CHOW Tour: North America rss

Our favorite products, gadgets, restaurants, bars, wine, beer, and food websites and blogs.

Before and After Portsmouth, New Hampshire

I didn’t have a chance to eat in Portsmouth itself. All chowconnaissance was executed on my way in and out of town. I’ve merged both legs into this one gigunda report.

Riding Toward Portsmouth …

I passed the worst-looking Italian bakery ever, in a soulless, antiseptic shopping strip. The following photo was taken through the windshield while driving, but it gives a general sense of the vibe:

DeFusco & Son Italian Bakery (1211 Osgood St., North Andover, Massachusetts; 978-689-2055) was no more promising from the inside. This was exactly the blanded-out Italian bakery one would expect to find in the boonies near the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. But still, my chow-dar kept buzzing, so I ordered a cannoli. It turned out to be top-drawer:

I also ordered perhaps the wrongest thing one can possibly order in a suburban Italian bakery: a cup of soup. Corn chowder.

Listen to the details in this podcast—MP3—and a postscript podcast—MP3—about this stellar chowder.

As bad as the great Italian bakery looked from the outside, David’s Famous Chicken Pies (2 South Pleasant St., Bradford, Massachusetts; 978-521-7070), actually a merely-pretty-good place, looked fantastic. Appearances deceive!

Would you, could you resist a storefront like this?

I’ve damned via faint praise, which is unfair. Maybe this wasn’t the poultry-pie paradise I’d hoped for as I screeched my car to a halt in a hail of gravel on the shoulder in front of David’s Famous Chicken Pies, panting and sweating and sending flocks of birds scrambling into the air. But their pies are good … and honest.

Hear my brief pie-chomping analysis in this podcast: MP3.

Azzi’s Bakery (87 Newbury St., Lawrence, Massachusetts; 978- 686-9043), as you can see in the photo below, advertises “Exquisite Lebanese Food.” Who wouldn’t want exquisite Lebanese food? Well, I’m writing this a couple of days later, and can’t remember a thing about the place or anything I may have eaten there. Either they were closed … or they ain’t all that exquisite.

Riding Out of Portsmouth …

First, we need to talk for a minute about the eerie New Hampshire State liquor stores. Listen to this podcast: MP3.

Here’s their price list (prices are uniform in all NH liquor stores). They do carry some interesting items at bargain prices, if you’re willing to brave the creepiness!

But after the booze comes breakfast. I liked the looks of Betty’s
Kitchen (164 Lafayette Road, Route 1, North Hampton, New Hampshire; 603-964-9870).

I didn’t catch the official name of this extravagant French toast dish:

... but it amounts to strawberry shortfrenchtoastcake. It may be French toast, but it is made with a strawberry shortcake mindset. The egginess of the bread is what strawberry shortcake always needed— though the resultant richness nearly left me giddy. Oh, and adding on all those wild blueberries and bananas just … Words fail.

These are real good peels on greasy, chunky home fries from waxy Maine potatoes. Click the photo and just stare at the large view for hours. I know I just did.

I’m not sure life gets much better than these two dishes. Sole downside (which I luckily managed to avoid via careful questioning of the staff): Though the breakfast menu makes frequent reference to hash in various contexts, it’s not homemade hash.

OK, time for some failure!

I can’t say that Li Yuen Chinese Cooking School and Carry Out (112C Lafayette Road, North Hampton, New Hampshire; 603-964-8181) looked good, exactly. But who could resist checking it out?

This flier explains their deal:

It’s a clever concept that has gotten them plenty of press coverage:

I ordered Szechuan twice-cooked pork, prepared by a young fellow who looked like a recent graduate of the school. He needs to go back for extra tutoring.

Each ingredient was painstakingly cut into precisely even trapezoids, and the result was unarguably colorful. But it was weirdly sweet, and the pork was neither twice-fried nor Szechuan—just some pork tossed around in a wok.

I loved this sign just down the street:

Copywriting gets less thoughtful as one approaches the Maine border.

Bob’s Clam Hut (315 US Route 1, Kittery, Maine; 207-439-4919) is famous, but my clams were totally soggy and greasy. A disaster. The clams themselves were of good quality.

Look at this awesome “pizza bread” from Garofoli’s Fine Foods (180 Lafayette Road, North Hampton, 603-964-7500):

After driving a few miles happily munching pizza bread slightly more addictive than crack cocaine, I happened to flip it over and noticed the wonderfully burnty crispy troughs and bumps. I pulled over to capture its geography for your vicarious enjoyment:

They also make dynamite chocolate chip cookies, which disappeared too quickly to be photographed.

Lucia’s Kitchen (1151 US Route 1, York, Maine; 207-363-5557) is one of those clichéd gourmet/catering stores, which are invariably overpriced and underwhelming. Their motto, “What’s life without food?” doesn’t offer much reassurance, and the $4.65 price tag was no bargain for this smidge of food—called something silly like “chicken mole pastitsio.”

But I must admit, this place makes pretty good healthy foodie/precious Mexican-tinged stuff. The mole sauce was quite good, albeit with spicing tamed way down. Their chocolate chip cookies are nice. And they sell Madhouse Munchies potato chips and corn chips.

