Sunday, June 29, 2008

Grasshoppers at Hugo's

Hugo's and the Gay Pride Parade, Again

For the second year in a row, my wife, 74-year old mother, and 9-year old daughter went to Hugo's on the night of the Gay Pride Parade.

Once again, Mayor Bill White ate at Hugo's before the parade. Once again, he left early to lead the parade.

Once again, my daughter left with several pounds of mardi gras beads.

This year, it struck me how conservative the parade has become. Apart from a few men in underwear, most of the parade is dominated by floats or cars advertising politicians, corporations (Chase, BP, Chevron), and at least 6 or 7 churches.

My family loved the parade. But for me the real excitement was on Hugo's menu.

Eating some bugs

Hugo's is serving grasshoppers:

This appetizer, called chapulines, consists of a bowl of pan-sauteed grasshoppers with chipolte salsa, guacamole, and blue tortillas.

I have had grasshoppers before, but under different circumstances.

At boy scout camp in Central Texas. I signed up for the Wilderness Survival merit badge. We had to spend a night in the wild without equipment and forage for food. The only thing we found to eat were grasshoppers.

I cooked a few grasshoppers on a fire that started without matches. Without spices, the grasshoppers had a grassy, vegetal taste and a crunchy texture.

The grasshoppers served at Hugo's are not pretty. It is hard to escape the fact that they really do look like bugs: But Hugo's grasshoppers are much better than the ones I cooked at camp. They are thoroughly spiced and served with some sauteed onions and cilantro. I did not detect any of the grassy flavor of the grasshoppers of my childhood.

Still, the texture of the crunchy exoskeletons may be hard for some people to take. Fortunately for the squeamish, Hugo's serves enough guacamole and salsa that you can wrap everything in a tortilla and almost forget you are eating bugs.

Some people will order this dish because they have been watching too much Andrew Zimmern. I confess that I have some of the same food machismo.

But the value of this dish goes beyond its exotica. Hugo's grasshoppers taste very good.

Other foods

Squash blossoms are in season. So Hugo's kitchen is serving its annual squash blossom menu, including stuffed squash blossoms:

My favorite dish at Hugo's is a simple one -- Callo de Hacha, pan seared scallops served over sweet corn bread:

Houston is lucky to have Mexican food as creative and as good as Hugo's.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mint Cafe

Mint Cafe has some tough competition. This cheery little Middle Eastern sidewalk cafe on Sage near the Galleria is within a few miles of Houston's best and most popular Middle Eastern restaurants:

Mary'z -- possibly Houston's best traditional Middle Eastern food

Cafe Mezza -- possibly Houston's best contemporary Middle Eastern fusion food

Dimassi's -- a good quality and extremely popular Middle Eastern buffet

Although Mint is not better than Mary'z or Cafe Mezza, I go to Mint more than its competitors for a few reasons. First, now that Cafe Mezza is no longer BYOB, Mint is the best BYOB Middle Eastern restaurant in town.

Second, there are a handful of dishes at Mint Cafe that are better than any similar dishes in town:

Pies ($3.49): The little appetizer called "pies" (pictured above) includes a spinach pie and a cheese pie that are more like crispy spring rolls. But the star of the dish is the meat pie. The ground beef is mixed with pine nuts and an intriguing blend of spices.

Foul ($5.49): Sold elsewhere as ful mudammas, this is nothing more than a bowl of fava beans with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. The beans swim in a thick sea of oil and juice. It is the bracing acidic quality of the lemon juice transforms this dish from an oily bowl of beans to something special. I don't eat these beans with a fork. It is more fun to scoop up the beans and juices with triangles of pita.

Kid's menu Kafta burger ($5.99): Although this is one of the tastiest burgers in town, I only get to eat it when I bring Anonymous Child. It is only on Mint Cafe's kid's menu. She thinks it is pretty good, but I marvel at the unusual spices in the ground beef and at how well they work with lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

This burger may not appeal to purists who prefer medium rare meat with lots of juice. This burger is well done, and seems to be made from lean meat. But it is the spices that elevate it to something completely different.

