The Trenchermen

We eat other people’s food.

Butternut Squash Soup

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The fall is upon us. It’s time to eat squash.

In the spirit of the season, I made myself some butternut squash soup with pumpkin seeds pan-roasted in Lebanese olive oil, sea salt, and fresh black and cayenne pepper. The spot was hit.

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October 29, 2010 at 10:25 am

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NYMag Sandwich List #38: Pork ‘Burger,’ Xi’an Famous Foods

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I’ve abandoned my plan to systematically eat and describe all of the sandwiches on the NYMag 101 sandwiches list, but I continue to use the list as a wellspring of culinary discovery.  (Someone was kind enough to create a Google Map of the 101 sandwich locations.)  With that in mind, eager to break from my PBJ lunch routine, my office-mate and I wandered into the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown — East Broadway, under the Manhattan Bridge — for a taste of Shanxi cuisine at Xi’an Famous Foods.  To connect the dots for our readers, it’s a chain of small restaurants that started in Flushing, in the Golden Mall (yes, we’ve eaten there before and blogged and vlogged about it), and has now expanded to Chinatown and the East Village.  The highlight of the restaurant’s offering is the “Liang Pi” Cold Noodles.  The sandwich featured in the NYTimes is the Lamb “Burger,” which I found to be loaded with far too much cumin.  But NYMag loves the Pork “Burger,” so I gave it a shot.

NYMag says this sandwich, which is made of pulled pork stuffed into a bing-like bun, could “rival any Carolina barbecue.”  I disagree.  Although the smoky, vinegar sauce is nice and less sweet than most Chinese barbecue sauces I’ve tasted and the bun is warm with a nice crunch, the sandwich is altogether unremarkable and familiar.  It is incredibly greasy and the pork is stewed into a textureless mush.  At least the cumin-loaded Lamb “Burger” offers an unfamiliar and exciting flavor combination.

As for the Carolina comparison: forget it.  The best barbecue I ever encountered was in Holly Hill, South Carolina, at a place called Sweatman’s, and it is an act of exceptional generosity even to mention Xi’an Famous Food’s Pork “Burger” in the same paragraph.  To say this “Burger” is a “rival” of a place like Sweatman’s is a cruel joke.

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October 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm

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Steak ‘n Shake (Springfield, MO)

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In the recent surge of food enthusiasm, much attention has been focused on the hamburger, America’s favorite food.  There are those who praise the fat patty, composed of carefully-calibrated mixes of meat, sometimes filled with flavor-adding ingredients.  There are others who prefer a smashed, buttery burger.  In New York, Shake Shack is the genre-defining purveyor in the latter category.  In California (and elsewhere,  now), In-n-Out Burger generally wins.  On our recent trip to Missouri, we tried the Midwest’s leading contender, Steak ‘n Shake.  In my opinion, it’s better than the rest.  (My contacts from Saint Louis agree.)

We visited what I am told is the first Springfield location:  a classic diner format with the word “Takhomasak” (take home a sack?) displayed on an awning out front.  I ordered the Original Double ‘n Cheese, which comes with two patties, American cheese, and a selection of toppings.  The patties are smashed, cooked through, and somewhat flaky.  And very greasy.  But the meat is delicious; it tastes more fresh and buttery than the  grayed-through patties you get in most other fast-food chains.  The toppings included the standard fare — ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, etc. — and some exquisite others, most notably mustard relish.

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September 23, 2010 at 11:58 am

Arthur Bryant’s BBQ (Kansas City, MO)

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We recently traveled to the great tornado-whipped state of Missouri for a wedding, a house-cleaning, and some strenuous and significant family time.  But all of that was in Springfield, a city that I would imagine to be in a different state from Kansas City if the maps didn’t tell me otherwise.  (Actually, that’s kind of a trick, but I digress.)  We flew into Kansas City International Airport, which meant that before driving three-and-a-half long flat hours to Springfield, we were able to stop for some world-class barbeque.  It was tough to choose our spot, but it came down to Oklahoma Joe’s, which Anthony Bourdain called “one of the 13 places to eat before you die,” Jack’s Stack, a chain that Zagat Survey named the “#1 Barbecue House in the Country,” and Arthur Bryant’s, which is, according to Calvin Trillin in 1974, “…possibly the single best restaurant in the world.”  We went with Arthur Bryant’s, because it was most convenient and because I’m a huge Calvin Trillin fan.  (Ed. note:  Trillin spends his summers less than 5 miles from my parents, in Nova Scota.)

