Tasting Tampa’s 13th Step Dinner Feat. Rooster and the Till

Who is Tasting Tampa? It’s a question long pondered and seldom answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Some say they’re nocturnal beings with a penchant for strong cheeses and the gonads of sea creatures, and that they can smell foie drippings from over a mile away, all I know is, they invented the infamous “13th Step Dinner”, and a few days ago, I was able to secure a spot at the coveted event.

The 13th Step Dinners spawned years ago when the gastronomic power bromance of Todd Sturtz and Kurt Raschke met for a brainstorm session over lunch. A name was formed to accurately capture their willing addiction to all things edible, a sort of support group for foodies. Predictably, Todd’s Midas touch took this seed of an idea and turned it into one of the premier food events in the Tampa Bay area.

13th Step MCs

This 13th Step was unique, as Tasting Tampa had not only recruited one of the top restaurants in Tampa to host it, but also partnered with Cigar City Brewing’s own Chris Lovett to provide beer pairings with each dish.

I arrived early and was met by a dapper Mr. Raschke, overseeing the goings on with all the grace and decorum of a top-tier symphonic composer. I was handed a menu that up to this point had been a mystery to me. With one glance I highlighted the pertinent information quicker than Robert Langdon. Oyster, sweetbreads, porcini, foie gras, beef, cipollini…GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE. I tried to regain my composure as I’m well aware that the proof is in the proverbial pudding, and many restaurants use these ingredients as a crutch. But this was Rooster and the Till, and anyone who’s made the pilgrimage knows that any level of excitement is warranted, Chef Alvarez never disappoints.

13th Step menu

After a quick introduction, the 13th Step hit the ground running with a gorgeous plate of fried riptide oysters, roasted brussels sprouts and smoked bacon on a shmear of miso caramel. A soft dusting of Korean chili powder left a lingering heat at the back of your throat. The oysters were crisp at first bite until your teeth hit the soft center. Their subtle ocean flavor was paired with a refreshing fermented cucumber for a little acidity. My favorite component was the miso caramel as it brought a sweet umami quality that served to heighten the flavor of its neighbors. The Hunahpu Imperial Stout had some clear soy and sesame notes that perfectly matched the miso sauce.

Fried Oyster

The winning dish of the night for me, came second. Veal sweetbreads with brown butter crumble, fried capers, preserved Meyer lemon and Rooster’s famous Parisian gnocchi. I might be crazy, but this dish initiated an Anton Ego style flashback to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with far better ingredients and technique (sorry momma!). I’m hard pressed to remember a sweetbread prepared better than this. There was no stringy, chewy gristle to be found, it was perfectly tender throughout. Little explosions of salt from the capers only accentuated the flavor of the sweetbread while the preserved lemon lit up the palate with measured amounts concentrated acid. I didn’t speak a word during this dish as I was throughly enjoying my cozy little time travel session to my childhood. The paired Strong Ale that had been stored in cognac barrels was one of my favorite beers of the night. Whether it’s CCB’s brewing process, or just the nature of beer to absorb flavor, the 2012 Cheers was steeped in the buttery smooth flavor of cognac.

Sweetbreads

I’m not going to lie, when I read foie gras, I was hoping for a nice slice from a whole lobe. It was greedy of me and I feel terrible about it (sounded sincere no?), but this dish of porcini mushrooms topped with shaved foie, perfect sous vide egg yolk on a pine nut butter was no less luxurious. Dates and granola added a much-needed sweetness and crunch to this very savory affair. I didn’t even miss a protein (not counting the egg) as the porcinis were more than meaty.

Porcini

I have to start with the Bourbon Barrel Big Sound on this fourth course as it was truly impressive, even to my beginner beer palate. I swear I got a faint hint of bleu cheese on the nose (though it could have been the Calabrese wafting from the kitchen) and as off-putting as that sounds, it invited curiosity. The flavor was all bourbon. They could have said they had poured a shot in each glass and I would’ve believe it. The dual medallions of beef tenderloin were the perfect match for a full flavored beer like the Bourbon Barrel. The combo of beef, potato, onions and bleu cheese is classic, but Rooster elevated it with braised cipollinis and smoked potato confit. Dots of whipped Calabrese cheese asserted themselves with the perfect amount of tang. It was a dish that would have felt right at home in a smokey steakhouse circa 1962.

