Chuan Lu Garden – Orlando, FL

Sometimes you self-advocate to an actuality which causes a questioning in your ability to tell good from great. There are far too few noodle shops in Central Florida. No debate there. Yet, there are fewer still who actually offer homemade versions of their namesake, and few do it at high levels of expertise. By few I mean one.

Chuan Lu Garden, a no frills, microscopic jewel, is perched directly at center stage of Orlando’s Asian food version of Main st. I had to ask myself, “Is it great on its own merits or is it great to me because there’s no other Northern Chinese noodle show in town?” Well, let’s look at the facts. They insist on making all of their hand pulled noodles in the back, just through the swinging doors leading to a furiously busy kitchen. This review may be short, but it doesn’t take long to highlight the value of a handmade product. I ordered just two things, hardly enough to form a complete picture of a restaurant in most cases. However, based on the high levels of craft found in each of these items, I feel confident enough to give it our stamp of approval. If you’re wondering how to tell if something is made by man or machine, I have an easy test. Look for imperfections. If you receive an order of six dumplings, and no two look the same, (except maybe at Din Tai Fung) you’re in good hands. If your siu mai are identical, you’ve got knockoff purses on your hands. Dumplings are like snowflakes. No two are alike.

Chuan Lu spread 1

As for the noodles, not only are they made in-house, they’re perfectly tender with just enough bounce, due to the reaction of sodium bicarbonate and flour. I ordered my noodles as one should in a place that specializes in Northern Chinese and Szechuan provincial delights; fermented black bean sauce mixed with minced pork, scallion, cilantro and cucumber. In most places you’ll find it called Zhajiangmian. It’s difficult for mt heart to praise a place so highly when I can literally look out the front window of Chuan Lu Garden and see the building that houses Ming’s Bistro, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Orlando. The good news is that these two don’t really compete head to head. Northern Chinese cuisine has very specific characteristics, stemming largely from the climate. This food was made to warm up your insides during the harsh winter. Luckily it has the added benefit of obliterating my debilitating pollen induced head congestion.

Chuan Lu spread 2

This proved to be the case in my second visit when I insisted we re-order the Zhajiangmian so my compadres could sample the springy noodles. We also asked our waitress for her favorite dish on the menu. After a little coaxing she graciously admitted her preference for cumin lamb, strips of tender lamb shoulder, wok seared with onions, leeks, lemongrass and a generous handful of chilies. The most powerful flavor was the potent Szechuan peppercorn. These berries aren’t used in many other cuisines that I’ve seen. They’re flavor is aggressive, asserting itself above all others the second it hits each of you 10 thousand or flavor rescepticles. The peppercorns cause a strange buzzing sensation in the mouth. They aren’t spicy hot per se. No, instead they enhanced the rest of the dish with the most welcome strangeness. The other dish that must be noted on the second visit was a different kind of dumpling called steamed juicy pork bun. They remind me of a cross between a soup dumpling and baked pork buns, with a layer of crispy crepe batter circulating on the bottom. Its the only place I’ve ever had them so they are a must!

Chuan Lu spread 3

Amidst the many quality restaurants in this area of Orlando, it can be a chore to stand out. I’ve seen so many good enough type restaurants in this corridor fold because they just weren’t good enough to cut the tight battle raging on Mills and Colonial. Chuan Lu Garden offers something truly special and easily warrants return visits. At the very least it should make it on your list for a multicultural Colonial Drive food crawl!

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Blackbrick – Miami, FL

I think it’s high time we got back to our roots here at Eat a Duck. I mean it’s been what, TWO posts since we featured dim sum around here! Well not to worry, we’d never let the dumplings disappear for long, and neither will Richard Hales, chef and owner of Blackbrick, Miami’s sorely needed dim sum mecca. Chef Hales, best known for the popular Korean joint, Sakaya Kitchen and its mobile counterpart, Dim Ssam a GoGo, clearly saw the gap in Miami’s dining landscape. Until now, finding truly great dim sum was a chore at best, and nearly impossible at worst.

Sure, you’ve got Mr. Chow on Miami Beach, but who wants to drop $13 on a plate of siu mai? Alternatively you could make the trek out to Tropical dim sum on Sundays for one of the only dim sum cart services I’m aware of, but neither of these options are ideal. What Miami needed was a centrally located spot, within a few minutes drive and preferably near other like-minded restaurants for obvious food crawl possibilities! Chef Hales found the perfect spot, nestled right in between the design district and Wynwood, two of the hottest neighborhoods in town.

Blackbrick spread 1

At first glance, the large Target shopping center where Blackbrick is located may seem like another bland, prefabricated Florida “village”. Clearly though, someone did their homework. Instead of bringing in the typical corporate restaurants like Brio, P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory, they opted for independent, local talent. Granted, there’s still a Five Guys and a World of Beer, but for the most part, the dining options in Midtown are something to be excited about.

Blackbrick is one of the places warranting the most excitement, not only for the crew of Eat a Duck, but for food lovers around the country, even being nominated for Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America. The reason behind the buzz is no secret, as Blackbrick combines tradition and creativity seamlessly.

