Listen to the most recent episode of my podcast: Check your bunghole https://anchor.fm/matthew-gilman/episodes/Check-your-bunghole-e512rk
When one thinks of food trucks there is a stereotype that lingers over it of bad food and a run to the bathroom later. Although I have had some bad experiences in the past my recent adventures to the food truck rally at Bronson park has been the exact opposite. Two weeks ago, I noticed a few trucks with brisket on their menu and while I am more inclined to buy a taco over anything else, I decided it was time to try something new.
My first stop was to Pig Out BBQ, a blue cart that had several people standing around. This is always a good sign of something being good. I ordered a brisket sandwich and before I was finished paying the paper tray was slid across the counter to me. The meat was cut into half inch pieces and covered in a sweet BBQ sauce. The white bun would not be enough to hold this thing together. With the first bite a good portion of the sandwich fell onto the tray and I had to scoop the leftovers onto the sandwich as I ate. The meat was sweet and tender and if I had known I would be chasing after the little morsels I would have grabbed a fork and tossed the bun aside. For $8 it was pretty good.
My last stop for lunch was Lazy Man Bar-b-que. The cart was built to look like a log cabin with a fenced off smoker attached to the back. The sandwich, going by the same name as the one from Pig Out BBQ, was $10 instead of $8 and yet I saw several people ordering this meal. I placed an order and while I stood to the side, I watched one of these sandwiches come out the window. The meat was cut into long thin strips and folded through the bun. A horseradish sauce was smothered underneath and two choices of BBQ sauce sat on a counter by the window. Those that had been here before grabbed paper towels before leaving with their food. I, being the inexperienced soul who though they knew better, opted out of the paper towels already holding a child and a sandwich in my hands. I put a treatment of sweet BBQ sauce on the sandwich and received a surprise when the horseradish hit my tongue. The meat was cooked to perfection, not too tough but not undercooked either. The layer of fat resting on the top made every bite an even match to the one before. Between the two Lazy Man had the advantage.
That night I didn’t want the usual Taco Bob’s around the corner. I needed something that was old but new, a place I had not been to in a while. The last time I went to Coney Island I was disappointed by a middle-aged couple who thought they owned the damn place and the staff didn’t help dropping everything they were doing to answer questions and correct mistakes that were not theirs. The couple left a bad taste in my mouth and I left hoping they would wander out into traffic and make the world a better place without them. This time around I was second in line and ordered my food in a few seconds after entering the door. This was already a better situation than the last visit. I wasn’t that hungry but I still ordered a New York Dog, Chicago Dog, and the Coney Dog, something one has to order at the second oldest Coney Island in the country. The Chicago Dog is made different every time I go here. The peppers are either sliced or whole. I have never understood the fascination with the Chicago dog, maybe because I’m not from Chicago and I’m not a fan of the city either. Half of the time I’m tempted to throw some ketchup on top just to piss off some passer by that I know will say something. I took my food to go this time and walked down the street passing Fuse a place that opened a few years back doing a form of… well take a guess from the name. the Coney Dog had not changed a bit over the years and the New York dog was just as good as I remembered it, topped with sautéed onions and sour kraut. The Chicago dog still remains a mystery to me.
Saturday started out like may weekends these past couple of years driving out to my father-in-law’s place to do some work on the property. Once the sun was beating down for a few hours I called it quits after I found that the water was still not running in the house. That afternoon I went to Kelsey Block brewing and ordered the burger of the month. This month it was the barnyard burger, beef patty, smoked ham, cheese, and a fried egg. It hit the spot after a long morning of being out in the sun. across the street at Lowry’s I picked up a copy of The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison. I figured if I was going to be doing this food blogging thing again, I should look to the best for how it is done.
Sunday, my wife and I took a trip to Leduc blueberry farm and picked up five pounds of berries. She also bought a jar of blueberry mustard and we each continued to sneak into the kitchen to have a few dipped pretzels while I was cooking brats and burgers on the grill. My appetite got the best of me while I was out shopping and I picked up a few other things along the way; muscles, duck breasts, smoked ham, pig shoulder, and cornish hens. All of these are to be cooked in the coming weeks once recipes are found for them, although I already have some ideas for how those will go.