Tenderloin

Dessert arrived all too soon, but time truly does fly when you’re having fun. A broken down German chocolate cake was the subject of the fifth and final course. Like many of the dishes at Rooster, this was a reimagined version of the tired dessert we’ve all had since childhood. Broken segments of chiffon chocolate cake balanced precariously on chocolate crumbles like ruins of an ancient civilization. Sweet little dots laced with coconut framed the double stout infused ice cream against a pecan smear backdrop. I’ve been threatened on pain of death not to speak in specifics about the beer pairing for the dessert course, all I can say is that it made for one of the most amazingly flavorful ice creams I’ve ever tasted. The pecan smear brought the savory component to bring the consistent balance of flavor that Chef Alvarez achieves with each dish. Aside from the boozy ice cream, my favorite part may have been the little coconut milk custard blobs hidden between the cake shards. This was one of the most well composed desserts I’ve had in a long time.

Chocolate Cake

So that’s it, my first 13th Step Dinner all wrapped up. It goes fast I know, but I plan on becoming a regular attendee whenever the chance presents itself. If you live on the gulf coast, I’d advise you to keep a watchful eye on Tasting Tampa. I had a chance to speak with Kurt after the meal, and while I can’t reveal anything specific, I can say that tickets to the next 13th Step Dinner will go fast as soon as the chef and venue are announced, so keep on your toes!

Craftsman & Wolves – San Francisco, CA

I recently heard Anthony Bourdain say on one of his various travel shows, while plowing down a famous Chicago beef sandwich (I believe it was The Layover), that the last meal of a trip is the most important. It’s the best gauge of how things went. A soggy alcohol sponge of a dipped Chicago beef with hot and sweets, turned out to be a cure for his ails, an obvious hint to the dive bar tour he endured the night before.

For me and James, choosing Craftsman & Wolves as our last meal was the best choice we could have made. In a city full of artists who love to play with food, C & W unequivocally holds the title in my heart in the bakery category.

CAW

If you are the type of person who eats with their eyes, you’ll notice how each dish at Craftsman is a study in the play between style and substance. This is a task so many attempt, but find themselves failing miserably. In other words, dropping the spherically shaped object.

I’m not sure if any of the crew at Craftsman were alumni of their legendary neighbor Tartine. But if they used to roll puff pastry at that hallowed boulangerie, it would make sense as both show similar respect and expertise in their respective pastry technique. The result is the only difference. The former being classic to the core and the latter having a lush contemporary aesthetic. Both will alter your mindset of what baked goods can be.

San Francisco is a great city for an architecture tour, and James schooled me on some of the more visually striking structures around town. If you feel a similar admiration for food, art or great design, Craftsman & Wolves brings it all together.

Craftsman & Wolves entry and pastries

Whether you’re enjoying the super thoughtful take on coq au vin with a perfect disk of puff pastry and baby pickled root vegetables, or a spellbinding savory muffin with a soft egg inside, you’d be hard pressed to find brunchy foods with more flash. The words house made are littered throughout the menu (especially all over the sandwich with ingredients like saucisson sec, cornichon, black mustard butter, baguette) clearly the back of house spends the early morning hours toiling away for you. For you!

CAW saucisson sec sandwich

I keep going back to how well the food looked, delicately presented in the storefronts glass encapsulated case like a mannequin sporting Prada in front of Neiman Marcus. Food stylists get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make food look good for the camera, while making it all but inedible. Craftsman’s dessert case is filled with delicious gems, deserving of a permanent installation at the SFMOMA. The spotlight should be on their playful take on childhood classics like the Swiss Cake Roll. Here it’s filled with coffee/lychee creme, or a modernized lemon meringue pie with an eerily marshmallow-like topping.

