Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Oregon Trail

[Ben sez]: I am currently wandering through the culinary wonderland of Portland, Oregon. Ben et Girly SweaterI caulked the wagon and floated across the river to get here, I lost two oxen, and Holly died of cholera, but by god it's been worth it (sorry, I played a lot of "Oregon Trail" in grade school). The food here is definitely great, but thus far the true standout has been the Pinot Noir, and other wines, which I have had the chance to taste while touring wineries and getting a crash course from my friend.

Pork and Pinot

I lost count, but I think I've been to at least 8 different wineries in the week I've been here, and that was mostly in one afternoon. I've tasted more Pinot Noir's than in the rest of my wine drinking life prior to this week, and it's been a fantastic time. These wines run the gamut from luscious and fruity to deep, earthy, even tabacco-like in flavor, subtle, complex - truly amazing.

Thus far my favorites have been Ponzi Vineyard's 2005 Willamette Valley Pinot, the St. Innocent White Rose 2005 and the Stoller 2005 JV Pinot Noir. They are all obviously young wines, but each completely drinkable right now, and will probably only get better if I have the patience to not drink the bottles that I've bought as soon as I get home.

For those of you who glaze over when people start waxing intellectual about wine, the Portland area has more to offer than just phenomenal Pinot Noir. After my day of laying siege to tasting rooms in the area I stopped at the Dundee Bistro located in Dundee, Oregon (shocking, I know) right across the street from Argyle Winery (makers of great sparkling wines).

Every Wednesday the head chef has a special "Pork and Pinot" menu featuring three courses of pork-centric glory and an optional pairing of Pinot Noirs.

The first course was a hearty tube pasta (1" diameter tubes cut into 1/2" sections) in a hearty smoked pork shoulder red sauce topped with a piece of summer squash.Pasta in Smoked Pork Shoulder Sauce You may not know this, but I have a real thing for smoked pork shoulder, it might be one of my favorite foods ever.. hell, the first time I cooked it I had a heroin-like reaction and ended up curled up in the fetal position outside shivering with need, jonesin' for a THIRD sandwich, but I digress.... The fresh pasta was thick enough to stand up to the smoky pork flavor. Honestly if fresh pasta and smoked pork shoulder sauce doesn't make you a little weak in the knees you might want to make sure you're alive.

Pork'n'pinot part two featured roasted pork tenderloin on top of a mix of roasted potatoes, local mushrooms, and applewood smoked bacon, all in a pork stock.Pork Tenderloin with roasted vegetables A little lighter than the first course, the tenderloin was juicy and flavorful, but really I think the vegetables underneath almost overshadowed it. The mixture of meaty mushrooms, sweetness of caramelized potato, all tied together with the magical culinary glue that is bacon fat and tossed with green onions and parsley.

Round Three continued to buck the general trend of serving courses lightest to heaviest via a light salad served on top of thinly sliced artisinal salami topped with ripe avocado. A refreshing end to the meal with the pepper and spice of the salami blending well with the vinaigrette and the bright, voluptuous taste of the avocado.

[Nate sez]: Avocados really are voluptuous aren't they? So soft and round... and well, fatty, but "voluptuous" sounds a lot better I think..

Add three glasses of Pinot Noir to that meal and you've got a guaranteed good evening in just about anyone's book (assuming the owner of said book eats pork).Jenny Drinking Pinot

My food/wine chaperon for this adventure had the Duck Confit which was the best example of said dish that I have ever experienced. Deep smokey flavor, duck meat so tender it falls off the bone if you so much as look at it, and of course a liberal amount of juicy duck fat. Oh Daffy, you taste so good...

I have some more things to eat during my remaining time here (anyone heard of Voodoo Doughnuts?) so you can expect to hear from me again sometime soon. If I disappear forever it's likely that I'm hiding in the hills of Portland with a bottle of Pinot and/or a dozen doughnuts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ben et Nate: The Book?

Ben et Nate at the Black Forest Inn[Nate sez]: 8 countries, 6 long plane rides, countless hours of attempted zen enlightenment on bus rides, and more noodles than is legal in an average lifetime. That's right everybody - the epic adventure across most of the eastern nations of the culinary mecca that is Asia is coming to an over-designed, self published coffee table book near you.

32cm of soft serveBen and I sat around arguing many a Tuesday night about what to blog. We generally had a massive abundance of absolutely fantastic new flavors and dishes we wanted to talk about, but alas, a blog should not be too wordy or long. So we decided to write an entire book about it... and risk a crap load of our own money to do it too!! Imagine our blog, with much more detailed information and sensory analysis, more stories of being practically killed on sidewalks, more righteous rants about Thai mangoes, and 10 ways to get revenge on Tuk-Tuk drivers. We'll also include tons of appetite inspiring food porn photos and hunky, flattering portraits of Ben and myself.

