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Friday, August 29, 2008

Awesomeness Alert: Espresso Granita

Yeah, sure, in a way this whole blog is meant to be an awesomeness alert, but every once in a while, something in particular jumps out. Therefore, the awesomeness alert.

Today's alert: Espresso Granita from Capogiro.

It's kind of like a water ice, kind of like sorbet, kind of perfect on a hot day. Not at all bad on a cold one. The default preparation is with whipped cream layered-in and on top (and my apologies to Capogiro, that's a prettier one for a photo) but although it's pretty good, after trying both, I much prefer the straight, clean, icy mouthfeel of the unadorned granita.

The Philadining advisory panel came up with an excellent idea though: topping this with a scoop of gelato. In particular, Dulce de Leche, or Burnt Sugar, or Flan flavors... We're imagining a Vietnamese coffee slushy thing! We're definitely trying it, and will report back.

So far, we've only found this at the 20th street Capogiro, no sign of it at 13th street. They sometimes have other flavors of granita, but espresso seems pretty consistently available.

Even better, it's only $3.50, a bargain at Capogiro.


The grapefruit is almost as awesome...

The Orange flavor was also very good, but the espresso and grapefruit are especially intense.

117 South 20th Street (at Sansom)
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cajun Kate's, on the Boothwyn Bayou

The weekend of August 23rd marked the second anniversary of the opening of Cajun Kate's, the tiny New Orleans-style restaurant wedged into the Booth's Corner Farmer's Market, in Boothwyn. I'm embarrassed to say that I've only learned they were there recently, first noticing a fleeting mention by Craig Laban in one of his weekly on-line chats, then a more formal "or try this" in the sidebar to his review of Les Bons Temps in downtown Philly. Major thanks to him for pointing the place out, I'm already regretting all the great gumbo and po-boys I've missed over the last two years! I'm trying to make-up for lost time, and have been squeezing in as many visits as is practical. This is no small challenge. First, Boothwyn is a bit remote from, well, everywhere except Boothwyn. Second, the market is only open two days a week: Fridays 9am-9pm and Saturdays 9am-8pm.

Despite the obscure location (actually not all that far off of rt 95, near the border of PA and DE) plenty of folks have found them over the last two years. Judging from the crowds I've encountered, Cajun Kate's really needs a bigger space! That's not a particularly deep insight: right now they have about six seats: stools placed along the front counter of a market stall, a tiny kitchen directly behind. The three guys behind the counter are certainly keeping busy, and need to stay alert to avoid crashing into one another. Both Kate and her husband Don honed some serious Louisiana cooking chops during a few years in New Orleans, and that experience shows. Whether it's from their jobs in famous kitchens or just from living in the city and eating the food, their offerings strike me as more authentically Louisiana-flavored than any others I've sampled in the Philadelphia area. Despite the name, you'll see Don more than Kate, and most of the savory side of the menu is his work.

From this very modest space he somehow manages to cook everything for the two-day rush, which consists of a steady turnover at the counter stools, and many more folks dropping by for take-out. They have jambalaya, gumbo, soups, and red beans and rice, packaged up in the fridge and ready to take home, or you can get it hot to eat right away. Most everything else is available for take-out too, although some of the deep fried things are probably best experienced on the spot.

You also really need to eat a Po Boy right there. Don't get it to go, that sandwich might be even more fragile than Philadelphia's Cheesesteak: a composition in perfect balance right after it's made, a soggy mess only a few minutes later. This is especially true of a few fillings I've tried at Cajun Kate's. Their Oyster Po Boy is a thing of delicate beauty. The restaurant gets oysters shipped fresh from Louisiana the Gulf, breads them and fries them to order, then cradles them an airy, crusty long roll, remarkably like a Leidenheimer's from New Orleans. You really should have it "fully dressed," the lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles provide an excellent counterpoint. The hot, crispy oysters, contrasted with the cool, creamy accoutrements make for a sandwich that is best enjoyed immediately. Which is not to say it wouldn't be tasty later, just that it's at its best milliseconds after being dressed.

They always have a Shrimp Po Boy, a Catfish Po boy, and a Gator Sausage Po Boy, another type is usually offered as a special. The oyster was excellent, but the truly revelatory one is the Smoked Brisket Po Boy. The meat is cooked long and slow, until falling into shreds, "debris-style." It's then piled onto that fine roll, a thick gravy and juices soaking onto the bread. They offer it with provolone cheese, which might be gilding the lily, but it's not a bad addition. I'm not sure why hot gravy-soaked beef, lettuce and mayo all go together, but mysteriously they do, so I recommend getting even this po boy fully-dressed. Tasting this flashed me back to a delicious Roast Beef Po Boy I had at Parasol's in New Orleans not long ago. That's not something I expected to taste again until I got back down there. The Cajun Kate's version is smokier, but similarly sloppily decadent.

