Articles on this Page
- 10/18/16--11:00: _How New Mexicans Ro...
- 10/19/16--09:00: _Chef Greg Higgins’ ...
- 10/21/16--09:00: _Does This Landlocke...
- 10/24/16--05:00: _Is One of America's...
- 10/26/16--07:00: _Would You Eat Blowf...
- 10/31/16--05:00: _Marcus Samuelsson D...
- 11/01/16--07:00: _Where SAVEUR's Edit...
- 11/01/16--10:00: _Japan's Wildly Popu...
- 11/02/16--07:00: _Now's the Time to E...
- 11/07/16--09:00: _Diving for Dinner: ...
- 11/08/16--05:00: _How to Eat Your Way...
- 11/08/16--11:00: _What Your Free Dess...
- 11/11/16--10:30: _This is the Best So...
- 11/15/16--07:00: _A Midwestern Hunter...
- 11/16/16--09:00: _If You Want to Unde...
- 11/17/16--07:00: _The Sordid Family F...
- 11/17/16--09:00: _Why Virtual Reality...
- 11/18/16--09:00: _How a Beloved Cinci...
- 11/22/16--05:00: _Journey to the Home...
- 11/28/16--13:45: _A Holiday Cocktail ...
- 10/18/16--11:00: How New Mexicans Roast Their Chiles in Bulk
- 10/24/16--05:00: Is One of America's Best Bagels in...Lewiston, Maine?
- 10/26/16--07:00: Would You Eat Blowfish Sperm?
- 10/31/16--05:00: Marcus Samuelsson Dishes on How to Eat Harlem
- 11/01/16--07:00: Where SAVEUR's Editors Travelled In October
- 11/02/16--07:00: Now's the Time to Eat Smoked Mullet, a.k.a. Southern Lox
- 11/07/16--09:00: Diving for Dinner: How to Hunt an Octopus in Greece
- 11/08/16--05:00: How to Eat Your Way Through Florida's Coastal Paradise
- 11/08/16--11:00: What Your Free Dessert Says About Greek Hospitality
- 11/11/16--10:30: This is the Best Souvlaki in Athens
- 11/15/16--07:00: A Midwestern Hunter's Thanksgiving
- 11/17/16--07:00: The Sordid Family Feud Behind the Great Easton Hot Dog War
- 11/17/16--09:00: Why Virtual Reality is the New Frontier of Travel
- 11/22/16--05:00: Journey to the Home of Korea's Mother Sauces
- 11/28/16--13:45: A Holiday Cocktail Pop-Up Bar is Taking Over the World this December
New Mexico has a burning obsession: chiles, red and green, particularly the spicy, fragrant ones from the Hatch Valley. But the Southwestern love of green chile isn't just about the pepper—it's also about how it's prepared.
You can cook a Hatch chile pepper like any other, but in Hatch, a chile's not complete until it's given a burn in a roaster that can reach up to 1200 degrees. On Labor Day weekend, when the harvest is at its peak (and the Hatch chile festival is in full swing), you'll find the roads in Hatch, New Mexico dotted with vendors cranking their own roasters, heating up batch after batch for the Hatch-hungry. Bring your own 20-pound (or more) bag of chile peppers, and in just minutes, you have as many deliciously charred spicy peppers as you can handle.
Once they're heated up and steamed, you can easily peel them by pulling the skin off with your hands or scraping it off with a knife. From there, you can slice them and incorporate them into every meal you eat for the whole day (or week...or month...) until your lips tingle and everything tastes like fire.
“There is an amazing diversity of ingredients here,” Greg Higgins tells me about Portland, Oregon. Higgins grew up in a small town outside of Buffalo, New York, but he’s called Portland home for over 30 years. He’s been the chef/owner of Higgins Restaurant and Bar for more than 20 of those and he won the Best Chef: Northwest James Beard Award in 2002.
Higgins travels a lot. He had just got back from Paragor, France and he was starting to think about the menu for the James Beard Foundation Taste America dinner he’s hosting on Friday with Stephanie Izard, Ken Forkish, and Marissa Burback. “Every time I come home I’m reminded of how much is here. There’s just so much to choose from, especially if you’re into gardening,” he says. “It’s nirvana.”
Higgins’ passion for quality local, and foraged ingredients didn’t start in the last decade when the concept came in vogue. As a kid growing up in the 70s, Higgins took to the woods in his small town of Eden and dug around for mushrooms and other edibles. He was an avid fisherman from a young age and he fished for dinner in small streams there.
“Part of it was just being hungry,” he says, recalling those early days and being raised with four siblings by a single parent—the Higgins house always had a garden from which food was pulled too. “And the other part is just the strange way my brain is wired.” Higgins tells me has been obsessed for as long as he can remember with archeology and anthropology, and the fact that people have lived off the land for centuries fascinates him.
Higgins is a busy man. He tends his own garden on a half-acre plot not far from downtown Portland. “I cook at home more than I go out,” he says. “Monday is pizza night.” Those pizzas, and array of other foods, are cooked outside in a wood-burning brick oven, which he refers to as the backbone of the property. But Higgins does venture from home on occasion. And when he does, this is how he does it.
Eating on the Outskirts
“You’ll find a lot of mom and pop places on the outskirts,” Higgins says. His preference is Nak Won, a Korean restaurant that serves rustic homestyle food like pork belly stir-fry, kimchi, and tofu and noodle dishes.
“There’s a place out on the beach called Bell Buoy of Seaside. It’s a retail fish market with great fish and chips. But they sell really fresh seafood and they smoke their own fish. It’s on an estuary and we always go down there and load up on that smoked fish.”
“There’s a cafe at Cornell Farm that was built into an old farmhouse. There’s a beautiful view of the coast range and you can see a ring of hills that separate Portland from the coast. It’s a breakfast and lunch kind of place. The menu changes a lot but get anything that has eggs or baked goods. Sara Strong is a really great chef and baker.”
“Astoundingly good craft beer is quintessentially Portland,” Higgins says. There are more than 60 microbreweries in Portland, but Higgins’ go-tos are Hair of the Dog and Ecliptic. “Hair of the Dog started the real movement and the specialty styles,” Higgins tells me. Alan Sprints, the owner, is a former chef turned brewer, and he travels all over Europe and Asia for inspiration. “John’s funny,” Higgins says of John Harris, Ecliptic Brewing’s owner. “His beers are great, and they’re all named after celestial destinations.”
“My breakfast of choice is always a pastry and really strong coffee,” Higgins says. “Grand Central Bakery Group’s bakeries are really great across the board. They use Nossa Familia Coffee and they source everything very responsibly.”
For an izakaya-style meal, Higgins hits Yuzu. “The menu changes quite a bit, but it’s always classic Japanese drinking food.” Higgins always gets charred peppers and whatever shiso leaf prep there is that day.
“Behind the Museum Café is a great little place. Tomoe Horibuchi, the owner, makes everything herself; little bites like an izakaya in a really cool setting. There is crispy lotus root and salted plums rolled in sugar. But there are always more substantial savory things that always vary and are always perfectly cooked. It’s a great place for tea too. Tomoe always uses the appropriate teaware, so whatever tea you select will be brewed to perfection. It’s a hole in the wall, but once you find it you have to send people.”
Welcome to Hawk’s Illustrated America, a monthly series following illustrator Hawk Krall’s journeys through the back roads of the U.S. in search of our country’s most obscure and delicious regional specialties.
Isn’t the first rule of seafood shacks that they should be on or close to the water? Even if you know in the back of your mind that your lobster probably came from 500 miles away, it’s nice to at least see a boat while digging into a lobster roll.
By that test, The Pines in Raymond, New Hampshire isn’t much to look at. Sitting on the side of a small regional highway in what’s best described as the middle of nowhere, it looks more like a roadside ice cream stand than anything like a clam shack. But here is the rare place where a sign announcing “award-winning chowder” isn’t false advertising. In a sea of New England seafood shacks, this landlocked one stands out.
Whether you’re talking hot dogs, ice cream, pizza, or diners, no place has more regional food favorites than New England. Every state—nearly every town—has its own oddball food items. People shoot the breeze about their favorite frozen lemonade stand or clam joint the way others might discuss Michelin-starred restaurants. And everything seems to tastes better in New England.
In my trips up and down this part of the country, I’m struck over and over how seemingly every random diner and divey lobster hut puts so much care into their food, something that’s a bit of a rarity back home in Philadelphia. There are probably more delicious, amazing, strange, and unique regional foods per square mile in New England than anywhere else in the country. This is especially true for seafood shacks and their barebones menus of lobster and clam rolls, chowder, and steamed and fried seafood.
I’ve eaten a lot of chowder in New England, but none like what they make at The Pines. It’s rich, but from an inconceivable density of seafood, not cream or starch. No fishy funk of frozen or sketchy product. A judicious amount of potato. No thickeners; just pure seafood (okay, and plenty of butter that floats to the top in little droplets) like lobster, shrimp, whole-belly clams, haddock, and scallops, plus something the shack cryptically describes as "chowder milk." This is the kind of chowder that gets people to line up to buy it by the gallon.
How do they get an unthickened broth that rich? Fish bones? Juicing lobsters and clams? And how are their fried clam bellies so utterly perfect, fresh, juicy, and clean-tasting where so many others are greasy, under-seasoned, dry, and boring? I contacted the owners to ask some questions but they politely declined an interview. “We visited [saveur.com] tonight, and it is quite wonderful. However it is not what we have to offer. We are very basic, and simple.”
A good friend who’s been eating at The Pines since she was four years old tells me that “it’s a very New Hampshire ‘Live Free Or Die’ response. Can’t be beholden to any fancy big city entity.” She also points out another signature of The Pines: free food on your birthday. It’s a bit unclear how you are expected to prove this (a driver’s license?) and if you have your pick of the menu, but it’s been a draw at The Pines as long as they’ve been around.
It’s a little disappointing to not pick the brains of the Launier family, who opened The Pines in 1982 and have turned it into such a great local institution. It’s even more disappointing to not learn any of their chowder secrets. But that’s just how they want it. And to me, artfully dodging any press hype only reaffirms their cred as an off-the-grid shack with the most magical seafood chowder I’ve ever tasted.
The Pines Seafood House
171 NH-27, Raymond, NH 03077
Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.
I probably should have asked Father Paul Dumais for forgiveness right there in the back of Forage Market, while my mouth was still full.
Forgive me father, for I was kind of a jerk. When you invited me to meet you here to talk about Acadian ployes and try some really great bagels, I had the kinds of thoughts that make people think that New Yorkers and food snobs are the worst people in the world. Great bagels? You mean...for Maine?”
I am usually better than that. Finding brilliant food in unexpected places scratches the deepest of Chowhound itches, but doing so requires openness and trust. Discoveries are often of the small but memorable variety—a perfect plate of penne arrabiata in a Saskatchewan truck stop, or a bowl of pho in the outskirts of Rapid City, as nuanced as it was restorative. But burned by one too many doughy, leaden bagels that came with the promise of being “artisanal” or “authentic,” I was incredulous, to say the least.
These were not just great bagels for Maine. They were great bagels for anywhere.
Forage Market is in Maine’s second largest city, Lewiston. It’s a former mill town that’s the home of Bates College, a small arts scene, a large hospital, and a WalMart distribution center. It was also the setting of the controversial rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston more than half a century ago. That picture of Ali towering over the fallen Liston was shot here. Though it’s only about 45 minutes inland from Portland, it’s not really on the tourist map.
The shop itself is large with high pressed-tin ceilings, thrift shop tables and chairs, and a good selection of local and regional products like Bixby chocolate bars from Rockland and maple syrup from Frontier Sugar Works in Jackman, on Maine’s western border with Canada.
At the counter, I ordered a sesame bagel, split and buttered, not toasted (it was still warm enough to melt the butter, though.) It is appropriately palm sized—not a balloon—about four inches in diameter, and once you’re through that crust, you find an interior that is properly chewy and dense in an Old World way—not doughy and leaden how so many pretenders to the throne end up. Maybe because I had my guard up and my expectations down I wasn’t fully prepared for that first bite. It was the sound I remember most: a higher pitched crackle than I expected.
The goosebumped crust shattered in layers. First lightly; a thousand pinhead-sized bubbles fragmenting before the more substantial (though not tough) shell gives way with a more emphatic crunch. That crunch is where I first noticed how the bagel was unorthodox (some might say heretical) in two ways: it is made from a mildly tangy sourdough, and it is baked in a wood-fired brick oven.
The heady smell of butter and the tart whiff of sourdough blurred together into something almost feral. For a second, I felt disoriented, like I’d been pleasantly sucker punched. I teetered between thrill and resentment over that. These kinds of stories so often hinge on that One Bite—the one that lets loose a sloppy gush of emotion and metaphor, the bite that turns food from something that can be described to something that must be experienced. But I am, at heart, an empiricist—not someone who wants to lose their bearings over a bagel. I quickly gathered myself and set out to find why these bagels were so good, feelings be damned.
The next morning, I returned to talk with Gerald Walsh, the lead baker. Sitting at a table towards the back of the cafe, Walsh expounded with wonkish enthusiasm about hydration levels, yeast strains, and how giving the fermenting dough two days of refrigerated rest deepens the flavor of the finished product. His two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Maia, who had been sitting on lis lap gnawing on a plain bagel, tired of the science lesson and asked if we could go down to the basement to watch Al Alpizar, the baker on duty, in action.
