Not a doughnut: Fluffy, light medu vada from Thali.
Taste of India and Thali are located smack in the middle of the food court in Jersey City’s Newport Centre Mall. But they’re worlds apart from the usual greased-up, Americanized mall food joints. (After all, Jersey City has a huge South Asian community, so the folks frequenting this food court know the good stuff from the rest.)
A chaat a day keeps the doctor away: Taste of India’s exceptionally light bhel puri.
Skip the steam table filled with the usual bright-hued, oil-slicked sub-continental fare and order a la carte. Taste of India’s bhel puri combines diced tomato, onion, boiled potato, and cilantro tossed with peanuts, puffed rice, crunchy fried bits, salty-fiery spices, and a tangy-spicy-sweet duo of chutneys. The ultra-flavorful chutneys are the secret here. If you’ve never tried mint chutney that actually tastes like mint, you’re in for a real treat.
For a more substantial snack, try the dahi puri—a North Indian spin on pani purithat replaces spicy water with tangy yogurt and that same zesty blend of chutneys and spices. It’s easily the best version of this chaat (that I’ve found) in New York. (more…)
Tyson Ho and his mentor, Ed Mitchell having a hearty country breakfast.
Today is the day that separates the hogs from the sucklings I thought to myself as Tyson, Matt, Mike and I hopped into the pickup for day two of our whirlwind North Carolina barbeque tour. “Some of the places we are going today will make yesterday’s places look like four-star dining,” Tyson said as we began our journey into the sticks.
Our first stop was Wilson, N.C., “the beginning of the sticks,” for breakfast with Ed Mitchell, Tyson’s barbeque mentor. I was kind of disappointed that we were meeting him at a Cracker Barrel, as I’m more of a Waffle House man. Actually I was hoping that breakfast would be at Ed’s new joint, slated to open later this summer. Meeting the maestro of whole hog was kind of surreal, I’d never seen him without overalls or a baseball cap.
At first I wasn’t going to eat anything as I wanted to reserve all my stomach capacity for barbeque. As I heard everyone placing their orders that plan soon fell by the wayside. I had a light breakfast, biscuits and gravy with a sausage patty. A couple of weeks ago when Tyson—a self-professed Chinese Yankee hog cooker—told me barbeque had its roots in North Carolina whole hog cookery I took it with a grain of salt. Now as I broke biscuits with his mentor, I began to realize that this stuff about barbeque being born not from trying to make the best out of tough cuts but from the celebratory roasting of a whole hog was true.
“That’s where barbeque comes from, the pig,” Mitchell said in between phone calls about his new restaurant, each of which seemed to involve fried chicken. “People didn’t slaughter the pig just to cook a shoulder they did it to roast the whole animal. The full technique comes from being able to roast the whole animal. Cooking a rib or a shoulder is nowhere near the challenge of cooking a whole animal.” Pointing to his hands he said, “The only thermometer I have is these right here, but that comes from years of experience.” (more…)
Hursey’s was the first stop on our whirlwind North Carolina barbeque tour.
My notebook and several articles of clothing still smell of hardwood smoke. I blame it on my buddy Tyson Ho. Last week we took a barbeque road trip to hit up a bunch of whole hog joints in North Carolina. Tyson, the man behind the Hog Days of Summer, never misses a chance to evangelize about Carolina barbeque, but the real reason for the pilgrimage was to pick up a cooker to replace the one stolen from in front of John Brown Smokehouse last month. Very few things cause me to leave the house before dawn. One is the Malaysian soup service at Curry Leaves in Flushing. The other is barbeque. So last Thursday morning found me standing on the corner at 4:15 a.m. waiting for Tyson to pick me up to begin the journey southward. Joining us were Tyson’s buddy, Matt Gelfand and Michael Rudin, a photographer and fellow barbeque enthusiast.
On the 10-hour drive down—thanks and praise to expert wheelman Matt—I learned quite a bit about whole hog barbeque. The most important fact being: in North Carolina the phrase “whole hog barbeque” is redundant. “A lot of people will say, ‘I went to North Carolina and asked the waitress what was on the barbeque plate’ and she looked at me funny,” Tyson, who I’ve come to consider as something of a Chinese John T. Edge, said. “That’s because there’s only one thing on it: barbeque. And barbeque is whole hog.”
Pointing to the cookhouse at Hursey’s.
“We are at the six-hour mark don’t eat too much at the first stop,” Tyson said. By the time we pulled into Burlington, N.C., I was delirious from hunger and lack of sleep. So much so that I was ready to try the buffalo chicken pita that some god-forsaken place called The Park touted on its roadside sign. “For me to eat it has to be cooked with wood,” Tyson said pointing to a stack of hickory outside the cookhouse at Hursey’s Bar-B-Q (1834 S. Church St, Burlington, N.C.).
The counter at Hursey’s is country as all getout.
Hursey’s is a local institution that started out with a homemade backyard pit in 1945. Four years later Sylvester Hursey and his wife, Daisy were granted the state’s first ever barbecue wholesale license. These days the entire operation smokes 1,200 shoulders a week over hickory coals.
A plate of Hursey’s hickory-smoked whole hog.
It’s a good thing that we were warned not to pig out too much at the first stop. By the time we were done ordering the table was covered with plates: chopped barbeque, sliced barbeque, broasted chicken, hush puppies, and a rack of ribs, along with cole slaw, banana pudding, and cobbler. The barbeque itself had a nice tangy flavor with a good bit of smoke, but was quite honestly nothing to write home about.The culprit? Prechopping and presaucing the gives the meat a texture not unlike tuna salad. I’m gonna go out on a hickory limb here and say that Sylvester and Daisy would not approve. Frankly I’ve had better whole hog in Tyson’s back yard. The ribs—and remember in N.C. ribs ain’t cue—were of the steamed saucy variety shunned by barbeque geeks like myself. I literally took one bite and left the rest.