Fighting for favor as the best sandwich here, and indeed one of the best pork sandwiches in the area, is the Cochon de Lait Po Boy. Pork is roasted long and slow until it's falling-apart tender and deeply flavored. It's great in a gumbo, which shows up with some regularity, and even better as a Po Boy.

Kate's also makes a very authentic Muffuletta, that particularly New Orleanian version of an Italian hoagie. A large round, seeded roll is filled with Italian cold cuts, and dressed with the olive salad that makes this sandwich so tasty.
This version is very similar to what one would see at the Central Grocery, the originator and most famous purveyor of this sandwich. Even though it's pretty true to the original, I think it could use more filling, and the roll doesn't thrill me (it's a little too sesame seed-y.). The olive salad makes this much more interesting than the average ham, salami and cheese on a roll, but in the end, it's not that distinctive. It's a good sandwich, but with all the other great things to eat here, I'm not sure how many more of these I'll order.

UPDATE: I've had a change of heart on the muffuletta. I got one to go, and decided to warm it up in the oven for a few minutes and WOW! That's an awesome sandwich. It turns out I'm just a fan of warm, toasted muffulettas. That's a controversial topic in New Orleans: the Central Grocery serves them cold, but there are plenty of other places around town that warm them up, and that combination of toasty bread, slightly melty cheese and oily olives has won me over. I'm not sure they have enough oven space at Kate's for them to toast them up for you there, but if you get it to go, tossing it in an oven for a few minutes is a great way to revive the bread a little, and I think it improves the sandwich overall. Try it.

For yet another twist, try their homemade pesto smeared on the muffuletta. It's an unconventional combination, but a delicious one! Ask for a "Muffapesto," it's not on the menu, but they'll know what you mean...

Kate's does not have a very large menu, nor does it pretend to be a fancy creole dining room. It's more of a neighborhood joint for quick and casual food. But it's not merely a sandwich shop either. The menu always includes a Chicken, Shrimp and Sausage Jambalaya, which I risked tasking a small taste of recently, and I loved it, the andouille gives it an assertive, smoky spice. I can testify that the Red Beans and Rice is quite good, perhaps partly because it too is spiked with sausage.

The real test of any place like this is its Gumbo. This stew of meats and/or seafood, thickened with roux, enlivened with peppers, onions and celery, can be found all over the south, but Louisiana makes especially good ones. The specific contents of Don's gumbo changes each week, and can vary from the standard shrimp and chicken, to the more exotic Smoked Duck and Wild Mushroom they prepared for the second anniversary celebration. Expect a seafood gumbo around the holidays in December. These special preparations tend to sell-out early, so be sure to reserve yourself a quart or two to take home if there's one that is especially appealing.

I'm certainly glad I got on the list for the Smoked Duck and Wild Mushroom Gumbo. The duck had cooked down to tender shreds, mingling with chunks of dark mushrooms in a deep brown sauce. It's an excellent gumbo, and I'm already eagerly awaiting its next appearance, whenever that might be... I've been loving the Smoked Brisket Gumbo, and Cochon de Lait gumbo that have been in frequent rotation lately.

The Chicken and Sausage Gumbo pictured above was rich and thick, with a smoky edge from the sausage, and a complex, toasty background from the very dark roux. It was very good as-is, and even better with a dash or two of hot sauce. I'm looking forward to trying all the varieties that I can, it's hard to find a truly satisfying gumbo around Philadelphia. The type of gumbo for the week is listed on their website, as is the po boy, and any other specials of the week, so keep an eye out for varieties that appeal to you. Kate's also makes a very tasty Tomato Parmesan Soup. It's thick and creamy, and enhanced by a dollop of pesto.

I finally had a chance to try the huge cubes of Deep-Fried Mac and Cheese. It's often studded with crabmeat and Tasso ham, but other flavorings are sometimes available as specials. We were lucky to get one with Sweet Onions and Andouille. The Creamy Mac and Cheese with interesting additions would probably be pretty awesome on its own, but they then bread it, deep-fry it to a crispy brown, and then drizzle it with a sweet/spicy tomato glaze. The resultant collision of crispy/creamy, sweet/hot, tender/chewy is pretty mind-blowing. It's huge, and delicious, and I'm totally getting whatever flavor they have, every time.

There are a few more Cajun bites on the menu: Crawfish Pie (pictured above) which features light, flaky puff pastry filled with crawfish tails and a a creamy sauce; Gator on a Stick (actually a medium-spicy alligator sausage); Catfish Fingers, and more... but I'm going to have a hard time diverting my attention from a bowl of gumbo and whatever po boy is on special that week. And Fried Mac and Cheese.

