Burger & Lee's Sandwiches, Anaheim, CA, tasted on May 3, 2004 —
There is something about southern California and high quality fast
food. Never mind the incredible Mexican food, I mean American chain
fast food. The kind decried in
Supersize Me (which have you noticed, now
that guy is
his own crimes of scale - ok I should wait to see his new show
before passing judgment). The really gross stuff. Or is it? It's
kind of ironic that for our first really positive food experience
around Disneyland we had to go to the places that embrace their mass
marketness, and don't try to pretend they're anything different.
First off, I'll admit, I love fast food. It's delicious.
I'll also admit that I almost never eat it since I decided not to be a
fatass. Unluckily (or luckily) my two favorite fast food chains in the
world are not located where I live in the pacific northwest. However in
southern California they are everywhere. Just a few minutes from
In-N-Out Burger and a
Sandwiches live not 50 yards from each other. I'm thinking of
setting up a tent in the parking lot.
Here's the deal. You can turn up your nose at fast food
all you want. But I claim that most of the great food in the world is
fast food. After all, what makes for great food in general is focus,
simplicity, and freshness. And the original fast food on this planet is
street food. Street food often by necessity is focused, simple, and
fresh. It's focused because they have to differentiate from the
competition of which there's usually a lot. It's simple because how much
choice do you have when you're working out of a cart (or a box) in the
street? And it's fresh because, where would you store the ingredients?
The big guys in American fast food, McDonald's, Burger
King, etc. have tuned their menus into choice after choice of item tuned
to stimulate our fat and sugar pleasure centers until we're passed out
in a puddle of... well... fat and sugar. It's like a drug. You keep
needing more to get the same high. And frankly, that's why I love eating
Big Macs and Egg McMuffins. They taste absolutely great when I eat them.
But afterwards I feel sick. One day I simply stopped thinking that the
sick feeling was normal, and since then they've been a once a year
But back to southern California. In-N-Out Burger, about
which I've written already, and Lee's Sandwiches get it right. In-N-Out
was actually not the best In-N-Out experience I've had, but it was still
better than everywhere else. Not sure if this was a fluke for their
Anaheim location, or a pattern. Hard to say until I go back. But Lee's
Lee's is basically a Vietnamese deli done at scale. I'm
not a fan of colonialism, but if there's any upside to the French
presence in southeast Asia it's Vietnamese subs. The combination of
fresh Vietnamese ingredients - various hams, cilantro, hot peppers,
jicama, etc. on a French baguette is pretty amazingly delicious. And
Lee's has a huge variety. They even do them on these extra thin
baguettes which for some reason I find even more delicious as they have
a less bread to contents ratio. I could eat three of these sandwiches in
a sitting. Lee's also tries to expand a bit by making European
sandwiches. I'd tell you how they are but I can never bring myself to
order one as the Vietnamese subs always beckon me with their siren song.
Those harpies! Lee's also has a host of Vietnamese appetizers and
drinks. You can check out the whole menu
here. Lots of smoothies, and cool southeast Asian teas and coffees.
And Italian sodas? OK. Never mind. That and the weird wireless internet
access with a time limit based on how much money you spent are just odd.
But that's part of the charm of Lee's. The Delimanjoo pastries are
another. These are from a cool Korean machine that just creates pastries
in front of your eyes. For the complete description of these check out
this report from the Fancy
Food Show when we first encountered them. I think the folks at Lee's
corporate are experimenting. More power to them as long as they keep
focused on making simple great food.
And to the folks in Southern California, please a)
create more fast food chains like Lee's and In-N-Out, and b) please let
them have some franchises outside of California. We're dying out here.
Seeking Decent Food Around Disneyland, Anaheim, CA, tasted on April
29 - May 2, 2004 —
I really love Disneyland/World, etc. I love it in the same way I
love Las Vegas. I'm all about authenticity, so how could I like
something so obviously fake. It's the exuberance with which the
fakery is executed that really wins me over. There's no shame. No
embarrassment. And the authenticity is really the energy with which
they try to create this manufactured experience. And I find it
impressive and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, Disney is also a place for families. In a
country that already is misguided when it comes to the values it
cherishes in its food (quantity over quality), food for families is
often the pinnacle of this misguidedness (is that a word??? It is now!).
Combine that with my general inability to pick restaurants I haven't
eaten at, and you get the meals we had during the first half of our trip
to southern California.