Israeli couscous ($2.49): The pea-sized balls of pasta are larger than ordinary couscous. They have an al dente texture and are flavored with spices such as cinnamon.

Other dishes may not beat all the competition, but are quite good. The eggplant in baba ghanouge is appropriately smoky and flavorful.

The chicken in the chicken kabob has a nice marinade and is served with a pungent garlic sauce. But it doesn't compare with Mary'z flavorful marinade.

Mint also does a nice job with lamb chops. And tabouli is made correctly with a lot of fresh parsley and lemon juice.

Only a few dishes are disappointing. The fattoush salad is not as interesting as versions I have tried elsewhere. I find the hummus dull, but then I usually find hummus dull.

Mint Cafe is a family operation. Mom works in the kitchen. A son waits tables. Many customers are regulars. Many customers eat at the sidewalk tables outside. A few customers even eat outside with their dogs.

It's that kind of place.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two dishes at Benjy's

The problem with Charcuterie

Charcuterie -- the branch of cooking concerned with preserved meats -- has a long history. Before refrigeration, it was an important way to preserve meats.

The problem today is that charcuterie plates are rarely exciting. So often, processed meats -- no matter how fine -- taste like ordinary lunch meat. I had enough lunch meat in elementary school to last a lifetime.

Worse, charcuterie plates are often served with nothing other than bread and mustard. That sort of dish suffers the same problem as a plate of just sashimi or just cheese -- too much sameness.

Fortunately, many contemporary chefs make cheese plates and sashimi plates more interesting by adding touches of other ingredients. Cheese benefits from nuts, honey, and fruit-based sides. Sashimi benefits from greens, fruits, and mild sauces that highlight the flavor of the fish.

Why not do the same thing with charcuterie?

Charcuterie - Benjy's "Meat Plate" special

The "meat plate" on special at Benjy's last Sunday was something special indeed:

On the the top right was a slice of summer sausage topped with an onion jelly or compote. In the middle was a slice of duck terrine topped with a cold salad of fennel, pear, and mint. On the lower left was lamb sausage served with sweet, spicy mustard.

Benjy's chef processed all the meats himself.

The meats were of the highest quality. But what interested me most was the additional flavorings that went far beyond mustard and crackers. For instance, the onion jelly had a sweet, bulbous flavor that offset the salty, vinegary flavors of the processed meat. And the strongly flavored spicy and sweet mustard stood up to the spicy, gamy flavor of the lamb sausage.

Best of all, the duck terrine was a complex, tasty creation, combining the licorice flavor of fennel and sour sweetness of pear with the slightly gamy flavor of duck.

Benjy's meat plate was a whirl of flavors -- sweet, spicy, sour, salty. It is far beyond the average charcuterie plate.

No meat here -- Benjy's ggadashi

Benjy's sesame crusted agadashi has made appearances on the menu for well over a decade. Recently, the dish had a face lift. Rather than a large bowl that mixes everything together, now the tofu and mushrooms are served alone, with separate sides of baby bok choy and rice topped with thin slices of pickled ginger and Japanese cucumber.

This may be the best tofu dish in town. Each cube of tofu is has a crispy exterior. Shitake mushrooms add an earthyness and texture contrast. But the highlight of the dish is the spicy, sweet orange-chili sauce. The sauce is highly addictive.

A lot of hardcore meat eaters refuse to even try tofu. They need to try this dish.

On one hand, I would like to see Benjy's menu change more often. I would like to see more new dishes like the meat plate. Benjy's kitchen can be quite creative. On the other hand, I hope Benjy's never removes some of my favorite dishes from the menu. I never tire of Benjy's agadashi.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Supper Club with Randy Rucker

Randy Rucker cooks at home

Chef Randy Rucker held a supper club at his house last week. Details of the dinner are already on posts by She eats and I'm Never Full. I will just add a few notes and photos.

Rucker may make supper club an ongoing event. Details probably will be posted on his blog. His cooking is also available through his private chef service, Tenacity.

Even when he started laidback manor in his 20s, Rucker was possibly the most experimental and creative chef in Houston. Although his technique and experimentation are still apparent, he now seems to focus more on highlighting ingredients.