CAW pastry

Alert: After revisiting the online menu, I noticed something called a Cubano poptart. Return trip status: Imminent.

Craftsman & Wolves on Urbanspoon

Indigenous – Sarasota, FL

Sarasota, Florida. It’s not exactly at the top of my list of food-centric cities, but it is the place where I happen to call home at the moment. So as always, before I made the move, I did my research to see what kind of eats my new town had to offer. My wife has joined me in this task the last two times we had to move, and I’m proud to say she’s growing quite adept at sniffing out the good stuff. After three months, her discovery of Indigenous, a rustic little place just south of Main St. in Sarasota, has taken the proverbial cake.

Like me, chef and owner of Indigenous, Steve Phelps, can’t seem to sit still. After paying his dues at a family run restaurant in Ohio and making his way through the food scene in Cleveland, he found himself in Sarasota. In a few years he saw his shot to open his own place and took it. Seven years later, I arrived and booked a table at Indigenous before my last box was unpacked. My urgency was rewarded with a meal that could stand up against some of the best restaurants in the country. I get the feeling Chef Phelps would be too humble to say this himself so I’ll say it for him, Indigenous is single-handedly raising the bar for quality eats in Sarasota and the town is better for it.

Indigenous sign

The menu is at once worldly, taking cues from New Orleans to Southeast Asia, and distinctly regional with ingredients sourced from nearby Providence Cattle Co. and Open Blue Sea Farms in Miami. A cozy wild mushroom bisque spiked with truffle croutons was enticing despite the balmy weather. Chef Phelps’ take on a BLT, an attractive composition of pork belly, tomato marmalade and jus aioli, is a clear display of his love for Sarasota. Chefs often make the false assumption that small town demographics are less sophisticated than in the city. It’s nice to see him flex his culinary muscles a little!

Indigenous apps

The workout continued with a glistening plate of cobia crudo. Crisp sea beans and sesame quinoa played it crispy opposite the supple fish, while sweet soy and ginger crème fraîche seamlessly wove Asia into the dish. (Something about supremely fresh raw fish makes me rhyme, who knew)

Cooked fish on the other hand, is rarely an area of the menu I spend much time on. Strangely though, as our waiter explained the Hook to Fork special that night, I was caught…well you know. Red grouper was the star, perched (I’m sorry about the fish puns and clichés, I’m not sure what’s come over me today) atop a corn cake with a luxurious pea tendril remoulade. The depth of flavor in the grouper was unparalleled. As strange as it sounds it had the unctuous mouth feel reminiscent of pork belly at times. This dish has joined hamachi kama and miso glazed black cod in the rarefied air that is my cooked fish pantheon.

Red Grouper

 Dessert was no less impressive than the savory dishes. Lavender is a fickle ingredient in my opinion. Incorporating it into a cupcake and cream can be a tight wire act as the line between floral and hand soap is razor-thin. Thankfully the chef knew exactly where that line was, deftly navigating the flavor with the same confidence he displayed throughout the meal. The cupcake had the consistency of a fresh, buttery madeleine, one of my childhood favorites.

Indigenous Lavender Cupcake

I never truly feel at home in a new city until I’ve found the great spots to get a meal, after all, that’s where some of life’s greatest comfort is found. I have Chef Phelps and Indigenous to thank for much of the comfort I feel now, so early on. Indigenous isn’t just a great restaurant for Sarasota, it’s a great restaurant in general. So if you want a break from the Tampa food scene but don’t want to skimp on quality, get down here and give Indigenous a shot.

Indigenous on Urbanspoon

Painter’s Palate – Sarasota, FL

The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a newly acquainted food friend.

JP: Hey do you want to go to lunch?

JT: Sure, where are we going?

JP: This place called Painter’s Palate.

JT: What kind of a name is that? What kind of food do they serve?

JP: Thai-Italian fusion…

JT:…oh dear god.