But $4.95/pound for cooked white rice?? In Maine???

+ + +

For tips on navigating from report to report (and a concise index of
all reports), see the
on our CHOW Tour message board.

One of America’s Most Fascinating Undiscovered Restaurants

Lowell, Massachusetts

I first visited Lowell years ago, hunting for Cambodian and Laotian food. I’d heard that many Southeast Asian immigrants lived in the area, but drove for hours without finding a single restaurant. Finally, in desperation, I walked into City Hall and queried the restaurant inspector, who kindly hipped me to Southeast Asian Restaurant (343 Market Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-452-3182).

Despite Lowell’s burgeoning Southeast Asian community, this remains one of only a tiny handful of local outposts cooking that food. But it’s quite a place … and has one of the most interesting stories of any restaurant I know.

Owner Joe Antonaccio is a Vietnam vet who hung around after the war, married a local woman, learned the language and culture, and deeply immersed himself in the food. He traveled around, learning Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines. When his family moved back to the States, he and his wife, Chanthip, opened a little restaurant with a great big menu crammed with impossibly obscure dishes described with the depth and precision of a museum program. Antonaccio is such a stickler that he often has to train new kitchen staff—even new immigrants—in their own cuisines because too much Western influence has crept into their cooking!

For a sample of Antonaccio’s enthusiasm and commitment (and also to learn a lot), read his notes on Southeast Asian food culture.

My first meals at Southeast Asian Restaurant were revelations. I plunged joyfully into the enormous menu, sampling multiple iterations of larb (one a bit more Thai-style, another a bit more Laotian). Spicy meant spicy. I knew that I’d found one of the most fascinating restaurants in America, but I couldn’t persuade any of the food magazines to let me write a profile.

The food press’s neglect seemed to be mirrored by foodie neglect. A lunch buffet was added—always a bad sign. In their downtown location, they had to cater to the mainstream lunch crowd to stay afloat. The epic menu gradually shrank, and it became harder and harder to be served genuinely spicy food (the kitchen’s assumptions about gringo preferences were likely conditioned by the spice-averse buffet crowd). How sad that such a unique and wonderful operation couldn’t pull in a critical mass of hip customers. Blasé reaction to greatness discourages prospective restaurateurs from knocking themselves out. It makes more sense to just open an Olive Garden franchise.

Though diminished, Southeast Asian Restaurant is still an invigoratingly good place to eat. This time I had “Phat Prik Gra Pao—T-3 [the code indicates that the dish is Thai and level 3 spicy]: Chopped chicken breast and thigh meat quick fried with chili pepper, Thai basil, onion, and a special sauce combine to make this dish qualify as a bowl of fire (and brimstone for our religious friends). Served with rice”:

... and “Nuer Dat Deo/Beef Jerky—L-0 [Laotian and level 0 spicy]: Dried beef, similar to beef jerky. Typically eaten with Lao Dum Som and sticky rice”:

For dessert, charming “Laotian Soy Bean Custard Cake”:

The phat prik gra pao was, alas, only medium spicy in spite of my supplications. But it was luscious. And the beef jerky (with intense dipping sauce) may not have matched the textural wonderment of the version at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, but it was easily worth a special trip from Boston. Despite the spice decrescendo and shrinking menu, Southeast Asian Restaurant is still great if you catch it on a good night—like tonight. And a great bargain: The total cost of sufficient food for two or three is a mere $20.

Download the current menu in Word format. The restaurant also offers, with 24 hours’ notice, meticulously authentic banquets and specialty dinners. This page links to full descriptions, including scholarly explanations of the pertinent traditions.

Here’s an interesting Lowell Cambodian Neighborhood Walking Tour.

+ + +

Lowell’s got a lot more than Southeast Asian going on. For example, Bany Restaurant (681 Merrimack Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-458-6384), a real bare-bones joint, makes super-delicious, super-authentic Puerto Rican soul food. The roast chicken can only be described as beautiful—in both appearance and flavor. It comes with good moist rice and very nice plantains.

To roughly estimate food quality from my photos, observe how much is eaten. You’ll notice that I ravaged almost the entire half-chicken before remembering to whip out my camera. That’s a good sign.

They make good cuchifritos, too, like papa rellena (fried potato stuffed with ground meat). The counter guy seems gruff, but he has a heart of gold (he unsmilingly threw an extra papa rellena into my bag; it’s that sort of place).

+ + +

There’s at least a tinge of Brazilian and Portuguese immigration in most parts of Massachusetts (most recently, the Berkshires). In Lowell, I found a pretty good Portuguese bakery called, logically enough, Lowell Portuguese Bakery (930 Gorham Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-458-3111).

They make swell pasteis de nata (similar to Chinese egg custard pastries—which, actually, were brought to China by Portuguese).

Nearby is a cute little Brazilian place called Oasis Grill (910 Gorham Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-452-0833), which I didn’t have a chance to try (they make feijoada, the Brazilian equivalent of cassoulet, on Wednesdays and Saturdays).