Blackbrick dim sum

Their dim sum selection, while not exhaustive, is of a quality you won’t find anywhere else. Each item is cooked to order, so while the wait may be more than some veteran dim sum-o-philes are used to, the resulting flavor makes it all worth it. The wrappers of the har gow and pork siu mai are perfectly cooked, tender and toothsome. The fillings are equally well executed. The shrimp and scallop dumplings are fresh, leaving none of the low-tide aftertaste some lesser establishments might offer.

A couple of instant favorites are the fried pork cheek dumplings (pictured in the first spread) with its succulent filling and drizzle of slightly sweet sauce, and the jade Peking duck dumpling, an idea which I’m upset I haven’t found until now. Both of these manage to find their way to my table during each visit. Do we have any bao fans? Blackbrick makes a mean steamed bbq pork char siu bao with that wonderfully sweet meat filling. A couple of these for breakfast would start any day off right.

Blackbrick spread 2

But Blackbrick isn’t simply a dumpling house. Looking for some comfort food, why not take a look at their selection of fantastic fried rice that will expand your opinion of what the dish can be. Not content to match your neighborhood Chinese take out joint, Chef Hales spikes his rice with things like rock shrimp, lobster tail and duck. Another exciting option pairs bacon with kim chi made by sister restaurant Sakaya Kitchen.

The Chinese brunch, once dominated by dim sum alone is now joined by a bevy of options including a breakfast fried rice of sausage, eggs and country potato, shrimp and grits made with cornmeal congee, bacon and a poached egg, and my personal favorite Chinese fried chicken and fortune cookie waffle with a scallion, ginger maple syrup. Don’t forget the salt and pepper tots! Here they’re prepared simply with peppers and onion, achieving a level of spice that gets your brow moist but keeps you coming back for more.

My favorite dish however, might be Blackbrick’s take on Dandan Mian, a Sichuan dish usually consisting of a spicy, chili oil tinged sauce, minced pork and scallions. Here it resembles a Chinese version of ragu alla bolognese. This is one of those dishes I could eat for the rest of my life and be a happy man. Chef Hales chose bucatini, a stout noodle that can stand up to the mountain of fiery pork and scallions.

Blackbrick spread

After a half-dozen visits to Blackbrick, it’s solidified itself in my pantheon of go-to Miami restaurants. Over the past few years, the food scene in there has grown by leaps and bounds, leaving behind the tired, stodgy cuisine of the late 1990s and early 2000’s in favor of a vibrant blend of traditional fare, executed well and bold new creations destined to become classics. Blackbrick is indicative of this trend and stands among the leaders of great dining establishments in South Florida.

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Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #6

It’s shaping up to be quite the epic contest of Noodle Wars 2015 between James and myself. While I have gotten more strict with my eating habits, there’s no chance I will ever deny myself the joy of eating great Vietnamese food. I may have temporarily dislocated pork shoulder from my daily intake, but that isn’t stopping me from enjoying the extensive menu over at Pho Cali in Sarasota. I opted for a bowl of lemongrass beef bun, with spicy chile and onions. It almost made me forget my fatty pork patties. Jimmy more than made up for my pork omissions. We both have a deep yearning to find that next great menu item that’s possibly hiding on the back page. In this case, it was Ha Noi noodles with pickled green papaya, grilled pork and pork meatballs. What a refreshing feeling it is for each of us to have a place in our respective towns with such high flavor and quality. It’s been a long time coming.

Speaking of a long time coming, a wood fired pizza insurgence is under way. Have you joined the republic? We are feverishly composing our thoughts on Polpo Pizza Co. to express our love for what they are producing. I know there are a lot of pizza people out there. You owe it to yourself to plan a nice beach day in the Sarasota area, with special attention paid to procuring a pizza pie produced particularly by Polpo at the precise period and place Polpo pre-determines to park.

Moving on, we found that going back to our well of old favorites resulted in great rewards. I haven’t been back to Beewon Korean restaurant in almost five years until last week. I found an old picture of my son noshing at the table back then. Poor guy didn’t even have a hair on his head. But he sure was happy taking on their bulgogi beef. While the sure things (Mahans & Oxford Exchange) triumphed, the new stumbled. Deciding after many contemplative passing glances at their storefront on Colonial Dr. in Orlando, I gave Mamak Asian Street Food a shot. While their rendition of Char Kway Teow (a wide rice noodle dish similar to chow fun) impressed, the beef curry meatballs left me wincing with confusion. The curry sauce itself tasted fine, yet the meatballs seemed like they were purchased at IKEA. Truthfully, I guess I should say that I quite enjoy their meatballs. But I expect them to stay at IKEA, in a pool of brown gravy, garnished with Lingonberry compote and not curiously found in an Asian hawker style restaurant. I cant say for a fact they bought them elsewhere or made them by hand, shaped to extremely perfect proportions. They were just very, very familiar to me.  I say maybe give Mamak a shot, but not before going to every single other jaw dropping place in a two block radius. With big guns like Ming’s Bistro, Anh Hong, Little Saigon, and Chuan Lu Garden, Mamak has a lot of competition. It’s by far the prettiest space on the block. So if they can get the entire menu hitting on all fronts, look out!

