Monday, October 27, 2014

Truckin' Around Austin

My friend Special K earns extra cash on weekends by working out at the Midway Food Park, which is where I met Steve Dean for our dance hall tour earlier this year. Her gig is schlepping the PA equipment for the bands that play there each weekend (Steve books them), and as a result she's gotten a bit of insight into the culture of the food trailer scene here. It also meant that she got early warning about Truck By Truck West, which sounded interesting: you bought a wristband, and for five days got unlimited samples at a whole bunch of food trucks that had signed up to participate. At the end, those who had week-long passes would vote on the best places they'd visited. This would be facilitated by an app for your smartphone called Byte, which seems to combine Google Maps with a Yelp-like rating system.

Since I'd been wanting to check out the whole Austin food trailer scene for some time, this seemed like a good excuse to do it, so I plunked down a $40 registration fee (K mysteriously found a free registration at the Midway), and we decided to be food detectives for a week.

Austin, in part because of its weather, has been in the forefront of this trend for some time. Several years ago, before things even got as crazy as they are now, I heard that there were 1800 trailers in Austin. No idea how many there are now, but one interesting trend was that trailers often had high-end dining and the more successful ones got brick-and-mortar locations. The great success story, of course, was Franklin's Barbeque, which went from a trailer to a huge operation for which people now stand in line for seven or eight hours. (It's good. It's very good. But nothing is worth standing in line for seven hours to get. This isn't a slam at Aaron Franklin, but, rather, on trendy people.)

I also have to say that restaurants like Barley Swine, Salty Sow, and East Side King are hard to imagine as trailers, and that they might have been better off there, but I have yet to really investigate them. What put me off from the whole high-end-trailer-to-restaurant thing was the worst meal I've ever paid that much money for at Foreign and Domestic, one of the first to make the jump. I don't want to go back over the experience, although it lingers in my mind, but engineering such a collision of horrid atmosphere, ill-thought-out-food, and arrogant, ignorant service would be hard to do on purpose.

Still, if there's one thing that TXTW didn't seem to have, it was high-end food. Which is a shame, but although there probably are nascent success stories that didn't sign up, the levelled playing field was probably more fair to the overall voting results. At any rate, K and I installed Byte on our phones, and then tried to figure out how to get our wristbands and how to make them work. This was TXTW's second year, and given the level of disorganization around it, I don't even want to contemplate what last year's was like. Just getting next to the wristbands was difficult: the organizer's perfervid style of communicating via e-mail forced the reader to dig in, looking for the information amidst the logorrhea. Eventually, we each went to the Squarerüt Kava Bar nearest us and asked if they'd been delivered any wristbands. They had, in both cases. She accepted the free cup of kava and liked it. I passed, although the folks were friendly.

For our first night of tasting, we decided to head up S. 1st St., where there were a number of places to try. Our first stop was a little trailer park at 504 W. Oltorf, hidden from the road by a building that was part of one of the vendors' operation. We decided to start with something familiar: tacos from Cheke's Takos. They were friendly enough, but refused to understand that we were two individuals with two registrations, so we only got two of the three samples. I don't even remember what they were, although the salsas were superb. One for another day. Next up was Flying Carpet: Moroccan Souk Food.  The guy who ran it, Abderrahim, was super friendly, and we wound up talking with him while his wife Maria dealt with the deluge of TXTW orders that had started arriving. Again, I didn't take notes, and the sample was small, but extremely tasty. The building that blocks the view of the court belongs to Flying Carpet, and is simply a dining area out of the weather. I bet I wind up at this place again, too, and if Abderrahim is able to expand to more complex dishes than the street food he's serving now, I'd enthusiastically try it. The evening closed when we left this place and headed a bit up the street to Regal Ravioli, a place I'd seen out of the corner of my eye while eating outdoors at Elizabeth Street (another fine place I've been saving for a restaurant wrapup here). This guy is ambitious, but the sample was a couple of ravioli in red sauce (but that's probably what Austinites expect), and I found the sauce to have an unpleasant citrus-y tang. I dunno; worth watching, but, as with so much Italian food in Austin, I can do better at home.

The idea of finding a food court and working our way around it was a good one, so Thursday (I teach a class on Wednesday night) we headed up to Hipster Central, E. 6th St. across the freeway. In the 20 years since I've been here, the Mexican-Americans have been rather aggressively removed from this long-time enclave, and people with ink, shaved heads and Smith Brothers beards have taken over. It's entirely too close to downtown to allow ethnics to live there, after all, and if the young people who've taken over are ignorant of the families they've displaced, they're not entirely to blame, because it was the real estate interests who led the charge. It's too late to do anything about it, in any event, but I'm still haunted by the ghosts of the residents of 35 years ago when I go there.

