Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pikaichi Ramen

Pikaichi Ramen
There seems to be a ramen craze gripping Boston via the wares of Guchi's Midnight Ramen. Unfortunately for me, and the rest of the working public, it's damn hard to catch this pop up restaurant during the wee hours of the morning when it opens up. Furthmore, I've heard from the masses of the interwebs that the tickets to eat at the little restaurant are really hard to come by. So until it does become more available, you do have another option.
Ken's Ramen was a tiny little shop located in the Super 88 out in Allston, and previously where I always had my ramen fix. Being half Japanese, and having lived in the outskirts of Tokyo for a few months, I am both a ramen fiend and a ramen snob. Ken's Ramen really was the closest thing I could get to the real thing in between my trips to Japan which seem to come every six years or so. 
And then Ken's Ramen was no more. Ken went back to Japan, where I'm told he had intended to open up his own ramen shop over there. What were we to do? The few transplants and noodle afficionados in Boston were torn to pieces.
Thankfully, a new ramen shop opened up in the same location by the name of Pikaichi. While I can't say that Pikaichi is as good as Ken's, it puts on a noble effort, and it's the closest thing I can get to real ramen in this area. Again, I have not eaten at Guchi Midnight Ramen, and have incredibly high hopes once I can, but for now, Pikaichi is excellent.
When you head over to Super 88, go through the main grocery store entrance at the side of the parking lot, forgoing the food court entrance. You will see the entrance to Pikaichi on the left. Go through the doors, expect the enthusiastic welcome of "Irashyaii!" and let the server point you to a table or the counter.
What to order? Well, they're not the greatest, but if you want a bit of an experience, you should take a taste of the takoyaki. Takoyaki are little pancake balls with bits of octopus on the inside, and a touch of okonomiyaki sauce and Japanese mayonaise squeezed on the size. The things are roaring hot, so be careful. But they are a delicious bar snack, and have been made famous through various shops in Osaka. The fluffy, cakey batter gives way to chewy chunks of savory octopus, all complemented by the tangy brown sauce, and the extra fattiness of a little smear of sweet Kewpie mayonaise.
Miso ramen
Moving onto the big show, you'll want to order the miso ramen. The ultimate ramen is a harmony of a number of important elements. First, the noodles must have a certain amount of chew. They must be springy, kind of eggy, and they must be a delight to chew through and swallow. I can't really describe it otherwise. The soup must be so savory that it's almost unbearable. It should be rich in flavor via hours of simmering a combination of bones, and then at the last second combining with the right amount of cooked down stock and miso paste. Finally, the toppings must fit with the flavor of the soup. The pork should be tender and just fatty enough. The bean sprouts or other green should still have some crunch. I love the bamboo shoots that have this slightly tangy cured flavor, and add another element of chew to the soup. And the egg should be marinated, a ni-tamago, that adds another element of creaminess through the lightly set yoke and a touch more saltiness that has penetrated the entire egg through the soy/mirin marinade. There you have it, toppings, soup, and noodles... a trifecta of man food in Japan. All of these elements come very very close to the real thing that I've had and often long for in Japan, when dining at Pikaichi in Allston. I think they've done a bang up job at servering patrons who all seem to be either Japanese or friends of Japanese or people similar to myself that have spent time abroad slurping down these awesome noodles. 
Ramen noodles in all their glory
So go to Pikaichi, whether a newcomer to the world of ramen, or a dedicated fan. If you have been to Wagamama, I'll tell you right now that I hate Wagamama. It sucks. Despite a decent broth, sucking down the noodles themselves is akin to slurping snot. They're too soft and lack body. Ugh. Do yourself a favor and try something better. Head straight down Comm Ave and be glad that you did.

