Ann & Fran’s Kitchen: a hidden gem of Cape Cod

Ann & Fran’s Kitchen is an unassuming place – it looks cottage-like on Yarmouth’s Rt. 28 in Cape Cod, itself not a picturesque walk or drive, lined as it is with motels and nondescript chains and pizza places. In fact, the only reason my mother and I first went there for breakfast was because it was just across the street from our motel.

The only visual indication of what we would find inside this cafe was the great queue of people waiting on the porch and front lawn waiting to get in. To get in for breakfast, you either have to arrive at some ungodly hour in the morning (although for me “an ungodly hour” means before nine o’clock), or add your name to the list of short-term reservations for tables while breakfast service lasts (thankfully extended so that everyone who wants to order off their breakfast menu can do so). I have to assume this process begins again whenever they begin serving the next meal of the day, although we didn’t end up going there for lunch, so I can’t be sure.

Despite the heat and the somewhat glaring morning sun, tourists and Yarmouthians alike were still willing to wait on Ann & Fran’s front stoop. I even saw some families with small children, although I personally have to question the wisdom of this – little kids tend to be up and raring to go pretty quickly in the morning, and they are not known for their patience. If you’re under similar time constraints and don’t feel like eating breakfast at your lodgings – or can’t get it there – then I have to recommend the fairly nearby Pancake Man instead of Ann & Fran’s Kitchen. We didn’t make it to the Pancake Man, so I can’t attest to the food, but I have to believe it’s less crowded in the mornings.

If you can wait it out at Ann & Fran’s, though, you’re in for a treat. This is not a tourist destination in the classic, cynical sense – there is one list of prices for everyone, and no gift shop memorabilia to be had. The cafe is small inside, with just one room full of tables, booths, and a lunch counter, plus a one-stall bathroom and a tiny kitchen in the back. Still, it avoids claustrophobia thanks to light-colored walls, plenty of windows, a sense of mutual consideration among most of the tightly-packed diners, and the friendliness of the waitstaff. I also remember it being incredibly loud, but that’s not a surprise, and can’t be helped.

The menu is similarly worth the wait. Both mornings we ate there, I tried Ann & Fran’s variations on eggs benedict. The first version had crab and bacon in place of the ham. The second was just lobster, egg, and hollandaise sauce on an English muffin.

Of these two, the lobster eggs benedict was by far the best idea. We all know that lobster and melted butter are a classic combination, but personally, on the rare occasions I’ve eaten it, as luxurious as it is, I always find myself wanting something – some extra level of flavor the butter doesn’t have. It turns out that hollandaise sauce is what I was missing. Lobster and hollandaise sauce is probably the only thing better than lobster with butter, although I say that as someone who hasn’t yet tried tomalley (the green lobster innard stuff). The last time I ate a whole lobster, I was much younger, and too grossed out to eat the tomalley. Apparently, it works as a condiment on its own, especially if you mix it with the sauce for lobster thermidor (so I hear from Julia Child). Short of butter and tomalley sauce, hollandaise is the best accompaniment for lobster I know.

For some reason, it was the crab and bacon eggs benedict, which sounds like an amazing combination in theory, that left me somewhat unsatisfied. Bacon eggs benedict is delicious, and I suspect crab meat with eggs benedict would be lovely. But something about the combined richness of the crab, the bacon, and the hollandaise was overwhelming after just a few bites, and I found myself wishing for a fresh and acidic or spicy element to break it up. The menu did present the option of ordering this dish with avocado, but since avocado is also creamy and rich, I don’t think this would have helped. Possibly even the addition of spinach leaves, for a crab and bacon eggs florentine, would have been a relief. Otherwise, it might be that crab and bacon go together best in an omelet, without the heaviness of the hollandaise to push the dish from luxurious to overly rich.

I’m no longer much of a fan of sweets, but as for non-egg recommendations, my mother ordered the blueberry-ricotta pancakes. These are pancakes with ricotta, blueberry compote, whipped butter, and house maple syrup. We tend to be a blueberry pancake family, and while it’s always nice when the blueberries are mixed straight into the batter, I’ve got it on good authority that the blueberry-ricotta pancakes are also worth trying.

The crab, bacon, and hollandaise misstep was a minor quibble about my experience. Ann & Fran’s is a wonderful, locally-owned breakfast and lunch destination in Yarmouth, for tourists and natives alike. My only regret was not getting to sample more of their menu, and as long as you’re not in a hurry, it’s a comfortable and homey place to get an excellent meal.

(Find me on: Tumblr, Instagram)


Ama Cocina: Spice without Substance

Ama Cocina reminds me of a Tumblr post I once came across, that made my GI-chronic-issue-having self very happy. The post talks about how seasoning food is more than just spicing it heavily. You have to make the spices work together in harmony to create layers of interesting flavors. Sometimes that means adding more seasoning, but sometimes it means balancing what’s there; not overloading the dish. Hotter isn’t always better; too much heavy spice can burn your mouth so much that the actual flavors of the other ingredients get lost.

Ama Cocina likes its spice, and has a lot of ingredients going on. Its interior could be described as “a higher-priced Chipotle,” although maybe that suggests a Spartan plainness. Ama Cocina’s decor is not Spartan. Like Chipotle, it’s industrial, but with a lot more decoration and wall art in the form of quasi-graffiti and (in the ladies’ room, I noticed) garbage cans and rear view mirrors repurposed as wastebaskets set into the wall, or extra mirrors on said wall. A large pop art-style mural of Frida Kahlo – every white hipster’s favorite Mexican – graces the lobby. You walk up a set of metal steps to get to the dining section of the space, dotted with small, square tables and chairs made of the stuff that cafeteria tables at my public high school were made from. The tables manage to never provide quite enough elbow room, for some reason.

