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Pho Grand

I’m just getting the point where I can re-hash Christmas dinner and it’s already the day before New Year’s Eve. Sadly, I don’t even have an inkling of a plan yet. But that’s how Christmas was too. I didn’t do a single notable thing all day and didn’t leave the house until 8pm.

I met random mix of people at Pho Grand (Chinatown without the Chinese food) that included my friend Jane, her father who’d literally just gotten into town, her sister and boyfriend, and a mutual friend Heather. I was hesitant to tell Heather that we were doing Vietnamese but it turned out she’d been to Pho Grand before, coincidentally with the guy I’d ran into at Snacky a few nights before.

I forgot to take photos, that often happens when I’m with people I don’t know that well. We shared a few grilled pork chops, a large order of spring rolls, and everyone got some pho permutation except Heather, a.k.a baby palate (I’d nearly forgotten that I’d dubbed her that until she mentioned it) who ordered grilled beef over rice vermicelli and wouldn’t add the accompanying sauce. It pained me to watch her using soy sauce instead of hoisin or chile paste but the holiday spirit doesn’t allow for food nazism.

I couldn’t bear Williamburg drinks afterward, so Heather and I set off in the rainstorm looking for any place open and serving dessert. That limited our options to Little Italy where we found one restaurant that met our criteria. I couldn’t even tell you the name. Our shared black forest cake, cannoli and strawberry tart were anything but remarkable but sometimes you have to take what you can get.

This is not pho

Pho Grand * 277 Grand St., New York, NY

Mariana’s Supermarket

While digging up info on Mariana’s, I stumbled upon an odd best of review in local Vegas media that compared it to Trader Joe’s. That seemed off the mark in print and even more so in person. Other than being busy and well-curated by design, it’s more like a Pathmark or Stop & Shop . It’s a large (by NYC standards) Mexican grocery store, nothing, trendy, gourmet or healthy about it. It's even a chain–there are three locations in the area.

Mariana’s is impressive because we just don’t have mega marts like this in New York. Despite the Puerto Rican/ Dominican dominance there aren’t Latino equivalents to these supermarkets with food stands, which feel more Asian to me. Bakery counter, butcher, deli, take out, all under one roof. I’ve always wondered why there are no Latin American Hong Kong Supermarkets (or  Ranch 99 to you west coasters). “Ethnic” food needn’t be hole-in-the-wall bodega-style. I love suburban sprawl.

Mariana’s makes me wish I was more Mexican. I glom onto Southeast Asian food culture because I love it, but I do have roots as root-less as I often feel. I didn’t even know the names for half the things I encountered and sometimes I hate the sensation of being a tourist in my own country. I should know this stuff but my dad did such a good job of assimilating that I know more about kueh than pan dulce.

Tacos_1If I had access to refrigeration and a kitchen, I would’ve spent more time exploring the groceries. But I had to limit myself to dried goods and snacks like chile garbanzos. My sister had asked me to send her dried chipotles, which are truly foreign in Western England where she lives. I went a little overboard snatching up at least five varieties of chiles to mail her way.

James commented on something foreign to him, Squirt. There’s nothing Mexican about Squirt (when I could afford private Spanish lessons, there was an issue with the verb squirt. My Columbian tutor had never heard the word and I had a hard time trying to describe it without referring to ketchup bottles). I’m not a soda drinker so it had never occurred to me that you never see that brand on the east coast. It made me happy to be reminded of it even if I had no desire to imbibe.

The real gem was the take out counter with seating in the front of the store. It was late in the afternoon so I think many of the weekend specials like pozole and menudo were running low. I tried the menudo anyway, just because it’s not something I frequently see here (I'd do well to find a local source pronto, as it's a reputed hangover cure and it seems that I'll be working New Year's  Day). It didn’t come with sides like lime slices, cilantro and chopped onion but the warm, freshly made corn tortillas were absolutely amazing. It’s hard to understand what’s so great about a simple tortilla if you’re used to buying them in packages that have sat around for who knows how long. I felt guilty about throwing more than half of my stack out, but we had Joel Robuchon in our future and I didn’t want to completely spoil my appetite, tiny portions or not.

Menudo I had two tacos, a carnitas and an al pastor. Double pork. Despite what west coast transplants say, there is good Mexican food in NYC. I suspect they just haven’t properly mined pockets of Queens and Brooklyn. I’ve had wonderful tacos here, but these slap-dash grocery store versions were a notch above. The words moist and juicy immediately came to mind. Oh, and they were only a buck apiece.

There’s also a stand with agua frescas in giant glass jars nearby. Like I said, I’m not crazy about sweet beverages but the horchata and vivid watermelon, hibiscus and tamarind juices were enticing.

