Food

The Absolute Best Caribbean Food and Restaurants in Crown Heights

 Photo: Melissa Hom

Photo: Melissa Hom

For my latest article in New York's Absolute Best series, I tackle the top Caribbean restaurants and foods in a neighborhood close to my heart: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I've lived for more than 15 years. Hungry for roti? Jerk chicken? Beef patties? Here's where you should eat.

Bugging Out: Brewed Food Rewrites the Rules of Culinary Fermentation

 Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

For Draft magazine I profile Jensen Cummings, a Denver chef that deploys brewing yeast to ferment his kimchi, hot sauces and so much more. He's broadening the concept of what beer and food can be.

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As a journalist obsessed with inbox zero, I delete an email onslaught daily. But, every now and then, a ray of sunshine illuminates Gmail’s abyss, like last summer’s invite to experience Denver chef Jensen Cummings’ sensory tasting panel at Brooklyn Brewery.

Cummings is the mind behind Brewed Food, founded in 2014 as a call to arms to blow beer’s relationship with grub to smithereens. He utilizes beer’s building blocks (yeast, malt, hops) and brewing processes to fashion thrilling foodstuffs that blur the line between ales and edibles. Working with a revolving cast of chefs and brewing collaborators like New Belgium and Jester King, the chef ferments yogurt with brewing yeast, adds crystal malt to sauerkraut, creates hop vinegar and makes beef jerky with malt extract. It’s both a scientific and gastronomic endeavor to connect cooking and brewing.

“Our lens is looking at brewing techniques and ingredients as culinary ingredients,” Cummings says. “Yeast is the center of that conversation. We want to say that yeast is a culinary ingredient.”

My Obligatory St. Patrick's Day Beer Story

Can't wait till Saturday. Whee!

Each year, it seems, I can't escape St. Patrick's Day without being forced to write a story incorporating Guinness, corned beef and at least one Gaelic pun. Well, no fear! This year is no different. Click here for my Epicurious rundown on the best way to pair food with an Irish-themed pint or two. Or, more likely, 11.

Here Is Why I Gained Weight in Hanoi

Mmm...bia hoi in Hanoi! That is, fresh, cheap beer. Food-loving globetrotters, here’s a bit of sound advice: If you’re headed to Vietnam’s northern city of Hanoi, we’d recommend you pack a pair of elastic-banded pants. The city is a wonderland of cheap eats and drinks, offering an endless variety of soups, noodles, buns, rolls and sandwiches paired with plenty of fresh herbs — and fresh beer, too.

You could spend a week eating your way through the hectic, motorbike-clogged streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and never eat the same meal twice. I know I didn’t on my recent trip. Here are 20 dishes and drinks from Hanoi that haunt my hungry dreams.

Curious what I ate?  Check out the full story at Food Republic.

A Bloody Good Boat Noodle

Mmm...bloody boat noodles. Photo: Flickr/djjewelz

As the eldest son of a doctor and a nurse, I have become numb to blood. Talk of tricky needles was bandied about like baseball scores, and the plentiful sights of IV bags and gauze punctuated visits to my parents’ hospitals and nursing homes.

Thus, I am not freaked out by gashes and scrapes, punctures and pricks. Eating blood? One St. Patrick’s Day, I began my morn with eggs and blood pudding. The mixture of grains and hemoglobin was desert-dry and intensely minerally, akin to licking an iron bar in the desert. Another time, congee mixed with thick, arterial-toned slices of congealed pig’s blood triggered an instant gag reflex. My throat was a one-way street.

But a man can’t live his culinary life in fear. So last week in Los Angeles I decided to once more give blood a whirl. After an early morning appearance on Playboy Morning Radio, a radio show that features a former Playmate as an anchor, I convinced my driver—well, friend Steve—to steer us to Saap Coffee Shop for an early morning lunch.

“I’m buying as long as you don’t ask what we’re eating,” I told Steve, who navigated us through the congealing traffic to Thai Town. This slip of Hollywood Boulevard is home to the largest concentration of Thais in America, chockablock with eateries offering plenty of noodle dishes and curries, sweet desserts and sublime oddities such as boat noodles.