On the way home from the blueberry farm I picked up a six pack of a beer I had not enjoyed in years, Hacker-Pschorr Weisse. This beer was a favorite of mine ten years back but hard to find and with a higher price tag it wasn’t worth the hunt that would ensue, but there on the shelf it sat and I quickly grabbed it to be my own. I was sad to see the Octoberfest was not available but maybe that will change in a few months. For the sake of cooking Edward Lee style, I bought some Buffalo Trace and hoped to find some recipes or watch some Mind 0f A Chef again to write down the recipes.
It’s Monday and the fridge is filled with leftovers. I won’t be going out any time soon and with the freezer filled I hope to do more of my own cooking in the near future. After all, if I’m going to be doing this food writing thing, I should know what I’m talking about by learning how to cook these things on my own. Nobody likes a critic who can not do the thing he is reviewing. That is the job of the movie critic.
Standing in front of the plastered drywall where a Chinese eatery once stood, I am filled with a feeling of loss and dread. This was the spot where Oriental Express, a staple of Crossroads mall operated for over twenty years. I don’t know when it opened, my own memories go back to high school. Being the only one of my friends who owned a car I was the transportation to this place that I loathed. I hated the mall, but I loved the orange chicken. Even when I worked downstairs at Olga’s kitchen and had a lunch break, if I had the money I went upstairs and ordered the orange chicken and fried rice.
Malls have been closing around the country in record numbers and I had a thought that even if Crossroads Mall closed that somehow this Chinese place would remain open, the loan survivor of an economic apocalypse that Hot Topic and Zale’s would fall prey to. It was during the lunch rush that a person quickly learned what to order while standing in line. As you approached the counter the same order would be repeated with the exception of some dietary idiot ordering steamed broccoli. “Orange chicken and fried rice to go” rolled off their tongues as if they were in a soviet bread line, the only difference, they desired the Styrofoam container they were being handed. For six dollars you could eat a meal and be set for the rest of the day. The staff would scoop a pile of chicken onto the platter and when you thought they were done they continued scooping more. I was always happy to see the employee glancing up as if their eyes asked a question. “Is this enough? How about this? Now?”
While I didn’t care for the mall growing up there was the movie theater next door and or the longest time it was the best place to see the latest film. Plans would include finding parking at the theater, traveling on foot down the grassy hill to the mall, ordering orange chicken, eating it as fast as possible to make sure we didn’t miss the film, and rushing back to take our seats. For the price of some milk duds or a small popcorn a person could have a meal and let it digest over the ninety minutes we watched Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, or Keanu Reeves save the world.
A few months ago, I took my daughter to the mall in an attempt to tire her out. Being two years old she has a desire to walk to the edge of the world without stopping. She never takes a nap and for some reason her battery never moves below full, bouncing around the crib a night shaking walls and hollering at the top of her lungs until she passes out. I figured that with the escalator and the circle pattern of the mall I could follow her around and wait until she tired out before taking her home. That never happened. Instead we ended up in the food court and I bought the orange chicken and fried rice. Everything was the same as it had been for the last twenty years. Bamboo chop sticks, fortune cookie, a cup of water, and my food in a white foam container. Zoey tried some chicken and rice. The sticky sauce was on her lips and she fought to take it off. She seemed indifferent to it and I thought that in a few years she would be asking to have some orange chicken as I had done as a kid. This would be the only time she would try it.
The plastered walls are accompanied by a sign that reads “please excuse our mess. We are remodeling.” There are other spots in the food court where places closed and walls were put up to hide the fact there are empty spaces that have not been filled. McDonald’s closed years ago and was never replaced. Subway had a short lifespan and at the moment Sbarro is the only place I can think of worth mentioning. Olga’s kitchen is still there, downstairs in its own little world, with a new menu that I have trouble reading, desiring the old sandwiches that I once made.