Las Vegas has so much more to offer in the way of food culture than people might realize. If I’d had more than a weekend to spend, I would’ve tried tapping into the Filipino scene that appeared to be floating just under the radar.

Mariana's Supermarket * 3631 W. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, NV


Unlike a good number of New Yorkers, I’m not opposed to buffets. They’re a rare breed here and I love me a little outer borough East Buffet every now and then. That’s why I was so excited to let my inner glutton loose while on mini-vacation. I’d heard about the decadence of the Bellagio’s brunch (and my mom raved about a seafood spread at Mandalay Bay) and was looking forward to it until the reality of Las Vegas set in. I didn’t have second thoughts about stuffing myself silly, but after surveying the scene in our hotel, impatience and xenophobia set it. There was no way I was going to be able to stomach waiting in one-hour-plus lines with 90% of these folks, bless their hearts.

I then remembered hearing about great breakfasts at Bouchon. It certainly sounded like a civilized option but making it to The Venetian before the 10:30am cut off was anything but. On Google Maps it only looked like three blocks from our hotel. We hadn’t walked the strip yet so we had no concept of distance and obstacles. It turned out that the supposed three blocks was going to take more than the twenty minutes we had remaining.

Illogically, the sidewalks are completely un-pedestrian-friendly—they’re congested as hell with slow moving bodies and touts and inexplicably detour and meander. It was like we were in theAmazing Race and we were in Bankgok, minus the sweltering heat, sputtering tuk tuks and stray dogs. We plodded on quickly as possible but I wasn’t wearing sensible shoes and human barricades kept blocking our way. I started feeling frazzled, desperate and insanely cranky. I started lagging and nay saying, James and I began yelling at each other, I was all, “just go on without me.” We would’ve gotten creamed on Amazing Race. But I wasn’t going to be kept from a meal filled with much needed serenity and fresh squeezed juice so I tried to stay positive and ignore the blisters forming on my pinkie toes.

FrenchtoastAfter running through the mall, casino, then hotel like we were actually after a million dollar prize, we arrived disheveled at 10:35am and were informed that we’d be the last people seated for breakfast. Phew.

I’ve never eaten at the French Laundry or Per Se or have any particular Napa Valley fetish, and it’s not like Thomas Keller is shirring your eggs or whatever at this bistro offshoot but it did feel like a place to be if you’re in Las Vegas and even vaguely about food (the woman we were seated next to at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon later that evening had also been to Bouchon that same morning. It’s like some demented foodie trail. I do draw the line at photographing kitchens). It was a wise choice, though. After I settled down and our food arrived, I felt pretty good about our quality over quantity last minute move.

ChesedanishI always have trouble deciding between sweet or savory at breakfast. After some thought, I figured I didn’t have to pick one or the other and chose the french toast, which is a custardy, brioche bread pudding creation, with a side of bacon in an adorable baby cast iron skillet. I never order sides so this was a breakthrough (I shared the fried pork, ok?). I should've gone totally wild and gotten the french fries too–it seemed like everyone else was doing just that. James tried a crabmeat omelet special and also did the sweet-savory extra by getting a cheese Danish. Naively, I was imagining some sad Entenmann’s pastry but this was flaky and perfect.

Everything was spot-on, and why shouldn’t it have been? Not eating seconds or thirds for breakfast enabled me to think it was a good idea to go nuts with tacos just a few hours later. I couldn’t do away with unnecessary gorging, altogether.

Bouchon * 3355 Las Vegas Blvd S., Las Vegas, NV

Soy Candle in the Wind

Cathy_1Don’t even go there. It’s a tired phrase that I try to suppress when it pops into my head, but is it possible that there is an original there and it’s the Atlantic Center Target?

Perhaps the saying should be literal rather than sassy. Really, don’t even go there, you’ll be sorry. Last Friday James turned around and left after getting scared shitless by the mayhem. I didn’t see what he saw, but attributed it to pre-Christmas madness. But that doesn’t explain the sickening chaos I experienced yesterday on a post-holiday Thursday (clearly, I never learn–it turns out that I had this exact same problem at exactly the same time last year). We usually go to New Jersey or Q ueens for our Target fix, so maybe this is standard practice in Brooklyn.

Do these people (yes, those people) not know what a Target is meant to be like? There’s supposed to merchandise on the shelves, not empty rows and so much crap on the floor or abandoned, filled shopping carts blocking paths that you can barely walk. There are supposed to be express lanes so folks like me with four items don’t have to wait behind families buying what looks like a month’s worth (I hope it’s a month) of cereal, soda, cookies and potato chips. There are supposed to be enough cashiers open so that lines aren’t twenty deep and winding all the way back to the refrigerated section.