I should say first that in its defense, Ama Cocina seems to specialize in small plates and fusion dishes. When you sit down, you get a carafe of water, and a little metal bowl of spicy popcorn for the table; no complimentary chips and salsa here. The dining experience is set up to promote the ordering of appetizer plates, entrees, and desserts, which generally works because the entrees like tacos are reasonably, even modestly sized, and if you get rice and beans with your taco plate, two is definitely enough. Their desserts are certainly interesting; we didn’t get any this time, but last time we tried a flan that was a menu special and might be made permanent, and churros doughnuts served in a paper bag, on the plate. The flan was a little too cheesecakey for my personal taste, as I recall, but the doughnuts were good, although the oil served alongside them was bland and seemed pointless.

Fusion dishes are fascinating to me, in case you didn’t know that already. On this menu, nacho pies, pizzas, combo platters, and appetizers involving yucca fries and various fruit ketchups and aiolis all called out to me with the promise of new, weird food to try, but I ordered a six-taco variety platter instead. I got the scallop tacos, the mole beef tacos, and the meat lover tacos with rice and beans…and I should have just gotten the cactus fries, two meat lover tacos, and more churros doughnuts for my trouble instead.

Our guacamole and chips for the table were good – the chips are either homemade or so convincing it blows my mind, crisp and fresh-tasting and a little buttery, and the mild guacamole was creamy and flavorful (Bill Esparza says it’s supposed to be chunky, but I like it either way). I didn’t find my white wine sangria sweet enough (I should have gotten a margarita, but I didn’t want hard liquor; I was sleepy enough that day), but again, personal preference. Our appetizer of yucca fries was similarly tasty (our eyes were way bigger than our stomachs).

For me, the trouble began with the tacos, and given the popularity and ubiquitousness of tacos for the customers that Ama Cocina courts, that might be a problem. As I mentioned, I got the three-variety, six taco combo plate with rice and beans (like I said, eyes bigger than stomach). I ordered the scallop tacos, the meat lover tacos, and the mole beef tacos.

When my tacos came out, I tried the scallop taco first, and my mouth instantly began to burn. The menu online says the lightly-breaded, calamari-like scallops were covered in chayotte-cuke slaw and papaya-seed salsa, with something called mango-hab fire (is it a cooking technique? A condiment?). All I know is, they needed about half that heat. I hate to be a stereotypical white person with IBS here – I swear I like some spice in my Mexican food. But I couldn’t even taste the scallops, or pick out any particular flavors – my mouth was just overwhelmed by heat and a note of lime. Spices in general, whether they’re hot or aromatic or otherwise, should be used to bring out and compliment the flavors of the other ingredients, not mask them. Good flavor is a balance of many elements, not just making the dish as hot as you can. I ended up picking the scallops out of the taco with my fork and eating them after scraping off as much of the toppings as possible. I was still glad I’d ordered plain yellow rice with black beans as a side.

The other taco I had a problem with was the so-called “double-chocolate mole braised beef.” I wrote in my El Patron review that I missed the heyday of downtown Albany’s premier Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi, and one of the things I miss about it is its mole. My mother ordered their mole frequently, and I think as an adult I would appreciate it a lot more; I even liked it as a kid, even if I preferred a burrito in red sauce instead. I know there are different types of mole; I’ve only tasted the standard, brown, savory-chocolate kind as of this review. Still, I think I’m beginning to understand more how integral mole is to at least some Mexican regions’ cuisine and cultural history.

Ama Cocina’s mole taco does not, as far as I can tell, contain enough mole (if any) to warrant its title. I know I’m just starting out on the food critic path, and my palate is still incredibly unsophisticated, but I did not taste any mole in that taco. The beef came off like barbecue brisket in a typical American barbecue sauce – sweet, but without the richness or chocolate-savory notes of mole. I have no idea what Ama Cocina has actually wrought here, or whether I might have enjoyed it if I wasn’t expecting to taste my first mole in years, but it was truly disappointing for what I expected to get.

My favorite taco was the meat lover’s, and if I come back I might order it again, but let’s be real here – it’s hard to screw up anything “meat lover’s,” whether it’s pizza or tacos. Bacon was involved; so were potatoes. It helped that the spices didn’t overwhelm the meat, and that nobody promised me anything fancy that they couldn’t deliver, like a beef wellington taco (what would that even look like? I have no idea). It was also the only taco with crema on it, as far as I could see or taste. The scallop taco definitely needed some of that, or maybe avocado or even yucca, or even mild cheese – some creamy, calming note to soothe the third-degree burns in my mouth.

The rice and beans on the side were good but bland, although in this case I was just fine with that after the scallop tacos. However, one of my dining companions ordered an enchilada, which was supposed to come with rice and beans, and didn’t get it when the rest of us got our food; he had to ask twice. The plates generally came out haphazardly and not at once, and when I changed my order to include rice and beans, one of the servers tried to bring them out before any of us had gotten our entrees. Don’t get me wrong – our waitress was friendly and attentive. I blame the kitchen for the confusion, and I have to say, there were a few empty tables around us. The restaurant was not that full, so I’m not sure how sympathetic I feel for the kitchen being in the weeds.

Ama Cocina has some really ingenious dishes, and in an area like Albany, where good Mexican food is always in demand, they could do well, and in fact they seem to be. Good for them. But instead of making their menu the edgiest, I wish they would stop and learn how to actually handle it, and cook to perfection some of the ambitious recipes they’re trying to ‘update.’

(Ama Cocina, my Tumblr, my Instagram)

Leftover short rib cubano

The last time I ordered a bento box delivery from the local Japanese/Chinese “Asian” restaurant in my town, I ordered pork short ribs as my entree, and ended up too full to eat them at the time. Tonight, I decided to see if I could make anything with them, and since I also had some deli ham and real bacon in the house, I decided to try to make a “fridge leftover” attempt at a cubano sandwich.

I toasted both slices of bread (low-calorie oatmeal; it’s what we had) and spread both with mayonnaise. To the top slice I added grey poupon and French’s yellow mustard (I’m not a spicy mustard fan), plus some bread and butter pickle chips, along with a slice of Swiss cheese. On top of the cheese and pickles I added bacon, ham, and the shreds of  leftover short rib I had managed to messily cut off the bones.


