Monday, February 21, 2011

Back to the Old Country

"I'm going back to the Old Country..."

I have always heard that phrase, or variation on it, uttered by generally older folks who emigrated, from whatever foreign land, to the United States. It wasn't until today that I realized sometimes the "Old Country" is just a few exits down the freeway, especially if you haven't been there for years and the place seems like a different world than the one you currently call home.

My companions for this trip to the "Old Country" were my friend and fellow food writer/blogger Sarah (known to the food blogging world as The Undercover Caterer...if you haven't visited her blog, go!) and her husband Guido, who is a great cook in his own right as well as a fellow lover of all things pork. It had been a while since we had all shared a meal together to blog about and we were way beyond overdue. I told Sarah that I'd wanted to go eat and write about Filipino food. She knew exactly where to go.

I grew up in South Sac; Valley Hi to be precise; off of Mack Rd & Center Parkway to be exact. To those who make the commute from The Grid (that would be Downtown to all you 'burb dwellers) to Elk Grove, the Mack Road exit off of Hwy. 99 may seem like a hot mess of mishmashed businesses randomly situated next to one other, and to a certain extent it is. It was weird to see what it had become since I hadn't taken the exit for at least 10 years. What was once, 25 years ago, wide open fields filled with potential is now a cluster of gas stations and strip malls on life support. As we took the off-ramp and headed west on Mack, I found myself reminiscing and pointing out to Sarah & Guido places that were there, but no longer there. I pointed out the strip mall behind Mr. Perry's where there used to be a Thrifty's, where I remember going with my grandparents for 25 cent ice cream cones. I remembered when the Food Source was once a gleaming new Jumbo supermarket, with a Longs Drugs next door (now empty) and a Round Table Pizza (still open) between.

Across from that strip mall was the "newer" strip mall, that used to house Lamppost Pizza- the pizza parlor that always had the coolest new arcade games, where every sports team had their end of season pizza party. That place now stands empty, though the Big 5 Sporting Goods store remains after all these years, as does the Denny's in the parking lot. At the other end of the mall stands the building formerly known as Target, which I also remember as being the brand, spanking new place to shop in South Sac until it was supplanted by Super Target just a couple of miles south. However, the reincarnation of business in that building may be more awesome than the original Target that once occupied it.

The building formerly known as Target

What was once a Target is now a way more cooler Seafood City grocery store. I had never heard of this chain before, but according to their website, it is "A unique lifestyle center for Filipinos / Asians in the United States" that was, "established over 20 years ago with the opening of its first store in San Diego in Southern California, Seafood City is recognized as the "home away from home" for Filipino / Asians in the United States." I had no idea that this chain existed. Now I wish I'd known about it sooner.

It was weird when I walked in, because I remember how it used to be laid out when it was a Target. They sure fixed up the place. The place is best described as a town center put under one roof. When you enter the main entrance hall, you are greeted by what is essentially a food court selling Filipino style fast food as well as a bakery.

Did you know ChowKing is an international fast food chain?

I don't got balot, but I do want...

This is a far cry from Safeway or Trader Joes. You will not see the following things at either of those two stores:

Yes...that is both durian ice cream and cheese ice cream!

I guess if the place is called Seafood City, you just have to have the fish out in the open...

Yes, you read that right: Pork Blood

mm...pork blood

Needless to say the place was pretty awesome for no other reason than its existence being a testament to the real diversity we are so lucky to have here in Sacramento. Growing up here you take that diversity for granted.

I picked up a few random items while Sarah and Guido tracked down ingredients for a lemon chutney that was to be made from friends' tree fresh lemons. Incidentally, I've seen the pics of this chutney and it looks delicious.

Having made our purchases we hit a couple of other Filipino businesses that had risen from the ashes of the once thriving strip mall of my Valley Hi youth. The first was a Starbread Bakery, a place that Sarah had visited before where she had tasted Señorita Bread, a light and buttery Filipino sweet bread coated with a dusting of sugar. We got a batch of warm bread that literally melted in our mouths.

(You'll have to visit the Undercover Caterer to see the offerings of Starbread)

Your neighborhood Filipino bakery

We next visited a Filipino butcher shop, TM Meat Market...

