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So Where’s the Bourbon?

Frustration in Bardstown

After the dramatic balloon glow, I set out to do what I thought would be an easy thing: find a place to sip a good bourbon in Bardstown, Kentucky, the hometown of Kentucky bourbon, on the eve of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

There is one and only one likely venue in Bardstown: the historic Old Talbott Tavern. The woody, atmospheric bar was closed for a private party, but I was directed by a hostess to try their annex, a hellish noisy teen pick-up nightmare. I declined. Around Bardstown I drove, at 9 p.m., searching, like Diogenes, for an honest bar. I might as well have been in Long Island or Phoenix. There’s nowhere to drink beyond a handful of lousy generic watering holes. Where are the bourbon-loving festival attendees? WHERE’S THE FREAKIN’ BOURBON??

I stumbled into a moldering joint down a dark alley, which only served beer—probably a wise choice, given the scary clientele. The denizens directed me to a sports bar on the edge of town where the bartender—a hardened dye-job blonde in a belly shirt—muttered and mumbled her short list of bourbon holdings, bringing me my $2 shot in what appeared to be a plastic urine sample cup. Having spent years dreaming of attending this bourbon festival, I was determined to make the most of it, and remained perky and engaged amid deafening gangsta rap music and hostile gazes from plastered rednecks who’d never before seen anyone ask a bartender to list the bourbons.

That was last night. This morning, my bourbon-drinking buddy JB arrived on a red-eye flight from California. JB is a busy ice cream executive with two young kids. He’s the last person in the world you’d expect to be able to get away, but he’s managed, via months of coercion and planning, to convince wife and coworkers to allow this trip. It will take him years to pay back the favors asked and chits cashed, and all he expects is a few days relaxing in a bourbon-saturated wonderland.

After much soul-searching, I decided to give him the bad news right off the bat, figuring low expectations are always the best policy. JB’s a pretty cool dude, and he handled the news pretty well. Watch along in this video: Movie file

We spent the day chowhounding the area. First we hit Kurtz’s for excellent pie and cobbler, and weirdly latke-like cornbread (this area makes “hot water” cornbread, which appears to be little pancakes).

Believe it or not, this is cornbread!

Then we hit Tom Pig’s restaurant, mostly just because I liked the name. As with nearly every other restaurant in Kentucky, service is “all you can eat.” In Kentucky restaurants, it’s generally not possible to eat less than all one can eat. Unfortunately, JB couldn’t eat more than a bite of his roast beef sandwich in catastrophic brown gravy:

Tom Pig’s fried chicken was quite satisfying, however:

On an impulse, I order grilled cheese, and it was GREAT:

One of my side missions was to check out fried chicken in gas stations, but greatness evaded me. Even this Citgo (the second Citgo station I’ve eaten at during this trip—see report #16 for the previous one), with an awesome rooster in front, disappointed:

Look at this weird bug we found on the wall:

The Old Talbott Tavern was closed for the afternoon, but we finally found a non-awful alternative for bourbon drinking: Kreso’s, an upscale Bosnian restaurant. They’re not overtly Bosnian, but that’s where the folks are from, and there are some Bosnian gestures on the menu— though, being too stuffed with fried chicken, we didn’t try anything.

Kudos to JB, who made a major, major score here, noticing (via a mirror reflection) a bottle even the staff didn’t know about. Watch a video explaining this find: Movie file

Then we attended our first official, ticketed festival event: a “cooking with bourbon” demonstration. We ate some uninspired food, hoping against hope that the chef/speaker would liven things up by setting the joint on fire with his flambé:

The drippy crowd was non-revelrous, but at least they assured us we weren’t the only ones lured into this supposed festival.

We once again missed the chance to drink at the historic, woody Old Talbott Tavern, which closed at 10 p.m.—during a bourbon festival! So we headed over to an ongoing little bourbon tasting at the Chapeze House ...

... where we paid a healthy sum of money for a trayful of micro-splashes in little plastic cups …

...from a dizzying number of bottles:

Sip along with JB and me, on a languorous summer night in small-town Kentucky, via this podcast: MP3

It was a good learning experience, and we found a few new brands to love (Noah’s Mill, Old Fitzgerald 1849, and Vintage Rye 23-Year-Old Whiskey), but it was all a bit overwhelming. Lesson learned: Bourbon is not much fun when you’re quaffing microsplashes of multiple brands in plastic cups. Very little drinking satisfaction. This is, after all, not chardonnay. This is bourbon, and we want to expansively sip good stuff, cavorting with other aficionados. We remain, alas, frustrated in this ambition.

See how discontent poor JB, all duded out in his “party” shirt, is, despite his brave Game Face:

Here are the bourbon price lists mentioned in the podcast:

LeNell’s, a bourbon-specialist liquor store in Brooklyn, New York

Vintage Wine & Spirits of Mill Valley, California

Virginia state liquor stores

New Hampshire state liquor stores

This was obviously not the greatest of days. But if hell is the absolute absence of divine love, we’ve certainly not been damned. Because every few hours in Bardstown, the wind shifts and angels puff into your nose. An unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation.

