I’m fond of the books that are part recipe, part  history. I really do want to know how something appeared, what created this or that recipe. I’m not as thrilled by the chemistry of it all; ironic given my university degree. But these two books tickle both my need for a good recipe and my need for the context of it all.

Robb Walsh is an excellent food historian. In this book he gives a simplified version of his Houston Press articles on Tex Mex and the fajita. In it there are useful charts of meats, some food experiments he tried that works (yes, in a Gene-Jon-Sean-Jimmy kind of way – ever try galbi fajitas?).  But if you’re like me, and write or seriously think about food, you buy what Robb Walsh writes because he cares enough to do his research and  get his story right. He doesn’t pull it out of thin air.

Colleen Taylor Sen’s book is lighter and breezier, a two to three hour read. But there are recipes that go back hundreds of years in this book, varieties of curries probably not easily made today. It covers a lot more of the earth than does Robb’s book, touching  usefully on things like Thai, Dutch and Japanese curries. But the best coverage is of the Indian recipes, what they are, where they come from. It talks about the origin of tandoori chicken, for example and has plenty of colorful photos.

Both recommended. I’d say that Robb’s book is a must read for anyone trying to critique Mexican restaurants in America.

Advertisements

It’s a fact of life that decent chains get discovered in urban areas usually at a single location. The signs of this “first discovery” leave historical marks on opinion sites, in the form of massive voting for the “original” location. One such landmark is the Alpharetta location of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, on North Point Parkway in Alpharetta. It is immensely popular on Urban Spoon, probably because it was one of the first and in a trendy location, in North Point Market Center, across from North Point Mall. Since about 601 people have voted for the Five Guys in Alpharetta, and 37 for the one in Tucker (as of July 28, 2010) that makes the one in Alpharetta 16.243 times a popular as the one in Tucker, and in the eyes of some, 16.243 times better. So in the interests of anecdotal food science, I just had to see what makes this one tick.

It looks the same. Does the food taste the same?

Yes, the same very fine, gray, greasy meat that almost every foodie loves, but can’t stand when they see it on grass fed beef (because the grass fed stuff just isn’t greasy enough). Five Guys does it well, when its trendy and even when it isn’t.

Heading to Five Guys was just a good excuse to revisit a mall I used to eat at daily, a place where I grew up in Atlanta. Things have changed in ten years though. I was eating plenty here from about 1999 to 2004, in spots like Houlihans and Hops, and shopping in places like Media Play. Do you remember Media Play? This is what that old location is now:

Dick’s Sporting Goods, no less. The location of Houlihans has now seen another failure. You can just make out the outline of the Famous Dave’s logo on this wall.

One site that remains from the early 2000s is Superior Wok, which now trends me back into my story. I loved Superior Wok. It served good Chinese food and it did it with wait staff that were a cut above. How authentic was it? I’m hardly the one to judge, walking in hungry, looking for a lunch plate and wanting it fast so I could get back to work fast. The dish I liked best was called Yu Shang shrimp back in the day, so I stepped inside to get a “To Go” menu, and asked the lady if they still served Yu Shang Shrimp. She said they did. But then I got home, and there was no Yu Shang shrimp on the to go menu. What was I to do?

Start digging on the Internet of course. I was expecting something about as real as that day-glo orange sweet ‘n sour pork Americans eat. But the first thing I found out, playing around on a site called Dish A Dish (a search site for dishes in restaurants; dedicated to telling you that chain food is better than mana from heaven) is that Yu Shang is probably an Anglicization of names like Yu Shiang, or Yu Hsiang, or even Yu Xiang. Now that I had more accurate names to search on, why not start there?

A typical response on a “what is it” search will yield something like this, from Chiliworld:

Yu Hsiang translates roughly to Spicy Garlic.

This Spicy Garlic Sauce is specially prepared to make flavoursome Sichuan cooking simple and easy. Just add egg-plant and minced pork, and the deliciously authentic taste of Egg-Plant in Spicy Garlic Sauce is ready in minutes. An excellent sauce for all spicy garlic dishes.

