Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sinatra and '30 Dogs 30 Days' Gets His Name

When I lived in Washington, DC, it seemed my wife and I knew every extant Muslim in town. Tons of Moroccans, Persians, Turks, Palestinians, Tunisians, Pakistanis, and some whose nationalities escape me right now. I was brought up Jewish and my wife Catholic, but it always amazed me that for all the intense global hatred among various religious groups, we all seemed to get along pretty well in our little enclave of Adams Morgan, a heterogeneous semi-melting pot with a lot of booze-soaked clubs and restaurants to smooth out any rough edges. There were also many Eritreans, Ethiopians, and of course Salvadorans, due to the conflicts in those countries leading to mass exoduses. And Nigerians, Sudanese, Somalians. Russians and Serbs, Albanians, Greeks-I could go on.
But the oddest pairing always seemed to be the Muslims and the Jew (Me). Why was it so easy to get along here, to take our friendships for granted, almost, when events taking place thousands of miles away put our brothers and sisters, sometimes literally, at each other's throats? It's hard to know what makes the hate that people have for each other intensify and grow until the only possible outcome is murder; and I suppose in our innocence, we cling to the hope that that could never happen to our friendships here in the US. 'Those crazy Jews and Palestinians over there!', I remember a friend of mine saying, and me agreeing. 'Why can't they get along like we do here? It's so easy!'
But enough of the ethnic harmony. Today we're here for something a little more important than world peace. It begins some time ago, when I bet someone I could eat nothing but thirty different hot dogs in thirty days, and never get bored. In fact, that's how I got my name. Standing with the other cab drivers at the bar in Flushing, Queens, across the street from the Main-Ro hack line, waiting for fares at one in the morning, ordering cold draft beers and 'singles', or a Frank Sinatra 'fully dressed', which was a hot dog with everything on it (everything in those days meant mustard and sauerkraut-ah, those were simpler times). But sometimes the frankfurter ain't what it should be, and those days are the worst days of all. For there is no emptier feeling, and nothing sadder really, than a bad hot dog.

[Halal left, Kosher right]
So what about the conflict between these two cultures and their hot dogs, and how would it play out on the plate? I lined up the Hebrew National brand Kosher Beef Frank, and the Al Safa brand Halal Weiner, imported from Canada. I chose the accoutrements, and I chose wisely. There are Heinz English Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce, cole slaw, sauerkraut (warmed up first), dill pickle spears, Gulden's brown mustard, and homemade pickled radishes. No buns, which keeps the focus squarely on the meat in the dog. Each package was about $4, although the Al Safas weigh in at a full pound, whereas the Hebrew Nationals are just 12 ounces. The Kosher dogs were red, almost too red, but on the other hand, their Halal brothers were a worrisome pinkish-gray. I broiled two of each, and waited for the hissing and crackling.
In my side-by-side tasting, I have to say, without prejudice, that the Kosher dog is beefy and juicy in its snappy casing, whereas the Halal dog is almost gamy, perhaps from some added smoke-flavor, and the casing doesn't hold up too well under the broiler, either, maybe from a too-high water content. It's not science, and I did eat end up eating all four dogs, but on this day, the Hebrews won. All I can say is, Salaam Aleykum.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Critiquing Restaurants-Part II of an Infinite Part Series on What's Wrong With Miami's Food Scene-May I See The Wine List-Did You?

