Friday, August 29, 2008

CSA Food Box

In the continuing search for the ideal way of buying and eating produce we signed up for a local CSA. Community Supported Agriculture attempts to connect local farmers with members of the community to develop a regional food supply, thus not relying on the monster that is industrial agriculture.

Here's the box i picked up only blocks from our humble abode.

It seemed like a really heavy box. One large melon explained the weight.

You see, I want to like and even love this system. We get very beautiful, organic produce. What we do not get is vast quantities of anything. For the money paid, we could have shopped the deals and bought a lot more produce. See an earlier entry for a look at this dilemma.

Listen: I get it. After oil really becomes scarce, or just really expensive and we're living in a Mad Max like dystopian future, we're going to be very glad that we developed these local food systems that are not only close, but didn't destroy the fragile environment. Right? We cannot expect to keep getting cheap food from a thousand miles away while the cost of that service becomes greater. But at this point, this is a choice that not everyone can make. Hell, I don't know if I can afford it at present. Do we simply need to understand that our food has been artificially cheap with petroleum based fertilizers, cheap transport, and migrant labor for far too long? How can you convince people in an already struggling economy that it is a good idea to pay more money for their food?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Oakland Chinatown Street Festival

The Oakland Chinatown Street Festival took place last weekend. I went looking for food and to enjoy the celebration in this vibrant and diverse community. Upon arrival, I was greeted with this sight:

If I'm not mistaken, an old school Maoist right in our midst! How exciting!

What is the best way to engage such a man you might ask? Dialogue? No, of course not. Some middle age lady was marching around waving a small American flag yelling "Happy, Happy!" It would have been quite an amusing scene had she not told the man with the signs to "Go home." Charming.

I decided my appetite was getting out of hand, so I went looking for food. What might be lurking on the streets, I wondered. Quickly my heart sank when I realized that this is America, we don't really have street food. Actually, it was this sign that reminded me:

It was a sign from Oakland's finest warning locals to keep their garbage off the sidewalk, keep Oakland clean, but most ominously emphasized their point with "We are watching." I thought it was a joke until I realized that the choice not was written in the same hand as the rest of the form. Thanks OPD! At least they didn't shoot anyone.

This wasn't all as demoralizing as it sounds, as Chinatown is still kind of a fun place to have a meal, or a meal of snacks. I tried ducking into some of the bakeries and dim sum shops, but it was Pandemonium. As Chinatown is not merely peopled with Chinese folks, I ducked into a bustling Vietnamese joint.

Yes, this would do nicely. Sandwiches, or Bahn mi started at 2.25 a piece. If this is out of your price range, you've got problems. I ordered a pork and pate sandwich.

Well, at least it was cheap. This poverty stricken sandwich was a mild disappointment, but so what. While it didn't measure up to very good versions I've sampled all over SE Asia, this was a fun treat. Also, I still had room for more!

BC Deli
818 Franklin St
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 286-9978

I went next door to a dumpling shop.

There was quite a nice display in the window of freshly steamed buns, and a sizable line of excited party goers. I waited for the line to shorten, then I made my move.

The menu was about a mile long so I just pointed. I ended up with a trifecta of pork buns and out I went. I picked up a copy of the same damn Falun Gong newspaper people give me every time i am near a Chinatown.

Sauceless, but good.

Pork, water chestnut, garlic, and a little fungus was all I needed. Or maybe I should say all I didn't need. My desire and ability to consume lots of pork has dramatically decreased as of late. I usually eat very little meat, a lot of veggies and grains, so this little binge was all too much. But I was thirsty, so I needed something.

Tao Yuen
816 Franklin St
(between 8th St & 9th St)
Oakland, CA 94607

I walked into a bubble tea shop. The place was full of teenagers as these places often are. I ordered a green jasmine pearl tea.

Plastic cup, sugary tea, and tapioca pearls. If you're about fifteen, this is probably your idea of heaven. I do love the pearls, but try to avoid the plastic when I can.

