Archive for the ‘barbecue’Category

Toronto Chinatown awash with flavors

Exterior of King's Noodle in Toronto Chinatown
“Growing up in Chinatown,” said chef and culinary educator John Lee, “was a Duddy Kravitz kind of experience.” He was making a very Canadian reference to Mordecai Richler’s nostalgic novel of the Canadian Jewish immigrant experience. John was showing us around his childhood haunts in Toronto’s Old Chinatown. (It’s not to be confused with at least five other Chinatowns east of Toronto proper.)

Toronto Chinatown street scene The Toronto neighborhood radiating from the corner of Spadina Avenue and West Dundas Street was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood for the first half of the 20th century. As the Jewish population moved north after World War II, Chinese immigrants flooded into the area. Of Korean descent, Lee waxed nostalgic about his Chinese and Jewish friends as well as the old-time Jewish shopkeepers and deli owners.

Fruit stand in Toronto Chinatown Although new money from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland has poured into Chinatown over the last few decades, the neighborhood retains that bustling edge of striving newcomers. Shoppers crowd the streets. Merchandise seems to spill out of stores packed to the rafters. Street merchants are always ready to haggle. It’s hard to tell whether the neighborhood has more fruit stands selling mangosteens and sweet sops, or more restaurants promising congee and crispy duck.

Taste of Chinatown

John Lee pours tea In such a restaurant-packed neighborhood, it’s useful to have a guide who is in the trade. John’s stories continued over a raft of dishes at the colorful, well-established King’s Noodle Restaurant (396 Spadina Ave., 416-598-1817, We started with excellent shrimp dumplings—one of the ways to judge the quality of a Chinese kitchen. Side dishes of Chinese broccoli (kai lan) in oyster sauce and a Yeung Chow fried rice (made with barbecued pork bits) set up the main focus of our meal. John took the lead, ordering a barbecue plate with barbecued pork ribs, soya chicken, and crispy pork belly (below). As we left, John confessed that King’s Noodle is one of his reliable fall-backs for great barbecue. Duly noted—we’ll be back.

Barbecue plate at King's Noodle in Toronto Chinatown


10 2016

Montreal Poutinefest rocks the waterfront

Le Smoking BBQ truck at Poutinefest
Certain foods seem destined to go together. Bacon and eggs. Peanut butter and jelly. Shrimp and grits. If you are Québecois, the gastronomic holy trinity is French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. The dish is called poutine (pronounced poo-TEEN). Roger Hubert says it has become “the meal” in Quebec. That’s why he and his son Greg, proprietor of the Montreal restaurant Le Smoking BBQ, launched the first Poutinefest at Montreal’s Old Port in fall 2015. It was such a success that they pulled out all the stops for an even splashier version at the end of June 2016. Featuring 18 food trucks with a panoply of poutine variations, the festival took place for three days on the Quai de l’Horloge (Clocktower Quay). Admission was free, but each truck set its own price for poutine.

The dish of French fries laced with fresh cheese curds and doused in brown gravy is the ultimate comfort food. Many Québecers swear by its curative properties when consumed after a long night of imbibing alcoholic beverages. (One poutine restaurant in Montreal stays open all night on weekends.)

The elemental poutine formula creates a mild, slightly salty dish with the squish of gravy-soaked fries and the tooth-squeak of fresh cheese curd. Poutine is so ubiquitous in Quebec (and beyond) that you’d think it had been around forever. But poutine was first served in a restaurant in Warwick in 1957. From that small town halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, it migrated to the provincial capital. The Ashton frites food truck in Québec City, which started serving poutine to the masses in 1972, popularized the dish. Since then, Chez Ashton has morphed into a province-wide chain of fast-food shops.

Poutine, the next generation

Greg Hubert at Poutinefest Whatever its rustic roots, we believe that poutine reached its apotheosis in Montreal when chefs with a nouveau bistro bent began adding such toppings as braised lamb shanks, confit duck leg, salmon roe, and even foie gras. A novelty at first, some restaurants now even feature a poutine of the day.

“People make crazy poutine,” says Greg Hubert (left). “But everything done on the poutine is usually good.”