A well-written restaurant review for me is like a pile of prettily-wrapped Christmas presents, waiting to be opened under the tree. For someone who likes food and dining out, the anticipation can be exhilarating, especially if the review is about a favorite spot, an obscure find, or an exciting new place where you just scored a coveted reservation for Saturday night, perhaps a special occasion, and can't wait to be dazzled. But then you start to read the review, and disappointment and confusion start to set in. First, why no mention of the wine list, other than a perfunctory sentence or two about the general makeup of the list, such as, 'mostly French, with the rest from the US, Spain, Argentina, and Chile.' No shit? I think everyone knows the difference between a $22 piece of chicken, and a $35 piece of lobster. But how many people really know the difference between a $40 bottle and an $80 bottle? In my experience, almost nobody. Even if you put the bottles in front of them, side by side, very few could tell which was the more expensive bottle, and why (do you know which are the good years for Barolo?). People may generally know their one or two favorites, but that's usually about it. But you'll get no guidance from your gentle reviewer. To quote a recent review of an Italian restaurant, “There are plenty of pleasing [bottles] among the many Italian and American selections....” How is that helpful? Could you recommend maybe a couple of these 'pleasing' bottles? Maybe an inexpensive red, a white, and maybe a nice pricey bottle, for those who want to spend a little more? Like a decently priced Barolo?
Another review I just read mentions the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence received by a restaurant, but not one wine or any prices are even mentioned! Although the reviewer does mention 'small vineyards' and 'distinctive, hard-to-find appellations'. Like what? Does that have any meaning to anyone? And this review was of a French restaurant, where the wines ought to be of paramount importance. How hard is it to spend a few minutes examining the list? Of course, that assumes knowledge on the part of the reviewer in the first place, but even if you're clueless about wine, why not do five minutes of research and pick out some good bottles? For example, I might mention the Puligny Montrachet 1er cru Folatieres Domaine Paul Pernot, which at $132 on this particular restaurant's list, is less than double the retail price, which is a fair and gentle markup (even though the reviewer claims that '...prices are marked up as usual.', a completely unhelpful phrase, and really, there is no 'usual' markup anymore). If you were looking for a nice splurge, there it is, and that took about five minutes of checking. Remember, at an expensive dinner, your beverages could eat up as much as one-third to one-half of your check, so some guidance is really important.
(And by the way, what is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, you might ask? To quote everyone's favorite wine bible, it is: “Our basic award, for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style. Typically, these lists offer at least 100 selections.” And how many restaurants receive this prestigious award, you may ask? Well, there are currently over 3000 restaurants who have received this 'award', and for a non-refundable fee of $250, you too may be eligible, as long as you have a fax number. I wonder how many places get turned down? With over 4000 restaurants comprising the three levels of award winners, you do the math. Works out pretty well for everyone, especially Marvin Shanken, publisher of WS.)
So basically you're left to do your own research before you go out, because you don't want to spend twenty minutes at your table examining the wine list like it's written in Braille, and then end up with a mediocre, expensive bottle, anyway. First rule of reviewing: your job is to reveal, not conceal.
...And that's just the wine.
COMING UP-The Name of the Game is Ass-Kissing, Name-Dropping, and Freebies.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Exclusive BBQ Ribs and Chicken Legs

I've never been inside The House of Bargains Thrift Store at 100 NE 79th St, but I have spent some time in their parking lot, inhaling the aromas of the smoky ribs and barbecued chicken laid out on two big grills. The large man with the big tongs has arrived at 7AM to begin the smoking, and the ribs are ready at 10:30. The chicken legs have been marinating for a while, too, so when you're ready for lunch, it's ready for you. Sometimes the smokerman's not there, sometimes he's there until late afternoon or evening, and sometimes he's there but he's cooking for a 'private' event. But usually, on Thursdays and Fridays, you can smell the meat from blocks away, either smoking or being crisped up on the grill. The rib 'sandwich' is $5, chicken is $3, or 2/$5. The homemade hot sauce isn't too hot, so get the 'hot', not the mild, but not too much. The ribs are meaty and smoky, and so is the chicken, and you don't want a ladleful of sauce drowning the tender meat. Try this guy's ribs on a Thursday or Friday, and I guarantee you will be thinking about them all next week. And of course your fingers will taste good all afternoon. (By the way, for those not familiar with this kind of 'sandwich', feel free to toss aside the slices of white bread that are piled on top of the meat after mopping up any excess sauce, you're not required to eat them. Or, if you like,you can just use them as napkins.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's Not Always Asses and Ears

