Thursday, September 26, 2013

Salvage BBQ Review

I've noticed that people in Portland love to complain about our lack of options in a particular genre of food. Like, "we may have over 300 restaurants, but there's no good [blank] food in Portland." Usually it's Chinese, but I've also heard the charge leveled at late night, Italian, and barbecue. (I'm not saying it's not true, I'm just saying it's a frequent topic of conversation.) 

Well, Jay Villani of Local 188, Sonny's and Bunker Brewing and his friends are here to change the barbecue part. Salvage BBQ is located on Congress St. in the West End in the old Architectural Salvage building, which has sat empty for years. I have always admired the space and wanted to go inside, so I was happy to see this restaurant developing. 

Apparently Villani et al traveled around the country on a barbecue tour (so jealous) to get their technique and style down. Their menu represents several different styles of barbecue, with Carolina-style chopped pork and St. Louis-style ribs with vinegar and a Kansas City-style sauce on the table. 

On a Friday afternoon (Salvage opens at 5pm), the space was quietly humming along but with plenty of seating at communal picnic tables in the vast space. I was surprised to see so many families with children, but it's the perfect place for them. 

Service is casual at Salvage - you get your own drinks from the bar, order and pay at the counter, and your food comes out via a runner who yells your name (I wonder how long this will last though, because it got really loud in there and a poor food runner was wandering around shouting, John! John! to no avail). 

But none of that really matters, because the food takes center stage here. Everyone in the party opted to share meat trays, various combinations of ribs, brisket, pulled pork, or sausage with two sides. Every tray is sprinkled with sweet pickles and sliced onions. 

I shared a 1/2 cow + 1/2 pig tray ($15) with Dr. P. and went with mac and cheese and potato salad for our sides. The meat was nice and smoky, but I focused my main efforts on the mac and cheese. Can I say it's the best mac and cheese I've ever had and have you still take me seriously? I want to swim in it, Scrooge McDuck-style. 

A1 & A2 shared a full rack of ribs ($23) with two sides - a large order of hushpuppies ($7) and mac and cheese ($10). Hushpuppies are those crunchy, fried cornmeal balls you see above and again, that mac and cheese! Ooh. 

The ribs were everyone's favorite - nice and tender, with a spicy, smoky dry rub. I also sampled the sausage, which was very smoky, and the spicy chili which contained shredded pork, creating a great unexpected consistency. 

Everyone in my party was very happy with their experience at Salvage BBQ. The prices may seem high for one, but splitting trays worked out perfectly. I spent about $25 for 2 local beers and half a tray of meat and sides with leftovers. 

Salvage is perfectly positioned for a pre-Sea Dogs game meal, but don't wait until baseball returns. Head down soon to try the warming meals as the weather cools down. I'm sure Salvage will be busy all winter long with food this good. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

First Look at Empire Chinese Kitchen

Prof. A. and I checked out the new Empire last night - now Empire Chinese Kitchen. The Empire Dine and Dance was previously a bar... that had food? All I remember is a $5 burger, bourbon, and beer special. 

The new menu is a return to the cuisine that was served out of the space from 1916-1953. Empire was originally a 'chop suey joint' with a two-story neon "Chop Suey" sign that was recently discovered to have inspired Hopper's painting of the same name (see this Portland magazine article for the story). 

The space has been completely redone - where I previously thought of Empire as dark and dank, it's been lightened up with lots of blonde wood, hanging jade plants, and minimalist table settings. 

I found my cute friend Ian tending bar - a pleasant surprise! 

At 6pm, the restaurant was filling with people "of my generation" as Prof. A. put it, and we were sat at a table in the window with a banquette (covered in the mostly delightfully rubbable fabric). Our server brought us a pot of jasmine tea, and I copied A.'s wine order of an Austrian Gruner Veltliner, which was not something I was familiar with, and I really enjoyed it. 

We started with two small plates: an Empire eggroll ($5), local beef pastrami with cabbage and asparagus, served with a honey mustard sauce and garlic green beans ($5), with roasted garlic and daikon, but more I think like ginger and hot peppers. Both were good, but the garlic green beans were the favorite. 

From the dim sum menu, we ordered pork dumplings ($5), char siu bao ($5), and a sticky rice pocket ($4). A second round of ordering brought us Peking Duck Buns ($7) and spinach dumplings ($5). 

Pork Dumplings
So here I feel I must say a few things about Chinese food - I think we have all gotten over the, it's good, you know, for American-Chinese food (said with a sniff like we've all just gotten back from eating lotus leaf rice and turnip cakes abroad). We have Americanized Chinese cuisine here, and some of it is better than others. I think we can all also agree that it's not very good in Maine (OK, we will not all agree on that, but please don't try to argue your case with me). While I have not lived in New York City or eaten in Chinatown, I still have found better Chinese takeout food places in other states. 

That said, I've never had dim sum. So my experiences in Maine of steamed buns at Pai Men Miyake and bao in Boston's Chinatown and NYC with Original Roomie A. were my first. I have no personal yardstick for this type of food. So if I tell you this food is good, and you go in and are all, this has got nothing on Mission Chinese? You're on your own. But the food is good and the menu shows real promise. 

Char Sui Bao
Even so, there were a few small things that Empire could work on, but I trust that they will improve. Overall, my impression of the food was very positive and combined with the location, the atmosphere, and the great bar (and bartender, obvi), I'm sure Empire will make many people very happy. 