The operation downstairs looked in many ways more like a 19th century reenactment than a 21st century business. Craggy stone walls of the building’s foundation were exposed and lightly dusted in flour. Central was a large red brick oven with a black iron sliding door, and cordwood piled in an alcove beneath it. Buried somewhere on the bulletin board is a piece of paper inscribed with the word ‘autodidact.’ It was inspired, Forage owner Allen Smith later said, by the early books of Daniel Leader, one of the pioneers of the New Bread Movement. On the door track of the oven is a magnet with a cartoon picture of a French bread labeled douche baguette.
We watched as Alpizar took the proofed rolled bagels, two dozen at a time, and slid them into a vat of starchy boiling water next to the brick oven. While they boiled, he picked up a hatchet and split more wood to feed the fire banked along the oven’s left wall.
Freshly boiled bagels are fished out and laid on wooden boards then topped with coarse salt, sesame, garlic, and everything mix, or poppy, which has become something of an obsession for Smith. Poppy seeds that haven’t gone stale or a little rancid can be hard to find, he said, so when good ones come in “we’ll buy up to 200 pounds at once and give up valuable freezer space to them.”
The boards are slid into the oven opposite the banked fire for about three minutes before the bagels are tipped onto the oven’s floor. At that point the baking becomes kinetic. With a peel shaped like an oversized cricket bat, Alpizar prods and turns the bagels toward and away from the fire, more like Neapolitan pizza than anything awaiting a schmear. Occasionally a large bubble will bloom like a mushroom on a bagel’s crust, or a dark spot will develop, adding another layer of texture and flavor. Alpizar pulls the bagels from the oven one by one, and on a busy day, 400 of them may make their way upstairs to the woven baskets behind the counter.
Did these deserve to be near the top of any list of the best bagels in the country? I think so, even if the use of sour dough and a wood burning oven would require an asterisk to be put on any purist’s list. If these were sold in New York, there would be lines around the block for them and Twitter wars over their legitimacy.
But these bagels are sold in Lewiston, which makes them something better: They’re proof that no Best Of list can ever be truly complete or authoritative, because there is always the possibility of brilliance where you least expect it. Proof that even jaded New York writers can still be surprised, and even moved by a simple bagel, whatever sins of snobbishness may lurk in their hearts.
“Is that liver?”
“I don’t think liver bubbles like that.”
This is table talk at Yamashita Restaurant in Kanazawa, Japan where, five courses into an outstanding omakase meal, our chef, Mr. Yamashita, asks if we like blowfish.
Of course we do.
A few minutes later, this arrives. A wobbly alabaster gel sac bubbling away on a hot stone with a thin slice of sudachi lime on top. Yamashita, beaming, watches it cook and wiggle for a few moments, then snatches away the lime with chopsticks and slides what looks suspiciously like a paint scraper under the sac and plops it into a bowl of soy sauce.
“What part of the fish is this? we ask.
“Shirako,” he replies. Still beaming.
And there we have it. Shirako translates literally to “white children.” As in milt. Sperm. Blowfish sperm.
Yamashita is still beaming. The sperm is getting cold.
You do not say no to this kind of hospitality in Japan, so I pick up my bowl of soy sauce, grab the sac with my chopsticks, and take it down in one bite.
It really is delicious. The soy sauce is mild and sweet, the sudachi fragrant, the shirako…well, unmistakably spermy, but with a delicate protein sweetness and a soft texture silkier than the most silken tofu. There’s a balance of cool and warm from the hot stone. And all of this from three ingredients and the most elemental of cooking tools.
Would I have tried it had I not been forced out of politeness and fear of disappointing our chef? Probably not. Would I order it again? Also probably not. But that’s what an omakase meal is for: you surrender and let someone else take control. And by doing so, you learn some things. About your own tastes. About resourcefulness in the kitchen. About how to use a paint scraper in a fine dining setting.
“Did you like it?” Yamashita asks anxiously.
“Oishii!” we reply.
“Good,” he says. “Then I’ll make you some shirako tempura."
The chef’s new cookbook is really a celebration of one of America's most iconic communities
Even if you had never seen an episode of the Food Network’s Chopped or dined at one of his 11 restaurants worldwide, there’s still a good chance Marcus Samuelsson would still capture your attention. In a town where everyone wears black, the New York chef is a glaring exception, clad, on any given day, in a well-constructed mashup of plaid, neon colors, and eye-grabbing accessories.
His outfits make all the more sense when he starts talking, and when he’s on his home turf in Harlem, he’s talking to just about everyone. Joining Samuelsson for a stroll down Lenox Avenue on a Wednesday afternoon meant stopping to chat with the folks running every other storefront, handing out high-fives to kids leaving school, and shaking hands with passing drivers who stop and roll down their windows just to yell out “I love your restaurant!”
Samuelsson's earned the neighborhood's affection for more than his food. Through his restaurants, Red Rooster Harlem and Streetbird Rotisserie, he's created over 200 jobs in the neighborhood, hiring locally in a community where unemployment is notoriously high. His food festival, Harlem EatUp!, also engages nearly 1,500 volunteers and brings in around 15,000 visitors to the area’s small businesses. It’s one of the ways he pays homage to his adopted community (he was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden), and he’s become sort of a local hero for it.
“Harlem is very noisy, in a good way,” Samuelsson tells me. “They’ll tell you if you did something wrong. And if you did something good, they’ll tell you too!”
Samuelsson’s seemingly universal popularity is particularly interesting given his status as a relative newcomer. But owning and operating restaurants, he has a unique opportunity to both take from and contribute to a neighborhood—a fact that’s not lost on the chef, who believes restaurants are key to opening up communities.
“Once people start to enter the community, they realize it’s much richer and warmer than they ever thought. That’s the gift of restaurants,” Samuelsson explains. “Not just [Red Rooster], all restaurants. It’s really the core word of diversity, and it’s not just a name tag. Where do you really feel a diverse platform in New York? You feel it on the subway and, hopefully, at restaurants.”
Samuelsson’s pay-it-forward attitude stems from his admiration for the neighborhood, and his appreciation for having been welcomed so warmly. So as the Red Rooster flagship celebrates six years on 125th Street, Samuelsson debuts his latest book, The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem, to give a voice to the community that continues to inspire him.
“This neighborhood, this village is so magical and it’s taught me so much. I wanted to share that” Samuelsson says with an earnest smile. “For me, it’s not so much a cookbook. It’s more of a book about Harlem and about the community itself. That’s why we have so many voices in the community telling stories.”
We asked Samuelsson to give us a taste of his Harlem. Here's where he took us.
Red Rooster Harlem
Our first stop is Samuelsson’s own Red Rooster Harlem, where we’re treated to a spread of deviled eggs topped with duck salame, buttered and braised collard greens, and the signature fried dark-meat yardbird. According to Samuelsson, the restaurant’s menu embodies the multiculturalism of Harlem—that crossroads of the Southern migration, Latin-American strongholds, and new communities on the west side.
“Red Rooster’s food is not really focused on Southern food only. It’s focused on the migration: 50% of it is the Southerners, African Americans and laborers moving North. The other aspect is my tale too, being an immigrant, so there’s gravlax and meatballs. And then there’s the other immigration that’s happening in Harlem: East Harlem has moved from being a Puerto Rican community to a Mexican community. West Harlem has Columbia kids and an African community. Farther east, you have Italian and Jewish. We respect the past, but our food is today is very contemporary. The techniques we’re using are contemporary with global influences.”
Red Rooster Harlem
310 Lenox Avenue
One of Samuelsson’s biggest inspirations, Sylvia’s is a more than 50-year-old Harlem institution. Here we dig into plate after plate of classic soul food: cornbread, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sauteed chicken livers. Beyond the food, Samuelsson notes that the lunch counter itself is a destination—for gossip, that is.
“125th and Lenox Avenue is sort of an iconic address—the heartbeat of Harlem is right here. I planned Red Rooster, well part of it, at the counter of Sylvia’s: eating the cornbread, learning the culture of the steam table food, speaking to Ken and the family. If you want to know what’s happening in Harlem, you have to start at the counter of Sylvia’s.”
328 Lenox Avenue
As we wolf down our remaining bite of mac and cheese, Samuelsson whisks us away to a local sneaker shop on 125th Street. What started as one 16-year-old kid, Chase Reed, cleaning up used shoes and selling them online has turned into a world-renowned father-son–owned sneaker bank.
“Sneaker Pawn is probably the best example of entrepreneurship that exists in neighborhoods like Harlem, although it’s on a different grid. People come from all over the world to look at the coolest vintage sneakers that he’s cleaned up. If you have good sneakers, you give them to him, you agree on a retail price, and then you get your cut of that. It gets young people involved and it’s cool stuff, because for inner city kids, when was urban not cool?”
292 Lenox Avenue
Samuelsson’s’ colorful apparel can be accredited, in part, to this quirky shop that he says embodies the effortlessly cool Harlem style and fashion.
“Dapper Dan is an icon. Lana Turner is our version of Anna Wintour. If you want a little bit of that cool, that mystique, that jazz-man mentality, go to Harlem Haberdashery. Louis will hook you up. And you will walk out just so, so much cooler.”
245 Malcolm X Boulevard
Now we head over to East Harlem, where we stop at Cuchifritos Frituras, a Puerto Rican restaurant. Standing outside, Samuelsson points excitedly at trays of fried food visible through the window. There’s a lost-in-translation moment, but we trade a few bucks for some piping hot fritters and a brown paper bag of delicious morcilla, or blood sausage.
168 East 116th Street
La Lomita Del Barrio
Heading one block east, we stop on a corner for horchata from a push-cart vendor. Nearby, in front of a small grocery store, a woman is pressing thick tortillas into sope-ready “boats” and piling them with lettuce, tomatoes, and scoops of meat. She asks if we want grated cheese on ours and Samuelsson says, “Of course!”
La Lomita Del Barrio
209 East 116th Street
We zip cross-town to Samuelsson’s second restaurant, a slightly more casual and much more eclectic affair. Despite the name, there’s a lot more going on here beyond the realm of rotisserie chicken. The menu hops from tacos to noodles to a Hot & Messy—cornbread and chicken smeared with avocado, peanut butter, and a sunny-side-up egg; and topped with bacon and parmesan. And yes, it was both hot and messy (in the best way possible).
“Streetbird is an example of how I was really inspired by the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities in Harlem—iconic places like Malecon in Western Heights. Just look at the rotisserie chicken that people are selling right on the street—we take that idea and do something similar.”
2149 Frederick Douglass Boulevard
Lolo's Seafood Shack
Sitting across the street from Streetbird Rotisserie, this neon-fitted, counter-order shop offers East Coast style seafood alongside its Caribbean counterparts. Samuelsson takes us to a downstairs backyard patio area—ideal for the restaurant’s outdoor seafood boils, conch fritters and jerk chicken baskets.
Lolo’s Seafood Shack
303 West 116th Street
Our Harlem tour concludes at Southern comfort stalwart Melba’s. Its namesake proprietor Melba Wilson opened the restaurant in 2005. A niece of Sylvia Woods (yup, of Sylvia’s fame), Wilson cut her teeth at her aunt’s restaurant before branching off to offer her own takes on barbecue turkey meatloaf and a catfish po'boy sandwich.
“The West Side is newer, younger, and hipper, but you also have icons like Melba Wilson who started the renaissance of the dining culture.”
300 West 114th Street
This month's field notes come from Bogotá, Brattleboro, and beyond
At SAVEUR, our obsessive quest to unearth the origins of food and discover hidden culinary traditions sends us from our test kitchen in New York City to all the corners of the globe. From morcilla in Pittsburgh to cocktails in Paris, here are all the ways SAVEUR editors ate the world in October.
Run by a young Colombian couple, El Ciervo y El Oso (the deer and the bear) is a new sun-drenched restaurant in an old house in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogotà. Marcela Arango and Camilo Ramirez—who live on a farm outside the city with a dozen dogs and cats—met working in a kitchen years ago and wanted to create a love letter to Colombian food, which, in fine dining, has been pushed aside for European and Asian cuisine. Inside this little cottage splashed in turquoise and blond wood, they're reviving cooking with cubios—knobby white root vegetables with a reputation like that of brussels sprouts in America ten years ago—and are creating a tapestry of soulful food with nods to the country's biological diversity. There's crudo using fish from the coast, salads with vegetables from the Amazon, cocktails with Muppet-looking tropical fruits, and cubios from nearby mountain towns. If you eat at one place in Bogotà, make it El Ciervo y El Oso. Runner up? Minamal. — Leslie Pariseau, special projects editor
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
I had the absolute best charcuterie in Pittsburgh at Morcilla—a Spanish-inspired restaurant by a construction-crew-cook-turned-cured-meat-genius Justin Severino. He makes some unbelievable morcilla blood sausage, alongside chorizos, serrano ham, and my personal favorite, a smokey, cured tuna. The restaurant is less than a mile from the faded blue factory buildings still lining the waterfront in Lawrenceville. In a way that somehow remains un-obnoxious, the neighborhood is full of genuine obsessive-types—a woman enthusiastic about glass-blowing, a guy dedicated entirely to craft coffee, a passionate whiskey distiller, and a bar with an menu devoted to beer + shot specials. Severino's elaborate, skillful charcuterie menu is not to be missed. — Allie Wist, associate art director
Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China
I was in southern Yunnan on assignment for a story about the region's obsessed-about puer tea—tea, after all, was born in the stretch of land from what's now Yunnan over to modern-day Assam—but I'm already planning my next trip back. Yunnan Province is not what you think of when you think of China, and left to its own devices, Xishuangbanna Prefecture on the southern edge of the province is jungle territory. The sheer biodiversity here is awesome in the most classical sense of the word.