How did this taste? Eh… it wasn’t a bland sandwich, and didn’t need any of my usual dipping sauces like ketchup or Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce. The sauce on the short ribs gave it almost a kind of nutty flavor. It was very sweet.

Honestly, it’s not something I would eat again, partly because they weren’t very good short ribs to begin with, and partly because the sauce was way too sweet. Still, it was nice to do something with leftovers.

(Tumblr; Instagram)

El Patron review

     Looking for ‘authentic’ Mexican food in Albany, New York is like looking for ‘authentic’ New England food in California – it’s probably there somewhere, but good luck finding it. I’ve been eating some form of “Mexican food” since I was little, but it was about as complex as the “Italian food” my Mom used to make with a box of pasta, a jar of marinara or pesto sauce, and a tupperware of shredded parmesan cheese. No offense to my mother – she’s a great cook – but just like it’s easy to grow up here in suburbia thinking that tomato sauce + noodles = Italian food, it’s similarly easy to believe that beans + salsa + tortilla+ maybe rice and ground beef = Mexican food, or at least that it = tacos.

    Since my newest special interest – food and cooking – came down the pipeline, and really ever since my first meal at Albany’s El Mariachi to some extent, I’ve been rethinking that idea. At El Mariachi I first learned about tamales, mole, and salsa verde. I also gained a deep appreciation for flan as the ideal post-Mexican-food dessert (apologies to churro and dulce de leche fans). To me, El Mariachi is a shadow of its old self, although I’d still like to go back sometime, if only to see whether it’s begun to approach my memories of it yet. I’d also be interested to see what else besides burritos is on its menu, now that my Mexican food tastes have expanded a bit.

    I keep searching for a replacement for El Mariachi in my heart, and I still haven’t found one, but as far as good Mexican food in Albany goes, El Patron might come close.

    The interior of El Patron is almost kitschily Mexican, with carved and colorfully painted wooden booths and chairs and plenty of stained glass, which is an aesthetic I actually enjoy. The air conditioning was either too low or on the fritz, which might be something to fix as summer in Albany heats up.

    If I could “Brad Johnson” this review for a minute, the one downside to the food itself was probably the chips and salsa. The chips were warm, but could have been saltier. The salsa just tasted like tomato salsa from a jar, maybe medium or a spicier mild, but still unremarkable. I understand not wanting to spend much effort on what’s basically the bread basket before the actual meal, and it wouldn’t stop me from coming back at all, but a more interesting salsa, maybe the option of verde as well as rojo, as El Mariachi has, would have been fun.

    One of the “green flags” about El Patron’s menu, as compared to some other upstate Mexican eateries I’ve seen, is the lack of pick-and-mix-ness in its tacos, burritos, and tamales. There are some combination plates available, but instead of “any taco/burrito/tamale with any meat inside,” or similar variations, there were actual taco-plate entrees, like the Baja Tacos (chicken with cheese and guacamole, and pico de gallo on the side, as well as the obligatory rice and refried beans). I could recognize the names of dishes I’d read about on food blogs like Bill Esparza’s, from tacos de carbon (the amount of Spanish on the menu also struck me as a positive sign) to flautas de papas on the vegetarian/vegan pages of the menu. I had just recently read about flautas de papas as a dish at the time, and being the potato fanatic that I am, I was seriously tempted. Due to the evening’s 90-degree heat, I decided against a dish heavy on starch (and heavy, period), but I still hope to go back and get my flautas.

    Another positive sign on the El Patron menu is dishes that don’t fall into the standard Mexican-American “taco-burrito-tamale-chimichanga” formula. Although I didn’t personally catch any mole on the menu (and it may have been there and I just missed it), I noticed on the seafood portion of the menu in particular a number of entrees served sans tortillas, over rice, with ingredients like garlic sauce and pineapple. When you think about the Chipotle, Moe’s, and Taco Bell-based image of most Mexican food, allowing dishes that go against that image and seem at least halfway authentic on your menu seems ballsy, and reminded me pleasantly of El Mariachi’s dinner-entree-filled menu and white tablecloths, cloth napkins, and stemmed water glasses.

    I’ve had a taste for shellfish lately, which manifests itself as cravings for either sushi or shrimp, and I tried the shrimp tacos. This was a very good decision, if not particularly adventurous. Unlike the other shrimp tacos I had recently, at Pancho’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Troy, the queso fresco in these was melted, and added richness, rather than a weird moment of “who put shredded pizza cheese blend in my shrimp?” The shrimp itself was cooked beautifully, still very juicy in the soft tortillas, although it probably could have had a little more of a kick. At the same time, I could taste the shrimp meat itself, which was satisfying. In addition, I was provided with some very nice pico de gallo on the side (which I prefer to red salsa personally), as well as a sauce that I can’t identify, except that it looked like some kind of balsamic vinaigrette but wasn’t, and appeared to have some peppers and mustard seeds in it. I poured a bit of both condiments on my tacos and found that the mustard seed sauce had a slow burn kind of spice to it, adding a refreshing note to the tacos, which the cheese began to make almost a little too rich. The rice and beans were tasty, with a little kick that’s unusual but pleasant for rice and refried beans (even though I tend to like whole black beans better than refried).

    Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try the flan, because it took so long to get the check that we couldn’t imagine waiting even longer for dessert. The service was slow and a bit lackluster, even though we were almost the only ones at the restaurant. Still, no one was actively rude to us, and the server took the hint and brought us to-go containers for our rice and beans (good rice and beans is hard to find; I also brought the rest of my pico de gallo home) promptly after he saw us looking over at him while he put things away in a reach-in freezer and hung out with a coworker by the kitchen door.

    Part of my love of El Mariachi stems from nostalgia, and no other restaurant will ever approach it on those terms. However, El Patron also doesn’t quite challenge it as a restaurant, at least not yet. Still, I plan to go back to El Patron to sample more of its menu, and if you’re looking for what quality Mexican food upstate New York can provide, this is definitely a great place to go.

