A Lot More Than Just A Drink

“Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup”
Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings

My Aeropress at a campsite, Lake Ray Roberts, Texas

I’ve written before about my AeroPress – It took me over sixty years but I have finally found the best way to make coffee. The AeroPress is a perfect brewing machine… I thought. Something has surpassed it. The only thing that could possibly surpass it – a better AeroPress.

The AeroPress Go.

The various parts of the Aeropress Go

The Aeropress Go, collapsed inside its own coffee cup.

For my birthday I was elated to get one. I actually needed a second Aeropress – one for home (kept with its parts in a small blue zippered case near the kitchen) for morning jolts – and one for work to make it possible to get through the day. The Aeropress Go is perfect for that. I carry it in on Mondays and home at the end of the week  – that way it is available to carry with me on my bicycle for sunrise stops to sip some Joe.

Is it better than the original? I think so. The coffee is just as good and it is very small and I even like the cup that comes with it (it is plastic – but quality plastic [precious resin is what fountain-pen aficionados call it] – but the little ridges keep it cool in the hand).

Now all I need is a portable grinder… and a metal filter… and a portable coffee container… and to get up earlier in the morning… and a coffee nap.

Reviews:

Review: AeroPress Go

If you’re serious about brewing your own coffee when traveling, this is the kit for you.

One thing I noticed in the AeroPress materials is how they highlight a water temperature preference of 175 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius), which is notably cooler than the just-boiled water from my kettle. So, I bought a kettle with six presets and paid particular attention to the effects of water temperature. Trying this out is part of coffee testing’s scientific method, but the insistence on 175 degrees also read like marketing hokum.

I immediately knew I was wrong in my first head-to head. With all other variables locked down, I made a cup with 175-degree water and another with water right off a 212-degree boil. Both made good coffee, but after smelling the 175-degree cup, I noticed it lacked the smoky/burnt/caramelized aromas that stuck out clearly in the 212-degree cup. Whether you enjoy those smells probably depends on how much you like burnt marshmallows.

The bigger difference was in the sipping. Again, both cups were good, but the 175-degree cup reminded me of high-end coffee-shop coffee, while the 212-degree cup had rougher edges and sharper flavors. I had been brewing with a medium-dark roast, so next I experimented with an oily dark roast. I found similar but less-pronounced results. Still, it was good enough to convince me to brew at a lower temperature in the future.

If you do tinker—give it a try!—just remember to tweak only one variable at a time and use coffee that you know you like. As long as you’re in the ballpark, it’s hard to go wrong, but Jessica Easto’s Craft Coffee is excellent if you’re looking for a primer on brewing methods.

Regardless of method, the Go is superior to its already excellent predecessor.

First, it’s made to travel. People like to talk about traveling with the original, and there’s an accessory bag you can get to do that, but the Go’s cup and lid make it much more compact, and less clunky too. Fly into a new town for a week, grab a bag of ground beans when you land, and your home kit is now your road kit.

Second, between the mug and the lid, you’ve got places to set things down as you work. The best thing I’d figured out with my original was to put a loaf pan next to my kettle, creating a little accessory bin so I didn’t have to set a wet, grounds-covered stirrer or slightly drippy brewer on the counter. It’s not perfect, but it’s better with the Go.

Third, packed into its cup with the lid on, it looks much nicer on a kitchen shelf.

Fourth, they both cost around $30.

Bikepacking Review – AeroPress Go

In their own words, inventor Alan Adler and the team at AeroPress designed the new Go version to “provide all the delicious brewing capabilities of the original AeroPress plus a convenient drinking mug that doubles as a carrying case.” I think that’s a fittingly anticlimactic summary of the AeroPress Go. It hasn’t been completely reinvented or seen any revolutionary modifications. Rather, it’s simply an AeroPress that packs into a 15oz mug for travel. It still brews the same cup of coffee, and it’s not meant to replace the original; the two exist alongside each other in the company’s lineup.

the AeroPress isn’t well suited to brewing massive cups of coffee—if that’s what you need to get going in the morning—but don’t let its diminutive size fool you. It’s designed to brew small, concentrated cups, and it does so exceptionally well. Personally, I like to make an extra strong brew and then dilute it with some water after, yielding an Americano.