On the first night we ate at
Yamabuki, a sushi
restaurant in one of the Disney hotels. I mistakenly thought that in
trying to cater to Japanese tourists they would invest in having a
really high quality Japanese restaurant. Incorrect.
The next night we decided to eat actually in Disneyland
at the Blue Bayou in Frontierland. This was Cajun food. Well, it was
more of an insult to Cajun food. It was awful. In a weird attempt to
show off, the waiter informed us that the cooks in the kitchen were "so
good at their jobs" that they were able to predict exactly how much of
what dish would get ordered each night, and as such prepared it all
hours in advance. Hours. On the positive side you could see the boats
floating by from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as you ate what you
could of your dinner.
Back in the "plus" column, the hotel we were staying at
was really quite nice. The Grand Californian is a beautiful craftsman
hotel. Every detail is really well done. If you're a hotel snob and only
like small art hotels designed by Philippe Starck then this isn't for you. But if
you have kids, or don't mind being around them, and you even enjoy big
hotels, this one was quite lovely. The beautiful design of the place
extended to the "high end" restaurant on the premises - the
We got a babysitter for the night and headed down to see what they could
do. It seemed promising. And in fact, they were clearly trying. All the
old favorites were there - small courses, lobster, foie gras, a nice
wine selction, etc. And aside from our quite friendly but
unfortunately named waiter - "Stanko", Napa Rose was predictable and
kind of boring. Some of the food tasted flavorful, but for the most
part, the place had scored high on the trappings of a nice restaurant,
but the soul was missing. Countless restaurants around the world are
trying to do this kind of high-end food. Call me jaded for having eaten
at many of them, but since I can make comparisons, Napa Rose just
couldn't keep up. It was too bad as the place was beautiful.
We trekked a little farther into the Disney nightlife
area outside the park the next night to eat at one of Joachim Splichal's
restaurants - Catal.
Catalonian food sort of. I'd eaten at one of his places - Patina, and really
enjoyed myself, so we thought we had a chance here. And of these four
experiences, this one came the closest to being one we'd want to repeat.
The eggplant and pomegranate dish was tangy, bright, and yummy. The
lobster mushroom soup was super interesting with strong lobster flavor
and a tiny bit of smokiness. It was almost too salty, but not. The
flavor hit the side of your tongue. But the carpaccio salad was off
balance. The filet mignon was juicy but not super interesting. And while
the vanilla on the fritters made them somewhat interesting, they were
not crispy enough. We had a scallop that was nicely caramelized, but the
pasta underneath it was undercooked and the sauce had no flavor. The
bread pudding and churro dishes for dessert helped end things on a
somewhat positive note. In the end Catal was trying hard to be creative,
but the execution was so inconsistent that it was hard to imagine going
I can imagine that some might ask me what the hell I was
expecting eating on the Disney premises. I think that it's a reasonable
question. That said, I still think it's possible that a company so
focused on making great experiences might eventually figure out how to
make ones that center around food. In the meantime, have no fear. We
salvaged the trip and ate at several good places during the rest of the
week. Stay tuned.
The Inn at
Langley, Whidbey Island, Wa, tasted on July 7, 2005 — Given
that I can't travel all year long it can be hard to visit places
more than once. And while many people who write about food think
that it's unfair to write about places you ate at once, I don't
really have a choice. I figure that you can't be worse than your
worst day and you can't be better than your best. And given that I'm
looking for places with a healthy dose of consistency, they should
fare just fine. In this spirit, a little while ago I posted about
our visit to the Inn At Langley last year.
The next day we went back and had dinner again at the
Inn at Langley's restaurant hosted by their resident chef -
Costello. What difference did a year make?
Well, it's kind of funny. In one way the meal we had was
completely consistent with the first meal we had about a year ago.
Overall, quite enjoyable. On the other hand the context of revisiting
the restaurant was valuable as well. The things we liked were just as
good if not better, and the things we didn't love, well, now we were
certain of it.
Dinner started off with an amuse of
Marinated Anchovies on Tomato Chutney with Lovage.
Fishy spicy sour but clean. This was like fish sauce but with no Asian
overtones. The dish was striking. And the tiny strips of lovage were
surprisingly flavorful with their celery-ish tones. This was followed by
Chilled Sweet Corn Soup with Sweet Onion Panna Cotta.
