How to rate suburban sushi

Hibachi Saba

One fish, same price, two very different results

OsakaSabaI live in a town of 30,000 that has five restaurants specializing in sushi. Can a community our size really support that many establishments providing a top quality dining experience? My suburban sushi tour aims to find out.

I go at lunchtime and try to order the same thing at each place—the lowest priced sushi combo, plus a side order of saba (mackerel marinated in rice vinegar) to see what the restaurant can do with a custom order. The two saba orders at left show the wide variation I’ve encountered. One was beautifully prepared and presented and generous, the other raggedy and sparse.

Nigiri (raw fish) sushi is best for comparative critique because there are fewer variables. There’s the fish, rice, the presentation. That’s pretty much it. I don’t like to eat sushi with my fingers so I generally use chopsticks, turning the fish over into a shoyu/wasabi mix before I eat. If the rice falls apart while I’m trying to do this, it gets demerits from me. In addition, the combinations also include a bowl of watery (but not always) miso soup and a forgettable California roll.

You can find a detailed listing of my findings (which I’ll continue to update) through this Yelp list, but Yelp isn’t necessarily the best source of sophisticated sushi advice in a non-sophisticated region. Not a few of our locals think sushi is from Thailand, and most focus their reviews on the rolls rather than the nigiri which is where a sushi chef makes his (I’ve never seen a female sushi chef) mark or falls short.

Also, a frequent criticism of Yelpers is that the fish tastes frozen, an easy slur that’s not always relevant. I’d rather have sushi grade fish that has been flash frozen at sea and carefully defrosted than “fresh” fish that’s sat around awhile. However, I expect most of the local places do have access to fresh fish if only from the Sysco truck. What happens after it arrives is what counts. How is it kept (and for how long, before it makes way into a Spicy Tuna or Dragon Roll)? And most important, how skilled is the chef at interpreting each piece and making sure, elegant cuts?

I found one place that really knows fish, though it’s not great on presentation, and one which is great on presentation and fair on the fish. The other three are going through the motions, for those for whom “sushi” is an end result rather than a complex tasting experience. I bet It’s the same in your town, but if not let me know.

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A tour of Chinese vinegars

I was going to do a post on Chinese vinegars when I ran across this Youtube video. Cooking teacher Eileen Lo takes us on a tour of an oddly non-busy grocery in New York’s Chinatown and tells not only what ingredients are used for, but which  brands to buy. The tour is courtesy of, which provides the recipes mentioned in the video here.

And about those Chinese vinegars. Sifu Lo explains that Black Vinegar, which appears in Orchid’s Noodles and as a dipping sauce for dumplings, is made with rice vinegar colored and flavored with caramel. I’ve used it in place of much more expensive balsamic with excellent results. Look for Koon Chung brand in your Asian market or order it from Amazon.

Chinese Red Vinegar, with shaved fresh ginger, also makes an excellent dumpling dipping sauce. But apparently it’s just rice vinegar with red food coloring, so you might be better off with an inexpensive red wine vinegar like Cora brand and you might even try that with ginger for Chinese dipping. (It was in the Amazon reviews of Koon Chung Red Vinegar that I found a tip from EJ that pointed me to the Eileen Lo video.)

And on the subject of substitutions, what if you don’t have access to basic white Chinese rice vinegar? No problem, says Eileen Lo. Just use Heinz distilled (white) vinegar instead.

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Recipe: Nair’s Moqueca (Sea Bass) Bahai-Style

Here’s another recipe from my Brazilian chef friend Nair. I like how the seafood gets three different styles of preparation—acid marinade, sauteeing and stovetop stewing. Serves 8.

2 lbs fillets of sea bass, mahi mahi or other firm-fleshed fish
1 lb shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 c onions, coarsely chopped
1 c tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped (Nair says it’s okay to use canned tomatoes)
2 fresh malagueta chiles seeded with stems removed (can substitute cayenne, piquins or red Serrano—a little bit of spicy red pepper to add color and heat)
2 garlic cloves, minced
14 oz can coconut milk
3 T lemon juice
2 1/2 Tbs azeite de dende (palm oil—or substitute ½ c extra virgin olive oil)*
2 t cilantro, chopped
2 T parsley, chopped
2 T green onion, sliced crosswise including some of the green
1 t grated ginger
Salt and pepper to taste

Method: Cut the fish into serving-size pieces. Make an herbal mixture of chiles, cilantro, parsley and ginger. Marinate fish and shrimp in lemon juice, half the herbs and salt in pepper for 1 hour in refrigerator. Heat oil in a large skillet and add shrimp; sauté for about 3 minutes until pink. Remove shrimp and reserve. Add onion and garlic to the same skillet and sauté until tender but not crisp.