Admittedly, fusion cuisine doesn’t have a great reputation here Eat a Duck HQ, so I kept my hopes in check as I made my way to the newborn restaurant from the folks behind Sarasota’s Thai outpost, Drunken Poet. I was the first to arrive, so I had a moment to study the menu, hoping to glean some information on the upcoming meal. I was happy to see that most of the menu was rooted firmly in Southeast Asia with a few exceptions, like the pizza and tartine sections. Thai pizza sounds enticing…but with marinara sauce? Brie and curry tartine? Suffice it to say I was concerned about Painter’s Palate. Thai-Italian fusion, a name that gives no clue about what kind of food you might find, an empty dining room, things were looking grim.

My concern didn’t have time to change to worry before my compatriots arrived. Since we were the only diners, we asked to see the dinner menu as the lunch version was missing a couple of items we had heard good things about. The first glimmer of hope came as we read through the appetizer section…and then proceeded to order every item, along with a spicy basil pizza for good measure.

Any worries I had were immediately assuaged when an order of duck rolls arrived. An intriguing tartar-like sauce bound the crispy, golden rolls to the plate. I was knocked out by the succulent duck meat, juicy and full of spices. The Thaicos followed and were another early hit. Healthy slabs of lightly seared ahi tuna topped with fresh seaweed salad laid in a crisp shrimp chip were delicious. In my opinion it could have done without the imitation crab underneath, but it didn’t take away from the dish.

Painter's Palate apps 1

The crispy wings were a small misstep as they seemed to have been left in the fryer a touch too long and the accompanying jar seemed to contain straight duck sauce. I can’t blame the chef too much since we did bombard him with a large order, at the same time as I said, we were the only ones there. At the time, Painter’s Palate had been open less than a week, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The appetizers continued to arrive at machine gun pace. Crispy shrimp in a creamy sriracha sauce were a unanimous winner. Perfectly cooked with tender meat and a nice crisp fried shell. I found this sauce to be much tastier than the one that came with the wings.

Painter's Palate apps 2

Simple inari pockets stuffed with more seaweed salad were a welcome, and very tasty reprieve from the fried assault…which was continued by two fantastic Thai “corn dogs”. The now familiar creamy sauce was present to brighten up the panko breading and was helped along by a refreshing hit of kaffir lime in the dog itself.

We heard the chef hails from Belgium, so it was only right to sample his frites. They cut them thick at Painter’s Palate, leaving a soft interior , a good fry and were paired, as is the custom, with a clearly homemade mayo. It was a touch salty, but a strong citrus note helped offset.

The aforementioned red curry and brie tartine arrived to three pairs of raised eyebrows. Unfortunately this dish fell flat due to the clunky ingredient combinations. Three pieces of toasted bread topped with melted brie and bacon weren’t bad in and of themselves. However they sat on a warm bed of spinach, peppers, tomatoes and walnuts all in a red curry sauce which was noticeably missing any curry flavor.

Tartine, frites, spicy basil pizza

The spicy basil pizza arrived to settle our debate about marinara sauce at a Thai joint. This did not suck. Far from it in fact. It was a beautiful pie, with a crisp crust, not underdone despite the copious amounts of ground beef and sweet caramelized onions riding on the dough. A fried egg was a nice touch but didn’t add much to the flavor. I actually think the pizzas could take to Thai flavors quite well. Get rid of the cheese and marinara sauce and throw in some spicy red curry, shrimp paste pizza and pickled lemongrass. I’m no chef but I can see the possibilities! I’d like to see the chef get creative here, they’ve got that pizza oven, so why not stray from Italy in lieu of Thailand?

In restaurant terms, Painter’s Palate is still in its infancy, only a couple of weeks old, but they’re already off to a great start with some truly impressive dishes. If they can tighten up some small mistakes, rework that tartine section and really commit to exploring what’s possible when Giuseppe and Pravat put their heads together, they could have a real hit on their hands. This place deserves to be packed, so beat the hipsters and get to Painter’s Palate before it gets too cool!