Rucker prizes most the ingredients that he grows himself. He led me around his yard/garden with great enthusiasm, pointing to ingredient after ingredient that I have never heard of, inviting me to nibble on various leaves. Perhaps because of the season, he seemed particularly interested in herbs.

All of his dishes reflected pure, intense flavors. His plating is artistry.

These are just a handful of photos:

cured rainbow trout in yusu with microbasil, saffron, Korean chili threads

tilefish tiradito (Peruvian ceviche) with lemon verbena, fennel blossoms (the intensely licorice-flavored yellow blossoms) and kimchee consomme

Peach, komatsusma lettuce, lime-eucalyptus emulsion, and fenugreek meringue (the crunchy white tube)

Compressed pork (a wild hog killed by Rucker's friend) with japanese cucumber and sauce ravioli (a sweet coca cola-flavored sauce) - my second favorite dish of the night

I did not get a good shot of my favorite dish of the night, but She Eats did. It was a vichyssoise made from potatoes that had been soaked in pig fat and then smoked in a large smoker. The vichyssoise was poured over crab and dashi and topped with a garlic flower, which really did taste like garlic.

To end the evening, Randy served an wonderfully strange, intense drink made from herbs that had been fermented for 3 weeks in this jar.

Like everything else, it was a thing of beauty.

UPDATE: Another supper club is planned for July 10. Details here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What is so great about Indika?

Can an Indian restaurant serve Houston's best food?

In my annual top 10 list, I ranked Indika #1.

My brother thought the choice was strange. He likes Indika. But he admitted a prejudice -- the assumption that the best restaurant in town will serve food that is French, Italian, or modern American.

He didn't argue this prejudice is correct. He just admitted he has it.

He is not alone. In the West, we are taught to think that that the world's best cuisine is French. Italian is second (unless you ask an Italian). I thought like that for years, but am beginning to challenge it. Other cultures have cooking traditions that are just as rich, diverse, and sophisticated. Consider China, India, Peru.

It is not the tradition a restaurant chooses that makes it great. It is what the restaurant does with that tradition.

Creating a new language

A handful of Houston's great restaurants borrow from a particular tradition, but create their own unique language outside of it. The list includes:

Cafe Annie - Robert Del Grande developed a unique style of Franco/Southwestern cuisine unlike any other restaurant in the Southwest. Cafe Annie's sauces and preparations are distinctly Cafe Annie.

Hugo's - Hugo Ortega has created a style of Mexican cuisine that is different from Mexican food anywhere else.

Feast - Although it borrows from British pub food and the head-to-tail movement, Feast is developing a food language of its own.

These restaurants all have a unique style. Uniqueness alone will not make a restaurant great. But it is particularly impressive when a restaurant makes great food that is also wholly unique.

Indika's language

Most Indian restaurants in America fall within one of two or three styles. Whether your are in Houston or Boston, you can get the same dish -- prepared almost the same -- from one restaurant to the next.

In contrast, Indika's dishes are one of a kind. It makes sense that Indika's chef, Anita Jaisinghani, once worked at Cafe Annie. She does the same thing to Indian food that Del Grande did to Southwestern food at Cafe Annie -- turning it into a uniquely personal creation of the highest quality.

Below are some photos from our visit to Indika last Saturday. The dishes are roasted stuffed Karella (bitter gourd), mixed green salad with potato goat cheese cakes, uttappam with spiced calamari and coconut chutney, and the vegetarian plate (7 items including goat cheese fritters, pickled eggplant, cucumber salad, curried mushrooms, pasta in soup, and vegetarian kofta in sauce).

My western food vocabulary is inadequate to describe Indika's food. I don't know all these flavors, ingredients, and spices. I can only say that every dish was alive with flavors and contrasting textures. It was like a party in my mouth.

One complaint: Indika's menu does not seem to change much. It is one thing to make fantastic, unique dishes. It is something else to come up with new ones every night.


