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Recipe inspiration, tips, and kitchen hacks from the Chowhound editors.

Jive Tribal … but Great Buffet

Washington, DC

The cafeteria at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, a.k.a. Mitsitam Café, seems enticing. They have separate stations for various regions (“Northern Woodlands,” “Meso America,” “Northwest Coast,” etc.), each presuming to serve regional foods. Who could resist?

I’m ambivalent, so I’m moved to both pan and (tepidly) rave.

Pan:

Restaurant Associates (Nick and Stef’s Steakhouse, Café Centro, Naples 45, etc., plus lots of catering) runs the cafeteria, and this is not a company with a deep commitment to culinary authenticity. Of course, I’d forgive inauthenticity if the food were at least decent. But most of it isn’t (I’d single out the mint agua fresca as the worst thing I’ve put in my mouth in ages). And the place is phenomenally overpriced. And the staff’s not even making an effort (I asked for “posole,” and a manager stared blankly until I said “chicken and corn soup”).

Basically, this is a fake, jive, lousy, crowded place hanging entirely on a hooky shtick that no one involved takes the least bit seriously (a Hispanic woman, displayed like a robot Santa in the Bloomingdale’s Christmas window, looked miserable making tamales from a bad, wrong recipe foisted on her by some corporate gringo scum).

Rave:

The recipes, though adapted, short-cut, compromised, and incompetently rendered from ludicrously substituted ingredients, sometimes show honest underpinnings—fleeting glimpses of real Indian cooking. At the start of the chain of events that led to the present culinary catastrophe, some earnest person seems to have really tried to do right (this individual is likely rotting in the dungeon of Restaurant Associates’ headquarters so that he can’t complain to the press).

The tamales, for example, are wrong, but there are mitigating notes of rightness, and they have a nice creaminess. The Indian pudding (does anyone, by the way, think Indian pudding is actually Indian?) is worth more than a single bite. And the tablespoon of chili ladeled onto my mess of an “Indian taco” (fry bread-– here rendered like cheap carny zeppole) tasted cuminy good.

But the real upside is this: Compared with the overpriced bad renditions of bad food found at other museum cafés in the area, the American Indian Museum’s overpriced poor renditions of interesting foods is a best-of-evils alternative. And so they draw in flocks of lunch-hour workers from the neighborhood, who literally could not do better. And so it’d be a particularly serious mistake to attempt to eat here between noon and 2 p.m.


This sign does not prepare you for what is to come.


Tamale (edible) and blue cornbread (insipid).


Indian taco (a smothered mess, mitigated by a dab of decent chili).


Buffalo flank steak sandwich (tasted like Arby’s).


Indian pudding (pretty good).

BuffetCam videos! Warning: My video skills are still severely lacking. I’m improving, but this footage is still fast, jumpy, and out of focus (which, come to think of it, is actually how I’m feeling nearly two weeks into my trip!).
Movie file

Falls Church, Virginia

On last night’s podcast, you heard Dave Sit raving about his dim sum find. I begged him to bring me there (Lucky Three Chinese Restaurant, 5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, Virginia; 703-998-8888).

When it comes to dim sum, Dave is the pickiest of picky. Precious few places merit his consideration, and the smallest shortcoming (slightly overthick dough on the har gow, fried items less than optimally crisp) can ruin his whole day. New York City has a half-dozen top-class dim sum places, but he’ll only eat at the Nice Restaurant on East Broadway, where everything is suitably refined and consistent. So I was stunned to hear that he’s fallen hard for a dim sum buffet, for goodness’ sake. Dave is not a buffet kind of guy!

But see the photos and hear the podcast to understand why this place has won Dave’s heart.

Lucky Three’s unassuming exterior.

Delicious-looking crab (though the Crab Fiend has picked out every single claw).

Podcasts:

I’ve been eating dim sum with Dave for two decades, and I continue to learn new things from him. Listen in so that you can share his tips and perspective:

MP3 file

Dave guides us through the big hot pot of fresh tofu.