It took a while before I realized this was a worldly scent rather than a religious awakening. It’s the smell of bourbon aging in barrels, which no poet alive could capture in words. This is, quite simply, what your nose always craved. Sporadically and unexpectedly throughout each and every day, no matter where you are (even if there’s no distillery for miles around), you suddenly feel utterly enraptured.

A ghostly bourbon-storage facility.

Visions of Sugarplums

Fighting hard not to give in to your food cravings? A new study says a little of what you fancy keeps you from pigging out. As the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune reports in a story that originally appeared in The Washington Post, the study found that trying to restrict food (particularly carb-y foods) too severely can backfire:

Rather than ‘eating in moderation all along, you end up rebounding,’ and consuming more calories, notes Jennifer Coelho, lead author of the University of Toronto study, published in this month’s Appetite journal. ‘It’s better to try to find a balance.’

The story notes that cravings for foods like broccoli or radishes are rare. Instead, cravings for french fries or ice cream are de rigueur, as are cravings for familar “comfort” foods:

‘Think of food cravings as a sensory memory,’ notes psychologist Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. ‘You remember how good it felt the last time you had that food. You have to have experienced eating it before.’

Whether it’s possible to learn to crave healthy, lower-calorie foods is not known. ‘In theory, you ought to be able to learn to crave carrot sticks,’ Pelchat says. ‘But 95 to 97 percent of the foods that people report craving are energy-dense.’

In the brain, food cravings activate the same areas that are affected by cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes and even the pleasure of buying lots of shoes, notes Pelchat, who in 2004 published the first brain images of food cravings.

This doesn’t surprise me. When I give in to my Snickers bar yen, I resemble nothing so much as one of those rats pressing a bar to get cocaine.

Chapli Kebab at Darbar

Melanie Wong samples chapli kebab wherever she can find it, and the version at Darbar still rocks. Maybe it’s the exotic scent of toasted cumin and coriander mingled with sizzling grilled meat. Maybe it’s the crunch of the crackly brown crust, contrasting with the velvety tenderness of the micro-ground beef interior. Or maybe it’s the fiery-hot spicing, briefly cooled by the chilled mint chutney. Don’t be fooled by that cool mint chutney, by the way–it’s full of raw jalapeno madness. Two gorgeous patties are only $3.99.

The sarson ka saag is no slacker, either–it’s made with fresh mustard greens instead of depressing frozen spinach, it’s good and garlicky, and it has a beautifully fluffy texture.

Darbar [Polk Gulch]
1412 Polk St., San Francisco

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Chapli Kebab Greatness at Darbar (SF)

New Pupuseria in Santa Rosa

For pupusas, Salvadoran empanadas, and other tasty things, check out the new Pupusas Salvadorenos, says Stephanie Sugars. They serve Salvadoran antojitos, such as four kinds of pupusas, empanadas de platano (with beans or custard), tamales, pasteles, and nuegados. They also serve breakfast and large plates. The food is excellent, especially the empanadas de platano with custard–crispy on the outside, cool and creamy on the inside.

Bring your own metal fork if you want one, since dishes are served with plastic forks. The space doesn’t have booths, but it has lots of tables along the walls and in the center–great for getting a crowd of people together.

Pupusas Salvadorenas [Sonoma County]
1403 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa

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New Santa Rosa Pupuseria

Pushcart Derby: Midtown’s Best Meat on Wheels

Among the countless street carts that peddle grilled meat in Midtown Manhattan, three entries lead the field–though chowhounds disagree on which ones win, place, and show.

The cart that feeds throngs of nighthawks till 4 a.m. at 6th Avenue and 53rd Street is known to some as Chicken and Rice, or just “The Cart”. It’s the one with the daunting lines and the fan website; they sure come through with terrific lamb gyros and chicken, in rice plates or pita sandwiches. E Eto says subtle seasoning allows the meat flavors to take the lead. He also notes that the lines–and resulting continuous turnover–mean the food doesn’t sit around drying on a hot grill, as it does at many other street carts. Rice and salad are mediocre, though. For vinouspleasure, the appeal of this place lies in texture: tender chicken, slightly crispy lamb, velvety white sauce.

There is huge praise for their sauces, especially that white sauce; it’s creamy, yogurty, just about perfect. The hot one is searing and, some say, lacking in depth. The barbecue one is skippable.

The Kwik Meal and Kwik Gourmet carts on 45th Street turn out the best street-legal lamb in Midtown, says vinouspleasure, who faults only smallish portions compared with rival vendors. They, too, season their meat with restraint, says E Eto, though a pleasing pepperiness sings out. Also appreciated by hounds: pinpoint timing on the grill, tasty chicken thigh meat, and real lamb (not pressed gyro meat). The default hot sauce is fruity, vinegary, and nicely piquant; chile heads can opt for a hotter hot sauce, but be warned–it’s combustible. Beyond chicken and lamb, the Kwik Meal carts offer tiger shrimp and fish specials like salmon or grouper.

