Pho Vietnam

February 21, 2014 – The first bowls of pho appeared in the villages near Hanoi about a hundred years ago.  Pho (the o is pronounced, as far as I can tell, like somewhere between the a in fat and the e in tepid) is basically beef broth, rice noodles, herbs and either beef or chicken.  It’s likely that it originated as a variation on the French stew known as pot-au-feu during the days when Vietnam was a French colony.

In the first decade of the 20th century, street vendors carrying their kitchens attached to long poles across their shoulders sold bowls of pho, usually in the mornings and evenings.  By around 1918 the first pho stand appeared in Hanoi, quickly followed by others.  Pho rapidly became the favorite street food of Vietnam.

There are, of course, regional differences.  Generally grouped around Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south, the variations revolve around the size of noodle, sweetness of the broth, and spiciness of the ingredients.  It’s common in both north and south to provide on the side a small plate of basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, chili peppers, and lime wedges to be added at the diner’s discretion.  Always there are sauces close at hand.  Hoisin sauce.  Fish sauce.  Chili sauce.  And a very dark liquid of which I was wise enough to add only a small amount to my bowl.  That tiny addition provided heat sufficient to make the dish interesting without doing any real damage to my mouth.

I was meeting my son, David, for lunch at Pho Vietnam, a restaurant he has often visited but a new experience for me.  I ordered spring rolls and egg rolls while I waited for him to arrive.

The spring rolls in their sticky wrappers of steamed rice paper were packed with noodles, cucumber, lettuce, mint and cilantro.  Each came with a slice of chicken and a large shrimp.  The very fine peanut sauce for dipping was a perfect contrast for the crisp vegetables.

But the egg rolls were even better.  Rolled and wrapped tightly in wonton paper, stuffed with ground pork, carrots, taro, jicama and glass noodles, they were fried to a golden brown exterior and nicely chewy interior that allowed the mixed flavors to dance on the palate.   A tip-top offering.

While David opted for a bowl of Thai noodles, I wanted to remain a purist on my first visit to the restaurant.  I consulted with our young waitress who suggested pho tai nam.  Noodles in broth with beef filet and flank steak.

“You get two kinds of meat,” she said.  I couldn’t argue with her logic.

The bowl in front of me was huge with a cloud of steam rising above it.  The aroma was enticing; irresistible.  Thin slices of beef (two kinds, she said), noodles, cilantro, parsley, green onions.  All swimming in an aromatic broth exuding a flavor that was distinctive.  Yet I couldn’t quite place it.

I asked the waitress what it was.  She laughed.  “It’s a secret.”

I ate more noodles; more beef; more broth.  I told David I knew what it was.

“Cinnamon,” I told the waitress confidently.

She laughed.  “No.  It’s secret.”

As we were leaving the restaurant I made a final try.

“Tamarind.  It’s tamarind, isn’t it?”

I could hear her musical laughter as I left, clutching the container of pho with its intoxicating aroma.

It’s tamarind.  I know it’s tamarind.

 

City Diner

February 20, 2014 – 19 degrees Fahrenheit again with light snow falling.  Another day  for comfort food.  I was meeting my friend BA for lunch at the City Diner.  Perfect for a winter day.

There was  at one time sort of a rickety building at the corner of Minnesota and Benson in Anchorage.  Through the years it housed an assortment of restaurants, none of which seemed to stay around for long.  I seem to recall a pancake house at one point but other than that vague memory there was nothing, well, memorable about that corner.

Then along came Alaska’s wunderkind Chef Al Levinsohn who had a vision for a real old fashioned diner.  A diner like those that once were scattered along the nation’s early highway system.  Lots of chrome and neon.  A long lunch counter with stools.  Booths.  Malted milk machines.  French fries and gravy.  Meat loaf.  Comfort food.

A native of southern California, the man who has come to be known in Alaska as simply Chef Al was a sous chef in Seattle by the time he was 18.  In his early 20s he came to Alaska to work under the late Jens Hansen.  He opened his first restaurant, the upscale Kincaid Grill, in 2003.

By 2007 Chef Al was thinking diner.  He partnered with Chef Jens Nannestad, a native of Sweden, another disciple of the legendary Jens Hansen and owner of the Southside Bistro.  They brought in attorney George Trefry as the third partner and before long the ramshackle old building began to shine with chrome and neon.