That seems easy enough, but it isn’t the whole story. Dig a little further and you find, from a recipe for Yu Hsiang eggplant, this comment:

This spicy eggplant dish is a little sweet, a tiny bit sour, and highly flavorful. My mom’s version includes ground pork, but the dish tastes just as good if you omit the meat.

So, for some people it’s an heirloom recipe. Okay, let’s keep digging. From the Chef Leu’s House website we get the following translation:

Yu Hsiang literally meaning “Aromatic Fish”, is a common Szechuan way of cooking fish. The trick is to mix sugar and vinegar delicately with garlic and chili sauce to generate a unique, exotic flavor. It is sauteed with water chestnuts and green peppers.

I don’t know about you, but Yu Hsiang can’t mean “Spicy Garlic” and “Aromatic Fish” at the same time, unless China has garlic fish floating around in the local rivers and steams. Can it? Now, at Dartmouth, a recipe was posted for Yu-hsiang pork, which looks really good. Okay, maybe that’s drifting but we’ll get to some interesting details shortly.

The best information I found was on this Chowhound thread. A question was asked if Sichuan eggplant in garlic sauce was the same as yu hsiang eggplant. One good answer, by buttertart, was

Essentially yes they are, although what you get in US Chinese restaurants as eggplant in garlic sauce will probably not be as good as yu xiang qiezi made from say Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe. Yu xiang is often translated as (and written in the characters for) “fish flavor” but Barbara Tropp posited and I agree that the base meaning is from the old names for Sichuan (Yu) and Hunan (Xiang), neighboring provinces with similar cuisines. “Fish flavor”dishes do not taste like fish and do not use ingredients that are invariably used with fish – but they do use an ingredient (doubanjiang, hot bean paste) that is widely used in Sichuan and Hunan food.

which had the equally interesting follow up.

buttertart,

I belive the “yu-xiang” refers to how the Sichuanese prepared fish — i.e., using hot, sour, salty, and sweet flavors all in one dish. When the same prep was used with eggplants, the name sort of stuck and so it became “yu-xian chie-zi” or 鱼香茄子.

So now you know. And with the information provided, I can see on Superior Wok’s take out menu that L20, Spicy Garlic Sauce, which can be made with pork, chicken, beef, or shrimp, is probably my missing Yu Xiang shrimp.

Superior Wok
6480 North Point Parkway
Alpharetta, GA 30022
(770) 343-9698

Superior Wok on Urbanspoon

Five Guys Burgers and Fries
6410 North Point Parkway
Alpharetta, GA 30022
(770) 346-0366

Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Bill Addison has a nice piece in Atlanta magazine on 14 new restaurants that he thinks are good, with Abbatoir leading the pack. It’s a good article and I recommend it. I had a somewhat different reaction to his claim that Shoya Izakaya was the first restaurant in Atlanta to “truly epitomize the Japanese izakaya model.” I say this because I recall a restaurant which I believed to be an izakaya in the strip mall behind Lenox Square, in roughly the same area where Hashiguchi Jr now lives. And at the time (late 1990s? early 2000s?), there were two Japanese restaurants in the strip mall, one serving sushi and udon (this one was either on the spot of Hashiguchi or was Hashiguchi), and the other seeming to be almost an annex of a larger Chinese restaurant, and so was easy to miss.

This  second Japanese restaurant had no sushi, but did serve sashimi. Its entire menu was in Japanese, in strips on the wall. If you walked in, the two waitresses would greet you in falsetto and almost the whole of the clientele were hard drinking Japanese businessmen. There was one English menu, hand written, which English speaking patrons had to share. It was passed on as new English speaking groups would enter and be served. I recall having donburi there twice.

I don’t recall the name of this place. People with more disposable income than me say this restaurant moved, but I can’t prove that either. I’d love to know more about the place. It’s gone from the Lenox area for sure, and the Chinese restaurant beside it has disappeared as well. I suspect this restaurant has a more reliable claim to being the first izakaya in Atlanta.

If someone can remember the name of this place, help me track it down, I’d be delighted.

