Thursday, January 15, 2015

Soho Cafe

There is a little known place, in a village called East Oak Lane, on the physical edge of Philadelphia. I'd heard rumors about this place from foodie friends. It even got a shout-out from Anthony Bourdain on The Layover. You drive for miles, north up 5th street till you swear you can't be in the city any more.  All of a sudden the storefront signs start changing to Korean.  In the span of a few blocks you are transported to South Korea. You pass Jong Ka Jib on the left, Kim's Korean Bar-B-Q on the right.  You round the corner onto Cheltenham Ave and tucked between a bank and a gas station is Café Soho.  The exterior unassuming to the extreme, save for the uniquely Asian designed chicken sign hanging out front. 

Inside, the place looks like a failed night club from Old City circa 2005. Mirrored ceiling tiles, black and red leather banquets, a discoball like chandelier, K-Pop blasting from a big screen TV.  To the untrained eye, these should all be big red flags to turn around and walk out. But wait, is that a call button on the edge of each table?  Do they give you a plastic pitcher of water at each table, and pour with both hands? Ah-ha. We've found the place.

Café Soho is an ode to Seoul and the ubiquitous Hof's that are too numerous to count in that city. In Korea the Hof (from the German Hofbrauhaus) is basically a sparsely decorated restaurant serving two things - pitchers of cheap beer and plates of fried chicken. If Japan was all about fish, Korea was all about land animals - namely chicken & beef. Fried chicken is a staple there. It is cheap and it is done impressively well - fried hard and slathered with a sweet & spicy sauce. It is the go-to for college kids, after-work office workers and just about anyone else that needs a beer and a bite. 

The kim chi pancake was tasty. Just crispy enough to not flop over when you pick it up for the dipping. A little heat, but not enough to make you wince. On it's own it merits a decent nod, but it is just a warm up for the main event. 

Ahh, this is what I've been waiting for. Look at those beautiful little nuggets of fried deliciousness. These little guys are of the boneless variety.  It's like popcorn chicken, but actually good. The meat to breading ratio is spot-on and the spicy sauce coating each piece packs a punch. Between the four of us, we devoured these in about 5 minutes. Even the girl that doesn't like spicy stuff couldn't stop eating them. She was visibly sweating and going back for more.

And now onto the original. The bone-in chicken wings. The head of the class. The reason hot oil matters. Oh Captain, my Captain. Fried to a shattering crunch that is audible with every bite. The meat is tongue scalding hot, but that won't stop you. They are light and crispy, not greasy. They are near perfect on their own. A little soy dipping sauce puts them into an ethereal plane of existence.

They do a take-out business, but I don't see how anyone could make it home with a box of that chicken sitting next to them on the passenger seat untouched. I have joined the ranks of those that now make pilgrimages to Oak Lane for Café Soho. It's a hankering that cannot be denied, and satisfied only one way.  This is hands down the best fried chicken I've had in Philadelphia. It is worth the drive, and so much more.

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets!

Cafe Soho
468 Cheltenham Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19126

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Goat Cheese Lemon Pasta with Kale

When life hands you kale flower sprouts, make goat cheese lemon pasta with it! In our CSA pick up last week we were handed a curios new vegetable.  Basically a hybrid between brussels sprouts and kale, they are tiny little sprouts with a purplish leaves. The flavor is not quite as pungent as regular kale, and since they are so small you can eat the entire leaf without having to trim the tough rib from the center.  They also last a while in the fridge - added bonus.
The official website (when did vegetables start getting their own websites?) claims they are super healthy and lists some recipes, none of which sound particularly appealing.  So what does one make with these you ask? Apparently pretty much anything you would make with regular kale. When in doubt, sauté in garlic in olive oil! I did a quick search online for kale recipes involving pasta (we had half a box of rotini in the pantry) and one of my favorite blogs happened to have the recipe below.  It's simple as can be - sauté onions & garlic, add kale, lemon zest & juice; cook the pasta, add goat cheese and combine with the kale mixture.  We had dinner ready in 20 minutes. Rachael Ray would be jealous.

The recipe below is from two peas & their pod, slightly adapted by me.  I've included the direct link to their original recipe here.