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Strategies: dim sum buffets versus classic dim sum.

MP3 file

Always select for succulence!

MP3 file

The Crab Fiend

... and the still-bumpy and amateurish BuffetCam:
Movie file.

Note: A suspicious manager came running over to question why I was filming, so I had to give him the Bugs Bunny treatment.

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In Search of the Great American Beer Hall

Fodor’s has published a brief—and flawed—report on the five best places in America to drink American beer.

Wisconsinites like myself can be counted on to have opinions on three things: beer (we’re pro), cheese (ditto), and the Packers (“pro” is an understatement, even in a rough season like 2005). Not surprisingly, I think Fodor’s has fallen down on the job, and not in a good, beer-related way.

They’ve overlooked two very different beer-associated places with very similar names that indicate a common tie to the German rathskeller tradition.

The first is the Brickskeller of Washington, DC, which boasts the world’s largest beer list. With more than 500 kinds of beer on the menu, it’s a claim that carries serious weight. Skipping the Brickskeller, an American beer hall of Norse-god proportions, is a borderline-criminal oversight. Sure, they’re internationalist in the best possible way, but you can’t fight the fact that their list boasts an overwhelming pile of excellent domestic brews.

The second is the UW-Madison Rathskeller. You have to know Madison to know the Rathskeller, so this particular oversight is understandable. But if you’ve ever had one of its house brews (or something wonderful by the New Glarus Brewing Company) in its cavelike, dark-wood-appointed and stein-decorated interior, you truly know what great beer drinking is all about.

Q&A

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Lots to Learn

Food blog Chubby Hubby features a thought-provoking (if abbreviated) interview today with celeb chef Michael Mina, who discusses diver scallops, micro-veggies, and finding inspiration from farmers. Mina, a big local-and-seasonal guy, says that no Americans (not even chow-crazed Northern Californians) are as obsessive about their produce as folks in Tokyo, where he recently visited. But, he says, Californians are getting there: The attention that winemakers pay to the quality of their grapes is filtering into the consciousness of non-vintners, too.

I’d add that it’s not just California. There really is a United States of Arugula, full of farmers’ market-philic citizens (and winemakers may or may not have had a hand in that). But what about seafood, like those diver scallops Mina mentions? As it happens, I attended a panel discussion last night on the state of sustainable seafood production, and it made me realize just how little all of us—chefs and reg’lar old consumers alike—really know about fish as compared with our meats, dairy, grains, and greens.

Diver scallops, according to seafood distributor Bobby DeMasco of upscale online fish market Wild Edibles, are often actually caught in dragnets, not by divers at all. He explained that many of the most prolific scallop beds are 300 feet underwater, far too deep for a diver to venture. It would be impossible to supply enough diver scallops to all the restaurants that claim to have them on their menus because such a small percentage of the yearly scallop catch is diver caught. DeMasco also said the mislabeling could occur at any step in the supply chain (with fishermen, distributors, or chefs) because all of them have a stake in marketing their seafood as sustainable.

This is certainly not to say that Mina’s diver-caught beauties aren’t legit; the most surefire protection against fraud, panel members said, is to find and develop relationships with trustworthy seafood purveyors who know exactly where their supply is coming from, and Mina (like many top chefs today) is all about those relationships. But divers are only the beginning; there’s the issue of line-caught versus trawl-caught bass, the relative merits of trapping, trolling, and farming, and the question of whether your supposedly wild salmon is actually packed with harmful PCBs. As if that weren’t enough, those little seafood wallet cards often give differing and even conflicting advice. And of course chefs often have to bend to consumer demand, offering “sexier” types of fish than the downmarket but sustainable species like tilapia and catfish.

It’s enough to induce fish-counter paralysis. A handy primer released by the eco-food nonprofit group Chef’s Collaborative helps somewhat in making sense of the quagmire, and Paul Greenberg, my fave fish guy, wrote a thoughtful and instructive op-ed piece (requires registration) last week.

And at least I can rest assured that the favorite fish of my childhood is now 99 percent more sustainable!