Sunday, September 25, 2016

Atlanta Greek Festival

The Atlanta Greek Festival is an Atlanta tradition. Every fall, the Greek Orthodox church on Clairmont becomes a beehive of activity. The drive-thru lane seems to be a fairly recent innovation and that's how I sampled the wares this year. The drive-thru offers a variety of entrée items with plenty of meat on hand, vegetables, and pastries.

I ordered the pastry sampler. As you can see, it's a rich collection of beautiful pastries. My first sample was I will refer to in my best food culture terminology as the shredded wheat thingie. It is, of course, not shredded wheat but shredded puff pastry that encases chopped nuts and honey.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Why Do Good Restaurants Serve Bad Tea?

I visited a nationally-known restaurant a few weeks ago. I sat down with my meal, including a cup of iced tea. One sip told me that it was bitter. I looked up and noticed what had escaped me when I poured the tea---it came from a dispenser marked with the name of an obscure, commercial tea vendor.

If I'm at a fast food chain, tea that upsets my stomach is par for the course. But why do so many restaurants who put a great deal of effort into the rest of their menus serve tea that is just plain bad? Gastric upset is an extreme reaction to tea; bitter, acidic tea just tastes bad to anyone.

Bad tea is a feature of many cuisines. I remember one dinner in Princeton at our local Chinese restaurant during which one of my colleagues told the owner, "My wife thinks your tea tastes like dishwater." Ooh, snap!

But I am deeply disappointed that disciples of the New Southern Cuisines would take such a cavalier attitude to their tea. Iced tea is one of the signature dishes of the South. Its preparation should be taken as seriously as that of collard greens or fried chicken. So please, folks, can we have better tea next time?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Coffee Cake

I was in the mood for a treat so I made a half-batch of Mom's coffee cake. Her recipe in turn comes from her grandmother, who Mom says used to make this cake and then dip it in her coffee. We used to get it as a special treat. Here it is ready to go into the oven. This half-recipe includes a stick of butter and a half cup of yogurt (a substitute for sour cream). I topped it with pecan meal, cinnamon, a touch of cardamom, and honey.

And here is a finished slice. It is very rich and moist; dipping it in coffee is redundant but fun anyway. Simple and satisfying...

Monday, September 19, 2016

Food Trucks and Eating Around Georgia Tech: Cape Pies

Cape Pies is another one of the new food trucks on the Georgia Tech rotation. They serve a variety of savory meat pies.

As you can see, they have posted directions on how to eat the pie like a sandwich. They're right, by the way, The pie looks like a traditional two-crust meat pie, but since it is served outside of the pie tin, it's easy to pick up and eat.

This is my spinach and feta pie, which was very satisfying. The filling had plenty of taste and wasn't too drippy, critical given the two-fisted style of eating. The crust was excellent: buttery and flaky.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Columbus GA: Chester's BBQ

Chester's is a local BBQ establishment on the edge of downtown Columbus. Located in a shotgun-style storefront building, it's bright and efficient inside, with two rows of counter. A lot of the business is takeout; I saw a steady stream of customers as I waited and ate. The proprietors were very friendly and welcoming. I was hungry, so I was grateful for both their food and hospitality.

I was told that the ribs were their specialty so that's what I ordered, along with two sides: collard greens and corn on the cob. The meat had the right amount of toothiness. The sauce was mustard-based. They also featured a mustardy creamy cole slaw, which I really enjoyed. The collard greens were tender and flavorful.

Newnan GA: Sprayberry's BBQ

Sprayberry's is conveniently located just off I-85. Despite (or perhaps because of) its interstate-friendly location, it has been in business since 1928. It still has the attention to hospitality that marks a long-running family restaurant. One of the proprietors greeted me as I sat down at the counter. The hallway is covered in local newspaper articles, including a few on Newnan resident and humorist Lewis Grizzard.

I ordered the regular BBQ plate with a pork/beef combination. The sauce and bread arrived as a teaser. A couple of minutes later, this plate arrived, covered edge-to-edge with meat. Lordy, lordy, lordy! I hate to think how much meat comes with the BBQ sampler. The meat was very good, moist and tender. The pork was very finely chopped, the beef a little less so. The sauce was red vinegar, which I think works very well with pork.

I came in not intending to have dessert. But one of the proprietors dished out a slice of lemon meringue pie in front of me and its siren song was too hard to resist. My slice was both beautiful and delicious. The meringue was perfect, a word I do not use lightly. The interior texture was a perfectly uniform sea of tiny bubbles; the meringue was applied to the top of the pie with perfect smoothness. The lemon filling was sweet but not overwhelmingly so, allowing the tartness of the lemon to show through while modulating the taste. I confirmed with the proprietors that the graham cracker crust is made in-house---it had a much finer texture than I have seen in any other.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Food Trucks and Eating Around Georgia Tech: The French Truck

The French Truck is a new entry to the Georgia Tech food truck cavalcade. The owner tells me that this is his second year of operating the truck. Crepes are the main feature of their offerings. This menu concentrates on sweet items, although peanut butter is kinda savory. They also have a separate menu of savory crepes; today's menu included salmon as well as other proteins.