12 ounces pasta - penne, farfalle, rotini, etc.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot (or 1/2 a small red onion), diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Dash of crushed red pepper flakes (if you can handle some heat, substitute an Italian long hot pepper, sliced thin)
Zest of 1 large lemon
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 small bunch kale (about 5 cups), coarsely chopped, stems removed (we substituted kale flower sprouts)
5 ounces goat cheese
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and cook pasta according to package directions.
2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot/onion and garlic. Cook until tender, about 4-5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and/or long hots. Stir in the chopped kale. Stir and add the lemon zest and lemon juice. Cook until kale leaves are wilted and tender.
3. Carefully drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water. Return to pot. Crumble the goat cheese over the hot pasta and stir until creamy. It should look like mac & cheese.  If it's too dry, add some pasta water and stir. Add the kale/lemon mixture and stir well. Season with salt and black pepper, to taste. Serve immediately. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tuk Tuk Real

Alex Boonphaya, who owns Circles in South Philly and Northern Liberties, and his sous chef, Silvestre Rincon have hopped onto the Mexican fusion train and opened Tuk Tuk Real at 5th & South.  The name is a play on the fusion concept - Tuk Tuks are the little 3-wheeled taxis buzzing all over Bangkok and Real meaning "royal" in Spanish. 

As the story goes, the two men had cook-off at Circles NoLibs, with dining guests rating each dish in a six-course meal.  They had to use a mix of Thai & Mexican ingredients and guests were not told who prepared which dish.  Rincon was pronounced the winner and named executive chef of Tuk Tuk Real, and the menu reflects his influence.  It very much leans toward the Mexican side - nachos, tacos, sopes, quesadillas, and  burritos, but with a Thai twist to each.  Think chile lamb mole, chipotle curry shrimp, lemongrass carnitas, and lamb massaman  nachos.

Salsa verde & chile de'arbol sauce with homemade chips are served straight away.  Based on the picture above, you could be at pretty much any Mexican restaurant in Philly.  Things quickly take a turn though. 

We got a plate of the lamb massaman nachos. Homemade nachos piled high with slowly cooked massaman spiced lamb, melted cheese, pickled red onions, cilantro and Mexican crema. At first thought Mexican & Thai would seem strange bedfellows, but all the limes, cilantro, fresh veggies & hot chilis present in both cuisines make this an intriguing and sultry relationship. 

Chorizo Tamales - the specialty of the day. Beautifully steamed with a perfect texture, fork tender chunks of chorizo sausage tucked inside like a little present. These were excellent and could hold their own with any at the taquerias in South Philly.

An assortment of sides for nibbling.  Some refried beans, fried plantains and black beans going clockwise from top-left.  The plantains were crisp on the outside and tender inside. The deeply flavored beans reflect the care and expertise of Chef Rincon.  A bonus at Tuk Tuk Real, like the Circles restaurants, is that they are BYO. So your meal just got that much cheaper.

The list of tacos here is impressive.  From the al pastor standby, to confit pork belly with kimchi and everything in between. I went for a plate of the pork kaprow tacos - roasted pork, salsa verde, pickled onion, and bits of fried basil scattered on top.  The pork is braised to a lovely crispness and intoxicating aroma. The pickled onion cuts through the succulent meat and the fried basil adds a dimension of brightness, taking the usual place of cilantro. I absolutely loved these.

I do think they could use some polish and refinement on the concept and execution. There's too many dishes that are just standard takes on Mexican dishes.  I can get beef tongue tacos at Taco Riendo or an al pastor burrito at Los Taquitos de Puebla. So I don’t really see the point in just doing standards like quesadillas and fajitas, unless they are executed impeccably. A few dishes were a bit dreary; fish tacos were under-fried and soggy, the nachos could use a better distribution of toppings on the layers underneath, and the salsas were a bit flat and lacked any real heat.

That being said, there's a lot to like on this evolving menu. The Thai/Mexican fusion thing is surprisingly appealing and doesn't feel like a gimmick.  Although the restaurant was fairly empty on Wednesday night in December, they seemed to be doing a brisk takeout business, which seemed encouraging. Looking forward to some return trips to see what twists and turns the menu takes on the road from Mexico to Thailand.

Food Baby Rating:  Twins!

Tuk Tuk Real
429 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Japan / Street Food

One of the joys of traveling in Asia is the myriad of barely identifiable street foods. Asians eat 11 times a day, I swear. You almost never see someone walking down the street without something to nibble on.  As long as you're adventurous and have some cash handy, you can get anything from deep fried fish cakes to green tea ice cream cones. While in Tokyo, we mostly ate at normal sit-down restaurants. I had a bit of an agenda to hit certain places, which didn't leave much room for street food grazing.  Kyoto was a different story though. Since we had no preordained plans on where to eat, the street was our oyster, so to say. We also did a wonderful food & sake tasting tour with JD Kai in the Fushimi neighborhood.  We got to try all kinds of things and talk with the owners of each little shop or stand.  If you ever find yourself in Kyoto I would highly recommend Jason's tour - I think it was the best money we spent in Japan. 