Monday, June 16, 2008

The Chowhound community (and Sinh Sinh's Hot Pot)

The Houston Chowhound Group

Jenny, the blogger at I'm Never Full, has done a remarkable job in a few months of putting together an active group of Houston foodies through the Houston Chowhound Group. The group has online discussions. It also promotes food events. These are a fun way to meet like-minded people.

Randy Rucker dinner

For example, I learned on Chowhound about a dinner this Thursday to be prepared by Randy Rucker, formerly of laidback manor fame. You can see the menu and learn information about the event over at Randy's site. Although it is not a Chowhound Houston event, a lot of Chowhound Houston people will be there.

Hot Pot at Sinh Sinh

Yesterday, a small group of Chowhound folks -- including famous ethnic food expert Jay Francis -- went to Sinh Sinh for hot pot. (Jay is the author of some of the most important documents ever written about the Houston food scene, including the Economical Guide to Ethnic Dining in Houston and the Guide to Ethnic Grocery Stores and Market Areas of Houston.)

The idea of hot pot is simple. The table opens up to reveal a gas stove. Servers bring a broth bowl with two sides -- one a spicy broth and one not spicy. Then they bring raw food to cook in the pot. The raw ingredients include spinach, mung bean noodles, tofu, eggs, beef, chicken, tripe, shrimp, mussels, fish, fish balls, and squid. Chili paste is served on the side.

We also ordered some skewers of live shrimp. Watching the live shrimp flop around on skewers may be disturbing to some. But the fresh shrimp taste great.

After the ingredients have cooked in the pot, the broth absorbs the flavors and is complex and delicious.

Hot pot is a lot of fun with a group. At Sinh Sinh, a hot pot for 2 serves at least 4 people. Hot pot also probably makes more sense in cold weather. Yesterday hit a record high of 99 degrees. I worked up a sweat during our lunch.

This is what it looked like:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pagoda Vietnamese Bistro - proselytizing Vietnamese food

Pagoda's proselytizing mission

Pagoda Vietnamese Bistro and Bar is a new Vietnamese restaurant in the cluster of restaurants at I-10 and Shepard.

Pagoda's mission statement needs some editing, but is still fascinating:

"We are the first authentic Vietnamese eatery west of downtown a full menu comparative in traditional quality that can be found in Southeast Houston better known as Chinatown. For urban dwellers that find that part of town too far, Pagoda Bistro is bringing the delectable banh mi, cafe sua da, and pho to the city. Up and coming restaurant surely to be a neighborhood favorite to the Heights hippies, Midtown young professionals, Montrose eclectic crowd, Musum District artisans, River Oakies, and the Downtown/Allen Parkway industry professionals."

One problem with this is geography. Chinatown is in southwest Houston, not southeast. Second, Pagoda is not the first authentic Vietnamese restaurant west of downtown; almost all Vietnamese restaurants are west of downtown. Third, its odd to suggest that Pagoda is bringing Vietnamese food to Midtown professionals when Houston's first Vietnamese restaurants began, and some still are located, in Midtown.

Still, Pagoda's goal is laudable: bring Vietnamese food to a non-Asian audience. A few other restaurants have tried to do that. The Vietnam Restaurant in the Heights cooks home-style Vietnamese food, but parts of its menu pander to American tastes. Vietopia in West U attempts to modernize of fusionify Vietnamese dishes, not always with good results.

Pagoda's approach is different. It's menu reads like a "greatest hits" of the Vietnamese dishes that appeal to Western palates. The execution of those dishes is high quality, and mostly traditional.

A bistro?

The word "bistro" is often misused. In France, "bistro" refers to a small restaurant serving modestly-priced food and wine. Lately, many restaurants call them selves bistro, even when they are large and expensive and serve nothing remotely like French bistro food.

Pagoda is the rare non-French restaurant that actually fits the term bistro. The small space in a renovated house has a lot of wood and some colorful, art-deco style, Asian art. The prices are moderate. The modest menu emphasizes the French side of Vietnamese cuisine. And Pagoda actually has a good list of inexpensive wines that work with its food.