Our evening started at Baton Creole, presided over by a jolly young woman with whom I talked Cajun food, who also told me there was another branch near me on Stassney Lane inside a bar a friend of hers had taken over. I may check it out some time, but the sample, a mini sausage jambalaya on a stick, wasn't too great: basically a sausage was threaded onto the stick, then a rice mixture covered it, then it was breaded and fried. It was too hot when I bit into it, but it didn't seem to have a lot of flavor as it cooled, either. The Wholly Kebab place didn't impress me -- kebabs rarely do after 20 years in Europe, where I mostly avoided them, although they're the most universal street food on the continent -- and the portion was too small to figure out what it was supposed to taste like. Next up was Way South Philly, allegedly a cheese steak joint, but what we got was a small pile of shredded meat in a bun. K thought she detected some cheese, but I couldn't, and anyway, the meat in a cheese steak isn't shredded. There was supposed to be an Indian place in this court, but there wasn't, so we had pizza from Spartan Pizza for dessert. Two half-slices, nothing special. Better than most Austin pizza, which is damning with faint praise.

There was one more place on the street, but it was getting late. Hell, we had a parking space, it was only a block, so we trudged to Kyoten. And were amazed. The sample was excellent, but simple: a sheet of fried tofu split open to accommodate some rice. Both the tofu and the rice were subtly flavored, and I trusted these guys enough to order a small bite of sushi to try, the "Negihama," which consisted of a fish called kenpachi that I'd never heard of, and is, according to an expert I asked, the mature form of amberjack. Whatever it was, it was buttery and flavorful. I talked some to one of the guys running the stand and found him full of knowledge and enthusiasm. The grounds were beautiful at night, the raked gravel, the Zen garden, and the quiet (of all things) making the whole experience the opposite of what we'd just been to. I intend to stop by several more times before somebody hands them a wad of cash and the lease to a building to grow in. I suspect I'll have a superb meal next time I check in: I've only scratched the surface of the menu, and there are regular daily specials. Now, if I only knew something about sake...

Friday, K had to work at the Midway, and I stayed home and cooked some ravioli, some red sauce, and mixed them together, strewed mozzarella over the whole thing and threw it in the oven. Sorry, Austin, this is what it tastes like.

Saturday, K also had to work but it was a chance to use the wristband at the Midway, as well as to see Don Leady, an old pal, sit in with the band that was booked that night, which also featured Don's protege, a 13-year-old guitar whiz. The thing is, when I got up there I wasn't at all hungry: none of the trucks, either through their samples or their regular items, tempted me. K, between doing what she had to do (she also passes the hat for the bands twice during the evening), ordered first a "lobster roll" from Dock and Roll that sure didn't look like any lobster roll I've ever seen (like the "cheese steak": these people are defining regional food for Austin!), and then "sausage and peppers" from Gregorio's, which came with a few mostaccioli blanketed by a generic red sauce. There was also a slider joint (Hand Held's), a taco joint (One Taco), Widespread Dave's (he being the former caterer for the jam-band Widespread Panic), a cheesecake place (K's favorite), and a juice place. Frankly, after the Gregorio's sample K handed me, I lost all interest, and after she'd put the equipment away, we called it a day.

Turned out we were supposed to integrate the Byte app with Facebook each time we checked into a place (I don't do Facebook mobile for security reasons), and there's also the voting to go through by midnight today. Frankly, I'd rather write about it, but I'll dig out the e-mail with the voting link just to see that Kyoten gets its props, and Flying Carpet, too. I'm glad to have had this intro to the food trailer experience, and can't help feeling that there are a few interesting ones I've missed (and will be happy to hear about them before cold weather comes on). As for TXTW, it was chaotic, disorganized, and not quite worth the money for me. But since it gave me the excuse to get out and see these places, I'm glad to have done it.

Oh, and as you've no doubt noticed, I was one of the few people not photographing my food.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Eating Québec (And Elsewhere)

The vacation I ended last week was intended to clear my mind in preparation for the hard work of writing my book, which I have just a year to do. I couldn't think of any better way to do it than to fly to New York, meet a friend in Jersey City, eat Indian food there, then take the train up to Montreal for a week. I figured it'd be coming on to peak foliage season, and I was right. So right, in fact, that the Monday I went up was the first day Amtrak added the Dome Car to the run: a car with a glass dome on it for maximum sightseeing.