I couldn't resist the peanut butter, Nutella, and banana crepe. Peanut butter is something I wouldn't expect to see on a crepe in France, but it certainly works well. The combination of toppings was delicious, particularly with the whipped cream. The crepe was right off the griddle, warm and tender.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Decatur: Melton's App & Tap

Melton's is a familiar presence in the Decatur restaurant scene. The atmosphere is cozy and woody, with a very friendly staff. The space is broken into several largish rooms and a patio. Screens tuned to various sports programs adorn the rooms but most have the sound turned down, allowing for communication.

I started off with some excellent onion rings. The crust was rich and flaky. It held together remarkably well---I'm always frustrated by o-ring crusts that disintegrate the moment I touch my teeth to them. I really enjoyed the dipping sauce.

My spicy Italian sausage sandwich was great. The meat was good and porky with just the right amount of heat. The onions and green peppers were cooked to softness but not to pieces.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Update: Tomato Sauce

Good tomato sauce requires a balance. On the one hand, it needs to be thick, which means removing water. On the other hand, it needs to taste fresh. Cooking the sauce for a long time increases its acidity and makes it taste less fresh. I stumbled upon an interesting technique to reduce the water content of the sauce without cooking---I froze the tomatoes.

I bought a case of roma tomatoes for canning. Thanks to a clogged kitchen sink, I couldn't make and can the sauce when I planned. Desperate, I put the tomatoes in the chest freezer for a few days---I put them on trays lined with parchment.

When I got back to the tomatoes, they were frozen solid and quite pretty, particularly after a little frost accumulated on them from the open air. I filled my pan with tomatoes and started to heat them. The liquid that came out was perfectly clear. As I drained off several batches of liquid, I started to get a little particulate matter, but the liquid was still mostly clear. Heating non-frozen tomatoes, in contrast, gives you liquid that is fairly clear but contains more tomato bits.

After draining out the liquid, that pan full of tomatoes was reduced to this small but rich batch. I cooked down all the tomatoes in the same way, then cooked them for a few minutes before canning. The result was the best batch of sauce I've made in several years.

Monday, September 5, 2016

South Carolina Farmers' Stands Part 2

This store on the edge of Spartanburg was closed when I stopped by but the sign is noteworthy on its own. I must say that the combination of peaches and fireworks is one that I wouldn't have thought of on my own. But the mind boggles at the possibilities opened up by their juxtaposition...

Spartanburg SC: Simple Simon

Spartanburg is a surprising town. It is the home of two major corporations: Denny's headquarters towers over main street; Milliken's gracious headquarters sits at the edge of town. You can see the prosperity these companies bring when you drive down the tree-shrouded streets. You can also see it on Main Street. It has its share of empty storefronts, but it also has quite a few restaurants and quaint little shops. It even has a bookstore that features local authors.

The edge of downtown is funky without being scary (at least during the day). The local gas station sells craft beers. Several drive-in restaurants from the 1950's are sprinkled around, some closed but some still open. When I spotted Simple Simon, I thought it was worth a visit.

This small sign announces the store. You can see the pies that Simon carries. The roof sports one of those globes dotted with incandescent bulbs, the sort that used to be seen on top of laundromats.

Inside, the restaurant is a cozy shotgun design, mostly counter space and a few tables in back. The cooking area is on display for all the counter patrons to see for their entertainment. The décor includes nostalgia records and posters.

I forgot to take a photo of my salad, which I enjoyed. The base is iceberg lettuce. I know that's out of vogue but I like it for its texture. The salad was topped with a good-sized handful of juicy diced tomatoes and grated cheese. I enjoyed it.

I very much enjoyed my grilled cheese sandwich. The bread had been lightly buttered before being put on the grill, giving it a richer taste. The American cheese's tanginess provided a nice taste contrast; its warmth was comforting.

The proprietor is a quiet but motherly presence. This place is what it appears to be and was in its earliest days---a simple, cozy, reliable place for food and human company. All too often, modern restaurants try to provide enhanced, faux versions of this experience. I prefer the real thing. It's hard to find these days but satisfying when you do.

Spartanburg SC: Papa's

Papa's is a few blocks from Main Street in downtown Spartanburg. It's open 24 hours a day, serving breakfast all the time. Inside, the room is painted white with red accents with a light and welcoming feel. The staff is just the sort of people you want to see in the morning.