Vietnamese greatest hits

The menu has all the Vietnamese dishes that non-Asian Americans tend to like: spring rolls, white asparagus crab soup, bo luc lac (Vietnamese beef), pho, and vermicelli bowls.

The best dish I tried was a soup called bun bo hue. It consisted of vermicelli and thin slices of beef and some sort of pork cake in a complex, very spicy broth. On the side is a plate of condiments including cabbage, cilantro, jalapenos, and lime. Like the best Vietnamese soups, it is hard to put a finger on the multi-faceted flavor -- a little sea, a little meat, salty, hot, slightly sweet, bulby, aromatic, and funky. I'm no expert in Vietnamese soups, but this is one of the best I have tried.

At lunch only, Pagoda serves a simple grilled chicken rice plate. The chicken has a subtle Vietnamese marinade, that probably includes lemon grass and fish sauce. Yet it will appeal to Western tastes because it tastes a lot like barbecue. Pagoda uses long grain rice for this dish, instead of crushed rice, which I prefer. But the dish bows to tradition by placing a fried egg on top.

Pagoda's carmelized catfish (ca kho to) is one of the best versions I have tried of this dish. The dish is made by carmelizing some cane sugar in a hot bowl before adding the fish. The sauce was complex and not overly sweet.

An appetizer of shrimp skewers is a traditional dish where shrimp are ground, shaped around a sugar cane, and grilled. Pagoda's version works because it actually tastes like fresh shrimp.

A few dishes could use some tweaking. At lunch, the combination banh mi had interesting meat flavors, but too much mayonnaise. At dinner, lemongrass mussels had high quality mussels, but the flavors had been diluted by using too much cream.

I am impressed that Pagoda mostly sticks to Vietnamese dishes. There is no sweet and sour pork here -- although Pagoda's menu does include beef satay and ponzu scallops. Yet most of the menu accurately Franco-Indonesian cuisine. It just emphasizes the Franco side, rather than the stranger, more exotic side of Vietnamese cuisine.

Why go?

Pagoda is a welcome addition of Vietnamese food to a part of town with few Vietnamese restaurants. It is an excellent introduction to Vietnamese food for non-Asian Americans. And it may be the best Vietnamese restaurant in Houston for wine geeks who care about wine pairings.

But if you live in Southwest Houston, there is no reason to go out of your way to try Pagoda. Think of it like a Mexican cathedral. It may be impressive and worth seeing if you happen to be in Mexico. But if you live in Rome, a few blocks from St. Peter's, you wouldn't make a special trip to Mexico just to see a cathedral.

Because I work in the area, I am going to be a regular at Pagoda.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Great Dumpling Hunt Part 8 - Feng Ling

My daughter and I are sitting in a cheap Chinese restaurant in a depressing Westheimer strip center. The decor is sparse. The tables have inlaid Chinese designs that have seen better days. No customers are Asian American. The menu sounds Americanized and not the least bit authentic.

Why in the heck are we here? Last month, a reader said the steamed pork dumplings at the Feng Ling at 6437 Westheimer are the "best in the world."

That is not the sort of claim that can be left unchecked.

Steamed pork dumplings

Feng Ling's steamed pork dumplings look like art. They do not have the usual oblong dumpling shape, but are spherical with grooves to make them look like a flower blossom.

For steamed dumplings, the texture is remarkable -- thick, chewy, toothsome.

The ball of ground pork in the center is better than most dumpling fillings. It has a savory flavor from the addition of garlic, green onions, and a generous amount of ginger.

Feng Ling serves dumpling sauce -- soy sauce, vinegar, with long strips of fresh ginger. It is some of the best dumpling sauce in town. And for customers who need heat, they serve a separate jar of chili paste.

Best steamed dumplings in the world? Probably not. But these steamed dumplings have the best texture I have found among any steamed dumplings in Houston. The dumpling sauce is outstanding. This really is one of the best dumpling experiences in town.

Pan-fried pork dumplings

Although the wrapper and filling are similar, the pan-fried dumplings are not quite as good. They are not round, but oblong. They have a light brown crust on the bottom. It is not as crunchy as it should be.

My daughter usually prefers pan-fried dumplings, but not at Feng Ling.