The namesake Kate is responsible for the desserts here, and the Pralines, Bananas Foster Bread Pudding (pictured) and Pain Perdu certainly say New Orleans. But perhaps even more so, Beignets are an iconic sweet of the city, eaten either as a breakfast or as a finisher to a meal. These square donuts, fried to order and dusted with powdered sugar aren't quite as light and ethereal as those at Cafe du Monde, but that's asking a lot! Kate's version is plenty indulgent, and a nice way to start, or end a meal, especially accompanied by a cup of chicory blend Cafe au Lait.

In a perfect world, Cajun Kate's would be open more often, and be more easily accessible from downtown Philly, but on the other hand, they've got a pretty nice thing going. It's a quirky little niche, but they seem to be keeping busy preparing enough food for the two-day rush, and serving it up in their cozy little space. I'd hate for them to lose the magic of this odd little spot, it seems to be just the right size for them to make food the way they want to, so maybe we shouldn't wish for any changes at all.

But both Kate and Don Applebaum have worked in fast-paced, higher volume restaurants, and could probably scale it up to a larger capacity without sacrificing quality. I hope to see that someday, but until then, I'll make the trek down to Boothwyn, and squeeze in on one of the stools, and watch the entertaining tornado of action behind the counter.

And for now, Happy 2nd Anniversary to the whole crew at Cajun Kates!

Cajun Kate's
Booth's Corner Farmer's Market
Routes 491 and 261
Naaman's Creek Road and Foulk Road
Boothwyn, PA

Fridays 9am-9pm
Saturdays 9am-8pm
Closed Sunday-Thursday

Porturuvian Explorations pt 2: Pollo a la Brasa

We made an earlier trip to El Balconcito in the Northeast in search of Pollo a la Brasa, the fabled Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken, but discovered that it needed to be ordered in advance. Due to a profound inability to plan ahead, and a lack of confidence in our abilities to order chickens over the phone in Spanish, it took us a little while to make it back. We are now in the process of kicking ourselves for waiting so long. With the help of two somewhat Spanglophonic friends, we managed to pre-order a few chickens, then descended on the place to partake of this famed delicacy. The ordering seemed to go pretty smoothly, but be warned that even with advance notice, they have a finite number of chickens, and perhaps a limited roasting capacity, so if your heart is set on this particular thing, you might want to go on a slow night, and resign yourself to a bird or two.

Even after successfully completing the process, we're a little unclear about the final deadline for ordering-ahead. We reserved two chickens the night before or reservation, but then called about noon the next day and added two more, and it seemed OK. So maybe, call the day before if you can, but early the same day might be OK, if they have enough chickens. The procedure requires a few hours to marinade properly, so plan ahead.

We ordered four, and we got the sense that we were approaching their limit, at least for that day. We were a party of 9 people, and even though the chickens were of a good size, we could have easily polished them off if we had even an ounce of self-control, and had resisted ordering about a hundred other things... Upon the first bites sampled, we immediately thought we were going to have a crisis, because the chicken is incredibly delicious. We were picturing ugly fights among close friends over that last wing or leg, crazed gluttony overpowering our sense of courtesy and civility. Yes, it's that good.

This style of rotisserie chicken involves a tangy, complex marinade that results in a deep flavor and a crispy, dark-hued skin. The marinade seems to involve chile paste, the mysterious herb huacatay (sometimes called "black mint") some citrus, and we think there might be some sugar. The long marination accounts for both a delicious outer coating, and for juicy, tender meat.

To make things worse, the chickens are accompanied by excellent french fries: crisp, light, tender, and somehow staying that way for a long time. Some sort of Peruvian magic potatoes, we surmise...

Just in the nick of time, fusillades of Croquettas de Bacalao were fired at the roiling mob, and moments later a couple of flaming sausages were lobbed-in, distracting them from the birds. With the addition of a few more dishes we actually ended up with some chicken left-over, even though one of our party was a young man who arrived straight from football practice, and promptly consumed three times his body weight in french fries alone!

In addition to the chickens, we ordered several things that we'd liked from out first visit. One of the things we really love about this place is that it's got both Peruvian AND Portuguese menus. While there may not be any particular logic to combining the two cuisines, we can't resist ordering from both sides.

From the Portuguese side, the Croquettas de Bacalao were even better than we'd remembered, their perfectly cripsy coating containing a light, airy filling with more salty cod flavor than before. Chorizo was packed a bit looser and was less spicy than last time, but was still quite tasty, especially with its crispy exterior from exposure to an open flame.