(Tumblr, Instagram)

What the hell are we going to do with rice cakes? #1: Mini-pizza

This mini pizza on a rice cake is the first thing I’ve cooked on here in awhile, especially since my GI crap started up in earnest. It’s really an example of the kind of cooking I like to do – a simple recipe that still allows me to take some time and care, and use actual ingredients like seasoning. It felt good to make something with actual care and enjoyment again.

rice cake mini pizza

From trying to make a semi-pizza with rice cakes, pesto sauce, mozzarella, and tomato slices before, I’ve learned it’s important to put butter, olive oil, or margarine on the cake, toast or fry it a little on its own, and season it on its own first to give it flavor, before adding sauce or any toppings. It’s still hard to get flavor into it even so. I used oregano, basil, salt and pepper, and lots of garlic. I’m still trying to work out what I can do to give it the buttery, sweet flavor that pizza dough and other bread has.

The sauce is just some tomato pasta sauce I found in the fridge, a little chunky, but good enough. The cheeses are mozzarella and parmesan. After adding the sauce and cheese, I seasoned with extra garlic before adding the olives. It’s important to slice the olives as small as you can, since it releases more of their olive-y flavor into the cheese and pizza as it bakes.

I put it in the oven for 10-11 minutes on 350 degrees Fahrenheit. At first I wasn’t sure the cheese was melted well enough, but it turned out to be a good amount. This did make the rice cake a little soggy with the moisture and grease from the cheese, sauce, and olives, but I liked how much flavor soaked into it, even though it didn’t quite penetrate all the way through the cake.

It tasted pretty good. And even if I don’t have celiac after all, rice makes everyone’s stomach happy.

(Me on Tumblr and Instagram)

A Personal Update

I haven’t posted in awhile, which is due to a lot of things. There was an opportunity at work that I hoped would pan out, which ended up really not working at all, partly due to a miscommunication with my autism. I’m still kicking myself about it. There was also a big fight with my Dad over a job application (long story) that I’m still not 100% over.

Most of all, though, it’s been hard to be interested in food because my health has been doing weird things. My stomach and general gastrointestinal tract, specifically. I’ve had GERD for years, which my mother also deals with, but since I got multiple sclerosis a few years back, I’ve also been having symptoms of IBS that I’d never experienced up until then. I think this has been an effect of both the MS itself, and the medication I’m on for it, Tecfidera, which lists both nausea and some GI problems as possible side effects unless I’m mistaken.

I currently have an active lesion, according to my last MRI, and I think it could be playing up my digestive issues again. I’ve been having more GI issues and more extreme acid reflux than usual, in addition to some resurgence of other symptoms (and depression, which the neurological effects of the MS may or may not worsen – conversely, my SSRI may be impacting the MS symptoms).

I’ve been to a gastroenterologist and had bloodwork done, and the next step is a fasting sonogram over the next week. I’m in the process of looking for patterns of foods that tend to activate my systems, and trying to figure out exactly what’s going on and how to stop or minimize it.

Thanks to the gastroenterologist, I have a new list of foods, specifically the low-FODMAP diet, which I’m trying out at the moment. Some parts are doable; some parts haven’t been. I’ve been finding that some high-FODMAP foods don’t seem to bother me, and sometimes even low-FODMAP foods are no guarantee I won’t have cramps or runs.

This is further complicated by the fact that I’m a Type 1 Diabetic with insulin resistance and a high A1C, and anti-insulin resistance diets are supposed to be low in carbs and high in protein, vegetables, and multigrain food as opposed to sugars, fats, and simple or processed carbs (such as white bread). I find that fruit, vegetables, and multigrain/whole grain stuff are things that seem to activate the IBS.

For additional complications, there are also a number of proteins – tofu and black beans, for instance – that are healthy and that I actually enjoy, but that are apparently high-FODMAP.

I’d love to post some low-FODMAP, IBS-friendly, or gluten-free recipes or reviews, but I’m having a hard time enjoying food or feeling anything but done in general right now. Hopefully this changes soon. I don’t know if I feel comfortable reposting recipes from other places (with credit obviously), but I may not have a choice. I want this blog to work and I want my writing to work, but I don’t know if I have the spoons right now.

Reuben Grilled Cheese

This is basically a reuben sandwich, but with Swiss cheese on both slices of bread, so that when you toast it, the cheese melts, technically qualifying as a “grilled cheese sandwich.” It’s not the kind of reuben you can get in a good diner or sports bar, but when you’re craving one at midnight in your house, it’s just about doable.

For this sandwich, you will want some pre-prepared ingredients; namely, thousand island dressing (a lot of people put it on the side, but I spread it on the bread, sometimes along with extra mayonnaise or with some mild yellow or mild deli mustard), and some of your favorite coleslaw, kimchi, sauer kraut, or even just any fried/cooked cabbage you happen to have left over from Kielbasa and Pierogi Night (one of my favorite nights in the primarily-Eastern-European-descended house I grew up in). Another reason I like sandwiches, especially like this, is that you can put them together from pre-prepared food; good for a low-spoons night.

Thousand-island dressing can probably be purchased along with other dressings a la ranch, bleu cheese, and vinaigrettes, but I like making my own; it’s really easy. At its core, it’s just mayonnaise with ketchup and pickle relish, mixed in proportion to your own individual tastes. However, you can add additional touches, such as in this recipe I really like, although it is a bit labor-intensive. What I like to do is a thousand-island dressing with chipotle mayonnaise, using this chipotle spice mix, or my closest approximation of it. I literally have a little plastic bag of this pre-mixed in my pantry and labeled. When you have things prepared ahead of time, you can mix them or spread them when the time comes and then just leave them alone to cook. Similarly, if you want to make your own coleslaw, there are plenty of recipes out there, although I haven’t made my own yet.