The place I’m most sorry I missed is Cavaleiro’s Restaurant (573 Lawrence Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-458-2800), an upscale Portuguese place that looked primo to my chow-dar. They keep difficult hours, and I never managed to catch them open.

There’s a cool bohemian area right in the middle of downtown. It’s all bricky industrial-chic, great to walk through at night with lots of little bars and eateries to stumble across. I’m a fan of the Revolving Museum, which sponsors all sorts of high jinks.

Here are some of the wacky installations currently on display in the Garden of Big Heads and Earthly Delights just outside the museum:

Next to the Garden, extraordinarily nice people serve extraordinarily tasteless vegetarian fare at Life Alive Urban Oasis and Organic Café (194 Middle Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; 978-453-1311). You’d need to be really nice to make me want to return for bad food, but the folks here are actually that nice.

+ + +

Note: I have now worked through one large box of Shout stain-removing wipes.

Seafood Saturation

The plan is this: to zip frenetically around Rhode Island’s jagged shoreline, trying bites of seafood here and there, while attempting to remain relaxed and seashoreish about it all. This is the gorgeous peak of Indian summer, and I aim to bask in balminess throughout my intense chowconnaissance.

I’ve found the perfect place to stay: Middletown. It truly is the Middle Town, 15 to 20 minutes from just about everywhere. What’s more, Middletown itself has some good places. Finally, it’s quite close to Newport, though outside the bubble of expense and traffic.

Newport has little in common with the rest of the state. Rhode island is the New Jersey of New England: working class, “ethnic,” just a bit scruffy but with lots of raw beauty. People aren’t just unpretentious, they’re anti-pretentious. And amid this blue-collar stew is the non sequitur of old-money Newport. I hear there are some good things to eat in Newport, and I like to plunge into the widest range of scenes—especially non sequiturs! But I was so wrapped up in shacks that I ran out of time and missed hitting Newport proper.

+ + +

The day started in unexpected triumph. Rather than spoil the tale, I’ll let you listen to the podcast I recorded just after the Chowhounding Gods smiled upon me: MP3.

My recorder’s battery died in mid-podcast, but here’s the rest of the story. This diner, which I’d found ten years earlier and dreamed of ever since (but was never able to identify), suddenly appeared. Ecstatic, I pulled off the road, recorded the above jubilant podcast, and went into Bishop’s 4th Street Diner (184 Admiral Kalbfus Road, Newport, Rhode Island; 401-847-2069).

It is, as I’d recalled, on a traffic circle:

And it’s still a beautifully preserved old-fashioned railroad-car-style diner.

The diner is under new ownership, and I was crestfallen to spot a young kid in the kitchen who looked like he’d rather be out skateboarding. I couldn’t have been more wrong. His cooking was fabulous (more on that in a minute), and this chef’s a formidable dude. He walked by as I was browsing New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, and at a mere glance—without slowing down!—spewed comments about food quality at each place mentioned on the page. He doesn’t miss a thing, and is totally passionate about his job, boasting that “some people say we do better seafood than the shacks.” I didn’t order seafood there, but I completely believe it’s true.

Chowhounding requires constant theorizing. But theories require presumptions. And once again, I’d been shown the pitfalls of stereotyping based on preconceptions. Preconceptions are inevitable, I suppose, but the trick is to be flexible enough to abandon them on a dime.

But about the food. Yikes, have a look at this amazing sandwich of roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. It works! So delicious. I’ll never forget it:

This strawberry shortcake may have been less refined than the masterpiece served me at Canyon Grill, back in Rising Fawn, Georgia (see report #25), but it contained no less love or intrinsic deliciousness:

I missed johnnycakes by a mere 15 minutes. God …

+ + +

Flo’s Clam Shack (4 Wave Avenue, Middletown, Rhode Island; 401-847-8141) is so archetypally clam-shacky that it’s hard to believe this place is real, and not just some cynical evocation of genre.

But let’s talk about clam cakes.

Clam cakes aren’t what you think. If the name makes you visualize crab cakes with clam instead of crab, you’re way off. These are clearly Italian—like zeppole (fried dough) studded with vestigial bits of clam. They are crunchy/fluffy delicious (when served straight from the fryer, which is the only way to have them), and they live to be dunked in Rhode Island clam chowder (a grayish brine rife with diced potatoes that lives to have clam cakes dunked in it). Flo’s is excellent for both clam cakes and chowder. And, as you can see in the photos, it’s a fun place to hang out in.

+ + +

Champlin’s Seafood (256 Great Island Road, Narragansett, Rhode Island; 401-783-3152) is also picturesque. It’s a tourist magnet, hence the queue. They make excellent fried seafood and chowder. I wasn’t reduced to a sobbing wreck or anything, but every bite tasted right on the money.

If you ever go here, pass on the ice cream stand situated beneath the restaurant. I had one lick and almost choked on an industrial-tasting chemical flavor. It was obviously an error, but still …

+ + +

Chopmist Charlie’s (40 Narragansett Avenue, Jamestown, Rhode Island; 401-423-1020) is a homey sit-down restaurant run by a gregarious dude named Charlie. I got the broiled-seafood platter (for $22.95), which consisted of fresh scrod and sea scallops broiled with buttercrumb topping, along with a stuffie and two baked stuffed shrimp. The vegetables were actually the best thing. Stuffies (bread stuffing mixed with chopped clams and baked in clam shells) were fun, and scallops were just OK. I didn’t love the apple crisp. This is a cool, convivial place, with the sort of bar where strangers talk. Their luxurious lobster bisque is real good.