The mall is slowly dying and during this process it has lost the carousel and several stores that people loved over the years. We knew this would happen when Tinder Box was forced to close, the only place for smokers to find cigarettes on their lunchbreak. Once the mall was no longer concerned about what the consumer wanted it was game over. Sears no longer owns Craftsman tools. Hot topic sells T-shirts for things I don’t understand, they could be anything from bands to some anime cartoon I have never seen, I don’t know. Half of Spencer’s is a sex shop and the rest is cheap clothes that will fall apart as you walk out the door. Sears has been on the verge of filing bankruptcy for a few years now but that is not what worries me. If the mall was a living organism then it just lost its stomach. Oriental Express was the last place that offered something comparable to street food. It was the one thing that people making minimum wage could eat while at work and not lose half of their check.
As a poor young man, I can’t tell you how many times I took my girlfriend to get orange chicken at the mall, unable to afford anything else. Dates to movies would start there and then we would go to see the latest Star Wars flick that George Lucas decided to poop onto the screen. The traffic in Portage is so horrific on most days that if I found myself in the area, I would gravitate towards the mall for food rather than trying to be sideswiped on Westnedge. In Portage, Oriental Express was my go-to, the place that always got it right and I could count on to fill my stomach and not regret it later. Over the years I would run into other people who knew of the orange chicken and I would watch their eyes light up, saliva would build up in their mouths and a few minutes later they were off to enjoy a tray of food just on the mention of it. This was the 90s and we would joke that the cooks must sprinkle crack on it because once a person had it, they wouldn’t order anything else.
Waving my fist in the air and trying not to scream in my anger of losing such an institution I left the mall with my daughter and went to Mid-Town Fresh a few blocks away from my house. In the lunch area they were serving orange chicken. I knew this wouldn’t be close to what I was seeking and yet I ordered it anyway. The chicken was heavily breaded and the sauce was sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was a bastardized version of what I wanted but I thought I would give it a shot. People think that the secret to orange chicken is the sauce, but its not. This tasted more like orange peels and the breading was thick and spongy. The appeal of Oriental Express was that the sauce was so thick and heavy you would scoop the rice into it and mix it around to soak up the rest. I have not found a place yet that matched it and likely never will.
I doubt I will ever go to the mall again. I have no reason now. When your business relies on having chains that everyone else has what do you have to offer that is unique? There is a lifespan for everything. With the come and go reputation that the restaurant business has I should not be surprised that Oriental Express closed. I was shocked to hear that the London Grill closed. I was devastated that I would never be able to make a pilgrimage to Les Halle and see the place that Bourdain wrote about, but for some reason I thought that Oriental Express would always be there. If this isn’t a sign of how things are really going in this country then I wouldn’t know where else to look.
If anyone knows where to find the recipe for that orange chicken let me know.
Saturday started out like any other except my wife was already out of the house when Zoey started to stir at 9am. The morning was slow and none of the places I wanted to go to were open until noon. I ate a small breakfast of leftover pizza and drove downtown to withdraw some money and pick up Ragtime by Doctorow.
Zoey and I went to the library bookstore where I paid for the first print hard cover edition of Ragtime. The price was $1. Zoey did her usual rounds and created a ruckus as I carried her out the doors and hour later. She had become obsessed with a sesame street counting game and didn’t want to leave Big Bird behind.
The first stop on my list of places to eat was Pho on the Block, a Vietnamese place with really great Bao and Bahn Mi sandwiches. My wife had been there the day before and said the food wasn’t as good as she remembered. I decided to check it out for myself and see. The décor was the same with an old moped hanging on the wall and community style tables in the middle of the serving area. The menu was almost exactly how I remembered it. Instead of beef Bao it was labeled as sirloin.
I ordered one of each of the four Bao they had available and waited. The man at the counter was middle eastern and there was a communication barrier we were finally able to break while I was ordering. A man sat at the counter window seats and had been there since I walked in. heavy set and long dark hair, he reminded me of a young Jonathan Gold on a quest for some good Pho. Zoey sat beside me as we drank water, she sipped from the glass and bit the rim still learning how to use a cup. After ten minutes an order came out from the kitchen where a middle eastern woman was preparing the food by herself.
I remember when Pho on the Block first opened, the staff was black and white, male and female. There were three to four people in the kitchen and a manager that lingered in the corner on her laptop. The wait time were short and the food impeccable.