Sweetheart Cafe
315 9th Street
(between Harrison St & Webster St)
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 835-8136

Saturday, August 23, 2008

$.39 Garlic and other musings

Friends and acquaintances alike will chastise me for this purchase for a variety of reasons. Why should I buy my garlic from the People's Republic of China when there is perfectly good garlic grown a lot closer to home? How does that make any sense environmentally speaking? Just so we are on the same page, I bought not one but five heads of garlic for 39 cents.

I spend a lot of time in San Francisco's Chinatown, as I walk through on my way home from work. I enjoy the hustle and bustle on the streets. I like the bakeries. I enjoy seeing featherless hanging birds, and still flopping fish. And on this day, I needed garlic, so in one of the many grocers I went. Nobody spoke English but that's not a problem. I handed a woman my purchase, she rang me up, I gave her my pocket change. A bit cheaper than I'd expected.

This is the part of the post where I don't know what to tell you or how to succinctly address the issues of 39 cent garlic. Time and again I see how prices in Chinatown (San Francisco and Oakland) are always cheaper than other stores and much more so that the farmers markets. Some readers will simply dismiss this purchase as un-earth friendly that doesn't see the long term issues involved with industrial agriculture, and products being shipped half way across the world, underselling local products. They have a point and I do agree. Lucky for them that they have the luxury of having the choice to pay more for their products. I try to do my part by supporting local farmers when I can. I am very lucky that at times I can and do pay more to encourage new agricultural trends. But what about everyone else?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bar Guide Revisited

Out of the blue a couple of weeks ago I recieved an email from a reader offering me a copy of the Round The World Bar Guide by Lawrence Blochman. Of course I wanted it, as my aunt owns the copy I wrote about. I am eternally grateful to this dear individual.

The unemployment rate may be high, the econmoy may be in the toilet, but at least we can always count on alcohol to really destroy our lives. Who's thirsty? Look forward to strange cocktail recipes in the near future!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kanom Krok, American Version

Listen: I have long ranted and raved about how it's damn near impossible to recreate the cuisine you find in one country, thousands of miles away in another. After pretending that Thai food didn't exist for a the last couple months, I broke down a couple of times, and got just about what I expected: A jumbled approximation. This is owing to a myriad of reasons some of which might include: availability of ingredients, customers unfamiliarity with the cuisine, and or catering to the American palate. Sometimes you can find something resembling a dish from a far away land, but once you've had the "real" thing, it's hard to be satisfied with its distant cousin.

Taking a walk through Berkeley the other morning, we were curious why there were so many rather hip looking white people milling about on the grass in front of the Tool Lending Library. Near the sidewalk there were parking signs, some of which were in Thai. It dawned on us that nearby was the much talked about Thai temple where there is a Sunday brunch. Friends and acquaintances have heartily recommended it.

We walked into the compound to see Thai dancing, people wearing their unmistakable yellow shirts, and most importantly, food. We saw some familiar dishes, most of which we were in no mood for as we had recently eaten. But one item caught our eye. It was the lovely lovely Kanom Krok. You can see it here or here.

A hard working troupe of Thai ladies were cooking up these little treats as fast as they could, but the line kept getting longer. They cooked. We waited.


The result? The worst Kanom Khrok we have ever sampled. Don't get upset! Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about the difficulties in recreating one cuisine so far from it's place of origin? The coconut milk used was obviously canned, not fresh. They were merely sweet, not a little savory. It simply lacked the subtle flavors, the balance that make this snack a personal favorite. In spite of this being the worst we have ever had, if not compared to the hundreds of Kanom Krok sampled in Thailand, they were actually pretty good. At four dollars a pop, this snack is about twelve times the price of the Thai version. Worth it? I'm not sure, but we might be back some day in the future. Or maybe I'll save my money for tacos.

Come early, or not at all to avoid the mad rush. 9 am to 2 pm Sundays only!