The soup was cold but the flavor was warm. It was beautiful to look at
too. Just sweet fresh corn taste. If I had one complaint it would be
that I couldn't taste the onion in the otherwise yummy panna cotta. I
wish I could have. I bet it would have made it even better.
The salad was
Baby Beets and Figs with Orange Confit and Vanilla
Vinaigrette. As with last time, the rule of three was operative here
in a couple of dishes. Three flavors making interesting combinations.
Each has to be a great counterpoint to the other two. And this is what
makes it interesting. I also liked that none of the items were the star.
Each shared the stage. I am not a big fan of fig or orange confit but
these were both quite good. And as for beets, I'm pretty sure that I am
completely, deeply, and passionately in love with them.
Palate cleansing was on the menu next with
Apricot Sorbet with Muscato and Lemon-Flavored Herbs.
The sorbet was very good. The herb counterpart helped. Typically flowery
overtones are not my thing, but here they were complementary and quite
good. This was excellent.
It was at this point in the meal that the juxtaposition
of the two experiences really made it clear to me that Chef Costello is
providing (what I imagine to be) a true Whidbey Island experience on his
plates. It sounds so trite and cliché to say that a chef is trying to
express the region around him in his dishes, but in an unassuming, and
not pretentious way, that's exactly what this food was. Simple. Not
hyper-original-on-the-edge, but not run-of-the mill by any means.
Structured, colorful, balanced, and frankly fresh, clean, and
interesting like the air on the Island. Remember, interesting is
It was also clear to me when the entrees came why I'm a
small plate fan. One of the entrees was the
Halibut with Potato-Cauliflower Puree, John Peterson's
Cabbage and Penn Cove Mussels. The other choice was the
Roasted Pork Loin on Local Green Beans with Tiny
Zucchini and Tomato-Red Wine Sauce. I have no doubt that if Chef
Costello had pared these dishes down to the size of the previous ones,
they would have shined. But there is something about the entree where I
think chefs can lose focus and try to do too much on the plate. On the
plus side, the pork crust was super savory and the various beans and
zucchini were perfect. The sauce was good too but the pork,
unfortunatley was, overcooked and dry. With the halibut there was
interesting seasoning, but the fish itself was not very interesting in
flavor or texture. The cabbage underneath however was excellent. Instead
of giving everyone a choice of the entrees, why give everyone both at
1/3 the size. I bet they'd come out way way better.
Again it was impossible not to notice that the
was doing basically all the cooking by himself. Neat!
Luckily the cheese plate again reminded me of how good
the dishes there could be. The cheese course consisted of
Brillat Savarin Cheese with Cherry Crepes and Shallot
Jam. Rather than featuring the cheese with some bit players as
accompaniments (even carefully prepared bit players), Costello makes the
cheese share the stage with two other items served in (relatively)
generous proportions. In this case the theme could have been "bitter" in
a good way. The cheese, cherries, and shallots all had that undertone,
It was really quite enjoyable especially in constrast with the soft
texture of the blintz.
And finally for dessert we had
Rum-soaked Almond Cornmeal Cake with White Peach Sorbet
and Rum Custard. This was really nice as each element of the dessert
had a completely different yet entirely cream texture.
Entrees aside, we really enjoyed our meal at the Inn At
Costello is obviously super talented. And in some ways he has found
a pretty unique voice in terms of his cooking. In a time when even the
most cutting edge restaurants can often seem to be derivative and
repetitive, Costello doesn't hesitate to make his food and say something
about his surroundings. I have a feeling that the areas that weren't
quite as enjoyable go against his grain. I can't get inside his head,
but I think chefs often serve these entrees because they're expected by
the typical restaurant diner. I bet if Costello really let loose, the
entrees would disappear and the meal would be elevated that much
further. If that were to happen I bet we'd make the long trek out to
Whidbey Island more than once a year.
Seattle, Wa, tasted on July 13, 2005 —
My deep and abiding love for
Seattle has made me a bit gun-shy about trying other Japanese
restaurants around town. I'm always disappointed by the competition.
And usually doubly so as I think about the meal I could have had at
Nishino. And unfortunately, tonight's meal at
West Seattle was no exception.
I always say that if the food tastes great I find myself
caring very little about things like service, decor, and price (within
reason). That said, when the food isn't great, those things start to bug
the crap out of me. Once I realized that the food at Mashiko was going
to be almost entirely consistently disappointing the attitude started to
bug the hell out of me. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First the food.