Supposedly, boat noodles are named after the aquatic chefs peddling their soupy wares from floating perches. It sounds like a good story if you ask me, a better tale to tell than the ingredients. Though they vary from cook to cook, the broth’s star players include long-boiled beef bones, soy sauce, five-spice powder, cinnamon sticks, cilantro, galangal, noodles and edible pig or cow blood.

This story originally ran in Food Republic. Check out the original here!

Following the lead of L.A. cheap-eats svengali Jonathan Gold, I decided to slurp boat noodles at Saap Coffee House. Like much of L.A., Saap is secreted in a shopping mall, the spare, sunrise-yellow room chockablock with tables topped by bowls of chiles. We selected a corner spot and two bowls of beef boat noodles.

“How spicy?” the cute waitress wondered, a question asked 10,000 times a day at Thai restaurants nationwide.

“Thai spicy,” I replied, not wanting the farang treatment.

Soon, we received a steaming bowl brimming with a murky-brown, blood-thickened broth, wispy slivers of beef and cilantro clumped together like seaweed on a beach. I dipped my spoon into the dark liquid and tentatively sipped. Instead of tasting like Dracula’s dream meal, the broth was lip-sweatingly spicy, but also packed a terrific lime-juice tartness and a deeply rich, almost primal essence balanced by bright and fresh cilantro. From first slurp to last incendiary drop, boat noodles were bloody good.

Sorry, Tagine. It's Lobster Time

Spider crabs, by way of Morocco. Photo: Jenene Chesbrough

Perhaps I would’ve had a different opinion of Moroccan cuisine if the first thing I ate upon landing in Marrakesh were not a spongy mass of lamb mammary.

That flan-colored, disturbingly luscious flesh sent my stomach roiling, leaving my appetite on rocky seas. Over the ensuing days, I barely touched my steaming tagine stuffed with sardine meatballs, or the spicy merguez sausages that were greasier than a teen’s complexion. Typically, I would’ve found some measure of culinary pleasure within this distant-land sustenance, but the sights and smells of Moroccan fare set off intestinal alarms: Do not eat.

As the days passed, my wife noticed my distress. “You’re not eating,” she said. “What’s wrong?” I explained to her my distaste with Moroccan food. I never quite cottoned to the reliance upon turmeric, pillowy piles of couscous or the dubious pleasures of cinnamon-sprinkled pigeon pie.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Let’s go to Oualidia.” Located on the Atlantic coast, Oualidia is a tiny fishing town known for its oysters, crabs, clams and other aquatic delights. Each morning, sun-browned, forehead-creased men alight into the salty, wave-smacked waters, returning with the day’s catch. Much of this fare does not make it to market. That’s because when the fishermen return, they sell their watery wares on the beach. Clams are bisected before your eyes, while fish is filleted and spindly spider crabs are cooked on sand-encased charcoal grills. It’s impossibly fresh food: alive one moment, in your belly the next.

After checking into our hotel room, my wife and I made haste to the beach with our friends Bati and Emily, with whom we were traveling. We’d been driving all day and were ravenous. We spread out our beach blankets and planted an umbrella in the sand. Within minutes, a shoeless chef approached us with his menu of the day.

We ordered a dozen raw clams, leggy spider crabs and several sizable lobsters. With haste, he lit a fire in a nearby grill and set about preparing our feast. The clams came first, served on a seaweed bed with a few wedges of lemon. A spritz, a slurp, a sigh. Next came the crabs, also finished with nothing more than salt and lemon. Using the supplied tools, we cracked the crustaceans and forked out their weight, flaky meat. It tasted of the sea and smoke.

“Looks like you’re eating now,” my wife said, pointing to the shell that was as shattered as a vase after falling from a kitchen table.

I grunted in agreement, then moved onto the main course. The lobsters’ large tails were split, revealing fire-licked flesh as white as winter’s first snowfall. Like the other seafood, the sole seasonings were lemon and salt. Butter might’ve made it even better, but at the moment on the Atlantic’s sandy eastern edge, it was tough to ask for more than another bite.