This all translates into food, people, and culture that bleed seamlessly into Southeast Asia, and an incredible diversity of produce. The chiles? They're everywhere, and come in every color of the rainbow. The garlic? As pure and platonically garlicky as garlic can be. One of my favorite dishes consisted of little more than steamed and lightly oiled new potatoes and taro as sweet as carrots. There's bamboo, sweet, grilled, pickled, stuffed with rice, stir fried with beef, simmered in soup—god, the bamboo. And then these winged beans you see above front and center, crunchy like string beans but more amenable to be eaten raw, with a flavor like snow pea leaves and little pores that soak up the perfect amount of sauce. I gobbled them up every chance I got.
In Yunnan, "farm to table" isn't even a question. Everything's local. Most of what you're eating was in the ground earlier that week. Unless it was sitting in a tree, like the crunchy larvae some Hani friends fried until as crisp as potato chips. Hey, you gotta have some protein in between all that vegetation. — Max Falkowitz, executive digital editor
Brattleboro, Vermont, U.S.A.
The drive up takes about four hours. Sometimes it seems that the only thing we city dwellers have in common is the insistent, if only occasional, desire to get the heck out of here. And so every fall, just as the leaves start to change, my friends and I are beckoned northward to the woods of Vermont, where a good friend has a family home, still standing on a grassy hill after 200-hundred-some odd years. Time moves slower there.
The turning point in the trip happens about three hours in, just as the leaves switch over from their mottled city greens to the vibrant oranges and scarlets that suggest the season's first frost has already swept through. This is when the meal planning for the week takes place. Looming ahead is the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and we've got to have our shopping list locked down by the time we get there, lest we get stranded fireside with not enough butter to make that apple pie come evening-time. The weekend's priorities come through loud and clear from the few of us in the car: butter, meat, and lots and lots of wine. When we pull into the co-op parking lot, still half an hour from our final destination, my friend pulls his parents' old Saab in between two Subaru Outbacks. Those Subaru Outbacks are nestled between two other Subaru Outbacks. I'm convinced the Brattleboro Food Co-op parking lot holds the highest per capita number of Subaru Outbacks in the entire world.
Inside, we collect the basics: three pounds of the finest Grade A beef chuck roast (there will be a steak pie in the works the next afternoon), 8 bottles of red wine (you can never be too careful), a 5 lb. bag of local Empire apples (which will be cooked into a pie as well as eaten at odd intervals throughout the day), and a few packets of yeast (because I thought of cinnamon rolls in the car and can't get them out of my head). While I pluck Brussels sprouts from a basket, a lithe middle-aged woman in a shimmery rainbow neoprene dress and matching fairy wings stocks carrots from a crate nearby. While Halloween is indeed coming up, it's apparent this is an everyday type of dress, and it is fully appreciated.
So into the basket go the sprouts, some leeks, a handful of Russet potatoes, a hefty 4 lb. chicken, a few slabs of bacon, and a quart of salted caramel ice cream just for good measure. At the house, we split up the duties between gathering wood for the fire and unloading the groceries. The key to the weekend's cooking is low and slow. Minimum effort is the goal, the tasks stretched languidly across the hours, fueled by a glass of wine that never quite runs dry, and a few hunks of cheese slowly working themselves toward the rind. The chuck roast bubbles on the stove, and every now and then I walk by and give it a stir, the aroma mingling with that of a pot of mulling cider on the burner behind it. Eventually it'll get a crust and go into the oven to bake to flaky perfection, but what's the rush? I take a little taste and slip contentedly back into my seat, all of us thoroughly sated by the fire and the wine. — Alex Testere, associate editor
Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
I have to tell you something. I am obsessed with breakfast sandwiches. And not just in the "I enjoy an occasional bagel" way. It's in the "I just woke up and have an implacable yearning for an egg smothered in cheese squished between two pieces of toasted bread and I can't do anything else until I get one" way. I dream of good breakfast sandwiches. I will walk 30 minutes out of my way to get one if I think it'll be amazing.
So when I heard about EggSlut, I knew I was going to fall in breakfast love. After pining over it for years, I finally went in September on a trip to Los Angeles, and I'm only mildly embarrassed to say it was one of the best things I ate in LA. I get it, tacos are the thing, and trust me, I had a lot of those, but this met every single enormous expectation I had built up. The bread was buttery and soft, and eggs goo-ed over the side. There was cheese, there was avocado—if I could eat one thing every morning for the rest of my life, this would be it. There are a number of locations across the city, but my favorite was Grand Central Market, which sits in downtown LA - if you decide you don't like EggSlut, or you are just not quite full enough, there are plenty of taco options to fall back on (trust me, they're a great way to wash anything down). — Katie Whittaker, assistant digital editor
Hatch, New Mexico, U.S.A.
This month, I was lucky enough to attend the Hatch Chile Festival in Hatch, New Mexico. It’s gorgeous there; between the vibrant colors and the occasional abandoned buffalo skull, you’re walking around an O’Keeffe painting. I was there on assignment, shooting a story abut the region’s eponymous chile, and why it might possibly be the greatest pepper in the world. So of course I had to sample as many as I could, from warm and sweet to so blisteringly hot they made me shout out in pain.
That moment of embarrassment hasn’t steered me away from my new-found love of the New Mexican staple. Over the weekend I tasted the roasted chile in guacamole, queso smothered all over fries, ranch dressing, and scrambled eggs at breakfast. New Mexicans use hatch chiles to top off Frito pies, add a kick to margaritas, and spice up a milkshake (don’t miss the version at Sparky’s). I brought home tons of powdered dried red chiles and can't wait to put them to work in this red chile and pork stew.
On my way to the airport on my last day in town, I ate at the Church Street Cafe in Albuquerque. The tables are decked out with honey packets, and I didn't get why they were there until the end of the meal, when the server dropped off a pile of hot fluffy sopaipillas. You take a small bite off the corner and fill them with honey. I'll definitely be making sopaipillas this weekend as I reminisce about New Mexico's tongue-numbing peppers and tear-inducing scenery. — Matt Taylor-Gross, staff photographer
Mace is one of my favorite bars in New York City—I love the super-funky but also thoughtful approach to using lesser-known spices in cocktails. So when I heard that Mace's Paris-based bartender-owner Nico de Soto was opening another spot in his hometown, I knew I had to add it to my itinerary. Tucked in the back of the elegant Daroco restaurant, Danico takes a very different approach to design compared to its no-frills New York counterpart, but the two share the same spice-forward ethos. Highlights included an aptly-named Sayonara, Mortherfucker !!!!! [sic] with Japanese whisky and soy sauce; and a delightfully strange mustard-seed–laced Suze number served, naturally, in a mustard pot. — Dan Q. Dao, deputy digital editor
What it's like to to eat a meal out while never interacting with another human being
I call the Japanese ramen restaurant Ichiran“Egg Hands.” It’s not that “Ichiran” is particularly hard to say, it’s that Egg Hands is what I remember most clearly about the first time I ate there.
Let me paint the scene: It’s 2 a.m. in Tokyo. My friend Leah had just arrived from New York, her circadian rhythms flipped completely upside-down, and she was hungry. I had been in the country for a week but now was operating on Leah time and at zombie-level efficiency. Leah needed food, and Ichiran was open, so out we went. It was late, and the streets were weirdly empty, with snoozing drunken salarymen sprawled on the sidewalks after missing the last train home. We wandered the eerie city for a while and eventually found the subterranean ramen shop.
Ichiran was founded in Fukuoka in 1960, and it only makes one type of ramen: pork-rich tonkotsu. Beyond that, Ichiran is known for what they call “low-interaction dining,” in which diners seat themselves in individual ramen booths, fill out ticket orders, and receive food from anonymous hands through a curtain-covered window. In other words, it’s possible—encouraged, actually—to eat an entire meal there without seeing or speaking to another human being.
I’ve written about the rituals of food culture Japan, and how these ways of doing things are often developed in the service of creating the best eating and drinking experience possible. At Ichiran, the low-interaction setup is designed partially to enhance the experience—there’s a lot of cheerful messaging in their materials about “focusing on your personalized ramen” in your little booth. But it’s also to reduce the stigma of being alone.
In Japan, the shame of losing face is a major motivator to behave in certain socially acceptable ways. Ichiran customers, nestled safely in their own ramen booths, get a break from the face-preserving pressures of modern life—safely ensconced in a steamy isolation booth, you are free to act without fear or shame. And if you are an American visiting Japan, Ichiran provides a safe space for you to not know what the hell you are doing without embarrassing yourself.
The formula has proved popular: Ichiran currently operates almost 60 locations in Japan. And now, as of last month, it also runs a restaurant in Brooklyn.
Back in Tokyo, Leah and I were delirious, hungry, and completely unsure of how to proceed. We punched some random buttons on the machine. After a few failed attempts, we managed to successfully figure out where sit down in neighboring booths, and pulled back the partition dividing us (this is a little-discussed aspect of the Ichiran experience— you can actually share your booth with another person, should you so desire). We filled out our papers, mercifully in English, indicating how rich we’d like our broth and how firm we’d like our noodles. And then, moments later, a pair of disembodied hands emerged from the curtain before us, holding a bowl containing a single egg, in its shell, and a tiny packet of salt.
We stared at the egg. We didn’t know what to do with it. Was it cooked? It felt heavy. The ramen was still MIA. Did they go together, or was this just a random egg, emerging from the abyss, a cryptic message from the universe? We had no one to ask, obviously.
Eventually a bowl of ramen appeared from the same (or were they?) anonymous hands, and we cracked the egg—soft-boiled, it turned out—into the broth, where it bobbed around and eventually sank.
The ramen was good. Not great, but rich and salty in the way you want 2 a.m. ramen to be, with a fiery blob of housemade chile paste to wake us up. We left unsure if we did anything right, but we remember our confusing meal there fondly, and we’ve taken to referring to Ichiran as Egg Hands ever since.
Now, after several stalled attempts, Ichiran has finally expanded its operations to America, landing in a distinctly unglamorous stretch of Brooklyn’s industrial Bushwick neighborhood. Their massive space is part-restaurant, part noodle factory, and will act as commissary if and when the chain is able to expand in New York, as the company hopes it will. A year to the day after our meal in Tokyo, Leah and I decided to pay a visit.
Things were different from the moment we walked in: unlike in Japan, the restaurant here is split into two distinct rooms: one communal dining area with regular tables, the other the same partitioned-booth setup we encountered in Tokyo. There was an actual human host to greet and seat us, even as we entered the solo booth room (which also has an electronic seating chart, but it’s just for looks), and a cheerful cashier stationed near the door. The ramen booths themselves were wider and airier, and though the bamboo curtain remained, a waiter bent down to talk to me at one point, revealing his entire smiling face.
Some spects remained the same, however: the menu is virtually identical, and you still fill out a little paper ticket to customize your bowl. Waiters are summoned with a call button, and food is delivered through the curtain. The ramen itself looked and tasted almost the same as it did in Tokyo—if anything, it actually tasted better in Brooklyn. But there was one glaring difference that Leah and I could not move past: no egg hands.
“We haven’t found the right chicken to lay the right egg,” said our waiter, peeking out from beneath the curtain. “We actually have a guy in Japan dedicated specifically to finding eggs, and he’s been running tests for three months. We can’t find the perfect ones just yet. It’s something we’re working on.”
On our way out, we struck up a conversation with the manager (something that would literally never happen at Ichiran in Japan), a native New Yorker who trained at Ichiran’s headquarters in Fukuoka. We told her about our night in Tokyo and our memory of the mysterious egg hands. She laughed at us. “The egg is actually a palate cleanser. You’re supposed to eat it with the salt before the ramen arrives,” she said. We stared at her, dumbstruck. “Right now we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to get Americans to crack their own egg,” she continued. “But we hope to have them here soon.”
As a foreigner in Japan, part of the pleasure of Ichiran is in not knowing what you’re doing, then doing it anyway. Even as you’re bumbling around, it’s okay, because Ichiran is designed as a safe space to be alone, and what you do when you’re alone can’t be that embarrassing. But in Brooklyn, low-interaction dining gives way to medium-interaction dining—a necessary adjustment to suit the American audience, maybe, but one that feels inherently at odds with the very thing that made Ichiran so special and weird to begin with.
I don’t know if I’ll be back to the Brooklyn Egg Hands—it feels a little too interpersonal for me. I think I’ll have to wait until they find the right chickens, or I’ll bring my own egg.
Now an antique tradition even in its home state of Florida, this fall delicacy of gently smoked oily fish is well worth seeking out
These days, vacationers in Florida treat themselves to all manner of seafood: crab cakes, blackened grouper, sweet-battered coconut shrimp. Many popular items, like snow crab legs, aren’t even caught in Florida waters, arriving frozen in cardboard boxes from thousands of miles away.