As for the food: delicious, but definitely not the best restaurant in the world.  The highlight of the meal was the Beef Sandwich, which was a mountainous stack of fatty smoked brisket piled on pieces of white bread that were clearly overmatched by the meat’s juices.  There were several choices of sauce, all varieties of the classic molasses- and tomato-based sauce Kansas City is known for. The rib tips were fairly charred, but the tender pieces of meat hidden beneath the blackened crusts were smoky and sweet.  We also had a pork sandwich that was decent, but not memorable.

The restaurant itself was charmingly simple.  A big, brick building in a dodgy neighborhood.  The interior walls are unevenly covered in a smattering of local sports images, collages of prominent African-American public figures, and autographed photographs of celebrities and politicians.  Among the most prominent of the latter category were photographs of Jimmy Carter eating with Arthur Bryant himself, as well as a series of images of John McCain and Sarah Palin enjoying a meal with-the-people while campaigning in 2008.  I’d say that speaks to the universal appeal of the place, but who knows.

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September 21, 2010 at 3:37 pm

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Northeast Chinese Food (Flushing, NY)

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Yesterday, several of us biked up into Flushing to see the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival and to try some food from Northeast China (Dōngběi sìshěng, formerly part of Manchuria).  Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a great article about food from this region and the few restaurants in Flushing that produce it.  Very appealing stuff.

We chose a restaurant called Rural Restaurant — it is called Hong Yi Shun in the article in the Times — that was small but busy.  There were a few families inside and one large group of men drinking from a bottle of bái jiǔ that they kept on the floor under one of their seats: all signs pointing to an authentic experience.

But getting to the point: the food was incredible and, for the most part, unlike any other Chinese food I’ve eaten (except the one time I ate food from this region, at a great and now-defunct restaurant called Dong Bei Ren — literally, East North People — in Shanghai).  The best dish was probably the Spicy Cuminy Lamb, which is small chunks of lamb rubbed with star anise and ground cumin and sauteed with spicy peppers.

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August 8, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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Fried Dumplings (Chinatown, NYC)

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As I mentioned in my recent post on PB&J, one of the food categories that thrills me endlessly is the dumpling.  I will eat just about anything in dumpling form.  While I certainly appreciate the finer, more delicate manifestations of the form, I also love the dumpling because it’s generally cheap.  Around Chinatown, you’ll find a number of holes-in-the-wall that serve $1 dumplings, or some variation thereof.  Generally, it’s five dumplings or four buns per order.  Not bad for $1.  The problem is the range in quality.

After years of research, I’ve determined that Chinatown’s finest purveyor of the lowest-brow Chinese pork dumpling and bun is “Fried Dumpling” (how many of these spots have the same name?) on Mosco Street, a narrow side street just off of Mott.

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July 23, 2010 at 10:35 am

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The Peanut Butter & Jelly

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While most of the posts on this blog are about fancy food, either exotic in its own right or eaten in a faraway place, this one is about the simplest of foods: the PB&J.  There are few foods that so consistently fill me with joy.  (Watermelon with salt on a hot summer day; pomegranate seeds; fried pork dumplings.)

But with all the recent focus on elaborate or unexpected sandwiches on the NYMag list, I thought I’d take a minute to meditate on this wondrous creation.  The oily, creamy — or crunchy, if you prefer — sweetness of peanut butter (with no sugar added, of course) and the sugar rush of berry jelly on soft doughy bread.  I can’t believe I will ever grow tired of it.  Of course, I’m not alone in my love of this sandwich.  According to Wikipedia, “A 2002 survey showed the average American will have eaten 1,500 of these sandwiches before graduating from high school.”  Awesome.

I eat PB&J 2-3 times a week now.  Sometimes with coffee, which, as Jay has pointed out, heightens the experience.  I’m not a stickler for the proper ratio of PB to J, nor do I get caught up in the variations of J available out there.  My only rule is that the PB should have 2 or fewer ingredients.  That is just plain peanuts, maybe with a little salt.  But no sugar.  No JIF or SKIPPY or PETER PAN for me.  Nothing with partially hydrogenated oils to keep the oil from separating.

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July 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm

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