A Tribute to the White Castle Slider

Hello, my favorite drunk food. Photo: Flickr/soupstance

*Note: This story first appeared on Food Republic. Check out the original! The first time I ate a White Castle hamburger I was wildly stoned, the kind of brain-fried high you only get when you’re 17 and sitting in a friend’s car, listening to Built To Spill and cruising around the suburbs with no destination in mind.

At a stoplight, my friend Tim turned around and stared at the red-eyed quartet crowded into his backseat. He drove the sort of massive, maroon-hued American auto that late-’70s pimps favored, meaning that four could commandeer the rear and still have wiggle room. “You guys need to eat,” he said. “You need White Castle.”

We pulled into a parking lot and entered the dumpy, fortress-shaped White Castle, which recalled the dingy home of a once-regal king exiled to the suburbs and forced to work for minimum wage. At the time, I toiled for minimum wage, manning the deep fryer for Burger King. My bank account hovered in the low three digits, meaning I could make the rare splurge on dirt weed, the occasional CD, a late-night meal of Waffle House hash browns and, indeed, fast food.

“Everything is so…cheap,” I mumbled, mesmerized by the fluorescent lights and signs touting burgers for less than 50 cents. With the five-dollar bill in my wallet, I could eat like royalty—the king of White Castle. “Seven sliders,” I ordered, then watched the bored, grease-sheened cooks work their magic.

They carefully placed square, cardboard-thin beef patties—with punched holes, to facilitate faster cooking—onto a bed of rehydrated onions steaming on the griddle. Within minutes, the patties were cooked thoroughly, snuggled onto squishy buns, finished with a pickle, ketchup and mustard, and nestled into paper boxes. I stacked my bounty into a pyramid and inserted a slider between my incisors, biting into a sandwich that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

The bun was squishy. The pickles were floppy. The beef was an onion-flavored disc. But crammed together, the slider was chewy and soothing—greasy baby food for an adult. I devoured my seven burgers in minutes, barely stopping to breathe. “That was so good,” I moaned, a statement that, in hindsight, I have to attribute to the drugs.

Over the ensuing years, I’ve tried to eat White Castle burgers when sober. If only the Harold and Kumar flick had come out a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have made this mistake. When not swayed by alcohol or a smoke, these sliders show their flaws. The beef is subpar, the buns too soggy—I mean, what the hell do I expect for 59 cents?

But under the influence, the sliders’ rough edges are sanded smooth, and I crave them like the cigarettes I once inhaled 20 times a day. Where will you find me on Saturday nights at 2 a.m.? In the words of Das Racist, “I’m at the White Castle…[eating] tiny-ass hamburgers, tiny-ass cheeseburgers.”

Have You Ever Had Fried Pizza?

Mmm...pizza partly fried in oil.

If you follow the logic of the state fair, there’s not a single foodstuff that can’t be improved by a dip in a deep fryer. Snickers, Twinkies, Oreos, Coke, even batter-coated butter —a couple minutes in gurgling, scalding oil create a calorie bomb that’s one part oddity, one part oh-I-shouldn’t indulgence and all intestinal distress.

One bite of crisp, oozing butter, and you’ll glean an important lesson from this parable: Just because you own a deep fryer doesn’t mean you should use it.

Luckily, no one told that to Giulio Adriani, the madcap pizzaiolo behind Brooklyn’s Forcella. It’s one of the new-model pizzerias sweeping New York, complete with a wood-burning oven, ingredients and even a chef imported from Italy. But what separates Forcella from the doughy pack is a singular, stomach-expanding, deep-fried delight dubbed the montanara.

Curious how the fried pizza is made? Check out my full article at Food Republic.

Five Great Places to Eat and Drink in Denver

The Denver Beer Co. I ate a burrito here and drank a dizzying barely wine. Before 11 a.m.

For decades, Denver was a staunch steak-and-potatoes town. Plates were stacked with beef as high as the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance. But in recent years, the Mile High City has rewritten its culinary script. First came the craft breweries, filling tap lines with tasty, locally made ales and lagers.

Now, the dining scene is evolving too, with marvelous Mexican restaurants mixing with madcap eateries that think nothing of substituting pad Thai noodles with pig ears. Curious about my top five picks? Check out my full story at Food Republic!