Panang Curry PasteIt is tentatively scheduled to be released December 2007 - January 2008. I give it about a 90% confidence interval that we will succeed in publishing by this time, but I make no promises. We do however promise to keep you all religiously updated about the progress of the book, and to keep you entertained in the meantime.

This blog will continue to exist as long as Ben et Nate are eating, drinking, and being jackasses. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Asian cuisine paradigm, we will explore the incredible world around us, searching out the best noodles, the best wine, and expose the biggest food crimes being committed in the name of a profit motive.

One thing we both realized coming back to America is that there is no other place in the world (with the blinding exception of Tokyo) where such variety and ingenuity exists in the world of cuisine. The American school of cooking knows no boundaries, Pastry Puffsand we intend to share with you the secret hideouts of killer food/bev adventures. Ben will be tackling Portland, Oregon in the coming weeks while Nate researches the depths of the Chicago chef scene and tries to eat in New York without taking out a second mortgage. We'll reconvene in the great Twin Cities to rally up a thoroughly incomplete survey of the current state of US food culture.

Deliciousness is sure to follow.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Best Bowl of Noodles in the World

Pork POV[Nate sez]: This is it. The hands down, absolute, no contest, by far best bowl of noodles. It's ugly. It's mean. The service is third class at best. You have to wait in a long, ever-present line before being sent down greased stairs to wait a little bit longer. Did you buy your ticket? Because you can't order at the counter asshole. Get your damn water yourself, and if you want some soda, get it from the vending machine. Beer? you ask. Buy a ticket, give them the ticket, and wait your turn you ungrateful, foul beast.

I had been in Tokyo only three days when I stumbled across this mammoth noodle discovery. I was fumbling around, trying to find a Capoeira studio located somewhere Chochin Kagurazaka Stylein the vague vicinity around Takadanobaba station, asking every convenience store clerk or willing listener where this building is, and having absolutely no luck. If you think a map would help, you are sorely mistaken. This is Toyko. Ben has a degree in geography, and always knows where he is, and he's helpless in Tokyo. Tired and frustrated, I decide to give up for the day, and vow to search there again... maybe even tomorrow. Little did I know why I had really been there that day.

A sign from GodWandering back to the train station I would find a bowl of noodles that would alter the course of Ben et Nate history. On the first floor of a nondescript white building, about 6 American blocks west of Takadanobaba JR station, on the south side of the road, you will see a line of hungry, eager Japanese males under a bright yellow sign that you can't read. If you don't see a line, the shop is not open. You should also quickly check your pocket, because the noodle-dar that you brought along is no doubt overloading, and will momentarily explode in the awesome presence of the quintessential Asian noodle dive.

Welcome to Ramen Jiro.

The single greasiest, filthiest, most crowded noodle shop I've ever been in, and nobody gives a shit that you couldn't wipe all the porkfat off the floor with the Ramen Jirou - Insidestrongest caustic available on the market. This bowl of noodles is just that good. As I look around and take in the sights and the sounds (mostly raucous slurping), the overwhelming fragrance in the room is a deep hue of soul wrenching pork stock. This is not a pretty bowl of noodles; it will taunt you, it will tease you, and after 5 minutes of eating the crap out of this thing it will somehow breed more noodles, more bean sprouts, more cabbage, more melty, fatty, juicy chunks of days-cooked pork, more chopped garlic, more soup, more...ramen. I notice that every single bowl that goes back on the counter has been completely demolished, perhaps only a bit of soup remaining. It becomes very clear to me that absolutely no one can leave there without finishing the whole thing. I'm not sure if it's law or tradition, or if that voice coming from my soup taunting me, daring me, ordering me to eat it all was the cause, but I also demolished my bowl in its entirety.

Ramen TrioThe soul of the soup is the richest pork stock you've ever encountered. It's like drinking velvet - only the really, really porky kind. A savory "tare" or paste/sauce is added to give the soup its secret soy based overtones and character. Garlic infused rendered pork fat is dumped in before the noodles hit the bowl. The Noodles - holy shit! I don't know where the hell they found these but they are thick, round, chewy, eggy, salty, firm, curly, and soft all at the same time. The whole thing is topped off with blanched bean sprouts and cabbage, raw chopped garlic, and a pile of crushed chili powder. As if there isn't enough food, they shove a pile of illegal-tender pork in there too. If you ever make it here for some strange reason, when they ask you what you want in your bowl, just say everything.