It's not easy to take pictures from a speeding train, but this gives you an idea. The glass is thick, so it mutes some of the colors, and I decided to check out the special equipment to see what advantages it would bring.

The view was nice, but the car was crowded. The head in the picture belongs to a fat woman who sat down at a table meant for six and spread her crafting supplies all over it and played with them while ignoring the scenery. So this was as close as I got. I spent most of the time listening to green-shirted folks with "National Parks Service Volunteer" on arm-patches talk about the landscape and the history ("Ethan Allen, who ran the Green Mountain Boys? He was a thug. They were all thugs. Fortunately, they were our thugs." Pretty accurate assessment, actually) and passed on the occasional bit of misinformation: water hyacinth is not an alga, sorry. But Lake Champlain, like most places with water in them, is pretty choked by them now.

Having a ten-foot raise in your view doesn't really help, especially when you can't get to it, so I listened to the Parks Service folks for a while and went back to my seat. The upper reaches of the hills were bursting out in color, particularly the red maples and sumac trees, which do a darker shade of red. It was a great show.

Then the sun went down and the rather boring ride between Plattsburg and the border station at Rouses Point and then into Canada ends in a rather dramatic view of Montreal all lit up, which I, of course, forgot to snap.

No matter; I was among friends, ensconced in an ultra-deluxe hotel I'd scored rooms in via a discounter, on the edge of Old Montreal, which is picturesque, at least, although it tends to be clogged with tourists. My usual guides, Terry and Patricia, were on hand to help me through a city I learn just as I leave -- every time! -- and we decided on a well-reviewed fish-and-chips place not far away. It was pretty good, especially for someone like me who hasn't had fish and chips in an age, but only pretty good, and it had all kinds of breadings, which I didn't understand, and a lot of other kind of nouveau trappings. I lost the address, so if you feel inclined to challenge my opinion or check it out yourself, it's on the edge of Old Montreal. Somewhere.

The next night, though, was filled with anticipation. Ages ago, Terry and Patricia took me to Cuisine Szechuan on Avenue Guy. Its huge menu was filled with stuff I never thought I'd see in a restaurant outside of China, and it's always been superb. Terry reported a downward slide in the two years since I'd been, but he'd heard it was back in action. There was no way we'd miss this, so off we went.

Left to right: fried lotus root sticks, twice-fried fish, Chinese spinach with pickled Szechuan chiles.  Grease stains in bowls and on plate due to Szechuan dumplings in chile sauce and Szechuan dumplings with peanut sauce.
The bad news was there were only three of us, so the amount of stuff we could order was limited. Not shown was a dish a guy cooks in a wok on your table, which was very good. The lotus root was like French fries, they're that starchy, but with a completely different texture and, of course, green onions and two kinds of chiles lending their flavors to the oil the lotus root's fried in. The fish was also wonderful, although I didn't get as much of it as I'd liked, and the spinach wasn't overwhelmed by the pickled chiles, although they were certainly powerful, and I intend to find some next time I'm shopping at the Vietnamese-Chinese supermarket. The appetizers were, unsurprisingly, also great: those cloud-like dumplings with a little ball of pork hidden in them somewhere, one batch swimming in a delicious deep red sauce, the other napped with a peanut butter and soy sauce with other ingredients. You don't want to know how inexpensive this place is, but you definitely do need to know how to find it next time you're in Montreal:

Don't forget to tip: the place attracts lots of Chinese students from China, and the staff complains loudly of their parsimony.

The next evening we somehow managed to pull off a coup. Patricia had been wanting to go to Joe Beef, which seems to have replaced Au Pied de Cochon as the in restaurant in Montreal. Like Pied de Cochon, it's been visited by, and raved about by, Anthony Bourdain. Unlike Pied de Cochon, it doesn't post its menu on its website, but I pulled it up and the first thing I saw was a photo of Ai Wei Wei with a kitten, so I figured it'd be okay. Then followed a comedy of sorts in which Patricia attempted to use the website to make a reservation and discovered they were booked up until Christmas or something, then called and was told there'd be a table tonight -- or was it tomorrow? At any rate, we headed down there secure that we'd made a reservation and stood in line in the freezing evening temperature and the young woman with the iPad came and told us she couldn't find our reservation. So we stood around a bit more and finally got escorted to a tight table with windows onto the street, and discovered there's no menu.