The AeroPress Go comes with a generous 350 paper filters, and a replacement pack of 350 costs just $5. They’re very reasonably priced when compared to filters for other common brewers, work great, and have a tiny footprint. And it’s entirely possible to reuse your paper filters several times, just by giving them a quick rinse in between batches.

All that said, it’s worth considering picking up a reusable metal filter for your AeroPress or AeroPress Go if you plan to use it regularly. The one pictured above is a fine DISK filter from Able Brewing. At $15, it may be half the cost of an entire AeroPress kit, but it’ll last you a lifetime if properly cared for, and also means you won’t create unnecessary waste with each cup.

Aeropress Go Review: Is Smaller also Better?

Review: The AeroPress Go Is the Better AeroPress (Even If You Don’t Travel)

 

Sandwich Hag

“I made a sandwich out of things. I’m an American. We can eat anything as long as it’s between two pieces of bread.”
Jim Butcher, Small Favor

Sandwich Hag, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Sandwich Hag, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Sandwich Hag

Not only is the food to die for, her story is inspiring,  plus the graphics are fantastic.

The Smell That Separates Night From Day

“The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.”
Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

 

 

Aeropress, from Williams Sonoma

Ok, I have a thing for gadgets… we’ve talked about this before. Sometimes… not very often but sometimes… a gadget is worth it. I think this one is.

Some history first.

When I was a kid, my parents made a pot of coffee every day in a percolater – the worst way to make coffee in the world. It is a machine that re-heats coffee over and over, burning it, and jetting it up a pipe and off a translucent glass doohicky to bounce down onto a ring of ancient pre-ground robusta coffee. I remember my parents wouldn’t even have proper filters – sometimes they’d use toilet paper to line the perforated metal ring. What a godawful mess. Still, you have to forgive them, they knew not what they did. Plus, as a kid I didn’t have to drink the stuff and the process of heating and bubbling and shooting up looked and sounded cool and even smelt nice up until until the coffee burned.

As a more modern style of human I’ve never had a percolater but I’ve made coffee in a lot of different ways – drip, cold brew, Moka Pot (nice because it is essentially a bomb on your cooktop), espresso machine (cheap useless home machine), Keruig (coffee maker from hell), pour over…. My favorite was the French Press – easy, good, simple. I have fresh beans and an electric burr coffee grinder. But even a French Press has a fatal flaw – it is so hard to clean out. It was so bad I had taken to going out in the back yard and squirting out the grounds with a hose.

So I was still searching for the perfect way to brew a cup of coffee. Up until three days ago I had no idea such a thing existed. It does… it’s called an Aeropress.

I had an Amazon  gift card left over from my birthday and was looking for something that I would like but that I wouldn’t spend real money on. I have followed a group of folks that get up before dawn – ride to a common location on bicycles and then prepare coffee. That seemed somehow weird and attractive to me so I did a little research. I came across references to the Aeropress as the best portable way to make coffee. The descriptions though… “like a giant hypodermic” … “forcing hot liquid through a small paper filter”…”invented by a man who designed ring-shaped frisbees” … simply didn’t sound too appetizing. But, references to the thing kept coming through my computer from various directions (though I had never actually seen one) until I clicked on the “BUY IT NOW” button – as much for curiosity as anything else.