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: A Tale of Five Seatings

A great deal of time has passed since this “crawl” took place, but if I failed to share the wonderful food and drink eaten along the way, I’d be snubbing those who made the trip and doing you, our loyal readers, a disservice. I managed to salvage photographic evidence of our journey from the insatiable maw that is my photo gallery. As I looked through them, it brought me back to that day, refreshing the memories like so many reconstituted matsutakes. It was the first time I met those who’d become the core of my Tampa food contingent. If this trip hadn’t happened, I may never have met the new anchors of Tasting Tampa, Kurt and Heidi Raschke or the Toro Titan of Tampa himself, Mr. Thai Vo.

EAD Orlando food crawl 2014

Just about every stop on this trip has been discussed in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to say. We here at Eat a Duck try to steer ourselves towards the type of restaurants that have a revolving door policy when it comes to the menu. I like to order something different at every place, even if I have favorites, they’re never ordered on the following trip. We’ve talked about some of our food crawl etiquette in the Tampa edition a while back, but let me reiterate a few firm statutes of our process. There has to be a clear consensus within the group about which restaurants we’ll be patronizing. If one member disagrees we all disagree. The best decisions in life are made as a team. I mean, all the hobbits lived right? It’s because they went on the journey with a clear goal. It should be said, however, that even though Frodo doesn’t die, he was stabbed by the Nazgul at Weathertop, and by Shelob, suffering physical and mental scars. Never forget.

The other rule (more of a guideline really) is that no one orders more than one dish per stop. Furthermore, no matter how bad you want to try the mozzarella sticks and the chicky flappers; you must stick to the allotted single appetizer per location. If you cannot abide by these hard and fast rules, you’ll be subjected to discipline by the appointed appetizer adjudicator for a final ruling. That happens to be me. That doesn’t mean, you’re barred from ordering another dozen freshly shucked oysters if everyone has voted in the affirmative. Nevertheless, don’t forget to stage an informal vote before pulling a Jimmy and blurting out “another round of slipper lobsters!”. Remember, before any re-order, always recite the Eat a Duck food crawl anthem made famous by Reggie and the Full Effect, “F.O.O.D., food, food. G.O.O.D., Goooood, Goooood”.

Unfortunately, I was forced to work for the first leg of the trip. East End Market and Ravenous Pig started us off like any good story, at the furthest point, gradually leading us back to the start. In other words, for your food crawl planning to be successful, drive to the farthest spot first and work your way back to the place that’s closest to home. You’ll be grateful for that one, as you drive along the highway, struggling to breathe due to pork bloat.

I met up with the crew, Todd, Thai and Brittany, during the Saturday lunch rush at Prato, the entire restaurant was slammed with people. Keep in mind two key points about Prato:

1. Prato is so good we already wrote about them here.

2. Prato is so good we wrote a second piece about them here.

Prato spread

Fortunately, we were able to grab a table before the Winter Park elite arrived to demand our credentials. We dined on some marrow toast, mortadella hotdogs, a half order of house made pasta and a simple but elegant, wood-fired margherita pizza. I think we can agree we chose the perfect combination for a wonderfully dainty lunch? The next stop took us to the lounge in Hamilton’s Kitchen at the Alfond Inn. Since Prato is just a short walk away and the town has insufficient parking, we decided to hoof it and burn off some calories. Hey, if you’re going to eat so much that your caloric intake reaches five digits, every breath we take, every step we make, every move we make counts. This was more of a palate cleanser as the purpose was to enjoy a few well-prepared cocktails. We couldn’t resist ordering a basket of shoestring cheesy garlic frites from the bar.

Hamilton's Kitchen at the Alfond Inn spread

Moving on to Cask & Larder, probably the one restaurant we haven’t really covered that is most deserving. I wrote up a blurb for the Lakelander magazine if that counts. Either way, it bears repeating, they need more attention from us. This was the one place where our scheduling failed a bit. They open the bar at 4 pm which was fine, but they offer a very limited menu until 5 pm when the dining room opens. At the bar they offer oysters and boiled peanuts, as well as chicken liver and ham biscuits. At 5 pm, it’s no holds barred starring Hulk Hogan. Rated R for strongly suggestive oyster aphrodisia.