I was watching Signe Chanel on Sundance channel the other night (I’ve been very, very bored this week. Apparently, so bored that I’ve only watched things on channel 101. I also watched the hilariously non-American, Da Kath & Kim Code, both episodes of not-that-entertaining One Punk Under God and so-so but wonderfully bleak, Jude, which is the type of thing I’d normally flip past. I will never be bored enough to watch Iconoclasts, however) and Oprah was at a Chanel show in Paris and some middle-aged socialite sitting next to her was talking to about her new country home in Pennsylvania and how horrible New York City had become. Oprah agreed and said something along the lines of “people don’t realize that it’s not normal to live like that,” implying that there are squalor-free places full of peace, quiet and natural beauty. I’m no fan of Oprah, despite being a fellow INFJ, but this Brooklyn Target is a shining example of not living normally.

I only went because I needed one item that I know they carry, and it’s the most accessible Target (it’s about a thirty-minute walk home). I had to find a replacement shaving cream for my Whish mishap. They have Sharps brand, which is not only considerably cheaper but had specifically been asked for. The Target in Las Vegas (yes, I go to Targets on vacation) had a well-stocked display of toiletries and beauty products for both genders. Brooklyn had one small section that was 75% empty, none of the signage matched where the items were placed and there wasn’t a single price tag to be seen. I was so irritated that I almost turned around and left but that would only be thwarting myself.

8bloodpressureI don’t understand people who say beta-blockers work for anxiety (or migraines, for that matter). I have them for high blood pressure and half the time I feel like I’m going to bust a gasket, I’m perpetually un-calm. I’ve been taking halves for some time but the past few weeks I’ve upped my dosage to wholes because I’m convinced that swarms of humanity are going to give me a heart attack in my thirties. I wonder if I didn’t take high blood pressure medication at all if I’d simply keel over from life’s little annoyances.

James likes smelly shit and cleaning products so I thought I’d peek at the dreaded air freshener aisle. I gave in to a new lavender and lemongrass Method soy candle, but I had to draw the line at the Method plug-ins. They have that eco-chic thing happening but I’m fairly certain the scents are still cloying and artificial (how do you make a natural scented candle, anyway? I don’t imagine these $50 numbers are much less artificial. Hmm, these scents are actually intriguing—I’m not sure what “english black tea and cedar, tangled with blackish seaweed absolute” or “scents of wood stock, 19th century lacquer and smoky gunpowder” smell like but I am curious)

I resigned myself to the snaking checkout line and when I finally go to the register my candle wouldn’t scan properly. “Do you know how much this was?” asked the fairly efficient, not ill-tempered cashier.

You never know how a store will handle price checks. Often it’s so ridiculously busy that they take your word if your quote sounds reasonable but Western Beef, no matter how long the line, will always send a human to check even it takes all afternoon. I feel guilty about trying to cheat, so I’m usually honest.

“I think it was $5.99.” I didn’t just think, I knew with 99% certainty. She scrunched up her face like that didn’t seem right. I got unnecessarily nervous (all I could think was please don’t get a price check because I don’t have the patience and as usual I’ll end up saying forget it and leaving the item behind) and was all, “do you think it’s higher or lower?” “That’s seems like too much for a candle” was the answer. I thought it was actually cheap for a candle, but whatever, and then I started worrying if $5.99 was actually wrong and I was now going to be overcharged. I checked my receipt on the way out the door and was surprised to note that I’d only been charged $2.99 for the candle. I felt very good about saving $3 and softened a mite (just a mite) about the horribleness of Atlantic Center Target. But you still might have to reward me with more than three bucks to return.

In-N-Out Burger

As I know I’ve said before, the west coast has all the best burger chains. And by best I kind of just mean that by their mere foreignness they instantly seem more appealing. I don’t know if I shun fast food in NYC because it’s frowned upon (though I doubt it’s any more acceptable in the western states—healthy stereotypes and all) or because the Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s standards just don’t entice me (ok, we do have White Castle). Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr. and Sonic seem more exciting. Whoppers? Quarter Pounders? Classics, but EH. Fast food for me is about novelty and unnecessary inventions.

So, it doesn’t make much sense that I’d go for In-N-Out Burger. No Philly Cheesesteak Burgers or Sirloin Steak ‘n’ Cheddar Ciabattas to be found. Hamburger, cheeseburger or double cheeseburger (double-double): that’s it in the meat and bun department.

Just so you know, I only ate one of the four burgers. The other three were consumed by a single human being who's not even fat.