While I waited my long eighteen hours for it to arrive I started looking at Youtube videos on how to use the thing and on why it’s the best coffee maker ever. There are thousands of Youtube videos. People are nuts over the thing. There are international competitions to find who has the best way of making coffee in the thing. There are two main schools of thought – the “regular” method and the “inverted” method – with a thousand other variations of coffee type, grind, water temperature, filter type, filter pre-moistening (or not), stirring (or tamping), immersion times, extracting pressure… on and on. Despite all this brouhaha one message kept being repeated – even if you do it wrong… it’s still pretty good (that’s what she said).

So the box arrived and I took it out and made my first cup of coffee. And it was fantastic. It really does make great coffee. And it isn’t hard at all. All the picky details in the videos really don’t amount to a hill of arabica. Once you have the thing in front of you it’s all obvious.

For the record, I like the inverted method (because I can immerse the grounds a little longer without the coffee dripping into the cup) and the paper filter (which I discovered can be re-used over and over – for no particular reason). I’ve made hot black coffee – it comes out of the filter stronger than usual and can be diluted a lot with hot water and still make a decent cup. The hot concentrate can be poured over ice for a nice cold drink or mixed with milk for a passable latte – like beverage.

It is small and amazingly portable. Some of the Aeropress kits come with a tote bag – but that looks flimsy and I have a nice nylon zippered bag I bought at Goodwill for a buck that it fits perfectly. I’m going to go on a pre-dawn bike ride with the thing and carry it with a thermos full of hot water. Make some coffee somewhere and watch the sun come up. Really.

But the best thing… the very best thing… the thing that puts the Aeropress over the finish line a hundred yards over any other coffee maker… is the cleanup. Once you’re done, you remove the filter cap and give the plunger one last push and the coffee grounds pop out in a “puck” right into the trash. Quick rinse and you’re done. No fuss, no mess. Five seconds tops. That, my friends, is a game-changer.

So, if you like coffee… if you drink coffee… don’t hesitate – buy an Aeropress. They are available everywhere and the price seems consistent at twenty-nine bucks. The best gadget for making coffee. I promise.

 

 

 

Look At Your Waiter’s Face. He knows.

“Look at your waiter’s face. He knows. It’s another reason to be polite to your waiter: he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sigh.”
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

 

One of the last Sears stores closed in a giant parking lot (that used to be a mall, a long time ago) a few blocks from my house. This creates a vacuum sitting on top of a vast sea of tarmac. The local chatter is full of re-zoning talk. The first step is to change the zoning to allow restaurants with drive-thru service (really? That isn’t allowed in Texas Suburbia?) and everyone on the neighborhood interwebs is excited about the proposed chain restaurants that will start to fill the area (truth be told, one of them is something I’ll enjoy having in easy bicycle range). At first I was a bit aggravated – who wants more chain restaurants? We need locally owned, original (ethnic) food, not more giant corporate chains.

But after thinking a bit, I withdraw my objection. There are plenty, and I mean plenty (and by plenty I mean more than you could eat at in a lifetime) locally owned, original (ethnic) food in my ‘hood. If you are not from here you think of Texas as a giant redneck bastion of right-wing evil. But Texas in general and my suburb in particular (especially my side [the poor side] of said inner-ring suburb) is surprisingly diverse. I boast, with only a little hyperbolic exaggeration, that I can eat the cuisine of any country you name within walking distance of my house.

There is a life cycle of a restaurant building. It may start out as a chain, staked upfront by distant investment bankers, built to careful specifications developed with focus groups and people with MBA’s that would never eat fast food in their real lives. These chains last… maybe a decade, then they either go broke or move to somewhere more shiny and modern. That’s when the locals, usually immigrants take over. The best eating in the country is in one of the constellation of family-owned eating places in the shells of ex-fast food establishments that now serving up noodle soup, or tacos, or chicken on spits, or baklava and shwarma, or mysterious lumps in delicious sauce from a wok fired red-hot over a vertical jet engine cooker… or something like that. You know what I mean. Every city is like this.

