Friday, May 2, 2008


Another item on Saveur's top 100 list is the Rueben sandwich. This was one of several All-American sandwiches listed by Saveur. I couldn't agree more with this choice. The Rueben is very worthy of being named one of the best American sammy's and here's why.

The perfect Reuben consists of four simple ingredients. Lightly toasted rye bread, swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and the meat. The meat can be either pastrami or corned beef, or a combination. I've had Reubens from all over the country. San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas. Yet the best Reuben I've had in my life was from the Midwest, where the sandwich was born. On a trip to Chicago my uncle took me to Manny's Deli. This old fashioned Jewish deli churns out plate after plate of mountainous Reubens each day. They are so popular because of the high quality of the ingredients used at Manny's.

There are two main things that make up a good Reuben.

It all starts with the meat. Whether you prefer pastrami or corned beef, the best Reuben consists of a plentiful pile of light, thinly sliced meat. The meat should not be chewy or have any large chunks of fat. While both corned beef and pastrami are fatty meats, it isn't pleasant to bite into pure fat and have it drag the rest of the meat out from between the two pieces of bread. The perfect Reuben is made with meat that has been cooked without too many added flavors. It is simply roasted in its own juices until it is soft, easy to chew, and retains its natural smoky meat flavor.

The second most important facet of the sandwich is the bread. While rye bread may not be the part of the sandwich that adds the majority of the flavor, it is incredibly important for both its texture, and its ability to keep the contents of the sandwich together. Let's face it, the Reuben is a messy sandwich. If the bread isn't up to the task of keeping the dressing, kraut, meat and cheese together then the combination of flavors is lost. Fresh, well baked rye bread is crucial to a good sandwich. The grainy crunch characteristic of fresh rye makes it so that the sandwich would be too mushy and soft when chewed. The main reason why the bread is so important however, is because it is the first taste of the sandwich. If poor quality rye is used, the texture and that initial grainy, almost sourdough flavor is lost. This makes the Reuben much less pleasant to eat.

The additions of the gooey, bitter swiss, the sour, vinegary sauerkraut, and the thick creamy Russian dressing mix to combine into a sandwich that has flavors that satisfy every taste bud on the tongue. Though there are really only four simple ingredients, they have many distinct flavors of their own. The mixture of so many different flavors and texture leads to one of my all-time favorite deli treats.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Kecap Manis

As I read Saveur magazine's top 100 list I came across a foreign ingredient that I had never heard of before. Ranked number 11 on the list, Kecap Manis is an Indonesian condiment made of soy sauce that has been sweetened with palm sugar. The article raved about this sauce's unique and "haunting" flavor. They mentioned that it has become the choice condiment for a range of foods. From French Fries to satay to eggs, and even vinaigrettes. The people at Saveur were clearly impressed with this sweet substance.

As I was reading this article I immediately knew I needed to try a sample of Kecap Manis. I needed to see for myself if it was really all that it was described to be. Upon a giant stroke of luck, I found a store selling a multitude of different sauces in Los Angeles this past weekend. The store sold small bottles of Kecap Manis, so I grabbed two and took them home.

I forced myself to wait to open a bottle until the following morning. I woke up, quickly fried up two eggs, and began pouring the dark, rich sauce over the eggs. I was surprised at first by the texture. The author of the Saveur article had written that it had a honey-like consistency, however I found it to be only slightly thicker than your average soy sauce. This misinterpretation of the consistency slightly lowered my expectations. I was worried that if the physical description of the sauce was off, the description of the flavor might be off as well. Upon my first bite however, I was happy to see that the magazine did not let me down.

The essence of soy sauce was there. It was still salty and the tangy soy flavor was still very present. The sweetness of the palm sugar was the perfect adaptation to the average soy sauce. Normally I use very small amounts of Tamari or Kikoman. While the complex flavor of these sauces can add to a dish, the intense sodium content can often overpower the entire dish. The sugary component of Kecap Manis changes this completely. It subdues the saltiness, and allows the soy to stand out on its own. The savory garlic flavor lingers in the background, and sweet, but slightly bitter, anise is present in the aftertaste. It can be added to foods like French Fries because the sauce affects so many different parts of the tongue. There is saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and umami, four of the five major tastes the tongue recognizes. The starch absorbs these many different flavors, and takes something with very little intricacy, like French Fries, to a whole new level. Kecap Manis is a good addition to vinaigrettes because the acidity and sharpness of the vinegar is made more bearable.

