The Jerk, Man.

Lately, my friend Scott and I have been scouring West Harlem for new places to eat. Some might say that there are plenty of options, but alas, the road to good eats is perilous, laden with traps and disappointments.

M & G Diner had closed. For what reason exactly, vacation, renovation or for good, I do not understand. We weren’t in the mood for Sylvia’s, Amy Ruth’s, Bayou, Miss Spoonbread, and Rack and Soul. We tried the new 2010 Pier restaurant. This place was as if some Japanese business man thought it would be a good idea to open a megaspace smack in the middle of Harlem with full band and quirky design. It feels like Disney meets Captain Nemo meets Hot 97 gone awry, and with the average appetizer at $18. (@#!$^%#!), we graciously made our getaway.

The streets are dotted with delis, bodegas, hair salons, churches, fried chicken spots, and West Indian joints. Not all of them looked appetizing. Wide boulevards like ACP and FDB all the way up to 157th Street yielded the same old same old. Last night we headed to Charles Southern Fried, famous for an $11.99 buffet, but they were closed. Harlem Grill was closed too.

On 132nd Street, we settled on A & D West Indian, sporting a neon light that shone “Yard Style”. This can only mean that the jerk chicken is prepared in a converted steel drum right there on the sidewalk. Illegal, I’m sure, but proper. No place to sit unless you join the locals, so it was jerk to go.

We sat across the street on a stoop, and enjoyed the R & B tunes from a boom box regular. At the bodega I picked up some Prestige beer, a Haitian lager with a touch of toasty malt flavor, and we stared out wide into the avenue observing Harlem night life.

The jerk was excellent, not too spicy or saucy, just right.

There was a sidewalk barbecue to our right, bar patrons at P & J on our left, the West Indian diners across the way, and our gentleman friend with the boom box tacitly gave us permission to sit next to him as long as we enjoyed the music. He was drinking Bud, and I offered to buy him one. “Maybe next time,” he said.

Harlem was still, not quiet, its pulse barely beating past normal. Scott and I argued over all the changes in Harlem, and how long it would take before the city moves the real people out, what with all the new buildings at ridiculous rents going up at a record pace.

Long time spots like A & D will eventually lose its lease, and in its place a Duane Reade and a Starbuck’s. The Harlem renaissance will lose the Harlem part, good and bad.

But we figure this is a long time coming. Until then, we’ll keep trying, looking for a slice of Harlem in a neighborhood that never gives up.

Who killed the Bloody Mary?

Contributed by Scott Coscia

I’m a child of the 70’s.  Anybody else remember the time?  It was one of the first real times in American history where hedonism was considered a cool thing, and my parents adopted the philosophy as best as they could.  They would throw parties and instead of illicit substances (Dad was a member of the law enforcement community,) the booze would flow freely.

I can remember staying up past my bed time and asking Mom who was loosened up by liquid refreshment, for a sip of her cocktail.  Her drink of choice was the spiced tomato juice cocktail known as The Bloody Mary.  It was a simple recipe, Gordon’s Vodka, and Mr. And Mrs. T’s Blood Mary Mix, pour over ice and garnish with a lemon.

The sips I would take hooked me, and hooked me hard.  No my parents weren’t contributing to the delinquency of a minor.  For me it was all about the taste, and nothing about the alcohol.  As time progressed, I would ask for my own Mary, but mine was of the virgin variety.  Heck I couldn’t order tomato juice in a diner without putting salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon in it.

When I became an adult my romance with the drink did not end.  Sundays would be the day I would make my own, but it wasn’t over brunch or anything like that.  This was before football where I would make a big pot of chili to create my own indoor tailgating experience.  It was a manly experience.  I would fool around with different mixtures and spices like a mad scientist till I came up with the perfect mixture.  I found the formula that I found to be ideal, but more on that later.

I would order them when I was out, and couldn’t find many that I found to be anywhere near as good as my own.  I found that most places would try and substitute heat for flavor.  They would make their own mix, but add too much horseradish, or make Tabasco the main component of the mix.  I never forget one particular bistro added so much that I thought I was drinking the hot pepper sauce on the rocks.  I could not even taste the vodka.  For a moment I thought that somebody was playing a joke on me, but this was way before that skinny guy with the trucker hats had his show on MTV, and I wasn’t famous anyhow.

As much as I remember the bad, I remember the good.  The Oak Room at The Plaza was known for their Blood Mary’s; I was especially impressed with the fact that they garnished each one with a jumbo shrimp.  I remember vividly that a particular Applebee’s in Staten Island had the perfect mixture of zesty tomato, tangy citrus, bold spice and after bite of vodka.  Don’t go trying to find the drink again.  I have since been back and the mix is like every other chain restaurant’s version…just lacking.