While I'm all about the 'variety' cuts of cow, the unsung slow-cooked bits that go unmentioned in polite company, there is something to be said about the fine and dandy top cuts, the steaks, that don't need much preparation or imagination, just a smoking hot cast-iron skillet, one minute per side, and a knife. This cut is a Mishima Ranch Wagyu sirloin, $18/lb., easily the best steak I've ever eaten. And if you look at it this way-there's enough for two, at 18 ounces, or about $20, there is no faster dinner imaginable, and the pleasure lasts and lasts. In that sense, it's almost economical. This is not a dry-aged, complex, or tangy/minerally tasting steak, but a subtle expression of the essence of well-bred and well-fed cattle. Tell your friends you've eaten the best. Available at Norman Brothers, located between the Snapper Creek and Don Shula Expressways (pure Miami, baby).



One Minute per side-no more!

Crusted on the outside,
very rare on the inside

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Souse is a lousy word. SOWSS. Sounds like a drunk. In the old WC Fields movie, 'The Bank Dick', Fields plays Egbert Souse, but he pronounces it sooSAY, classing it up, but with his big red nose and ruddy cheeks, everyone just keeps referring to him as SOWSS, anyway. I feel the same about the classic, perhaps notorious, stew, of the same name, found in Caribbean countries and southern African-American homes, and usually eaten on the weekends. You just can't tart this up. When blues shouter Bessie Smith hollered, “Gimme a pig foot and a bottle of beer,” well, that's kind of how I feel when I end up at the 'GREAT SOUSE' truck at four in the morning outside the strip club. But let me backtrack for a moment. I've had souse all over this town, ENT souse (ears, nose, and throat), tongue and tail souse, diner souse, haute souse (it can be done), even had the no-pork chicken souse (why?). I've even had it at the ice cream store on NW 27th Ave. (it pairs nicely with Pistachio). I'm convinced the vinegary innards stock is both a hangover cure AND cause, like the booze it so beautifully complements. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to eat souse on a warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon, sober and not hungover, from a nice ceramic bowl with a silver soup spoon, catching every rainbow-ed oil slick of pig juice with your spoon before it drips down your chin. Washing it down with cool, sweetened iced tea while dabbing one's moist brow with a crisp white linen napkin. Personally, I've never seen it done, but I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done it, and was perfectly satisfied. I can only say that this is a big mistake, and that this food cries out for cold beer and a bottle of gin (listen to Bessie, Lady Day, etc., their wisdom is unmatched, my chirren). (Warning-Pictures not for the faint of heart or stomach.)

Three top pork souses and a chicken souse for the non-swine-eaters.

Many Parts

Some Parts

Nothin but ears, baby

Chicken, but still a mouthful

Gimme a pig foot, and two scoops
of Rum Raisin on a waffle cone

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Lookin' for a Place Called Lee Ho Fook's

Stripe is a word created for
busy people by Sang's on 163rd St in
North Miami Beach.
I'm guessing it's
short for 'strips of tripe', thus 'stripe'.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Is the Miami Food Scene an Unmitigated Fucking Disaster? Part I-Who Are We?

While there has been some grumbling over the summer about the future of the Miami restaurant scene, I chalk it up to the fact that there are fewer out-of-towners here for us to service, so perhaps we have too much time on our hands, and, as all bored ladies of the court eventually must, we turn on ourselves. After reading the NY Times Dining section two weeks ago about all the exciting fall restaurant openings in the city (sixty-six, in fact), and noticing the two Miami openings worthy of being mentioned (another Michael Mina steakhouse and a BLT Steak are planned for Miami-great, two more overpriced hotel-based steak houses to not give a shit about-give me a moment to pluck my own eyeballs out with my bare hands...ahhh, thank you), and shedding a tear or two, in the mail comes the new Saveur.

'Chicago!' the cover screams, with the exclamation point, and goes on to list and describe some of the most cutting-edge restaurants in the world, a culinary history of almost epic proportions, and a citizenry that accepts and encourages experimentation, but also understands the complex issues facing diners today, particularly the controversy over Chicago's Foie Gras ban, which has left many Chicagoans either fighting mad at those who still sell it, or simply shrugging their shoulders in a 'those crazy kids!' kind-of way. This is all while maintaining long-standing mid-western ethnic traditions in a way that only a truly sophisticated and open-minded city can.