Cask & Larder spread

At this time, we had to say goodbye to Brittany, an original member of the caravan, only to welcome the Raschkes, a couple of true food lovers from Tampa. They were already waiting for us at Pharmacy, a secretive restaurant and speakeasy type place that you’ll never ever find without a bunch of help. On my GPS it gives the address. Fair enough. Should have been easy to find right? Wrong. As I parked, the location is supposed to be within the confines of an upscale shopping area, considered Orlando’s restaurant row. It’s the area where all the excessively wealthy, mega-rich millionaire Orlandoans go to eat, (i.e. Tiger Woods, John Morgan, Daniel Dennis and Carrot top). I literally walked around for 10 minutes trying to find this place. It got so confusing and labyrinthine I felt like the illuminati were testing my might. I don’t want to ruin the fun if you choose the path of dining at Pharmacy. Just go find it your own dang self.

Pharmacy spread

Our last spot was a departure from the newer, trendsetting places we had been accustomed to over the entirety of the day. Hanamizuki is not like any other Japanese restaurant I’ve been to in Florida. I’ve never been to Japan, though not for lack of wanting. If I could guess what “real” Japanese food tastes like, without having to cater to western sensibilities, I imagine Hanamizuki is as close as you’ll find within 200 miles. I had been once before with my wife and was completely awe-struck by inspired preparation of the dishes. As a whole I remembered how much the restaurant had me interrogating myself. There was no question that the food was great. Actually, some of it was the best I had eaten in a while. My wonderment stemmed more from how I should approach tradition. I questioned how authentic I want food to be, compared to what I’ve trained my palate to think tastes good? How far am I willing to push the limits? Either way you slice it, whether it be with a dull butter knife or a precision Yanagi ba, this nuta: akami maguro or yari ika dressed in white miso, hot mustard and wilted scallion was freaking incredible. It’s got to be if you order it three separate times in the same sitting!

Hanamizuki spread

These are not the only restaurants in Orlando worth investing a whole day for. They are however, within the circle of friends I choose to associate with, the most appropriate representation of food crawl perfection, each offering a cavalcade of small plate options and a myriad of tasty drinks. For an evening of sane, one meal/one restaurant dining, all of these places easily stand alone. Since this trip, a whole new group of places have opened and are flourishing over in Orlando. It’s high time we plan Round 2.

 

Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

I once took a Sociology class in school. I always felt that you could teach an entire course on the sociology of food, specifically how it affects migration and settlement. The topic has come up between Logan and I many times, what causes certain cultures, and by extension, their cuisines to settle down in this city or that? The answer is probably more involved than I’d like to get in this piece, but the impetus behind that question is usually a complaint about the lack of some food stuff in our area.

Take dumplings for instance. In every major city, you’re likely to find a Chinatown or Koreatown where the choices of dim sum establishment, or mandoo bar are nearly endless. Here in Florida, you have to put forth a good amount of effort to find a place that serves house made dumplings, and even then the pickings are slim (albeit delicious).

San Francisco is one of those blessed cities that doesn’t have this problem. The town is so packed full of dumplings you could nickname it Po. Throw a dart at a map and you’re likely to land on something delicious. However if you’re aiming for the typical neighborhoods, you might miss out on a gem, Shanghai Dumpling King. Two blocks north of Golden Gate park on Balboa St., is a small satellite grouping of Asian cuisine, a pho shop here, a sushi bar there, a Chinese bakery across the street.

Shanghai Dumpling King exterior

I have to give all the credit to my good friend Matt Covall, who kindly took me and Logan by the hand, and guided us to this dream world of dumplings. Soup dumplings have been on my checklist of things to try for a while now, sadly, as far as I know, you can’t get them in Florida. Shanghai Dumpling King, I was told, is the place to go if you want soup dumplings. If you’re a seasoned food detective, you’ll know from one look at the storefront that this place is special. It’s not the sign, not the location, not the reviews, but the crowd that should guide you in your hunt.