On the Gulf coast, though, you can still find a genuine made-in-Florida treat that you likely won’t see anywhere else: smoked mullet. Right now, in fact, we are in prime mullet season, which runs from early fall until Christmas. And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with haircuts.
The Smoked Fish of the South
The striped or black mullet is a sleek, silver fish with black markings. Small in size (typically between one and three pounds,) it lives in estuaries and the waters just off the shoreline, where it swims in large schools and leaps energetically from the water.
Marlin and swordfish love to eat mullet, so the latter are often used as a baitfish, but people in Florida love to eat mullet, too. The fish has a high oil content, so it doesn’t stay fresh for very long, but that also makes it perfect for smoking. Properly smoked mullet has a rich, nutty flavor unlike any other seafood.
When prepped for the smoker, a whole mullet is butterflied down the back and folded open, leaving two filets joined at the belly and the backbone running down one side. To eat the finished fish, you lift away the spine and discard it then use the tines of your fork to slip the meat from the bones that remain. It takes a little work, but it’s more than worth the effort.
That smoky flavor is a great foundation for dips and spreads. In a typical recipe, chunks of smoked mullet are blended with cream cheese and sour cream and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a dash of tabasco. Some cooks go for additional ingredients like onion and jalapeno, but there’s no need for excessive adornment. Served with saltine crackers and lemon wedges, smoked mullet dip is simple but delicious.
Unfortunately, few outside the state of Florida have discovered the virtues of this slow-smoked delicacy. Smoked mullet served over grits is a staple in the Gullah/Geechee community on Sapelo Island off the Georgia coast, but that’s about as far north as it goes. Mullet is sometimes sold in South Carolina fish markets, but the locals there tend to toss them in flour and pan-fry them they way they do other small, inexpensive fish like whiting. Most everywhere else, mullet is sold only as bait fish, if it’s even sold at all.
The Modern Mullet Recession
Even in Florida, smoked mullet is about as trendy as the hairdo these days. In the mid 20th century, vast schools of silver torpedo-shaped mullet swept through the waterways in and around St. Petersburg. Fishermen waited atop bridges to snatch them up with bamboo poles rigged with multi-barbed hooks, and they hauled them in using cast nests from the decks of shallow-draft boats. The abundance of mullet—and of fishermen catching them—kept prices low and made it a popular budget fish.
Back then, many Floridians had homemade smokers in their backyard, and they would butterfly the fish, soak them in salt water, and smoke them slowly over Florida hardwoods like hickory, red oak, or buttonwood. In the years after World War II, many of these enterprising fisherman started selling some of their catch to locals and tourists alike along the roadsides.
By the 1980s, though, the mullet populations were dwindling, exacerbated by a spike in demand for mullet roe from Asian markets, which drove prices up and sent armies of fishermen out onto the water. In 1995, the state of Florida banned the use of gill nets, and many of the fishermen who once netted big schools of mullet and smoked a little on the side turned to other lines of work.
Commercial mullet landings are now a quarter what they were before the net ban, and smoked mullet is getting harder to find. In the 1980s there at least 15 restaurants in Sarasota serving smoked mullet; by 2004, writers for Sarasota Magazine could find only one—Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant (which still serves it today).
Consumer tastes have shifted, too, and diners increasingly shy away from darker, oilier fish on the bone in favor of leaner, thicker, lighter-flavored filets. Ted Peters Smoked Fish in St. Petersburg used to sell just two items: smoked mullet and smoked Spanish mackerel, but in recent years they added pricier salmon and mahi-mahi.
A True Local Delicacy
But visitors to Florida shouldn’t shy away from smoked mullet just because it’s unfamiliar. In fact, that’s precisely the reason that mullet matters so much today.
A Would-Be Mullet Makeover
In 1962, the Florida State Board of Conservation decided the common-sounding mullet needed a brand makeover and started marketing it as “lisa,” the Spanish name for the fish. Their stated goal was to erase the term mullet from the Florida lexicon and introduce the long-ignored fish to northern markets to compete directly with tuna and salmon.
The Board sent hundreds of cans of “lisa” to New York City for taste tests, and they distributed recipes for ambitious preparations like Lisa Pilaf. In the end, the effort to turn “trash fish to cash fish” floundered. Floridians went back to eating their mullet smoked, and New Yorkers stuck with canned tuna.
You can get New Orleans-style gumbo in Boston and Baltimore-style crab cakes in San Diego, but smoked mullet is one of those rare regional delicacies that can still be found almost exclusively where it originated. It’s also a splendid example of how a little-prized fish can be transformed into something delicious and wonderful through nothing more than smoke and time.
More than anything, smoked mullet offers a small taste of the fading world of old Florida—that brief period between the end of WWII and the opening of Disney World in 1971 when the automobile and post-war prosperity transformed the landscape of a once-rural state. Long before the corporate glitz of movie-themed amusement parks and chain restaurants, mullet shacks vied with alligator farms and fresh citrus stands for the dollars of families heading south for a week in the sun.
Back then, vacationers filled their car trunks with boxes of oranges or grapefruits to bring home as presents for family and friends, something no one would think of doing today. Perhaps instead we should load down our coolers or carry-on bags with dry ice and a couple of pounds of whole smoked mullet. It’s too wonderful of an American regional food tradition to let slip away.
Where to Find Smoked Mullet Today
Ted Peters Smoked Fish
In 1951, Ted Peters opened a small restaurant selling smoked mullet, German potato salad, and cold draft beer to the tourists heading out Pasadena Avenue to St. Petersburg Beach. They’re still at it today.
1350 Pasadena Avenue South, St. Petersburg
Walt’s Fish Market
Walt’s is a full service fish market with a large selection of local fish and shellfish, which they cook and serve in the adjoining restaurant and tiki bar. Each guest is greeted with a complimentary cup of smoked mullet dip with saltines to get them started.
4144 South Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
The Mullet Shack
On Saturday afternoons in Apollo Beach, a food trailer called the Mullet Shack opens for business, selling smoked mullet, fried mullet, mullet spread, and whole fresh mullet for customers who want to cook it themselves. In a throwback to the old tradition of roadside mullet stands, Steve Fagen and his son, Stephen, Jr., catch their fish in Tampa Bay on Fridays and smoke them Saturday morning so they’re ready for the lunchtime crowd.
Currently setting up at Green Nursery, 7075 North Highway 41, Apollo Beach
Since 1980, Skipper’s Smokehouse has evolved from a small take-out smokehouse to a combination oyster bar and live music venue occupying a collection of ramshackle wooden buildings. You can enjoy a smoked mullet dinner indoors at the old wooden bar or outdoors on a picnic table beneath century-old live oaks.
910 Skipper Road, Tampa
Star Fish Company Dockside Restaurant
A wholesale and retail seafood market dating back to this 1920s, the Star Fish Company added a restaurant two decades ago where patrons can dine dockside on picnic tables overlooking the water. White cardboard boxes are filled with french fries and hushpuppies and the fish of your choice, including smoked mullet.
12306 46th Avenue West, Cortez
Trident gun fishing is only for the bold; we follow one young hunter on the path to catch the smartest prey in the sea
My friend Danai keeps all her fishing supplies in one corner of her beach house. There are things like flippers, snorkels, and masks; a buoy that you wear around your waist to alert incoming boats that you’re in the water; and...a trident gun?
“What do you do with that?” I asked her. It was probably a stupid question, but was the gun even real? Was this some kind of staple for every Greek beach house, like the seashells my grandparents keep in jars at their Florida condo?
“Hunt octopus,” she replied with a sailor's nonchalance.
When Danai hits the beach in Chalkidiki, a series of peninsulas outside of Thessaloniki on the northeastern coast of mainland Greece, she dives into the sea to pull up barnacles and urchin, cracking them open with a short knife or her fingers and eating them on the spot. For me, the prospect of stepping on an urchin ranks up there with burning my hand on a stove, but eating them with Danai is something I look forward to every time I’m in Greece.
Trident gun hunting is a sport for the young. Danai personally knows four other hunters—all men, all 20 to 35 years old. Beyond that, she hasn't heard of many others who still do it.
Danai’s beach house sits on a hill above the water, and the hillside is dotted with trees and plants that end at the sand. Once you reach the water, the beach is basically private, with only a few stray sunbathers that occasionally wander over from the nearby hotel. There are misty hills that sit over the water in the distance, some other parts of mainland Greece, but there’s also the occasional uninhabited island—Danai and her cousins call one of them “Turtle Island” for the way it gently slopes in and out of the water.
That house has always been part of Danai's life. As we snorkled through the endless blue, she pointed out a forest of seaweed that was so large and dense, I thought it must have been there forever, but she told me it must have only happened in the last few months. She knows where the most abrupt dropoffs are, and where rockiness gives way to sandy beach.
And, of course, she knows the best hunting grounds. Finding barnacles and urchins are fairly straightforward; they’re sitting all over and around the rocks near the beach, and while they take some work to pry off the rocks, they're easy catches. Danai, who has been doing this for years, learned from her parents, and she now knows all the things you should and must do before eating the world’s freshest seafood.
For barnacles, one of the most important things is to make sure it’s still stuck to the rocks when you find it. If not, it’s probably dead, and if that’s the case, do not eat it. Toss it back into the sea and move on to the next one. Once you peel it off the rocks, you can use another shell or a knife to pull it out. Rip out the blackish grey guts, pleasantly chewy with a splash of brine, and enjoy.
Urchins require a bit more work, but they’re even more delicious. Danai found one that was covered in rocks and seaweed (the females, which carry the roe we actually eat, can be spotted by little bits of seaweed stuck in their spines) and cut it open on a nearby rock. Once you pick the guts out, you’re left with a small amount of orange roe that's as pure and bright as the water on the beach.
But there isn’t a straightforward guide to pulling your own octopus out of the sea. Octopi are smart; they know how to hide, and unless you know how to spot a nest or its eyes peeking out of the murk, you may never find one. Aside from one that was hiding in a cinder block, I never saw where they were until Danai pointed them out.
Once you shoot it, you pull the line to drag the trident back to you, and hopefully you have an octopus attached to the end. Sometimes, though, the sea fights back.
Hitting an octopus doesn't mean you kill it. It pulls back at you, and worse than that, it'll try to bite you with the beak that sits at the bottom of the head while grappling you with its tentacles. It may also ink you, which is great to watch, but only if it's not happening to you.
You kill an octopus by flipping the head inside out and removing the brains and anything else you find in there. At one point, Danai was struggling with one that inked her partly out of the water. Splattered in blackish brown ink, she also had pieces of its tentacles wrapped around her arm, and she later showed me the “hickies” it left behind—a series of small red blotches from its suckers.
But Danai's work wasn't done. When an octopus dies, its normally lithe body turns incredibly rigid. The classical Greek solution to tenderize the flesh is to beat it against whatever hard surface is nearby, be it rocks on the beach or pavement in town. And tradition dictates that this beating has to happen 40 times, although I believe Danai stopped before that, opting instead to rub the tentacles with her fingers to figure out how tender they were getting. Later steps include popping the eyeballs, an important precaution to keep them from bursting and potentially injuring you during cooking.
The end result, though, is well worth it. The Greeks are some of the world's greatest octopus chefs, and Danai's mother didn't disappoint. She boiled one simply to dress with nothing more than olive oil and salt. She grilled another until it developed a deep char, then mixed it into a quinoa salad. Add in some juicy summer tomatoes and a few extra fish Danai had speared while hunting and you have a meal worth fighting for.
The must-visit seafood shacks, high-end restaurants, bars and more of Naples and Marco Island
Sugar-fine white sand beaches along the sparkling Gulf of Mexico? Check. Shopping and charming pedestrian thoroughfares? Double check. A bumping restaurant and bar scene that hits every pleasure point, from down-home barbecue to high-end Persian? Triple check; over and out: Naples and Marco Island, Florida, have it all.
Neatly situated along the Gulf Coast in southwestern Florida, these sister towns have all the beachy charm you want on vacation, but more of the real-world amenities and activities that keep them from feeling too small. It’s true that Naples and Marco Island have a reputation for a bit of glitz (high-end shopping and finer-dining options abound), but there’s plenty of off-the-beaten-track local favorites to explore, too. Here’s a look at what to do, where to stay, and, of course, what to eat and drink when you visit.
Where to Eat
Grouper and Chips
This family-run, two-decades-running seafood spot in a strip mall just outside of downtown Naples specializes in its namesake: battered and expertly fried local red grouper and chips (a.k.a. french fries). Owners source fresh catches daily from fishers in nearby Cape Coral, and while there are only a handful of tables, the restaurant buys the second-highest amount of grouper in all of Collier County (behind only the Ritz-Carlton). Expect a line out the door in season for fried baskets, plus seafood pastas, fish tacos and housemade key lime pie.
Grouper and Chips
338 9th St N, Naples
With vintage rock and roll albums and Harley-Davidson paraphernalia lining the walls, Bill’s Café is a change of pace from the glitzier side of downtown Naples. Open only for breakfast and lunch, Bill’s makes a rich, peppery corned beef hash, and thin, oversized “European” pancakes with beautifully lacy edges and a healthy dose of cinnamon in the batter. Mutton-chopped, leather-clad owner Bill Calley cooks it all to order, and if you miss breakfast, his BLT (with extra B) is worth traveling for.