The City Diner opened for business in 2007.  It’s been one of Anchorage’s most popular restaurants from the beginning.  So much so that last year general manager Lori Kaltenbach was granted well earned status as partner.

I was seated at a small table by one of the large windows where I could watch the traffic and the small snowflakes floating down.  I’m usually a coffee drinker.  Three or four cups before noon.  But it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit outside with light snow.  A day that called for hot chocolate.

“Whipped cream?” the waitress asked.

“Why have hot chocolate if you can’t have whipped cream?” I replied.  She laughed and returned moments later with a steaming cup of hot chocolate topped with a mountain of whipped cream.  As good as it could possibly be.

I was happily sipping my hot chocolate when BA arrived.  He was thinking Coca Cola. We caught each other up on where we’d been, what had happened in our lives, since we’d last seen each other.

The waitress came back to see if we wanted lunch.  BA ordered Rosie’s sliders, a plate of mini cheeseburgers.  I ordered what the City Diner calls the Chili Size.  I call it a chili burger.  A burger served open faced, smothered in chili, with a pile of fries on the side.  The chili is made in house.  They even post the recipe on their website if you’re interested.

There’s nothing esoteric or even extraordinary about a plate of sliders, a chili burger and fries.  But we were two old friends taking a couple of hours  out of busy lives just to talk.  It was 19 degrees Fahrenheit with light snow.  Sliders, a chili burger and fries.  Quintessential comfort food.  The best.

g

 

 

 

 

 

The Crossbar

February 19, 2014 – Sports bars are fun most any place.

If you live in a place far removed from your favorite sports team they’re a necessity.  Let’s get real.  There aren’t that many Saints’ games on tv in Anchorage in any given football season..

A sports bar with a creative menu and really excellent food is beyond all that.  It’s just a joy.  Plain and simple.

That brings us to the Crossbar.  Owners Brock Windlow and Ken Ryther are lifelong Alaskans.  Also lifelong hockey players and fans.

For the past couple of decades Brock has been lead singer for 36 Crazyfists, a local band that met with some success.  Though they started in Anchorage, the band moved to Portland to make it easier to be available to the west coast music industry.

Brock still tours with 36 Crazyfists from time to time.  But he realized not too long ago that he was ready to come home.  So he did what he had done before.  He put together a band.  In a sports bar, foodie sort of way.

First he partnered with Ken, head bartender at Anchorage’s popular Bear Tooth Grill for the past decade.  As one of the city’s most knowledgeable and popular mixologists, Ken added considerable talent to the band.

The partners rounded out their harmony by bringing in another lifelong Alaskan, Chef Clayton Jones.  Gaining his education at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Jones served tours as sous chef and later chef de cuisine at the Captain Cook Hotel, then head chef at the Bear Tooth Grill before joining the Crossbar group.

The band was ready for its debut.

Gazing around the room it’s clear that these guys love hockey.  Sure, you can watch football and baseball there in their seasons.  Even basketball.  But the Cross bar loves hockey best.  The name itself comes from the metal bar at the top of a hockey goal.  Or in this case, as the base for all the beers on tap.

Even the door handles are stylized hockey skates.

I met my friend Doug DeVore at the Crossbar for lunch.  I had looked at the menu before he arrived and was fascinated by some of Chef Jones’ offerings.  I ordered the reindeer corn dogs and poutine for starters.

The reindeer sausages are rolled in blue corn meal and served with house made ale mustard.  Usually I only eat corn dogs at the state fair.  These corn dogs made me think of the state fair.  They made me envision a vendor at the state fair sadly paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart.  “Of all the [state fairs], in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Doug was less poetic; more to the point.  “That’s the best corn dog I ever ate.  I won’t ever eat another corn dog at the state fair.”

They were just that good.

And then we dug into the poutine.  A favorite dish of French Canadians, poutine consists of perfectly browned French fries topped with cheese curds and smothered in brown gravy.  Astonishing.  Excellent any time.  But on a day that was 19 degrees Fahrenheit with five inches of new snow on the ground, the poutine raised the definition of comfort food to previously unknown heights.

Though both of us could have quit eating then and been quite satisfied, we had also ordered entrees.  Doug, the cheeseburger.  Me, the pastrami sandwich.  I could only finish half my sandwich but that was ok.  That meant I had half to take home.