Did I mention it costs 650 Yen? That's like $5.35. This is also most likely the single best deal on a meal available in the entire city of Tokyo.

The Aftermath

Revenge of ShochuAs I stumble out of there drunk on pork and high on MSG, it occurs to me that I've only been in Japan for three days and as the first bite of soup and noodles hit my taste buds, I had already found what I was searching for: the best bowl of noodles in the world. It is also of Ben's opinion that this is a fact.

[Ben sez]: Reery, it's true.

What is truly shocking is that it stood up to everything else we encountered. Before we hopped on our plane to come back to the US, it was mandatory as serious noodle experts that we make sure, be 100% certain that the Ramen Jiro noodles from Takadanobaba in Tokyo are the best we could find anywhere. After hundreds of bowls and plates throughout Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Singapore, there was nothing even remotely close to the downright soul this bowl possessed.

tokyoWeek1 024It was one of those often sought (and impossible to predict) perfect meals. The magical coalescence of time, space, and pork work in mysterious ways, but when it strikes, you are grabbed by the heart and led through an unforgettable journey of taste-bending glory.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Ben et Nate's Noodle Countdown - #2 & 3

Sneezey?[Nate sez]: Now, we've eaten a lot of noodles. I'm not saying that we definitively, absolutely, and without a doubt found the best noodles in the world. However, I can assure you all that at the very least, these are some of the finest bowls of noodles in current existence. Last week we spoke of Bangkok Pad Thai slingers and laid-back Lao noodle dives serving some really killer broth. I'm dying as I write this because right now I'd kill for a bowl of each of this week's noodles.


Best Noodles in TaipeiNoodle #3 - Pork Dry Noodle in Taipei, Taiwan -located on Heping Ave. Next to some Chinese medicinal herb shop. Taipei was deserted when we arrived - the streets devoid of pedestrians, the storefronts gated and boarded up, it was Chinese New Year and the city had shut down. As we prowled the streets for long hours, we noticed a few noodle shops kept their doors open.

After hours of stumbling deliriously down the deserted streets, a waft of gingery/porky/shrimpy wontons entices me towards a completely nondescript off-white hole in the wall. We approach the service area in the front and do some pointing at other people's dishes, soon the noodle lady is gesturing for us to sit down and wait. 5 painfully long minutes later, she brings us a small bowl of noodles with saucy ground pork, green onions, and crushed peanuts. As if a killer bowl of noods isn't enough, it comes with a bowl of pork soup with shrimp/pork & ginger wontons. There are scores of noodle & wonton joints in Taipei, but none could so well articulate Cheap Noodle Jointthe depth of pork flavor, or so perfectly complement meat with ginger, or salt and MSG soups and sauces so perfectly to induce the "Oh fuck, that's just wrong - where's seconds?" reaction as this place. We of course were back there again, and she's got follow through. We ordered seconds this time because we were leaving for Bangkok the next day, and I have no idea when I'll next be in Taipei, but I will return one day to eat these noodles again.

Noodle #2 - Blue Awning Pho in Saigon, Vietnam - Located on De Tham between Co Bac and Co Giang.

Nggggeah! + peace[Ben sez]: We already wrote a whole entry about the wonders of pho and the other phenomenal soup offerings in Vietnam, so it stands to reason that our dedication to pho would lead us to find a bowl worthy of our top five. Having a vibrant Vietnamese community in the Twin Cities we'd already had a few bowls of pho before we even got to Southeast Asia, a couple of them really really good, so we hoped that somewhere we'd find a better bowl, just so that we'd know our trip was worth it.

This bowl of soup edged out any bowl of soup we've had in Minnesota for the official Ben et Nate stamp of Best Bowl of Pho. An amazing feat no doubt, next time we're back in Saigon we'll be sure to take the proprietor her commemorative plaque.

Best bowl of Pho Tai yetThis bowl was built on an artfully crafted beef stock, with subtle spices mixed in (chinese five spice? anise? lsd? clove? I'm not quite sure) to take it to that next level of deliciousness. Throw in some sliced beef and bean sprouts cooked in the broth plus the plethora of Choose-Your-Own-Soup-Adventure fixings on the table (fish sauce, chili oil, sugar, various local greens) and it's a damn fine bowl of noodles. This shop was only open for breakfast, but it was good enough that we actually woke up on more than one occasion to get there before they closed at 11:30am. That should speak more for the quality of soup than any words I can say: I was willing to get out of bed before noon for this bowl of soup.

Next week we'll be back with our final installment of Ben et Nate's Best Bowl of Brothy Noodley Goodness. Which country will reign soupreme in the battle of the bowls?