947 3rd Ave N, Naples
Fernandez the Bull
The Fernandez family, first-generation immigrants from Cuba, opened the first of their Cuban restaurants in Naples in 1985 to great success, and recently expanded to a second location across town. Family recipes provide the backbone for their large menu, and standouts include their “Cuban nachos” (tostones topped with meat and molten cheese sauce), the grilled “El Torito” rib steak with chimichurri, and a half-dozen variations on the Cuban sandwich. Take a moment to digest with a freshly-pulled colada (Cuban espresso brewed with sugar) in the airy space, adorned with oversized vintage “Varadero Cuba!” posters.
Fernandez the Bull
1201 Piper Blvd #10, Naples
3375 Pine Ridge Rd, Naples
7th Avenue Social
This newly-opened hotspot has live music in a cozy space decorated with bits of vintage Americana and nautical knickknacks, and a menu that fuses South American with Southern American to success. Try the ceviche featuring local rock shrimp and fried-to-order malanga chips, churrasco-style grilled beef shoulder with yucca hash and sour orange chimichurri, and shrimp and Anson Mills grits with housemade chorizo, guava moonshine barbecue sauce and roasted red pepper jam. It’s one of relatively few late-night options in town, and after-hours, dancing very well might accompany the band.
7th Avenue Social
849 7th Ave S #101, Naples
Don’t be alarmed when Google Maps sends you down a quiet-looking residential road: here lies Cracklin’ Jacks, purveyor of rib-sticking Southern cooking with a dash of Everglades. That translates to excellent cornmeal-crusted fried catfish, hickory-smoked baby back ribs, and fried frog legs with classic sides like mashed potatoes with peppery white gravy and braised collards with bacon. The exposed-beam interior and checkerboard tablecloths enhance the down-home vibe.
2560 39th St SW, Naples
Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro
Situated at the beginning of the 5th Avenue South main drag in Naples, this chic Persian spot is decorated in turquoise and maroon hues that lend the space a sultry, lounge-y feel. Ingredients like pomegranate, dates, and wild barberries make frequent appearances in dishes such as the kashke bademjune (fried eggplant) topped with caramelized onions and feta, braised lamb khoresh with plums, butternut squash and tomato-pomegranate sauce, and adas polo rice with lentils, apricots and raisins. Don’t skip dessert—the housemade baklava is delicate and delicious, while the upside-down squash cake with cardamom ice cream was the sleeper hit of the night.
Bha! Bha! Bistro
865 5th Ave S, Naples
One of the newer restaurants in Naples and the brainchild of noted local restaurateur Michael Hernandez (Handsome Harry’s), Hobnob has a warm Southern vibe with reclaimed wood tables and rustic detailing plus a bumping bar adjacent to the main dining room. The New American menu includes updated takes on comfort-food classics, like deviled eggs with sugar-cured bacon and sweet tomato jam; snapper poached in “crazy water” (tomato broth and fish sock) and served over luxuriously creamy polenta with roasted fennel and tomatoes; and rich braised Meyer lemon short ribs with lemon risotto, roasted escarole and zippy pine nut gremolata. The services is friendly and fast, though lingering at the table is encouraged.
720 5th Ave S #101, Naples
All American Shake Shop
In a retro-looking A-Frame on Route 41 that once housed a Dairy Queen, this zero-frills roadside stops serves up soft serve, sundaes, and a ‘Tornado” (their take on DQ’s famed Blizzards); along with a surprisingly broad menu of regional American fast food favorites, including Chicago, Atlanta, and New York-style hotdogs, Iowa-style breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches, fried chicken, pulled barbecued pork and more. Your seating options consist of entirely of picnic tables outside.
All American Shake Shop
410 Tamiami Trail N, Naples
Where to Drink
Located in quaint Old Naples, the lush outdoor patio space at Continental (which is also a steakhouse) makes it a popular place for after-dinner drinking and dancing, courtesy the live band that sets up shop on weekends. Craft cocktails are organized by spirit and given cheeky names (the “PS, It’s a Champagne Cocktail” features Bloom gin, Maraschino, and sparkling rose); or you can order “Out of the Orb”—the giant glass orbs dangling behind the bar that contain the bar’s most popular spirits. Try the tropically-inclined Blind Tiger from that section of the menu, with tequila, Carpano Bianco, lime, Angostura, and peach bitters for a kick.
1205 3rd St S, Naples
Adjacent to Osteria Tulia, chef Vincenzo Betulia’s buzzy Italian restaurant, Bar Tulia offers a sprawling cocktail menu (plus Italian wine, beer, and a full menu). Divided into “Craft,” “Classic” and “All Spirit,” thoughtfully-developed cocktails incorporate housemade tinctures, bitters and liqueurs, put to good use in drinks like The Last Dragon in St. George, with Terroir Gin, St. George Bruto, passion fruit, lime, and sage; or the Bitter Mai Tai with Smith & Cross rum, orgeat, lime and Campari poured over a mountain of crushed ice. The space has an inviting, Old World feel, complete with wood-burning oven and exposed brick walls.
466 5th Ave S, Naples
The Parrot Bar & Grill
Located just outside of the Tin City marina and boardwalk, this Key West-themed bar is a laid-back locals hang, open until 2 a.m. nightly. It’s about as close to a dive as downtown Naples gets, so expect the game on the TV, a jukebox full of classic rock, and cheap drinks served in plastic cups, all in an indoor-outdoor space on the marina with a lovely cross-breeze from the harbor blowing through. It’s not fancy, but the bartenders are friendly, the drinks are strong, and the price is right.
The Parrot Bar & Grill
1100 6th Ave S # 6, Naples
Quinn's on the Beach
One of relatively few casual bars/restaurants with beachfront access in Marco Island, Quinn's has been open for nearly 40 years, making it a favorite among hotel guests (it’s technically a part of the Marriott) and locals alike. Grab a patio seat to catch the sunset nightly (and the shirtless fire breathers that accompany it) while sipping on classic tiki cocktails and a surprisingly robust list of local beers, like the Orange Blossom Pilsner from Orange Blossom Co. in Lakeland, Florida.
Quinn's on the Beach
400 S Collier Blvd, Marco Island (inside of the Marriott Beach Resort)
Where to Stay
The Inn on 5th
There is arguably no more centrally located option than this stylish midsized hotel, renovated in 2012. Located in the heart of downtown Naples, the Inn on 5th provides incredibly easy access to the myriad shopping, eating, and strolling along 5th Avenue South and the surrounding areas, including public-access beaches. The 80-odd spacious rooms are done up in a contemporary black, white, gray, and red color scheme; and the property has a spa, rooftop pool (currently under renovation), and fitness center on-site.
The Inn on 5th
699 5th Ave S, Naples
Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort
This sprawling (726 rooms!) Marriott Resort in prime Marco Island beachfront territory is done up in a festive Polynesian style, complete with four lavish pools, a tropical spa, indoor-outdoor dining and tiki bars, two Championship golf courses, and balcony suites facing the pristine white-sand beach just steps away. In 2017 the hotel will complete its $320 million renovation to transform into a JW Marriott property (making it the only JW beachfront resort in the continental U.S.), which will include another 94 rooms, oceanfront pool, and high-tech indoor entertainment center.
Marco Island Marriot Beach Resort
400 S Collier Blvd, Marco Island
The Ritz-Carlton Naples
Situated a few miles outside of the hustle of downtown Naples and directly on the Gulf of Mexico, this AAA Five Diamond resort helped usher in a new level of luxury when it opened in 1985 (it was renovated in 2013). The 450 rooms have a warm blue-green-gray palette inspired by the Gulf, and the property has eight on-site restaurants, two pools, a snazzy spa, pools, tennis, golf, and three miles of private beachfront to meander and collect seashells upon.
The Ritz-Carlton Naples
280 Vanderbilt Beach Rd, Naples
Hyatt House Naples
One of the newest hotels in Naples, this hotel is designed as an extended-stay hotel with resort-like amenities in the Gordon River section of Naples Bay. Within walking distance to 5th Avenue South, the hotel has 183 rooms and suites with fully-equipped kitchens, some with lanais and river views. There’s also a pool, fire pit, grilling area, and on-site boat and paddleboard rentals, and their Latitude 26 Bar & Grill is a popular happy-hour hangout for downtown types.
Hyatt House Naples
1345 5th Ave S
What to Do
For a break from shopping and sunning, head to historic Palm Cottage in charming Old Naples, the city’s oldest house, for an hourlong tour of the property. Built in 1895 out of a local cement called tabby (crushed seashells and sand), the charming grounds have been preserved with many original features intact, including pinewood floors, a kitchen outfitted with retro appliances, and a sprawling oval garden out back. The docents from the Naples Historical Society are sweet and knowledgable about every last nook and cranny of the house.
137 12th Avenue South, Naples
Tours run Tuesday-Saturday 1-4pm, $13/pp
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
About half an hour east of Naples, this Audobon Society-run swamp sanctuary is home to the largest remaining old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America, and teeming with wildlife (including alligators, otters, turtles, and dozens of birds). The leisurely 2.25-mile trail (on an easy-to-navigate boardwalk) passes through six habitats, including marshes, cypress, wet prairie, and pine flatwood; helpful signs dot the path to point out plant and animal species (keep an eye out for the ultra-rare ghost orchid), and massive cypress trees are named after prominent historical figures in the fight to preserve south Florida’s wetlands.
Audobon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
375 Sanctuary Rd West
Open 7am-5:30pm daily, $14/pp
Marco Island Beaches
Marco Island and Naples are beachside towns, and the sprawling white-sand beaches on Marco Island are particularly lovely. South Beach and Tigertail offer public access and easy parking, and many of the hotels and resorts in the area have private beachfront property as well. Beachy activities abound--local shops and hotels offer rentals on everything from sailboats to stand-up paddleboards to jetskis, or you can engage in a more low-key local favorite: shelling, aka combing the beach during low tide to collect seashells from the crystal-clear Gulf of Mexico waters.
Down South Airboat Tours
For a day trip outside of Naples/Marco Island, head about an hour southeast to the heart of the Everglades for a private airboat tour from the sixth-generation Everglades family behind this relatively new operation. There are several airboat operators to choose from in Everglades City, but Down South offers a personalized experience, and is the only company with access to the privately-owned freshwater areas, nicknamed “The River of Grass.” The friendly, knowledgeable captains chat history and ecology over two-way headsets while deftly whizzing across the surface of the wetlands at speeds up to 35 mph, slowing to point out wild attractions (yes, there are gators) along the way.
Down South Airboat Tours
tours from $200; location determined upon booking
In Greece, a small bite of baklava at the end of your meal is more than a small gesture
There are a few things I remember very clearly from my last meal in Thessaloniki. I picked Glykanisos, a small restaurant that sits on the side of one of the mountains that gently rolls into downtown and eventually the sea, in a little town called Pylaia that is only accessible by one bus—and even then, you have to walk along a dimly lit residential street until you run into it. My friend Katy and I ordered much more food than we ever normally would have eaten (maybe). The squid was, as always, perfect, stuffed with molten feta and tomato. But then, after at least 10 visits spread over eight months, the free dessert had changed.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was. I had partially based my decision on where to eat that night on the desserts I expected to have—a crackly rème brûlée and a fudgy chocolate cake. I wouldn’t have normally advocated for the approach, but that’s just how good that cake was.
The complimentary dessert rapidly became one of my favorite facets of Greek eating. It’s a staple in most restaurants, except perhaps for the most touristy ones lining Ermou Street in Athens. And the reason for it makes me love it even more.
For Maria Loi, a Greek chef and owner of Loi Estiatorio in New York, free dessert is just a natural part of of Greek hospitality. “It’s to make sure everyone enjoys the meal,” she says. “It completes your meal because the dessert is considered another course.” It rounds out the eating experience, and, as Loi points out, allows you to enjoy it from start to finish—meaning the Greeks really care about how you feel about their food.
The desserts themselves usually depend on the season—I’ve had homemade ice cream on fruit in the summer and syrupy fried dough in the winter—and they don’t have to be big. One restaurant on Lesbos island served a simple saucer dotted with four sugary cherries for the end of the meal, and it was perfect. Another time, when dining by myself in Santorini, I was given a very small scoop of lavender ice cream drizzled in honey. It was gone in two spoonfuls, but I like to think I did my best to savor that little bit.
The dessert you get may also depend on where you are in Greece; Loi mentions that the desserts in Chalkidiki may differ from ones you find in Athens or other parts of Greece. This makes sense, as some regions in Greece specialize in certain products, but there are constants like baklava, fresh fruit, and mastiha that can be found anywhere you go.
Although I didn’t get what I expected at Glykanisos, I definitely enjoyed the fruits that came out instead. I still wouldn’t call myself a dessert girl, but every time I get a complimentary dessert in Greece, I kick back, make some room in my stomach, and eat every bite.
Where to get a unique—and absolutely delicious—Anatolian spin on a Greek fast food
Souvlaki is to Athens what pizza is to New York: it's everywhere, and it can be fantastic or plain mediocre. But in Athens, its ubiquity means you may never feel the need to go out of your way to get one.
Here's an exception: a souvlaki worth a trip to Greece all its own.