Wat Mongkolratanaram
1911 Russell St
Berkeley, CA 94703
(510) 849-3419

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tacos Sinaloa

After much hinting, I finally am making my first post about Oakland taco trucks. This will hopefully be the first of many. Let's look at it as the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Tacos Sinaloa is the first truck, or series of trucks, you see heading up International Boulevard away from Downtown Oakland. Seemed like a good place to get started. Many customers rolled up in Large trucks, we rolled up on our bikes. A diverse group of mostly Spanish speaking customers congregated. I heard nary a word of English, so I dusted off my very rusty Spanish and put in an order. Two plates of tacos al pastor.

Tacos Sinaloa does a brisk business. In this very spot, there are not one but two taco trucks. There is also a small permanent structure, that didn't seem in use this very day. I won't ramble on. Have a look.

Each taco was lovingly made with two handmade tortillas, covered with meat, salsa, and pickled carrots and jalapenos. Beautiful. For the uninitiated, al pastor is pork cooked in the style of shawarma or kebab. I couldn't see a spit inside the truck, so the actual preparation is a mystery.

As many of you have probably heard, with the American economy in the toilet, people have less disposable income, the restaurant lobby gets very uncomfortable, and restrictions are being put on our good friend the Taco Truck. Recent restrictions passed by the Los Angeles city council has put their future in the City of Angels in doubt. Let's make one thing perfectly clear: zoning them into obscurity, taxing them out of business, or making their existence simply illegal will not send us into the warm embrace of a fine(r) dining establishment.

Luckily, the Oakland city council has put some taco truck friendly ordinances in place, making it a bit of a mecca in a growing wasteland for street food.

Get yourself over to International Boulevard and eat some tacos.

Tacos Sinaloa
2138 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 535-1206

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Eastern Bakery

Longtime readers of this blog, if there are any left, will remember gushing posts about Bangkok's lively Chinatown, complete with coffee and snacks of course. Recent posts have pondered how to proceed without snacks to power my wandering thought the urban jungle. Employment opportunities have lead me through San Francisco's Chinatown on many occasions. The streets are flooded with, you guessed it, Chinese people, Chinese grocers, and tourists. No obvious street snacks. San Francisco's Chinatown may lack the sidewalk grills and coffee stands, but if you dig a little deeper, there are some real gems to discover.

My research had pointed me toward the Golden Gate Bakery for great pastries, but most importantly, egg tarts. I made my plans, marked my Google maps, and went in for the kill.

I had read that the line often extends down the block. But on this day...

they were on a nice extended vacation. Hmph.

A friend in high school once declared "A is the kind of guy that you could drop off in any country in the world with no money and he could have a sandwich in five minutes." This is pure hogwash. I usually have to pay for my sandwiches, but I am certainly good at finding them. I didn't let the folks at the Golden Gate Bakery have the last laugh. I simply visited their competitor. Punks.

Just down the street sits the Eastern Bakery. Reportedly Chinatown's oldest bakery, the Eastern Bakery looks old and dirty on the inside and out. I wouldn't have it any other way. Lunch had been skipped for reasons beyond my control, I had egg tarts on my mind, so I simply disregarded all the pastries on offer. "Four egg tarts please!"

These were delicious. The crust was fresh and flaky, the custard sweet, not too eggy, and just firm enough. I was only a little embarrassed to order four all for myself. You see, you get a good deal if you order four, and I had promised a certain someone at home egg tarts. I didn't eat all of these! I did in fact have an obligatory yet atrocious cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup.

I ate my snack surrounded by a family of Eastern Europeans, a couple of Japanese ladies, and one Chinese man furiously scratching away at his lottery tickets. Tourists and locals flooded in. Even Bill Clinton stopped by in the early 90's and was photographed eating some of their famous cookies. Legend has it, he had to be removed from the premises after excitedly sampling the wares. He is known to be a man of enormous appetites. In this case, who can blame him?

Eastern Bakery
720 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-5157‎

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Liguria Bakery

Liguria is my kind of place, and it should be yours too. They make one thing and one thing only. Focaccia bread. No pasta, no pastries, no nonsense.