(again, please visit the Undercover Caterer for additional pics)

The second we walked in we were welcomed by the delicious scent of spicy marinades and the sight of fresh raw meats. The staff was friendly and eager to answer any questions about their cuts of meat.

Mexicans aren't the only ones who love tripe

Hello pig head

Cute figurines of yummy dead flesh

All of this food sufficiently adding to our already existing hunger, we set out for a meal at a real Filipino restaurant just one exit north off of Florin Road East; a place in the hood called South Villa.

South Villa- seriously in the hood...

Vacant store across the street

Sketchy apartments behind...

Sarah had been here before and knew the place could satisfy my two of my desires: the first being my desire to eat authentic Filipino fare and the second being my desire to devour pork.

The inside had a ramshackle charm about it. There was nothing at all fancy about the place. I always admire this quality about places in the hood that had clearly been in business for a while. It usually is a signal that the place is just about the food. Rather than gussy up the place with meaningless adornments, the decision was made by the proprietors to serve food that kept people from the neighborhood coming back for good food at a good price.

We settled on ordering a diverse selection from the menu. In all we chose four dishes:
-Chicharon Bulaklak
-Bouillabaisse Soup
-Lechon Kawali
-Kare Kare

The first dish to arrive was the Chicharon Bulaklak.

We were a bit scared to order this because of what it was- the lower intestines of a pig. Now being Mexican, my people are not strangers to the delicacies of the digestive tracts of farm animals. I love Menudo, the most wonderful soup in the world with its main ingredient being cow stomach. What Sarah. however, was quick to point out was that though this was part of the digestive system, we had ordered was more the lower intestine, or the "exit route" if you will. Neither Guido nor I were put off by this. One of the essential missions of food adventurists is to dare to tread where others dare not. If that meant nibbling on piggy poop chutes, then so be it.

The Bulaklak came with a vinegar sauce seasoned by a single slice of jalapeño. As you can see it was deeply deep fried. It was as you could guess, very crispy and also surprisingly airy. It tasted greasy and vaguely porky at the same time. Adventurous as we may have tried to be, I think we all had a hard time getting past the fact that it was the pig's posterior. This is not to say it wasn't tasty, but unfortunately the mental block was too much to overcome. I think this is one of those things that if you didn't tell me what it was I'd have sucked up the whole plate, unfortunately I had to ask what it was. I failed myself.

The Bouillabaisse Soup came out next.

This was the surprise hit of the meal. I don't think any of us were expecting to have a French staple at a Filipino restaurant, but sure enough, there it was on the menu listed under "Authentic Filipino Soup". It was delicious. The yellowy broth was thick; not quite chowder thick, but thicker than mere brothy. There was an underlying buttery creaminess to it that mixed perfectly with the fresh shrimp, squid, and humongous mussels. All that was missing was some warm, fresh sourdough bread to sop up every last bit of the soup. I think we all agreed we'd go back just for this soup.

Third up was the Lechon Kawali.

Sarah chose this dish knowing mine and Guido's love for all things pork. This was a simple dish of deep fried, crispy pork belly. This dish was great on a couple of different levels. I love pork and I love fried pork even more. On that basis alone, this dish delivered. What made this dish even better was the immediate sense memory that I got with the first bite. It immediately took me back to my youth when my dad would cook pork for the family. He would lightly batter it with peppery flour and deep fry it until the outsides were crispy and just on the edge of burnt while managing to keep the inside white and relatively moist. This dish tasted exactly like that pork my dad used to cook. All that was missing was the Mexican requisite of lime to squirt on top of. This dish made me very happy.

The final dish was the Kare Kare.

This was an ox tail stew with bok choy and eggplant. The gravy was a peanut based sauce that wasn't to thick or too peanutty. I'd never had ox tail before and loved it in this incarnation. The dark looking and flavored meat melted away from the bone and melted in my mouth. Having eaten this, I am going to make it a mission of mine to experience ox tail in its various forms. In fact I was kicking myself for having not experienced this part of the cow sooner. This dish delivered.

