Mission Chinese Food

Last year, I successfully bid on a one-night stay at any Club Quarters hotel location in the world. A few months ago, we realized that the certificate was about to expire. While a quick jaunt to London would have been delightful, we opted for the slightly easier route to New York. My husband’s best friend, Jeff, and his girlfriend, Erika, live in the City and this was the perfect opportunity to visit with them and get some great New York eats.

After some discussion, we decided to try New York’s outpost of the popular Mission Chinese Food for lunch. It was a risky move as the restaurant does not take reservations. We figured we’d give it a try and had a back up plan just in case the wait seemed outrageous. Danny Bowien recently opened the NYC location of this “Americanized Oriental food” in a “dive bar setting.” In fact, it made Zagat’s list of the 10 Hottest Restaurants in the World in January.

We drove into the city on a sunny Saturday and quickly found parking just a block away from the restaurant. We descended the stairs into a cramped waiting area where patrons could either order take out or put their name in for a table. As it turned out, the wait was only 15-20 minutes long, said the hipster gentleman at the counter. We grabbed some menus and plotted out our meal. After no more than 10 minutes, we were seated. The tables are jammed in pretty tightly–you don’t even have to strain to eavesdrop on your neighbors (or to check out their food)–score!

Of course I wanted every single noodle dish on the menu. I restrained myself and we stuck to two noodle dishes, one small and one large dish.

First came the BBQ pigtails.

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This is the perfect example of “Americanized Oriental” food, although it certainly leaned more to the American side of the spectrum. This was a generously sized “small dish” and the pork tails were meaty, fatty and messy. Pretty much everything you’re looking for in BBQ. It came with a killer potato salad and plain roll to sop up the juices. This would be a great dish to share because I had my fill after just one lil’ piggy tail.

Next up was the kung pao pastrami. This was THE dish we had heard about and it was one of those ones that sounds too interesting not to order, ya know? My husband was a bit concerned about the two alarm heat factor–the dish contains “explosive chili.” I reminded him that he has handled tastings at Han Dynasty so two alarms should be no biggie.

I was right.

IMG_3880Not only was this dish surprisingly lacking the promised “explosive chili,” I literally could not pick up one iota of heat. The pastrami was tasty, albeit sparing, and I always like a good peanut, but this dish was generally disappointing.

We couldn’t decide between the spicy peanut noodles and the egg egg noodles so of course we got both.

The peanut noodles came with braised lamb neck, cucumbers, chili oil and mint. The description was pretty close to our beloved dan dan noodles from Han Dynasty.

IMG_3881The noodles were good. Nice sauce, the cucumber and mint gave it a refreshing crunch. I could have gone without the dry braised lamb neck on the side though. In my opinion, Han Dynasty’s version edged this one out though. I had higher hopes for the egg egg noodles–egg noodles with a soft-cooked hen egg.

IMG_3882This one had a nice flavor, although if we had to pick, we would have gone with the peanut noodles instead. While two noodles dishes isn’t necessarily overkill, these flavor profiles were a little too closely aligned. Additionally, I prefer my noodles a little less al dente in a dish like this.

Looking back, it seems like I enjoyed my lunch less than I actually did. I would go back and try some other things–the salt cod fried rice seemed to be the darling of neighboring diners. It was also just a fun atmosphere. If you twisted my arm and forced me to choose at this point, I’d rather devour a bowl of dan dan noodles and spicy crispy cucumbers any day of the week.

After lunch, we strolled around the neighboring Little Italy and grabbed a few snacks for later.

IMG_3883Because, you know, who doesn’t need a little rice ball in her life?

On our way back to the car, we stopped at an artisanal popcorn shop. We got popcorn for my parents and for the dog, of course. This is New York, after all.  We then grabbed a late afternoon beer flight at the awesome Top Hops Beer Shop which has an extensive rotating tap list, with the opportunity to create your own flight of any four beers, and a take out bottle selection in the back. Perfect way to end the afternoon. Next up, dinner!

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Forest and Main

My in-laws live about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia and often come into the city to meet up with us and try new restaurants. However, we thought we’d give them a break from 76 and come closer to them last time we met up. After conferencing with my friend, Dorrie, we decided to meet at Forest and Main Brewing Company in Ambler, PA. Dorrie said they had a great beer list and we were looking forward to checking it out. In fact, unbeknownst to us, Forest and Main won Philly Mag’s coveted “Best of Philly” award in the brew pub catergory.

Forest and Main is just off the Main Street in “downtown” Ambler in an adorable old Victorian house. It was a gorgeous evening and we were able to dine at one of the few tables on the front porch, giving it an incredible homey feeling. Our visit happened to be during Ambler Restaurant Week. I’m not usually a big fan of restaurant weeks, due to overcrowding, sub-par food and service and the fact that you’re not always getting a deal (paying $35 for 3 courses when you would normally only order two for $25, for example.) Forest and Main’s Restaurant Week menu had two things going for it: you could choose any three dishes, none of which had to be a dessert AND the price tag of $25 included a beer. What a great deal!