The Poutinefest has returned poutine to its food truck roots. Greg offers four variations of barbecue poutine at Le Smoking BBQ (2186 Ste-Catherine West, Montreal, 514-903-6676, His truck kept things simple and served just two at Poutinefest. His base poutine to which barbecued meats are added has a savory house gravy created from roasted meat and bone brown stock. For the barbecued beef short ribs version, he adds a house-made barbecue sauce on top.

Pulled pork poutine at Poutinefest Le Smoking BBQ truck’s biggest seller at the festival, however, was the pulled pork poutine, as shown here. Underneath all that chopped and pulled pork in a sweet-sour barbecue sauce are the requisite fries, brown gravy, and squeaky cheese curds. The poutine base was delicious and mild, and made a great launching pad for the tangy pulled pork.

In truth, we could have stopped there. But in the spirit of investigative gastronomic journalism, we spent three days tasting our way through the truck offerings. Over the next few posts, we’ll cover some of the most original. For updates on the 2017 festival, check the web site.


08 2016

Finish Line Festival ratchets up the outdoor barbecue

Lexus Gran Fondo finish line cookout
The Lexus Gran Fondo riders found a fine feast awaiting them. Lexus ambassadors and retired racers Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie led the 100-mile riders coming to the finish line in Chatham. All the riders arrived hungry, and the Finish Line Festival cookout trumped even the best backyard barbecue.

Dean Fearing at Lexus Gran Fondo finish line cookout Lexus augmented the chefs of Chatham Bars Inn by inviting the brewery at Blackberry Farm and Lexus Master Chef Dean Fearing ( The dean of Dallas dining lent a little longhorn swagger to the party. With his sons on hand to help serve, Fearing loaded up plates with lobster tacos and smoky brisket tacos with a tangy, piquant sauce. On the side were his classic cowboy beans and cole slaw. “I thought, here we are in New England with all this great seafood,” Fearing said. “So what if we make a lobster taco?” Fearing topped the lobster soft tortilla with a tomatillo-based salsa verde and a crumble of feta cheese. Participants loved it.

Andrew Chadwick grills chicken at Lexus Gran Fondo finish line cookout Chatham Bars Inn chefs Anthony Cole and Andrew Chadwick volleyed Fearing’s Southwestern dishes with some serious heat of their own. Not only did they serve ribs with a tear-inducing kimchee broccoli, they also set out roasted Mexican street corn. The spiciest dish from Chadwick (shown here grilling it) was the Bloody Mary barbecued chicken.

Diners debated which Blackberry Farm saison ale was best with the hot and smoky food. Both ales were brewed with lightly roasted barley malt, but one was made with Czech Saaz hops. The milder of the two beers showed a slightly resinous herbal note and a delicate bitterness. The other ale was made with Eureka! hops. Those experimental hops made it very assertive. Strong pine and mint notes came on first, followed by a tang of grapefruit rind bitterness. The Saaz version paired well with Fearing’s lobster taco. The Eureka! ale showed best with Chadwick’s Bloody Mary chicken.

We didn’t get a recipe from Chadwick, but we’ve worked out own version. There is no vodka in the marinade because the alcohol precooks the flesh and makes it tough. Like many tomato-based marinades, this is almost a brine, thanks to the salt in most tomato juice. V8 juice will also work.


12 ounces tomato juice
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon celery seed, ground up
small onion, chopped
1 lemon, juice and grated zest
12 pieces chicken, skin on

Combine ingredients through lemon juice and zest in a food processor. Process until smooth.

Place chicken pieces in one or more sealable plastic bags. Add marinade. Close bag(s) and marinate in refrigerator for at least four hours—preferably overnight.

Build fire on one side of grill. When coals are ready, place chicken, skin side up, on other side of grill and cover, leaving vent holes fully open. Let cook 10 minutes. Turn chicken over and grill, covered, for about 5 minutes. Finish over hot coals to crisp up skin.


07 2016

Traditional Norteño barbacoa at Casa Hernán

As we suggested in the La Gloria post that started this San Antonio series back in June, chef Johnny Hernandez has been helping San Antonio reclaim the Mexican side of its culinary heritage. Easy-going venues like La Gloria and The Frutería focus on the simplest of Mexican food — street food, really — but at his special events venue Casa Hernán, Johnny gets into some of the more complex traditions.