Now, I'm not going to even try to compare Miami to any other city, or even explain away our shortcomings. I'll leave that to perhaps our most well-known chef, the beloved Norman Van Aken. “I don't think Miami is capable of being a big foodie town,” he told the Herald when he closed his place this summer. “Miami was a better place in the early '90's,” he goes on. “What's happening today is one step above fast-food nation.” Ouch, babe! So I guess Mr. Van Aken feels he was serving yahoos for 15 years? Insulting one's customers is one thing, but maybe some people did understand him, obviously many did. Or maybe he's really saying that all those people who 'bought into' his cuisine were wrong. Hey, I agree for the most part. What is the dominant restaurant cuisine here, anyway? Take away the mango, the signature of the 'Mango Gang' and what do you have that is distinctly and unequivocally Miami Cuisine? Stone crab claws? The Cuban Sandwich? Bustelo from the can with enough sugar in it to kill a diabetic? (By the way, the Starbucks across from David's on Lincoln Rd. is always packed-it seems even our 'Cuban coffee culture' is dying a slow death.)

When Norman closed Mundo, or Doug Rodriguez closed the original OLA, no one really even noticed. Why all the hysteria now? The 'recent buzz' about Miami's 'culinary renaissance' was coming from...whom? Who exactly was saying this? Perhaps the same people who are now saying the exact opposite? So the very notion of Miami's culinary rise was puffed up by the same people who now lament its premature demise. In other words, people were believing their own hype. Another dire Miami pitfall. Don't you know that the more a scene is hyped, the crappier it is, in exact inverse proportion? Or maybe it's just overreacting? Hasn't Doug Rodriguez been opening and closing restaurants here for two decades? And if we're going to be shocked by the closing of, say, Restaurant Brana, M Woods, Mosaico, Duo, Johnny V's, Pacific Time, Norman's, etc.-shouldn't we first look at the fact that maybe, just maybe, these restaurants just weren't really that good? I know rents have skyrocketed, especially on Lincoln Rd., but does anyone really believe that rents in the Design District and elsewhere are not exorbitant? Or that other operating costs have not also mushroomed? Why else would successful star chefs, like Michelle Bernstein or Michael Schwartz, need deep-pocketed backers?

But Van Aken may be on to something, however indelicately he expressed himself, and however much he is also partly to blame here. One of our flaws is our 'second-city' mentality. We have to stop rolling over for those that come to visit our sandy beaches and seedy strip clubs and live a life apart from the one that others choose for us. Now is the time to reject the desire to try and 'catch up' to New York, or leap ahead of another city, but to truly identify with that which is unique to Miami, while incorporating the best culinary ideas from around the globe, and embracing them with both our stomachs and our wallets.

So the question remains, how do we get ourselves up to that next level? My gentle contention is that there is nothing wrong with the Miami restaurant scene that can't be fixed with a ten-megaton bomb.

COMING UP-Total Fucking Destruction, The Phoenix Rises from the Ashes, and Topless Models Eating Foie Gras!

Chimol Jones

Heading east on 95th St out of Miami Shores, on my way to a thrift store, I saw a hand-printed sign reading 'Tortilla' and underneath, 'Fritanga'. Naturally, I viewed that sign as an embossed invitation with my name engraved in gold on it. So, clueless about the nature of this place, but already through the door in my mind, I hung a U-ey and dropped in. Turns out the owner, Annie (ah-nee), is from Nicaragua, and she's turning out a few nice, hot, dishes. I passed on the chicken legs, which were just being brought out from the kitchen, and went with the pork and potatoes. It was a great midday meal. The pork was fork-tender and tasty, and it was accompanied by white rice cooked al dente and fragrant with butter, some boiled lemony yucca, a thick and meaty portion of red kidney beans, and topped with chimol, which is a Nicaraguan condiment similar to a pickled pico de gallo. The warm tortilla Nicaraguense is a must---ask for it. A good find, stop here on your way home if you're looking for something a little different, and you see the sign.
(Don't know the name of the place-for now I'll just call it Annie's)
NW 95th St just east of NW 17th Ave, on the north side

Nicaraguan Lunch...$6.00

Oh, and the Mais Morou is just $3.50,
not $3.95. Hope the extra $.45
didn't deter anyone

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Eat Latin Food and Live!