Basically average to below average sushi with lots of
variety. The sushi spectrum usually starts on one end with
hyper-traditional and goes all the way to the other end with
hyper-creative. Both are good. (Nishino takes a left turn in my opinion
preserving a very traditional foundation while introducing extremely
creative and modern elements.) But anyway... Mashiko is closer to the
creative side as they have a very large menu with all kinds of variety
of sushi and other Japanese dishes. And while presentation doesn't count
for much with me as long as something looks appetizing, usually the
creative places at least have some flair. Not so with Mashiko. That
wouldn't have been a big deal if the sushi was good. At it's worst the
sushi at Mashiko was soggy. Soggy temakis. There's really nothing worse.
Even I have gotten to the point in my own personal sushi making where I
can make a hand roll with relatively crisp nori (seaweed). And if I can
do it, they should be able to cause I suck. From my limited experience
this is a sign that the rice was likely too moist and may have gotten
into too much contact with the seaweed under pressure. Not good. On many
of the rolls the ratios seemed off too. Too much rice, or too wide a
roll. Not sure what the problem was. Though mainly it was that the food
didn't have much flavor. Additionally, great sushi in my opinion is
beautiful to look at. While I don't care about fancy presentation so
much, this sushi looked plain sloppy. It can't help but have affected
how we perceived it in our mouths. It looked like it was made by someone
who didn't care or didn't have the skills to really make it perfectly.
The one exception was the onion tempura roll with some tuna and creamy
sauce on top. This had some nice crunch and the sauce gave it some
Among the non-sushi dishes the short ribs were actually
quite good. Flavorful, tender. A little fatty, but they were supposed to
be I think. I enjoyed them. The sauteed pea vines were also flavorful.
But the stir-fried "bloodline" tuna fish (from the lean part of the fish
according to our waiter) was oversauced and overcooked. The tofu curry
(which I think our waiter forgot but didn't want to admit that when we
reminded him) had decent flavor but was served in such huge quantity
that it couldn't help but be a gloopy affair. Even without the size
though it wasn't particularly memorable.
We ordered a whole variety of dishes but really almost
nothing stood out, and everyone at the table kept remarking how
disappointed they were. And this is when I started to notice how
annoying the place was. Basically to go along with the "attitude" in
their food they have some attitude in their environment and among their
waitstaff. A sign at the front asked you to follow certain instructions
"unless you were illiterate". I'm not so politically correct that I'm
mortified on behalf of the folks who never learned to read. I am however
deeply offended when people make jokes that aren't funny. This just
seemed dumb. There was more on the menu where they went over the house
rules including "shut up and eat". And our waiter was kind of like an
overconfident skate punk. He just always had a borderline condescending
answer for everything. I really almost never say a bad word about any
waiter or waitress ever. I think they have incredibly hard jobs for
which they get paid very little, and I would never want to be the cause
of more stress for them. And in this case I think I shouldn't be because
I think the waiter was projecting an image consistent with that of the
rest of the establishment. It just so happens that since the food wasn't
great, the swagger seemed more defensive than deserved. And to be fair
to our waiter, we did sit at our table way too long and he was very nice
about booting our asses out of there, which we had no problem with. They
had folks waiting and it wasn't fair of us to keep hanging out for so
Bottom line. I feel like I may have been a touch more
negative than is warranted. But I also want to explain why. At the end
of our meal they gave us bumper stickers that said "sushiwhore.com".
How... cool? I would whore myself out for good sushi. But I am also
spoiled. When I go to a place I like or love I consistently get really
enjoyable food. Mashiko is doing what hundreds of "hipster" sushi places
are doing around the country. They have an attitude. They try to be
creative (hey, let's wrap your sushi roll in soy paper). They have a
boatload of items on the menu. Etc. And in all honestly, they're
probably not even in the bottom quartile when it comes to restaurants
like that. Still, that doesn't mean that if you look hard enough there
isn't way better food available. And unfortunately in the case of
Mashiko, better Japanese food is definitely available elsewhere.
