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.

You Don’t Really Want To Know

 “The English are kind of weird when it comes to the way things taste, Mom. They aren’t like us. It might be the climate. They go for things we would never dream of. Sometimes it is enough to turn your stomach, boy. The other day I had had one of these things they call ‘wine jellies.’ That’s their idea of candy, Mom! Figure out a way to feed some to that Hitler ‘n’ I betcha the war’d be over tomorrow!” Now once again he finds himself checking out these ruddy gelatin objects, nodding, he hopes amiably, at Mrs. Quoad. They have the names of different wines written on them in bas-relief.

“Just a touch of menthol too,” Mrs. Quoad popping one into her mouth. “Delicious.”

Slothrop finally chooses one that says Lafitte Rothschild and stuffs it on into his kisser. “Oh yeah. Yeah. Mmm. It’s great.”

“If you really want something peculiar try the Bernkastler Doktor. Oh! Aren’t you the one who brought me those lovely American slimy elm things, maple-tasting with a touch of sassafras—”

“Slippery elm. Jeepers I’m sorry, I ran out yesterday.”

Darlene comes in with a steaming pot and three cups on a tray. “What’s that?” Slothrop a little quickly, here.

“You don’t really want to know, Tyrone.”

“Quite right,” after the first sip, wishing she’d used more lime juice or something to kill the basic taste, which is ghastly-bitter. These people are really insane. No sugar, natch. He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingenue’s thewse—“years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (The Disgusting English Candy Drill)

 

Rocket Fizz, Deep Ellum

Sodas from RocketFizz, Deep Ellum, Texas

Pumpkin Pie Soda, From Rocket Fizz, Deep Ellum, Texas

Sodas from Rocket Fizz, Deep Ellum, Texas

Sodas from Rocket Fizz, Deep Ellum, Texas

 

 

Another Christmas, Another Bowl of Pho

2018 Christmas Bowl of Pho, Bistro B, Richardson, Texas

Everyone has their Christmas traditions. I’ve been keeping this incarnation of a blog since 2011 and we went to Bistro B for Christmas that year, so it’s been at least seven years. I think this is the first year we actually received what we ordered.

Nothing much has changed, so I’ll copy what I wrote then. The only difference is this year I ordered #33 Special Pho with Sunny Egg, and #395, Vietnamese Iced Coffee – in addition to a shared double order of #9 – Vietnamese Spring Rolls.

_______________________________________________________________________

The wrapping paper has been rent and Santa has been sated. The day now stretches sleepily on – sports on television, fudge on the kitchen table, a cold, gray spitting rain day outside. What is there to do other than lounge around in a mouldering Snuggie® and watch the entropy increase?

For my dollar, there is no better way to spend a few hours on the Christmas Holiday than to go for an afternoon lunch at Bistro B. Actually, I like the pho at Pho Pasteur near our house (the broth is just right) but Bistro B is such a hopping place, even on a holiday, that is impossible to pass up. Plus, Pho Pasteur isn’t open on Christmas Day.

The place, as always, was packed. We waited for a few minutes, which I enjoyed. I stood by the little altar with the burning incense spiral, the electric-powered prayer wheels, and the little shrines decorated with offerings of change. I looked around at the tables to see what other folks were ordering. There were a lot of butane portable table burners heating hot pots that were being shared by a whole family – three generations or more – packed around the big round tables. I love watching a family eat, the heads bent, concentrating on the food, with a ballet of chopsticks dancing in a circular chorus while everyone picks up their food, talks, and laughs.

Its a noisy, happy place, with an army of black-clad waiters rushing, cleanup crews pushing a big square cart, a thick crowd at the registers – some clutching inscrutable bills, but most there for take-out. Some odd genre of electronic dance music pulses… loud but barely audible over the conversations, and a phalanx of flat-screen televisions incongruously simultaneously shine out an NFL documentary. The kids reported that the restroom was, “Like a nightclub.”

It didn’t take long before we were seated and began to attack the menu. There are too many choices at Bistro B – the menu is a little spiral bound plastic laminated book, with page after page of wonders, many with photographs of the food. It is intimidating. Lee recommended shutting my eyes, thumbing through the menu blindly, and then picking something at random. He said he did that a couple of times – once he had something good, but the second time the waiter had told him, “No, you don’t want to order that.” I tried it and came up with Chicken Curry… no, too tame.

The menu items are numbered and the numbers go up 523 – though there seems to be some gaps here and there.