There's something that bothers me about the phrase 'Latin Food'. So many cuisines get thrown into the mix, that the distinct and often unique dishes from quite different countries get bundled together simply because of geography, or a common language. Take Peruvian food, for example. Most people know that acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa got much of his inspiration from Peruvian cuisine, which is reflected in many of his ground-breaking dishes, particularly the octopus tiradito and seafood ceviche. Matsuhisa points out in his cookbook that when he first opened Nobu in New York, in 1994, “...hardly anyone knew what ceviche was.” The problem has become that with the mainstreaming of ceviche, as with supermarket sushi, so much of it is so bad, that it makes you wonder what the big deal was in the first place. Too much lime, fish that isn't pristine, lame Nobu knockoffs (hot oil/jalapenos on everything), etc. But the classic Peruvian dishes, when presented properly, still have the ability to surprise; and to belie the popular, yet woefully limiting conception, of a homogeneous 'Latin Cuisine'.

My introduction to Peruvian food did not come from ceviche, though, it came straight from the heart-literally. The 'anticucho', the grilled heart, that is. Heart may seem unusual in the US, but it is a fairly common dish throughout the rest of the world, where 'nose to tail' eating is more prevalent. At El Rocoto, a small storefront in an abandoned-looking strip mall (actually the owners of the shopping center went bankrupt, and almost all the stores are in fact boarded-up), the dish is served simply grilled, with an accompaniment of fat corn kernels and a small hunk of potato. There is plenty of meat on the plate, and heart is very lean and rich, so a small dish is all you really need. Usually marinated overnight to tenderize and add flavor, the heart must be first cut in strips before cooking, to minimize chewiness. At El Rocoto, it is prepared flawlessly, and each bite reveals another component of the marinade. The accompanying small dish of fiery Huancaina sauce is as welcome as a bernaise to a steak. The sauce, which is based on white cheese, garlic, and hot aji amarillo peppers, goes well with the rich strips of heart, and, in fact, it goes well with everything.

The ceviche that followed was a chilled dish of cooked mussels served on the half-shell-a complete 180 from the heart. Where the anticuchos were warm and rich, the mussels were cool and subtle, although they retained their flavor well, even under a mountain of what appeared to be an entire diced red onion, those over sized corn kernels again, diced tomatoes, and spicy jalapenos. Of course you can't eat mussels raw, but they are so slightly cooked, that they don't get rubbery or tasteless-a common problem in general when ordering mussels, where the broth in which they are cooked retains all the flavor, not the meat itself, which is often overdone. There are nine plump mussels on the plate, and after I ate most of the heart, I had a hard time finishing everything.

I washed it all down with a cold Cristal, the beer not the Champagne, and took in the scene-not much to look at, the music kind of crappy, only three other people in the place. In fact, after entering the shopping center, I had turned around and left after noticing not one person inside and no cars at all in the enormous parking lot. I was deciding where else to go, when a family drove up and entered the place, so I followed. You have to really want to eat here-even the credit card machine was broken that day, resulting in a not very pleasant post-meal jaunt to the 7-11 for some cash. But the service was cheery, and the food exactly right. After I returned with my cash for the sweet and very apologetic ladies who were running the place, I peered in the kitchen and waved to another smiling face-the chef, who obviously knew her magic had worked on me.
(Special thanks to Anne (via weinoo) of eGullet for the tip!)
El Rocoto
3990 SW 40th Ave
Pembroke Park 33023

