Saturday, February 27, 2016

The value of soup dumplings (鼎泰豐)

Little frog number holder

This is it, my triumphant return to blogging. Like herpes, you think I'm gone, but then I come back in the form of a mega cold sore and embarrass you on your wedding day. But we're not here to talk about herpes (at least, not now) we're here to talk about soup dumplings. I recently hopped on a jetplane and returned to the motherland of Taiwan. Over the course of the slightly-less-than-two-hour flight, I did two things: I actively tried to hide my growing erection at the thought of eating real Taiwanese food again, and I built a short checklist of things that I wanted to do. One of my top priorities was to visit 7-11 to marvel at the broad selection of microwave bentos and to revel in in the glory of Hello Kitty memorabilia. Another was to go to multiple nightmarkets so I could experience the roller coaster of pleasures and regrets from my eating decisions. Yet another was to eat at the dopest beef noodle joint in the history of noodles and beef. The last was to drink 18-day Taiwan Beer, which is apparently a thing. One thing I didn't plan on was going to Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐).

There's a few reasons for that. Historically I've been a real cheap-ass when it comes to food. To put this in perspective, I've walked an extra five miles to a different location of a chain restaurant because I heard they had a cheaper combo meal. Din Tai Fung is consistently more expensive - 200 NT (about $6) for a steamer of 10 - than anywhere else by double. On top of that is the fact that there's almost always a line to get in, and it's not because they're offering a something for free or anything (sorry for the stereotyping, but I firmly believe Chinese people will line up for anything if it's free), it's because everyone and their grandmother associates DTF with soup dumplings. In a nutshell, Din Tai Fung is the antithesis of everything I believe in when it comes to Asian food - long lines, inflated prices, and hype out the asshole.

鼎泰豐 soup dumplings

Except on this trip, there was no line (it was raining) and I did go in, and I realized that my assessment is mostly wrong. I say mostly because the majority of people are still dickweeds who put DTF on a god-tier pedestal.

I will admit, their soup dumplings are the tits. Not life-changing, not inspirational, but just plain good. The skin is borderline translucent (yes, you can see the soup wish-washing around) which is pretty impressive to me considering I can't even boil frozen dumplings without having them break. The filling is adequately rich, but without the overwhelming porkiness that you get from the corner stalls selling them 10 for $2. And of course, there's the soup aspect... I always go into the first bite underestimating their ability to fill a carbohydrate balloon with melted pork fat and I always end up with soup on my pants or on my face. Super hot. Again, there's no denying that their soup dumplings are ridiculously good, I just hate how much people hold them as an absolute benchmark.

Crab and pork soup dumplings

You know what is pretty fun though? If you get the crab and pork ones, they'll make a small yellow crab and put it in the steamer so you can tell them apart. Yes, it's made of dough and yes I ate it. No, it did not taste good because it's just a piece of steamed dough with yellow food coloring. You're welcome for not having to replay this experiment. My assessment of the crab one is much the same as the pork one, although I guess I would be disappointed if I paid a premium for it, because it just doesn't taste that much like crab.


You know what DTF's not famous for, like... at all? Dan dan noodles (擔擔麵). So of course it makes sense that I would order this. The thing is, DTF is a nice restaurant of sorts, and I didn't want to be the kind of assclown who goes and takes up a table and orders two orders of 5x soup dumplings. Logically I should have gotten fried rice because - fun fact! - that's what they were famous (along with selling cooking oil) for before some guy decided to make soup dumplings. I'm not logical though, so I got the thing that no one ever orders.

Mixed 擔擔麵

You mix that shit up good and you get this. Which was actually ridiculously good. It's spicy, but not in the traditional Szechuan style of numbing your mouth, it's more of a building heat, which along with the sweetness of the sauce was a solid combo. Not to say that soup dumplings are bland, but this would equate to a good chaser, one that overrides the heavy oil sensation from pork soup.