Finally, we finish at home. We try to eat what’s in season and tastes best, wherever we live. In Florida, we’re seeing a burst of peaches on the scene. They’re mainly smaller and thinner skinned than their relatives that hail from Georgia in my opinion, which results in a more concentrated flavor. We found some gems at Sweetwater Farms yet again. Large heads of broccoli, Japanese eggplant, and a slab of grass-fed sirloin from Providence Cattle proved to make a wonderful version of a New York style Chinese take out favorite; Beef and Broccoli. Another Stone Crab season has come to an end. I got my last chance to enjoy my favorite claw based foods. For one day last week, Whole Foods had them on special at their beer bar for 2$ a claw, so I took advantage of the situation. When you see that kind of deal, never pass it up! We’ll see you next week!

EAD Weekly #6

Garde Manger Revisited

After only two visits, Garde Manger has entrenched itself deep in my heart. It’s not simply because the food hits the mark with near perfect accuracy, or that they’ve achieved such a warm and inviting atmosphere, but because it has quickly become forever linked to happy times with friends and family. On my most recent visit, I was bestowed the honor of minting two new oyster lovers. Only Garde Manger, with a constant supply of the most pristine bivalves North America has to offer, has the power to turn people’s preferences around on a dime. I ordered a beginners pack of oysters, featuring a pair each of Cooke from PEI, Chipaganne from New Brunswick and Montreal’s own Trésor du Large (thanks to Meggie for the spelling!). I’ve said it before, but in my opinion the oysters here set the bar, no where else even comes close. As a tasty accompaniment, we chose a tidy bowl of buttery smoked salmon and pickled onion.

Garde Manger spread 1

With five people, we planned on sampling a majority of the menu if possible, starting with a crisp beet salad with apple radishes in a buttermilk dressing. As you’ll tend to do at Garde Manger, especially in the winter, we left the light dishes behind and dove headlong into a plate of pork and mushroom bread pudding topped with mizuna and a soft-boiled quail egg. Keeping the rich train rolling was a hot reisten brioche topped with foie gras and cranberry sauce. The thick lobes of buttery foie linked up perfectly with the tangy cranberries. The brioche standing by to soak up all the glorious drippings.

Garde Manger spread 2

Everyone at the table, all loved ones of mine, did me proud with their selections. As this was Montreal, the lobster poutine was an automatic choice. Fresh cheese curds, thick gravy and a sprinkling of chives were mounded over succulent chunks of lobster meat. Somehow the frites managed to sustain the moist barrage and kept things crisp and salty, flavoring the crustacean nicely. On the other side of the table, the walleye with quinoa, artichoke and rosemary crisps was a hit with the ladies.

Garde Manger spread 3

A handsome plate of seared scallops soon arrived joined by Romanesco broccoli, buttercup squash and bacon topped with healthy slices of black truffle. Scallops are a tricky protein to get right. The chefs at Garde Manger will take you to school in the art of scallop searing, achieving a perfect caramelized layer on the outside, while leaving the interior pearly and loose, sort of like a medium rare steak. Speaking of medium rare, a grouping of slice venison looked like little targets, their deep crimson centers indicating where the choicest bites would be found. The sometimes gamey nature of venison was noticeably absent here. A smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée and crispy bits of kale gave contrasting textures to the beautiful meat. I was leery of the last seafood dish, a seared fillet of cod surrounded by clams in a fennel purée. I’m a notorious fennel hater, but I have full trust in Chuck Hughes and company, and with good reason. The purée was delicious, maybe it was the mixture of saffron and butter that tamed the licorice tinge that I so abhor, or it could have been the sweet caramelized endives. Either way I found a preparation for fennel that I could swallow, and dare I say, enjoy.

Garde Manger spread 4

Nothing could have prepared me for the dish I chose. Whole Cornish game hen, swaddled with winter veggies, stuffed with foie gras, mushrooms and red cabbage topped with truffle butter. The smell coming off this bird was enough to induce a truffle aroma coma. I will admit, I was simultaneously excited and intimidated by the fowl. The prospect of an entire bird, with ribcage and all replaced with a foie gras, mushroom mixture was almost too much to resist. Needless to say, I dispatched the bird along with the truffle infused veggies.

Loyal readers, I feel that I’ve made this clear in last post on the subject, but if there’s one restaurant you visit while in Montreal, make sure it’s Garde Manger.

Eat a Duck’s Top Meals of 2014: Part II

I finally had the opportunity to travel a good amount in 2014 after years of being grounded. Naturally this led to of amazing meals. Apart from the food which, let’s face it, I wouldn’t be talking about if it weren’t unbelievable, the company with which I shared these dishes is really what bring these dishes to the forefront of my mind. While these five dishes run the gamut of price from nearly free to exorbitant, each one delivered something new and special. I chose my list based on how badly I want to go back and have them again. It was a difficult task, but here are my entries for the best of 2014!