While I wouldn't necessarily say that the flavor is haunting, it is one that I would happily welcome as a condiment to balance salty, savory side dishes, as well as an ingredient in many different types of food. Its complexity and richness is nearly unparalleled, and its ability to satisfy nearly every sense the tongue can throw at it makes it an intriguing and unique sauce. Saveur was right to speak so highly of this Indonesian treat.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Better than a Quesadilla

Thick, mealy corn tortillas that have been lightly fried to a crunch on the outside, but left soft and chewy the rest of the way through. Easily a half of an inch thick, almost tomale-like in texture, and then the teeth pierce the inner pocket of hot, gooey monterey jack cheese and small cubes of al dente zucchini. The zucchini's crisp exterior complimented the silky, smoothness of the cheese. The many different crunches and chews, as well as the mixtures of the creamy cheese with the salty corn tortilla and the watery zucchini combined into a classic Salvadoran pupusa.


After reading the featured article in the Chronicle about tripe, I felt that I must try it for my first time. As someone who will try just about anything, and often enjoys some of the stranger parts of animals, I figured that tripe should be added to the array of delicacies that I have tasted. I went to one of the great Mexican places on 24th Street in the Mission and bought a bowl of menudo. The broth was a deep, blood red with an abundant amount of glossy bubbles of rendered fat. It had a rich, almost gamey tomato flavor, and was livened up with spicy and aromatic flavors of chili peppers. As I fished through the depths of the murky broth I found long but thin chunks of honeycomb tripe. This was it...

As I began chewing I was not surprised to find the texture to be similar to that of tongue or very fatty pieces of beef. It was chewy with a slight resistance to the teeth that allowed for the flavor of the menudo to be fully appreciated by the tongue. It was a unique flavor. Its roots were definitely in the realm of steak, but it had the gamey flavor similar to lamb, with an almost sour aftertaste. It was also possible to detect the remnants of the bleach used to clean the tripe. This may have been some of the sour flavor, or else the slightly bitter taste of the meat.

I can't say that the menudo was my favorite of the exotic meats I have tried, it seems to be an acquired taste, and maybe it will come some day.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Forgotten Favorite

It had been a very long time since I had last tasted this flavor combination. It starts with the crisp but doughy, toasted herb focaccia. The chewiness of this bread, together with the rosemary complimented the creamy, saltiness of the tuna fish. The sliced mozzarella had been melted so that the gooey cheese enveloped the entire sandwich, yet it the subtle cheese didn't overpower the flavor of the tuna. Its main purpose was for texture more than flavor. The final touch was sliced avocado that added the smooth texture that balanced out the chunky bits of tuna. My first tuna melt in almost a year.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Maybe it was the sunny, warm early March afternoon, maybe it was the Bob Marley playing in the background. Whatever is was, the soft, chewy, spicy chorizo melted in my mouth along with the tangy sour cream and acidic guacamole. The rice was soft and the beans were robust and earthy without being oily or heavy. The finishing touch was a spicy, not-too-wet salsa that didn't overpower the other flavors. It simply added spice and a slight crunch to the overall flavor. The copious amounts of these ingredients were wrapped in a warm, steamed, slightly grilled flour tortilla. This burrito was perfect for a beautiful day.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jewish Deli Done Right

The dill pickles were crunchy on the outside, but slightly soft on the inside. They had that salty, vinegar flavor associated with pickles. The catch was that they were also soaked with hot red peppers, and therefore they had a subtle spice to them that added a different dimension to pickles.

The real treat was the mountain of thin, soft slices of warm, salty pastrami and smokey corned beef. Neither of the meats were tough or chewy, and they were well marbled with fat; not at all stringy. The soft, savory meat was somehow squished between two pieces of herbed rye that were slightly toasted so that just the edges were crisp. This sandwich needed only just a touch of spicy dijon mustard to be perfect.