So where am I on the topic of soup dumplings? I've reassessed my stance on DTF in saying that they're overpriced and overrated. In Taipei, they're priced just fine (which is to say, still lower than every single place I've been to in the US including Joe's Shanghai, Joe's Ginger, Nan Xiang, Shanghai Cafe, etc.), and at that price point, they're hella solid. But it's still not something I feel like I need to do when I go to Taiwan every time. Plus, what fun is it to eat at a place you know you won't get sick in? I live for the thrill of the hunt (for toilets), and DTF just doesn't offer me that.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Noodles, dumplings, and pancake noodles at 老北方 (Lao Bei Fang)

Loaded with tendons

It's me again. Still alive, back with another post on the 'glorious number one blog in Best Korea.' Actually, I don't know if that's true. It probably isn't. Anyway, if you're curious what took so long between posts and guessed laziness, well you can shove it - you're wrong. I've actually been re-inventing the wheel and rewriting my own blogging app. Why? I'm not 100% sure anymore, part of it is my incredible amount of hatred for Blogger (even though it's run by the same folks who pay me the big bucks - part of that is a lie). Another part of it was because I've gotten somewhat rusty with skills applicable to my job and figured I'd practice some non-work coding, but most of it was due to sheer underestimation of how difficult it would be to write something that a) worked and b) didn't look like the ass end of a CSS trainwreck. Long story short, I thought I was smarter than I actually am and, not unlike Achilles, my hubris will bring about my demise. In any case, let's discuss a topic entirely unrelated to my personal ineptitude - for the last few years, I've had a side project of sorts to find 木須炒餅 (mu4 xu1 chao3 bing3) in New York. In case you're not familiar with the brilliance of said dish, it's basically if you took fatty strips of pork, stir fried it with mixed vegetables, and then... instead of using some lame-ass noodles, you take a deep-fried golden scallion pancake and cut it up into thick strips and used those. Long story short, I've found it... in Elmhurt, and it is nothing short of magically delicious.

木須炒餅 (Mushu scallion pancake stir-fry)

Why has this been my Moby Dick of foods? I've written about my encounters with it in the past, but I don't think I full extolled the brilliance of the dish. Not unlike how Batman would be shit-tier without Robin, or how Sherlock would be nothing more than a high-functioning sociopath without Watson, some of the most incredible things come in the form of duos. While a generic scallion pancake is nothing to write home about (although I have before) and the idea of 'mushu' pork is rather mundane and elicits bad memories of sketchy takeout Chinese joints, when you force them into a relationship greased with copious amounts of oils - something beautiful happens. A melding of souls, flavors, textures, and ultimately indigestion. While the simplicity of a deep fried mixture of nothing more than scallions and dough into a savory golden disc of flavor is a scientific miracle on its own, slicing it into thinner strips changes the texture and character. If you combine that with what amounts to little more than mushrooms, cabbage, and slivers of rendered pork fat? Aunt Jemima ain't got shit on these pancake noodles, shit's too cash.

Beef noodle soup

Keep this in mind, this place isn't even well known for their scallion pancakes. What they're really dope at is their noodle soups. Hand-pulled? They go big here. When you're at Lan Zhou (that place on East Broadway), your meal is consistently punctuated with a nice solid slapping sound of the dough striking the countertop. At Lao Bei Fang, they use a massive slab of dough several times larger and just punish it, beating it harder than a teenager at home alone. The result is a thick and dull thud whose sound just dies on impact. Their noodles are no less springy and offer a similar tensile resilience as Lan Zhou's (which I consider one of the best hand pulled places in the city), they're just a bit better at scaling. Their knife cut noodles come from the same batch, but instead of lengthening it like a Stretch Armstrong doll, they just use a giant hand cutter to slice off thick ribbons of dough. What good are noodles without broth though? Theirs is solid if not spectacular - a deep, rich, soy based broth that's heavy on beef and star anise flavor. Weirdly enough, there seems to be a hint of pork flavor in there... as if they floated pork chops in their broth to add to the richness (what a ridiculous thought). The meat is decidedly random and varies in quality - exactly the way it should be. The reason I say this is because beef noodle soup is supposed to be a meal you get on a budget at a random corner shop, not haute cuisine that demands high quality meat. If your shit ain't a little bit sketchy, then something has gone horribly wrong. Anyway, in summary, their beef noodle soup is - for lack of a better word - good. It isn't going to make you blow your load because of any specific reason, but it does every little thing right.

