Sunday, July 24, 2016

Random Food Adventures - First Half of 2016

Pan-Seared Escolar 

Escolar (aka walu walu or snake mackerel) is infamous for its keriorrhea effect. Consumption of this oily fish could sometimes lead to rapid "wax flow" or acute anal leakage said to be greasy, terrifyingly stinky, and repulsively orange, like Donald Trump's face. And yet, I gave it a try. It was at City Hotel Restaurant in Columbia Historic Park where the ominous fish and I crossed paths. My buttery pan-seared escolar was served on top of saffron rice and accompanied by zippy mango salsa. Worth the risk? Absolutely. So moist and delicate, it tasted like salmon's more delectable cousin. And lucky me, no back door trots occurred that night. 

Fried Livers and Waffles

Many doubt fried chicken and waffles are a harmonious match. If those same skeptics ever see fried livers and waffles, their incredulity might deepen tenfold. I had this unlikely pair at Chicken N Waffles, a local greasy spoon, whose menu items sounded like stuff from a family potluck (e.g. Mark's Special, Aunt Sarah's, and Bubba's Best). This fried livers and waffles combo was listed under the moniker of Hattie's Request. Heaven knows who the heck Hattie is, but one could assume she might be a little crazy, possibly vitamin B12 deficient, and habitually drunk, or else she wouldn't request something like this. I must confess, though, I did enjoy that plate of delicious incongruity very much. 

Runsa (also spelled Runza) 

Some say simplicity breeds vapidity. Well, that can't be any more wrong, especially when it comes to Columbia Kate's version of Runsa, the famous Nebraskan meat pie. I bought this yeasty delight for breakfast after surviving a night at a haunted hotel. Inside the golden-brown goodness was ground beef, onion and cabbage, seasoned just right. The bread itself also deserved a big round of applause. I ate it on the balcony of my ghostly room, minding my own business, when suddenly, a little black bird flew at the nearby window on full speed and plopped to the ground. It didn't die but seemed quite dazed. Paranormal activity or just a reckless bird? I couldn't care less. I was in an impervious state of rapture munching on that meat pie. 

Crying Tiger

Having been featured on Food Network's program, the Best Thing I Ever Ate, episode "Hot and Spicy," this appetizer sells like hotcakes at Emporium Thai Cuisine in L.A. It's a northeastern Thai dish, traditionally consisting of sirloin steak marinated and grilled to medium-rare, and served with a dipping sauce so mercilessly spicy it could bring a tiger to tears. There, at Emporium, I waited for the dish to arrive with masochistic anticipation. I wanted it to attack my taste buds senseless. I wanted it to make me cry ( just a little). Well, the beef turned out to be melt-in-your-mouth tender and hit the right flavor profile, but the sauce, although tasty, failed to live up to its name. At best, it could only make a tiger sneeze. 

Cockle Salad

Cockles, also known as blood clams, aren't for the faint of heart. As little as they are, these suckers release a copious amount of red liquid that looks and smells kind of like blood, rendering them qualified to be on a vampire party menu. Growing up in Thailand, I ate these "gruesome" clams on a regular basis. The bloodier, the better!  And I'm completely unapologetic and unashamed of this obsession. Sadly, most Thai restaurants in the U.S. don't serve them. So when I saw cockle salad on Luv2eat Thai Bistro's menu this last spring, it felt like a lost-love reunion. The clams were fresh as if recently fetched from the beach. Its herb-centric composition further intensified the freshness, and the tiny slices of Thai chili carried a powerful punch of heat. All in all, it was a bloody triumph. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Foolproof Mongolian BBQ Strategy

See that guy with a pair of giant chopsticks? Doesn't he emanate an aura of competence, handling that massive griddle day in and day out? But guess what? The griddle-keeper will take no responsibility and no pity if your dinner is under-seasoned, too spicy, or tastes like a shitpile of broken dreams. Well, you can't blame him. His only duties are to stir-fry and clean the griddle. At a Mongolian BBQ eatery, you choose your own ingredients, stack your own bowl, season your own food. The power is in your hands and yours alone. That's why I always approach a Mongolian barbecue adventure with a specific game plan.

Leave the inner snob at home - One wouldn't enter Burger King and Chez Panisse with the same expectations. Likewise, when I go to a Mongolian BBQ restaurant, I don't expect it to be like fancy Benihana. At around $10 - $15 for an all-you-can-eat meal, Mongolian barbecue is to be enjoyed with your inner scrooge, not your inner snob. 

Color and Texture - It always saddens me to see a fellow diner with a bowl full of noodles, meat, a few onion slices, and some despairingly wilted spinach. Smothered in brown sauce, everything is so drab, so mushy and so depressing I would need to take Zoloft before I eat it. Sure, some people like it that way, but I'd rather give my bowl of Mongolian BBQ some personality. Let it be infused with texture and color. To achieve that, I make sure to keep a good ratio between meat and veggies, pick at least one crunchy ingredient (e.g. water chestnuts, snow peas, baby corn), and add at least one or two non-green vegetables (e.g. carrots, red bell peppers, bamboo shoot). And yes, it always turns out to be a beautiful plate. 

Smart Pairing - Once you hand your bowl to the giant-chopstick wielder, all the ingredients will be dumped onto the griddle, stir-fried together, and removed from the griddle at the same time. This is when surf and turf isn't such a great idea. By the time your lamb is nice and tender, your little shrimp will have already turned into rubber. Same thing with vegetables. Try not to mix quick-cooking seafood with veggies that tend to take a bit longer to be done, like green beans and broccoli. I'm inclined to choose only one type of meat per bowl, but when my venturesome soul begs me to be more fun, I usually pair lean meat with its fattier counterpart, such as chicken breast and ham, or lean beef and lamb. This yin-yang philosophy definitely lowers the chances of sorry tastebuds. 

Sauce Mixology - A novice mistake I made in my early Mongolian BBQ experience was under-saucing. Unlike a wok, the flat griddle can't maintain much liquid. Most of your sauce will either drip off the side or dissipate into nothingness during the cooking process, so it's wise to use a little more sauce than you normally would in a regular stir-fry dish. And now, a more important question: what sauce? In most Mongolian barbecue restaurants, there are at least 10 options at the sauce station. If you're timid about seasoning, stick to the ones that don't require any mixing, such as teriyaki sauce, Thai peanut sauce, Kung Pao sauce, or some kind of house special sauce. Me? I like to concoct my own--garlic water, ginger water, cooking wine, oyster sauce, Mongolian BBQ sauce, sesame oil (just a couple tiny drops), hot chili oil, and a spoonful of chili paste--and let me tell you, oh, it is riotously divine.     

Apologize to the Ghost of Genghis Khan - Yes, this final step must be taken after your meal because Genghis is probably super pissed off that we dare call this stir-fry technique "Mongolian BBQ." I'm not a Mongolian food expert but pretty sure this is not how real Mongols barbecue their food. Genghis would more likely debone a goat, stuff the meat back inside its hollow carcass, sew it up, throw it onto hot stones and let the fiery pit work its magic, rather than stir-frying daintily sliced meat on a propane griddle. Scallops, shrimp and imitation crab would have no place on his royal menu. And if someone ever seasoned Genghis' barbecued goat with teriyaki, that chef's head might end up on a spike. So every time after having a delightful "Mongolian BBQ" dinner, I whisper, "Sorry, Genghis," the same way I say it whenever I watch the dramatically entertaining but egregiously inaccurate Netflix series, Marco Polo.