Too bad we don't have a Canter's in San Francisco.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rotten Tomatoes

The muscles in my jaw began to grow sore as I seemed to chew for an eternity. The crust was too thick, and instead of being especially crunchy or flaky on the outside, it was simply chewy. A giant mass of doughy bread. The tomato sauce, clearly made of some tomato other than Roma, was potently sweet, surprising my taste buds with the strange sensation that I was eating dessert. It seemed as if the sauce had been layered onto the crust as like the chocolate of a sacher torte. It was heavy and overwhelming instead of light; a simple undertone of the flavor. The sauce was totally over-seasoned with basil. I normally like lots of basil, however when mixed with the extremely sweet tomatoes, and possibly even sugar, the basil did not taste like its normal, refreshing self. It had morphed into a nameless monster-spice ruining flavor by adding a bitter aftertaste to something sweet. Unlike dark chocolate however, the bitter and sweet clashed tremendously when brought into contact with the salty cheese. The mozzarella seemed to have a high quantity of sodium, and instead of causing a good contrast between flavors, they all mixed into a very disappointing piece of pizza.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mario's Bohemian Cigar

Aromatic, slightly sweet, almost smokey tomato sauce was ladled over steak-cut-french-fry-sized pieces of eggplant. The eggplant had been breaded in Italian bread crumbs, and lightly panfried in olive oil. It was earthy, salty and tender, just crunchy on the outside. Just a hint of parmesan had been sprinkled over the hot eggplant to give it a slightly gooey, sharp flavor. The eggplant and sauce was sitting in between two large pieces of foccacia. This foccacia was not like the one at Farina however, it was soft and squishy, coated with herbs like chive. The sandwich was toasted in the oven for several minutes to make sure that the soft bread was just crisp around the edges, and to let all of the flavors of the sauce, eggplant, and cheese to mingle together. This eggplant parm was a real North Beach treat.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Thick, but smooth enough to be sucked through a straw. Creamy and icy cold, but without the little crystals of ice that can sometimes get trapped and cause the shake to be too airy. Just enough milk added to the ice cream for the texture to be goopy, but still stick together. The chocolate flavor of was potent enough to be fulfilling of even the biggest chocoholic's needs, and yet it wasn't as if I was sucking on cocoa powder. This chocolate milkshake was one of the best I have had in a while.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Paper thin, crusty, salty, and slightly bitter from the charred edges. A light layer of sweet, tangy tomato sauce spread atop the crust. Capers were sprinkled across the top like bite sized bombs that explode with juicy, salty flavor when bit into. The final touch was the anchovy, ground with mortar and pestle into an almost unrecognizable topping. That is, before it came into contact with the tongue anyway. While most anchovies are far too fishy and often overpower the rest of a dish, these anchovies simply provided the essence of their flavor. They complimented the crunch of the crust, the sweetness of the sauce, and the added saltiness of the capers. These anchovies played into the perfect balance of the pizzata at Farina.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Taste of the Day #1

Warmth was the first thing to hit my tongue as I bit into the foccacia at Farina. The crusty, crisp exterior held up enough so as to resist my teeth upon biting into it. The inner part of the bread however was soft, chewy, and moist. This texture is the key to a good foccacia. The bits of sea salt scattered about the bread, as well as the ample amounts of olive oil added to the dough give it a very salty and savory flavor. These pieces of sea salt give the bread tingly, salty bursts of flavor whenever they are bitten into. This bread took the simply art of making foccacia and perfected it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Final Bite

I went to Little Star for pizza the other night with my uncle. It had been a very long time since I had last been to this great pizza place in San Francisco. They are known for both their thin crust, and deep dish. The last couple of times I have been to Little Star I had the thin crust pizza. This time however I returned to the deep dish. It was an amazing choice. We had the special, which had bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and house-made meatballs. These toppings, along with the chunky, roasted tomato sauce, worked perfectly together. Each bite of pizza contained a small explosion of flavor. One bite would highlight the sweet and crunchy onion, another would underline the smoky bell peppers, or the earthy, chewy mushrooms, and the next would display the robust, salty meatballs. This pizza was savory and slightly sweet while being crunchy and firm around the edges, but soft and gooey in the middle.