The Trini-Pak Boyz at 43rd and 6th go heavier on the spice, producing the best-seasoned chicken in Midtown, says E Eto. Here, too, high turnover pays off in freshly cooked meat. Rice and vegetable accompaniments are uncommonly tasty, and the hot and white sauces are on par with those at 53rd and 6th. The Trini part of the menu includes curries, jerk, and roti that vinouspleasure rates good but not great.

Street vendor [Midtown West]
a.k.a. Chicken and Rice
53rd St. at 6th Ave., SW corner, Manhattan

Kwik Meal [Midtown West]
45th St. at 6th Ave., SW corner, Manhattan

Kwik Gourmet [Midtown West]
45th St. at 5th Ave., SW corner, Manhattan

Trini-Pak Boyz [Midtown West]
43rd St. at 6th Ave., SE corner, Manhattan

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west side carts review

Lunetta: Italian Bites and a Boerum Hill Makeover

The inventive Japanese food at Boerum Hill’s Taku delighted Chowhounds but played to an often-empty house—so the owners rewrote the script. Exit Taku, enter Lunetta, an Italian place offering inexpensive small plates starting at $3 and entrees in the $11 to $15 range, heavy on rustic, slow-cooked fare.

Chef and co-owner Adam Shepard remains in the house, but instead of Berkshire pork ramen he’s making satisfying orecchiette with sausage, among other things. Winning small dishes include roasted beets with rosemary, meatballs in deep, creamy sauce, cheese and cured meat plates, and bruschette with toppings such as mushrooms, roasted eggplant, and ricotta with lemon. For dessert, consider gelati—a recent trio of mascarpone, toasted almond, and chocolate hazelnut was rich and delicious. Service is friendly, though some report shaky timing and other opening-month missteps.

The Smith Street crowd is warming to the new format. “The place was PACKED,” Nehna reports after a satisfying Friday dinner. “I’m glad to see the new venture getting off to such a good start, as much as it saddens me that I never once saw Taku that busy. I guess the neighborhood got what it wanted.”

Lunetta [Boerum Hill]
formerly Taku
116 Smith St., between Pacific and Dean, Brooklyn

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Taku to Manhattan; chef opens La Lunetta
Lunetta on Smith
la lunetta impressions

Le Petit Prince: A Little Bit of Paris in Astoria

Le Petit Prince, a new French bakery in Astoria, turns out a beautiful croissant–buttery, flaky, and rich, with just the right density in the soft midbelly, reports Rufo. Apple tarts, pain au chocolat, and irresistible little mini-cakes–soft, nutty, and perfectly moist–have also caught hounds’ attention. Another encouraging sign: friendly service by an actual French person behind the counter. “It is a nice change from the Greek bakeries,” says kellyc96.

Le Petit Prince [Astoria]
33-09 Broadway, between 33rd and 34th Sts., Astoria, Queens

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Le Petit Prince- New Bakery in Astoria

Tasty Pan-Asian Tapas

Why aren’t more people talking about Yatai, wonders Dave and Stuff after two knockout meals there. The “Asian tapas bar” certainly has an eclectic menu, with gado gado, “monsoon ceviche,” sushi rolls, and Korean tuna sashimi.

But oysters on the half shell are simple–just a dash of soy and citrus–and perfect. Shiitake mushroom, stuffed with spicy tuna and topped with pickled onions, is excellent. Albacore sashimi is fresh and delicious, a great match for the crispy onions that come with it. DIY charcoal-grilled ribeye is the most expensive thing on the menu at $17, and worth it.

Desserts are made in-house, and include a fine pumpkin flan.

Four beers, 4-5 plates, and dessert for two comes to about $72.

Yatai Asian Tapas [West Hollywood]
8535 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

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Yatai Asian Tapas in Hollywood

Rocking the Sea Spiders

The new San Gabriel Valley supermarket 168 is having a crazy deal on Dungeness crab: $2.99/lb, $3.99/lb for the giant ones, reports africanizedkiller, and the crowds are out in force for the deal.

It’s worth keeping an eye on Shun Fat supermarket, says monku–they sometimes have them for $1.99/lb.

168 Supermarket [San Gabriel Valley]
1421 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra

Shun Fat Supermarket [San Gabriel Valley]
421 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park

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Live from 168 in Alhambra: it’s Dungeness (2.99/lb)

Spicy Popcorn

If you enjoy your popcorn with a kick, here are a few ways to do it:

Use some hot chili oil as part of the oil for popping your popcorn, or mix Creole seasoning into the oil.

Stir Tabasco or hot smoked Spanish paprika into melted butter and toss with popped corn. jbyoga likes a combo of curry powder, sriracha sauce, and salt. If you make microwave popcorn, toss it with garlic powder and cayenne, recommends MeowMixx.

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Spicy popcorn