Every table was full and there was a small group waiting for their turn. After a long day filled with eating, I was more than willing to wait for the Chinese cherry on our snacking sundae. Almost as soon as we were seated, our order began to take shape, however we were quickly schooled by our waiter who vetoed some choices and strongly suggested others. In reality he just told us what we were getting, assuring us with a brisk wave of his hand that he knew better, and who were we to argue! We began with an order of Lion Head meatballs braised in soy, so tender and packed with Chinese aromatics even Italian grannies would swoon with approval. Pea sprouts in garlic sauce brought a little green into our decidedly beige feast, and they were delicious. Slightly bitter but crisp and fresh with a pungent garlic gloss that won me over. The green onion pancakes were as you’d expect, savory and flavorful. A very simple dish executed well.

Shanghai Dumpling King starters

A pile of plump, pan-fried, pork potstickers were presented promptly. These were a treat, succulent pork with hints of ginger and garlic were wrapped in a flavorful skin that gently tinged the meat with sweetness. A vinegar spiked dipping sauce kept things from getting too salty on the palate.

Shanghai Dumpling King - Pan-fried Pork Dumpling

The next dish kept the pork theme running but this time with a spicy twist. This set of dumplings waded in a bagna calda of chili and sesame oils with soy. A very specific itch was scratched by juicy little morsels, that tangy and fiery aroma that gets pulled into your nose through your mouth is addicting.

Spicy chive & pork dumplings

Ah the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the magic that is the soup dumpling! Often times dishes long yearned for lose their luster when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Thankfully that wasn’t the case here. They had a gelatinous characteristic to them that allowed a gentle jiggle as our waiter laid them before us. Take note here as there’s a certain technique to eating these that will hopefully save you from any juicy mishaps. Use a spoon, not your chopsticks. Remember, you’re delivering about a tablespoon of scalding soup, just above your privates to your mouth with nothing but a fragile membrane to hold everything together, the slightest nick can spell disaster. As you bring it to your lips, give the outside a small nibble and sip a bit of that delicious broth, savor the flavor before you lay siege to your taste buds with pork fat and spices. The hype did nothing to diminish my virgin soup dumpling experience, they offer a truly unique sensation to even the most traveled food lover. Shanghai Dumpling King lived up to its name and then some, bestowing a second order of the porcine liquid bombs to our table.

Shanghai Steamed Dumpling

If Logan were here to write this, he’d probably be able to decode the spice mixture and process necessary to create these beauties (maybe I’ll see if he can take a stab at creating Eat a Duck’s own take on this masterpiece), however I’m just a lowly dumpling lover that can only share when I know I’ve found something special. If you’re in The City you’ll likely find yourself flush with spots to find a good dumpling, but trust me here, take a detour out to west Balboa St., visit Shanghai Dumpling King and be happy.

Shanghai Dumpling King on Urbanspoon

Namu Gaji – San Francisco, CA

Have you ever experienced the worrisome feeling that if you don’t get something (usually food), while you have the chance, you just might die?

Everyone has an inner child, that slightly spoiled sliver of our mind that manifests itself when we’re faced with a strong yearning. I felt such a yearning recently during a trip to San Francisco. The source of my lust was Namu Gaji, a small Korean establishment at the corner of 18th and Dolores, just down the street from Tartine Bakery in the Mission.

Namu Gaji spread

Eater has become an oft used resource of mine for finding new and delicious destinations (what about Yelp you might ask…well here’s a hint). I found Namu Gaji mentioned there not once, but twice, as a place to be held in high regard. One of the many reasons are their time-specific menu items that are only available during certain parts of the day and sometimes on weekends. One of these is the KFC. We here at Eat a Duck have learned that when a restaurant deems it necessary to announce the limited supply of some extremely popular item, you’d better be the first in line, because a double down on deliciousness is in order.