I’m not a burger connoisseur by any means. These specimens are just simple, fresh and good. We didn’t try any fancy ordering lingo and took the default double-doubles with raw onion. I’m curious what’s in the spread. I like spread. There used to be a chain in Portland called Arctic Circle, which may or may not still exist (ok, they live on) and they made good use of spread, too. I’d always get fry dip in to go containers.

That’s why I’m loving the concept of animal style fries: cheese, grilled onions and spread. There’s always next time. Despite hand-cutting the fries and frying them on demand, they didn’t taste all that special. It didn’t seem right that real potato would impress less than frozen in a bag.
We tried two different Las Vegas locations, one Friday on Sahara Avenue for burgers and fries, and one Sunday on Dean Martin Drive for vanilla dessert shakes after our dinner at Rosemary’s. Unfortunately, I was so violently full and tipsy (we only split a bottle of wine but over the course of the afternoon I’d also downed two bloody marys and three gin and tonics) I could barely manage sip. I tried a little leftover melted milkshake the next morning but it wasn’t the same.

In-N-Out Burger * 2900 W Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, NV

Rosemary’s Restaurant

I never went to Las Vegas with the intention of dining exclusively on the strip. That’s why I rented a car. What I hadn’t considered was how non-strip still translates to strip mall.

RosemarysYou can barely read a food blog mentioning Vegas without a Lotus of Siam or Rosemary’s rave. Must-eats, to put it mildly. Many make a point of noting that Lotus of Siam is in a strip mall, yet no one says the same of Rosemary’s, a serious restaurant with prices to match. I was initially scared of fine dining in a complex that’s also home to a Dollar Tree, and I got more nervous when a truck limo pulled up out front. Maybe I’ve been in NYC too long, but who seriously rents out vehicles like that? At least it wasn’t a stretch Hummer, I suppose.

I guess this is standard building practice with new-cities. I mean, where else would you put a business? You’re practically starting from scratch. But even in Portland, which never struck me as old or traditional, restaurants are generally embedded in storefronts or are free standing. You don’t get the mall aesthetic until you reach the outskirts and head into the Beavertons and Greshams of the world. I had no understanding of Las Vegas, it’s really a suburb of a city. And once I got that, I was cool with the lack of gravitas.

I intentionally booked on Sunday, half-price wine night (also a very un-NYC move. Coupons, promotions, gimmicks, whatever you call them, just don’t exist. I thought these Diner's Deck cards seemed like a fun gift but I’d be too embarrassed to use them) because I usually splurge on food yet skimp on wine. An $88 bottle of Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir becomes much more attractive when it’s price-chopped. This would be a great way to try wines I might normally shy away from.

While skimming the menu, James and I were trying to estimate what portions would be like. After Joel Robuchon’s precious tastes the night before, we were kind of warped. Would the three-course prix fixe leave us starving or stuffed? I was guessing Rosemary’s would be on the small side of medium but their servings turned out to be surprisingly hearty. I actually left food on my plate and that 's a rare occurrence.

Not hearty enough for all, apparently. The two very large gambling type gentleman, one flat-topped forty-something in a Hawaiian shirt, the other closer to seventy and wearing suspenders, were complaining to each other about the size of their food. They also seemed a little irritated when told about the half-price wine promotion and insisted they only wanted beer and cocktails. I was trying to eavesdrop while the waitresses sweet talked and tried to smooth over any potential problems, and could only hear that their usual favorite restaurant was a casino steak house (I couldn’t catch the name) so it really just wasn’t their scene. I’m curious how they ended up there in the first place because it takes effort. I can see that if you’re accustomed to either all-you-can-eat or steakhouse fare, the price point and portion size might give you pause. But this wasn’t even close to foofy food.

The $49 prix fixe includes three courses of your choosing from appetizer, salad/soup, entrée and dessert. We went all savory decided to try In-N-Out shakes on the way back to our hotel. An appetizer and entrée would’ve been sufficient. I ordered with my gut, whatever sounded good on impulse, no planning. I ended up with andouille and blue cheese in two dishes. No complaints, but I ordered a very decadent trio.

You could call the style new or creative American with Southern touches, French technique (they even use a little of that ever popular sous vide). Maybe not the décor, but I could totally see this restaurant blossoming on Fifth Street in Park Slope. Smith Street could seriously use a place like this instead of the blah Italian and Thai food that persists.

I’d been taking outdoor photos earlier in the day and forgot to change the setting on my camera so they turned out atrociously dark. Even after playing with photo editing software, they look like shit. I’ll just include some tiny thumbnails for background color. 