As part of a week spent eating my way through Greece, some Athens locals were giving me a tour of their favorite restaurants. We made our way to a small stand behind Omonia Square that sells souvlaki that isn’t just souvlaki. The stand is called Lefteris o Politis, which means Lefteris from Istanbul, and when we got there, it was packed. One of my guides, Tasos Brekoulakis, went to the order as the rest of us stood at the table, and it immediately became clear to me that this was one of those no-nonsense ordering situations where a wrong move could get you ejected from the line. So I let Brekoulakis take the lead.
When he came back to the table, he set down a tray piled with three souvlaki that looked nothing like what I had known in the past. They were spare, with minimal toppings, and dusted with a fiery red spice that, on first bite, was so spicy it brought tears to my eyes. There's a lot of regional variation in Greek souvlaki—on skewer or off, made with chicken or pork or even cheese—but none made with minced kebab meat like at Lefteris, nor with that spice dusting. It was the most distinct and delicious I've tasted from Athens to Thessaloniki to Rhodes and Crete.
Brekoulakis told me that the family running the stand came from Istanbul. The father, Stavros, used to sell souvlaki as sort of a food cart—using a mobile grill to cook it as he walked through Athens. He moved to the shop in 1951, naming it after his son, Lefteris, and Lefteris’ son Tasos now runs it.
This Istanbul influence is clear in the souvlaki, from the use of kebab meat to the paprika on top. Another guide, Marina, pointed out to me that when you get it spicy, you order the “manly” version. I felt kind of manly eating it, I guess—it probably put a little hair on my chest.
Lefteris keeps it simple. There are some tomatoes and onions, but no fries and no sauces. Which is just how they want it.
“There is a controversy in Greece among souvlaki makers concerning the french fries,” Brekoulakis explained. “The traditional souvlaki doesn’t contain any sauce, the tzatziki is a recent addition, and the fries were added in the ’80s. The old ‘souvlatzides’ [people who made souvlaki] think that the fries make souvlaki too dry and they serve them separately.”
So if you place an order at the stand, don't even think of asking for fries. Brekoulakis cautioned me in no uncertain terms that if you do, you'll get kicked out of line.
I love this. I love the history of the place and how present that history is even today. I love that the spicy version is called “manly” and that it brings tears to my eyes. There are lots of other souvlaki places I love (hello, Delicatessen in Thessaloniki), but this is the one I'll dream of for my next meal.
Lefteris o Politis20 Satovriandou, Athens 104 32
+30 21 0522 5676
Each year, deep in Minnesota's northwoods, Amy Thielen invites a close-knit band of friends to hunt her land, and fortifies them with lusty, late-fall dishes like venison and sauerkraut that rival any turkey and stuffing
The saturated blue night sky dilates rapidly to chambray like an old TV coming to life. After color, we get sound. The first shot from the woods detonates from a distance, sounding like the low beat of a pillow-stuffed bass drum; the next two, as sharp as rim shots, crack off a lot closer to the house. A bolt of excitement rolls through me, equal parts greed and reverence, two feelings that merge during our annual deer hunting weekend as naturally as sour mix and whiskey, and I think, I hope that was one of ours.
Our band of deer campers, as I call our hunting party, have been settled in their cold, open tree stands for over an hour, so it's possible. I've been awake much longer, having risen before dawn on the most ceremonious of days, the deer hunting firearm-season opener, to send them off with a proper breakfast. I don't get up to cook this early unless it's a holiday, which is telling; after seven ritualistic seasons that's pretty much what this weekend has become. In true holiday fashion, the morning meal contains enough riches to raise the body temperature by a few degrees: a couple of skeins of smoked sausage that I pan-steam until the bottoms darken and the juices evaporate into a ropy caramel; a leaning tower of buttered toast; tar-dark coffee, two thermoses' worth.
After breakfast our hunters—my husband, Aaron, five of his friends, and one of their teenage boys, all of whom were so festive and raucous last night—silently draw on their safety-orange regalia, each donning their own unique arrangement of bright vests, overcoats, and chaps. Glowing like neon signs in the dark house, they pick up their rifles from the garage and tromp out to their various stands in the trees to sit and watch and wait.
It likely won't be long. Our 150 acres swarms with what some of my neighbors refer to as “too many deer.” From my driveway, I usually see only the does. They cock their heads at me, as if trying to discern my species, and then come to their senses and jump into the woods in three graceful, storybook arcs, their white fluffy tails flipping up defiantly behind them.
But the fall hunting season coincides with the mating season—more elegantly known as the rut. This is the time of year that the does lose their reticence and the bucks, generally as elusive as ghosts, let down their guard and show themselves. Gripped by the mating instinct, the bucks grind the musk gland at the base of their antlers against trees until the bark is rubbed raw; they paw roughly into the ground, leaving behind divots and pheromones, a trail of crumbs for cute young does to follow. During the rut, even the shrewdest bucks get sloppy. The horniest among them get the sloppiest, and the most starry-eyed get strung up on the high beam between our son's playhouse and our thickest oak.
If it sounds brutal—well, unfortunately, most protein gathering is. Even when one is armed with a rifle (patently unfair human advantage), bringing in a deer is not a given. It takes dedication, and preseason tracking, and skill. And a little luck.
When Aaron comes in for his midmorning coffee break, he reports that he saw not a single deer from his 10-foot-high tree perch but witnessed a number of loud, drunken crashes through the leaves that all turned out to be squirrels, and that around the same time that his toes began to freeze and go numb the sun started to melt the snow and the woods fell silent. And it was peaceful. After a few cold hours of sitting, surveillance turns into meditation. I imagine our seven hunters, together with the 10 hunters on our neighbor's land, hands clasped on rifles, standing watch like ushers over a hushed crowd of observant animals fidgeting in the dry underbrush. As rituals go, hunting is simultaneously singular and plural, individual and communal.
It's like woods church.
Throughout my childhood, the ceremonies practiced during deer hunting season dawned on me peripherally, like someone else's religion.
I grew up in this town—Park Rapids, Minnesota, an hour-and-a-half drive due east from Fargo—in a nonhunting family, squarely in the cultural minority. The only red meat my mom ever set on our table was beef. If my dad ever took a walk in the woods I don't remember it. It would have been rough going in his wing tips. We lived in town, in an aspirationally suburban island within a coniferous sea of outdoorsy northwoods folks, most of whom possessed deep freezers filled with their own venison.
But I clearly remember the signs of the season. Then as now, two weeks before the official firearms opener, you could see it coming. Bludgeoned target bucks stood as lawn decoration in front yards across town. Bright orange hats curled up on the dashes of passing trucks like cats in a warm nook. Bakeries sold doe-eyed deer cookies and cupcakes topped with tiny plastic rifles, and the farm and fleet store hawked pink camouflage lingerie. (Even though plenty of women hunt, the deer hunting merry widow joke never dies.) Men started wearing knives on their belts, and school absenteeism, for both students and teachers, was largely ignored.
So when I sat at my fourth-grade desk and watched the kid across the aisle needle a column of numbers into the soft skin of his forearm with a Bic pen, and asked him about it, he looked at me with bewilderment. “Countdown to deer hunting opener,” he said, turning back to his calendar tattoo, sucking in his spit in great anticipation. “When I will be ab-sent.”
I was curious: boys—hunting—venison. In that order.
When, 20-some years later, Aaron suggested that we put our land to good use by hosting deer camp, I agreed, my curiosity piqued. I didn't want to hunt myself—I enjoy butchering and won't hesitate to trim a deer liver or butterfly a heart, but I remain squeamish about guns and their cold metal triggers. Basically, I'm one of those hypocritical kinds of carnivores who'd rather not turn out the lights if I can get someone else to do it for me.
Aaron and his friends, including his bandmate Darrin Bruse and his two brothers, who grew up hunting with their departed dad, are drawn to the historical romance of the deer hunting tradition. My collection of old cookbooks is what reels me in. Fernand Point, for example, includes pages of venison and wild bird recipes, with multiple variations of murky, gutsy pan sauces. All of my American books over 50 years old contain entire chapters devoted to game. I realize that the meat I eat shouldn't be a narrow multiple choice, but should reflect the wider aperture of what surrounds me: bear, wild ducks, rabbits, and mostly venison.
Ever since we moved back home to this cabin in the woods, eight years ago, I'd wanted to crack the mystery of what they ate in the mythical hunting shacks and forest huts I'd always heard about. Were all hunters like our neighbors, keeping a steady diet of venison steaks and fried potatoes, or were some of them more ambitious? I'd heard stories of sourdough, homebrew, and braised deer hearts with wild rice, and other camp cooks who, like me, didn't hunt but instead worked the stove. I turned to my favorite deer-shack photo from an old book of heartland cooking, in which a plaid-shirted gentleman fried potatoes in one black iron pan and slipped a venison roast into the wood oven in another. Give these hunters glasses of wine in place of their canned beer, and the scene could pass for a secret Basque cooking society.
Figuring that any holiday this revered had to revolve around food, I swiftly appointed myself camp cook and began dreaming up the menu. None of us can take off the traditional week for the hunt, so we pack our harvest into a single long weekend. This torques the pressure to bring in enough deer to share among us during the weekend, but still, we are loose about it, as casual as family. The hunting day may look like a lot of napping, snacking, and coffee drinking, but the preservation of energy is an art—and we're fairly regimented about it.
In time, my menu has grown mossier and earthier, darker, heavier in flavor, and thicker with place. This year we have teak-colored teriyaki ducks. Fried onions imprinted with the cast-iron pan. A winy sauce for the venison so dark it looks like it might taste rusty. Apples roasted right in the coals of the campfire. Spiced coffee spike, fragrant with whiskey, should anyone's toes remain stubbornly cold after the hunt. And, as always, if we get a deer, I will make fresh deer liver pâté and strive to have it made, chilled, and on the table before they finish cleaning the carcass.
In the kitchen, Beth, one of our hunter's wives, and I fret over the hunt. Just in case we don't have a deer in time to harvest the backstraps I need for our Saturday dinner, I've mined my deep freezer for feral animals, thawing two meticulously plucked wild ducks our neighbor Kenny gave me a few weeks back. I also forage my cupboards, finding treasures I've been putting aside all fall: fermented pickles, fermented beets, homemade sauerkraut, our own birch syrup, the wild rice that Aaron harvested from the creek. These jars are a record of my days, the nuts in my cave, and they cost me nothing but time, so I squander freely.
As with hunting, our feast always contains an unpredictable wild card. When I reach up into the cavity of one of Kenny's ducks, I find it: a cache of gizzards from his entire hunt, the ruby jewels from at least 10 ducks. I rub them with salt and herbs and set them to cure while I look around for a bunch of fat in which to slow-bake them.
I fry onions until they're tarnished and sweet and tip them out over a taupe pile of our own wild rice. I go down to the garden to grab some rutabagas, yanking the last two corpulent ones from a row full of runts. I dip into my back pantry and pull out my fermented beet kvass. When it's mixed with vodka and lemon the cocktails glow a radioactive magenta, and as the hunters straggle in, creaky from the cold but happy, they accept them like a cure.
They bring with them the word we've been waiting for: Todd got the first deer, a buck. Hallelujah, we rejoice. Todd, the oldest Bruse brother, is an actor, a fermentation fiend—he loves my kvass—and wears a hat made from the fabric of his father's favorite La-Z-Boy chair. He's been moping for years, quite vocally, about not getting a deer, so this is a big one.
When Todd brings me the floppy fresh venison liver, the color of a black eye, things get serious. This is not just seasonal food, but urgent food. Even two days' sitting in the fridge turns deer liver bitter, but if trimmed and cubed and immediately sautéed with bacon, brandy, and butter, the liver tastes uncommonly sweet and minerally. As the juices pool on my board I realize that in comparison, my daily cooking is rather bloodless. This weekend definitely rights that wrong.
When we sit down at the table, I look around at our crew, their plates crowded with more side dishes than at Thanksgiving, nibbling on birch syrup—glazed duck legs like lollipops, and on lettuce dressed with duck pan juices and dark coins of gizzard confit. Rough and unpredictable and just a shade too blessedly decadent, this weekend perfectly captures the complications of the woods around us. I understand the devotion behind deer camp. I see the romance.
In the glow from the oil lamps, goodwill flows through me from my head to my toes. In fact, my feet overflow with it, turning red and overheating, as they often do after such epic meals. I wonder, is their pulsating due to the triple punch of ruby-red things I've consumed—red venison and liver and red wine—or a surplus of salt or, fear of fears, the first twinge of gout? It's always hard to tell. I ask my tablemate to my left to squirt the cook some more merlot from the box, if you please, and I shuck off my socks by hooking each down with one toe. (I'll find them tomorrow morning, beneath my chair.)
Shortly after dawn tomorrow, we'll trim the meat and make big batches of merguez, spicy Italian, and plain venison ground with a constellation of backfat, and scrub my kitchen down to the nub, before commencing the final peg in our weekend, the champagne toast and division of meaty loot among coolers; that's everyone's favorite ritual. The last-minute liver pâté, the hawking of backroom ferments, the general excess of cooking and overeating (and inevitable sock-shucking) are mine.
Amy Thielen's Thanksgiving Recipes
You could spend hours bouncing between vendors hawking some of the best produce, cheese, and cured meat of your life. This is how to make the most of it
If you want to understand life in Athens, you have to understand the Central Market. Walk down just about any major road downtown and you'll find your way to an entrance, where you'll see people from across the city tote their carts from one stand to the next, arguing in Greek over prices and quality. For a minute, it's possible to block out the various crises that Greece has become known for and find the essence of how the people here live and eat.