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mais Morou and You

Cute story-got a minute? Some time ago I was riding my scooter along 54th St, looking for the new location of 190 Restaurant, near N. Miami Ave. It looked like a pretty desolate spot (it's since been fixed up), but something bright caught my eye-a fresh 'Now Open' sign across the street. There was a chalked-in entry under the name LAKAY, that read 'Mais Morou $3.95” Now I didn't know what Lakay or Mais Morou meant, but I definitely got $3.95. I plugged around the corner and pulled in front of what looked like a little takeout next to a marginal grocery store, back of the church there. This is Little Haiti, and, to my utter delight, I was about to get what I like to call a Haitian Education. That's where one simple question leads to many complicated answers. The pretty girl behind the counter allowed me my one question-what is Mais Morou? Well, from what I remember of the answer, it is a traditional Haitian breakfast, which consists of a brown trout ragout, accompanied by a cornmeal concoction mixed with a bean or two, which I first thought was beans and rice until I swallowed my first forkful. It had an almost toasted texture, and each mouthful revealed some new flavor. The trout was also pretty flavorful, soft and delicate, and I marveled at all the cultures that eat fish for breakfast, as opposed to the American-style bacon or ham and eggs. (More on that later.) A couple of boiled bananas and a watermelon soda rounded out the meal. While this is primarily a takeout, there are four or five chairs pointed at the TV, which is usually playing some sporting event that is hotly argued over by those who are eating there. While we chatted, I asked about the sugar-coated little fried things behind the glass counter, and I was told they were beignets. Now I've only had beignets in New Orleans, and these looked nothing like them. However, the charming girl behind the counter insisted that I take a bag home with me gratis, “ that you will come back.” The next day, I was drawn back to Lakay, and not just by the beignets, which kind of reminded me of thin pieces of sugared french toast, but by the promise of another revelatory dish. This time, I got the beef stew, which came with the 'real mais', which was surprisingly spicy, but smooth and yellow with a few coarse lumps, what in polite circles might be referred to as polenta. The beef stew was thick with either spinach or kale, I couldn't tell, carrots, lots of vegetables, onions, almost like a beef fricassee-this was no breakfast combo, this was a pound and a half of serious midday meal, cooked by someone with a head and a hand for spicing things up. It came with a half a banana and a cup of beans and gravy. I asked for a soup, as I was a little under the weather, and I was directed to the bouyon. I mistakenly heard bouillon, or broth, and was blown away when I got home and opened the container. Of course I should have guessed from the weight, but this was no thin soup. Bouyon, as I have come to know it at Lakay, is a stew that is thick with potatoes and vegetables, and has an earthy beef flavor that can only come from bones, baby. This version also has some crab in it, imparting a subtle seafood undertone. I don't know how they do it in that little kitchen back there, but they have created some extremely fine Haitian food that reflects the French influence, but never strays far from the island's unique character. And my Haitian Education continues. LAKAY-45 NE 54th St., Miami, FL



Mais Morou

Beef Stew

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Irving and His Magical Food Truck