If you go to the site spanishdict.com and type in the word “faja”, you get this result, which says the word translates as “corset”.  Alternate translations are “strip” and “band”, which approximates the band of diaphragm muscle in the cow that yields the cut we call a skirt steak (photo here). The skirt steak is tough but tasty, and is the original source of the beef used in fajitas, an entree made of thin sliced and grilled skirt steak.

So who invented the fajita? According to Robb Walsh in his article on the original Ninfa’s, Spanish cowboys called vaqueros deserve the honor:

… the originators of what we call fajita tacos were the Hispanic ranch hands of West Texas who were given the head, intestines and other unwanted beef cuts such as the diaphragm as part of their pay. They pounded the diaphragm, marinated it with lime juice, grilled it, then cut it up and ate the meat with salsa and condiments on flour tortillas, which became common in Texas in the 1930s. (Although the name fajita and the serving style are unique to Texas, a similar grilled diaphragm “steak” is also common in Nuevo Leon, where it is called arrachera al carbon.)

To note, there is inside skirt steak and outside skirt steak. The inside is one source of cheap supermarket fajita meat. The outside is notably more tender, and that’s the cut of meat Ninfa’s uses on their fajitas. But the problem for the rest of us is the Japanese are now buying almost all of our fajita meat. As Robb Walsh explains:

In 1988, the U.S.-Japan Beef and Citrus Agreement reclassified outside skirt, the cut that started the fajita craze, as tariff-free offal. The Japanese, who used to pay the equivalent of a 200 percent tariff on U.S. beef, now buy our outside skirt steak with no tariff at all. They are currently importing 90 percent of it.

This means all kinds of meats are used these days to make fajitas, because cost and supply have cut us off from the original meat (see Robb’s article on fajita meat for more details). So as a practical matter, a fajita will often be a tougher cut of meat, usually marinated, grilled and then served on a hot comal along with brown carmelized onions and grilled peppers. Other people disagree about this course of preparation. Jim Payton of the site lomexicano.com insists that fajitas not be marinated at all, though he yields to tenderizing the meat. He also suggests adding lime juice to your hot griddle at the end, in order to juice up the smoke and steam.

As a critic, I’m looking for these things in a beef fajita.

  1. An appropriate cut of meat. I prefer my fajitas marinated, under most circumstances. The meat should not be too tough, but it shouldn’t be fall off the bone tender either. If you’re not tenderizing the meat, why bother cooking this way?
  2. Meat cut into strips across the grain, and thoroughly cooked, on all sides. And by cooked, I do mean grilled, not roasted or baked.
  3. Great flavor.
  4. Fajitas served hot, and served on an adequately hot plate. A cast iron comal is preferred. Like Japanese one pot dishes, the spectacle is part of what I should be paying for. Further, the plate needs to be hot else I’ll end up eating cold food before I run out of tortillas.
  5. Appropriate sides. I want caramelized onions and grilled peppers. I want hot steamy tortillas. I want, and seldom get, the quantity of pico de gallo I really like in fajitas.

I’ve largely avoided eating fajitas in reviews of restaurants because the average restaurant outside Texas botches their fajitas. But as I’m going to begin doing so, I thought people ought to know what criteria I use to judge fajitas.

Random thoughts afterwards:

Although Ninfa’s claims to have invented the fajita are probably incorrect, it is true that the original Ninfa’s on Navigation helped ignite the fajita craze in the United States. Houstonians have been grateful ever since.

Another interesting view of the origin of the fajita is here.

According to Houston ex pats, Tex-Mex in the big Apple genuinely sucks.

Robb Walsh has written some great food articles. If anyone has ever wondered where American kobe beef came from, he has an answer.

And almost certainly off subject, but since the fajita craze has driven the costs of things like flank steak to absurd proportions, please also note that chicken wings are now more expensive than chicken breasts, due to the public’s taste for buffalo wings.

If I had to choose an inexpensive cut of meat for fajitas at home, some of the milanesa steaks that can be found at the International Markets (usually about $3.99/lb or so) would be a place to start.

Just what is a holiday lizzie?