Jim’s Original—purveyors of Chicago-style Polish sausage sandwiches since 1939—was another Bannos pick. These days it’s no longer located on Maxwell and Halsted Streets, but adjacent to the Dan Ryan Expressway, Bannos told us by way of history. “Get the pork chop sandwich,” our new friend advised.
Jim’s outsized pork chop sandwich is just $3.95.
We took Bannos’ advice and managed to ignore all the signs for Polish sausage sandwiches and ordered the pork chop sandwich ($3.95). As advertised it came with a bag of fries. Just in case a pork chop the size of your face isn’t enough food. We ate off the hood of the rental as traffic whooshed by on the nearby expressway. Topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard, it was good , but not mind-blowing. It would have been better with a liberal application of sport peppers.
Uncle John’s Pitmaster Mack Sevier and friend.
About a week before we flew to the Windy City I caught Kevin Pang, a Chicago Tribune food writer, on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. The place that stood out most to me in the episode was Uncle John’s Barbecue, with its glass-encased aquarium smoker and crazy looking rib tips. Pang agreed to meet us New Yorkers at the cue joint on Chicago’s South Side and introduce us to Uncle John’s Pitmaster Mack Sevier.
Mack tends the aquarium smoker. Note the hose for misting the meat.
Uncle John’s sits on the corner of South Calumet Avenue and East 69 Street. The cue is served from behind bullet-proof glass. Pang ushered us into the sanctum sanctorium so we could chat with pitmaster Mack Sevier and check out his aquarium smoker. The smoker is so named because it is also encased in glass, presumably not of the bullet-proof variety. “There’s no Uncle John, I just like the name,” Mack said with a chuckle when asked.
A mess of rib tips, freshly chopped.
I’ve eaten more than my share of ‘’cue, but I’ve never been much of a rib tip man. I’ve always thought that bigger meant better when it came to pork ribs. Mack’s meaty nuggets—smokey with a mahogany bark—changed my mind. I wish had a half pound of them right now.
Uncle John’s hot links are revelatory.
I’ve never been much for hot links either, but Mack made me a convert. Snappy of skin and seasoned with sage and hot pepper his links are a smoky revelation. As Pang once wrote, “Add a fried egg and this hot link could start religions.”
Try Tank Noodle for good pho and a pig innards sausage sandwich.
As I recall there are two Chinatown’s in Chi-town, both sparse compared to those in New York City. In one we found Tank Noodle, a Vietnamese joint whose logo features a tank and where the waiters are clad in camo t-shirts.
In Chicago the pho fixins include jagged culantro.
The pho was pretty good. Even better though was a pig innard sausage banh mi ($4.50). It was filled with all manner of squidgy bits. Chef Bruce and I also had a prix fixe at Arun’s Thai, which to put it very kindly lacked the requisite funk and fire. I’ll stick to Thai food in Queens.
So with the exception of Thai and Chinatown, Chicago is most definitely my kind of food town. Jimmy and Alex, if you’re reading this my offer to show you around New York City still stands.
The line for Hot Doug’s, snakes around the corner.
For a long while my thoughts on the Chicago food scene were limited to deep-dish pizza, the SNL sketch about the Billy Goat Tavern, steakhouses, and gussied up hot dogs. When I became more of a gourmand these ideas were supplanted by a strong desire to sample Grant Achatz’s modernist culinary wizardry. In the spring of 2011 I took a weeklong trip to the Windy City with the aim of trying as much of the city’s food as possible. My traveling companion Chef Bruce had chosen quite an itinerary, including everything from Jimmy Bannos’ Cajun spot, Heaven on Seven and his newer joint, The Purple Pig, to a Thai banquet. As much as I wanted to try Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, my staunch eating buddy forbade it. We did however both agree that we should try to snag same-day cancellations for M. Achatz’s restaurant Next, which had just made its debut with a menu devoted to Paris in 1906. Unfortunately we did not get a seating. For almost a year afterward I continued to receive text alerts on my phone. It was torture to receive alerts about the restaurant’s second iteration, a tribute to Thai cuisine.
Hot Doug’s foie gras and truffle topped duck sausage.
To this day the only traditional Chicago style hot dog I’ve eaten—dragged through the garden with sport peppers, tomatoes, and onions among other things—has been at the original location of the Shake Shack in New York City. Chef Bruce and I were after wieners of a somewhat loftier pedigree, haute dogs. Our first stop Hot Doug’s, offers dozens of decidedly gourmet dogs. I had been reading about Doug’s foie gras topped number for years. The snappy foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage was lashed with truffle sauce and gilded with five slices of rich and creamy foie gras mousse. Stupendously delicious, and a bargain at $10. Lately they have been offering turducken sausage ($8), with pumpkin cream and cranberry-infused Brillat Savarin cheese. I am planning my next trip already.
Dragged through the garden, Asian style at Belly Shack.
Our next stop was Belly Shack, Bill Kim’s Asian street food spot in the hip hood of Wicker Park. There we had the Belly Dog ($9), an Asian spin on the classic Chicago dog. The tubesteak was slathered with chili sauce and curry mayo and topped with papaya salad, crunchy noodles,and fried shallots. With toppings like these who needs sport peppers?