I wasn’t sure what my wife had ordered the day before and ten minutes later, when my wait was finally over, the Bao appeared and I noticed how much things had changed. The tofu, the best item on the Bao menu, didn’t appear to have any roasted coconut on it. The sirloin was piled so high you could barely see the white bun. The lemongrass chicken was blackened and barely visible under the mountain of carrots thrown on top. The pork belly was the only time that resembled what I had eaten before. Everything was covered in insane amounts of sauce.
While trying to pick up the sirloin bao everything fell out and the few bites I was able to eat ended up being some of the best from the that meal, spicy, sweet, and fatty the combination hit the spot. The chicken was dry and lacked any flavor of lemongrass. The pork belly hadn’t changed much I’m happy to say, but the tofu, why on god’s green earth anyone would change the recipe on that I will never understand. The fried cake was spongy and lacked any type of flavor other than the oil it was cooked in. the coconut that was on the namesake was missing and therefore the point of ordering such a meal. What I had saved for last as the grand finale was a huge disappointment. I want my bao back.
Zoey enjoyed some of the sirloin and pork belly, but like me she was not a fan of the tofu. Afterwards I considered going to Nonla burger to pick up a Rubin burger they advertised on their Instagram account but I was too full and decided to head to Tiffany’s instead. The idea was to pick up some desert for later and enjoy it at home. I had known Tiffany’s for their baclava and other middle eastern treats. When I walked inside, I found a large cooler filled with cheese and aged meats. At the deli there were containers of salads of all types and flavors. Baclava was not to be seen. Zoey went crazy at the low-lying cooler filled with cheese. She wanted to pick up and throw everything regardless of style. I was able to find a few cheeses to try later but when the screaming started it was time to go. I quickly paid for the cheese and went out the door.
The adventure was over, or so I thought. Later that evening my wife was hungry and I wanted something besides the bad tofu in my belly. Sarah had an idea and what she had suggested I didn’t expect.
“I really want some Zooroona,” She said referring to a middle eastern restaurant next door to Tiffany’s. We had not been there in maybe two years.
Nothing had changed inside; the furniture and décor were the same and the smells from the kitchen told you this was the right place to be. We were taken to a booth and looked over the menu. I wanted something that I had never ordered before. I spotted the kebabs and knew at some point I had eaten those in the past. Vegetarian dishes would not have held me over so I skipped them. I spotted the marinated lamb in hummus and ordered the dish.
The lentil soup that was brought out first left me wanting more with the citric aroma, bitter flavor and sweet undertones balancing out the dish.
Zoey snacked on hummus and a few minutes later our meals arrived. Sarah picked one of the vegetarian meals, a mix of rice and curry with a garlic sauce on the side. Our meals went down fast and Zoey swatted away any offers from our plates more interested in her Sesame Street books than the food in front of her. The lamb was in bite size chunks and didn’t have the pieces of bone that I had found at other places. The Hummus was creamy and for superior to anything one might pick up at the local supermarket.
I had been hunting something new, something to expand my pallet outside of the street tacos and processed food that keeps the world moving. The meals of mystery meat and bleached white flour settle on the belly and leave your system forgetting that there is food out in the world to enjoy and not just subsist on. If we could have this kind of food everyday the world might be a better place.
I finished the meal with a 2 oz glass of Ouzo and let the liquorice flavor settle into my stomach. I had seen this drink on several traveling shows but it is hard to find on menus saturated with too many wines and the same beers that everyone else offers. I didn’t expect to see an old fashion on the menu and gravitated towards something that I knew I would not experience elsewhere. Ouzo was my desert.
We left Zooroona and for the next day I didn’t feel the need to eat. My cravings had been satisfied and for the first time in months I didn’t feel the need to snack later. This might be the difference between real food and the garbage we feed ourselves day after day.
I have been reading Edward Lee’s book Buttermilk Graffiti and it reminded me of the adventure of food blogging that I had abandoned so many years ago. Beer and Loafing is still up and the articles still apply to today with the exception of a few places that have closed. Reading Lee’s book reminded me of the things to look for while out in the world. I wasn’t planning on a adventure today, taking care of a two year old makes the though of going anywhere nerve racking.
I cleaned at one of the local breweries this morning, part of a clean to drink program that was designed to keep the bartenders happy and prevent the customers from shit talking about the bathrooms. After a few years the program has proven to be a success and at the moment I have more beers saved up than I could drink in a year.