The actual market, which locals call the Dimotiki Agora or sometimes the Nea Agora, sits inside a glass-roofed building, installed two years after the original market burned down in 1884. And the action starts early. At 7 a.m., you’ll find mostly Greeks pushing wheeled bags, stall owners holding frappes, and pigeons. By 9, I had more room to wander between the stalls, though that didn't stop me from slipping on some mysterious fish juice and bouncing like a pinball between the vendors.
The produce stalls make Greece's reputation for great food abundantly clear. The fruits and vegetables you find there—what seems like everything, though of course the stalls only stock what's in season—are just more vivid than you're used to. I saw some of the biggest, most beautiful pomegranates there, as well as figs, tomatoes, and peppers. I could smell how ripe everything was, ready to go directly into a Greek salad. The vegetable section somehow transitioned into a series of knick-knack filled stalls like the Big Bazaar, which shimmers with all of the mirrors, pots, and instruments hanging from the awning. It probably took me about 30 minutes to maneuver my way through precariously stacked mountains of treasure to the back, but the journey was worth it.
Then there are the spices. Bag after bag of oregano, lavender, dried basil, thyme, peppermint, and mixes with names like “Salad mix” were stacked high in storefront shelves. As I moved past that, under the glass ceiling, I started to get to the meats and fish. Whole animals hang upside down, all parts present except for an epidermis. In the fish aisle, glassy eyed tuna and anchovies stared at me as I walked past. I even spotted an aisle of the market that appeared to be home to several mesh bags of giant crabs. I barely resisted scoring a few bags of gorgeous anchovies—my favorite thing to fry up and eat one after another, like french fries.
If you want to take a break to eat something while you’re in the market, most people at the market will recommend you stop at the Epirus Tavern, which sits inside the actual market building, hidden among the butchers. It’s open early, so if you arrive before the market opens, you can still sit with a meal and wait for vendors to arrive and watch Athenians be Athenians.
Beyond the market building, go hunting for dairy, especially Στρούγκας του Μωριά (Strougkas tou Moria), a cheese shop that displays block after block of enticing briny feta. I tried a slice off a brick that was described to me by some Greek food-loving friends as the “most authentic feta,” made with a mix of sheep and goat milk, instead of just sheep's milk or the cow's milk we're more accustomed to in the U.S. The brine tastes fresher, the texture is richer, and the goat character is unmistakable.
After cheese there's salami. The tiny shop Arapian has so many hunks of cured meat hanging from the ceiling that it's easy to get overwhelmed, but my Greek buddies suggest starting with pastourma. Thinly sliced, and lots of it.
Pastourma is an air-dried cured meat like bresaola that's spread throughout the Mediterranean and seems to have as many names as eaters. It used to be made with camel, and in some places it probably still is, but in Greece it's mostly beef. Hop back and forth between Arapian and Strougkas and you have a mobile meat and cheese platter than can entertain you for hours.
Later in the afternoon, I made my way back to the market for my final stop, and the one that I was looking forward to the most. Diporto sits in the basement of a building near the market, but you’d never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it (or if you didn’t hear the sound of Greek music floating up from the stairs). There are no signs and no windows—just rusty doors that open to steep staircases leading to what is some amazing food in a secret place. There’s also no menu—you eat whatever the kitchen has made for the day. When I was there, that included rice in a tomato sauce with a giant hunk of tender meat in the middle, some fava, a salad, and lots of wine, all of which was fantastic.
But what's best about this place is the atmosphere. Barrels stacked two high line one of the walls, which may seem like an aesthetic choice until you realize those barrels are actually filled with the wine the restaurant serves. It’s smoky and loud and full of Greeks. I sat at a table by myself, but this only lasted a few minutes before I was pulled to the table next to mine, where a group of 12 Greek men and women were singing loudly along with an accordion player. After telling them in broken (but wine-enhanced) Greek that I used to live in Thessaloniki, we belted out “Omorfi Thessaloniki” (“Beautiful Thessaloniki”) over glasses of wine that seemed to magically fill after each song. This is the reason to live in a city like Athens in a country like Greece. Or at least to visit the main market.
Reports from the front lines of a decades-long New Jersey fight fueled by frankfurters, fame, and a squiggle of mustard
Welcome to Hawk’s Illustrated America, a monthly series following illustrator Hawk Krall’s journeys through the back roads of the U.S. in search of our country’s most obscure and delicious regional specialties.
They call them steamed, but they're really fried,” John Fox says of the Easton-style dog.
Fox, a North Jersey postal worker, is the undisputed hot dog savant of our time. For years he's appeared regularly in articles, in books, and on TV programs relating to the history and nuance of sausage grinds and tube-steak legends.
The Easton dog—dressed with yellow mustard, raw onions, and a pickle spear, then wrapped in wax paper so the components steam and commingle together, a kind of frankfurter en papillote—is found mostly among Delaware River border towns around Phillipsburg, New Jersey, and Easton, Pennsylvania.
New York City and Chicago may get all the attention, but Jersey is America's true hot dog heartland. There are no fewer than six distinct regional styles of dog in the Garden State, from the deep-fried “Italian” dogs stuffed into fluffy “pizza bread” at Jimmy Buff's to the Greek chili-topped “Texas” wieners of Paterson. Loyalties run deep here, and divisions strong—though differences in individual styles are not well known outside their home territory. Which is why I've asked Fox to shed some light on Easton's claim to hot dog fame—and on the decades-long family feud that's become an essential part of its history.
It begins with Jimmy Makris, who in 1910 opened a stand called Jimmy's Hot Dogs on the Phillipsburg lot where Jimmy's Doggie Stand now sits. Makris pioneered the shallow-fried, wax-paper-steamed Easton dog, and his 4x6-foot stand proved so successful that he hired some help to feed the crowds: first his nephew, John Apostolopoulos, then fellow Greek immigrant Frank Bounoutas. After Makris died in 1983, John and Frank opened a new location in a strip mall across the river in Easton, making a handshake deal to split the business 50-50. But as both men were approaching retirement age and had no agreement in writing, the question of succession got dicey.
For 11 years, Fox goes on, the Apostolopoulos and Bounoutas families fought a vicious public battle over the Jimmy's name—all while working together side by side. Customers saw “yelling, cursing, and derogatory comments.” Local media reported on threats of violence that required the police to intervene. When a protracted lawsuit between the families couldn't be resolved, a judge put the business up at public auction. Loyal Jimmy's customers, fearing it might close forever, waited on hours-long lines for a final taste. In the end, out of spite as much as anything else, Frank Bounoutas bought the business for over four times its appraised value of $80,000, cutting the Apostolopoulos family out completely.
The lines today aren't quite as long at Jimmy's Doggie Stand, but on this sunny Tuesday, it's impressively packed. The Phillipsburg Jimmy's Hot Dogs stand shuttered in 1990; a few years ago, Sophia Malatos and her husband, Nick, brought it back to life. They have no relation to either the Apostolopoulos or the Bounoutas clans but know them both through the Greek Orthodox community.
“So now there's two Jimmy's,” Fox says, waiting for a dog. Someone in line notices John's T-shirt (Tommy's Doggies, another Jersey favorite) and asks, “Have you been to the Easton Jimmy's? It's the real deal, the original.”
Sophia Malatos joins us at a picnic table on the edge of the Delaware. “We put onion in our oil and cook in a cast-iron pot,” she says. “That's a little thing we've always done here.” The fry job on the hot dog is gentle, nicely crisp and salty with a juicy pickle and soft bun; three perfect bites.
Sophia and Nick never worked for the original Jimmy's, but they're well versed in its history, thanks in part to an amazing collection of memorabilia gifted to them from a local historian. That includes photos going back to the 1900s and a newspaper interview with Jimmy Makris, chronicling how his business survived an accidental stabbing, plus an improbable series of fires, floods, runaway trucks and trains. Sophia says she has no dog in the Apostolopoulos-Bounoutas fight. “We all work for each other's business, and then some go out on their own to build something to pass down to their families. We only want everyone to have success.”
We cross the river and stop in for more research at the Jimmy's in Easton. No one from the Bounoutas family is at the stand when we arrive. Later, by phone, they turn down all my requests for comment. The furthest I get is a quip from Polly Bounoutas: “Me and my husband, Frank, have been here 25 years. We have only hot dogs, chips, and chocolate milk, that's it. What else do you want to know?”
Back home in Philadelphia, I finally manage to get James Apostolopoulos on the phone. James is John's son—Jimmy Makris' grand-nephew—a 25-year veteran of the original Jimmy's Hot Dogs and the only living blood heir to a family legacy that he's now been ousted from.
“The business was meant to be passed down to the next generation,” Apostolopoulos says. “The Greeks have always been like that.”
As for Jimmy's Doggie Stand, he's quick to stress that the Malatos family have “no connection to the original business,” but he doesn't have hard feelings. “Everybody needs to make a living.”
Which is why he's recently been scouting locations to open a hot dog stand of his own. Even if he can't use the Jimmy's name, he plans to serve the original family recipe because, he says, “Hot dogs are in my blood.”
Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.
From planning the vacation to visiting landmarks back in time, here's how VR is changing the way we explore the world
Remember in 2007 when you first discovered Google Street View and started dropping the little yellow man into random faraway lands just to see what they looked like? (Or was that just me?). Fast forward a decade and virtual reality is having nothing short of a banner year: Facebook newly-acquired Oculus VR took home an Emmy Award for an animated short, the National Park Service released a VR tour of Yosemite narrated by President Obama, and courtrooms are using VR in courtrooms to bring crime scenes directly to jurors.
But outside of gaming, the industry that’s been most keen to capitalize on virtual reality is travel and tourism. From hotels to airlines and travel agencies, these brands are tapping into that natural Google-Street-View–esque curiosity, using virtual reality to show consumers exactly what they might get out of their journey before they even book the flight.
Watch: A 360 Helicopter Flight
Last week, Australia’s Qantas Airways—the first airline to offer in-flight VR entertainment via Samsung Gear headsets—released the new Qantas VR app allowing customers to explore some of the continent’s scenic views. According to a press release, the free app can be used in a split-screen mode for those who have a headset or Google Cardboard, or in 2D for those viewing on a smartphone (it’s important to note that much of what is billed as VR isn’t true immersive VR, but a translation of the VR experience for 2D use). Some of the videos featured include a stunning helicopter flight over the Uluru sandstone monolith, a sunset river cruise at Yellow Water Billabong, and a climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Though Qantas is leading the pack in the airline sector, it’s hardly the only company in the travel ecosystem to create original VR content for commercial use. Last year, UK-based travel group Thomas Cook Group partnered with virtual reality production studio Visualise to launch a splashy, celebrity-studded “try before you fly” campaign that transported viewers to a helicopter tour around Manhattan, a hike up the Egyptian pyramids, and a walk on Singapore’s OCBC Skyway. From a business perspective, consumers responded well—according to Visualise, the first three months of the campaign “generated flights and hotel bookings totalling £12k in the UK and Germany” and realized a “40% return on investment.”
On the more user-oriented side, the YouVisit mobile app allows the average consumer to create, share, and watch virtual reality “experiences” that range from the front row of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week to the nighttime streets of Vietnam and the steps of Machu Picchu. Videos are broken down in categories like travel, hospitality, and restaurants (those are all in New York City at the moment, but you can pretend you’re having brunch at Sarabeth’s or dinner at Empellon Taqueria). For those without the VR set-up, the videos are offered in a 360-degree theater view.
Beyond inspiring new travel, VR is being used to enhance it in real-time. That’s the proposition put forth by Timelooper, which offers visitors to major landmarks a chance to experience that same locale at its critical moment in history. Timelooper’s Andrew Feinberg explains, “When you visit a historical site, there’s an abundance of resources to understand facts and figures—when it was constructed, how it was made, how people lived there at the time—but the thing that’s missing is a way to emotionally and immersively connect connect with these places.” That means seeing the VJ Day Kiss while standing in Times Square, or the medieval civilization that once stood at the site of today’s Tower of London.
Whether you’ve got all the latest VR gear or think it’s a huge waste of time, there’s no denying that the industry is rapidly growing and innovating. And for all the skeptics thinking, “Why would I virtually visit somewhere when I could just go to in person,” maybe you’ll be convinced with a destination that you really can’t visit in real life: here’s a VR trip to Mars that would be perfect for you.
Tuckers, the 70-year-old diner that's fed generations of biscuit-lovers, burned down last year. Now it's making a comeback
Joe Tucker doesn't want to talk about who started the fire in his restaurant last year because he's already forgiven him. The guy's gone now anyway, off to God knows where.
“He had his problems,” Joe told me as I swiped a biscuit through a bowl full of grits. “I guess we all do.” Spoken like a true saint. But if you know this guy, even a little bit, it's not too surprising.
Joe and his wife, Carla, are the closest thing to saints I've ever met. I'm Catholic so I go looking for saints. But my attendance at church is sparse these days, and it's at Tucker's where I feel the spirit in me. The restaurant has been feeding Cincinnati's tired, poor, and huddled masses since Joe's parents, the late E.G. and the still-kicking Maynie Tucker abandoned the hills of Kentucky for the hills of Cincinnati and opened their first restaurant in 1946. They soon became the go-to mom and pop for Appalachian migrants and black factory workers. In more recent years it's been a favorite of art students, gangbangers, and punk rockers; P&G execs, politicians, and monks from nearby St. Francis church.