Kyoto is also home to a huge covered market. It basically runs 5 to 6 city blocks and has every type of crazy Japanese specialty you can imagine. The above boiled mini octopuses being one of the crazier items.  

These are basically a little snack on a stick. The octopus is boiled and marinated in a soy based sauce to give it that red color. Then they make a little slit in the head and stuff it with a hard boiled quail egg.  Seriously.  You are not likely to see these at Reading Terminal any time soon. I can happily report that it was delicious. The octopus wasn't chewy at all (probably because it was so small) and the quail egg was a surprising little morsel of umami goodness. I'd go back for a few more of these. 

One of the few street eats we got in Tokyo - a deep fried curry croquette-type thing in the Asakusa neighborhood. The line was pretty long, which is always a good sign, and they are served hot out of the oil. You're lucky to not incinerate your taste buds with the first bite. It was crunchy and tasty though. Perfect snack after visiting the temple there. 

Do you like green tea? Would you prefer it in cube form? Can't pass up the chance to try Jello green tea cubes dusted in powdered green tea. Right? 

I can't say that I loved the texture. And the green tea powder on the outside sucks up any and all moisture in your mouth. It's king of like eating a tablespoon of cocoa powder. Better have a drink handy. They do pack a nice little buzz of caffeine though. 

Okonomiyaki is served all over Japan.  The wikipedia entry describes it as a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want", and yaki meaning "grilled" or "cooked". Apparently the recipe & ingredients can change dramatically depending on what part of the country you are in. 

We found a little shop at the end of our lane in Kyoto that looked to be doing a brisk okonomiyaki business and the kitchen/grill was right out on the street. It also had all kinds of weird tchotchke things on the walls, a mildly disturbing female mannequin seated at each table, wildly inappropriate painted wood plates hanging at eye level, and a menu printed with the one and only item they serve. We had to try this place. 

The resulting okonomiyaki was actually pretty good. Although I think Josh and I liked it more than the ladies. It's basically a big eggy pancake with all kinds of stuff thrown in the middle, a hearty douse of soy sauce and some nori shreds on top. Not bad for $6. 

A nightime view of a Kyoto street above. Every paper lantern is a sign for a different restaurant or bar. We spent a lot of time on this street.

The very first stop on our food tour after meeting our guide was a little shop run by a mother and son team making fried fish cakes with various fillings.  They start off with a fish "paste" made from ground cod and then a little rice flour is added as a binder.  They add in ginger, mushrooms, shrimp and/or other things and give it a quick fry.  

It was really fun watching them work and getting to chat with them (translated through our guide). They take such pride in their product. Only fresh oil is used to do the frying. They make their batch for the day, and when they run out they close up shop. We tried one of each variety - mushroom was the best. 

The fish paste thing gives you a moment for pause, and I have to admit it's a bit of an odd consistency.  But once it's fried up it's pretty tasty (like most fried things). People eat these things all over the place. You can even get them at 7-11 (which by the way are everywhere in Japan). The one above was from a different vender in Kyoto and served on a stick (pair of chopsticks) - note the shrimp tail sticking out the top.  Yum! 

Some beautiful local produce in the covered market. Those are purple yams in the top left, persimmons, chestnuts and shishito peppers, going clockwise. The Japanese are surprisingly big on chestnuts - they are everywhere. The smell of them roasting reminds you of walking the streets of Manhatten in the winter. 

A super adorable husband and wife team making some treats for us. On the right, she's frying up these little pancake things called imagawayaki with either custard or sweet red bean paste as a filling. It's quite an art getting the batter cooked to the right temperature, adding the filling, then doing the flip to seal it. She's been at this a while.  On the left, he's making tokoyaki - little batter balls with bits of octopus, green onion and ginger. These are even smaller and tougher to flip without making a mess. This guy had skills. 

The red bean paste filling in the imagawayaki was my favorite. The outside is absolutely perfect GBD (golden brown & delicious) with just a bit of crunch around the nearly molten filling inside. Best to let these cool a bit before biting in.

The tokoyaki finished product - you have to eat it with a toothpick or else you're going to be very messy and have some funky smelling fingers. We actually ended up having these a couple other times while in Japan. Great little snacks while roaming the streets.   