+ + +

Gray’s Ice Cream (16 East Road, Tiverton, Rhode Island; 401-624-4500) is killer great. Put it on your short list if you’re ever around here. How many ice cream stands afford an opportunity to meet your cows?

Gray’s butterscotch ice cream is sensational, one of the best butterscotch items I’ve ever had. It’s not a precious butterscotch hard-candy flavor; it’s more rich butterscotch-puddingish flavor. It’s a must-slurp … though only if you can tear yourself away from the ginger ice cream. It’s full-flavored in its ginger flavor and reasonably potent, but doesn’t quite crest into over-the-top heat.

Coffee cabinet (same as a shake or frappe) is also precision balanced. Not too sweet, not too ice creamy, not too milky, not too thin, not too thick … just dead dead-on. Wow.

+ + +

Hey, you wanna see some bad food?

Looks good, no? But no. It’s unredeemably empty soulless slop (from Sakonnet Fish Co., 657 Park Avenue, Portsmouth, Rhode Island; 401-683-1180).

I now mistrust my camera. If it makes bad food look good, then I can no longer rely on it to convey truth about things I love. Why is my camera, after many trustworthy weeks, suddenly lying? Is this covered by warranty?

“Dear Casio: My Casio Exilim EX-Z750 has turned dishonest …”

Time Out for Pork

Fall River, Massachusetts, and Tiverton, Rhode Island

Soares Restaurant (190 Alden Street, Fall River, Massachusetts; 508-324-0800), a.k.a. Benevides Restaurant, was a nice find for real Portuguese home cooking, as opposed to the Portuguese-American fare found around New Bedford, Massachusetts. Listen to a podcast in which I explain how I found the place: MP3.

The cruddy-looking building and location on a bleak residential block just add to the charm, as do the hapless but kindhearted waitress and the taciturn old Portuguese dudes glumly downing their Budweisers. To someone who’s never been to Portugal and sopped up that beautiful, melancholy culture, such an experience might seem depressive. But I’ve spent a lot of time there, and have fallen deeply in love with the country. So I sighed with contentment throughout the meal.

As I mention in the podcast, this porco alentejana isn’t authentically Alentejan—the application of coriander is way too cursory. But it is an authentically Portuguese mis-rendition of porco alentejana—the sort of thing a chef from Porto or Coimbra might whip up. The strewing of lemon, olives, and clams is unmistakably the work of a Portuguese-born chef. His kids won’t be able to do this. Nor will they have the courage to cut the pork aiming not for tenderness but for chewiness. That’s a dying art.

Portuguese pork—the way they butcher it, the way they cut it, the way they cook it and season it, the way they feel it—is an evocative last vestige of how humanity conceived of pig for the previous umpteen millennia. Niman Ranch my ass.

+ + +

I stumbled into Cross I’d Cow Ice Cream (532 Main Road, Tiverton, Rhode Island; 401-624-1555) in a shopping strip. Chowconnaissance means dropping any attempt to control the sequence of savory and salty. Dessert is had as dessert appears.

Is it just me, or is their flavor menu really hard to choose from?

The counter girl decoded mysterious flavors like Moose Tracks, Cowagunga Crunch, and White Thunder for me, but I failed to diligently write it all down. Forgive me; I’m starting to get a bit punchy (hopefully the Rhode Island seaside air will do me some good).

I ordered Apple Crisp ice cream, and it was charming and honest in a non-gourmet, relatively low-butterfattish way.

+ + +

On my way down to the shore, I passed over a bridge that spanned an inlet. I noticed in my rearview mirror a bunch of old houses and fishing piers quietly clustered on the opposite bank. So I swung a U-turn and tried to get down to the bank, hoping to find supernal seafood.

It took lots of winding and wending, but I eventually navigated to the enclave just as a spectacular sunset appeared across the water. If I timed this right, I’d be munching clams in the perfect setting. But there were no clams to be found. Lots of salty private homes, shuttered boat rental offices, and inexplicable storage facilities, but nary a bar or a clam shack. Determined to score before the sunset died, I sped along the shoreline, finding only a coffee bar with a single plastic table affording a partial view of the water. But the owner was closing up.

I asked her to recommend a restaurant, and she suggested I drive a few more miles along the shore to Evelyn’s Drive-In (2335 Main Road, Tiverton, Rhode Island; 401-624-3100), good for clams. I blurred over to Evelyn’s, which has a waterside deck out back, lunged for the sole empty table, dropped my equipment and guidebooks, and tried to soak in as much sunset as I could.

The temperature plunged and I was dressed lightly. All the other patrons were sensible enough to withdraw inside the restaurant, but I was determined to see this through, and tore into a combo plate of fried whole belly clams and scallops. Very delicate frying nicely accentuated the flavor of the seafood. The clams had a good funky, earthy flavor. Scallops were impeccably fresh and sweet. Even slightly overcooked, they still spoke to me.