Combine the fish, onions, tomatoes and remaining herbs and cook, covered, on stovetop for about 20 minutes or until fish is tender. Remove from heat and rest for 20 minutes. Add shrimp and coconut; return to stove and bring to a simmer, then turn off heat and let rest 10 minutes. Serve with your favorite fresh vegetables and rice pilaf.

* Aziete de dende is a red palm oil that has a unique color and flavor. If unavailable, substitute olive oil and consider adding some annatto (possibly steeped in that oil in advance) to provide red color but not the flavor. You might also try coconut oil, another palm oil that’s solid at room temperature.

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Recipe: Rule of Ones Pancakes

Don't forget the bacon!

Rule-of-One Pancakes

A universal pancake recipe that’s easy to remember since everything’s in ones. Helpful for children or hungover adults. Courtesy of Carol Maxwell. Makes about 10 5-inch pancakes.

1 c all-purpose flour
1 T sugar
1 t baking powder
1 generous pinch salt
1 c milk, buttermilk or combination
1 egg, beaten
1 T (or more) melted butter or unflavored oil (not olive oil)

Method: Thoroughly mix flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Beat egg in a second bowl and add milk, then the melted butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients then pour in the liquid ingredients; stir until they are well blended but still a bit lumpy. Cook in a preheated saute pan or skillet, adding a bit of oil if needed.

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Jake’s Famous Barbecue Sauce… good enough to pour on my meat!

Jake's Famous sauces

The Jake’s Famous lineup

Of the hundreds of products I tasted at last month’s Winter Fancy Food Show, Jake’s Famous barbecue sauces really stood out. His Asian-inspired Blue Oak reminded me of the complex espresso sauce provided at the legendary Franklin’s in Austin. It was one of the very few sauces I’d gladly put on my meat (though not use for mopping). And Jake was kind enough to send samples to test.

BBQ tasting setup

My barbecue tasting setup

I procured a tray of pulled pork and a tray of brisket from Park Side Eatery, an excellent local establishment that has an indoor smoker so is able to deliver barbecue in the dead of winter. Cheap buns and sides of cole slaw and baked beans* were set out as accompaniments, then I invited in my tasters.

Blue Oak BBQ sauce

Blue Oak

Judging time. Blue Oak scored well, though I may have stuffed the ballot box to bring it to the top. It’s what hoisin sauce might taste like if it had been invented in Texas. Ingredients include soy sauce, mango puree and ginger on a flavor base of tomato sauce and molasses. (Update: Jake informs me he’s changing the name to Asian Style Chipotle BBQ Sauce, to better reflect the Asian influence.) This is a must-try in my opinion.

Memphis Blues BBQ sauce

Memphis Blues

The runner up was Memphis Blues. It’s Jake’s only sauce that has mustard ahead of tomato in the ingredient list, but it’s still darker and more robust than the watery yellow mixtures often poured on pulled pork. That’s its primary application, but it’s sturdy enough to use on beef as well.

Texas Medium BBQ sauce

Texas Medium

We really liked the Texas Medium Hot, which is a great all-purpose sauce with just enough kick. This is what I’d put on my brisket. It doesn’t contain cumin, which I consider a hallmark of a Texas sauce, but is very well balanced without it.

Maple Bourbon got mixed reviews. It’s as complex as the Blue Oak but some felt the flavors didn’t come together as well. I want to try this mopped onto some ribs where I think it will mingle with the meat and smoke flavors and produce a standout result.

Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce

Maple Bourbon

There’s also Original Mild Southern which was pleasant and closest to what most people think of as a jarred barbecue sauce, but with better ingredients; and Really Hot that really is, to the point where I almost don’t recommend you use it on its own. (Southern barbecue places often offer a “mixed” sauce, combining mild and spicy.)

Except for Memphis Blues, molasses is the key to the flavor profile. That’s good if you like this bittersweet ingredient as I do, but it’s not for the raised-pinky set. When you pour Jake’s sauce on your meat, some serious business is going to happen.

There’s not a drop of high-fructose corn syrup, the favorite ingredient of grocery store sauces, yet Jake’s has plenty of body with thick tomato sauce and bits of ingredient (I like it that he did not puree it to a uniform liquid).

So, where can you get these elixers? Start by going to Jake’s “locations” page  to see if there’s a retailer near you. Distribution seems to be mostly in the west with a bit in the south, including Austin-based Central Market.