Carpaccio_1Beef & Maytag Blue Cheese Carpaccio: Arugula & Granny Smith Apple Salad, Sicilian Pistachios & Port Wine Drizzles

I started off right. While this could’ve been very heavy, the apple and wine were sprightly enough to keep me alert.

I originally wanted the Texas bbq shrimp with Maytag blue cheese slaw, but let James have it. He always seems to inadvertently order things with bbq sauce and then bitch about it (I do understand that bbq can be read as barbecued, i.e. grilled) so I was amused that zeroed in on this dish. Though as you can see from this recipe that said bbq sauce contains a good dose of heavy cream. And I wondered why the food was so tasty but filling.

Frisee_saladWarm Frisee Salad: Roasted Golden Beets, Roquefort Cheese, Candied Walnuts & Homemade Andouille Vinaigrette.

There’s that blue cheese again. It was the candied walnuts that clinched it for me. This was really good but I probably should’ve eaten this or had the blue cheese and beef carpaccio, not and.

Last week we ordered sandwiches from ‘Wichcraft for a holiday office lunch and people didn’t know what things like frisee or aioli were and seemed suspicious. I don’t understand this. I’ve always worked with chicken Caesar salad/four-cheese ravioli folks. James talks about the guys he works with and they’re always going to exotic, obscure or ostentatious places for lunch, they totally know food. My only guess is that a financial salary allows for more dabbling and experimentation than a library salary, or that librarians just aren’t very adventurous, regardless of cash flow.

SeabassCrispy Skin Striped Bass: Andouille, Rock Shrimp & Fingerling Potato Hash, Hushpuppies & Creole Meuniere Sauce

I didn’t even notice the andouille in the description. Spicy Cajun sausage is amazing but I’d already downed more than my fair share drenched in oil and vinegar from the salad. It was the rock shrimp and hash that grabbed my attention. I left like 20% of the food on my plate, which never happens. My stomach absolutely gave up on this trip. I think I caused irreparable damage and will now have to have a six-pack surgery to make me feel better about myself.

Rosemary’s Restaurant* 8125 W Sahara Ave, Las Vegas, NV


1/2 I hadn’t planned on going out the eve before Christmas Eve but somehow ended up meeting a couple of friends in Williamsburg (like it or not, whenever I’m home alone during holidays I seem to end up in Williamsburg) for drinks. I was hoping that no one brought gifts because I’ve been bad since the early ‘00s and have bowed out of exchanges. But I was bestowed with a handmade stocking filled with a bottle of Poochi-Poochi, anyway. Appropriate for a sake bar. I ultimately ended up breezing through two medium servings of a sake whose poetic name I can’t even recall.

Octopusballs It’s kind of hard to not order at least one plate when a place is called Snacky. The menu is larger and wider ranging than what you’ll find from searching online. It might be over-ambitious for the tiny kitchen but we didn’t experience any mishaps. There was no way I could pass up the cheese wontons, a.k.a. crab rangoon, a particular obsession of mine. I will try this silly east-west masterpiece on any menu where I find it. I also tried the takoyaki, because why not? I kind of liked the mushy texture with octopussy bits hidden inside, but the raw ginger strips were a little too zingy for me. The mini Popsie burgers looked appealing and I’m intrigued rather than scared by the pizza with Chinese sausage. Dairy can definitely work with Asian food. Just think of those mayora going nuts…ok, mayonnaise isn't dairy, is it?

DumplingsDeann got two orders of two different types of dumpling, which I thought was odd considering the numerous choices on the menu, but whatever. Everyone’s entitled their own eating ideas and I try not to impose my food beliefs on others (though I did have to pipe up with a resounding “no way” when she espoused the charms of nearby My Moon).

I noticed a friend of a friend at the bar and being full of the holiday spirit (as well as spirits of another nature) I said hi because he’s a food/music person with taste I generally agree with. I swear I’m not persnickety but I don’t always see eye to eye with others. Plus, I called him a foodie or some such horror earlier this year in a post about Belle and Sebastian of all things, and I can’t be known as a meanie even though I am 70% the time. CheesewontonsI’m just wary of food-obsessed folks because they’re usually annoying and/or humorless. I’m not naming names but it’s fair to say I find few food blogs entertaining (this isn’t a food blog, so there).

I don’t know why I’ve never been to Snacky before. Ok, I know why, because I rarely eat in Williamsburg (I just looked it up and my last meal in the nabe, yeah nabe, was at bizarro Lazy Catfish way back in April. They did have crab rangoon, I must add) but it’s as cute and breezy as its name implies.