Peking Duck Buns

And in case you were wondering, as I was, yes, that industrial ladies room is unchanged - some painted stalls and maybe some new fixtures, but the exposed brick and warehouse feel is still there. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Out On A Limb Apple CSA - 1st Share

I was skeptical the first time I heard of the Out On A Limb apple CSA (there was a tomato CSA that raised my eyebrows too). I figured there was no way I'd ever be able to eat enough apples to make it worth it - I struggle with my veggie CSA share, which I split with 3 people, and that's only one of a bunch of different vegetables. 

But in the spring, SK of Delicious Musings asked me and ST of Edible Obsessions if we were interested in splitting a share, mediating my fears of being buried by uneaten apples. 

The idea behind the Out On A Limb CSA is really cool. The apples are from Super Chilly Farms in Palermo, the home of John Bunker and Cammy Watts who are committed to preserving rare apple varieties in their organic orchard. The CSA, like most models, requires money up front (we paid about $40 each in March), which allows the farmers some upfront capital for the growing season. 

This week was the first of five biweekly deliveries and pictured below is a third of the share. 

An online newsletter provides great stories about the history of each variety, recommended uses, and recipes (apparently there's a great apple brownie recipe out there somewhere). 

This week's share included five varieties (counterclockwise from upper left): Duchess of Oldenberg, Zestar, Gravenstein, Milton, and Garden Royal (middle). Two varieties are good for fresh eating, the other 3 recommended for baking. Other than mistakenly giving my boyfriend a pie apple and taking a fresh eating one for myself, I haven't made any moves with them yet. 

The apples have joined with several pounds of peaches to create a conglomerate of fruit that feels like it's disappointed in me every time I look in the fridge. Let the fruit guilt begin! 

Monday, September 9, 2013

East Ender Brunch

To satisfy a friend's Bloody Mary craving on Saturday, I checked out Susan Axelrod's Bodacious Bloodies round-up, where I saw East Ender's smoky, sausage topped version. While I rarely crave Bloody Marys, I'd heard they serve amazing fried chicken - over a waffle to boot. 

For Saturday lunch, the restaurant was quiet, while Duckfat next door was overflowing with customers. We were happy to slide into a table with one long wooden banquet on one side, right next to a two-sided gas fireplace that faces some inviting lounge seats. 

My friend Dr. P got the Bloody Mary, of course, and I tried the Pretty Girl Margarita ($8) which was described as containing elderflower liqueur, but if it did it wasn't prominent. The brunch menu is a good mix of brunch and lunch items - from the 'ee standard' (two eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, hash browns) and eggs benedict to pulled pork and a burger. Really, the hardest part is narrowing down your choices. 

But my menu choice was predetermined: chicken and waffles ($14), a buttermilk fried half bird, malted waffle, maple syrup, hot sauce, and creme fraiche. And I didn't miss any of those other menu items for a second. The chicken was deboned and perfectly fried, still tender with grill marks giving it a nice smokiness. The waffle was fluffy, yet substantial, but I could have done without the creme fraiche.

As Dr. P tucked into his equally good plate of eggs, bacon, sausage (I think he said it was some of the best sausage he'd ever had), we watched as the table next to us was first served flaky fruit filled pop tarts, and then a comically large trio of lemon curd filled donuts, topped with maraschino cherries.

As we walked past the table on our way out, I overheard one of the men say, "this place is underrated." And I have to agree. You don't hear much about it, but the East Ender is quietly serving damn fine food.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Canning Tomato Salsa with Paste Tomatoes

I've finally found a home canned salsa recipe that I like - this one uses paste tomatoes and simmers for 30 minutes, so it makes a nice, thick salsa, with a consistency close to commercially prepared salsas. 

In the past, I've struggled to find a salsa recipe for canning that isn't too acidic or watery (this peach apple salsa is an exception). Since I go through a lot of salsa in the year (especially now that football season has started), I went big, got a lot of tomatoes and ended up with 15 pints of salsa. 

I found a great deal on beautiful paste tomatoes from Fairwinds Farm in Topsham ($25 for a 20lb. box), and used local peppers, some from my CSA share from New Beat Farm in Knox. 

This recipe requires a lot of chopping (A lot. I've apparently gotten spoiled by teaching canning classes where the chopping goes really quickly among 8-10 people), and so I put my new ProCook knife and cutting board to work. ProCook just opened stores in Kittery, Maine and Merrimack, New Hampshire, and they sent me some samples of their cookware. 

While I'd like to pretend I'm also going to can some tomatoes, I think freezing is the prefered route again this year, as peeling and canning tomatoes is a lot of work! 

Tomato Salsa with Paste Tomatoes

7 quarts peeled, cored, chopped paste tomatoes
4 cups seeded, chopped long green chiles  
5 cups chopped onion
½ cup seeded, finely chopped jalapeño peppers
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups bottled lemon juice (added for safety) 
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 tablespoons ground cumin 
3 tablespoons dried oregano leaves
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro

Wash and rinse pint canning jars; keep hot until ready to use. Simmer flat part of lids in a small pot of water.

Wash and peel tomatoes (place washed tomatoes in boiling water for 1 minute, immediately place in cold water, and slip off skins). Chop into ½-inch pieces. Peel, wash and dice onions into ¼-inch pieces. Wash, core, and seed bell peppers; chop into ¼-inch pieces. Wash, core, and seed jalapeño peppers; dice finely. 

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and heat, stirring frequently, until mixture boils. Combine all ingredients except cumin, oregano and cilantro in a large sauce pot and heat, stirring frequently, until mixture boils. (If you don't have a large enough pot, measure half amounts into two pots and cook two batches simultaneously.) 

Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add spices and simmer for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle hot into hot pint jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. 

Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened, clean paper towel; apply two-piece metal canning lids. 

Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. Yields 12 to 15 pints. 

Bonus Maine coon cat photo! Our cats love boxes, and he's looking for the other half of the box so he can hide out in it.