El Pelillo collapses, like a dog laying down in the heat. An then it’s over—the TV cuts to smiles on in the crowd, the finely molded beauty in the matador’s expressionless and yet triumphant face, then a cut to a commercial about toilet paper or chocolate biscuits or some shit. You don’t see the enormous, twitching black carcass dragged across the ring, the smear of blood in the dirt.
As for Per and me, we’re off to dinner. Well, that’s Spain for you—like the sepia I can still taste, lurid reality shows up mainly on the plate. —John Birdsall
Evenings I would visit the Plaza Mayor, where outdoor cafes and tabernas spilled over with high-spirited Madrilenos, and from there I would descend to the gently curved Cava Baja, where I’d spend hours at cave like taverns called mesones. There was no need to purchase theater or movie tickets or have a specific place to go; singing, music and dance filled the streets, and one could join in; lively conversation was to be found everywhere.
The Desert Music, I think—that’s the place William Carlos Williams noted it’s the strange hours tourists happen onto stuff that makes even ordinary scenes seem, well, magical. And Alain de Botton says even a crummy sign in a foreign airport can seem steeped in the all the romance of travel, all the strangeness of new places—turned electric with anticipation you, the traveler, have juiced it up with. Like some foreign-current converter you pull from the bulging fanny pack of your imagination.
It was a night that’d been drenched fitfully in rain. In a cab we hurtled through the dark, bent, eventually, for a late-ish meal at billy kwong, the mod-Cantonese place (originally co-owned with Bill Granger) by Sydney chef and author Kylie Kwong. Magical? It was, in a way so many restaurant experiences simply aren’t these days: a chain of advance bookings, the 5:30 seating you didn’t want, and anticipatory anxiety, leading ultimately to food that seems to wither on the plate under inspection, like a picked basil leaf under the 100-watt lightbulb of expectation.
Was it the drinks Perry and I had before we hit Kwong’s place? The murky glamour of some sleek, boozy Surry Hills hotel bar, where Aussie twentysomethings were sloppy celebrating the convergence of summer and Christmas. Wiry, handsome-ish guys in fauxhwaks or Rod Stewart rooster cuts; girl hotties in holiday-party sheath minis, some drunk as hell, tottering on the stairs down to the loo, in a dizzy spiral leading inevitably to vomit and remorse.