Snacky * 187 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY

Burmese Cafe

*Dang, the word on the internets is that Burmese Cafe is over. I too, saw the gates down last weekend and worried. (11/16/07)

I can’t even begin to explain how misguided it was to try and peacefully shop at the Elmhurst Target the Friday before Christmas (and this was intended as an antidote to the always troubling Atlantic Center Target that had been attempted earlier in the day) so I’ll refrain. But at least I was able to squeeze in a new Roosevelt Avenue Asian restaurant into the migraine-inducing trip. Burmese Café appears to have taken over the corner spot that used to be Karihan ni Tata Bino.

My only experience with Burmese food includes two non-recent visits to Rangoon in Philadelphia and a late '90s undocumented delivery meal from Village Mingala in the East Village (strangely, Village Mingala is quite possibly the first restaurant I ever set foot in in NYC. I first visited in '94 and accompanied a friend to pick up a take out order for the artsy bisexual Indonesian girl who was letting us stay at her 11th St. and Ave. C walk-up). I recall things like night market noodles and thousand layer bread, rich dishes that hinted at India. Burmese Café is nothing like that.

Part of me doesn’t want to admit that their food wasn’t immediately accessible. Some cuisines jump out while others don’t. I find Thai and Sichuan food grabs my attention without even trying, and not just because of the spice. Also heat-driven and good-oily, Malaysian and Indonesian fall right behind. Burmese feels like it’s in the realm of Laotian or Cambodian, lesser known and kind of raw and sharp. Though I don’t think Myanmar shares much in common with the Philippines, the vinegary, bitter, pungent qualities I tasted in the dishes we ordered felt vaguely Filipino. The style could grow on me but I have to get to know it better.

Lephet Thoke

The tea leaf salad truly is a strange combo, hot, sour and crunchy all at once. It seemed to contain sesame seeds, sliced green chiles, bean sprouts, dried broad beans, peanuts, dried shrimp and tomato slices. James, who’s fairly open-minded food-wise said, “I hope it tastes better than it looks.” It did look a little swampy. Let’s just say I had plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day (it's better fresh because after a few hours the crunch turns to mush). I was thinking the leaves would be dry like you’d find in a teabag but they’re wet and fermented, very much like grape leaves for dolmas. I don't recall it being described as using green tea leaves, but that's the case.

Duck Soup

I thought it was strange that James ate this without complaint since it was way funkier than the tea leaf salad. It contained bitter greens that might’ve been mustard, odd bits of poultry and blobs of liver (which only I ate) in a sour broth. James compared this to something his mom might cook, unconsciously delving into a heavily boiled, vinegary Filipino repertoire that his Midwestern father isn’t fond of.

Beef Curry

Ok, I “got” this dish. It’s basically Burmese rendang, stiff chunks of meat stewed with coconut milk and aromatics until most of the liquid is absorbed. Like I was saying above about Malay-Indonesian food being good-oily. I’m not scared of the shiny orange pool that coats the bowl.

Burmese Café * 71-34 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

Who Rules the Roost?

Christmas has come and gone and I’ve barely thought twice about it. What’s to say? I’m still not resigned to the fact that I have to work this week (and New Year’s Day but not until 4:30pm but it still kind of sucks. Perhaps knowing that I’ll have to function on Jan. 1 will prevent me from throwing up as I did Dec. 31, 2005, which set a miserable tone for all of 2006). I never realized how spoiled I was the past couple of years, getting the week off paid (both in corporate and academic jobs).

Rooster In case anyone was wondering what I got for Christmas, my mom gave some cash, a Starbucks card and assorted doodads. My sister got me a subscription to Olive magazine (which came with a free book, but it wasn’t Gastropub Classics, as is listed on their site but something about regional British food) and a handful of English Kit Kats because they’re tastier than ours (but still not as wild as Japanese pumpkin). James is out of town as usual since he’s the universe’s biggest mama’s boy, but he left presents that included a Fossil watch I said I liked in Las Vegas that I’m surprised he remembered, a Jeopardy-related book I’d never heard of and a laptop computer, which surprised the heck out of me because I hadn’t asked for one though I certainly appreciate it.

I’ve never owned a new computer in my life, and yet I’ve always managed just fine. I bought a used Mac maybe ten years ago, which I brought with me to NYC. The four or so PCs I’ve used since then have been obsolete machines “borrowed” from James’s places of employment. It’s funny that I was given an HP Pavilion because last week I read an older bit on Slate about the problems marketing these because they’re lacking a unique identity and “aren’t on anyone’s shopping list.” Apparently, they are in my household. I’d take anything as long as it wasn’t represented by that off-putting Mac guy.