Pikaichi Ramen
1 Brighton Ave
(at Malvern St) 
Boston, MA 02134

By the way... I can wait no longer for Guchi. I'm going back to Japan tomorrow and will report back on all the delicious food over yonder. Truth be told, I'm going back to see my college roommate, an exchange student from Kyoto, get hitched. Pretty girl, she. This is going to be one hell of a trip. So look forward to short, but sweet posts including but not limited to: Kyoto cuisine, Kurokawa Onsen, Osaka Dotonburi, and Sushi Kanesaka in Tokyo. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

ApotheCaring's Ice Tea: Special Blend for Milk and Honey Green Grocer of Salem

ApotheCaring Ice Tea
for Milk & Honey Green
Well, Memorial Day is here and I for one enjoy saluting our troops via a refreshing glass of ice tea. While we can all go the route of Lipton, or some other brand of ready-made, bottled iced tea, I had a nice little encounter the other day at Milk and Honey Green Grocer of Salem. The proprieter of ApotheCaring was featuring a special blend of tea that she made special for my favorite little grocery store.
Basil, linden, lemongrass,
elderberries, hibiscus, rosehip,
rasins and currants
Angie Adams, the herbalist of ApotheCaring, has spent a number of years studying the healing benefits of different teas and herbs, and I'll go ahead and say that this particular blend of tea is so refreshing it's got a good shot at counteracting all those other fatty toxins that I stuff into my mouth. It's mildly fruity and minty, with a combination of basil, linden, lemongrass, elderberries, hibiscus, rosehip, raisins, and currants. I never really think to brew my own ice tea, but after trying a sip of this beverage, I think I'll be brewing my own from here on in.
Steeping the tea
The recipe is simple and located on the back of the package. Ready yourself a pitcher that will hold approximately 2 quarts of the tea. Heat a quart of water on the stove, and after boiling, add in five heaping tablespoons of the tea blend. Turn off, and allow to steep for about a half hour. After this, strain the tea to remove all the herbs, and pour into the pitcher. Add enough ice to fill the container, and give a stir. At this point, you can either throw the pitcher into your fridge for further chilling, or enjoy sweet, sweet refreshment straight away.
Such a delicious ice tea, and different from all those overly sweet concoctions available in the refrigerators of various grocery stores. It's mildly sweet, and that touch of mint comes at the end, a wonderful feeling when breathing out after sipping your cool glass of relaxation. 
Ready to enjoy
If you can't make it to Milk and Honey to purchase this tea, it can be obtained through the ApotheCaring website. Either way, I'll definitely be taking the time to brew fresh ice tea this summer. Thanks to all who serve and have served, and here's to another way to welcome in summer with a classic beverage that everyone can enjoy.