I use traditional marble rye or “Jewish rye” (literally what our supermarket called it), and the aforementioned Swiss cheese (although you could maybe also try gruyere or a similarly mild but hard-ish cheese if you want to experiment). Where I don’t go traditional is meat, although it’s out of necessity and convenience, not (initially) preference. If you don’t have leftover corned beef from St. Patrick’s Day dinner (the other roughly 25% of my family’s ancestry), you probably don’t have corned beef in your house, let alone pre-cooked and ready for a sandwich. I usually use sliced cold-cut roast beef or turkey, although I’m sure you could also use pastrami, as some people do with their actual reubens.

Beyond that, just assemble the sandwich and cook as a grilled cheese – I like to spray and pre-heat the pan on low, then turn it when I actually put the sandwich in. I like grilled cheese to be toasted and even with a little char, but not burnt, and I find the heat is more controllable that way, especially if I don’t want to hover over the pan (I love my stove clock alarm). I usually cook about 5 minutes on one side, then flip it and cook for another 4 minutes, before flipping one more time to the original side to sear it with the spatula before taking the sandwich out. You can also use the spatula to smush the sandwich down and make sure it’s getting as melted as possible while it cooks.

This is the grilled cheese I ate tonight (with my Mom’s leftover homemade coleslaw, my chipotle thousand island dressing, and turkey; we had no roast beef), after a long and shitty day. I’m now signing off to eat some mango sorbet straight from the container while I switch between “Cooks vs. Cons” on Food Network and hatewatching “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997). But please let me know if you know a different or better variant on this recipe that I can try, or your own ways of cooking grilled cheese to your desired level of toastiness. If people comment with recipes, especially if they then donate to my Paypal, I can maybe do a post just about trying that.

My Chinese buffet apologism and a brief tangent on “authenticity”

White “foodie” types look for authenticity in our dining experiences. Of course, authenticity is a tricky concept, because at no point does the “authentic” food of a culture remain static. When technology changes, when certain crops wither or flourish, when trade and importation patterns shift, the food of a region changes more or less organically.

When people emigrate to a new society, this process – the evolution of a culture’s “authentic” cuisine – occurs even more dramatically. For instance, the reason for the rich, sweet, heavy sauces you can find in most Chinese-American restaurants isn’t pandering to American tastebuds – or at least, not just pandering to American tastebuds. When Chinese immigrants found themselves cooking in a country where ingredients like sugar were cheap and readily available, they eagerly integrated those foods into their recipes, as well as creating new dishes to showcase them.

Some forces do legitimately threaten a culture’s cuisine. One that springs to mind would be colonialism, which can easily impact what food people eat. During the Spanish occupation of the Taínos, indigenous crops like maize became known as inferior to European foods such as wheat. In addition, land and resources for farming were quickly taken up by the colonists’ crops, leaving nothing left for native seeds. These days, we worry more about cultural colonialism: the exporting of American tastes and food products around the world with every new McDonalds that opens overseas.

Another threat to authentic regional cuisine is the increasing crop monoculture that has resulted from American quantity-over-quality and consistency-valuing farming practices. I believe problems like these do negatively affect the development of a culture’s food.

However, that food also does evolve on its own, and that process is to some degree natural and unavoidable. If “authenticity” means rejecting technological or ingredient changes, then how far back must we look to find the truly “authentic” dishes? Is the discovery of fire far enough, or was roasting or boiling meat and other local ingredients a perversion of the original dish’s purity?

Like most social constructs, “[cultural] authenticity” is fascinating to ponder, and it could (and does) literally have books written about it and, probably, courses taught deconstructing it. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

For me, flippancy and irreverence over the concept of “authenticity” in cuisine is, today, just an excuse that allows me to love the Chinese American buffet.

If I had to describe a Chinese buffet – at least, the ones I grew up with and the one that I regularly visit with my friend today – to an alien or a European, I would probably say, “Imagine if someone decided to set up a restaurant where you could get takeout food, along with some of the worst American foods, and all the diners could eat as much as they wanted.” Chinese buffets are such a wonderful expression of the “ugly American eater” stereotype that for me, they’re almost like a meme – or more accurately, when you post a meme and the butt of the joke, ideally some corporation or public authority figure, tries to either respond or use the meme themselves. The result is just such a spectacle of beautiful irony and uncoolness that you want to frame it on your wall, or at least cut it out and stick it on your refrigerator along with that one particularly surreal old Far Side cartoon.

But I realize that with this introduction to Chinese buffets, I’m suggesting that my love for them is also detached and ironic. I cannot tell a lie – that is not the case. I love Chinese buffets, partly because I love “Americanized” Chinese food; partly because for all my foodiness, I love food that is familiar to me; and partly because, candidly, I love buffets, and any social context that allows me to eat without judgment.

What you should understand about me, without wanting to spoil anyone’s mood, is this: I’m a survivor of many medical situations in which I had to fast, or was on a restricted diet for blood glucose or liver-related reasons. I was a teenage type 1 diabetic whose endocrinologist believed that weight loss (in the midst of adolescence and all its body changes?) was somehow key to my health (it wasn’t, and actually had consequences for my mental health). Maybe this is why my shameful food secret has arisen: I love places where I can just eat – whatever food combinations I want, as much as I want – free of judgment or scrutiny. This is a quintessential American desire, I think, starting in the 1950’s but ultimately passed down from the days of the Great Depression, and then the rationing of World War II: white and/or bourgeois America’s desire to drown our sorrows and traumas in excess.

When you go into a Chinese buffet, you know what to expect. The food is the kind of food you order, not to be “adventurous,” but because you are hungry or tired or drunk or stoned, and you just want to eat. Dumplings, egg rolls, noodles, and pieces of chicken, pork, beef, and sometimes shrimp in sweet sauces over rice. White rice or fried rice, that is (I’ve never seen brown).