Liguria Bakery, in North Beach San Francisco, has been around just about forever. Well, since 1911 if my sources are correct. It's a long standing family run business in this historically Italian neighborhood. They make their delicious Focaccia bread by hand daily, like they have since day one.

Here it is on a rather inconspicuous corner of Stockton and Filbert. I don't even think there's a sign.

Inside, things look much like they always have I imagine. A rather sparse counter and a sign that lists the focaccia for sale. Get here early, or there won't be much to buy. They are often sold out before their closing time of two o'clock.

Walking in we were immediately intimidated when one of the the women behind the counter very quickly asked "Can I help you with something?" Gosh, what else could we be here for? We quickly, and rather foolishly I might add, ordered two pizza focaccias.

The older woman went in the back, got our foccacia, wrapped it in paper, and tied it with a piece of string. We ran across the street to eat.

And eat we certainly did. This bread is massive, and they don't spare the fat.

This was too much but enjoyable. The pizza bread does get rave reviews, but two of them was just too much. I thought the sauce overpowered the bread. Besides, we should have tried two kinds.

A couple weeks later when back in the area I ventured back for another taste. I took two to go with me on the BART to my home in the East Bay. i expected to be mugged for my package that was filling the car with a wonderful smell. I was carrying garlic

and mushroom this time around.

A much better choice. These were all I could have hoped for, and all the butter I could want for a week. If you love garlic, you can't go wrong with garlic foccaicia.

Eating this bounty, i wondered if this kind of food would be accepted with open arms this day and age. It's very simple, very rich, and very caloric. The kind of food that in moderation, is rather excellent. But as Americans are the poeple in the world most likely to be on a diet, and the most likely to be obese, I'm not so sure.

Here's my advice for you. Buy one, split it with a friend, and eat it with soup or salad. Good luck not eating it all if you are by your lonesome.

Liguria Bakery
1700 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 421-3786

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mostly Quiet on the Western Front

It's been quiet here. Few posts have made it from the drafting board. Meals are consumed, impressions made, and favorites tracked down. As before due to my calorie requirements, I eat at least three meals a day, some of which find their way onto my hard drive where they sit. There really are fewer better places to eat in America than the Bay Area. Whether it's the diversity of produce available, or the diversity of cuisines represented by the many large immigrant communities, there is really a large problem deciding what to eat. The big problem for me, is most food eaten out is in restaurants. I stay home and cook a lot. As I said in the previous post, I'm not looking to turn this into a simple restaurant review blog, or just a cooking blog, so posts have been slow in coming.

A word or three on street food:

I've written and rewritten opinion pieces about the merits of street food many times over the last year or so, but am never satisfied with the results. Now that street food is elusive, it is easier to hit the main points.

I hesitate to say that street food is better than restaurant food, as it is hard to speak in absolutes, but it often is a lot more fun, is more inclusive, and of course it is cheaper. You certainly don't have to agree, but one of the most enjoyable things in life, is wandering around a large outdoor market, picking up snacks, plopping down for a beverage, or having a bowl of noodles. Hell, a simple grill on a sidewalk can really be perfect as well. It's casual, it's simple, and it's cheaper. Oh yes, it's fresh, interesting, and a great look into what everyday people are doing. It's a slice of life.

A word or two on restaurants:

Dining in a restaurant, whether in Oakland, California, or Bangkok, Thailand, I feel a striking sense of separation. Separation from the outside world, separation from other diners, separation by class, and separation from the production of the food. There is always a time and a place to eat in a restaurant, so don't get the wrong idea. Sometimes it is nice to get away from the elements, forget the outside world, and even be catered to. But for everyday eating, I don't need an overly polite waiter, art on the walls, or a daunting list of choices.

This is all very unscientific. I don't have a pleasure index relating to the food I've eaten on the street vs. in a restaurant. Maybe it's all a matter of personal taste. So anyhow, I don't bring my camera to every restaurant I end up in. In addition I don't want to show you what I cook for breakfast on a daily basis.

This is what has been on my mind as of late. That is all for now. More is on the way, I promise.