ApotheCaring's Ice Tea
Available at Milk and Honey Green Grocer, Salem MA

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Woodman's of Essex

Woodman's of Essex
I'm about to breach a sensitive subject for us New Englanders, particularly one that hits the heart of every North Shore resident of Massachusetts that longs for a summer day on the bleakest of January nights. I'd say that there are four major clam shacks that are on equal footing, but each with something special that makes it outstanding, and maybe the occasional nitpicking negative that bastards like me will think of. The four that I speak of are Woodman's, J.T. Farnham's, Essex Seafood, and the Clambox. My favorite among the four remains Essex Seafood, despite having the least scenic view of the four. But today, we're going to take a little look at Woodman's, arguably the most famous, and the institution that lays claim as the first to ever fry a clam.
The line
Woodman's of Essex is a powerhouse of a clam shack. Set on Main Street in Essex after passing a handful of antique shops, the first thing you may see as you pass by on a beautiful day is a rapidly growing line, snaking past the building and down the street. Don't be deterred by the line. Make a quick left before the building, and you should have some success in locating a space in the large parking lot, not to mention a chance to take in the gorgeous views of the marsh behind the building. A quick stroll to the building, and it's time to queue up. The line moves at a reasonable pace, and allows for diners to thoroughly examine the menu and make their decision well before coming to the counter. There's also the famous lobster counter, where those in line can watch as customers pick out boiled lobsters fresh from a large brick vat where the crustaceans meet their maker.
Working the lobster counter
Now admittedly, here's where one might get a little annoyed. First off, being in line with a lot of loud out-of-towners can royally piss me off. There's a lot of New York plates in that parking lot, and a lot of women commenting ridiculously about calorie counting at a fried seafood joint. You also might notice that the guy boiling the lobsters keeps taking them out, sticking a thermometer in them, and then throwing them back into the water. I'm sure he knows what he's doing, but they must have overcooked or undercooked a shit ton of lobsters in order to require someone to physically pierce the shell of the lobster in order to check the temperature of the meat. Also check out the dedicated gift shop located behind the restaurant. A dedicated gift shop. Not like a few t-shirts for sale in the place, but a dedicated Disney-esque gift shop with stuffed lobsters and shit.
Twas the day
of the clambake
I should be happy that so many people want a clam shack experience, and that a place like Woodman's is doing such a bang up, smart business. And I am. At any rate, seeing the above each time that I travel to Woodman's is a little bit off putting... and I damn near pull the abort on the whole plan each time. However, the food is very good. The turnover of fresh seafood that they do at that restaurant promises nothing but the freshest, highest quality local sweet clams. They bang out their product like no other. And after you place your order and secure your number, you proceed to a second line where you can order drinks. This is genius because the timing kind of works out just right. As soon as you have secured your beverages, you only have a few minutes longer before the super efficient army of young girls at the food counter puts together your wares. One more note on the beverages, as tempting as it is, I recommend going non-alcoholic. If you buy a beer or a wine or a cocktail, you're not going to be able to sit outside and enjoy that priceless view. And sitting inside on a gorgeous day, especially a gorgeous day that inspired a run to a clam shack in the first place, well, kind of blows. You can have your booze and fight for one of the tables indoors, or you can grab your glass of lemonade and proceed to a picnic table on that refreshing lovely marsh. The choice is yours... just saying...
World's most efficient assembly line:
The ladies of Woodman's
Ok, so you've got your number, your beverage, and you're ready to start listening for numbers being called at the food number. Watching the girls put together each plate is actually part of the fun of coming to Woodman's. They're all in sync and it's just so fast. They assemble each order, and then quickly grab one of the microphones hanging from the ceiling to call the appropriate number. You can actually watch as they put together the food into a little Narraganset beer tray and pre-determine which order is yours. Then, you grab your food, take two steps left, load up on ketchup, salt, pepper, spoons, forks, napkins... whatever you might need, and hightail it the hell out of that noisy dining room.
The menu
Outside, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Fresh air and all of that. Gorgeous views, and kids playing in the marsh. This kind of a quiet atmosphere lets you take a deep breath and remember why this place became so renowned and beloved. It's Essex and it's the sea and it's those amazing clams. So let's take a rundown of the items that are really wonderful, and should not be missed.
Delicious clam chowder