The most impressive part of the pizza however was the crust. I have made crust for deep-dish pizzas before, and I understand how difficult it can be to keep it crusty and strong, but moist and buttery without it becoming over-stretched or mealy. The people in the kitchen at Little Star clearly have not run into this problem. I would have paid for a giant bowl of crust from this restaurant. It was crunchy and yet buttery enough to melt in your mouth on contact. The most amazing part was that it was able to hold up to the well-stuffed Chicago-style pizza without falling apart at all. This crust was great because instead of being a huge, over-the-top pie like the ones at Zachary's, this was just the right size. It was big enough to pile with cheese, meat, veggies, and tomato sauce, but it wasn't intimidatingly large. This crust was so good I looked forward to finishing each piece of pizza so that I could eat the crust alone. Never before have I tasted a crust this perfectly crafted on a deep-dish pie.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


I was reading the December edition of Saveur magazine a couple of days ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed the article about Brazilian fare from the beautiful city of Salvador in the northern part of Brazil. It reminded me immediately of my two-week trip to Rio de Janeiro over the past summer. The pictures of the creamy, spicy, fishy moqueca, the salty and rib-sticking sausage and okra stew, and the bright colored festivals all brought me right back to some of my favorite meals and experiences in one of the friendliest, most inviting, and most food oriented countries in the world.

The author of this particular article was guided around the culinary world of Salvador by Cacique, a man formally known as Jubiraci Martins da Silva. Cacique is his apelido, or nickname. These are incredibly common throughout Brazil. This man seemed to be exactly like my good friend Renato Alvarez, or ZezĂ©, a native of Rio de Janeiro, and my family’s guru for all things “Brazil” while we were there. Cacique, just like Renato, is described as an amazingly friendly and loving Brazilian who is known by everyone all throughout Salvador. During my trip it was very common to hear, “Oi Renato! Tudo bem mi amigo?” (Hey Renato! How are you my friend?) The author describes this same phenomenon as a part of her daily life while accompanied by Cacique. Another similarity between the two is that they are both fantastic cooks who have mastered many of the tasty dishes native to their home cities. If someone was to ask either of these men where they learned to cook, neither would say that they learned from a chef in a restaurant, and definitely not from a culinary academy. Both would simply reply, “My mom.”

The fact that so many of the Brazilians I met learned to be great cooks through their family was not an entirely new concept for me. After all I have learned the majority of the Italian food I make through one half of my family, as well as many traditional Jewish dishes from the other half. What was amazing however, was the large amount of family members who were all highly efficient in the kitchen. In many of the families I know, there are those who cook, and those who don’t. During large street parties in Brazil, however, I quickly observed that if one person began grilling the traditional churrasco (Brazilian-style meat), many others would soon follow.

What was it about these people that encouraged them all to learn how to cook? It wasn’t until thinking back on my trip while reading the Saveur article that I was able to establish any thoughts on the matter. I realized that maybe it was these extended family get-togethers the led to the high proficiency levels in the kitchen.

One thing about Brazilians is that they certainly know how to have a good time. They seem to be able to take the slightest amounts of things and turn them into something more. Their food is a great example of this. They were given the discarded meats, white rice, and black beans, and they created feijoada, a ridiculously heavy, meaty, savory, chewy, crunchy, and salty black bean “stew” of sorts. They were given plain cuts of meat with nothing more than salt, and they made churrasco.

So when it came time for the large families, as well as friends and members of the community, to come together and celebrate some event, it was clearly a time for all of the best food to be cooked up. It makes sense to me that with the large quantities of food needed to feed the block parties that can easily attract 100 people, everyone needs to lend a helping hand when it comes time to cook. Since Brazilians tend to find many different occasions to come together and celebrate, these large meals must be cooked fairly often. As a result, many members of the community must learn to cook in order to help feed one another.

There are probably many other reasons for the spectacle of great home chefs in Brazil. I look forward to exploring the idea more in my future visits to Rio de Janeiro.