I have it easier in the reciprocity department because I don’t have to come up with presents until the week after Christmas (and I don’t spend as much). I really hate shopping so I thought I was being wise ordering things online. I think the marked down (hmm….these were $88 when I bought them on Monday—I guess I got a bargain) Ted Baker pants will arrive tomorrow, I bought some artisanal sage honey at Stinky Bklyn (I don’t know why they spell it like that) in the neighborhood (I know, I get a computer and I give a jar of honey, but I’m being practical. Before he went out of town, James mentioned being out of honey. I don’t even care much for the stuff so I’m being self-less. Then I somehow ended up spending $37 on Serrano ham and two cheeses, which I’ve already eaten most of) then I ordered this shaving cream online because it sounded enticing and I was specifically asked for shaving cream.

Image_lemongrass01 It showed up yesterday and only after seeing the product face to face did I realize that it’s for women. Sure, the font, style and packaging seem a little feminine but it’s the ‘00s and men can embrace their softer side. Nowhere in the ad copy does it say that’s for women. The picture online blurs right where the word women appears in the phrase, “shaving cream for women.” I read initially read about this brand on New York’s website and they imply that it was a men’s product that “is a cult favorite with women.” What the fuck? No one says it’s FOR women until you see the jar in person.

It’s not like James isn’t used to be given things geared towards the other gender (I’m convinced his mother thinks he’s either a middle-aged women or gay with bad taste. She’s always buying him crap from Marshall’s like floral soaps, cookie jars made to look like French cafes, rugs adorned with country-style roosters [seriously, we have one of these sitting in front of our fridge this very second. My cat Sukey loves to "taco" area rugs. Taco-ing involves taking a crap on a mini carpet and then folding over the side so it looks like a tortilla shell filled with ground beef. I've been trying to get her to taco this rooster rug but she only seems to shit on items I cherish] pot holders shaped like tea pots, aprons and towels in patterns and colors no man would ever pick for himself. I’m scared to death to see what straight-to-the-trash-if-it-were-up-to-me shit he shows up with from his mom later this week) but I don’t want to push him over the edge. I guess I just bought myself a present. It’s nice stuff and they included lots of samples, but still. Now I have to physically purchase a new emergency gift on short notice.

Lotus of Siam

I was kind of nervous to try Lotus of Siam because it would really suck if my favorite American Thai food turned out to be on the other side of the country. LOS (my brain keeps wanting to transpose the acronym into SOL, so I’ll spell it out from here on) seems to inspire the same fanaticism as Woodside’s Sripraphai. In my mind there’s a battle between these iconic right coast/left coast arbiters of authenticity (dueling mythical giants that are less Godzilla/Mothra and maybe more like one of these scary indigestion-wracked Pepto-Bismol behemoths. Diarrhea’s become so mainstream lately). I’m not sure if it’s a case of loving what you know, but after two Lotus of Siam meals I’m still a Sripraphai advocate.

Lotus_of_siam_facade The two restaurants have different styles so it’s not accurate to compare them directly (even though I will). Lotus of Siam excels with Issan style dishes, which are more sour and hot and less reliant on coconut milk. Salads, larbs, whole fish, grilled items are popular and raw herbs and prevalent. I think my own palate swings more towards the sweet and hot ends of the spectrum, so sour, bitter flavors don’t grab me as hard. Bangkok, and Central Thai food is said to be sweeter and I think Sripraphai leans that direction, which could be why I favor them.

Lotus of Siam has all of the makings of a cult hit. Offbeat locale: West Coast yet neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco; Hidden in plain sight: a non-street facing rundown strip mall and Substance over style:  dowdy décor that favors country kitchen flair over cliché Asian garishness.

Lotus_of_siam_interior My original plan was to stop by for lunch on our way to the hotel from the airport and then return the following evening for a proper dinner, done the way you’re supposed to with wine (definitely a distinction from Sripraphai) and recommendations from the staff. But we got waylaid by Joël Robuchon and instead ended up doing another lunch on our way out of town, back to the airport.

If you go at lunchtime, you’ll do best by avoiding what 90% of the diners are doing and forgo the buffet. I know, I know, it’s Vegas, but this is definitely a quality over quantity moment (I’m not sure what the buffet cost but I could see the appeal since a la carte was considerably pricier. Many items were $3+ more than their Sripraphai counterparts). I never actually got up and scrutinized the steam tables but it looked like everyone had plates filled with beige and brown items: spring rolls, fried rice and noodles, a kind of generic greatest hits. Instead, ask for a menu.