THE CLAM CHOWDER: Clam chowder is a sacred thing in these parts, and Woodman's produces an excellent version, characteristic of great clam chowders in this area. While so many restaurants outside of New England try to produce their own New England clam chowder and throw it on their menus, many times I find that they are producing some sort of thick glop, more akin to the stuff we find in cans than the pure, silky, clammy broth that you can experience at a place like Woodman's. Laden with chunks of sweet clam, briny and harmoneously salty with the touch of added milk, each mouthful is a joy to be had... warm and comforting on a cool night, and served with just enough tender potatoes to make the chowder hearty. This is the consistency you find in a great Cape Ann chowder.
NANA BESSIE'S FAMOUS CLAM CAKES: If you're a Rhode Island transplant, like my bigger half, then come the warm weather, you start to twitch with a need to eat those fluffy, semi-greasy, crunchy fritters with chunks of clam throughout. You've heard me wax poetic about them before. (See entry Road Trip to Rhodie.) Since clam cakes are really a Rhode Island thing, there's no great promise that you're going to get a good version of them up here or even see them on the menu for that matter. But I would say that Woodman's puts out the best version of the other clam shacks up here. The clam cake is a bit bigger than those found at Flo's in Portsmouth, RI, but they're still full of bits of clams, light and fluffy on the inside, and have that very important outer crunch. You can order a single clam cake, a small order has four, and a large has eight. We made the mistake of ordering only the single, which is why I have no picture to show you. Trying to tell my husband to slow down so I can take a photo of something he's been craving since the temperature climbed above freezing is like trying to teach my stupid cat not to claw at the carpet. Not gonna listen, not gonna happen.
Crispy batter on sweet fried clams
THE CLAM PLATE: You may be tempted to order the "Down River" combo. If you're sharing with a lot of people, and you really feel like you'd be less of a person had you missed out on the scallops, fried fish, and shrimps, don't let me stand in your way. But if you really just want to focus in on what this place is so famous for and does so incredibly well, please refrain and just order the fried clam plate. Say those exact words, "clam plate." No strips, no fried lobster tail (honestly... don't see the appeal of that one), just the clam plate. Each fried clam is lightly covered with the batter. They're not greasy, but perfectly cooked and still juicy. There's a crunch, where you get the hit of the savory coating, then the sweetness of the clam, and finally the livery pay dirt of that briny belly. They're not too big and they're not too small. Each clam is uniformly fried, without any clumping. Woodman's also does a great job of keeping that crispness of the batter, even as you walk out and pop clam after clam after clam. I absolutely love these clams, and while the restaurant has grown into a bit of a phenom around here, they haven't lost their touch in producing the item that first made them famous.
Perfect onion rings, perfect
I'll also take a moment here to discuss the ONION RINGS. The onion rings come with any of the seafood plates, along with a helping of french fries. This may sound weird, but these are the best onion rings that I've ever had. They are super crunchy, a touch greasy, but generally just the greatest onion rings on this planet. You know the type of onion rings where you pick them up, and they don't a) flop over b) fall apart or c) have a ridiculous thick cornmeal kind of batter that has turned dark brown during the frying process. These lack all those nasty pitfalls and shine on as a paragon of onion ring glory. Amazing.
A succulent, done right lobster roll
THE LOBSTER ROLL: Despite my initial bitching about the dude boiling the lobsters out front, I will say that this place produces an excellent lobster roll. The meat is a little more chopped than say other lobster rolls that I've had elsewhere, but that's alright. It has the perfect amount of mayo, and they do their bun correctly. Split top bun, grilled with butter. There's no filler (i.e., celery, avocado, onion, etc) in the actual lobster mix. It's just the sweet, essence of the sea lobster, salt and a little mayo. That's a perfect sandwich for a nice day.
God's dining room
So, I've given you the rundown, the plusses and the minuses. While the crowds may be a little unnerving, Woodman's has attracted a following and a number of tourists for a reason. They may have hoards of people, but efficiency has still kept up the quality of the food. And the quality of the food is great. The views are perhaps even better. One last thing to keep in mind when visiting this place is that Woodman's, I think, is the most expensive of the clam shacks that I've mentioned above. It may be because it is the most famous, but the lobster roll is a good five dollars more than one that you might find at Essex Seafood, and you can count on adding a few more bucks for the clams than a similar order at one of the other places up the road. If all that doesn't deter you, I still think that everyone can enjoy an experience at Woodman's, which I do maybe once or twice a year. Come for the chowder, come for the view, and god damn, come for those sweet clams and damn near godly onion rings.