I still order them to this day.  On a trip to the carnivore’s mecca, Peter Luger’s, I ordered one while everybody had ordered the local Brooklyn Lager.  People looked at me, and I responded “It’s like an appetizer drink.”  I guess that can best describe how I feel about the drink.  It’s great to start things off, but would you really make a meal out of clam’s casino?  Could you imagine the acid reflux after a night of pounding spicy tomato juice?

There are many variations of the drink.  Unlike the Cosmo, and the Perfect Manhattan, you will find different recipes for the drink in different bartending manuals.  Its history is also in dispute; the common story is that it was started in Paris by an American ex-pat named Fernand Petoit at Harry’s New York Bar.  I’ve heard that it was created in a roadside bar in Texas but it was made with beer.

The variations of the drink are as diverse as the people who drink it.  I’ve heard of the Blood Maria made with tequila, the Bloody Bull which is made with the addition of beef stock, the Bloody Miho which substitutes wasabi for horseradish, and the unbeknownst to me why it was ever conceived, the Blood Caesar which was made with Clamato.  I’ve sampled the Salsa Mary, which doesn’t leave much mystery as to how it got its name, and the Red Snapper which is made with Gin. Which seems like the origin of its name came from the color coupled with the snap you get at the end of drinking any gin based beverage.

I am a purist and find vodka to be the only liquor that should be mixed with tomato juice.  As far as what liquor I use, I find that any old vodka will suffice, whether it be Popov, Mr. Boston, or Grey Goose.  I like my martini’s made with Grey Goose, but to save money, the house vodka suffices.  In a Bloody Mary, you don’t know the difference between the vodkas because the other ingredients are so powerful.  The only major difference is how you feel after consuming many of them.  I’ve found the better the vodka, the lesser the hang over, but subsequently the lighter my wallet.

As to answer the title of who killed The Bloody Mary?  I will hark back to the 70’s when I respond in a Clue like answer:  It was the The Sex in The City crowd, in the trendy lounge with the Mojito.  I guess spilled tomato juice is just too tough to get out of Prada.

Here is my recipe for the Perfect Bloody Mary:

1 oz. vodka, any kind
1 bottle Mc Ilhenny and Co. Tabasco brand Bloody Mary Mix
1 bottle Hot Sauce
Old Bay Seasoning
1 teaspoon Chopped Horseradish
Stalk of celery
½ lemon cut into two pieces
½ lime cut into two pieces

Fill a tall glass ¾ with ice.
Add vodka.
Fill the glass a little from the top with the Bloody Mary Mix.
Add hot pepper sauce taste.
Add horseradish.
Squeeze one piece of lemon and one piece of lime into drink.
Shake in generous amounts of Old Bay.
Stir with a spoon and garnish with celery stalk, lemon and lime.

Notes: Some say use tomato juice as opposed to a mixer. Tabasco makes a quality mixer, but it does need some doctoring.

Some recommend shaking, but I have found that if shaken too much, the drink can take on a carbonated effect.  Any hot pepper based sauce will work, but you want to avoid anything that cuts down the heat with fruit.  I like a brand called Yucatan Sunshine which uses carrots to lessen the burn of the habaneros.

Dim Sum on my Mind

Chinatown in San Francisco rivals that of New York, and I always look forward to comparing restaurants and styles. As a huge fan of dim sum, my only complaint is that the variety and selection at most restaurants have narrowed. Dishes tend to look and taste the same, as less attention is put on branching out to other choices, and I don’t mean more chicken feet. At Ton Kiang, a restaurant on Geary Blvd. specializing in Hakka cuisine, my dim sum prayers were answered.

As could be read through their website, “The Hakka people originated in the far north of China over 1000 years ago. During the course of several great migrations they dispersed across China and throughout Asia. Many settled near the Ton Kiang (East River) Province. Hakka means “guest” and refers to people living in an area who are not natives. The Hakka people picked up dishes and ingredients from each of the regions through which they traveled and incorporated them into their cuisines.”

Therefore the menu offers a much wider variety of classic Chinese dishes. My bartender friend Jared at the W hotel suggested Ton Kiang, but stressed, “Go early.” I showed up at 11:00 am and had to wait an hour. From the looks of things I thought they were giving away something for free, or I was a tourist who didn’t know the code word for gaining access.

When I finally got in, what a sight to behold. A tantalizing parade of delicacies transported me to Hong Kong. The rapid fire attack of hot, fresh goodies never ceased. Every time I ordered a dish, the next one seemed more interesting. And everyone spoke a food competent English. No translation was necessary, though. Shrimp dumplings get pea tips, chives, spinach, napa cabbage, mushroom or scallops. There are pork buns, dumplings, roast chicken, duck, and sticky rice with meat wrapped in a leaf. I feasted on asparagus (asparagus!), long beans, bok choy, shrimp-stuffed eggplants and rice crepes. There were pig knuckles, clams, fried prawns, stuffed scallops, crab claws and egg rolls. It was a dizzying display of masterful dishes, not a melon in the lot.