My husband and I both opted for the Restaurant Week menu while his parents chose to order a la carte. Before the food order, we had a more important decision to make–beer. Forest and Main’s beer list is split into two sections: of British Inspiration and of Belgian Inspiration and you can get 16 or 20 oz. pours ranging from a reasonable $4.50-$7. For the indecisive, or those who like to taste a little bit of everything, flights of four are also available.

I am of the “like to taste a little bit of everything” mindset and got the flight of all four “of Belgian Inspiration” beers.

Of the four, my favorite was the tripel-style Ablution. Big and fruity, it was a favorite to everyone at the table, even my non-beer drinking mother-in-law.

For my three food choices, I selected summer corn soup, pierogies and the F&M sliders. My husband chose the same, but swapped the sliders for the fish and chips. We had a discussion at the table about whether we wanted to order bacon popcorn. My father-in-law was mysteriously quiet until we asked his opinion.

“You can get what you want, but I’m getting one for myself,” said the bacon lover.

The popcorn came out with the soup. It was adorable in the tin, Ikea buckets.

The popcorn received mixed reviews at the table. The in-laws loved it, but I found it to be a bit greasy for my taste. There was a definite smoky flavor from the bacon, so be forewarned if you’re not a fan of smoke!

The corn soup was a hit.

It was thick and chunky with just the right kick of jalapeno and creamy sweet corn. Besides, it’s the height of corn season. It would be hard for this dish not to taste good. I did sneak a few pieces of the popcorn into the soup which is highly recommended! This was probably my favorite dish of the night.

Next was a generous serving of pierogies. They looked beautiful.

I was surprised to receive such a large serving and ended up taking two home. These pierogies had potential to be good–I loved the sauteed leeks on top–but they were absolutely swimming in butter. And I do love butter.

I was looking forward to the sliders. Sliders are so cute. And they came with aged cheddar and bacon mayonnaise. Sold!

The sliders turned out to be a bit overdone with a bread to meat ratio that leaned heavily on the side of bread. Perhaps the full-sized version would be better. The house made chips were a great side, though.

The fish and chips were decent and came with a bottle of malt vinegar for that extra sour tang and a solid side of fries.

We decided to forgo dessert and took a stroll around “downtown” Ambler. Before heading back, we stopped at Toto’s Gelateria and Caffe for some gelato made in house.

I chose a decadent mix of dark chocolate fudge and nocciola (hazelnut.)

What a perfect combo. After chatting with the friendly owner, we sat at an outdoor table and enjoyed our dessert.

Overall, Ambler is a cute little town. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to hit Forest and Main, I think it would be a great stop for a beer and some apps. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt since I did go during restaurant week, but I’d like to see some more consistency in the food because this place really has potential.

Salem Beer Works

One rainy day in Massachusetts, we decided to take a trip to Salem to check out the history. My husband, who has known me for over eight years, learned of my fascination with witches and the Salem Witch Trials and agreed to take the 30-minute drive from Gloucester to explore the town. Once we mentioned that we were going to Salem, everyone said that we just HAD to go to Salem Beer Works and try their fried pickles. Fried pickles?! You had me at hello.

We made our way down 128 and settled in for a morning at the Peabody-Essex Museum, which had a fantastic exhibit on ManRay and Lee Miller (seriously, check it out if you’re in town) and a fun, interactive exhibit on water. After a little culture, we headed over to the big event: the Salem Witch Museum! I was so excited.

Following a lackluster, but slightly interesting tour of the museum, we headed to the Beer Works for a late lunch.

While we knew the fried pickles were a definite, we checked out the beer menu to select our beverages. We had heard chatter of a tasty watermelon beer but I was drawn towards a few different options and ended up with a pick-your-own flight while my husband opted for a 12oz pour of the Victory White. My flight ranged from Witch City Red and Watermelon Ale to a Bunker Hill Blueberry Ale (made and garnished with Maine blueberries) and a Cask IPA.

I’m no beer expert like this guy but I enjoyed each of them, especially the light and playful watermelon ale and the blueberry ale, which had some richer flavors. The cask IPA was mellow and more drinkable than I expected. Best of all, the 4 ounce pours were only $1.50 each so I got the whole flight for $6. What a deal!

We each ended up opting for two of their many burgers, after seeing the construction workers to the left of us devouring theirs with gusto. I went with the Charlestown Burger topped with bacon and cheddar and he went all out with the Fenway topped with chili, scallions and cheddar. The Beer Works has a ton of different french fry cuts and seasonings, any of which we could pick to accompany our burgers. I went with the potato sticks while he opted for the more traditional hand cut fries.