Woodman's of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, MA 01929

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trash Pantry: Hummus with Avocado and Lime

Welcome to another edition of trash pantry. Earlier in the week, we had a very successful feast of tacos, upon tacos, upon tacos. But as the week goes on, I gazed with growing pity at the avocado and lime that did not get used in our happy gorging. As the  two were perfectly ripe to the point of going bad, we were again challenged to create something delicious while only using ingredients on hand. 
Considering that we had just gone south of the border earlier in the week, and I didn't have any cilantro or red onion, I wasn't about to make guacamole. Instead, after searching the internet, I saw quite a few recipes for hummus that included the addition of avocado, particularly this one for guacamummus or hummamole. So based on this recipe with a few minor modifications, we were on our way to this nice little play on hummus.
The ingredients that I used are:

A ragtag group of ingredients

  • 1 can of chickpeas - rinsed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large cloves of elephant garlic - minced
  • 1 shallot - diced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 1 ripe avocado - cubed
  • 1 lime - squeezed
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Everything together in a bowl
I added the listed ingredients into a large bowl in the order stated, mainly because I wanted the juice of the lime to hit the avocado and prevent the pretty green fruit from turning the color of coco puff soaked milk. After a quick mash with a potato masher, it was easy enough to dive in with an immersion blender, adding about a quarter cup of water to thin out the mixture and create a smooth hummus.
Creamy, tangy and smooth:
a nice twist on hummus
This hummus was pretty darn great. The addition of avocado to your typical hummus seems to play along with the tahini paste to create a very buttery, rich and smoother texture. It's darn near creamy. But the addition of the lime also adds a sharper tang than you would find in a typical hummus. It's just something different, and a nice treat to have made based off of items that were a couple days from going bad. I think this might be a big hit to bring to a summer cookout. And there you go.

A perfect homemade tortilla chip
to deliver hummus to taste buds
PS - If you're anything like us, when you make tacos, there are not only the few stray ingredients left over, but inevitably, you're going to have a few extra tortillas that are in danger of going moldy in ones fridge. In our case, there were about four flour tortillas left over. A quick brush on each side with olive oil, stack them up, slice them into 6 pies, spread in a single layer onto a baking sheet, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Into the oven (preheated) at 400 degrees. Eight minutes later, you have some freshly baked, delicious chips to enjoy with your hummus. This has been another edition of trash pantry.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Foumami's Chicken Katsu Sandwich

Why do we love sandwiches so much? Because they're amazing, that's why. They offer the best way to simultaneously deliver a symphony of flavor, perfectly dictated by the person that created them. When sandwiches house high quality, true to flavor ingredients that complement each other, and can be eaten gracefully without spilling all over the place and soiling one's fingers, palms and wrists, you've got a real winner. Even though they have a wealth of flavor, they're never stuffy. It's really quite amazing, if you think about it. A great sandwich spells a great day out enjoying yourself, or perhaps more importantly a bit of an oasis in an otherwise stuffy, can't breathe sort of work day. You know the feeling. Those few signature sandwiches that somebody really put a lot of heart and soul into.
Chips, sandwich, pickle
One of these perfect sandwiches has received rave reviews for about the past year in Boston. Foumami is located in one of those fancy pants office buildings at the corner of Franklin and High Streets. While there are other joints that received a bit of praise after opening in a similar time frame, the lines at those places have diminished, and Foumami has retained a now rightfully called loyal following. They deserve it too. The entrepreneurial owner is there every day, calling to customers that their orders are ready. And the sandwiches are the right combination of Asian fusion, great, interesting bread, and skillfully prepared and combined ingredients. 
Chinese New Year sandwich
I've tried three of their sandwiches so far. The first was a Chinese New Year special with spicy, slow cooked barbecue pork, and a red cabbage and carrot slaw. While it was tasty, and received rave reviews from friends and colleagues, it lacked one element of the ultimate sandwich. It was super messy. Sauce from the pork and slaw dripped down my arms like each stream was running a race. Maybe that's a little bit of hyperbole. But still, it wasn't a dainty sandwich.
Ribeye sandwich
The second sandwich I'm familiar with was far less messy. The grilled ribeye sandwich was scrumptious with savory, thin sliced beef, a few leaves of romaine and the "almost always a good idea" generous heap of sweet, sauteed onions. This is a sandwich that every dad on the planet, whether cautious with exotic foods or not, would devour and ask for another only to get "no no" looks from hi wife. It's sweet, salty and savory with the only truly exotic element being that of the bread...and the bread at Foumami can do no wrong. A very nice sandwich, but perhaps too tame to be granted a gold star in the world of rare, very special sandwiches.
The amazing chicken katsu sandwich
The third sandwich is the one that I have found myself drawn to every single time since trying it. I can't seem to tear myself from ordering that sandwich, because if I order something else to try something new, then damn, despite how great it was, I still wouldn't have my beloved chicken katsu sandwich. If you've ever been to Japan, or eaten at a reputable Japanese restaurant, you know that their fried chicken is not like our fried chicken. When served as a cutlet with the traditional panko coating, it's crispy and crunches on the outside only to give way to juicy, tender and flavorful white meat. It's truly delicious. Combined with the crunch of crisp, slightly bitter cabbage, then umami slices of tomato stacked in a single layer, and a drizzle of the sticky sweet, tangy with vinegar dark brown katsu sauce, you really have a winner. The sandwich would not be appropriately matched with a fluffy bun. Instead, the signature shao bing bread that they use for all the Foumami sandwiches is perfect. It's chewy and also soaks up just the right amount of sauce. The cabbage also acts as a block so that each bite is neat, not sloppy and runny. Neatly sliced in half, you have a real treat on your hands, with each chomp of chewy thin bread, and the symphony of salty, sweet, fresh and crunchy. I wish I had one right now.
I sincerely hope that Foumami keeps it's attention to detail and steadfast grasp on quality intact. I always look forward to a lunch where I can run out and grab a perfect sandwich. Don't you?