Chef Jones makes the pastrami in house and it’s incredible.  Thin sliced, slightly smoky, melding nicely with more of the house made ale mustard, laid on a pumpernickle hoagie.  The rye bread was just hearty enough to stand up to the pastrami and mustard.  An awesome blending of flavors.

Brock and Ken have created a comfortable establishment where sports fans can gather to watch their favorite teams.  Chef Jones is creating an innovative menu that goes well beyond the usual sports bar fare, utilizing Alaskan products wherever possible.

I’ll be back for a meal.

And I can’t wait for football season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hult’s

February 8, 2014 – When Alexander Hult designed his restaurant he worked from the point of view of his customers.  It’s all about service, he told me.  All about making the customer feel welcome.  His philosophy was influenced by his mother, a restaurateur in his native Sweden.  Yes, he agrees, he has to make a profit to stay in business but he’s firm in his conviction that excellent customer service is what makes the profit.  Restaurants get in trouble, he told me, when  they forget the “…care and detail and love…” that go into the making of a great restaurant.

Alex and his wife, Sarah, opened Hult’s in Los Gatos just a few weeks ago.  He met San Jose native Sarah in Las Vegas not long after he arrived in the U.S.  She was Miss Nevada USA then.  He said it was hard to get a date with her as her schedule was very busy and there were always so many people around her.  But he persevered and won her hand.

They came back to California after they were married and decided their future was in Los Gatos.  The decision to open a restaurant was a natural one as Alex was born into the business.  To put the winning touch in the kitchen they brought in Chef Michael Ellis who was awarded a Michelin star in 2007.  Putting Alex’s philosophy together with Ellis’ talents has resulted in a restaurant with a warm, welcoming atmosphere and a creative, adventurous menu.

Alex’s devotion to providing a warm welcome was symbolized shortly after I was seated.  A young man showed up with a warm, damp washcloth with which to refresh my hands and face.  A nice touch.  First class.

As I began to study the cocktail menu, a small, iron skillet filled with house made potato chips was set in front of me.  Golden, crispy and delicious, the chips were a nice diversion as I considered the list of cocktails.  Rick, the young man tending my table, pointed out that all the cocktails were made with sake.  Hult’s is still awaiting the slow grind of bureaucracy to get their liquor license.  Sake is legally considered a rice wine so it doesn’t require the license.  At the same time it’s very versatile and can be used in many libations.  Much like vodka.

I opted for the Swedish Mule, made just like a Moscow Mule with ginger beer and lime except soju, South Korea’s version of sake, is substituted for vodka.  Hult’s uses Cock n’ Bull Ginger Beer.  A good choice.  The drink was excellent.  Refreshing.

After I had ordered, Rick showed up again with a little lagniappe from the chef.  A spoon full each of a cod ceviche, pickled wakame seaweed and tuna pate’.  The tuna was a soothing foil for the tartness of the ceviche and the acidity of the wakame.  A tantalizing trio of treats!

I had ordered half a dozen oysters on the half shell for an appetizer.  Hult’s gets their oysters from the Point Reyes Peninsula area north of San Francisco.  They were briny and sweet.  Just the way oysters on the half shell should be.  They were accompanied by both a red wine vinaigrette and the more traditional spicy seafood cocktail sauce. Satisfying.

Rick soon appeared with the star of the evening.  Pitman Farm’s air chilled duck breast.  The Pitman family has been raising free range chickens, turkeys and ducks In the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno since 1954.  Once their birds are cleaned and processed, they chill them with cool air rather than the usual process of dunking them in cold water.  The air chilling means no liquid is absorbed by the meat.  Hence, the taste of the duck is, well, duck.  Pure duck.

The slices of duck breast came to table resting on a bed of coconut rice with a drizzle of Szechwan peppercorn jus.  The skin was crispy, salty.  A perfect contrast to the deep, pure duck taste of the medium rare meat.  It was accompanied by a house made tangy kim chi, adding a fourth element to the  carnival of tastes cavorting on the plate.  A superior meal.

Alexander Hult believes that people come to his restaurant because they want a warm welcome and a memorable dining experience.  That’s what he wants to give them.  If he can do that, success will take care of itself.

I like his attitude.