Sriracha Popcorn


Sriracha popcornMy wife was the first to notice this product at the Bellevue Uwajimaya—sriracha popcorn.

Whoa! My favorite movie snack combined with my favorite hot sauce? Could I resist? One guess. Here was another innovative snack that intruded into my life after stumbling upon furikake potato chips.

Huy Fong Foods Sriracha Hot Sauce

Huy Fong Foods Sriracha Hot Sauce (Photo credit: GARNET)

If you’re a chilihead (or more properly, chilehead) and even if you’re not, you’ve probably noticed the ubiquity of Huy Fong sriracha sauce, more commonly known as Rooster Sauce. Made in Rosemead, California, far from Thailand from where sriracha originates, the bottle is found as a condiment in so many restaurants that it should be giving ketchup a run for its money. It’s basically a spicy sauce made from red chiles, vinegar, garlic, salt and sugar. Some people put it on almost everything they eat. I love it, but I use it only on foods that it complements, while other foods call for Huy Fong’s other, more vinegary chile sauce, sambal oelek, that had its origin in Indonesia. A little mixed in with ketchup is, for me, a great way to polish off fries. Ditto with hash browns.

In a stroke of inspiration, J&D’s Down Home Enterprises, a local Seattle company and maker of the popular Baconnaise and potentially even more popular Baconlube, in partnership with a company called The Oatmeal (which in its twisted way also adores Rooster sriracha), combined the essential ingredients of Rooster sauce with popcorn to come up with a good snack. If it were just plain spicy, it might only motivate chiliheads, but the addition of the right amount of sugar makes it appealing to a broader public. It has garlicky flavor and good heat but not enough to blister the tongue or strip a cast-iron stomach. The only defect is one that plagues all packaged popcorns—lots of popcorn bits at the bottom of the bag that are the spawn of rough handling.

Sriracha popcorn

Lunch at Taqueria El Rinconsito (Bellevue, WA)


Soft tacos are such a popular snack in Mexico that it was inevitable that they should make an appearance across the border. This has been a relatively recent phenomenon because the Mexican restaurants of yesteryear—at least the ones I frequented in Southern California—usually served tacos with crispy, fried shells and ground beef fillings. I have to wonder if ground beef fillings are common down south at all, if they have roots in ground-beef-anything so popular here in the U.S., promoted by the likes of Taco Bell, than something having originated in Mexico, which favors shredded beef instead. Certain fillings for tacos may never materialize here. Friends of mine who just returned from a trip to Mexico were ecstatic over shark tacos in Ensenada, while other friends couldn’t get enough lobster tacos near Cabo San Lucas. For the soft taco to be successful, freshly made corn tortillas are a must and that is what taquerias are making nowadays.

Taqueria El Rinconsito is a chain here in Washington state, currently at thirteen locations. The one here in Bellevue is tucked away in a strip mall far removed from the commercial core. Despite its isolation, there was a huge crowd of people at lunchtime, a scene also common in the Auburn location, according to my friend who lives there and had lunch with me today. Though their specialty is tacos, there are other things on the menu, not only familiars like burritos, enchiladas and flautas, but items you don’t find on many Mexican menus: tortas, gorditos, sopitos, mulitos, birria, menudo (on Saturdays only), seafood cocktails, and more. Visible behind the order counter was a big ball of masa from which the tortillas were being made.

And the nicest touch is that beverages that are gratis with many meals also include bottomless aguas frescas—five different kinds: tamarind, hibiscus, horchata, guava and (my personal favorite) canteloupe, all of them with a bit too much added sweetener. But, damn, are they refreshing!

Horchatas

Agua frescas (left to right: tamarind, horchata, hibiscus, guava and cantaloupe)

Most taquerias nowadays have a salsa/condiments bar. Rinconsito is no exception. Among the salsas I sampled, I was most impressed by a salsa roja made with smoked chiles, possibly chipotle.

Salsa bar

Salsa  and condiments bar

As this was my first time, I went straight for the tacos, their specialty, which you can order in quantities of three, four or five. Lest you think five are excessive, these are very small tacos. A taco plate gives you three tacos, rice and beans. You have your choice of five different meat fillings: asada, adobada, lengua (tongue), chicken and carnitas, the last two of which I split between three tacos. The chicken was chopped into small pieces and rather bland. Though not the best version I’ve had, the carnitas were tender and flavorful. Refried beans were authentically lardy, smooth, salty and the rice was perfectly cooked.