The downstairs bar is the recent casualty of a downsizing in the brewery. Designed like a speakeasy from the 1920s the lower bar now sits dormant except for the Friday night dinners specially designed for mug club members. Barrels stand as tables and the walls are covered in artwork featuring the previous tenants and pre prohibition brewing history. Once I finished mopping the floors I took my daughter for a walk on the downtown mall.
Zoey is tiny for a two year old. She is often mistaken for a baby that has just learned to walk and receives a lot of attention when out in public. Her hair is short for her age and can only wear it in a pony tail on top of her head making her look like one of the characters from a Dr. Sous story. We make our way to the library, me following her as she already know the way from two blocks down the street. As we come closer to the doors she speeds up and races through the sliding doors, down the hall, and into the kids room that she knows so well. She plays with the computers, keyboard, and the doll house in the playroom, rotating through them in a certain order that only makes sense to her. When I try to leave she runs to the refective image of the elevator doors and walks in when the doors open. We head downstairs.
Zoey doesn’t have a left or right option in her thinking, as soon as the doors open she moves straight into the bookstore and disappears. While she wanders through the shelves I find a first print hardcover copy of Ragtime by Doctorow and place a hold on it. The dustcover is still in great condition and the price is a dollar, I can’t pass it up. In the minute it took to talk to the cashier Zoey had cruised through the doors behind me and into the audio video section of the library. She came to the understanding months ago that because she is cute she pretty much owns the place while she is there. I look through the store and head out into the lobby to find a security guard talking to her and librarian looking for her parent. It wasn’t my best moment. Score for today, Zoey 1, dad 0.
Eventually we leave and Zoey isn’t too happy that big bird was still on the computer when I picked her up and carried her out after her third round of counting with big bird. The food truck rally was taking place at the park across the street and I had a few dollars to try something new. My entertainment has been a food kick lately of The Chef Show by Jon Favreau and Edward Lee’s book. I noticed a few trucks I had not seen before and a few that I had not been to yet. We cruise along the sidewalk reading the menus. Most items do not exceed $10 and from the portion sizes it’s a meal that will fill you up. Gorilla Gourmet stands out with their well known truck featuring the black image of a gorilla on a white background. There is the smoked meat truck that looks like a log cabin. Most of these places offer some form or taco, a term that has been bastardized but most likely for the better. I spot beef brisket and pulled pork, common American staples these days. Falafel is the main dish at one middle eastern truck. I decide on Baba Turk with their Turkish taco meal. I have had several versions of traditional Mexican tacos and have enjoyed most more than the American counterparts. Wanting to get away from the tomato, cheese, and lettuce that have ruined most people’s idea of a perfect taco I wait to see what this new form of fusion has to offer. The chicken meat is cooked on a spinning wheel and sliced off into small bits perfect for a white soft taco shell. The meat is then cooked in lamb fat for added flavor. A sour cream sauce is added along with tomatoes and onion. The small cardboard dish is filled to the top and I find a place in the shade where I give portions of the meal to my daughter as she watches the other kids play. Somewhere along the way Zoey had found a large piece of lettuce that had fallen off of someone else’s plate and immediately put it in her mouth. Current score, Zoey 2, dad 0.
There were a few hundred people at the park. I could imagine this was what places with food stalls would have looked like a hundred years ago in other cities when it was lunch time. After I finished the meal Zoey took me on a walk through the park and she gravitated towards a wedding party that was having photos done in the hot sun. most of the party was hiding under the large oak and maple trees waiting for their turn with the happy couple. I could tell Zoey was wanting to do one of her already famous photo bombs but I was able to nudge her away from the group. Current score, Zoey 2, dad 1.
As we went past the wedding party I spotted a young man smoking a cigar. It wasn’t a smell I recognized and the cigar itself didn’t look like the rolled quality that I had seen on my own cigar adventures earlier this year. The only credit I give to the man’s cigar is that it didn’t have the infamous smell of dog turds that some cigars are known for. The brides dress was spread out across the grass and the party was a collage of backgrounds I have known this city for. The bride was of Hispanic background. Out of the groom’s men I couldn’t spot the groom of the six men who were standing around in their blue tuxedoes. The party was black, white, middle eastern, Hispanic, and a few other ethnic groups I couldn’t place. Maybe this was the answer to the world’s problems? Maybe not. Only time will tell.