In a recipe found in the Our Fair Lady cookbook, my grandmother makes a cookie that she calls a Holiday Lizzie:

Recipe for Holiday Lizzies

Recipe for Holiday Lizzies

I’ve never made these. The cost of this kind of cookie was always so prohibitive that I shied from making it. But it does beg the question: what is a holiday lizzie and why are they called that?

It’s clearly a kind of fruit cake cookie.  And while information on the fruit cake cookie is scarce, finding good sites that talk about the fruit cake are relatively easy to uncover. The Wikipedia has a good article, the site What’s Cooking America has a nice article, but the nicest and most exhaustive I’ve seen so far is on the site Food Timeline. Their article on fruit cake is a pleasure to read. The site covers all kinds of topics, from the beginnings (covering things like emmer and einkorn wheat) to quirky fads such as Space Food Sticks. Lynne Olver, a librarian in New Jersey, is the little engine that keeps this site going and I have to say, boy am I glad I found it.

I suspect I’ll have to ask her what is the origin of the phrase “lizzie” because I really can’t see or find it. Dictionaries have preserved the phrase “tin lizzie” (a reference to a model T, circa 1915) but “holiday lizzie” seems to have escaped them. I can’t help but think “lizzie” is early 20th century slang, from which both “tin lizzie” and “holiday lizzie” are derived, but tracing it will be tough. The Urban Dictionary offers some clues, but I’m wondering if the context is entirely lost.

To scan the blogs for fruit cake cookie recipes, the Blog Magnolia Blossom offers a nice one: Great Aunt Audrey’s fruit cake cookies. Another interesting recipe comes from the Gardening Granny, who uses a pumpkin bread base for her fruitcake cookies.  The blog Christmas Recipes features fruit cake cookies that include raisins in the mix (my grandmother’s recipe didn’t use raisins that I can see). The blog Life’s Just Beachy has a Lizzies recipe, but the site is down. This cache, for now, recovers the recipe.

Pico, pico, pico

I went shopping at Buford again, and picked up a pretty yellow tomato, a red onion, and some long hot peppers. I wanted to make a pico de gallo, and wanted one with a bit more color.  I tried Jo’s lick test on the long hot pepper and it was plenty spicy when licked.  I thought they were about as hot as a jalapeno, buut.. I have pictures of long hot peppers here:

I suspect these "long hot peppers" are in the cayenne family.

I suspect these "long hot peppers" are in the cayenne family.

And if you take a look at those, and take a look at cayenne peppers on Miss Vicki’s site, wouldn’t you say they are similar? That’s my impression. In any event, I’ve wanted a bit spicier pico and I’m hoping these will provide the extra heat. I used red onion and a yellow and vine ripened tomato. The recipe, such as it was, was something like this:

3 tomatoes, 1 yellow, 1 roma, 1 vine ripened, diced
1/2 red onion, diced
1 bunch green onions, minced.
2 long hot peppers (one turning red), diced.
1 bunch cilantro, minced.
juice of 1 lemon and 1 lime, extracted with a spoon.
mix well, cover with a plastic bag and marinate in the refrigerator.

The result looked like this:

pico looks brighter with a little yellow tomato.

pico looks brighter with a little yellow tomato.

We usually marinate overnight to yield flavor, and it’s better when marinated two days.

kumquats

I had never had kumquats before, so I bought some at Trader Joes.  I took a picture just before we finished the last of them.

kumquats next to a garlic clove.

kumquats next to a garlic clove.

They’re small, about grape sized. I’m not sure if I’ll get them again, as for the same price I can pay for half of a box of clementina oranges. But for those looking for a new recipe kick: Picky Cook’s grapefruit, avocado and kumquat salad.

Boonie pepper seeds.

We have discussed boonie pepper seeds in the past. The first of mine have arrived, from rightbbq. It turns out the email seller rightbbq is the eBay incarnation of The Pepper Pilot. The Pepper Pilot site seems incomplete to me, so I’d buy seeds through eBay till the site is completed.

Found on the blogs:

The blogger Vegeyum has scored again with a very nice summary post. To point out two excellent links from her summary, there is Culinate.com’s glossary of grains, and Red Ramekin’s quinoa salad.