Foumami magic
225 Franklin Street  Boston, MA 02110
(617) 426-8858

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Momofuku's Pulled Pork

It was a lazy Saturday morning. The bigger half was at work, and I hadn't a thing on my agenda for the day beyond tidying up and relaxing. And of course, Sunday dinner. So with time on my side, and a crack-like habit to consume all things swine, I started scouring the interwebs for a proper pulled pork recipe.
Unfortunately, tons of these recipes center on the use of a slow cooker and a bottle of shitty barbecue sauce. There's nothing wrong with either of these things. However, when cooking pulled pork in a puddle of sugar and ketchup, you end up with something that does not properly render all the fat into a pronounced, concentrated pork flavor. In fact, it's mushy. People who love barbecue sauce love these recipes, singing the praises of a crock-pot to the high heavens. As you can guess, I think these recipes blow wicked hard. 
4.5 lb pork shoulder
But in a land of crappy recipes, there are a number of chefs and publications that do things right. I turn to chefs like Martin Picard and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for techniques that will do right by meat. In this case, a fantastic, simple and straightforward recipe presented itself, a wonderful little ditty from David Chang as published in the first issue of Lucky Peach. This is Momofuku's pulled pork.
So after stopping by my local butcher, the ever reliable New England Meat Market in Peabody, I arrived home with about a 4 1/2 lb pork shoulder. The recipe was simple, requiring a stint overnight in the fridge after rubbing with a mixture of salt, sugar and pepper. I combined approximately five tablespoons of salt, five tablespoons of sugar, and a good teaspoon of cracked pepper and proceeded to rub all over my precious pork. Onto a sheet pan, covered with plastic wrap and into the fridge overnight went the meat.
Into the dutch oven
Late the next morning, I threw my dutch oven into the actual oven and preheated to about 425 degrees. In went the pork for a half hour, and then I reduced the temperature to 250 to slowly cook over the next six hours. The bigger half came home from work, a fork was stuck into the butt, and the tender strands of slowly rendered protein pulled apart to reveal something prettier than the Mona Lisa (what a coy bitch). 
Succulent pulled pork
Now when I say this pork was tender, easily pulled apart, and intensely savory, I speak the truth. It was delicious and simple. Remember, there was no sauce, only the most basic of seasonings, and a well spent chunk of time allowing the meat to soak up the salt and sugar, and in turn roast and roast and roast to produce something truly special. Every bite was delicious, juicy, tender and packed with pork flavor. I don't think I could do any better with any addition of sauce or spices. It made for a wonderful meal on a Sunday night, complemented by a serving of arroz blanco and a simple fresh salsa of onions, green bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and the necessary lime, salt and pepper. Oh, and the following day we had pulled pork tacos with guac, salsa, limes and cilantro. How awesome is that? One hell of a recipe.

With salsa and white rice

Boneless pork shoulder
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of pork
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sugar per pound of pork 
black pepper