Friday, I went partly on internet research and partly on what sounded different from what I could already get in NYC. Monday, we did more comparison eating. They ask how spicy you’d like things on a scale of one to ten. James and I both thought that eight sounded reasonable and it was really right on. Definitely hot, searing in a few mouthfuls, but not painfully so. (I really don’t know who these people are on the internets talking about a four making them cry. Perhaps my taste buds have been irreparably cigarette damaged?)

But Monday, we asked for an eight again and what we were served was a five at best. The overall effect was completely different. The catfish salad was practically as tame as something you’d get in a Cobble Hill, lychee martini DJ joint. It’s a good thing we went twice because if we’d only had our second meal to make an assessment. it would’ve been a poor impression. I still can’t help but think that there was dinner brilliance that we didn’t tap into.

First up are items from visit one:

Nam Kao Tod

I had to try the sour sausage because it seemed like their answer to Sri’s crispy watercress salad. An unusually textured, mixed-up dish that doesn’t seem to show up at other restaurants. The chile-dusted rice krispies were almost avant-garde. I imagined browned slices of grilled sausage like this, but it was more like chopped ham. Tangy and crunchy, this was a good snack.

Northern Larb

I didn’t try their standard larb but the northern style is described as “completely different from the Issan larb in taste, this northern style larb (ground pork) is cooked with Northern Thai spices and no lime juice” This was very spicy and pungent with the addition of the herb on the side. I like larbs but in some ways, they almost feel too healthy. They’re a good counterbalance for oilier, creamier dishes. James was convinced there was five-spice powder in this, which I refused to believe but I got what he was saying, there was something strangely Chinese-y about the flavor. Maybe ginger? What were those mystery “Northern Thai spices,” anyway?

You (well, I) rarely see rau ram in NYC (I needed “laksa leaf,” as it’s also called, for Malaysian cooking and came up empty handed, though I’ve seen it once or twice at Hong Kong Supermarket in NJ. I checked to see if they had in Vegas’s Chinatown [yes, there’s a Chinatown] and they did) so I was surprised that to see it on our plate. Rau ram is the Vietnamese term for it, though. I think our waiter called it phak phai.

Drunken Noodles Seafood

As you can see in the photo, there’s more stuff than noodle. Stuff is good but the noodles got kind of matted into a wad buried beneath the shrimp, squid, mussels and fake crab. Surimi, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t bother me but I could see it putting more discerning folks off. I think I actually prefer simpler drunken noodles, though there was no complaining about toning down the heat. These were pleasingly tongue-scorching.

Visit number two:

Koong Sarong
(prawn in a blanket)

These seemed bizarrely un-Thai to me but wonderful in a rumaki, crab Rangoon way. Retro, yet so now. It’s a bacon wrapped prawn deep-fried in a wonton skin and served with sweet and sour sauce. There was no way to justify splitting six of these between the two of us for breakfast but we couldn’t bear to leave any behind. Actually, we did try leaving one on the plate but our waiter pointed it out to us and we were forced to gorge.

Kra Phao Moo Krob

Crispy pork with basil and chiles is one of my most favorite, decadent treats. I can’t go to Sripraphai and not order it. If it’s on any Thai menu, it can’t be ignored. I think you’re probably just supposed to eat a few pieces but it’s totally a main dish in my world. Lotus of Siam’s version was pretty darn good (how can fried pork belly be bad?) but the meat was fattier and crispier like lechon or chicharon and saucier than Sri’s. What I love about Sri’s is the sweet component. I’ve made a similar version using David Thompson’s Thai Food that calls for palm sugar and star anise. This version was irresistible but more straightforward.

Crispy Catfish Pieces Salad

I love the contrast of fresh, cool herbs and aromatics combined with crispy, warm and nutty and moistened with a perfect blend of lime, fish sauce, chiles and sugar. We call the sauce that ends up pooling at the bottom of the plate, “goop.” Sripraphai makes the best goop ever, we try to get every last bit at the end when all that’s left is cilantro bits and stray red onion slivers. This papaya salad, while flavorful, not only lacked sufficient goop, it was nearly bereft of heat altogether. It was all lime and not much else, and most definitely not an eight. And perhaps my own aversion, the julienned slices of raw ginger were kind of startling. But I’m one for going easy on the biting additions like krachai, galangal and ginger.

Wow, a lot of that sounds persnickety and negative when that wasn’t my overall impression. Taken on its own, Lotus of Siam serves very solid food, and I’m guessing top notch for the area. I lived in Portland for the first quarter of my life and never tasted Thai food like this. I don’t think the typical American has. So, it’s unquestionably a stand out. I just don’t understand why Thai food in the U.S. can’t be like this by default.

Lotus of Siam * 953 E. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, NV