From Restaurants

New Mexico #5: Top Tastes

I ate a lot of good stuff. There’s a Flickr set here, showcasing my post-trip belly.

Highlights included:

*Doughnut from a bakery on 2nd Street in Raton, NM

Best Doughnut

It had all the crunch of a good cake doughnut, and all the airiness of a perfect yeast one. The bakery is this very bare-bones operation–a huge room with about three tables, no decoration, and a quite old, hunched-over woman shuffling slowly from table to cash register and back. The kind of service where you just stand there and wait to be acknowledged, and she finally says, after she’s completed every aspect of the current task, “OK, who’s next?”

*Roast mutton on frybread in Crownpoint, NM

Mutton

Beverly and I went to the Navajo rug auction in Crownpoint, which happens once a month or so. It takes place in the elementary school gym, and a few food vendors set up out in the parking lot. Only one had the roast mutton; others just had Navajo tacos (frybread with all the taco filling stuff on top). This created an awkward situation, because early on, I’d chatted with one girl while buying a drink and said, “Oh, I’ll be back for food.” And when I came back, I totally bypassed her and went for the mutton vendor, and sure enough, she gave me the evil eye.

But it was worth it. That there’s some locavore eating, man. Mixed in with the charred slab of lamb was a slick roasted green chile, the perfect amount of heat. It was all a little hard to deal with because there were so many bones, but we managed. I think Beverly dubbed it a Navajo gyro in the end.

*Fried chicken with red chile at Halona Plaza, Zuni Pueblo

Fried Chicken

I think I’ve raved about this particular chicken before. What’s better than fried chicken? Fried chicken with red chile on the side, of course. Eaten in the back of a grocery store, and washed down with a fountain Coke, ideally after having spent a long day in a hot car. And good thing it’s good–it’s nearly the only thing to eat in Zuni.

*Indian rice ball at The Curious Kumquat in Silver City, NM

Rice Ball

Just when my trip was seeming like slightly ahead of schedule, I figured I’d add some tension by driving all the way down to Silver City for dinner. When I was there in April, I had just missed eating dinner at the Curious Kumquat, and I was totally staggered by Chef Rob’s ideas for food. So I grabbed Beverly, and off we drove. And drove. And drove. That town is waaaaay down there, man.

We rolled in just around dinnertime, and set to eating. Rob basically gives a list of four or five entrees, and then builds a tasting menu around each one. It’s an insane amount of work, as each little taste for each entree is different. I immediately opted for the vegetarian Indian mix (again, still trying to counteract my heavy meat intake). One of the early courses was this little deep-fried rice ball, filled with a little nugget of cheese. Like arancini gone Indian. I mean, I’m sure there’s actually an Indian treat like this, but that’s what’s so great about it–eating this made me think across all ethnic boundaries and ponder rice balls the world over. And its little fuzz of sprouts on top was just adorable. And it was perfectly spicy. And I had little hits of spices popping off in my mouth for many minutes after, as I sat there grinning.

We ended the meal with something else brilliant, which I have no picture for: ice cream made of Samuel Smith cherry ale. Rob explained that he hadn’t boiled down the beer, like so many recipes for beer ice cream tell you (yeah, all those recipes–I’m clearly not reading the right books), so it wasn’t sweet or too intense–just nutty and a little hit of cherry.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the drive to Silver City–from wherever you are.

*White port with tonic water and lime at Jennifer James 101 in Albuquerque.

We ate many other delicious things, but this drink was so refreshing and lovely. Writing this in muggy New York heat, I could definitely use one now…

Haven’t gone to look at the Flickr pics yet? You really should. It’s not often I show you my stomach.

New Mexico #1: Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn
New Mexico #2: A Tale of Two Stews
New Mexico #3: B Is for Bizarre
New Mexico #4: Reading a Menu
Flickr sets here and here

New Mexico #4: Reading a Menu

I drove around in the middle of nowhere for quite some time: Chama, Tierra Amarilla, Cimarron, Clayton, Springer, Wagon Mound.

In those places, menus say “Eggs” and “Steak” and “Side of bacon.” It’s pretty straightforward.

So by the time I rolled back into fancy-pants New Mexico, where they use figurative speech and throw their adjectives all over the place, I felt like my critical-reading skills had withered away to nothing.

At a great cafe near the Pecos (La Risa), I read the whole menu and fixated on the “Grilled cheese with pinon pesto.” Ooh, clever! I thought–what a great adaptation to local ingredients.

Only much later, after my grilled cheese with perfectly normal pesto, did I remember that, uh, yeah, pesto always has pine nuts in it.

The next day, I was reading the menu at La Casa Sena. Oooh, halibut ceviche! I thought. I ordered it, and gagged. Murky, dirt-y fish. The guy next to me asked, “How is that, anyway?”

I said, “Honestly, it’s nasty–it’s got that dirt taste.”

“Yeah, I thought that was a weird choice for ceviche, halibut being a bottom-feeder and all.”

Argh! I knew that! It had just been erased from my brain by driving a thousand miles through landlocked country. The guy got up and waltzed away, looking smug.