Smug about my find (which, after all, I had worked hard for), I checked Elizabeth Bougerol’s book New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks. Elizabeth, damn her, had found this place and devoted two full pages to it. I sure hope this isn’t a pattern.

Brazilian Buffetification (but Great Bacon)

Framingham, Massachusetts

Back to the center of the universe, Magic Oven. I need to explain that Brazilian bakeries don’t just make sweets. They do plenty of pastries, cakes, breads, and puddings, but also salgadinhos (little salty hors d’oeuvres), sandwiches, and juices.

First, here are some dramatic photos of a pao de queijo (cheese roll), as promised in report 42:

It’s important to arrive early, when things are fresh. I wish you could taste this crisp risole de frango, filled with gobs of cheesy creamy chickeny goodness:

Nice discovery: a bright yellow pudding called mingau de milho verde, made from green corn. It’s irresistible, but that’s true of most Brazilian puddings.

+ + +

I had such a great experience in the Cheese Shop of Wellesley (61 Central Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts; 781-237-0916), a.k.a. Wasik’s Cheese Shop, a short ride from Framingham. Stupendous selection; true-believing, generous-taste-offering, raucously funny counter people; and lots of cool non-cheese food items.

They gave me, as a virgin customer, a jar of their luxurious, cheese-friendly Yankee Chutney, which contains sugar, peaches, vinegar, raisins, red pepper, apples, lemon juice, spices, onion, and salt.

+ + +

I had to return to Sichuan Gourmet (see last report) and try more things. This time I brought along a friend who’s a native Mandarin speaker. Hear his patient but futile attempts to improve my pronunciation as we await our dishes: MP3.

Here’s what we had:

Chengdu spicy dumpling.

Steamed bacon with fresh garlic spicy sauce.

Bacon detail.

Cold spicy diced rabbit (on the bone).

Gangou dry fish fillet (a special).

The dumpling was primo, and the bacon was beyond primo, showing exquisite knifework.

The deal here is that there is one master chef (also co-owner, I believe) dividing his time between two locations (the other one is at (502 Boston Road, Billerica, Massachusetts; 978-670-7339). His touch is unmistakable—he did the knifework on the bacon, he preps the Szechuan made-ahead cold items, like beef tendon. His touch is also palpable in simple items produced according to formula, like dan dan noodles. But if you order dishes made in the moment with lots of on-the-fly decision making, you are at the mercy of a busy kitchen full of chefs of varying quality. The rabbit was a bit dull, and the fish fillet was downright icky. I ordered the cumin lamb a second time tonight, and it lacked je ne sais quoi.

So the thing to do is stick with cold Szechuan items and simpler prepared stuff, and work to develop enough of a relationship with the restaurant that you can find out where the top chef is at any given time … and try to persuade him to cook your meal. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but possible. It’s the work one does to get the best from any good Chinese restaurant, where each order can be like a round of wok roulette.

I’ve looked up the place on Chowhound, and see that opinions vary wildly. It’s clearly a result of chef roulette (plus some folks who are unaccustomed to the wildly oily/spicy nature of real Szechuan food).

+ + +

Meanwhile, nothing but disappointment on the Brazil front. In previous visits, just about every Brazilian eatery in town looked, smelled, and/or tasted really good. This time, it’s all changed. There are no more little homey places. Everything’s turning to shiny buffets. Which, come to think of it, is a progression I’ve noticed before in Brazilian immigrant communities. Talented, caring chefs struggle to make a living putting out quality, but the average Brazilian immigrant seems most interested in filling up cheaply. Sadly, this seems the case in Framingham, which is all of a sudden rife with buffets churning out flairless food.

I kept asking around, walking around, driving around, trying to uncover a holdout or two. But really, this is all it’s about now: a bunch of very similar buffets. Typical was the last one I hit, Casa Brasil:

As usual with buffets, eating here was a highly impersonal experience, with diners moping slowly from tray to tray, drab worker bees replenishing, and a gruff counterman taking the money. There’s little warmth, and the Brazilians (both customers and workers) seem withered like old hothouse flowers. Disconnected from their beautiful home, they file, zombielike, through plastic buffets, which are quite busy three meals per day.

Preparing to leave town, I rail against the downturn in Brazilian food quality in this podcast: MP3.

Time Machine Steakhouse and Killer Szechuan

Framingham, Massachusetts

While I’ve always viewed Framingham as a Brazilian wonderland, I’ve also been aware of other nationalities. Obviously there’s wonderful Dakshin, and there also used to be a very good south Indian place right in the Framingham train station. But other ethnicities have caught my peripheral vision on previous visits, so while continuing to try to hit every Brazilian café in town (I’ve already strafed a bunch but haven’t yet found greatness worth reporting), I’ve decided to challenge myself to find treasure that’s neither Brazilian nor Indian.