  1. Spicy Chive and Pork Dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

spicy-chive-pork-dumplings

Very few dishes bring a smile to my face as easily as steaming hot dumplings. Shanghai Dumpling King served up this beautiful bowl of tender, savory and spicy pork and chive dumplings, swimming in a sea of sesame and chili oil and it was a wonder to behold. They’ve got their mixture down perfect and it’s habit forming as all great Chinese food should be. Logan may not believe in umami, but that’s exactly what we experienced that night in San Francisco.

  1. Thresher Shark Nugget at é – Las Vegas, NV

Thresher Shark Nugget

Have you had thresher shark? Have you had any shark? Yeah neither had I. I’m usually one to question the ethics of killing such a beautiful animal, sadly however, my moral compass went haywire when this thresher shark nugget, fried in a sherry vinegar tinged batter was presented to me. Think pork belly, but just the fat. That’s what this was like, gelatinous but tender with a depth of flavor rarely seen in most seafood.

  1. Veal Sweetbreads with Gnocchi Parisienne at Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

Sweetbreads

I feel like we talk about the “Anton Ego” moment around here a lot. How that one bite of food can instantly transport you through time. This veal sweetbread dish from Rooster and the Till did just that. As it touched my tongue I was somehow taken back to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with much more finely composed flavors. Very few dishes can match the balance of flavors and textures that this one achieved.

  1. Basil Pesto Ravioli at Beauty & Essex – New York, NY

Basil Pesto Ravioli from Beauty & Essex

Speaking of flavor, these precious little pockets of pesto contained a flavor so intense you’d be forgiven for thinking you were eating basil straight out of the garden. Aside from the freshness, who puts tomato sauce and pesto together? Chris Santos, that’s who, and it works so shut it. Too bad it’s not on the menu anymore!

  1. Sea Cucumber Roe at NAOE – Miami, FL

Sea Cucumber Roe from NAOE

Sea cucumber gonads…are you listening? The reproductive system…of a sea cucumber. Just so you understand how incredibly delicious this delicacy is, I’m going to completely ignore the beautiful tongue of uni sitting just to its right. This tiny morsel gave me an experience that I haven’t felt since my first taste of foie gras. A completely new and luxurious flavor like nothing I’ve ever eaten, silky, sweet, melt in your mouth, like if foie and crème brulée had a baby. I seriously considered a move to Hokkaido so I could hoard these little guys for myself, as if they aren’t rare enough as it is.

2014 Epcot Food & Wine Late Nights LIVE!

You know fall is in full swing when a dozen of the world’s finest culinary cultures gather around the World Showcase Lagoon to show off their regional specialties. This year, Logan and I were asked to give their new Late Nights Live event a test drive on the very first night it was open to the public. Think Food & Wine Festival mini. Here’s the rundown, the party starts at 9:45 pm, after the exhausted families have exited the park. Eighty bucks will get you a lanyard with a card good for five food items and one adult beverage, complete with light up disco cup. You’ve got six booths to choose your chow, while a live DJ serenades you with his best Skrillex impression. Best case scenario. in theory, you can drop your bean all while eating beans at the same time you can trip on some topiary.

 Disney Food & Wine Festival Late Nights

We scouted our choices before making any hasty decisions. The choices were as follows: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Greece, Canada, Ireland and the Dessert & Champagne booth. We were hoping that they’d rotate through the countries each week, but upon investigating, it seems that these booths will be repeated.

We hit Hawaii first and snapped up both choices, tuna poke with seaweed salad and lotus root, and kahlua sliders with sweet and sour pineapple chutney and spicy mayo. The slider was a slam dunk. I was worried the chutney would be overly sweet, but it brought just enough sugar to accentuate the pork. The kicker for me was the spicy mayo which had an addictive ginger tinge. The tuna poke was fresh but overly subtle if that even makes sense. The seaweed salad helped bring some much-needed umami.

Tuna poke & Kahlua sliders

Ireland is at the far side of the Late Nights Live event area, so we made the trek with the intent to eat our way back to the entrance. Lobster and seafood fisherman’s pie was, for me, a bit suspect. Seafood being served en masse in Disney doesn’t instill the greatest confidence. However I quickly reversed that opinion as soon as I tasted it. Smooth and creamy mashed potatoes hid tasty chunks of lobster and fish and the buttery crust made it pure comfort food. Not to be outdone was the chocolate lava cake (I’m not sure why it’s Irish but I didn’t complain). They’re about the size of a golf ball, but that’s all you’ll need because these little guys are rich. The pitch black Bailey’s ganache oozes out as soon as the fork touches down. Thankfully, the chefs kept the sweetness in check with just a simple glaze to finish it off.