Or, rather, there's a menu, but it's written on a chalkboard above the bar, surrounded by tiny Christmas lights, and impossible to read. That's all the menu you get. So you twist in your seat, squint at the words (all of them in French, but that usually doesn't faze me), try to make stuff out, and try to construct a meal out of that. Eventually, crafty Terry and Patricia chose two things I don't like, with him getting "veal liver" (which I remember being called calf's liver) in a red wine reduction, and her getting trout prepared some way that she deemed excellent, neither of which I was going to try. I got pasta with lobster, since I hadn't had lobster in over a decade. Oh, and now it's time for the wine: this menu is written in even smaller letters on its chalkboard and is in all kinds of languages. Naturally, a party of three can't crowd around it with the waiter to discuss it, so I volunteered myself and wound up with a very, very good Ardèche Syrah. Luck of the draw, I assure you.

So by the time the starter arrived (salads for T&P, croquetas made with Montreal smoked meat for me) I was pissed off. Not allowing diners full access to the menu and wine list is just plain arrogant. Diners at a place as upmarket as this need time to weigh choices when spending this much money. (Well, actually, it's not that expensive, but it's expensive enough that you want to choose well). They definitely need extended access to the wine list to make a good choice. Hell, during the meal, Patricia spotted the word cheval on the blackboard. I probably wouldn't have ordered horsemeat, but the waiter hadn't even mentioned it while running down the list. Who knows what I missed during my hurried confab at the wine board? We left feeling a bit mistreated -- or I did, at least. I felt like I had a shot at a wonderful meal but hadn't had the opportunity to make a fully informed choice. I liked what appeared to be, from our small sample, Joe Beef's approach to food, but I definitely did not feel like going back. I should also note that the "croquetas," a common Spanish tapa that, in its simplest form, is sort of like a Tater Tot made from mashed potatoes and then gets more complicated as you put other things in with the potatoes, didn't have potatoes in it. There was a sour taste, and I never tasted any of that famous smoked meat (aka pastrami in the USA). I was enjoying the wine too much to pay attention, but boy, when I got back to the hotel and ran into the bathroom, I realized what had happened: they'd substituted goat cheese, to which I'm violently allergic, for the potatoes. That's what the sour taste I didn't like was. Not their fault, but a printed menu might have mentioned that. And there wasn't one.

It's worth noting that across the street from Joe Beef is a pizzeria called Geppetto, and later that week, after I'd come back from Québec City, Terry got three pizzas to go from there. They could have been the best designer pizzas I'd ever had: all three had a tomato sauce base, but in each case, the sauce was different, aimed at complementing the toppings. Just subtle differences, true, but it's the mark of a serious place, and I'll happily go for a sitdown meal there any time.

I interrupted my Montreal stay for a quick trip to Québec City, the provincial capital and scene of a lot of Canadian and American history. I wasn't sure what was there, actually, just wanted to see another piece of the province I've been visiting off and on since the '70s. Unfortunately, when I checked in at my hotel (a charming place where my room was just a tad too small), I was told there would be five cruise ships in the harbor the next day, and 25,000 tourists in the street. Fortunately, the lady in the hotel said, they'd stay in the "lower city" and wouldn't be rampaging up where I was. I had no idea what she was talking about, having just arrived on the train, but I'd find out the next day.

Dinner that evening was at one of the older houses in town (not as old as the town by any means because the Brits bombed the hell out of it in 1760, and caught the mostly-wooden city on fire), a semi-hokey-looking place called Aux Anciens Canadiens, featuring Quebecois food. It was an impressive menu, although I knew that the real deal was fairly simple, and, in fact, that's what I went for: the mixed plate with two kinds of meat pie (tourtière), pig's knuckle, meatball stew, and "salt pork rillettes," which sure looked like cracklins to me. The leg of Inuit-caught wild caribou with Labrador tea spice, cooked sous-vide with a green alder sauce was extremely tempting, but not the price, not even at 85¢ to the Canadian dollar.