If you live in the frozen boondocks like I do, you’ll have to order direct.  At present there’s a relatively hefty shipping charge, which Jake says simply passes on his own cost and he’s working to negotiate discounts with the shipping companies. Relative to other costs in life, I think it’s worth a few extra bucks to try what may be one of the best jarred sauces on the market.

Disclosure: I was provided free product for my review, but no other form of compensation.

* By chance, I bought a can of B&M Bacon & Onion Baked Beans. Not bad at all. The first canned beans I have tried that did not demand extensive doctoring with dried mustard, Worcestershire, brown sugar and cider vinegar, though those ingredients woudn’t have hurt.

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The Saratoga Beer Week curmudgeon

Sour Beer Event

Brendon Knight of B United, our tour guide at the Sour Beer event

I was going to write a snarky article about Saratoga Beer Week, just concluded, after finding this post from the very first Beer Week in 2012. Then, the organizers were worried that no one would come to a beer event in the middle of winter. Tickets for the “Beer Summit” were maybe $30 and there was a Groupon to reduce that by half. Now, the tasting is $50 to sample the same brews I can get every day at my local beer store.

However, as Yogi Berra might say, not only did nobody go because it was too expensive, but it sold out. I wasn’t at the Summit, but I did attend a few events during the week and ended up in a markedly better mood. Highlights were Brew Salt Night at Olde Saratoga Brewery, where one could have a flight of six beers paired with beer-salted foods for $8, a “Sour Hour” at Henry Street Taproom, and the San Diego Takeover at that same establishment featuring the magnificent Duet IPA from Alpine and a pepper-laced Imperial Stout from Green Flash.

sour beer setup

Sour beer tasting setup, with paired cheeses

There are a few reasons a craft beer festival might not be on the same level as a comparable event focused on wines. Unlike vintners who are steeped in their terroir, brewers use commercially available ingredients and many are part-time hobbyists. Also, the folks who pour the samples at the tastings are often distributors, rather than the brewers themselves. And then there’s the pricing. How much is too much to pay for a workingman’s quaff?

I balked at $40 for “Wild Thing—A Celebration of Sours” but it turned out to be fair value. We drank five extremely unusual sours that would have been $6-8 at the bar and each was accompanied by a generous portion of an appropriately sour and stinky artisanal cheese as well as HST’s buttery sourdough bread. I do wish the event had stretched out a bit and there had been a break between flights; 5 sours in an hour is a lot. How about a trivia contest focused on wild yeasts? (I’m serious.)

A few restaurants in town featured beer dinners but did not tempt. They were devoted to a single brewery and, unless it’s a powerhouse like Green Flash or Alpine, I’m not interested in tasting your entire line because I don’t like lagers, porters or, god help me, pumpkin-spiced and other flavored beers. How about an IPA dinner, in which you pair each course with an appropriate ale of that category? A stout will be permitted for dessert.

Olde Saratoga Brew Salt tastig

Beer, Brew Salt and snacks at Olde Saratoga Brewery

My suggestion for the distributors, who have a vested interest in presenting their product to an audience of eager neophytes, is that you take more of a leadership role. Don’t just showcase your most popular lines. Throw us some curves from oddball brewers and challenge us to demand them at our local outlets.

And, let’s have more events like the Brew Salt Tasting that are inexpensive and just plain fun. The OSB bar staff, not some fancy caterer, made the paired snacks including moustache-shaped peanut butter sandwiches (to go with PBJ Stout and Chocolate Brew Salt) and they were great.

Okay, glad I got that off my chest. Can’t wait for next year.

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Finlaggan: the Two-Buck Chuck of Islay single malts

Finlaggan Old Reserve

My Islay collection grouped by price point with the Finlaggan on the left.

I picked up a bottle of Finlaggan Islay Single Malt Scotch at Trader Joe’s on a recent trip to California. (TJ can’t sell liquor in New York, one of many challenges living in this arctic region.) I was fascinated, assumed it would be awful at its $17.99 price tag, tried it, liked it, kept trying. As you can see, nearly the whole bottle is gone and I still can’t find out what’s wrong with it. It has peatiness, the bite of the salt air and a disruptive sensation when it hits your throat—all the qualities I value in an Islay. It’s not up with the best of Bowmore, my favorite distillery, but at 1/5 the price it’s definitely a great value for what you’re getting and, I’ve finally decided, a damn good dram of its category.