Huge-ass dumplings

Some people are drug addicts, some people are alcoholics, some people have a fetish for used panties... I admit it, I have a problem where I will always want to eat dumplings. If you ever see me at a restaurant and there are dumplings on the menu, I don't care what anyone says - I will be ordering them, that is fact, and that is non-negotiable. It's going to happen. Lao Bei Fang's dumplings are amazingly over-sized - the type of dumplings that walk into the locker room and make everyone else feel inadequate. They're so wonderfully large that it would be foolish to try and eat them in a single bite (although I definitely tried). The skin is the thick doughy variety you'll find in Northern Chinese cuisine... which makes sense considering the restaurant's name translates loosely to 'Old Northern.' This blanket of dough insulates a blazing hot ball of pork, which is proportionally immense in size to the skin, sitting in a shockingly significant amount of broth. If you've had a shitty soup dumpling that leaves you more disappointed than Evil Hercules, then this is the inverse. You bite into it expecting a traditional pan-fried potsticker, but you get something much closer to a 生煎包 (tiny fried buns for the non-Chinese readers). Quite simply, their fried dumplings are the tits. They won't dethrone the dumplings at Lan Zhou, Tasty Dumpling, or North Dumpling, but that's because they differ enough to fill another void in my heart. I have plenty of arteries to clog yo.

What more do I have to say? This place if freakin' nostalgic for me - they make shit that no other game in town does, and they do it well. If I had my way, everyone else would get on their level and start using scallion pancakes instead of noodles. That's some next level thinking right there. Seriously, only good can come from introducing more fried things into a dish that's already stir-fried. The fact that they kick so much ass at everything else they make is just icing on the cake for me.

Lao Bei Fang (老北方)
83-05 Broadway, New York, NY 11373


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Happy 2014, I shall lazily recap 2013

Assembled PB Burger

Bet you thought I was dead huh? No, truth is, I'm just a shitty blogger whose writing can't keep up with his stomach. After 5 years of writing - okay, that's cheating, I really only wrote for half of last year - it kind of gets tedious and repetitive. What started out as a cheap ploy to get people to pay for my food and invite me to press events turned into a chore. Don't get me wrong, 2013 was filled with all sorts of 'sensual encounters with the edible kind.' I discovered some of my favorite restaurants in 2013, but every time I'd sit down and try to edit photos or write a post, I'd look at how large my backlog was and start rocking myself back and forth, crying, shoving cold Domino's pizza in my mouth. You might think that's hyperbole, but it's really not. I truly enjoy cold and shitty generic pizza. Anyway, as some sort of small semblance of apology to the three people who read my blog still (Hi Mom!), let me recap 10... uh, no that's too ambitious... 6 things that made me wet my pants with excitement. Food things.

Beef and chicken combo

1) Hot pot. Or maybe you call it shabu shabu, I don't really care. Hot pot was a big theme for me in 2013... it was my fallback comfort meal. Didn't know where to eat on the weekend? Hot pot. Had a cold and needed to clear my sinuses? Hot pot. Wanted to drown my sorrows in a pot of boiling broth and cabbage? Yeahhh, hot pot. It's not like I was unaware that hot pot existed... I am Chinese and I've definitely huddled with my family around a small butane burner before, but something changed last year. Hot pot was no longer that frumpy girl in the corner I tried to avoid eye contact with, no - hot pot came back from Summer vacation as a total hottie. I had a sexual awakening of sorts, but with food. That said, there's one place that I've found is just better than the others. A place that offers individual pots so you don't have to share spit with a bunch of people who might or might not have oral herpes. A place that offers nine different soup bases (including soy milk). This magical place is called Shell Cove, and it's in Elmhurst. Don't you dare ruin it for me.