Shortly after making that resolution, I blundered into venerable Ken’s Steak House (95 Worcester Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-875-4455). What’s more evocative than a real old-fashioned steakhouse? Not the contemporary ilk, with self-conscious Rat Pack vibe and fancy meat-aging techniques. I mean the steakhouses you’d find in the 1960s and 1970s, with well-rounded menus and merely high, not extravagant, prices. The sort of place one took one’s wife with her beehive hairdo for an anniversary dinner, back in the days when dining out was a special occasion.

You still find such places in burgs like Framingham. Ken’s Steakhouse was clearly a big name in town once, but is reduced to huddling alongside overgrown Route 9, the sort of sprawly road that sucks the dignity from every venue along its glaring length.

Inside there’s still lots of dignity left. Dark wood, padded bar, stained glass, couples dancing, wise-cracking career waiters and bartenders, dark wood—it’s like attending a dining museum. The passage of time has revealed this, the most mainstream type of American eatery, to be as stylized and transportive as any Polynesian tiki restaurant or Sicilian red-sauce palace. I gleefully hoped to immerse in a patently ethnic dining experience, and was not disappointed.

Hear a podcast recorded in the lounge as I awaited my scallops wrapped in bacon, sipped my Shiraz, and contemplated the contrariness of choosing such a bland place in a town rife with jazzy wonderment (which itself is little known to most outsiders): MP3.

Hear a post-meal rundown (synopsis: everything was right on the money, and you can’t find this sort of cuisine so easily anymore), as I head to a full dinner (I’d just had a few bites at Ken’s) in a Szechuan restaurant I’d spotted up the block: MP3.

+ + +

Sichuan Gourmet (271 Worcester Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-626-0248) looked good, but I didn’t realize how good. This crummy photo was the best shot I could get of the place, from across the street (where I was ordering in yet another restaurant, but we’ll get to that in a minute):

All alone, and raving into a voice recorder, I faced down three plates:

Beef tendon with spicy wonder sauce.

Dan dan noodles.

Cumin lamb (a seasonal special).

The food was phenomenal. The beef tendon was floatingly light (and subtly, soulfully spiced); the lamb was oh-so-tender and dosed with tons of fragrant cumin; dan dan noodles tasted hand-pulled, were properly oily and hysterical with chili, and hit notes I’d never before experienced with dan dan noodles. And I’ve had lots of really great dan dan noodles.

Listen to my screaming, gasping podcasts:
MP3 and MP3.

I need to return to try more things. One problem with my streak is that I tend to order all the best dishes right away, so these may be the only three great dishes on the menu. But I doubt it.

Across the street I spotted a Shanghai restaurant called Uncle Cheung’s (266 Worcester Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-872-9200). Could lightning strike twice in this supposed Chinese-food desert? Likely not, but I always like to give serendipity a shot, so I ordered, takeout (as I was stuffed), Shanghai soup dumplings plus the ultimate Shanghai soul food: soybeans with minced pork and bean curd threads. Nice people, authentic menu, no pandering, more or less “correct” cooking, but just no flair at all. My delicious-o-meter flatlined.

+ + +

Earlier in the day, between the tiniest chowconnaissance bites at a zillion Brazilian holes-in-walls, I managed to do something I’d always dreamed of: I ordered one of the wacky hamburgers at Magic Oven.

The Magic Burger, for a mere $5.75, fills a small grocery bag to bursting with a burger with cheese, bacon, egg, corn, ham, chicken, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, and a blizzard of potato sticks. How does it taste? Really really good. Obviously, it’s something you need to be in the mood for. I’d suggest, as a prerequisite, two weeks starving in a cave.

What You Call Sprawl, I Call Heaven

Framingham, Massachusetts

I’ve been infatuated with Framingham, Massachusetts, for years. To Bostonians, this is a boring boonie amid undifferentiated sprawl—an area to drive past quickly on the Massachusetts Turnpike. But I love sprawl in general—the tastiest nuggets can often be found therein—and Framingham in particular, which at some point in the past few years turned shiningly Brazilian. I’ve spent only a few tantalizing hours in this town, on my way to other destinations, but have long dreamed of settling in for a few days of serious exploration. This CHOW Tour is my big chance!

My first-ever bite here, lo those many years ago, was at the Magic Oven (470 Waverly Street, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-370-8008). Like a slot-machine player hitting big with his first coin, it’s given Framingham an enduring allure for me. As always, I made a beeline to this Brazilian bakery as soon as I got into town, and ordered everything in sight:

Shish kebab.

Shish kebab (spicy, tender, fun).

Biscoito de Polvilho (progenitor of the cheese doodle).

Bolinho de mandioca (one of their best items, a fried yucca ball stuffed with oniony ground meat), quibe (same as Lebanese kibbe), and risole de frango.

Empadão de bacalau.

Yeasty, irresistible coconut bread.

I also ordered plenty of pao de queijo, the Brazilian cheese rolls made from sweet and sour yucca flour and lots of mild white cheese worked into the dough. I’ll get more tomorrow and photograph them in daylight (they’re really a breakfast item, anyway).

+ + +

Thus fortified, I revisited Dakshin (672 Waverly Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-424-1030), the only Indian Tamil restaurant I know of in North America. More specifically, it specializes in the cuisine of Chettinad, which is renowned throughout India and extremely hard to find.