Later that same day, after my nasty ceviche, I wandered over to the Rooftop Cantina, the place upstairs from the Coyote Cafe. I already knew the Coyote Cafe was a total disaster. But I’d heard the cantina had less ambitious food that hit the mark more often.

I flipped open the menu, gave it a quick glance, and ordered the vegetarian tacos, because I’d been eating a lot of “Steak” and “Eggs” and needed some greenery. I saw something about “olive-oil-macerated tomatoes,” which really makes no sense at all, but ignored it. (Maceration usually implies making a texture change by soaking something, and really, there’s no way you can change a tomato’s texture by soaking it in oil.)

My plate came, and it was hideous.

Terrible Dinner

I swear it had been beamed straight from Wolfgang Puck circa 1988. Not only were those “oil-macerated tomatoes” really sun-dried tomatoes, but they were swimming in pesto dressing. There was some kind of deep-fried something on top of all the lettuce, and two slabs of mozzarella on either side. My god–how many food cliches can they pile on one plate?! Oh, and there was some squishy flatbread stuff, which I guess was supposed to be the tortilla part of my “taco.”

I felt dumb for falling for ridiculous menu-speak, and letting my craving for vegetables get in the way of sensible ordering. After that, believe you me, I eyeballed my menus very carefully, mentally combining all the described ingredients to ensure they added up to something that would not be the festering fever dream of a 1980s chef-to-the-stars.

After that, the eating got much better. More on that in the next post…

New Mexico #1: Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn
New Mexico #2: A Tale of Two Stews
New Mexico #3: B Is for Bizarre
Flickr sets here and here

Happy Mother’s Day: Women in the Kitchen

So it’s Mother’s Day, and I should probably be calling my mom instead of writing on my blog, but it seems like a good time to first say thanks to the woman who made me eat salad every day when I was growing up. And also to talk about women working in restaurant kitchens.

I just read this post by the chef-owner of a restaurant called dirtcandy, about how girls can’t cook. She’s upset that women chefs get a relatively small number of James Beard Awards. Which, on its face, seems reasonable, because so few women actually work in restaurant kitchens. But she also points out that women chefs get very little press coverage compared to men–and of course it’s media buzz that drives the Beard Awards. So it’s not very encouraging for women coming up in the ranks.

This disparity is all due to one thing, I think:

Vegetables.

Let me explain. I started to think about this last year when I noticed that Naomi Pomeroy, who runs the restaurant Beast in Portland, says on her restaurant’s website:

Our food is simple, refined, and–dare we say–feminine.

What constitutes “feminine” food? I pictured some Bronte-esque spread on lace doilies. Meringues. Candied violets. But of course Pomeroy is a lot smarter than that.

I thought back to when I (briefly) worked in restaurants. Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune was, and still is, a singular restaurant. I wanted to cook, but I didn’t want all that “yes, chef” and who-gets-to-wear-black-pants bullshit to go with it. I didn’t want to put garnishes on things with tweezers. I wanted the challenge–the heat, the instinctive action–of the restaurant line, but I wanted to cook food I liked. Prune was the only restaurant in New York that seemed to offer that–and it still is.

What’s the difference? Simply: Prune cooks whole meals, and that includes vegetables. There’s always a salad–a real, good salad, with hearty greens and an aggressive dressing, not a token “mixed greens” salad that the consultant told the chef he needs to put on the menu for the ladies. You have to order vegetables, because they don’t come with the main dishes. And if you don’t order greens, your server (if she’s Tamara) will advise you to, or else you might be in a world of hurt.

In your average (run-by-a-man) restaurant, you get some deep-fried appetizers, maybe a goat-cheese salad if they’re feeling a little livelier than the usual token mixed greens, and then you get your main dishes, which are all big slabs of protein with some sauce and a symbolic amount of Frenched green beans buried underneath. This is why I hate going out to eat.

The only restaurant I’ve gotten excited about recently is Momofuku and its iterations. Those are some meat-heavy restaurants, and a lot of the vegetables are deep-fried. But at least the menu is set up in a way that you can go heavy on the veg and light on the meat. I don’t need or want vegetarian–I just want a little freedom from the tyranny of the protein slab.

America’s food culture is totally screwed up–we all know this. As a nation, we hate vegetables. In fact, as Jamie Oliver recently showed, a lot of Americans don’t even know what vegetables look like. Popular, lowbrow, fast-food culture is largely responsible, but it doesn’t help that high-end restaurant culture reinforces the problem. Perhaps the new obsession in seasonal food will offer a new, non-gender-specific way of dealing with vegetables.

But for now, food that’s “good for you” tastes bad, and when you go out to eat, you “splurge.” This has a lot to do with restaurant machismo. A friend opined that all the big-knife, swearing, meat-obsessed chef culture comes from men overcompensating for the fact they’re doing what’s perceived as “women’s work.” I think she’s right. Restaurant kitchens and their products are for putting on a show, for doing something special–not for doing something as workaday as nourishing people.