Here is my veggie omelet. It was well-appointed with fresh vegetables cooked just enough to make them soft without reducing them to mush. The potatoes were wonderful---lightly carmelized on the outside, starchy and comforting on the inside. The toast was very good.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Spartanburg SC: Wade's

I can't report on the food at Wade's due to poor service of the worst sort---lack of accommodation for the disabled. After our party waited for 10 minutes in line outside the restaurant, I realized that the line led down a set of stairs with no wheelchair ramp. We went around the restaurant to the back entrance. I talked to three different staff members, including a manager, who only made excuses for their lack of disabled access. Facilities that provide limited or no access to the disabled send them the message that they are not welcome. I've seen plenty of managers in other organizations make excuses for their lack of wheelchair access. It's always a disappointing experience.

Spartanburg SC: Carolina BBQ

Carolina BBQ is located in a small strip mall about a mile off the highway. Despite the pig-themed interior, their signage also emphasizes the sources of their beef, which figures prominently on their menu.

I decided to go for the chopped barbeque plate, meaning pork. The meat was moist and tasty. They offer both mustard and tomato sauces; I think I preferred the mustard sauce for the pork. The beans were, in my estimation, a bit of a disappointment with a taste that wavered between sweet and tangy without fully achieving either. The fried okra was OK but not quite as crisp as I would have liked.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport Food Court

After checking in for my flight, I grabbed breakfast at the food court inside security. Dim sum, especially vegetarian, seemed like a great idea.

After a few minutes, I picked up my beautiful meal. The vegetarian dumplings were fresh, steamy, and delicious without being heavy. The soup was delicious and nutritious. My pot of tea made the meal feel sophisticated.

But the flight back to Atlanta was long, so I decided that the perfect chaser was a MOS Burger. It's a Japanese chain that is well-represented in Taiwan. MOS probably means "most" in this case, but nerds know the acronym as Metal Oxide Semiconductor, the type of transistor that powers your computer. All my EE friends love to visit this place and I hadn't eaten one of their burgers in years.

They serve a wide range of foods in burger format. I stuck with the tried-and-true wagyu beef burger. It's pretty tasty: lightly toasted bun, thick and juicy tomato, and beefy beef. I left for my gate fully satisfied.

Hsinchu, Taiwan: Feast

Feast is the buffet at the Hsinchu Sheraton. My former Ph.D. student Steve Huang invited me there for a wonderful reunion lunch.

This shot gives you a partial idea of the size of the buffet. This semi-infinite line is just some of the hot items. Another three or four stations are dotted around the room.

When faced with this wide variety of food, the only choice is to dive in. I had to try their roast beef, which was quite good. The potato cake was crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, as good as any I've tried. The sushi was very fresh. The dumplings were hot and steamy.

The soup was made for me and excellent.

Whenever I visit Taiwan, I make an effort to eat as much of their excellent fruit as possible.

The dessert bar was hidden in the corner but well worth the effort to find. As you can see, it provides an amazing variety of choices.

I ordered this handmade crepe. The dessert bar didn't have Nutella, unfortunately, but I enjoyed chocolate, honey, fruit, and a little custard.

But most important were my friends: my former Ph.D. students Steve Huang, Chia Han Lee, and Yuan Xie, along with two of Yuan's students who are my academic grand-students.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hsinchu, Taiwan: Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung is a collection of restaurants known around the world for their xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. The original location opened in Taipei and the restaurant has since spread around the world. Our workshop ended with a spectacular meal at the Hsinchu location.

You can't make reservations; a counter at the front of the restaurant tells you the wait. Patrons are entertained by the view of the kitchen staff preparing dumplings with a combination of speed and delicacy. Luckily, our large party was seated in just a few minutes. Once we ordered, the dishes started to arrive with machine gun speed.

A few starter items.

Our first batch of dumplings arrived a few minutes later. Steve informed me that each dumpling is closed with 17 twists. You eat them by dipping one in sauce, placing it on your soup spoon, and then delicately piercing it with your teeth to let out some steam. These dumplings are perfect: the filling is packed with flavors that don't get lost; the dumpling cover is pillowy soft.

Steve served up some noodles, the name of which escapes me. I used to order this dish when I visited MIT, but this version is so much better as to be a completely different experience.

The fried pork cutlet was crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, a true Southerner's delight.

Some delicious fried rice.

I've never before seen this preparation of dumplings. They came in a sheet connected by the thinnest layer of dumpling skin.

These dumplings were filled with green vegetables. They made a nice contrast to the meat fillings.

These dumplings were filled with chicken, as you can see from the little gelatin chicken in the middle.

We ordered two types of dessert dumplings: red bean paste and chocolate. The chocolate dumplings are a new feature on the menu and a total delight to everyone. The chocolate ganache filling came out runny, much like a chocolate lava cake. They made a spectacular ending to a wonderful meal.

This meal was a celebration of old friendships and continuity into the next generation. Our hosts Steve Lin and his wife along with the workshop's Japanese chair Hiroto Yasuura are old friends in the best sense of the word.

And in addition to the Japanese and Taiwanese young professors and entrepreneurs who were able to attend, three of my former Ph.D. students also attended: Chang Hong Lin, Chia Han Lee, and Yuan Xie.