But as you progress down the buffet, you may also find food that seems to fit less and less into its surroundings, like popcorn shrimp, chicken fingers breaded in a thin, smooth, tempura-like thin skin (both are good with the red sweet and sour sauce that’s usually provided); conventional fried chicken on the bone, and French fries. This is another fun thing about the Chinese buffet: if your friends want Chinese food, but you’re abruptly in a fried food mood, or if your tastes change between leaving for the buffet and arriving at the restaurant, you can have what you want.

Dessert is an interesting affair. If you’ve ever been to a Chinese bakery (and I recommend going if you can), you know that Chinese pastries tend not to be overly sweet by American standards, and to take their sweetness from unusual (to most white Americans) ingredients. Egg tarts and sesame seed covered- or sweet bean paste-filled cakes are delicious, but their relative unfamiliarity to, say, the people in my upstate and suburban hometown, means that they defy the purpose of the Chinese buffet.

As a result, the dessert table of the Chinese buffet – and there will usually be a dessert table – is, well…interesting. There is typically cut fruit and Jell-O cubes, which I appreciate since that’s usually the type of sweet flavor I crave after most of the Chinese, Korean, or Japanese dishes I’ve had, as opposed to anything heavier or richer. But there is also often a very syrupy flan, maybe a bowl or two of pudding, some miniature cream puffs and eclairs, a soft-serve ice cream machine humming off to one side, almond cookies, and for some reason, clean but unshelled raw shrimp on ice. This isn’t even mentioning other sweets that you might find placed alongside the entrees – at the buffet where I go, there are lightly sugared donuts in a warming pan on the main buffet, typically close to something else fried like egg rolls or crab rangoons.

I was too lazy when I wrote this post to delve more deeply into the history of the Chinese American buffet, but I may post about that another time, when I have the spoons to actually plan out posts instead of just letting myself loose on a Google Doc between phone calls at work. If my tone or my take on this was racist, and you have the emotional energy available to educate me, that would be great. Otherwise, my advice is to try a Chinese buffet, and if you’re visiting the US from outside it, definitely go to one. It’s a fascinating fusion of food desires and cultures to me.

(original Tumblr post)

Burger 21 and the Rise of Hipster Fast Food

(You can read more about the Burger 21 brand here. My original Tumblr post is here.)

If you’re from the US, or at least the part of the US where I live (the upstate, East Coast part), then you’ve probably seen them around. They’re often called “[Something] Burger.” They’re either modern or painstakingly retro inside, though that retro aesthetic usually won’t extend to technology like automatic menu screens or mounted flat-screen TVs. They may have a liquor license and full bar. Sometimes they use terms like “crafted” to describe food, even if it’s the same general type of food (albeit from ostensibly better ingredients) that you can also get for a dollar at McDonalds.

I think I’ll call them “Hipster Fast Food.” Actually, someone probably already has.

I just realized I might sound dismissive, and that’s partly my fault for choosing a word like “hipster,” and all the connotations that come with it. In this case, though, I don’t begrudge hipster fast food its hipster-ness. After all, this is capitalism – you survive by pandering, one way or another, and it’s ingenious to acknowledge Americans’ love of fast food, then temper it with a general suggestion of sustainability, mindfulness, and wholesomeness – all the guilt-free charm we wish the big dogs like McDonalds, Burger King, and even pre-revamp Wendy’s had. The idea is that we can eat better and do better by our communities and planet without giving up the food we love, and while that idea is probably fallacious in the extreme, it’s also tantalizing as hell.

Besides, for all my snobbery, I like fast food. Unironically. Even though, despite accounts like this, I don’t eat much of it. I like fast food. True, I’ve never cared for McDonalds, except their fish filets and fries (and even their fries have lost some luster, since they got allegedly revamped to be more “natural” and less sodium-filled), but I still remember my first Whopper with fondness. That was probably the first time I tried mayonnaise on a burger, and I’ve never regretted that decision. My favorite fast food chain is and probably will always be White Castle, a traditional part of any visit to my maternal grandparents in Chicago (unfortunately, my hometown has no White Castle franchises). Those sliders, with their peculiarly onion-y steamed lack of crisp (this is not a bad thing to me; depending on the food, I don’t necessarily care for crispiness as a texture), were heaven to me as a kid, and though it’s been awhile since I’ve had one, I think I’d probably still like them.

One thing you might have noticed from this list is that this is exclusively burger restaurants; no Taco Bell or KFC.

This is because I also like burgers. A lot. With cheese, specifically, as well as other optional add-ons.

I’ve learned to love other fast food, of course. McDonalds’ fish filets, as previously stated, as well as other forms of heavily-breaded fish that I can cover in enough ketchup and tartar sauce to make them bearable. Fried chicken, especially chicken tenders – again, the more breaded, the better (I am neither a chicken- nor a fish fan). And I do actually love Chipotle (after the South Park episode about Michael Jackson and Billy Mays’ deaths, my family started calling it “Chipotle-way” and never really stopped), although I think Chipotle itself probably falls into the hipster fast food category.

A good rule of thumb when deciding what is and isn’t hipster fast food is: is this restaurant encouraging me to think about what I’m putting into my body? Are they hyping the freshness and sourcing of the ingredients, or letting me watch them make the food? Are they trying for “authenticity”? If the answer is “yes,” then you’re probably dealing with hipster fast food.

And that’s not a bad thing. All the paragraphs leading up to this one are my roundabout way of saying that since I love burgers – beef and dairy together in general (I’m a terrible Jew), but especially burgers – I’m perfectly happy with the hipster fast food trend. Thanks to this trend, I can always find a burger around (although I realize as I write this that, since this is America, finding a burger will never really be a problem). Some people question why I’m always ordering the same meals from different places, but honestly, this is an example of why: because every place does it differently, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast. And with the hipster fast food trend, if you can afford the price of a jumped-up burger and fries, you can get a lot of comparing done.