We arrived in San Francisco from Palo Alto the morning after a wedding with a mere 36 hours of eating available to us. Hardly a lot of time, but in a city so magnificent, you can cover a lot of ground fast. While Jimmy was indisposed with his groomsmen duties, I hunkered down in the hotel room carefully planning our unrestrained campaign. I couldn’t get Namu Gaji out of my mind, every conversation Jimmy and I had during the wedding weekend centered on where we were going to be eating, and I made sure to pepper Namu Gaji’s name in there liberally. “I hear Namu Gaji is nice this time of year…Jimmy, did you know Namu Gaji is open for brunch?…Jimmy… Namu Gaji?”.

My persistent pestering paid off as we added Namu to the itinerary with the goal to arrive as soon as the doors opened. We ended up arriving 15 minutes after opening, and scampered toward the door like two teens who’s pubertal urges drove them toward the entry gates of a Color Me Badd concert ca. 1993. There was already a crowd of people lined up along the glass wall, happily slurping up bibim and ramyun soup out of oversized clay pots. They were so big and full of scalding broth the cast of Friends would have difficult handling them. At every other table, we spied beautiful people corralling fat, slippery noodles and morsels of the chopped 4505 SF hot dog that bobbed on the surface of the Ramyun. We had to order. Only then did we see, when served, there was also a delicately oblong panko fried soft egg peeking out of the broth, presenting itself in a request to be devoured.

Namu Gaji Ramyun

By this time, the meal had been ordered and our amuse of one “real” Korean taco, with beef bulgogi, rice and a couple of different kimchee arrived all wrapped up in a nice dark green nori “shell”. We made quick work of the taco, admiring the flavorful combination of the beef and its contrasting kimchee mates. Coming in at around 3 1/2 bites each, they’re the perfect size to get the synapses firing. After this morsel, all that stood between us and the heralded KFC was time. It should be noted at this point, the restaurant had been open for about 25 minutes and every table was now full with more people crowding the order counter.

Namu Gaji the %22real%22 Korean taco

The space is the perfect size, tiny. Any smaller and it’d be claustrophobic, any bigger and the energy might not fill the room. You can smell the dishes near you and it’s intoxicating. We had no idea what to expect when our main arrived. I read KFC (which stands for Korean fried chicken) expecting simply a better version of what I already knew.

It came in a checked paper lined basket with fixins on the side. I couldn’t tell what the accoutrements were at first aside from the pile of pickled daikon and a small cup of gravy. I had a hard time picking up the freaking chicken as it was so freaking hot my fingerprints almost burned off. I had to throw it down at least three times as the temperature was hovering around thermonuclear. This proved to be both rewarding and perilous. Subsequent attempts to pick up the angry bird left a residue of sticky glaze on my digits that I greedily lapped up like a victorious lion. It gave me a chance to taste what all the fuss was about. The only downside was that waiting is hard. A lovely coleslaw with kimchee and kewpie mayo grabbed Jimmy and wouldn’t let go, or was it the other way around? Ah yes, it was Jimmy who greedily wouldn’t share the slaw, as it was probably the only symbol of  roughage he ate all day.

Namu Gaji %22KFC%22

When cool down time was over, Jimmy and I ripped into the thigh and breast portions, discovering how wonderfully crisp and fragile the “batter” turned out to be. The chicken itself was incredibly moist, the result of what had to have been a lengthy brine or marinade procedure. The dashi gravy was the figurative icing on the cake, to what was the single best dish I had that day. Full of nearly every flavor descriptor I can throw out there, this gravy had it all. From land, sea and air, each had their own element to make up this one perfect bite.

I couldn’t have been happier with the meal, as I keep thinking about not only the KFC, but the experience in general. It was a fast meal but a great one. I took a lot away from the dishes and hope to use them to my advantage in my kitchen as it has affected my food philosophy greatly. More and more we find cooks looking to feature their rich culture, using what I would consider classic American comfort food to bridge the gap. Namu Gaji does this to a superlative degree, better than almost anyone else out there.

Namu Gaji on Urbanspoon