Ireland - Lobster fisherman's pie, chocolate lava cake

The only real line started as soon as the party began. As it does every day at the festival, Canada is the belle of the ball with its truffled filet offering. If we were to compare food to the 1992 World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays (which happens like every single day), the steak would have to be Joe Carter. With its down to earth attitude and its constant perseverance, the filet, alongside its mushroom compliment keeps hitting frozen ropes through the gap year after year. The rainbow trout, (Canada’s second offering) well, it’s Pat Borders. An unlikely hero who rose from obscurity and public apathy.  The chefs at Disney decided against removing the skin. This was a bold move in my mind. I try to take my personal preference out of the equation when evaluating festival food. Remember this is for a mass audience. I feared the appeal of a skin on fish combo would be lost on the majority. Never have I been more incorrect. It added great flavor and complimented the crisp bacon that cascaded over the top of the filet, like tasty little unstable boulders.

Canada - Filet w: wild mushroom and truffle butter, smoked trout, frisée, bacon

Making our way towards the entrance and the Grecian booth, we picked up our souvenir cups with the special cocktail which both of us were indifferent on. Not because it was bad. We just don’t drink much. The cups were seizure inducing, like a DeadMau5 appearance, yet very cool, unlike a DeadMau5 appearance. As I type, my 6-year-old has already confiscated them for his private use. While in Greece, we ordered the chicken gyro as well as a boat of molten cheese topped with honey and roasted pistachio. I remember when the Greece booth opened a year or so ago, it had always been bypassed since the offerings appeared a bit plain jane to me. As Central Floridians, we have a cavalcade of Grecian delights within a short drive, which didn’t help motivate me to try it. The flavors on the gyro were very well done, with notes of lemon, garlic, and oregano all blanketed underneath a creamy tzatziki . If you’ve never had chicken souvlaki, this is a good representation. The melted cheese, made to resemble flaming saganaki was a study in simplicity, having only three known ingredients. That of the honey, pistachio and the cheese itself. It sure ain’t the prettiest filly in the stable. Nevertheless, on taste alone it was surely “affirmed.” Although I’ll admit to the fact that I’ll be stealing that flavor combo for personal use, I still hope in the future that this particular booth changes up their choices for a more adventurous Mediterranean take.

 Greece - Chicken gyro & Saganaki

Finally dessert was served. I have to say when we received our sampler plate of a tiramisu inspired opera gateau, blueberry lemon cheesecake Swiss roll, and passion fruit and lime gelée layered custard thing, I was baffled. This all was really great tasting stuff and wonderfully executed. We both had our preferences for the flavor combinations included in these mini offerings. I am a serious cheesecake and passion fruit guy, while James shares my passion for passion fruit and has a historic love affair with chocolate. Not only was this the most complex and complete dish, but at a $4.00 price point, it was also a comparative steal. We would like to thank the folks at Walt Disney World public relations for allowing us to be their guests. Think about the amount of food that comes out of each baby kitchen. No one had any complaints, or sent food back as far I could see and everyone was walking around dancing to the beat. We are adults acting like adolescents. Why? Because it’s a freaking great time.

Epcot Food & Wine dessert trio

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

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol II: Through the Mojo-ve Desert

A few days have passed since the Cubano Apuercolypse Tour came to an end, and our bellies are still recovering from the Spartan test we put them through. We carefully scored each restaurant, crunched the data, and have at last discovered which local establishment makes the best traditional Tampa style Cuban sandwich, something none of us take lightly for various reasons. Whether it’s because of ethnic background, a deep-rooted bond with the city, a never-ending quest for the best of what’s offered or simply because of an obsessive adoration of sandwiches, the competition was taken seriously, as judging anything, especially food, ought to be.

Bay of Pigs

So why do we insist on a narrowing down our favorite to skew towards a Tampa style? We feel that the Tampa style encapsulates why the sandwich was invented in the first place. A bunch poor folk, from varied backgrounds, put the best of what they had together to make something great. To this day, a Tampa Cuban is one of the best examples of cultural diversity we have in this country, and we wanted to showcase those who do it best. Naturally you’ll find a majority of Cubanos at Cuban restaurants and bodegas, but a few gems out there that stray from tradition. Just like every vulgarian knows about Thriller, but not everyone digs down to PYT.

With that said, let’s lay out the basics. A Tampa Cuban should include the following components:

  1. Cuban bread
  2. Roast pork (preferably shredded or pulled, not deli sliced)
  3. Ham
  4. Salami
  5. Swiss
  6. Mustard
  7. Pickles

Anything that strayed too far from these basic qualities had points deducted. As far as extra ingredients, there are certain allowances to the rule as long as the sandwich is made better by the inclusion. Mayonnaise was a hotly debated topic. Our collective stance was that long as it didn’t detract from the end product, a deduction would not be made for mayo. The judges decided we would request that each sandwich be made in the traditional style. The true meaning of which, at times, seemed to escape our competitors. We also concluded, for continuity purposes, that every sandwich would be hot pressed. We all prefer, almost exclusively, that our Cubans pressed, however there are times when the mood calls for a cold one. However this was no time for cold sandwiches. We ended up eating 12 Cubans in all, the dirty dozen as it were.

To kick off the results, we’re sharing the six sando’s that didn’t make the cut. This being a Cuban sandwich contest, that cut had better be made diagonally or I will follow through with my plan to burn the building down. Below, along with each restaurant, we’ve combined our individual thoughts on the sandwich as written at the time of consumption.