My favorite hipster fast food has to be Five Guys. I’ve been told Five Guys is the East Coast version of In-N-Out Burger (I can’t say for sure since we never did go to one on our family vacation to California). What I know is the one in our town goes for a retro look, with red and white tiles, except for the optional machine that lets you mix your own shakes, and the random bags of unshelled peanuts that line the outside wall. These peanuts are free for customers to sample as they wait for their orders; little paper shells are provided to hold them. The burger patties are a bit thin, but allegedly unfrozen, and they taste good; tender, flavorful, and rarely burnt. Besides, to compensate for the patties’ thinness, Five Guys burgers come as doubles; you must specifically request a single patty to your burger, making it a “small” instead of a “regular.” The fries are thickly cut and well-seasoned, even if it’s with nothing more adventurous than salt and pepper. Five Guys deservedly has a great reputation as a burger place and (relatively) local chain, with food critic reviews framed and hung on the walls of our local franchise. It’s the standard, at this moment, to which I compare my hipster fast food experiences.

When I went to Burger 21 tonight, I was thinking of Five Guys automatically, and I was also thinking of my other recent hipster fast food experience at Smashburger. The latter was almost perfectly mediocre, with just the hint of interesting menu and reasonably well-cooked food that makes you think “maybe I should go back one more time and give it another try.” The patties were wide and tender, but thin, and my burger was soggy, the condiments it came with overwhelming it. The fries were fine, but thinly-sliced; apparently, a troublesome trend. It wasn’t the sort of experience that drives you off, it just makes very little impression either way.

Burger 21 was a similar experience. In fairness, I had just left my shift at 8:30 pm, and was also slightly grumpy because by deciding that we would eat our burgers at the restaurant, my mother and ride was Deviating from the Plan, so I may not have been at my most receptive. After a brief disagreement over whether we should enter at the main double doors, or the single door farther down the wall that opened up toward the bathrooms, we entered Burger 21 and immediately became confused about whether we should order at the counter that had the bar behind it (that was the one), or the counter lined with stools labeled “take-out pickup” (that was not it). A helpful employee corrected us, and we got in line, trying to figure out if the menus he had given us and the brief mention of “bringing the food out to [you]” meant we should order at the counter or wait for someone to come to us. Eventually, we ordered, then I changed my drink order, and then finally things were nailed down and I began to relax.

I was pleased to find the handwashing station, located outside the bathrooms, meaning I could wash the “office” off my hands without having to touch a potentially urine-covered door handle, or grapple with the perpetual “which restroom do I use (the dysphoria one or the one full of cis people who may beat me up)” question of anyone being trans in public. (Being assigned-female transmasculine, I should say. If I were transfeminine and assigned male, both restrooms would be full of cis people potentially ready to beat me up). If their plan really is to pander to The Millennials ™, I would advise Burger 21 to invest in gender neutral restrooms, or at least a third, family- and wheelchair-sized gender neutral one-staller. It shouldn’t be too hard to add some plumbing to a large closet so the rest of us can pee in safety.

Another thing about Burger 21 that I liked was the condiment bar. Where other places had a sidebar of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and sometimes relish, Burger 21 has a long bar of various sauces, located next to its utensils and drinks. I remember a Cajun sauce, and one based on Korean barbecue, as well as my personal favorite, chipotle mayonnaise. I only tried the chipotle mayonnaise on my burger and fries (we got the Half-and-Half fry order, which included both white and sweet potato fries, and I think it went slightly better with the sweet potato), but for me, one reason to go back to Burger 21 is pure curiosity whether the other more unusual condiments are any good. It may be a gimmick, but it’s the kind of gimmick that works on me. For the record, though, the chipotle mayonnaise was a little bland. However, at least this was preferable to other throat-scalding attempts I’ve witnessed to make “spicy food” for white people, where the “spice” came from too much pepper in the dish and nothing else.

If I were a trained chef or professional food critic, I could talk about the burger and fries themselves for pages, but I am not and so I can’t. However, I’m not sure I need to. The interesting twist to the burger was that it was a real beef patty that seemed hand-formed, like good bar food or maybe a burger from Applebee’s or some other higher class of sit-down restaurant chain. It was thick and juicy and didn’t seem to have been stamped out of a sheet of beef, the texture that the thinner Five Guys and White Castle patties do sometimes have. I ordered my burger medium, and although it was more charred and crispy than I prefer on the outside, I was pleased to see just a hint of pink on the inside. That said, the taste of the meat, and the burger overall, was just a little bland, not flavorful enough to make me forget the charred texture. I did think the Burger 21 touch of putting the tomatoes under the patty, rather than on top of it, was a smart idea, since burgers that have been lifted, bitten, or cut in half tend to lose their tomato slices easily, especially when the patty is thicker. On the topic of the burger’s fixings, though, I did think it needed pickles (the restaurant included lettuce and tomato, and sometimes onion depending on the order, but no automatic inclusion of pickles as far as we could tell, and we didn’t think to grab relish from the condiment bar).

The fries were very, very thin, much less than an inch across, and less than an inch thick. They reminded me in shape of the shredded lettuce on my burger, because they had a shredded look to them; they seemed too short and thin to be sliced by a human hand. This was a trend I also noticed at Smashburger, and my mother and I debated whether this was an attempt to make less potato look like more, or to make people believe they were eating less French fry per bite than they actually were. My mother also said the sweet potato fries looked thinner and less filled than the white potato fries, but I wasn’t so sure about this. In any case, the tiny fries made for messy and inconvenient dipping into condiments, so I hope this particular fast food trend dies soon.

Smashburger and Burger 21 are both poster children of the hipster fast food craze. The same modern look, the same half-ordering, half-being-waited-on system of food acquisition, and even the same thin-cut fries. Burger joints like this are as common as Chinese takeout restaurants and pizzerias in our neck of the woods, and they survive either through quality, or through uniqueness, if not both – whatever can inspire enough name recognition that customers 1. remember their brand, and 2. want more of it. Burger 21 was a pleasant experience, but if it wants to become the next Five Guys or In-N-Out, it probably needs to punch up its flavors, build its “sustainability” reputation, and maybe clean up its restaurant layout. Hipster fast food is a dime a dozen right now, and while I’m just fine with that, I don’t have a vested interest in seeing any of these places succeed. If I stayed that disinterested after becoming a customer, that may be a bad sign.