We ordered heavy on the Chettinad dishes:

Vetha kuzhambu with gooseberries (made with garam masala and tamarind).

Chicken Chettinad (in spicy garlicky/gingery sauce).

Chili paneer.

Potato varval (very traditional, very oniony Chettinad dish).

Thayir rice (soupy with homemade yogurt).

Mango lassi.

Everything, as usual, was wonderful. But this is a high-difficulty-rating restaurant, requiring some palate agility to enjoy. The Chettinad stuff doesn’t taste familiarly Indian, and the cooking is unforgivingly authentic, so eating here creates the sensation of having stumbled into the holiday dinner of some family with traditions extraordinarily unlike your own. If that sounds like your sort of thing, Dakshin’s for you. Those who require hand-holding and reference points will have their doors blasted off. I’ll never forget my first dish here: garlic curry. I expected garlicky curry. What I was served was a plate of sweet, salty, bitter and sour tamarind curry sauce studded with big chunks of garlic. The garlic is the meat! I realized I’d gone far beyond vindaloo.

This place also makes north Indian dishes, a full range of south Indian dosas and such, and Indian-Chinese dishes including burnt chicken garlic fried rice—offered in addition to regular chicken fried rice (what a restaurant!).

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as severe a service melt-down as took place at Dakshin tonight. Patrons were walking out after waiting an hour for menus. By the end of the night, our check was given us by some dude who’d never worked in a restaurant before who the panicked staff had apparently deputized. Hey, it’s all part of the experience! Dues must be paid for the opportunity to eat anything as rare and prized as Chettinad food!

Note: Nearby Worcester is also full of great stuff (read a Boston Globe article on my last chowconnaissance run there, which also includes some Framingham places). But I’ve decided to focus on Framingham for now.

A Memo to My Employer

Boston, Massachusetts

To: Mike Tatum, CNET Networks
From: Jim Leff

Dear Mike,

It is with a heavy heart that I send you this.

As you know, I’ve taken quite seriously my position as Chowhound-at-Large with CNET Networks, and have done my utmost to maintain my reputation by making frequent finds and generally reinforcing my reputation as a Food Expert™. Furthermore, I’m proud to state that my expenditure of company funds over the course of this CHOW Tour has been prudent.

Today, however, I let everyone down: you, the Chowhound and CHOW brands, and the entire CNET family. I have not just eaten badly, which would be forgivable, but I allowed myself to be sucked into a bad eating experience with eyes wide open. I failed to remove myself from an eatery unbecoming of a chowhound. I ordered against intuition. I frittered away a great big wad of company money. And I kept throwing good money after bad.

For your internal corporate use, I’ve provided the following disclosures on the meal (at B&G Oysters, 550 Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts; 617-423-0550). There were witnesses, both of whom refused to sign NDAs (believe me, I tried).

Disclosure 1: The Suffocatingly Self-Conscious Bohemian Vibe

Disclosure 2: The Bread

As soon as I confronted the small, pretentious brick of bread, which seemed to not only lack flavor, but to possess a sort of negative flavor that actually draws quality OUT of the eater, I should have run like the wind. Instead, I stubbornly continued the meal.

Disclosure 3: Oyster Overconsumption

My first misappropriation of company funds was in ordering a large plate of overpriced raw oysters that seemed to brim not with oyster liquor but with salted water—a cynical brine that scorched the tongue and diluted the flavor.

And I exercised poor judgment and weak discipline in allowing myself to be persuaded by my tasting colleagues to order yet another oyster sampler plate. Make no mistake about it, Mike. I blame only myself. I am, for purposes of ordering, “The Decider,” and I decided incompetently. I deemed the funky, spoiled Pepperell Cove oysters in the first platter an aberration (the Island Creeks, Salutations, Cuttyhunks, and, especially, Marin Bays were quite good). But the second platter (of different varieties) had some off ones, too. There should not have been a second platter.

Disclosure 4: The Spicy Clam Stew

Clam stew with a cloying, annoying sauce. I should have known better than to order this here.

Disclosure 5: The New England Clam Chowder Avec Lardons

A $10 cup of cream and black pepper. No worked-in essences. No discernable clams, no oceanic brine.

Disclosure 6: The $24 Maine Lobster Roll

The meat was a bit rubbery, and the whole was bland and sweet (cole slaw was sweet, and the roll itself was sweet). French fries were soggy and tasted as if they’d sat for ages in water before frying, all spudly goodness leached out.

I should also mention that most everything here is splashed with inappropriately showy aromatic olive oil that dominates the subtle seafood flavors.

Disclosure 7: Banana Split with Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Candied Walnuts

This slop didn’t know if it wanted to be “real” or impressive or yuppie or gourmet. Just a bunch of fancy ingredients that didn’t work together at all … a mess. For nine bucks.

A decent Trimbach Riesling was way overpriced at $64.

Disclosure 8: The Bill

The bill was $190.31 for the three of us before tip. That’s $75/person (with tip) for a not-very-good lunch that left none of us satisfied.