These pan fried dumplings are well above average, but not on the same level as those at Sandong Noodle House.

The rest of the menu

Unfortunately, I had little interest in the rest of Feng Ling's menu. It reads like any other Chinese menu in Middle America, except that it includes some popular Vietnamese dishes such as salt toast shrimp.

The reader who had recommended dumplings also recommended squid, so I ordered spicy squid. The sauce was well balanced, but unexceptional, and not very spicy. Still, I was impressed with squid's tenderness. I also was impressed with the cutting technique used to make the blossoming tubes. Once again, the dish looked like art.

I asked the waitress what tool they used to cut the squid. She said, "It's easy," and made a few cutting motions in the air.

The verdict

Feng Ling is held back by its depressing strip-mall location and its Americanized menu. It is not the sort of place I would take most of my friends, or even my wife. Yet I am impressed by some of the artistry that comes from the kitchen. Someone in back invests a lot of care and passion in making these cheap Chinese dishes for a small handful of non-Chinese customers. The commitment in these dishes touched a spot in my heart.

Most importantly, my dumpling hunt partner and I knew that we had found some of Houston's best steamed dumplings.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Super H Mart

I have been spending a lot of spare time at the Super H Mart -- the new supermarket and food court at the corner of Blalock and Westview. It is a fantastic grocery store, with an interesting Korean food court.

Best ethnic grocery store in Houston?

Super H Mart is a Korean chain with a number of locations in the U.S. Here, Super H opened in the former location of a Randalls. If you walk inside and don't look too closely, you might think that you are in a state-of-the-art Whole Foods. Super H Mart has that same bright, cheery, contemporary feel. But instead of a cheese counter, Super H has a whole wall devoted to kimchi.

Super H is not as big as Hong Kong Market. It does not have the same quantity of imported dry goods. Instead, Super H excels with its selection of its produce and seafood.
The produce section includes fruits and vegetables that are rarely seen in Houston -- even at Hong Kong market. The quality of the produce looks as good as Central Market or Whole Foods.

The seafood section may have the broadest, and most interesting, selection of seafood in Houston. You can select some fish, such as these, using tongs.
Mostly Korean Food Court
Super H Mart is also significant because it brings Houston its second Korean food court. A few years ago, I discovered the Korean food court at nearby Ko-Mart. Ko-Mart has a number of mom-and-pop food stands that sell cheap, authentic Korean food.
Super H's food court is something different. These stands feel much more like a food court in an American mall -- contemporary, accessible, and corporate owned. But the food is just as interesting. The stands include a French bakery and a sushi/soba shop, which I have not tried. The stands I did try include the following:
1 - Sobahn Express. Korean fast food, including bibimbap rice dishes, soups, and bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef).
I tried the bulgogi bibimbap -- a rice bowl with different piles of vegetables such as carrots and cucumber kimchi, plus a small serving of bulgogi. I liked the quality of the vegetables more than Super H. But the bulgogi was not nearly as flavorful.
I also tried soybean paste stew. This was a fascinating stew with peppers, onions, oysters, and some other unusual small pink seafood. Although the flavor was strange at first, I discovered halfway through the bowl that it tastes a lot like New Orleans gumbo.
2 - China Factory. This Chinese fast food stand has a short menu, but some interesting dishes. I liked the noodles with black soy bean sauce -- a thick, viscous, comforting sauce that does not have a strong flavor.
3 - Toreore is perhaps the most unusual stand. It is part of a Korean fried chicken chain. But this is unlike any chicken I have ever had. Toreore advertises that it is healthy because it uses no trans fats and a batter that is made from "mixed grains powder." I tried a hot, sweet and spicy chicken nugget that was very sweet and so spicy hot that it caused sores to break out inside my mouth. The smell was something like the inside of a Duncan donut store, but the flavor resembled a sweetened habenero pepper. The vendors at the counter warn non-Korean speakers about how hot this particular dish is. It is a warning well heeded.
You can find more Super H photos and comments on the food court in this detailed post by Neverfull over at eGullet.
Super H Mart is drawing a huge Asian-American crowd. But it is going to draw a lot of other people who are less familiar with Asian foods. I found out about Super H Mart last month from my mother-in-law -- a Texas-born lady who never tried sushi until recently. She thinks Super H is pretty cool.
She's right.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Houston's Rising Star Chefs

Chef Randy Rucker is conducting a poll for Houston's best "rising star" chef. He wants to know who is your favorite rising star and why. And he's going to throw a party for the winner.