Armsby Abbey

A hipster burger bar should have me railing about gentrification and pretentiousness, but I genuinely enjoy sampling different takes on a classic burger – on Americana comfort food in general, I think – so it doesn’t. Whether it’s a signature sauce or aioli, or a particular seasoning for the fries, or fusion items like hoisin or curry burgers, I’m game to give most “hipster”-y burger joints and bars a try, because I appreciate the spirit of trying to bring something new to an old classic.

That said, there are a few things a “neo-burger” place can do that get on my nerve. Overpriced, slow food is one thing. Obviously, you don’t want frozen burgers or a McDonalds-style assembly line – that’s the model most “ethical burger” places are trying to get away from, with fresh ingredients and some actual care put into food preparation. And again, I’m completely behind that. That said, food shouldn’t really take more than half an hour, forty-five minutes at the outside, to get to the table. Cocktails and drinks should take even less time. And while you expect to pay about ten to twelve dollars for a good entree – like a burger, for instance – no single dish should be costing upwards of twenty or thirty dollars, and no appetizer or salad should be priced like an entrée.

This was one of the ways in which the Armsby Abbey in Worcester, Massachusetts started to lose me.

I go up to Worcester every six months or so to visit the UMass Memorial Multiple Sclerosis clinic, where I’ve been going for treatment since I was diagnosed in my junior year at my Five Colleges alma mater. Even for appointments where my old lesions are non-active and no new lesions have appeared, it’s still a stressful time, especially since it usually involves getting blood drawn (as a diabetic, I should be used to this, but I’m not). The past couple appointments have not been some of those times – I have one small active lesion currently, and the radiologist who did my last MRI claimed to have seen some plaque on my spine, although my doctor couldn’t find it. So when we finally left the hospital, I especially needed a drink and a good burger. Normally, after my appointments we go to the Flying Rhino Cafe, but this time we decided to try something different.

The Armsby Abbey staff was very nice. I always feel like this is worth mentioning, because customer service is fucking hard. The hostess accommodated our desire for a low table (rather than the raised kind with the stools or chairs that you need to climb up into, constantly feeling like if you shift, you’ll lose your balance) happily. Our server was almost overly friendly, and used gender-nonspecific language, which provided a welcome break from social dysphoria. She was very patient while I figured out which cocktail I wanted from the drinks menu I’d seen too late. I got a Morning Dew cocktail, which was not bad, but to a lightweight like me, could have used a little more juice in its juice/tea/flower water to vodka ratio. For what it’s worth, my father, who bartended for awhile in college, and is more of a social drinker than I am, did think it was well-balanced. However, we still faced the overpricing issue – the cocktail cost as much as some of the entrees.

We split a house salad, which was priced modestly, but was also just mixed greens, radish slices, and mustard vinaigrette dressing – if you don’t like mustard, the Armsby Abbey may not be the place for you. The greens were good, and I actually did enjoy the dressing, but the salad could have used more variety of texture, whether cabbage or shredded carrot or cucumber, to provide additional freshness. The few radish slices we got didn’t fully serve.

Feeling adventurous, I got the house burger, and didn’t ask for any substitutions or for any toppings to be kept on the side. This may have been a mistake, but on the other hand, I’m not sure that a burger without the caramelized onions or the mustard aioli would have been a big improvement. The burger comes without any fresh greens, or even a slice of fresh tomato – there’s only the house-made ketchup, which tasted like thin, Southeastern barbecue sauce without the heat, and as if it was made with tomato paste, rather than the fresh item itself. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Heintz, but even house-made ketchups that I’ve enjoyed have been tomato-y, thick, and with at least a bit of fruity-tasting sweetness. Armsby Abbey makes all their condiments in-house, which leads me to bring up another mistake that these places typically make: reinventing the wheel when they don’t need to, with a side of pandering to whatever fancy/innovative food craze is happening right now. Aioli? Homemade condiments? It sounds slick, but it’s only cool if you can make it work, and in my opinion, this place currently can’t.

It’s not just about a “crafted” burger with state-of-the-art ingredients: those ingredients have to actually work together. When you put sweet, soft onions; aged, sharp cheddar; mustard aioli and a few pickle slices on top of a burger that itself rests on a “sesame-ale” roll (seems suspiciously similar to a pretzel bun, like the type we see at Wendy’s), to me it’s a neverending parade of dense, sweet, sharp flavors, with no bit of plant-based freshness to provide an effective contrast. If that was what the pickles were for, then two pickle chips (one of which slid off the patty) was not enough. The fries were well-seasoned, but at a place like this – and for prices like these – that’s the least I expect.

When I think about the enjoyment I have for places like Five Guys, and even experiences like Crave and Smashburger, I feel like I’m probably doing food criticism wrong if I prefer eating at those places to a place like this. Maybe I’m accidentally pulling a Brad Johnson (the infamous OC Register food critic who refused to review any taco trucks for his list of the 10 Best Tacos in the Orange County, and has been known to grade Mexican restaurants on their chips and salsa and their “papas francesas/fritas” – French fries) and doing the burger-reviewing equivalent of allowing the lack of metaphorical sit-down tables (ketchup, lettuce and tomato) to close my mind to a new culinary experience. But the thing is, those places seem like they understand what makes a burger good, and why burgers are good. They also know they’re fast food. They may try to make their burgers more healthy or ethically sourced, sure, but they aren’t trying to put extra bells and whistles on a dish so they can overcharge their clientele. They’re trying to reinvent a classic, but in a way that shows some knowledge of why it’s classic in the first place. I value that, and whether it makes me a whitebread yuppie or not, I think I’ll continue to value it. If you have the chance to visit Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA, please feel free to try the burger (and whatever else strikes your fancy) for yourself, and tell me where I went wrong. Just make sure you’ve got enough in the bank to pay your tab.

(original post)