Brunch at  Casa Hernán

Brunch at Casa Hernán

Hernandez does a grand Sunday brunch about once a month at Casa Hernán, sometimes featuring barbacoa in the South Texas/northern Mexican tradition. In some parts of interior Mexico, cooks will roast an entire animal in a pit, usually a lamb. In northern Mexico, barbacoa usually signifies a pit-roasted cow’s head (and nothing more). Hernandez had an outdoor kitchen built to order in his back yard. Not only does the tiled work area include a large grill with the machinery for splaying lambs and kids over the heat, it also includes round holes into which Hernandez can use a chain and pulley system to lower chain baskets into the coals of an underground fire pit. The holes are sized to accommodate baskets large enough to contain an entire cow’s head.

CasaHernancowhead To prepare the head for cooking, Hernandez sets it on banana leaves, seasons it liberally with salt, pepper, epazote, onion, thyme, oregano, and avocado leaves, then wraps the whole concoction in the banana leaves. He then lowers it in a chain-link basket into the fire. It takes about 12 hours to cook a cow’s head before he hoists it up with a chain and pulley and pulls the meat off the bones. Now that’s barbacoa!

The beef cheeks provide the juiciest, tastiest meat and form the centerpiece of the brunch buffet, displayed next to the cooked head. For the rest of the brunch, Hernandez will likely grill a few entire lambs, cook up huge piles of sausages directly over hardwood coals, and make a big selection of vegetable dishes and (of course) fresh tortillas. Dessert always depends on the fresh fruit of the season.

Given the necessary gear to make this dish correctly, it’s one we won’t be trying at home.


08 2014

San Antonio’s Cured is good for whatever ails you

Cured building
Long known as the cradle of Tex-Mex cuisine, San Antonio has definitely upped its game in the last few years. Until recently, a smattering of upscale, fine-dining restaurants like John Besh’s Lüke on the Riverwalk and a plethora of steak houses formed the city’s gastronomic constellation. That’s changing quickly and a lot of action is taking place in the suddenly trendy Pearl District. San Antonio’s spring-fed eponymous river made it an important beer-brewing town in the 19th century. The predecessor to Pearl Brewing opened in 1883, and the factory didn’t close until 2001. The subsequent redevelopment of the 22-acre former Pearl complex is still underway, but it’s already ground zero for serious foodies. Not only does the complex contain the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America, it has several terrific restaurants. Steve McHugh’s superb gastropub Cured (306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 101, 210-314-3929, joined the neighborhood at the end of 2013.

Cured chef owner Steve McHughMcHugh came to San Antonio from John Besh’s flagship New Orleans restaurant August to open the old-fashioned German-style brasserie Lüke. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in January 2010, he fought back. Once his doctor pronounced him in remission, he fulfilled his dream of opening his own restaurant. Since his specialty is charcuterie — he buys whole hogs and cures the parts in a glass-walled meat locker prominently featured in the dining room — he named his restaurant “Cured,” a name with dual meanings. In addition to making his own hams and sausages, he crafts a whole range of charcuterie. A dollar from each charcuterie plate goes to a different charity each quarter.

Cured charcuterieThe food is terrific, and the lively ambience is infectious. The dishes are simple — a gumbo using his own smoked pork and andouille sausage, for example, or seared redfish with asparagus, citrus, and shrimp — yet they’re always thoughtful combinations of flavors.

The Cured Burger is the talk of San Antonio and would make a big hit at any July 4 cookout. Here’s a slightly simplified version of the recipe.

Cured burger

Three things make chef Steve McHugh’s burgers so delicious and juicy. The meat is part beef, part cured bacon. McHugh is liberal with his application of salt and pepper. And he tops the burgers with an amazing smoked onion jam before putting cheese on top to melt. When we’re in a hurry, we ask our butcher to grind the meat for us and we use the very good Roasted Garlic Onion Jam from Stonewall Kitchen.

Makes 6 burgers

For the Burgers
1 1/2 pounds top round, cut into large pieces
1/2 pound good quality bacon
Salt and pepper to taste

Grind the top round and bacon alternately through a large die (3/8”) so that there is a good beef-to-bacon ratio. Switch to the smaller die (3/16”) on your grinder and regrind the meat to a smooth consistency. Divide the burgers into six patties. Season your burgers with salt and twice as much pepper than you think. Pepper is the key to a great burger. Grill to medium well-done.