Clams in Garlic were simple, but perfect, the intense broth complementing the tender clams. We tossed a handful of fries from the chicken platter into this pot, and the garlic-infusion sent them to french fry nirvana. We had more bivalves in the Clam and Pork Stew, which met with approval from our Portuguese ex-pat authenticity inspector. He was a bit surprised by the presence amount of pickled vegetables atop the clams, pork and fried potatoes, but did not seem especially disturbed. I had a very hard time refraining from eating that stew, especially once the dark brown sauce, a mixture of clam juices and pork gravy, became more accessible.

Tostones, pressed into cup-shapes then filled with seafood, were suggested by the waitress, and seemed to go over well-enough, but I don't think they were anyone's favorite dish of the night. Also from the Peruvian side, we had a Ceviche Pescado, a huge plate of marinated white fish, served with boiled potato and sweet potato. And we can never resist Lomo Saltado, the classic Peruvian dish of beef strips and french fries, stir-fried with soy sauce and gravy, to create a dish that wouldn't be too alien in an American diner, like gravy-fries studded with beef and onion.

All-in-all an amazingly delicious meal. All of it was quite good, but we're most enthusiastic about the Pollo a la Brasa, the most delicious roasted chicken I've had in some time. Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken is a bit of a phenomenon in some cities, it's much easier to find in NY and LA, and is more of a gourmet fast-food, not requiring any calling-ahead. I certainly hope the trend catches on in Philly, and we can drop in somewhere for a delicious marinated roast chicken in this style. But until that craze gets underway, you'll find me up here at El Balconcito, reveling in the chicken, and also in the other specialties of Peru and Portugal.

El Balconcito
658 E Godfrey Ave (at Tabor Rd)
Philadelphia, PA 19120
(215) 342-2340

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Things you didn't know you wanted to eat pt. 1 - Duck Tongues

We've learned to trust Ken at Ken's Seafood, and often don't even bother with a menu there, we just tell him the kind of thing we're in the mood for, and ask for suggestions.

Recently, we told him we were in the mood for something batter-dipped and deep-fried, and I have to admit that we were all surprised when he said "Duck Tongue." I'd seen them on the cold appetizer cart at Chung King Garden, but hadn't gotten around to trying them, nor had ever heard of them prepared this way, so this was going to be a new experience.

As it turns out, we liked them a lot. There's not a whole lot of meat on a duck tongue, and what there is has a slightly fatty, gelatinous texture, but when it's encased in perfectly-fried batter, the combo is very pleasing. To be fair, I think our table was evenly split about how good they were, but two of us really loved them. Someone likened them to the very tip of a chicken wing, where there's just a little bit of meat, more fat and skin and crunchy coating. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective.

There is a weird thing about duck tongues: they have a piece of cartilage going right down the middle that's inedible, so the crunchy treat needs to be eaten with a little care, and that little boney spine needs to be gingerly extracted from one's mouth, so this might not be a great food on the occasions that pulling bones from one's mouth wouldn't be considered polite.

On our previous visit, the same request resulted in a plate of frog. We were remembering the amazing Geoduck Clam bellies that he recommended a while back, and how good they were, especially how great the batter was. But we didn't feel like going big and getting the Geoduck sashimi this time, so we asked for something else. The frog is actually quite tasty, but each little nugget is filled with a bunch of tiny bones, making it a little tedious to eat. I'm sure one can get used to it, but we couldn't help feeling that the payoff just wasn't worth all that effort. And I couldn't get the Monty Python skit out of my mind - sure, they were talking about chocolates, but the line "Well, if we took the bones out, it wouldn't be crunchy, would it?" kept echoing in my head. So although it was in fact pretty good, we might not be revisiting the deep-fried frog for a while... at least not the chopped-up bodies. Legs?, we'll eat frog legs any day.

Any disappointment in the frog was quickly overshadowed by the vegetable we ordered. Back when Ken worked at Xiao Guan he'd recommended a dish of Chinese Broccoli with Sausage, and we decided we needed that again. This version was even more decadently pork-filled, seemingly half its volume was sweet, salty Chinese sausage. There's a great interplay between the bitter greens and the sweet fattiness of the sausage, it's a perfect combination. And, oh, OK, we're suckers for anything with Chinese Sausage...

The fresh seafood is just outstanding here at Ken's, we love the whole steamed fish, the eel in XO sauce, the fresh scallops with garlic, or XO, or black bean sauce. My dining companions go pretty crazy for the live shrimp, salt-baked is apparently the way to go when they're small. But it's funny, at this seafood-centric restaurant, we end up ordering plenty of things from the land, and are rarely disappointed.

(read earlier review>>)

Ken's Seafood Restaurant
1004 Race St
Philadelphia, PA