So, when I moved in there was a chain Pizza Buffet called Mr. Gatti’s down on the corner of Belt Line and Jupiter. Well, a few years ago it closed down. It actually moved to a really nice, new location (with beer!) a mile away – which went under after a year. A string of low-quality pizza places tried to make a go of it in the building. The first one, obviously under-funded, tried to save money by painting out all but the first letters on the sign and going by the moniker, Mr. G Pizza. It didn’t last very long.

Over the next couple of years the place went through several iterations, some only lasting weeks. Whenever I see a restaurant open and close that quickly, I wonder if some sort of an investment scam is going on. At any rate, I lost track of the place and never thought of it. I drove by that corner a lot, but the traffic is bad there and I tended to look at the other cars instead. Then one day, not too long ago, I went through there as a passenger and was able to spot a new sign at that location. It said:

Di-an-gi Pho-Burgers-Tacos

New restaurant at Belt Line and Jupiter, Richardson, Texas.

Di-an-gi Facebook Page

Pho… Burgers… and Tacos! I have never heard of this combination before. There are a lot of burger joints in my neighborhood, gobs of tacos (one of the last Taco Bueno locations is right next door), and God only knows how many Pho-slinging establishments… but this one is All Three!

I had to go and try it out. Despite the threat of rain, I saddled up my bicycle and headed down. Unfortunately, although the location is not far from my house, it is difficult to access by bike – I had to do some sidewalk riding to get there.

And it was very good – better than I expected. Very clean and well-arranged. Very friendly and attentive service. I was glad to see there were a healthy smattering of customers – hopefully it will remain in business for more than a while. I know I’ll be back.

So, the big question is what did I order? This time, for some reason, I had the hamburger. It was freshly made and served with an excellent and unusual spicy sauce on the side.

Next time… Pho. And then Tacos.

A Thin Layer Of Icing

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Modern Pastry, Boston

Modern Pastry, Boston

There is nothing as beautiful as the display cases in an Italian pastry shop. They may even… especially en masse… look better than they taste.

These photos are of the cases in Modern Pastry, in Boston’s North End. We bought Napoleons and Carrot Cakes – both visible in the second photo. We ate them walking in the street – which isn’t ideal.

We had gone to Mike’s Pastry, which is very famous, first – but the place was packed with a line down the street, so we walked down another block to the Modern, which was full, but without too long of a wait.

The funny thing is, sixteen or so years ago, in 2003, Candy and I had gone to Mike’s for a pastry, and an older gentleman came up to her on the street and told her to go somewhere else, other than Mike’s…. I think he said that Mike’s was, in his word, “A tourist trap!” I can’t remember where he recommended… I don’t think it was the Modern. Candy is from Texas, and he… well, he was not – so I had to translate, they couldn’t understand each other.

Candy and the older man in front of Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End. This was in 2003 – it still looks exactly like this today.

First, Observe the Whole Bowl

Student of ramen eating:
[voiceover] One fine day… I went out with an old man. He’s studied noodles for 40 years. He was showing me the right way to eat them.

Student of ramen eating:
Master… soup first or noodles first?

Old gentleman:
First, observe the whole bowl.

Student of ramen eating:
Yes, sir.

Old gentleman:
Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.

Student of ramen eating:
What for?

Old gentleman:
To express affection.

Student of ramen eating:
I see.

Old gentleman:
Then poke the pork.

Student of ramen eating:
Eat the pork first?

Old gentleman:
No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying “see you soon.” Finally, start eating-the noodles first. Oh, at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork.

Student of ramen eating:
Yes.

Old gentleman:
Eye it affectionately.

Student of ramen eating:
[voiceover] The old man bit some shinachiku root and chewed it awhile. Then he took some noodles. Still chewing noodles, he took some more shinachiku. Then he sipped some soup. Three times. He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork-as if making a major decision in life-and lightly tapped it on the side of the bowl.

Student of ramen eating:
What for?

Old gentleman:
To drain it. That’s all.