It was cold outside so I thought about some hot soup. I ordered the #43, Special Bistro B Noodle Soup. The waiter asked what type of noodles and I asked for rice. The kids had smoothies and Candy and I hot tea. Nick had Pho, Candy and Lee had chicken. We sent for a couple orders of spring rolls… it was too much food.

Spring Rolls and dipping sauce

My soup as it arrived. What mysteries await in these warm and fragrant waters?

But it was delicious. My Special Bistro B Noodle Soup didn’t have the perfect simple balance of subtle flavors that I like in Pho – but it was like eating a Forest Gump box o’ chocolates – you never know what you are going to get. Every time my chopsticks would dive into the spice-murked liquid they would emerge with a new surprise. After eating whatever came to the surface – I was able to figure out more or less what it was about half of the time.

Like all Pho – serving places, the table was equipped with a bounty of condiments and additions. Plates of bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño, Thai basil, and cilantro. Bottles of soy sauce, fish sauce, rooster sauce, hoisin, and two unlabeled bottles of mysterious somethings. Plus little containers of chopped garlic, pepper oil, and the most flavorful (and hot) chili paste I’ve had in a long time. I spent some time working on the flavor balance of hot and sweet, salty and savory, in my broth. Then I used the hoisin and rooster sauce to draw a bright red and dark caramel ying-yang symbol (for good luck in the coming year) in one of the little plates they supply and used my chopsticks to dip various morsels in there before I ate them.

The soup after I added sprouts and other vegetables. Those little eggs were hiding down in a nest of rice noodles. I don’t know what creature they originally came from

I ate ’till I was full and then I ate some more. And it was good.

There was a separate menu on our table that outlined the group meals. We thought about the dinner for four – but there were too many fish items on it for Candy. They had a dinner for ten that looked fabulous. I need to get ten people together to go down and do it. That sounds like a plan. Drop me an email if you want in.

The outside of Bistro B – complete with a vaguely unnerving inflatable snowman.

A Street In East Dallas

“I say it must have been great to grow up when men were men. He says men have always been what the are now, namely incapable of coping with life without the intervention of God the Almighty. Then in the oven behind him my pizza starts smoking and he says case in point.”
― George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

East Dallas is a confusing web of intercrossing diagonal streets – impossible to keep north, south, east and west straight. It’s a neighborhood of constant change, mixed wealth, and diversity. It’s a favorite part of town to me.

Last night, as a Christmas present the kids bought all of us tickets to the Dallas Stars hockey game and because it was four of us, it was late, and I know of a good place to park I drove downtown rather than take the train or Uber. The game was fun even though the home team lost in a futile flurry of razor sharp blades, sticks, and ice.

One cool thing was that, at the very end when all seemed lost, right before the Stars pulled their goalie the stadium played the “Horn of Helm Hammerhand” clip from “The Two Towers” on the big video boards.

It was inspirational and Lee stood up and yelled, “I’ll follow you anywhere Aragorn!” Unfortunately, right after that the visiting team pushed in an empty net goal – it was all for naught.

After the game, we wanted to eat, and we wanted pizza. It was late and a lot of spots downtown were closing, but Nick knew of a place open really late so we drove down Fitzhugh to Za*Lat Pizza. They had a very impressive list of crazy pizzas – but we weren’t in an overly adventurous mood and settled on a large pepperoni.

Za*Lat Pizza Sign

Za*Lat Pizza Menu Board

I’m going to have to go back, maybe ride my bicycle there, and try the Pho Shizzle Pizza…. and maybe the Elote Pizza… or maybe a bunch more.

Za*Lat is designed for take-out, but there is a Vietnamese place next door and they said we could take our pizza there, sit at the bar, eat it and get something to drink. The place is called DaLat. I asked the bartender if the same person owned both places and he said, “Did the fact that the two names only differ by one letter give you a hint?”

DaLat Vietnamese in East Dallas.

Slice of pizza and a Peticolas Velvet Hammer.

Outside of DaLat.

A very nice evening. I love that stretch of Fitzhugh in East Dallas – even if it is rapidly gentrifying (there are new upscale apartment blocks going up willy-nilly) – it still has an old lived-in feel with plenty of cheap places to eat (taquerias  on every block) – Jimmy’s Food Store is a few blocks on down the road – it’s all very bike friendly. I do get lost on all those diagonal streets, though. But lost in a neighborhood on a bike is a great way to find new stuff, maybe a new adventure.