The Inn at
Langley, Whidbey Island, WA, tasted on June 26, 2004 —
I grew up in Boston. And in Boston we had the Cape. Cape Cod to be
specific. But my home is now Seattle, and we have our own coastal
getaways - the Islands. And there are quite a few of them. Honestly
my expectations of the best food on Cape Cod are mostly around the
lobster rolls you can get from various roadside stands. Even
Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket don't necessarily get me excited in
terms of what restaurant food is available, though there are
certainly some farm stands that are fantastic. I guess my
expectations of the kind of food out in the islands off Seattle are
really not that different. Some nice fresh produce in season, some
local specialties, and that's good enough for me. But, last summer
we stayed at the
Langley, a super nice, Pacific Northwest archetypal inn. And
somehow they managed to grab an accomplished Seattle chef -
Matt Costello - to move out to the island, and cook in their
restaurant. And while we were out there, I could understand the
attraction. A small restaurant, sources for local ingredients,
seasonal work, a beautiful locale, and operating at a scale that
lets the chef really control many more variables than they might in
a city restaurant. This could be interesting.
We started off checking out the
list. At first we were put off that there weren't any wines by the
glass. When there's only two of us we simply can't finish most of a
bottle of wine. (For anyone confused by this it's mostly my fault as I
fall asleep by the end of the second glass.) But then I noticed that
they had a decent selection of half bottles. And the logic of this
became evident. I'd rather have the wine fresh out of a newly opened
bottle, than have a glass from last night's half-finished bottle. Cool.
We got the
Henriot Champagne Brut that was recommended by the chef. Frankly, we
loved it. The bubbles were fine, and the flavor super creamy. It had the
aroma of butter. On that night it felt like a 96 point Champagne to me.
As we savored our champagne,
Costello spent some time addressing the diners who were all going to
be eating the same tasting menu on the same schedule. One seating, one
menu, simple simple simple. He talked to us for awhile about Whidbey
Island terroir. OK. I admit it, I hadn't thought about Whidbey Island as
really being a source for various unique ingredients or particular types
of items that can make a dish stand out. But in truth, I really know
crap about where I live, and Washington state is actually quite
agricultural. And apparently, the chef had spent quite some time
scouring the island and getting to know the local farmers and producers.
So I figured, as long as the quality of the food supported the promises
of the narrative then we'd be in good shape. And we were.
First up was the amuse -
Cardamom Squab on Balsamic Cherries and Sweet Corn with Fresh Corn
Shoots. This was simply excellent. Sizable slices of squab
with both the sweet tones of the cherries and sweet flavors of the corn
each having their own unique space but but still complementary. The
squab was juicy and savory and the corn shoots were new to me. The corn
itself as the base flavor was foundational to the dish and really made
it whole. Debbie pointed out that every every element in the amuse had
some hits in the sweetness spectrum but there were many other flavors
present as well.
Next up was
Shell Pea Soup with Lemon Crème Fraiche and Penn Cove Mussels. This
pea soup was different than any other I've ever had. It had a light
texture (and some hints of the flavor) of of avoglemono (no doubt due to
the lemon crème fraiche. While mussels have never been my favorite they
are indeed growing on me, and these in particular added a light savory
component to the dish and they were not overly chewy. Some yummy bread
came out at this point. It was served hot and there was a variety.
Debbie approved wholeheartedly of
the fact that the
was not served ice cold. She prefers it to sit out and get a little
softer before it arrives at the table. And just to prove that you can't
please everyone, I actually don't like it too soft. In fact, especially
with hot rolls, I like the butter kind of cold so I can get the
temperature contrasts in my mouth.
Apparently our palates were due for some calming as a
of Gazpacho Inspired Sorbets showed up next. I wondered if they
would be more "shticky" than yummy but in fact they were cleansing,
refreshing, and simple. The cucumber was subtle while the saffron
surprisingly, strong and good. My favorite was the tomato as it had an
incredibly deep, fresh, and almost citrusy tomato goodness. Excellent!
We munched some more on the bread and had some of the
potato bread ever. It was subtle but flavorful - and had just the
right amount of salt.
We had a pair of entrees. The
Black Cod on Crushed New Potatoes with Wild Morels and Tomatoes and
Muscovy Duck Breast with Plum-Foie Gras Tart Tatin and Dandelion Greens.
The cod was light, buttery in flavor and texture, and had a crispy
outside. Yummy. The duck was very very good. I wished for it to be
cooked slightly rarer, but Debbie thought it was perfect. This is one of
those judgment calls. And often I wonder if chefs make certain decisions
as they know the bulk of their customers would send back duck that they
considered underdone (even though in my opinion it would be perfect).