Chicken and carnitas tacos

Carnitas (left) and chicken taco plate

The prices here are very reasonable; you could even say cheap. It’s worth a repeat visit to try some of the other menu items, if for no other reason than to have the aguas frescas again.

Taqueria El Rinconsito
2255 140th Ave NE
Ste A
(between 24th St & State Route 520)
Bellevue, WA 98005
425.641.2524
Menu
 

55 Hours in Victoria (BC)


Contour of Vancouver Island with Regional Dist...

Vancouver Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A geographical oddity was created when the Oregon Treaty of 1849 ceded Vancouver Island to the British. Victoria, capital of British Columbia, along with approximately one-quarter of Vancouver Island, lies below the 49th parallel. Yet, for all its proximity to American cities—closer to Bellingham and the American San Juan Islands than to Vancouver—it has a distinct feel that has been described as British.

Over twenty years ago, my wife and I (with our young children in tow) visited Victoria for the first time. The details of that visit are fuzzy, though I do recall how British it felt. Even if the city is named after Queen Victoria and the stately Empress dominates the Inner Harbour with its Edwardian appearance, the impression of English-ness was not based on any firsthand experience of Britain, because I’ve never been there. So, what does a British city look like? And who’s to say Victoria doesn’t look more British than, say, London or Liverpool? Yet, there is the culture of afternoon teas, famously promoted by the Empress Hotel, and civic obsession with gardens, both of these being culturally, well, British—eh? We have come here one more time, also many years ago. Our infrequent visits were not because we didn’t like Victoria—far from it—but because we learned that the city had always been dumping untreated, raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which Victoria shares with the U.S. Olympic peninsula, and had no plans to do anything about it. So many Washingtonians decided to boycott Victoria until things were cleared up, so to speak. I was one of them.

In 2006, the BC government ordered the city to develop a sewage treatment plan. Victoria complied and has committed to installing a secondary treatment facility, scheduled to begin construction in a few years. With this kind of news, it was time to go back for a visit. Our local AAA was running a special that included transportation on the marine vessel Victoria Clipper and lodging at one of three accommodations, including The Empress. There is no need for a car, for the Clipper drops passengers off at the Inner Harbour, only blocks from any of the hotels, and most of the attractions would be within walking distance.

We would have 55 hours to enjoy the city before taking the Clipper back to Seattle.
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Lunch at Noodle Cart (Victoria, BC)


Reviewers on tripadvisor and urbanspoon rave about Noodle Cart on Blanshard. WHERE magazine, the freebie that all tourists find at their hotel/motel/inn lobbies and at information centers, named it the best new restaurant of 2012. Armed with these endorsements, we decided to have lunch there after walking back to city center from Craigdarroch Castle. Paintings on the walls throughout the restaurant evoke images of Thai daily life and provided lots of color and atmosphere. The menu was extensive. What to try? On the specials board were two dishes: Stir-fried Egg Noodle with Homemade Chilli and Homemade Crispy and BBQ Pork. Hmm, why not?

The better of the two dishes, the egg noodles were tossed with sliced jalapeño chiles, sliced green and red bell peppers, onions, green onions, basil and a sweet-savory dark sauce. Now, I’m as much a garlic lover as the next person, but it was excessive in this dish, overpowering other flavors. In some cases, too much garlic is too much of a good thing, and that was the case here. This would have been an excellent entrée otherwise.

Egg Noodles with Homemade Chilli Sauce

Egg Noodles with Homemade Chilli Sauce

Many of the reviewers in the aforementioned websites were effusive about the crispy pork in all its incarnations. Not so with us. Essentially, the batter around the pork was a paste of rice, including whole grains, that seemed too crunchy. Despite its description, the word crispy is inaccurate since it implies a certain lightness and crisp texture that easily yields to the bite, not the dense, toasted-rice crunchiness that called attention to itself over the pork. Alongside the BBQ pork, which itself had little flavor and much fat, a reddish sauce was poured over both, mostly sweet and lacking in dimension. We would definitely not order this dish again.

Homemade Crispy and BBQ Pork with Rice

Homemade Crispy and BBQ Pork with Rice

Adding to the disappointing experience was glacial service, including one waitress forgetting to bring a requested item. Perhaps the standard menu items succeed where the specials don’t. There were quite a few customers who seemed to be enjoying what they were eating.