It didn't matter who you were at Tucker's—everyone was treated the same. Carla helped the neighborhood kids with their homework; Joe took them to Reds games if their grades were good.
My mom left Cincinnati for Florida back in 2001. A decade before that, my dad passed away. So aside from old friends, the city where I grew up has no roots for me now. But then again, there's Tucker's. Joe, with his beat-to-hell Bengals cap and black, flour-stained T-shirt, remembers my name whenever I pop in, no matter how long it's been. Carla does, too.
Despite all that, Joe and Carla have a restaurant to run. When I arrived, the dining room was filled with people who'd shown up for what was billed as a “friends and family” get-together, a thank-you to all the people who'd helped raise Tucker's from the ashes. And there were a lot of people to thank: loyal customers and fellow restaurant owners who fronted bills, raised money, volunteered time, and even sold T-shirts to make sure the place reopened.
One of them was Kathleen Norris, the founder of a big-time real estate company, and a devoted regular. After watching the Tuckers struggle to hire the right people to reopen, she took the reins, helping them find a reputable architect and other contractors, many of whom did their work pro bono. One of those contractors was Jim McMahon, the owner of a design company, who restored the stainless-steel stools, counters, and flattop. “Real nice guy,” Joe told me, with an accent that's retained its sweet Appalachian roots. Joe swears he's going to pay him back one day, but I doubt Jim is in any rush.
A few booths over sat Chris Heckman—a stay-at-home dad who'd made a weekly ritual of taking his son, Otto, to Tucker's for French toast. After the fire, Chris launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $18,000 toward repairs. “With so much gentrification going on in this neighborhood, you can't afford to lose a place like Tucker's,” he told me. “The new restaurants opening here are expensive, but Tucker's is an every week kind of place.”
This isn't the first time the people of Cincinnati have shown their love of Tucker's. Years ago, when Joe and Carla's 7-week-old grandson, Adam, died of SIDS, they held a fund-raiser to give them time off to grieve. They held another after Carla was shot in the shoulder a few years back (a drug dealer entered the restaurant to kill off a rival and hit her instead). When riots in Over-the-Rhine threatened to destroy the business in 2001, neighborhood kids stood guard, making sure no one messed with Tucker's. They knew that, unlike the factories and the bakeries and the groceries that had abandoned this area decades ago, this white Appalachian-owned business had always been there for the mostly black families who remained—for all families, really.
Sometimes, though, things take their toll. Joe's quick to mention that he's a recovering alcoholic. He fell off the wagon after Carla got shot, but he's been back on three years running. But who doesn't have their demons? Everyone has struggles and a hunger for something real. The Tuckers are here to assuage that hunger. Someday, they hope their children, and their children's children, will do it, too. So how could Cincinnati not save Tucker's? How could a city turn away a family that accepts its people no matter who they are; no matter what they've done? How can a city look away from a family that always forgives?
1637 Vine Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202
A Tucker's Throwback
Chef Hooni Kim heads to the snowy village of Jukjang-myeon to learn the funky, umami-laden secrets of jangs, the chile pastes and sauces that form the foundation of Korean cooking
Today the forecast calls for China dust,” our interpreter says cheerfully. A lingering smog often chokes this eastern coast of Korea, though for now the air is bracing, clear. It's December and we've set off predawn from the beach town of Busan, driving north through national parks, past Pohang (a steel town called the “Pittsburgh of Korea” with a Steelers soccer team to match) and ending up in the village of Jukjang-myeon. Our van turns down a long gravel driveway, and we are greeted with the pleasant perfume of burning oak.
Hooni Kim, a Korean-American chef, jumps out to stretch his legs and points at a large building in the distance. Smoke curls out of an open window.
“This is the sign that doenjang season has started,” Hooni says, walking toward the plume.
A fermented soybean paste, doenjang is one of three fundamental jangs (or “thick sauces”) of Korean cooking. Gochujang gets all the press: fiery, slightly sweet, composed primarily of sweet rice paste and pulverized chile flakes. Ganjang is a lighter type of soy sauce, used to season vegetables. Doenjang is a critical pantry paste, best used in combination with other things, or manipulated during cooking rather than squirted on at the end like a hot sauce. Doenjang is also the key ingredient in ssamjang, the spread found on all Korean barbecue tables—the sauce you're told to slather on the glistening meat that is then wrapped in lettuce leaves with a bit of rice. It's the driving force behind classic soups and stews, and many Koreans eat it daily.
Most of the doenjang we see in America is decidedly mass-produced, imported by the shipping pallet and stacked in K-town supermarkets in ubiquitous brown tubs. At Hooni's restaurant in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, Hanjan, I'd tried a different kind of doenjang. Over a plate of “fresh kill” chicken skewers and a bottle of Mâconnais chardonnay, Hooni introduced me to a brown, puttylike condiment that turned out to be as salty, deeply intriguing, and full of funk as a cave-aged cheese. I'd sampled plenty of doenjang over the years, having written a Korean cookbook and traveled to the country a handful of times. But this one startled me. Tasting it was transporting, spiritual.
Jookjangyeon was founded in 2010 by wine importer Michael Jung. He happened upon jang making after his father had done business with some of the Jukjang-myeon villagers and was sent a couple of jars of doenjang and gochujang as a thank-you.
“I knew it was special from the first time I tasted it,” he recalls of his first encounter with the doenjang that changed his life. He soon invested in the villagers' operation, building a state-of-the-art production facility, and started making trips to Europe and the United States to spread the word. He and his wife, Sarah Bue, are hands-on in virtually all aspects of their operation, particularly during the critical December–February production season that we have dropped in on.
“Doenjang is like wine,” Hooni had said of this stuff. “Both depend so much on the terroir, and the flavors change and mature over time.” It's produced in small batches by traditional means, eschewing any additives and preservatives, aged in clay pots open to the seasons, and prized by those who know the difference between a handmade product and an industrial substitute. And so Hooni and I have made our way here to see the real thing made at the source.
“I've imagined this room and smelled it in the pictures,” says Hooni, visiting for the first time during the winter production. We're led into a barnlike space billowing with smoke and steam. In it we find 16 giant iron pots, called gamasot, each 4 feet wide and heated with fires using wood cut from the surrounding forest.
Boiling yellowish-brown soybeans in water—lots and lots of locally grown soybeans—is the first step in making doenjang. At Jookjangyeon they go through around 15 tons a season. Once the soybeans have been boiled for six hours—with a squad of middle-aged village women utilizing nondigital cooking methods and miraculously not burning a single bean in the process—the remaining water is drained away and the mash shaped into toaster-size blocks called meju. These blocks harden like drying cement and are then wrapped in rice stalks (which transfer vital Bacillus subtilis bacteria to the bricks) and hung to air-dry for 15 days at 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity.
“Mold gets me excited!” Jung yells over the hum of giant fans that run day and night in the meju room. Visitors are required to wear head-to-toe sterile plastic jumpsuits to prevent outside contamination. As with wheels of Comté cheese slumbering in a cave, the white dust that gathers on the surface of the meju blocks indicates that the bacteria has done its job and advanced fermentation is under way—which ultimately translates to profound flavor. In the production of supermarket jangs, meju is speed-aged using high temperature and pressure to cheat time. In some cases whole soybeans are not used at all; instead an extract void of the valuable oil is used with wheat flour and other fillers. “The flour is to fake stickiness and texture,” says Bue with a frown. “But in a blind taste test, which we have done, many Koreans know the difference.”
At Jookjangyeon, they take aging a step further and trim the rice stalks from the blocks, then age them in a heated room for an additional 22 to 25 days, which produces blue and green molds. Jung's face lights up as he describes them.
“This is like the blooming of the flower,” he says about the process he calls three-dimensional fermentation. In doenjang production, the meju blocks are only the first half of the process. For the rest of the story, we need to step out of the aging room and ascend a steep hill to one of the company's jangwon, which in Korean translates to something close to the “garden of sauces.”
The wind is swirling and tiny snowflakes start to fall as Jung begins to explain the real jazz of jang making. We are in a field with hundreds of large earthenware pots called jangdok, 2 feet high, filled with doenjang, gochujang, and ganjang and weighing hundreds of pounds each.
"This is a spiritual place for me,” Hooni says, standing amidst the field of aging pots. Jookjangyeon has about 3,500 of these vessels scattered throughout the property, each costing about $300 and made of porous, breathable clay. In the hot and humid summer months, salt crystals gather on the outside of the jars so frequently that workers have to wipe them of residue weekly. While I had read extensively about meju production, I was still puzzled as to how exactly the aged bricks were ultimately turned into jang. Each farm has its own method, and some keep the process a secret. Weather, time, and much trial and error. Jung stresses that the location of the jangwon was selected precisely for the availability of sun and breeze, which helps in the years-long fermentation process. I press for more details and lean in close while he describes the methods. (I am later told this was the first time he's discussed them openly.)
Exactly 47 blocks of meju are added to each empty jangdok, along with precisely five red Korean chile peppers and a handful of dried Korean dates called jujubes. At the end, five lumps of charcoal are tossed in for filtration but also, as Jung stresses, “to prevent bad luck.”
The pot is filled up with salt water, which has been measured at around 18 percent salinity. For 60 days it sits out in the field, exposed to changes in the atmosphere from clouds and sun to rain and snow. At the end of the period, the liquid, which has turned inky, is drained off and the meju is broken down—like a kid smashes a milk-logged graham cracker at the bottom of a glass. The drained-off liquid is ganjang (Korean soy sauce), which is collected and aged in its own jangdok for up to a year. The solid that remains is doenjang, and once a week for a minimum of one year and up to three, the lid is removed for an entire day and a screen placed over the thick paste so bugs and dust don't collect. I press to find out what this weekly airing-out process is all about, and how specifically it shapes the flavor of the doenjang. “The garden needs its sun,” Jung says, vaguely with a smile.
Hooni and I are invited to join the staff for a late lunch in the room with the gamasot. The fires are still roaring and the workers are cooking haemul pajeon, scallion and squid pancakes, atop the same massive iron lids they use while boiling the soybeans. Spread out on the plastic folding table is a bibimbap with seasoned bean sprouts, toasted seaweed, bracken fern, and beef atop nurungji—the toasted rice at the bottom of the pan that resembles Spanish socarrat. And there's a shallow bowl of ssamjang resting next to a platter of raw carrots, radish, and garlic. A plastic garbage can is packed with ice and bottles of water and Korean firewater called soju. In Korea, soju is a necessity at every meal, even when it's followed by the kindling of giant fires.
But Hooni is focused on the brown condiment in the bowl, which he slathers on a leaf of lettuce and pops into his mouth with great pleasure. “I am so happy right now,” he says with a raise of the glass. Doenjang, like soju, is a product Koreans take seriously. And this is doenjang worth savoring and toasting. “Gun-bae,” says Hooni, before shooting back the soju and slathering ssamjang on another leaf.
Cooking with Jangs
New York's beloved Miracle on Ninth Street is back—and it's going international in 15 cities
If the holidays are already feeling less like The Most Wonderful Time of the Year and more like open season on Big Capital, here's a way to reclaim some Christmas cheer: drinking it. That’s the idea behind Miracle on Ninth Street, the annual Christmas-Hannukah pop-up devised by famed bartender Nico de Soto at his New York City bar Mace, with Christmas lights, costumed bartenders, and all. And this year—its third annual—it's expanding to 15 bars and restaurants around the world.
For the month of December, each of the participating venues will be serving the same menu of yuletide sips created by de Soto and served in themed glassware—think Santa head mugs, Christmas coconuts, and Miracle coupe glasses—from Cocktail Kingdom. The universally available cocktails include the Brazen Britzen, a gin-and-pine liqueur number layered with vanilla syrup, lime, mint and club soda; the aquavit-and-sherry Muletide with ginger and pumpkin pie soda; and the Jingle Ball Nog, an eggnog spiked with brown butter fat-washed Cognac and Amontillado sherry.
On an individual level, some of the bars are offering additional celebratory elements to show off local flavor: Rye in Louisville, Kentucky is projecting Christmas movies on select evenings and serving small bites such as candied walnuts and flavored popcorns. Meanwhile, boozy arcade Nexus SmartBar in Montreal will run cocktail workshops and host guest bartenders, and Fortina in Stamford, Connecticut and Armonk, NY will feature a “Hanukkah hideaway” complete with a huge inflatable Menorah.
Aligning the project across so many venues was a feat in and of its own. As anyone in the bar industry can attest, it’s not always easy to procure obscure liqueurs and replicate unconventional housemade ingredients—something Mace is particularly known for. That’s why this year, de Soto and crew opted for cocktails built with ingredients more readily available all over the world.
“States differ in product availability and in their laws when it comes to things like infusing or in the amount of spirit you may use per drink,” explains Mace bartender Joann Spiegel. “There was a learning curve and one that will affect next year’s menus, but it’s the theme that is universal and that is what travels well.”
The Miracle pop-up bars are open now until Christmas Eve. Stop in for a glass of Christmas cheer, and wherever you are, don’t get too naughty.