But I shouldn't assume as I don't really know. And after all, Debbie is
not exactly an inexperienced diner and she likes her meat on the rare
side, and she thought the duck was just right. The dish also had
surprising tart flavors which added a ton to the salty/savory duck
crust. Again we noticed that Costello used sweet flavors well. I'm not
usually a fan of a lot of sweetness but in these dishes it was neither
syrupy nor cloying. Debbie also thought the spinach was very well
prepared. I agree as it retained those essential fresh spinach tones.
The entrees were too big for my taste, but then again they always are.
I'm just a small plate guy. I get tired of a dish when there's too much.
And if I had one other nit to offer it would be that the duck dish
advertised foie gras but I couldn't find any. I have no doubt it was
there, I just wonder if it's wrong of me to feel that foie gras in
particular shouldn't be mentioned in the name of a dish if it's not
really featured in a way I will notice. This may be short-sighted
thinking on my part, or just testament to my deep and abiding love for
The cheese course was surprisingly good. It was
De Bourgogne cheese with Candied Baby Beets, Bronze Fennel and Orange.
I knew this cheese well and have eaten it many times. The beets, fennel,
and orange formed an excellent combination. There's something about
finding three flavors that go well together that has a sort of natural
harmony and just strongly resonates with me when it's done really well.
Maybe it's the odd number of ingredients, or the different combinations
that can happen in your mouth. Whatever it is, when a chef balances
three flavors really well (no more, no less) I find myself particularly
moved. Debbie thought the beets were the perfect complement to the
cheese. And I couldn't help but notice that it was really more than a
cheese course. I liked that the cheese shared the stage with other
items. Sometimes a cheese course can be overwhelming and this was really
an enjoyable dish. Things finished up with a lovely
Washington Cherry Sorbet with Cherry-Almond Strudel and White Chocolate.
I have always thought that scale is the enemy of
quality. The best chefs can make excellent food consistently for a
reasonable number of diners each night. Unfortunately many of them try
to scale beyond even that opening multiple restaurants and putting their
name on frozen food. This is the point at which I usually wonder why the
hell I'm eating their food. It's not that I'm offended by someone trying
to build a business. Believe me, I'm not. It's that almost always the
expansion comes at the cost of the qualities that made the chef (and now
the brand) special. At one point in the meal that I couldn't help but
notice that the pacing was really great. This was all the more
impressive as Costello appeared to be doing 98% of the cooking all by
was doing some of the plating, but he was basically single-handedly
feeding 22 people (I counted) in the restaurant all eating at once. Now
there are ways to make this possible. All 22 people were eating the same
menu. And the menu was no doubt designed so as much as possible could be
made in advance. His staff also clearly were playing key support roles
not only serving but doing some of the plating as well. Now while I
don't know what was on Chef Costello's mind when he decided to leave
being a chef in Seattle for essentially a part-time gig out on the
island, I can't help but think he carefully scaled down his
efforts so that he could exert even more control on the food he creates
and serves to customers. And ultimately this seems like quite the
opposite of what most chefs are doing, and unsurprisingly has the
opposite effect. By scaling down his efforts, he can focus even more on
every detail of the food we were eating. And it showed in the attention
to detail, and the consistency of the vision throughout the meal. I know
the words simple, fresh, and seasonal are overused to the point of being
meaningless, but they really did ring true for this meal. I'm excited to
Mediterranean Market & Deli, San Mateo, CA, tasted on April 3, 2004 —
I try not to make this blog about politics. And given that a healthy
love of food crosses political boundaries that's usually a pretty
simple task. But a visit to a small middle eastern deli in a small
strip mall in San Mateo, CA touched me in a totally unexpected way.
For some context I should state my position on one of the most
difficult and intractable problems on the planet - the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without commenting on all the
injustices suffered by both peoples (at each others and especially
third parties' hands) I'll say that each deserve their own sovereign
homeland. Israel deserves safe and secure borders, and the
Palestinians deserve their own country. And every Palestinian and
Israel deserve a happy and safe life. Somehow, this small market
gave me a glimpse of how good a future filled with peace could be.