We are the Four Coursemen of the Apuercolypse

J: Jimmy of Eat a Duck (World renowned sandwichier)

K: Kurt of Tasting Tampa (Tampaholic, can’t stop won’t stop)

L: Logan of Eat a Duck (The Truebano Operations Analyst)

T: Todd of Tasting Tampa (Patron Saint of Pork)

Aguila Sandwich Shop

J: The endless loop of their Man vs Food spot was full of promise. Sadly, reality is rarely as impressive. The diminutive amount of cheese was hardly melted. The roast pork was sliced and dry and the accompanying mojo sauce was a salt bomb.

K: Miami style with no salami, heck no, not in Tampa.  Also, with a video showing beautiful moist roast pork, why was my sandwich so dry and flavorless?  As an aside, that garbanzo bean soup and the fresh passion fruit juice hit me right.

L: While waiting we were treated to an endless loop of Man v. Food in which Aguila was spotlighted. Adam Richman got a sandwich piled as high as Pico Turquino. TV must add 5 pounds of pork to each sandwich, because ours was sorely lacking meat, as there was no visible cinematographer on set.

T: No salami, a bit dry, and the briny mojo just made me thirsty. The sandwich was forgettable, although the jugos were really good. The soup too. Basically everything other than the Cuban.

Aguila Sandwich Shop Cuban

Columbia Restaurant

J: After nearly 100 years in the Cuban game, Columbia fell, inexcusably, to many of the same issues of its younger peers. Dry, flavorless pork, parched bread. The few pickles to be had were limp. The cheese was decent but cold.

K: Tradition rules at the Columbia, but not necessarily a great one on the Cuban.  The bread was pressed for way too long. Dry, sliced roast pork doesn’t do it for me.  Please, please, please Columbia, make the Cuban that you should be known for.

L: Bread was so dry it crumbled in my hands, like the nazi that couldn’t answer what God’s name was at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This is what 100 years of practice gets you. We talkin’ practice?

T: As much as I love the Gonzmart family and everything they’ve done for Tampa, this will be my last visit to this place. It was laughable, the restaurant wasn’t super busy or anything, it’s like they absolutely didn’t care, from the food to the service.

Columbia Restaurant Cuban

Brocato’s

J: Within our parameters, this much-loved Tampa staple didn’t stack up. Enormous piles of ham overpowered the lesser amounts of pork and salami. Its core was stone cold as it was warmed in the oven and not pressed. This resulted in the cheese melting at the edge but not in the middle.

K: My growing up favorite became my adulthood disappointment.  This is the value choice Cuban.  A single cuban could feed a family of four. But because of the crazy amounts of ham, you lose the flavors of all the other meat. I’m looking for a perfect combo of pork, ham, salami, cheese, and pickle. This tasted like mostly ham.

L: Truth be told, they messed up on our first sandwich and rushed the replacement. At first bite, hot on the outside, icy-cold in the middle, with no press whatsoever and way over meated. As a society, have we learned nothing from Encino man except to not weeze the juice? Can’t wait to go back to the ribeye steak sandwich with provolone, which is far superior.

T: Hot on the outside, chill in the middle, briny from cheap sliced ham, no rich or “juicy” element to it, cheese not melty, overall dry, not balanced. A good value, but beyond that, not worth repeating.

Brocato's Cuban

La Segunda

J: Great bread as you’d expect from the supplier for the majority of Cuban sandwiches in Tampa, well buttered, pressed and crisp. I’m a mayo man, but this was ridiculous for a Cuban. Again, sliced dry pork, a cold center, undetectable cheese. Pickles had a nice tang but were covered in mayo.

K: Amazing bread (best I had that day). While I’m not anti mayo, I’m definitely anti-too much mayo.  Have I mentioned the mayo?

L: The amazing feats they’ve made in the art of bread making, were nearly overlooked by the end result. It was so off the mark, the rest of my portion was stripped from my hand and swiftly thrown in the trash bin.

T: Would you like sandwich with your mayonnaise?

La Segunda Cuban

Wright’s Gourmet House

J: Wonderful cheese, nicely melted, stretching to TMNT pizza proportions. The pork was slightly dry, the mustard was there but hardly pronounced and I could have used more butter on the bread. Also, turkey?

K: Hello turkey on my cuban. Why are you here?  Super melty cheesy goodness though and I love melted cheese.

L: Lots of people, all eating a lot and looking quite melancholy. Maybe it’s because they realized there was turkey on their Cuban sandwich.

T: The trend today seems to be Tampa classic/staples that have become apathetic, there’s no love in it anymore. And why turkey? Needed more mustard-gravy to offset it.

Wright's Gourmet Cuban

Floridian

J: Not bad by any means, cheese was great. This one got knocked a bit for unbalanced pickle distribution, my bites were full of them. The overall flavor didn’t make much of an impression.

K: This is the Cuban that you expect to get. It’s not splashy, but it does the job. This is the everyday Joe Cuban. It could be a true contender with a little more work.

L: I kept detecting faint traces of rosemary, which no one else agreed with. Great, distinct Swissyness. Touted as finest Cuban on the planet. Disagree, yet still pretty tasty.