Not confident of my own tastes, I went online this morning and was surprised to discover quite a secret society of Finlaggan lovers—including some who seem to mark it up significantly and sell it where there isn’t a Trader Joe. says “it’s not terribly complex, but neither was The Big Lebowski, and that didn’t stop it from being spectacular… So the finish isn’t long. Go suck an egg. This is a fantastic Scotch.” Another perspective comes from Anonymous who calls it “absolutely disgusting…essentially what I would imagine the water from a fire hydrant would taste like after it’s been used to put out a gas station fire” but that’s an indictment non Islay lovers might make of the category in general.

There is quite a bit of mystery about where this inexpensive potion comes from, much of it promulgated by the alleged distiller, Vintage Malt Whisky Co Ltd which tells us “Finlaggan is very much the SECRET Islay, as the name of the distillery from which it comes is a closely guarded secret and known to only a select few. Only those who have sampled Islay malts over a long period and who are familiar with the subtle differences of nose and taste, could begin to guess at the pedigree of this true son of Islay.” I ran across a nice discussion on Reddit including one guy who points out that there’s a Finnegan castle on the north end of Islay and if it’s made by Lagavulin then “Finlaggan” would be a nice bit of wordplay.

Anyway, I can’t wait to get to a liquor-selling state to get more of this. Check it out.

P.S. A comment about the other bottles in the picture. Next to Finlaggan is Bowmore Darkest which is expensive garbage—an Islay especially formulated for those who want a “smooth” whisky. Then comes one of several cask strength bottles from K&L Wines, which buys the casks and bottles them, and the magnificent 1991 Port Matured, which alas is too majestic to drink.

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Recipe: Carol’s Brussel Sprout Slaw

Brussel Slaw

Carol’s Brussel Sprout Slaw

My wife improvised this very well balanced recipe. The interplay of the Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil is particularly nice. Serves 4.

2 c Brussel sprouts, shredded with a knife or mandoline
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1/4 c red onion, finely chopped
1 T lemon zest, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
2 T grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 t Kosher salt
1/4 t ground black pepper

Method: combine all ingredients and toss well to mix. Allow to rest at least 30 minutes to develop flavors. Goes well with a hearty piece of fish or poultry.

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Recipe: Nair’s “National Dish” Feijoada

My friend Nair Wolf, a chef who hails from Brazil, has shared her recipe for this legendary one-dish meal. The following is a restaurant-size prep that will serve 15-20 people but because there so many ingredients I’d advise you to just make the whole recipe, then freeze what you don’t eat. This “bean” dish contains a huge amount of meat, including some items you may not have at your fingertips, so feel free to substitute.

2 lbs black beans, dried
½ lb dried Brazilian smoke meat (not the same as Brazilian dry meat; I’d substitute any lean smoked beef)
10 oz bacon
1 ham hock
1/2 lb smoked sausage
1/2 lb smoked pork chops
1/2 lb Brazilian dry meat (can substitute beef jerky)
1/2 lb fresh spiced sausage (I’d use a couple mild Italian sausages for this)
1/2 lb fresh pork loin, sliced
1 lb beef tri-tip, sliced
2 c onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup of cahuaça sugar cane liquor (can substitute 1 c tequila)
2 bunches of collard greens (julienne)
2 bay leaves
4 oranges, sliced

Method: Soak beans overnight. If using Brazilian dried meat which is very salty, soak that as well and then drain the next morning. Rinse the beans and put to cook in big pot with the bacon, ham hock and bay leaves. After one hour add Brazilian salt meat.

Meanwhile, in another pot sauté onions, the remaining meats, the sausages, and the smoked pork chops. Add water as necessary to cover the meat. Slice the pork loin and tri-tip and cook until the meat is done, removing any froth that forms on the top. Add the pinga or tequila. Now, combine the bean and meat mixtures.

Meanwhile, prepare the collard greens. Cook bacon in a sauté pan, remove to a paper towel leaving 2 T bacon fat. Add garlic and and julienne cut collard greens. Saute 1-2 minutes until limp; remove to a serving dish and cut bacon into small pieces and serve on top of the collard greens.

Serve the meat/bean mixture and collard greens in two bowls so guests can combine as they like. Serve with feijoada sauce.

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Recipe: Nair’s Feijoada Sauce

This is a necessary accompaniment for Nair’s “National Dish” Feijoada.

Juice of 3 lemons
1/4 c orange juice
1/2 c feijoada juice (cooking liquid from the feijoada)
3 T green onion
2 T fresh cilantro, chopped
3 T Italian parsley, chopped
1 c fresh tomatoes without seeds, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Method: combine all ingredients and mix or blend thoroughly. Serve with feijoada. Nair notes that feijoada is a favorite dish of the Cariocas of Rio de Janeiro, the second capital of Brazil.

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