The pickles were actually whole spears battered and fried with a ranch dipping sauce. While I expected them to be sliced, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The creamy ranch, hot and crispy coating and warm, sour pickle all did a little dance in my mouth together. What great beer drinking food!

The burgers followed and were top notch. Mine was cooked to a perfect medium–something I’ve had trouble finding these days.

I didn’t care for the potato sticks, however. I was expecting matchstick fries and what came out were, quite literally, potato stix (remember them?)

My husband’s burger was messy but received two chili-smudged thumbs up from him. And I got over my fry disappointment by eating most of his.

Look at all that chili!!

After finishing lunch, we picked up to six-packs to go (for under $9 each!) They also offer growlers but we were walking around and they were a little less portable. We headed over to my tarot reading and I’ll find out in 4-7 months if any of the work, health, financial and travel predictions she made are true!

Beer Works has a number of locations around Massachusetts, including one across from Fenway Park. Stop in and check out the fried pickles if you’re ever in the neighborhood!

Braised Beef Short Ribs

One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Molly Stevens’ All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking.  My mother introduced me to this cookbook a few years ago and I snatched it up at our favorite discount bookstore up in the mountains. As you can see (take a look at the lower right-hand corner) Jewels loves this book as well.

She’s not normally a chewer but I must have had some meaty remnants on the pages and who can resist that?  Anyway, I’ve made a few recipes in this cookbook, but my go to crowd pleaser has always been the Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with Rosemary and Porcini (p. 241 if you have the book.) This is one of those dishes that just has winter written all over it. I’ll usually serve it over noodles or mashed potatoes and finish the night with clean bowls and happy bellies. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a rut and will never make short ribs any other way. For that reason, I decided to be adventurous and do some summertime cooking–grilled short ribs. I got them from my butcher, Harry Ochs at the Reading Terminal, and went home with all intentions to grill.

As I puttered around the kitchen on Monday (after doing some preliminary research online) I started getting nervous about making grilled short ribs. I consider myself a beef short rib aficionado–what will happen if I don’t grill them correctly? My fears overcame me and I decided to do another version of the braise. I tooled around the internet a bit and decided that I’d do a beer braise in the crockpot. It is TOO HOT to have a braise going in the oven these days.

Remember that time I mentioned my inability/refusal to follow recipes? This is a perfect example. This is the best example of a recipe that you’ll get from me.

4 beef short ribs, cracked (apparently this makes for better flavor according to my butcher)

1/2 onion, chopped roughly

2 carrots, peeled and chopped rougly (ok, fine. I used a bunch of baby carrots)

2 celery stalks, sliced

3 cloves of garlic, smashed

Splash of wine

1 bottle lager

1 dry bay leave

fresh herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary)

Olive oil, salt and pepper, of course

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Molly Stevens told me that short ribs would benefit from 24 hours of light salting, so I laid them in a pyrex lasagna dish and brushed them with a light dusting of salt the day before I started my preparation. This is an optional step.

I began my browning the ribs in the olive oil. When they were sufficiently browned (5 minutes, give or take) I tossed them into the crock pot and added the chopped veggies (carrots, onion, celery) and garlic to the pot. I forgot to take a picture of the browning meat. See, I’m new to this whole blogging thing. After a minute or two, I added the herbs and bay leaf.

After giving the veggies another two minutes to soften, I added a splash of red wine and scraped the brown (delicious) bits from the bottom of the pot. I let the wine reduce, and added a bottle of lager.

Every recipe that I saw was for “porter braised short ribs” but guess what? I didn’t have any porter so lager was going to have to do the job. I let the mixture bubble away for another minute or so, cooking away all of the alcohol. Then I poured it on top of the browned short ribs and set my crockpot on low.

Just a note on our crockpot. My husband’s good friend gave it to him as a present a number of years ago. It is a big box store cheapie, but does the trick. It just goes to show that you don’t always need top of the line items in your kitchen. We won’t discuss my love affair with Le Creuset at this time…

I cooked the ribs for about 7-8 hours on low and then let them cool to room temperature. These ribs, like other braises, soups and stews, tend to taste even better a day or two after cooking as the flavors have time to settle and develop a richness. We tossed it in the fridge for dinner the next night which was perfect because I was having drinks with a dear friend for her 29th birthday and wouldn’t be home until later that evening.

When it was time to cook them, my husband skimmed the fat off the top (hmmm…what to do with that tastiness sitting in my fridge…) and set the crockpot on low for an hour or so. I had hoped to make gnocchi or fresh pasta to go with the ribs but realized that I had none of the ingredients for either, so we settled for boxed whole wheat rotini (ah, my love hate relationship with whole wheat pasta. I’m trying to like it; really I am.) and broccoli. The result? Fall-off-the-bone-goodness with the rich meat flavor and the subtle lager lingering in the background. Verdict? I think I prefer the red wine braise but this was much less labor intensive and let’s just say I cleaned my plate anyway!