As usual I ordered far more than I can eat, but with ingredients that fresh, and preparation that satisfying, who can blame me?

There was no time to talk, and I definitely skipped dessert. It was easily the most powerful dim sum experience I had ever enjoyed. Since then I have been lamenting in NYC. I’ve got dim sum on my mind.

Mexicali

San Francisco needs no introduction. It has fast become a great food town with all the trimmings. But there are several charms in the surrounding Bay area as well, most notably The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, four star dining California style. Other notables can be sought out by word of mouth. In this instance just 17 miles north of San Francisco, in Novato of Marin County, Las Guitarras stands proudly. Since 1978, owners Roja and Maria Elena have been serving the best of Mexico to anyone willing to take the trip.

The purpose of the visit was to meet the family of my companion, K, who feels partially raised by this tight knit Mexican-American family. Although she is she is Costa Rican, she often acts like a Chicana. Tia Emma, who apparently was working that night, invited us to her table. Her son Alberto was at the table too, watching his daughter Isabella playing with a ballon. This is a family joint, family run, and the sight of a Mexican family at play during work hours is endearing. Isabella was just too cute. The boss sat down, and her first glance sent chills down my spine. I came under immediate scrutiny. I told a few jokes, aided by the margaritas, and wooed them with my voracious appetite.

It’s hard not to stare at the grill from my vantage point. The giant oysters, laying there naked and ready, looked look like clients of Balco as well. But first the margaritas, on the rocks made with El Jimador tequila, pure and delicious, easily one of the best I’ve ever had on either side of the border. Not to be outdone, but feeling good, I ordered number two, but requested it frozen. Lalo, part of the family, took quick but cordial offense. “Frozen. Then you lose the fine taste of the tequila. We don’t do frozen at Las Guitarras.” I swallowed in embarrassment, and said, “Of course.” Then Lalo brought out a fresh concoction, this time with the addition of hibiscus, a potent flavor making for an unusually fabulous libation. Time for those monster oysters. Maria Elena insisted on the oyster al Jerez, and I asked for the BBQ for comparison. The BBQ was savory and sweet. The oyster underneath, fat and meaty. The al Jerez had melted white cheese, and the sherry vinegar was a great counterpart. Not a drop of sauce was left. I used the remaining tortilla chips to sop up the sauce from the shells.

The menu was a cross-section of famous dishes from all over Mexico. At the top of the list is the mole, one of the most fascinating and complex dishes Mexico has to offer.

The meeting went well, and the donias nodded in approval. If not for a dinner appointment at Chez Panisse, I would have eaten the house down. Mercifully, after the second potent margarita, I was given my leave, as long as I promised to return for a real taste of Mexico on the following visit. I think I passed the test, if only barely. Hugs and kisses later, we were off to Berkeley for fine dining, but deep in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but thinking about what tasty notes I was missing at Las Guitarras.

The Oyster is a Swan

No trip to the west coast would be complete without sampling some of its oysters. Unlike in rap music, I don’t get into a west coast vs. east coast debate about which is better. I like them all, briny, sweet, large, small, etc. I’m sort of the Kobayashi of bi-valves. I’ll eat as many as you’re willing to shuck. Maybe not as quickly, but slow and steady wins the race.

In San Francisco, the Swan Oyster Depot is the kind of unpretentious, family run place you wish you had in your neighborhood. All white tile and a veritable fisherman’s aroma, with the menus on the wall and family paraphernalia collected from over the years. I made the mistake of walking in there at 5:30 on a Thursday. There were two diners finishing up their meal, and I strutted in expecting to chow down. “Everybody knows we close at 5:30.” I was devastated. The wind got knocked out of me, and I mumbled something as I tumbled backwards out of the restaurant. I stood outside lingering, when one of the burly employees came out to dump some trash. “Don’t fret. We’ll be here tomorrow. We open at eight. Come down for some chowder.” An invitation if I ever heard one.

As it turned out, I strolled in at eleven with my companion and we nudged into two seats near the end of the bar. There is only a bar, of course, as it should be, and the writing is all over the wall. This is the real Mcdeal. I nice older fella took my order, which was everything I could get, and then he proceeded to prepare it himself. He did all the shucking and plating. There were no stations to speak of. Every man or woman was responsible for his/her own customers. A plate of pristine Miyagis came forthwith, and I knew I was in trouble. If not for a lunch appointment, they would have had to ask me to leave, which of course they wouldn’t. They’re so polite. Shrimp cocktail was spot on and the clam chowder warmed my cockles from the San Fran breeze. There was a Stony Hill chardonnay and a $90. Pahlymeyer, but I was happy with my Anchor Steam.

Soft shell crabs are in season, but I couldn’t get my fill of clams and oysters. Everyone had the same smile on their faces, like they’d rather be nowhere else. I agree. I didn’t try the lobster, but I had to leave something for next time. I left, feeling pumped up and ready to go, kissed my swan goodbye, until again.