Noodle Cart
1018 Blanshard Street
Victoria, BC V8W2H6
250.477.3883
Menu
 

Springtime at Butchart Gardens (Brentwood Bay, BC)


No matter how many times we go to Butchart Gardens, one of the most beautiful in the world, we are never less than spellbound by the floral displays. This attraction, over 20km north of Victoria, is a premier destination of tourists from all over the world. It really is amazing what determination, imagination and top soil can do for an ugly limestone quarry, thanks to the singular devotion of Jennie Butchart.

Actually, we hadn’t been to the Gardens in over twenty years since our kids were very young. Our previous visits were always in the summertime when annuals are at their peak and cover the 55-acre site with a riot of colors. We boarded the bus in front of the Empress Hotel only an hour after we arrived in Victoria; the three-day forecast predicted today would have the best weather with very little precipitation. As it turned out, it was a beautiful day, sunny and cool enough that we didn’t have to remove our light jackets. Today was the first time that we visited in the spring, promising a different kind of show: spring bulbs, azaleas, rhododendrons, flowering magnolias, among others. We were not disappointed. The profusion of hyacinths literally filled the air with perfume.

The spring flower displays are not as varied as those of summer, but there was plenty to admire while walking through the Sunken Garden, Japanese Garden, and Italian Garden. It was naturally too early in the year to see anything in the Rose Garden. Blues and purples were well-represented by hyacinths, forget-me-nots, aubrietas, trout lilies and pasque flowers. Aside from the hyacinths, all the narcissus plants were in bloom. Some tulips were beginning to wilt, while others were ready to unfold. The double tulips had an interesting resemblance to peonies. The azaleas were preceding the full eruption of rhododendrons yet to come, while most of the camellias were beginning to drop their petals. Bulb plants were nicely set off by undergrowth of English daisies and forget-me-nots. We spent over four hours here, including a nice lunch at the Blue Poppy, a cafeteria-style restaurant.

The only season remaining for another visit is autumn, which promises its own rewards.

The Butchart Gardens
800 Benvenuto Avenue
Central Saanich, BC V8M 1J8
Canada
866.652.4422
 

Cooking with a Spice Merchant’s Daughter


I have never wanted to take a cooking class.

Wine tasting, conversational Italian, taiko, stained glass, piano, pottery class—yes. But, cooking class? No. Why?—since I love to cook and food is one of my passions. Maybe I felt that I could learn whatever I needed by poring over cookbooks and making some of the recipes. Or maybe there was the feeling that I could never capture an iota of the vast experience of a cook deeply immersed in the culture, history and cooking techniques of another land. I know, rationalizations, all of it. I would have gone on like this forever if it weren’t for a Christmas gift of a cooking class from my sister-in-law, one taught by an expert on Southeast Asian cooking.

Of Indian ancestry but born and raised in Malaysia, Christina Arokiasamy is a descendant of a long line of spice merchants, a pedigree that goes back five generations. Her exposure to spices began early in life as she helped her mother make them in their home in Penang, eventually to be sold at market. With this background and her own passion for cooking, it’s little wonder that she eventually became a consultant for the Four Seasons in Bali and Thailand and penned her own much-praised cookbook, The Spice Merchant’s Daughter. She’s been featured and mentioned in several publications, including Sunset magazine. Christina now lives here in the Seattle area and teaches classes on a range of Southeast Asian cuisines, which she changes once a month. Each class is limited to eight students, a number fitting for her home where the class is taught. She only takes a “break” when she leads some of her students on culinary, historic and cultural tours of selected Southeast Asian countries.

The class we picked was Food of Penang offered throughout the month of April. Many of the students tonight had taken previous classes. Malaysian cooking is something I know very little about. Locally, there aren’t many Malaysian restaurants. I’m guessing that the same holds true throughout America. Seattle and Redmond have Malay Satay Hut to carry the banner, but though the restaurant gets its share of recognition, we haven’t patronized it much for one reason or another. So, here the class was a good opportunity to learn something about the cuisine. As mentioned earlier, Christina was born in Malaysia, so she spoke with authority about its food culture and how the local cuisine was influenced by immigrants from other parts of Asia, mostly China and India. A Penang tourist foldout brochure that Christina showed us lists and locates on a map all the sanctioned street food vendors, mostly in George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage City, who have been serving the same specialty for at least five generations, thus ensuring some measure of authenticity. She told us anecdotally that CNN voted Penang as one of the top ten Asian cities for street food. Its mix of many nationalities, who live side-by-side in relative harmony, results in an unparalleled diversity of food, a melting pot of the cupboards of Asia.