—- Tampopo

Spicy Tonkotsu from Agu Ramen, Dallas, Texas

My son, Nick, and I have been on the hunt for noodles lately. Not too long ago we had Laotian food at the Khao Noodle Shop and it was good.

The other weekend I was riding my bike around Mockingbird Station and texted him to see if he wanted to eat some Ramen for lunch. We met at Agu Ramen. It’s a chain with locations in Houston, Hawaii, and Korea – I usually avoid chains – but this isn’t exactly McDonalds. We both ordered the Spicy Tonkotsu. After thinking about the spice level, I settled on three, which turned out to be plenty spicy.

The food was good – I think I’ll stop by again – although there are so many other noodle places out there (and so little time).

There was a cool poster on the wall – a graphic novel hero The Immortal Red Fox gulping noodles. It’s called Ramen Crusher and I’d buy one, but they are a little too pricey for me.

Ramen Crusher – The Immortal Red Fox from Agu Ramen, Dallas, Texas

 

Khao Noodle Shop

When I was a student in Vientiane, street food was a huge part of my daily life. There was always a woman at a stand under a tree selling different delicious foods; Kua Mee, stir-fried noodles with pork and egg, was one of them.

She would sell it on banana leaves or newspaper. I would order one and eat it with my hands while walking home.

Even after all these years traveling back to Laos, I still find it on the streets; perfectly cooked and served traditionally.

—- Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown

Diners at Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas

I was wasting some time staring at my computer when a notice came across the interwebs of a Dallas Observer review of a new Laotian Noodle restaurant in East Dallas. The article caught my eye. It said things like:

A Laotian Noodle Shop in East Dallas Is One of Texas’ Best New Restaurants

It feels irresponsible to hype a restaurant as small as Khao Noodle Shop. With just four tables and a counter, this isn’t a dining room meant to handle legions of fans, and the pint-sized kitchen isn’t meant to attract national attention. But national attention is coming, and Khao — with its modest strip-mall space in Old East Dallas, just across the street from Jimmy’s Food Store — is a new milestone in Dallas’ culinary history.

Few restaurants cultivate such an intimate connection between the food on the plate and the broader context in which it is served. Go ahead, take a bite of Khao’s Laotian noodles and snacks — and pair that bite with a side of Dallas cultural history.

Bold words….

I know that neighborhood (though I get hopelessly lost every time I go there… the streets are all on these crazy diagonals) – I’ve written about Jimmy’s Food Store (seven years ago!) and only a few blocks away is another set of excellent restaurants that we visited only a short time ago. The area is becoming a hotbed of Laotian food and culture. And now this Khao Noodle Shop – one of Texas’ best new places – have to give it a try.

I texted my son Nick – “Noodles!” and I drove by, picked him up, and wandered the streets (lost, as always) until we found the Khao Noodle Shop. It was full at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, but there were a couple spots at one of the six-tops. It is small – it looked like there were as many cooks and waiters scurrying behind a glass partition as there were customers. I had read the review and knew what to expect as the waitress handed out menus. The idea is to order a number of small bowls of noodles and shareable appetizer plates.

Menu at Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas

We were in the mood for noodles – so we ordered four bowls and only one appetizer. The food was fantastic.

Boat Noodles from Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas

 

These were our favorites – the Mee Katee, rice noodles with coconut curry, pork, egg

Especially wonderful were the Sakoo – tapioca dumplings. They had an amazing texture – gooey, yet firm, with bits of radish inside to add some crunch.

Sakoo dumplings from the Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas. The waitress told us to remove the red rings if we didn’t want spicy. We, of course, left them on.

Making the noodles disappear, Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, Texas.

We could have ordered a lot more. We asked the waitress what was the record for noodle bowls at a six top table. She said, “Forty or Forty One.” Nick and I and four friends? We could do forty without trying. No problem.

That sounds like a plan.

A small unassuming place on the outside – but deliciousness is hiding within.