T: I kept finding myself liking it better if I put some of their calypso hot sauce on it, or modified it in some way, but standalone it was unremarkable. Cheese was good although it wasn’t melted, meat looked/tasted cheap. At the price point, it’s tough to justify.

The Floridian Cuban

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol I

We are four men, bound by principle and the unwritten law of what is pure and true. When we were little boys we wanted to be big boys and do big boy things. We wanted to be independent, able to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. So here we are, at the great fear inspiring precipice before each of us, one so steep that once you jump, there’s no turning back. Serious sandwich deliberation is in our future. Honestly, I’m nervous and it’s keeping me awake tonight.

Bay of Pigs

When I was a boy I dreamt that one day I would find the perfect sandwich. Something that would encapsulate each one of my interests that could be found between two pieces of bread. We were not the type to eat out often, when I was a kid. When we did, I remember my entire meal budget was 3 dollars. My life hasn’t always been foie gras and cote de boeuf. One of my earliest food memories was sitting over a fresh Cuban sandwich laced with real tabs of half melted butter on the crust after a good firm pressing. We always picked this circular table tucked away in a dimly lit corner inside what used to be the bustling Latam restaurant at the cross of Columbus Ave and Habana. I loved eating Cuban sandwiches from Latam not just because they were they only thing I could buy and still have enough for a can of Jupiña, but also because it really was extraordinary. Sadly, Latam either went downhill or changed hands, then moved multiple times in the last 20 years. My dad had a saying when he no longer cared for a restaurant, he used to take a long pause after a bad meal, right before his last sip of cafe con leche and say…”Well, I’m marking this place off my list.” When he uttered those words, that was all she wrote. It was the kiss of death. He had a way of making you appreciate how important it was to not waste money on things. Bad food/coffee was on the top of his list. We never went back to Latam after that statement was made because, when he said something, he meant it. Instead, my extended 1/2 Cuban family started going to La Teresita after it had its resurgence in the mid 90’s, when the enormous expansion took place next door to the original diner. I still admire La Teresita’s Cubano, as the press is near perfect, though they skimp on the meat so the ratio is off. For just under $4, it’s a great deal. We now prefer dining at Arco Iris, which also has a location on Columbus, due to being turned on to the chicharron de pollo, (not their Cuban sandwich which is good but too hammy and covered in mayo) by my friend Jeff Houck.
I miss my dad so much in part because of the little quirky expressions he had, which makes a world of sense now that I’m a big boy and want to do big boy things, like eat 12+ Cuban sandwiches in a single day. I imagine he would probably call me “a dad burn deviant” for thinking up something so ridiculous.

At its nucleus, the reasoning Eat a Duck and Tasting Tampa are embarking this venture is because, quite frankly, Tampa has lost its way. As Tampanians and Floridians, the Cuban sandwich is part of our heritage, and from our perspective, we see bastardized versions more often than those which make our eyes roll back with porkified pleasure. It’s time we put our foot down and figure out who still does it best, because, if made properly this sandwich can not be topped.

If you choose to study the storied past where numerous incarnations of pork products were brought together by a smattering of multinational subgroups, allow me to point you in the direction of a true Cuban sandwich historian. This comprehensive examination is expertly done, and far more in-depth than we could ever go.

The conversation for doing a Cuban sandwich crawl to figure out who does it best started with four friends who couldn’t agree on who makes the best Tampa Cuban, in well…Tampa. We feel that the tradition of the sandwich shop with its $3.45 masterpieces have slowly gone the way of the buffalo, in a sense that no one is actively trying to make anything great anymore, much less the perfect Cuban. The passion for things such as these is so lacking, it literally causes a frustration of plans. We are sick and tired of these places getting comfortable, thinking their illustrious past reputations can hold up through a decline in quality. There are so many shops making a Cuban sandwich, yet we as a whole community of food lovers have no consensus on who does it best. Sure, you can come at me all you want with the fact that there is a Cuban sandwich festival that crowns the winner. That’s all well and good, but let me tell you something brother, not everyone participates. So how is that a true gauge?

We have carefully hand-picked a broad range of spots from hole in the wall to dang near fine dining, in order to give a wide variety of establishments the chance to take the crown. We took public opinion into consideration, as well as some of the winners from said Cuban sandwich festival. There’s a couple here I bet you’ve never heard of, right next to a restaurant that’s been around for over a hundred years. If you have a hundred years to practice anything shouldn’t you be the best? Think about it. A hundred years a single establishment has been afforded, to formulate the perfect combination of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, mayo, (mayonnaise the only optional ingredient) pickle, Cuban bread and yes, salami. This is Tampa. If you don’t put salami on your Cuban, you’re the one that’s suffering, not me, and if I see a shred of shredded lettuce, I’m going to burn the building down. If there is even a slight sliver of sliced tomato, I’m going to burn the building down. However, we are not down on the whole community. There is greatness out there, and we aim to find it.