One thing that the Japanese definitely love is vending machines. There is one on every corner and you can get just about anything - water, soda, coffee, milk, iPods, ramen, underwear, you name it. Found this shot of Tommy Lee Jones looking uber-excited about his Premium Boss Coffee, a product of the ubiquitous Suntory company. Total Lost in Translation moment.  Life imitating art. Love it. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Japan / Tsukiji Fish Market

A trip to the Tsukiji  fish Market is on every list of top sights in Tokyo.  This place is the real thing, not remotely dumbed down, little trucks and carts whizzing everywhere, fisherman shouting and bartering, complete with several hundred pound tunas, live eels squiggling in vats of salt water, and every color and shape of seafood you can imagine.  The market is divided into two parts - the inner market for wholesalers, where store owners and chefs come to shop and haggle; and the outer market, lined with little stalls and restaurants where normal people come to buy their fish for the day and fisherman get their breakfast after an early morning on the water.

Approaching from the outside, it just looks like  a bustling warehouse . Step inside though and you are in the midst of the world's largest fish and seafood market. Walking through the endless aisles of the inner market, it's hard to believe there is anything left in the ocean after the catch. There is every species and size of shellfish, mollusk, octopus, squid, fish and caviar here. Things that are instantly recognizable and others that you never knew existed.

The building feels ancient, like a relic from the past that resists all notions of modernization. You are constantly dodging carts and forklifts, shimmying down tiny aisles, stepping over puddles and trying not to get in the way. It is frenetic and exciting. A symphony of moving parts, sights, sounds and action.

Every stall specializes in one thing or the other. Great uni over here, the best crabs over there, gorgeous roe around the corner.  Tokyo Chefs have their favorite spots, but as a tourist it's fun just to walk the aisles and take it all in.  Like most of Tokyo, it is an assault on the senses. The action starts early, around 5am for the famous tuna auction with brokers bidding top dollar for the good stuff.  The inner market starts breaking down around 10am, with the outer market following suit a few hours later.

Bicycles are common here, and a reasonably easy way to get around the market if you know where you are going. Large tour groups are banned from the market, so you never get that feeling of following the tourist hoards to the guidebook highlights. Small, private groups are allowed though, which is what we did. This was our only organized tour in Tokyo and it was the perfect place for it. Having a guide let us know what we were looking at, she found us a great sushi spot for lunch, and helped navigate the labyrinth that is the Tsukiji  fish Market.

Some beautiful roe on display.  The market in it's current form has been there since 1935. They are building a shiny new building, scheduled to be opened next year, that will move the inner market and it's tuna auctions a few miles away. The outer market will remain where it is. This is somewhat controversial and kind of a bummer to the foodie tourists coming to see this place in action.

Seafood in every color, shape and size.

Mmmm...dungeness crab, dusted in panko breading.

Sashimi grade tuna, ready for sale, and snacks.

Some pretty sea snails.

No idea what kind of fish these are, but they look like they would make great darts. 

Fresh octopus tentacles, ready for a sashimi plate. 

I've never even seen shrimp this color.  An electric orange with blue roe.  Gorgeous.

Bet you can't guess what these are. They waste nothing here. 

The aftermath.  Looks more like a horror movie than a market.

Fresh urchins.  Danger, sharp objects. 

And their beautiful uni.  Better than any foie gras you'll ever have.

Ever seen wasabi in it's non-grated version? These are the little plant stems, recently harvested. It grows along stream beds in Japan and purportedly has anti-microbial properties, which is part of the reason it's served alongside raw fish. They sell this all over the market, along with the wasabi graters.  You won't see this at SuperFresh.

Another specialty of the fish market, and Japan in general, is the venerated steel used for knives. There are a few shops in the outer market where you can pick up a hand forged, authentic hocho.  These are high carbon steel, feel amazing in your hand, and are insanely sharp. Once you pick out your horse, they'll sharpen it up and even engrave your initials for you.

Finally, lunch time! Our guide found us a great sushi counter down some alley of the outer market which we never would have found on our own. All of the fish was on display in table top cases and we got a front row seat to watch the chef's in action.

Watching sushi and sashimi being prepared by a trained chef is mesmerizing. With a deft hand, they know just how to slice that piece of fish to get the optimal color, texture and most importantly flavor.

Some beautiful uni & roe rolls were little treasures of umami. We sampled a selection of tuna, yellowtail, hamachi, mackerel, shrimp, and salmon.  The fish literally melts in your mouth in a lusciously piquant, eye-popping burst of flavor. Having the chance to consume said sushi just yards from the world's largest fish market is an unparalleled experience. One of my favorites experiences in Japan.