Mike, I can only fall on my sword and assure you that if you wish to cancel the CHOW Tour at this point, I’d be completely amenable to fulfilling my employment via some light typing or steno work, peeling vegetables, parking cars, or otherwise filling in wherever my feeble talents (which sure as hell don’t include savvy dining) might contribute.



Cambodian Karaoke, Cider Doughnuts, and a Trampling by Stallions

Topsfield, Massachusetts; Revere, Massachusetts

I was invited to a Cambodian lunch at Floating Rock Restaurant (144 Shirley Ave, Revere, Massachusetts; 781-286-2554), by my friend Chris, whom I cajoled into trying a durian milkshake. For those who don’t know, durian is a hyper-stinky sulphurous fruit, but it’s nicer in milk shakes … a little:

The food was authentic but undelicious. This isn’t a crack Cambodian chef cooking his heart out, it’s just a foothold where immigrants crank out sustenance, sans flair.

At least they make the beef salad (a.k.a. “tiger tears”) with lots of toasted rice flour, which is how I like it:

French bread with beef stew was enjoyable home cooking:

Here’s the menu:

The owner was impressed by our prowess with Cambodian karaoke (which was admittedly wretched, yet also, paradoxically, kind of hard to beat, considering): MP3.

+ + +

Topsfield Fair, in Topsfield, Massachusetts, is “America’s Oldest Agricultural Fair (Established 1818).”

The cool, hyperrealistic model railroad was a nice touch:

As always, food choices were dominated by the generic festival shlock that’s dogged me for thousands of miles on this trip. But I felt a good vibe from a certain cider doughnut concession (the woman in charge radiated sincerity and the oil smelled fresh):

Sure enough, her doughnuts were wonderful. So crisp, so creamy/melting. Great doughnuts are logarithmically more delicious than pretty good doughnuts, and it’s been ages since I had truly great ones:

View, if you dare, Ron Wallace’s obscenely overgrown 1,345.5-pound pumpkin:

These cucumbers, for reasons neither you nor I nor anyone we know could ever pretend to fathom, are blue ribbon cucumbers:

I got a charge out of this cool little all-produce racetrack:

Now, about the cow …

The sign reads, “Please do not pet me … I do not play well with others!”

In my opinion, this is a woefully misunderstood cow. I spent a bunch of time with her and had no problems whatsoever.

+ + +

This is phenomenally non-food-related, but go ahead and experience the oh-so-kitsch Royal Canadian Mounted Police equestrian team at Topsfield Fair, complete with trampling (which, I admit, I amply deserved), in this video. (Note: You need to watch all the way through to catch the trampling.)

Day After Wine Tasting: Movin’ Slow

New London, New Hampshire

I was a little late checking out of Chateau Jack-and-Thelma this morning, as was George Sape. George is one of my heroes. He has far too many interests and hobbies spilling out of his overextended life as a top corporate lawyer, but he’s always ready to plunge intrepidly into yet another. The largest of his recent infatuations has been cheese. George travels around everywhere hunting for great artisanal little cheeses; has built a vast network of informants, porters, and facilitators who funnel the stuff into various caves he keeps around New York City; and prints up an annual thick, glossy compendium of cheese-tasting notes that’s the hip read for cheese lovers (I’ve been begging him to let me put the notes on Chowhound; negotiations continue).

George, who was knighted by the French government for his cheese activities, is so knowledgeable about the stuff that his entrance with a wheel under his arm is a magical happening akin to Santa Claus showing up with a big sack of presents. Best of all, George is fueled by wide-eyed enthusiasm rather than pomposity. I decided I’d make it a priority on the rest of my trip to find some amazing cheese George doesn’t know about. “That’s easy!” he booms. “Great undiscovered cheese is everywhere!”

Yep, I aim to be George when I grow up (hopefully without the lawyer part!).

Here’s George puttering around in the kitchen, communing with a wheel of something or other:

Here’s some audio of George at yesterday’s tasting, listing some of the exquisite cheeses he’d brought along, explaining terms like artisanal and farmstead, and revealing the barnyardy je ne sais quoi of French raw-milk cheeses. Check out the podcast: MP3.

Last night, George whipped up, la-di-da, the best Caesar salad I’ve ever had. It was pretty stark looking, and the anchovies were powerful, but in the mouth it was all about the romaine—considerable man-against-nature work was transparently devoted to elevating its natural goodness. I swear I could taste the chlorophyll. And the croutons, obviously from the photo, below, were just freaking unbelievable.

I believe George made this fantastic pasta too, whipped up from leftovers excavated from Jack and Thelma’s fridge.

Two chefs had been brought in this weekend: Ted Fondulas (of Hemingway’s) prepared the formal Saturday night dinner, and Andrew Gruel, of Jack’s of New London, did the less ambitious Sunday lunch. I got a kick out of Gruel’s touch and figured I’d try a bite at his restaurant on my way out of town.

I was surprised to discover that Jack’s of New London is no more than a coffee bar with soups and sandwiches. But what soups and sandwiches! Have you ever seen more bacony chowder?

And even if you’re not a wrap person (I’m not, much), you have to admit this one looks real good (fillings were consummately fresh and well balanced):