Beautiful beautiful Cronuts

2) Cronuts. People said they were overrated, that they weren't worth the two hour wait (when they first came out), that this was more a gimmick than anything else. To be honest, that assessment is fuckin' spot on. In terms of cost efficiency, something that I can kill in four bites shouldn't cost $6, but you know what? They're good. Like, really good. When you hear the intricate process that Dominique Ansel takes to make each one - brushing each layer with chilled grape seed oil and layering it over the course of several hours - you get overwhelmed by a huge vibe of 'straight up douche.' Then you have one and you realize that what you're eating is actually an incredible combination of texture, flavor, and sheer gluttony... that it actually is a fantastic doughnut made in the style of a croissant, flaky and rich all at once. When I started trying the imitation versions - like Crumb's - it became even more obvious that Dominique Ansel is a goddamn genius. Yeah it's a ripoff, but he pulls it off.

Layers of beef with white sauce

3) Donairs in Nova Scotia - when you hear the term gyro, you normally think of a giant meat spinning on a spit that's spiced beyond belief and should be consumed while incredibly drunk. In Nova Scotia, it's... pretty much the same. Except the meat is generally beef and instead of being fucked in the face with cumin and friends, it's sweet, almost like a slice of Italian sausage, but with the same smooth consistency that you'd expect. Combined with a pillowy pita, that same classic tzatziki, and some other filler crap (I honestly can't recall what other stuff got in the way of me and that sweet, sweet meat), and you have something that Sidney Crosby likely deep-throated many-a-times as a youth in Maritime Canada, a wrap worthy of soaking up the finest of alcohols on the most questionable of nights.

Open-faced PB Burger

4) Peanut Butter Burgers in Nova Scotia. Yeah, it's another entry from Canada - the hat of America, why? Because they're chock full of hidden gems, having produced such luminaries such Ryan Gosling, and such inventions as 'the egg carton' and 'instant replay.' In another clutch move, some visionary (undoubtedly freezing his ass off in the winter) decided to slather a thick layer of peanut butter on a bun before sandwiching in bacon, cheese, and beef, masterfully constructing what has become a Nova Scotian favorite, the peanut butter bacon cheeseburger.

Seven Courses of Beef

5) Pho Hoa in Boston. Have you ever ordered so much food from a takeout place that they put multiple sets of utensils in the bag? Yeah, the feels when: your meal for one gets interpreted as a family feast for four. Well, there's this restaurant in Boston called Pho Hoa. They do a Vietnamese 7 course beef meal. I'm not sure if it's for a family or not, but when they pushed together two tables to accommodate all the accoutrements of the meal, I had one of those 'what the fuck did I just do moments.' As they brought out plate after plate of various preparations of beef - yes there were indeed 7 - I went from feeling like 'this is an incredible deal' to 'uhm, should I be ashamed of myself' to 'yeah, so this was one of the greatest things ever.' Like I said, you'll feel a swelling feeling of shame, but if you hold on for the entirety of the roller coaster experience, that will gradually fade into a crescendo of euphoria. Or food coma, I can't really think after I've shoved half a cow into my mouth. Choice wording.

They also provide vegetables

6) Korean barbecue in LA - more specifically this place called 'Oo Kook.' That means cow country, that's how you know that shit is tight *drops mic*.

Golden pockets of happiness

7) North Dumpling in Chinatown. Once upon a time, I loved this other place called Prosperity Dumpling. Then they started getting noticed, people would start adding them too food crawls, their popularity skyrocketed. Along with their new found popularity came an unexpected price increase (and sassiness from the main guy at the counter). Without going into too much detail, the fact that they were now 5 for $1.25 meant that I would get to eat 200 less dumplings per year prorated at my normal rate of consumption. Along with the assclown hipster clientele / deterioration in service came random batches of dumplings that weren't made do order (no doubt pre-made to cope with the increase in volume). In comes North Dumpling, a place I had forgotten about as they lie in the Far East... uh, side of Chinatown. While they have a $2 for 10 minimum, and the trek is ever so slightly longer, you'll be rewarded with a superior dumpling experience - freshly fried dough pockets of meat, with a pork filling just a hint sweeter than you normally encounter. Also, no hipsters for the time being.