The next day I was hoping for a kind of historical museum of the province, but the nearest thing was to walk a bit up the hill and into the Citadel, built by the British to protect their investment in this city at the narrows of the St. Lawrence River once they'd bombarded it and chased the French away. Security was high due to the visit of the Governor-General, who has a residence there, and our excellent teenage guide ordered us to stick close to her and not go off and investigate stuff on our own because there was a good chance people disregarding this would be frog-marched off the property and/or arrested. (Not that this stopped a couple of Japanese tourists from running towards a landing military helicopter at one point in the tour. I was kind of hoping it'd either shoot them or land on them, to be honest.) It was a bracing walk on a chilly morning, but I rather enjoyed it.

Québec means "narrows," and, at 700 meters, this is as narrow as the St. Lawrence gets. Enemy in sight at far left. 
At noon, we got to watch the firing of the salute.

The museum in the Citadel proved to be boring, concentrating on the regiment's time in World War I rather than the history of the Citadel, so a quick turn and I was gone.

Next was the Plains of Abraham, the battlefield where, in 20 minutes, the French lost Canada to the British and both sides lost their generals. The French one, Montcalm, was from Montpellier, where I used to live and where his family's seat is now a tourist restaurant.
Ground Zero for the Cajuns? Uh, no.
This battle, of course, meant the final expulsion of the French farmers from Acadia, the parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia where they'd been living happily for about a hundred years until forces larger than they decided the land could be better used.  A couple of shiploads became homeless people who drifted down the Atlantic coast of America, finally arriving in Haiti, where they hated it and eventually escaped to Louisiana, whose governor gave them a ton of land. Mostly swamp, of course, but at least the peasants didn't settle in New Orleans. I wanted to pay a visit to it as the place where the whole Cajun story started, but as it turned out, the French had been moving them on for some time by the time the battle happened. Oh, well.

I then decided to head to the Museum of Civilization, a kind of undefined museum in the lower Old Town where Terry told me he thought a historical exhibition on Québec had been moved. I knew they were having an exhibition of classical Greek stuff that was being heavily hyped. And after a bit of getting lost, I found my way down the steep hill, not looking forward to going back up, and gazing over the edge at one point to see a street deep in tourist gridlock. Pickpockets would faint for the choices down there, I thought, but fortunately where I was going was elsewhere. Turned out that the Greeks were from the Greco-Roman museum in Berlin, where I'd seen them years ago, and, idly wondering whether the pornographic pottery was in the show (I'd come upon it when a high-school art class was sitting there, impassively sketching and I noticed that the pots showed a bunch of very graphic hetero- and homosexual goings-on; this being Germany it's likely nobody cared one way or the other), went down to the Québec stuff. I was pretty bushed by now, so I didn't really give the exhibit as much attention as I should have (and I have to say it was mounted and lit oddly, so it wasn't as easy to decipher as it should have been). It did manage to clear up the whole British-French thing, as well as the anti-British thing that had Canada declare its independence (albeit within the British Commonwealth), as well as reminding me of the incredibly destructive iron grip of the Catholic Church on French Canada, which lasted well into the 20th century. Another bit of history was in a park at the top of the hill: this statue of a man Terry's descended from, the first settler in Québec City.

Limping by now, I went back to the hotel to put my feet up for a while, and later went down to a place I'd seen earlier, the Clarendon Hotel, whose menu looked as good as any (attempting to get my network to come up with suggestions was unproductive; the only concrete suggestions were Schwartz's and Au Pied du Cochon, both of which are in Montreal), and turned out to be quite good, although the hotel itself seems locked in the past. The food was excellent for the '80s, and I was given a couple of rolls with this little device, which I figure must've been in the basement for decades:

Not a world-beating photo. Sorry.
If you look carefully at that thing in the distance, it's a pewter cylinder with a grid in it, on which sit little spheres of butter, each with nubs on them. The most antique serving-device I've seen. The rolled-up smoked whitefish and salmon was very good, and the roast wild boar tremendous. Not as au fait as Joe Beef, nor was the wine as good, but perfectly okay.

It rained the next day as I headed back to Montreal, but it was finished once I got there, and that night was the night of Geppetto's. Fall had fallen on the province of Quebec, and I was headed back to New York for a meeting with my publisher and a visit to my agent. And a quick shopping trip to Chinatown in search of an odd ingredient, which I found.

I'm back now, the book has been started (albeit not to my total satisfaction, since I'm still finding my feet, having not attempted a narrative this large in a while), and it'll be a while before I hit the road again. But this sure was fun.

* * *

Intrepid readers who were as excited about the Indian cuisine in Jersey City as I was will want to read this report of a place I wanted to try but didn't. I'd gladly attempt a story for some magazine about this neighborhood if they'd fly me back!
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