Some background. Jews as a people have an interesting
culinary heritage. Because the Jews haven't lived in any single place
for hundreds or thousands of years, they have adopted the food
traditions of the countries they lived in for centuries. The various
Jewish cuisines much more closely resemble that of their adopted
countries than they do each other. So it's no surprise that Israeli food
often resembles that of the surrounding Arab cultures and countries. And
this means that for me, an American Jew of Eastern European descent with
plenty of experience living in Israel that my cultural cuisine is a mix
of traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes and Israeli dishes that
come pretty close to typical (and delicious) Arab food.
But markets in the United States simply don't break
across these lines. You either have:
- a middle eastern market catering to Arab-American customers and
carrying no (or almost no) Jewish food or Israeli brands
- a Jewish market carrying mostly Jewish and Kosher food with only
Israeli brand middle eastern products
- a supermarket with a sad little section of "traditional" Jewish
food that almost nobody would eat on a day-to-day basis, and an
equally crappy selection of American knock-offs of middle eastern
favorites like bad flavored hummus
The last category pisses me off the most as it
represents this benign ignorance where the people who stock supermarket
shelves think Jews eat gefilte fish 365 days a year. (Not that there's
anything wrong with good gefilte fish.)
So imagine my surprise when I walked into the
Aladdin Mediterranean Market & Deli and found one of the best
selections of Israeli food products in the U.S. being offered right next
to food from Syria and Jordan in a market run by a Greek Orthodox
Palestinian family from Jericho and Jerusalem. The food selections also
included Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Persian items. Hilda and George
Khoury run the Aladdin Market and it's clear that their small shop is a
labor of love and practicality. All day customers of all backgrounds,
Jews, Arabs, everybody stream through the door to pick up their
specialty food items. And many greet the Khourys warmly. It feels to me
like some people hang out at the market for longer than they need to
just buy their produce or dairy products. As soon as I expressed
interest, Hilda took me under her wing and started giving me the tour as
well as having me sample some of the delicacies they were offering.
There was Greek Easter bread with Cardamom.
Hilda which included tomato paste and was a little spicy. Homemade
spinach pies were in a stack waiting to be
The pastry tasted of lemon juice, spinach , onions, and a healthy does
of olive oil. The
was made from boneless chicken thighs and breasts marinated for 24 hours
then stacked. It was not pressed meat Hilda proudly pointed out. I think
I ate two of them. Mujadala - lentils and rice.
Armenian cured beef. The closest I can come to describing it was that it
tasted paprika-ish even though I knew it wasn't paprika giving it the
flavor. It was however, fantastic and savory. Two sizes of
of course! Muhamara from Alepo - Turkish peppers with walnuts. Hilda
makes excellent Kubeh - bulgur wheat dough wrapped around ground beef
with pine nuts. And finally, more
cheese than you can shake a stick at. Israeli, Turkish, Greek,
Bulgarian, and French feta to be exact. The French was creamy, while the
Bulgarian was very tangy and more crumbly. The Israeli feta was super
salty and unique. The
warm nuts staying fresh and giving off their comforting aroma also
reminded me of time in Israel where this is a common site. Cashews,
seeds, and more filled the bins.
I hung out for awhile in the Aladdin market. Hilda made
me feel at home, and it didn't hurt that I kept buying more food to take
home as well as trying more creations that Hilda was proud of. They were
all delicious. At one point I was asking about her background and she
told me that from 1948 - 1967 they lived in Jerusalem, in Jordan. She
let her words trail off. The implications for anyone who understands the
history of the area is that in 1967 after the Six-Day-War, Hilda's
family lost their home. In terms of sensitive subjects, losing one's
home during a war pretty much ranks at or near the top, especially when
it's clear that the person you're talking to is a supporter of the
country that exists where that home used to be. And yet, when I asked
Hilda how she and her husband
(who didn't seem too into my curiosity but was friendly nonetheless)
decided to stock such a broad range of products that crossed political,
religious, and cultural boundaries, she responded simply "we all live
together over there. I wish everyone could get along like they do here."
And there it was. I think for the Khourys It's good food
and good business.I know it sounds corny, but as I chatted with
an Arab-American customer about the merits of the various pita breads
for sale, and I noticed the Israeli and Syrian cans of olives sitting
peacefully next to each other on the shelf, as well as the Arab cheese
side-by-side with the Israeli butter, I thought to myself - wouldn't it
be great if everyone really could get along? Imagine the meals we could
all have. :)