Anyway, I'll write... uh, more... this year. I guess that's an easy promise to keep, since I didn't really write at all last year. Setting low goals since 1988, go me.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fabulously artisan ice cream (Big Gay Ice Cream Shop)

Big Gay Ice cream Shop sign

If you've never used your tongue to gently undress a thin layer of crushed Nilla Wafers from the tip of one of Bea Arthur's milky cones... then you, my friend, have never truly lived. There are some dishes and places that every food blogger raves about. When you talk about fried chicken, it's pretty hard not to mention Bob White's and Pies and Thighs, when you talk about soup dumplings, Nan Xiang inevitably gets thrown into the mix, and if you ask about street meat, almost everyone will have something to say about the cart at 53rd and 6th (although I really don't think it's that remarkable). More often than not, they're chock full of mediocrity and disappointment, leaving me utterly confused as to why so many people I barely know would lie to me about food. Far less frequently, these places are downright spectacular and actually live up to the lofty expectations set by every assclown with a keyboard who sets out to write about food (that includes me!). Sometimes. The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop is one of those places where "the juice is worth the squeeze."

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop does a lot of fucking things erotically well. To a scary degree. Yeah, they have the 'Salty Pimp,' a chocolate, sea salt, caramel mashup that violently fists the line between salty and sweet, playfully toying with your mind while delighting your taste buds. They also have the 'Monday Sundae,' a brilliantly decadent sundae topped with dulce de leche and sea salt set atop a Nutella covered waffle cone. Pretty much all of their menu qualifies as 'the tits.' But there's one item that's a classic beyond all others, and that's the one and only... Bea Arthur.

Bea Arthur

This Golden Girl truly sets the gold standard here. I unabashedly admit I was a fan of the show growing up, possibly because my Grandmother would always watch the marathons of the syndicated episodes. Everyone always said that Betty White was the comic relief, that the mother provided the wit, and that Blanche was just a slut - but the true crux of the show was undoubtedly Bea Arthur's character. As I mentioned, there are some truly attention-grabbing items on the menu, but the one I always end up defaulting to when it's game time is the Bea Arthur. It's simple, nothing more than vanilla ice cream swirled with dulce de leche rolled in a generous helping of crushed Nilla wafters - the preferred cookie of the geriatric crowd (very apropos) - but that's all it has to be. The ice cream is appropriately consistent in texture, the infusion of dulce de leche brings the sweetness to a more intense level, and the crunchy, sweet yet mild flavor of the Nilla wafers mellows out both the feel on the tongue as well as complexity of flavor. Let's be honest, if you had to pick one of the Golden Girls to get it on with, it'd probably be ol' dependable, and you know it.

The 'Choinkwich'

Maybe it's not as fantastic as an intense session of lapping up some sweet vanilla + Nilla wafer action as above, but the 'Choinkwich' is a pretty fun little ice cream sandwich. Admittedly they're pre-made and not quite as awesome as the soft-serve, but you can't really deny some bacon on chocolate on chocolate lovin'. The implementation isn't great (again, because it's pre-made, the ice cream is pretty brick-like), but the amalgam of flavors undeniably just works. Anyway, in closing - allow me to summarize the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. I am lactose intolerant. When I eat even what most people consider a reasonable amount of dairy, I will probably be making sweet ass cheek love to the toilet that night. I will gladly pay that penalty if it means enjoying myself a Bea Arthur.

tl;dr - My body doesn't accept dairy well. I still shovel big quantities of gay ice cream in my mouth. My favorite is the Bea Arthur, possibly because my grandmother brainwashed me into liking the Golden Girls growing up.

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop
125 E 7th St, New York, NY 10009