I try to aim us toward the parking lot where our car waited for us but to Zoey’s credit she took us on the scenic route through the mall and around the block until we finally made it to the lot. Then she kept walking. With the sun beating down on us and no shade in sight I picked her up and put her in the car. NPR was playing more coverage of the current presidential debate and I zoned out as the talking heads discussed the winners and losers of the day. Zoey’s name never came up. It was a long afternoon and I wondered if Zoey would ever have a craving for chicken meat cooked in lamb fat. Upon pulling into the driveway Zoey demanded another walk and once we finally entered the house she asked for a bottle and looked at the bills waiting for me on the table. Final score, Zoey 3, dad 1.
I learned early on that one should never stick up for friends. I went to a school we affectionately called Saint Monkey’s Penitentiary. In third grade all hell broke loose when a new kid arrived who was advanced a grade. His name was Nikki and he was my friend. He was smaller than most kids and the fact that he was smarter was a danger to those who needed to be top dog. In a prep school grades also went along with sports in the popularity game. On the playground Nikki and I would runaround, play on the merry go round and crawl through the concrete tunnels pretending god only knows what. Everyday a group of kids would surround Nikki and ask him questions, stupid questions like “are you a faggot?” eventually they would start taking turns hitting him until he fell on the ground and then they would take turns crawling on top of him and punching him. Nikki never fought back and why would he? Four or five against one didn’t seem like good odds with a smaller kid and most of these guys would later be jocks in high school. Eventually Nikki never returned to school. All was normal again and the future jocks could claim their shitty positions in the pecking order of things. A year later I heard from Nikki, he was in town and wanted to hang out. It was actually his mom. They picked me up and we hung out that day. During one of the rides words were used that I had only heard on shows like The People’s Court. Lawsuit and damages were thrown around. Nikki had a disc in his back that had been dislocated during his beatings at St Monkey’s and the doctors were saying it could be a life long condition. She asked me to write a statement testifying about what I had seen happen to Nikki. I remembered him being kicked and punched on the ground. I also remembered the time I fought back and kicked one of the kids off of him. That kid cried and screamed, running off to tell momma, I guess. I was the first and last time I stood up for Nikki. That night my mom received a phone call. On the other end was a woman screaming saying words like “lawsuit” and “white trash”. From the other end of the phone that woman convinced my mother to put me over her knee and smack my ass until the scream could be heard on the other end. That was the thanks I got for sticking up for my friend. A year later I was being asked to do the same thing. I went home and wrote up a fourth-grade level statement about the kids that beat up Nikki on a daily basis. I handed it to my mom asking her to tell Nikki’s mom it was done. She took it and told me she wouldn’t. there are some things you have to let go of and if I was involved in the lawsuit, I couldn’t go to that school anymore and be with my friends. At the time I was okay with that idea, I saw what happened to my friend at that school and at some point, I was going to be next. The statement was never delivered and to this day I wish it had. I don’t know what ever happened to Nikki. I remember playing with his chemistry set and how he freaked out when I started mixing acids and basis together. I was supposed to learn something at that time. I sure it sounds like “the preservation of the institution is more important than blah blah blah” or some such shit. I wasn’t really hearing too much as the hand was hitting my ass. To this day I hate that school. Any place that has to hide or lie their way into looking good doesn’t deserve my respect. The school stated that what happened to Nikki never happened. Doesn’t seem like a very Christian stance to take on the subject. There are other things that the church tried to deny happening over the years and the hundreds of millions of dollars later isn’t looking to good for them. I will admit that for a long time I was hesitant to do anything when I saw someone in trouble. Hell, there are times I am ashamed of for not doing something. I think that bug is finally being kicked to the curb. In a world where most American’s don’t have more than one person they could call if something bad happened I am fortunate to have a few and when they are in trouble I am there. I’m sorry Nikki, I wish I could have helped, I tried. As for my other friends, I may be spanked again in the future but know that you are worth it.
Listen to the most recent episode of my podcast: Dressed to the nines https://anchor.fm/matthew-gilman/episodes/Dressed-to-the-nines-e4klev