At each stop we will be grading solely on the quality of that particular sandwich and grading only it on its own merit. There will be no comparing sandwich x with sandwich y. The winner will undoubtedly be worthy of jubilation and applause as they are truly deserving. We want you to know not only who is the greatest but most importantly, why. I already know that some of you will disagree and say we are completely wrong when we fail to pick your lame place as the champ. If that’s the case we have two things to say to you.

1. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
2. You’re entitled to your wrong opinion.

We hope you enjoy the chronicle and enjoy our journey. Without further delay, the time of porkening is swiftly approaching. I can hear the faint sound of hoofs stomping and snoots snorting in the distance. The Cubano Apuercolypse is drawing nigh into the city limits. 12+ sandwiches in the span of one day. 4 worthy judges will crown a champion of the Tampa Cuban.

Are you with us or against us?

Mission Chinese Food – San Francisco, CA

I enjoy reading about about up and coming chefs from around the country. Their stories tend to be filled with glorious ups and massive downs. A while back I was reading about the winner of the best new chef award who hailed from San Francisco and cooked at a tiny, no-name Chinese restaurant. Actually it did have a name. On the façade was the name of some long defunct Chinese restaurant that once inhabited this famous spot in the Mission district. The inconspicuous, almost secretive, nature of the storefront adds to the allure. It’s one of those things us food lovers, well…love. To be a know it all, in the know, knowing all even if we know nothing.

Mission Chinese SF

The restaurant itself seems to be unchanged from the stereotypical Chinese restaurants we’ve all come to know, but then you see the menu. Classically inspired, but clearly innovative when you consider the produce, protein and technique used in the dishes.

Mission Chinese Menu
Over the past three years, this place and its chef have been white-hot, lauded, applauded and set on high by every major publication. Needless to say, Mission Chinese has been a large blip on our radar for a while now. I’d been dying to try it, but I never had a chance to fly out west. Then, it was revealed that Mission Chinese was opening an east coast branch in NYC. I thought for sure I stood a greater shot to devour some thrice cooked pork belly now. Sadly a trip to New York still hasn’t come.

Eat a Duck’s longtime friend, Todd Sturtz of Tasting Tampa fame and soon to be snacking in San Diego, got the chance to dine at Missions New York branch recently and was thoroughly impressed with his meal, which added to my already burning desire for Mr. Bowein’s thoughtful cuisine.

Miraculously I found myself with an opportunity to visit The City, a warmth growing in my heart from the prospect of eating at Mission Chinese for the first time. So, my research began. As I planned out an itinerary which included a surplus of other buzz worthy Chinese restaurants, I noticed a very sobering trend. People were straight up crapping on Mission. Not even in a civilized way either. It’s as if they built a special outhouse in which to dump their vicious verbal excrement on Mission Chinese as a whole. They’d been praised so highly by all the online eating, entertainment and travel sites I frequent, and now, just as I was about to visit, it seemed Mission Chinese was falling off the radar, with complaints of quality control issues.

Now do you see why we don’t trust the general public?

Because they aren’t very smart. Sadly the fickle majority has a voice much louder than the small group of individuals qualified to judge quality. Mission Chinese has been fortunate to stay in business long enough to have their initial buzz wear off. Apparently to some that’s the mark of a restaurant in decline. I lump these people in with the same godless rabble that vote (insert generic chain restaurant here) as best eats in town.

So what’s wrong with Mission Chinese. Nothing. It was amazing, thought provoking and most certainly innovative to a degree you don’t often see. Although, in the same breath, I would say a steady respect to classic Chinese was clearly shown. General Tso or (General Torso as my family pronounces) is one of those dishes every Chinese restaurant has to cover. It’s kind of the new sweet and sour. Something that’s been done to death, but if you get a wild hair and order it at a good place, it is actually quite tasty.

General Tso's Veal Rib

Think about adding that sweet, onion-chile sauce on top of a slow cooked veal rib. The meat was so tender it harkened me back to a fatty wagyu beef brisket I once had. With added heat from copious amounts of chiles, I was ready to get out of my seat and clap my hands say yeah.  Our mini meal also included a beautiful bowl of pork wontons with pea tendrils, relaxing ever so comfortably in a crystal clear bath of ham consommé, a broth so soothing it could have cured Sutro’s many ailments.

Grandma's Pork Dumplings
The only downside was that Mission Chinese was only stop three on an all day food crawl, so we were only able to sample these two dishes. Had there been more time, or if I could somehow figure out a way to distend my tripe more than it already is, I would have gone back again. It was so great I would have bypassed other seemingly worthwhile places for a second waltz with some kung pao pastrami or quite possibly an order of schmaltz fried rice. So let me emphasize a key point for your travels. Guides are just that…guides, think of public opinion as 1200 grit sandpaper, it doesn’t really accomplish anything. Generally, people can’t be trusted, but they can come in handy to get a ballpark idea of what could be good. Popularity does not necessarily equal quality and unfortunately vice versa, so train your heart to decipher sample menus and form your own opinion. If a menu includes a number of items that look like the best thing you’ll ever eat, that’s a good place to start.

Mission Stree Food Cookbook

Mission Chinese Food on Urbanspoon