Of course there are exceptions to the meat machismo, such as Thomas Keller, who has a vegetarian tasting menu at Per Se. And David Chang has raved about vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu (although his tone had a whiff of holy-crap-I-didn’t-know-you-could-eat-so-well-without-pig-parts about it).

Then there’s the flip side: April Bloomfield is a well-known woman chef and gets praise all the time. And why’s that? Because she serves giant f-ing stuffed trotters. Just looking at the menu at the Breslin makes me tired, like I’ve been following some intractable political situation in the news, and now just don’t want to read another word about it. And if Naomi Pomeroy’s restaurant weren’t called Beast, and she didn’t have pics of herself carrying around a pig carcass, I doubt she’d get much play either.

Aside from Bloomfield, women chefs aren’t popular, because they make you eat your vegetables, just like your mom.

For which I say again: thanks, Beverly.

(Yes, I call my mom by her first name. I don’t know why.)

Calexico with The Wandering Foodie

Before I get down to the nitty-gritty of my Thailand trip, let me just get you up to speed on the past week. So, I roll back into town, and it’s the middle of winter. That’s bad, but what’s even worse is that I have no appetite: American food seems pallid, bland and joyless. Peter and I hole up in our house and make spicy noodles to console ourselves.

A few days after this rough transition, I finally go outside to meet Hagan Blount, aka the Wandering Foodie, at the Calexico cart in SoHo. I go because 1) Hagan seems like a maniac in the best way: He has voluntarily scheduled an entire month of NYC restaurant eating, breakfast, lunch and dinner, which comes out to 93 plates. It sounds exactly like one of my guidebook research trips, except a little longer.

Also, 2) I’m curious about Calexico, because I want there to be more Mexican food everywhere in New York City. If we can’t have giant Thai food courts, we can at least foster our neighbors to the south, who make almost as amazing colorful and tasty fresh food. (Whenever I come back from Mexico, I feel color and flavor withdrawal–like post-Thailand, but a little more mild.) My major complaint with Mexican food in NYC is that the tacos are too gigantic. A taco should be a snack, not a meal.

Calexico sets up shop right where I used to work (back when I had a job! Like, in the last century!), at Prince and Wooster, next to the Camper store. Great location. Uh. If it weren’t pouring rain, that is. It was raining so hard that our basement flooded, which made me late to meet Hagan. But, as if the gods were smiling on our foolhardy lunch, the sky was dry by the time we got there.

Calexico touts its carne asada–spiced grilled beef. So we ordered some of that in a quesadilla, which came with “crack” chipotle sauce. Oy. This treads dangerously close to Mexi restos with giant sombreros for decor. But anyway. Also loaded up on a chicken taco and a pork taco. And a side of guac.

starbuxThen we retired to the nearest Starbucks to eat. I love how, since Starbucks has saturated the landscape, they’ve basically been forced into becoming quasi-public spaces. This Starbucks, at the corner of West Broadway and Houston, was inhabited by a crew of older Italian gentlemen in cardigan sweaters, who weren’t really drinking anything, just shooting the shit. It reminded me of the Greek guys in the Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner in my nabe. It’s kind of like how the spot on which a temple used to exist continues to be holy, even if it’s occupied by an office park.

After ordering token teas, we shamelessly spread out our lunch and proceeded to sample.

Chicken taco: Totally meh. Soggy. I’m trying to cut back on factory-farmed meat, and this taco made it very easy for me. I had a couple bites and left it. And as usual, tacos are gigantic and bursting out of their corn tortillas. Mess.

Pork taco: Better. Nice grilled flavor. Drier, too, so everything holds together better.

Carne asada quesadilla: Total rainy day pleasure. I probably wouldn’t have gone to town on it in the same way on a sunny day, but in the gray and damp, the oozy melted cheese hit the spot. And the carne asada had some nice herbalicious treatment that the other meats lacked. This basically said, “Dude, we told you we specialized in carne asada–why did you even order those other things?”

“Crack” chipotle sauce, in case you’re wondering, is just chipotle mayo. Or maybe chipotle sour cream. Anyway, chipotle in something gooey. Also a good rainy-day pleasure, but not life-wreckingly addicting. No turning tricks in alleys for this stuff, that’s for sure. Oh, and the guac–forgettable. I honestly can’t remember what I thought about it.

Overall, Calexico made me a little depressed about the state of Mexican food in NYC. When I saw David Chang speak at B&N a little while ago, he was really putting his money on Mexican food as the next thing to get hip and super-flavorized. Calexico is, at least at this cart, impossibly far from anything Chang’s imagining. But if Calexico had been there back in 1999, when I worked right on the corner, I probably would’ve eaten lunch there a lot.

And it was a pleasure to eat with Hagan. He’s so energetic and enthusiastic about eating restaurant food for a month straight that I felt like I’d better step up and appreciate my job a lot more (I get serious restaurant burnout within a week on a research trip, and complain about it to everyone in earshot). He’s also basically living in Starbucks this month (I left him at the one where we ate, to kill time till his dinner date), and has not yet lost his shit after hearing the same songs a million times. Guidebook editors: Snap this guy up, and fast!