And thus my trip to the "Old Country" was over. Like with most trips for people who make that visit, the place is never quite how it was or how you remember it. The Valley Hi of my youth is long gone and likely long forgotten, people like me having moved away long ago to the "New World" filled with new experiences and opportunities. I am happy to see the place still fighting to stay alive, occupied now with a new generation of people who have made my "Old Country" their "New World". And I have no doubt, twenty years from now, one of the present day adolescents will look back at the home of their youth and find that the more things have changed in the "Old Country", the more they remain the same.

Seafood City is located at:
6051 Mack Road
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 393-8900
in the Southpointe Plaza

Starbread Bakery is located at:
6127 Mack Road
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 427-8598
in the Southpointe Plaza

TM Meat Market is located at:
6181 Mack Rd
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 393-3050
in the Southpointe Plaza

South Villa Restaurant is located at:
7223 55th Street
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 429-1949

Saturday, February 12, 2011

When The Student Met The Master

***NOTE- This is an EXTREMELY overdue entry. I pledge to try being more consistent with writing...I promise***

***WARNING- Due to strong language, parental discretion is advised for this post...if you don't agree that sometimes "fuck" is the right word in that certain sentence, then fuck you and go read something else***

So I was very fortunate over this past 12 months, for a lot of reasons. Putting the heavy stuff aside (which I've alluded to in previous entries), my biggest score in this period involved meeting my food writing inspiration- Anthony Bourdain.

It's always kind of scary interacting with people that you look up to who are celebrities, especially those who do the same things you do, or aspire to emulate. Whether you are a "small time" writer, actor, musician, or athlete who meets a "big time" writer, actor, musician, or athlete, there is always the danger that Mr. or Ms. "Big Time" will be a royal prick and shatter the myth you have built up in your mind about this person. We've all heard stories from friends who ran into certain celebrities only to find that they were total douchebags.

I've been lucky enough over the years, in my various adventures where I've traveled around playing music, pretending to be a rock star, to meet some of my musical heroes. On the whole, I've been lucky enough to discover that they were all cool- at least to me. There was one notable exception where one of the great blues guitarists of all time was an all time prick, which I won't dwell on. Suffice it to say, you never know what you're going to get when you happen to come across some of these folks.

I will say this, without seeming like a name dropping starfucker, I do want to point out that the following "famous people" were pretty darn cool: BB King, Rosario Dawson, Los Lobos.

(As an aside about Ms. Dawson...she is even hotter in person and has (god this is going to sound perverted, but I'm a male and I notice these things) one of the prettiest mouths ever...(and, yes...that sounded pretty perverted...sorry))

Me and the lovely Ms. Dawson

With all of this in mind, I was kind of apprehensive about any interaction with Mr. Bourdain, for fear that he might be, dare I say...douchey. I was lucky enough to catch him twice on his speaking tour in support of his latest book Medium Raw.

The first time I caught him on tour was in my home town of Sacramento at the Memorial Auditorium. The show was great and surprisingly well attended by a crowd of foodies who really appreciated his writing, his humor, and his opinions about food, travel, and the more famous food writers and t.v. personalities. His show was basically a condensed version of his book done over the course of a couple of hours. It was pretty impressive for a couple of reasons: his riffing for that long without notes and how clear it was that his written voice was the same as his speaking voice. He really came across as a guy you could seriously just hang out and drink beers with while discussing anything, food or not. The show was great, that is up until the Q & A.

Before it all went off the rails...

Now having been a performer for a long time, I have learned one thing that remains true: the microphone is one of the most powerful weapons known to man. Whoever controls the mic, controls the crowd, and when you give it up, things can go incredibly wrong or, in this case, incredibly boring. I was really pulling for my people to come through with questions that were probing, original, and/or insightful.

Don't ask him about eating oysters in France. He wrote about that in previous books and has discussed that on his t.v. show. Don't ask him about the sickest he's ever gotten. That's been covered too. And here's a tip for future Q & A-ers: Don't go on for two minutes about yourself, creating a barely constructed question where you ask the person on stage to agree with an opinion or world view of yours. If you want to talk about yourself, get your own G-D blog or write your own book...(oops, did I just insult myself? hm...dammit!!!)