I have some ideas, but I will keep them to myself. I don't want to influence the contest.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Feast photos

Every visit to Feast is a new and wonderful experience.

Feast has a tasting menu on Wednesday nights for about $40 (!). A group from Chowhound Houston negotiated with Feast to do that tasting menu on a Sunday night for a large group.

I have been writing so much about Feast lately (see here and here), that I will just rely on photos to describe some highlights.

Cured pork liver with berries and oranges

Peaches, carrots, dates, walnuts

Pork cheeks with dandelion greens, caperberries and toasty bread

Pork leg with crispy skin, maple syrup, bubble and squeak, and applesauce

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Tan Tan

Tan Tan is a huge Vietnamese / Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The space is huge. The menu is huge. The crowd is huge. And with good reason.

Tan Tan is fun and welcoming. The cavernous space is decorated with garish neon lighting, flat-screen TVs showing different dishes, giant landscape pictures with moving waterfalls, and fish tanks filled with fish, lobster, and crabs.

Tan Tan's menu is also fun and welcoming with bright colors and photos of dishes. It is as fascinating as it is long.

House Special Rice Cake
I have never had anything quite like this dish. It consists of rectangular blocks of finely processed, gelatinous rice cake that have been pan fried and then placed inside an egg omelet and covered with cooked garlic and green onions. The dish is a play of textures. The crunchy consistency of the rice cake exterior contrasts with the spongy interior and the spongy egg.

Chargrilled Pork, Chicken and Egg Cake with Crushed Rice

Tan Tan serves very good char-grilled meats with crushed rice and fish sauce. The pork and chicken have that uniquely Vietnamese marinade (garlic, fish sauce, sugar, and lemon grass) that gives the meat a funky, caramelized flavor. It is because of this marinade that Vietnamese meats may be my favorite barbecue of any world cuisine.

The meats are served with an egg cake -- an unusual, spongy omelet-like dish made with egg and cellophane noodles. The dish is rounded off with crushed rice and a sauce of lime, sugar, water, and fish sauce.

Simmered Fish in Clay Pot
This funky, sweet dish has a complex flavor that comes from caramelizing sugar at high temperature, and then adding fish sauce and garlic. The thick, unusual sauce surrounds the delicate fish, which is served very hot.

Although I like Tan Tan's version of this dish, the sauce is a little too sweet for me. I slightly prefer the version at The Vietnam Restaurant.

Pan Fried Noodles

This dish is remarkable for its texture. The egg noodle comes in a perfectly round nest. Around the outside of the next, the noodles are crispy and dry. But where the hot meat, vegetables, and sauce are poured over the middle of the noodles, the noodles become soft, moist, and rubbery.

Tan Tan serves many different toppings on the noodles. I ordered a "Sate Three Flavors," which includes good-quality shrimp, scallop, and scallops. The "sate" sauce is a Vietnamese sauce, not to be confused with Indonesian satay. It is a mildly-flavored brown sauce that is not very exciting. But then again, the reason to get this dish is the spectacular noodles.

Family and Cheap Spectacle

I have tried Tan Tan twice by myself and then once with my daughter. Going solo misses the point. Tan Tan is full of large Asian families and groups. A Vietnamese friend tells me the best dishes at Tan Tan are the family-sized hot pots. I have never brought enough people to order it.

My daughter thought Tan Tan was lots of fun. She wanted to know how the water in the photos of waterfalls was moving. (I don't know.) She pointed at the fake coconut tree with stuffed monkeys on top. She squealed with delight when a waiter fished a wiggling lobster from the tank.

Tan Tan's decor may be cheap spectacle. But it also serves some spectacular, cheap food.