For the Onion Jam
4 yellow onions, top and bottom removed, peels left on
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar

Using your smoker, hot smoke your onions for 4 hours until completely soft. Peel the onions and place into a food processor and blend with vinegar and water. Place them in a pot along with the sugar and cook for 2 hours until a jam-like consistency has been reached. Reserve for later.

Top the burgers with a spoonful of the onion jam and top with your choice of cheese. While Cheese is melting, place the rolls on the griddle to brown. Assemble and destroy!


06 2014

What to buy in a Cajun grocery store

grocery2 Usually Pat and I write about buying specialty foods in overseas grocery stores, but Cajun cooking stands so far apart from most other American regional food that the grocers have developed lines of goods we can rarely find anywhere else.

The pickled tabasco peppers, gumbo file powder, and various hot pepper sauces shown above are cases in point. In fact, I was once told by a northern grocer that file powder was illegal. (Not true, but it is allegedly mildly carcinogenic. If you eat three pounds at a time, you might develop a tumor in 20 years.) Needless to say, file powder can be hard to find up here in the chilly north.

grocery1 The ingredients immediately above are even more local. Dried shrimp might be a worldwide commodity, but Louisiana dried shrimp has a distinctive flavor of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s great in a shrimp cream sauce or a soup. The garlic sauce from Poche’s is an essential ingredient in some quarters for dousing boiled crawfish tails. The instant roux mix, while not so different from Wondra flour, makes a great tan roux.

grocery3 The last item is a latecomer, at least to legitimate grocery stores. At 100 proof, this colored corn likker has the requisite kick to be called moonshine — minus the chemicals to make you go blind.

What to eat at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival

Cindy Harris of Houston TXWhen it comes to the food vendors at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the food isn’t all crawfish, but to quote a good friend’s catch phrase, it’s all good. Well, most of it. I’d been given a big buildup from a couple of locals about Cajun pistols or pistolettes, which are buns stuffed with seafood and cheese and then deep-fried. As someone said, “they musta changed the recipe.”

Bon Creole Cindy Harris from Houston, Texas (above) opted for Giant Shrimp on a Stick from the same vendor selling Gator on a Stick (“tender and delicious”). In fairness, I tried the alligator on a stick and found it more tender than most alligator I’ve tried. And, no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like alligator.

Food on a stick always does well at outdoor gatherings where few people can get a place to sit. In addition to the shrimp and gator, one vendor had the venerable corn dog (hot dog on a stick dipped in cornmeal batter and deep fried). More popular than all the meat on wooden sticks were the original meat on a stick: both frog’s legs (deep fried) and turkey legs (grilled over charcoal).

Boiled crawfish Having sampled many of the offerings, I will venture the opinion that the best tasting and probably healthiest options were some of the classics: crawfish etouffée on rice, jambalya, and seafood gumbo. (As the T-shirt says, “All creatures great and small taste better in gumbo.”) But this being the Crawfish Festival, my vote goes to the plates of boiled crawfish. (Watch for a future post on the technique for peeling boiled crawfish.)

What to eat at the airport in Little Rock

Whole Hog BBQ LIT Chain eateries (Starbucks, Burger King, Quiznos and the like) constitute the bulk of food choices at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, and Bill is probably out of luck if he’s searching for a vegan meal. But right next to Pizza Hut I discovered Whole Hog Cafe, the airport outlet of a small barbecue chain with two spots in Little Rock and one in Bentonville. Whole Hog has taken several awards in barbecue cook-offs and back when he still ate real food, Bill Clinton must have been a fan. Whole Hog claims that their serving utensils are in the presidential time capsule.

Whole Hog stall I decided on a pulled pork sandwich and the server advised me to have the meat topped with cole slaw. “That’s the way we serve it in the South,” she said. She also recommended that I douse the meat with the spicier version of the tomato-vinegar barbecue sauce. The sauce was a little too piquant for my taste, so I stuck with the milder, but still tangy version and passed the squeeze bottle to a local gentleman having a last taste of barbecue before taking off on a business trip. He allowed that the barbecue was pretty good, but that he prefers the mustard-based sauce at Sims, which opened in 1937 and now has three Little Rock locations. It’s his go-to place for ribs with sides of coleslaw and beans. For genuine barbecue, he said, ”the meat needs to be tender, the sauce needs to be tangy, and the joint needs to be off the beaten path.”