There was a palpable sense of astonished embarrassment from folks in the crowd, many of whom were some of my fellow food bloggers and writers. It was a conundrum though. Did we dare risk our coolness and become sycophantic fan boys and girls in an effort to save our city's Q & A reputation? Or did we sit there, being too cool for school, praying Bourdain wouldn't call his wife at home later that evening, bemoaning the lack of any originality from the good people of Sacramento? I think the answer is clear...writers are pretty much too cool for school. We all ran into each other after and commiserated, incredulous at the fuckery that was perpetrated by the food Q & A-ers of Sacramento that night. A malaise came over me and I felt as though something had to be done to make this right. I wasn't sure what, exactly, but I knew there was something. Well a couple of months later that something came along...

My friend Byron is a Nevada "High Roller"...literally. He gets all kinds of things comped to him by the good people at Harrah's Casinos for having the intestinal fortitude to sit at a blackjack table and push little round, black pieces of plastic back and forth on the green felt for hours and hours. Suites, epic surf & turf meals at the finest casino restaurants, spa treatments, top top shelf liquors and much more can be yours when you do what Byron does. My inner degenerate lives vicariously through him when I watch him play blackjack. It is a thing of twisted beauty, trust me.

I was stoked when he called and asked me if he wanted to go to Tahoe for a food & wine festival put on by Harrah's. Bourdain was going to be the Saturday night headliner in the South Shore Room with comped tickets. I mean, how could I say no to this? More important than a comped weekend in Tahoe was my newly formed mission that came to me when Byron extended the invitation. I was going to make up (at least in my mind) for the shitty questions that were asked in Sacramento by asking a good question in Tahoe!

This was going to be a great opportunity to ask away without seeming like a fan boy in my own hometown. I wouldn't say I agonized over this, but I really put some thought into what I would ask. The criteria was relatively simple. No questions about food. I mean you think he wants to be asked about eating at the French Laundry for the 5,000th time? How many times do you think he's recounted the story of that drunken wedding reception with his nutjob, Russian drinking partner Zamir? It's like being a musician on the road. It's real easy to get sick of a song if you have to play it every. single. night...night after night. You need something to break up the monotony.

Saturday night had arrived. The trip was notable as well, because it happened to be the first time going to Nevada since quitting the drinking and stuff. It was the first time I had ever woken up in the Silver State without a hangover. As with everything I've done for the first time since getting sober, it was amazing and again made me wonder why I hadn't done it sooner. But I digress...Byron had arranged, through his casino host (yes...he really is a high roller) to get a private booth for us and our buddies Chris and Tony (my friend who really encouraged me to start this blog) to watch the show.

This show had the potential to go bad for a bunch of other reasons-the main one being a room full of middle aged douchebags in Tommy Bahama gear with one too many tumblers of Glenlivet in their systems...because we all know how much more clever you are when you are slurring drunk and trying to be the funny one. Nobody came to see you fail at funny, Tommy Bahama. Just shut the fuck up and do less blow next time, so you're not as jittery and talkative, ok?

The show came to it's inevitable conclusion and the part that I dreaded even more due to the presence of so many Tommy Bahamas: Drunken Q & A. I knew I had to mobilize quickly. Since I'd seen the show before, I knew when his talk was ending and when to start making my way down to where the microphones would appear. Sober and nimble I managed to snag one of the mics well before Tommy Bahama could get his fat, stubby, sweaty fingers on it. I was not to be denied.

My turn came and there I was...face to face with Mr. Big Time Writer; The Master and inspiration for my writing about food. It was time to put up or shut up. I was going to make up, unbeknownst to him or anyone else, for the bad questions he got in Sacramento. And so it went:


I got in two questions, both non-food related, and I know it may have just been me, but I really did feel as though he was relieved to hear questions, that were seemingly from from left field that were neither drunkenly slurred, nor retread of questions asked at the show before, before, before, before, and before. I got some good answers and even figured if Bourdain could quit the sweet Marlboros then so could I, though I used the nicotine patch.

So through all of this, I was so relieved that he was actually a cool guy during our brief interaction and I am determined to meet him again, this time in some dive bar, to ask him his favorite live music venue...who knows?

I mean who'd have thought I would ever meet Rosario Dawson, number 2 on my personal "Hottest Woman In The World List"?

The Universe has a twisted sense of humor...