The glamor and excitement of the giant cruise ships parked at the Port of Miami are not lost on Irving Matutina. As an immigrant from the Philippines in 1973, who arrived in Miami via L.A. and Chicago, he has had a long career in high-end food service, both as a maitre d' on luxury liners, and at the Sonesta Beach Resort. In 2001, he finally decided to strike out on his own. With his wife, Ruth, and sister-in-law Eva, he would use his family's cooking skills and years of training and hard work to create a menu of traditional Filipino dishes, both simple and complex, and serve those who disembarked from the Royal Caribbean leviathans at the port. But not the cruisers themselves; no, they are whisked away to Miami's predictable tourist sites, and never even see Irving's fantastic array of exotic fried fish and eggplant omelets. It is the people helping the passengers disembark that are Irving's customers-fellow Filipinos, who long for the tastes and smells of a Pinoy-home-cooked dish, like Pork Chocolate, something that will probably never be found on any cruise-ship menu.
Where is this restaurant you may ask? It is actually a food truck, a mobile eatery, or munch-wagon as I like to call them. The food is prepared fresh early in the morning to ensure Irving's arrival at 9AM at the port, in his usual spot, in the parking lot of Terminal F. The family, including the sisters' mother, prepares the daily menu every Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings in the small kitchen at the back of The Philippine Food Mart, their grocery store on Biscayne Blvd and 88th St., where the sign on the door says not 'Please Come In', but 'Tuloy Po Kayo', its tagalog version. Do you remember back in the old days of television, when a new TV reporter would come to town, and he or she would be sent on an overnight 'ride-along' with some police officers, to get a feel for their work, and the 'pulse' of the city. I suggest to Ruth, Eva, and Irving, that this can be better accomplished through an early morning drive in their rolling restaurant from Miami Shores to the Port of Miami, with some strong coffee and the aromas of fresh-cooked galung-gung (fried round scad, a local fish) permeating our senses.
On the ride down, Irving and I discuss family and food. He has three sons who work in the hospitality industry, including two who work on cruise ships. It turns out that because of poverty in the Philippines, working on a cruise ship is considered a plum job, allowing the workers to send home most of their pay. In fact, cruise ship workers are predominantly Filipinos, and over their ten-month tours, they get homesick. Irving sends them back home through his Pork Adobo and Pancit Noodles, among more exotic fare, like Bangus (fried milk fish), and Torta Talong, which is like a Spanish tortilla (omelet), but made with Chinese eggplant instead of potatoes. We also talk about Si-Si, one of my favorites, which is basically boiled pig ears, which are then dried, seasoned well with vinegar, soy, sugar, garlic, shallots, carrots, and tarragon, then broiled and cut into little strips- a great snack while having a cold beer or a drink.
Upon arrival at his regular spot, in a particularly unglamorous parking lot dwarfed by Royal Caribbean's 2700-passenger Majesty of the Seas, Irving prepares for the lunch rush. He knows the ship's schedule and the workers' break times, so that all of the more than a dozen dishes he serves are hot and fresh for their arrival. “We never recycle food,” says Irving, as he piles plates high with the aforementioned Pork Chocolate, which, as you can imagine, contains no chocolate. It is named for its chocolate-y color, which comes from stewing pork meat chunks and bits of stomach in pig's blood. (Back home it would include intestines as well, an ingredient that, according to Irving, is difficult to find in Miami.) The result is a tangy and richly fulfilling treat, a perfect counterpoint to another popular dish, that of perfectly cooked sweet head-on shrimp. “In the Philippines, or any market in Southeast Asia, you would never see shrimp sold without the head, ” says Irving, shaking his own head at the common practice in the US of beheading shrimp. “It is just not done.” The stir-fried squid, three-inch long whole tubes, not cut-up rings, purple and spongy in their rich seasoning broth of tomatoes, vinegar, onions, and garlic, is also a big seller on this day.
Additionally, Irving does some business selling packaged products from the Philippines, like those cute little puddings, and bright yellow cups of instant coconut/corn-flavored porridges. Some people even buy vitamins and other supplies from the truck, but the focus is on the freshly prepared delicacies like Longaniza, a fire-red sausage that manages to be both spicy and sweet at the same time, served with a pickled onion and tomato relish that perfectly complements those tastes. In the Philippines, every town has its own preparations for dishes like Si-Si or the Longaniza, but here in Miami, while the Si-Si is homemade, the Longaniza is imported. “It's too much trouble to make sausages at home, and these are almost as good as homemade,” declares Irving.
Even just the discussion of possible home sausage-making makes me understand the breadth of Irving and family's commitment to getting it right. Not for some claim to 'authenticity', but because back home in the Philippines, there would be no other way. And with all the tagalog being spoken around me, maybe a little bit of that seven thousand-plus island nation is transported halfway around the world, by the smells and tastes coming from a homey food truck, parked in a parking lot in the shadow of an exotic-locale-bound luxury liner. The ship's workers are all back on board, so we fold down the truck's stainless steel doors, and enter the slowly gathering early evening traffic of Biscayne Boulevard in our home, Miami.

Off-Season Hours:

Friday, Saturday, and Sundays, 9AM-3PM

Monday, September 03, 2007

Tough decision between the Chopped Steak and the Franks & Beans.
Definitely going with the Chocolate Pudding, though.