As if this introduction weren’t enough to stoke our taste buds, all the ingredients we would be using in class were attractively displayed on her kitchen’s island like a spread at a Malaysian market: coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, tamarind water, roasted peanuts, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallots, onions, galangal, English cucumbers, red jalapeño chiles, bean sprouts, rau ram, chopped lemongrass, sweet potatoes, limes, jicama, sambal oelek, turmeric, ground cumin, ground coriander, egg noodles, fried tofu.

Ingredients for the cooking class were already prepared

Ingredients for the cooking class

Despite a certain amount of chaos and students crammed in the kitchen, each person not preparing a dish from beginning to end but rather portions of it, everything came together in the end. It was a wonder that Christina was able to manage the entire operation, needing every once in a while to interrupt and demonstrate a technique or teach something.

Reducing the pasembur spice paste until oil separates

Reducing the pasembur spice paste until oil separates

Rau ram leaves for laksa

Stemmed rau ram leaves for laksa

We communally made a laksa, a noodle soup dish in a curry coconut broth, and a refreshing pasembur salad. As a bonus, Christina roasted chicken (chicken in oyster sauce), which she marinated and prepared ahead of time, while we sat down to eat the first two courses, accompanied by a glass of crisp pinot grigio. A dessert of vanilla ice cream topped with Christina’s palm sugar syrup ended the meal.

Pasembur

Pasembur

Laksa

Laksa

Normally, the pasembur, with its hard-cooked egg, fried tofu, cucumber and jicama, all topped with a spicy, thick sweet potato and peanut dressing, would be enough to fill you, so the other dishes could test the resolve of mere mortals. But the houseful of gourmands would have none of it, as they gleefully scarfed up everything in front of them.

It’s no coincidence that a class like this would bring together a group of people with common interests, all of whom have had lots of cooking experience, some of them with fascinating occupations in the industry, others having done much traveling, bound together by a love of food.

Brunch at Bastille Café and Bar (Seattle, WA)


This could very well be a rainy day in Paris

This could just as well be a rainy day in Paris

One kind of breakfast I don’t have often is French. In fact, I have to wonder if I ever have. French meals at other times are another story.

You can take bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes and cereal, and all their variations, only so much before they get, well, old. Don’t get me wrong, I love American breakfasts. It’s just that it’s nice to have something different every now and then. Living in Seattle offers many opportunities to do just that.

This morning, we were intending to have a Mexican breakfast at Señor Moose. We even went so far as to add our name to the inevitable waiting list. Normally, that wouldn’t be much of a problem, but it was raining and had been for over a day. Not a hard rain, but steady. Since the waiting area inside is tiny, we’d have to while away our time outside.

After a few minutes, my daughter asked if we wanted to go to Bastille, a French café only a few blocks away. Why not?

Without reservations, there was a wait here too, but we got seated within 10 minutes. It would be more accurate to say we were here for brunch as the menu straddled the line between breakfast and lunch entrées.

The interior has a definite Gallic atmosphere, white tiles against black trim and booths, wooden floor, ceiling fans, the works. Specials of the day are written on all the mirrors that flank the upright posts and are mounted along the walls.

We started off with good cups of coffee, a prerequisite for any self-respecting French restaurant. No Farmer Brothers here.

For starters, we shared a plate of brandade croquettes served with tarragon aioli. These cod-flecked potato fritters were deep-fried in olive oil, crispy, savory, somewhat greasy, and delicious.

Brandade croquettes

Brandade croquettes

The cauliflower soup was quite good, topped with croutons and green onions and hiding a poached egg in the rich, creamy broth.

Cauliflower soup

Cauliflower soup

Eggs en cocotte was another successful dish. Its sexual reference aside, the cocotte was a cast iron vessel filled with a casserole of béchamel sauce, Comté cheese (a higher quality Gruyere), slices of Duroc ham, kale and eggs.

Eggs en Cocotte

Eggs en Cocotte

On the specials list today was a beef shank that was braised to fork-tenderness and shredded on top of mashed potatoes with juliénned carrots, and served with two perfectly poached eggs. Poured over the entire entrée was the wonderful braising liquid.

Braised Beef Flank

Braised Beef Flank

A side of bacon (sniffingly/whimsically listed under Le Porc, which also included sausages) was not bad either, well done (per our instructions) and not smoked a la Américaine.

Bastille is not an inexpensive restaurant, especially for breakfast, but a meal here every once in a while is worth a visit to savor food this well prepared and escape the breakfast rut.

Bastille Café and Bar
5307 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107
206.453.5014