Suck It To ‘Em


So what’s a giant sequoia supposed to do when a huge boulder gets in its way? Why, suck it up, of course.

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There’s Something Shrimpy About Fresno’s Don Pepe Taqueria


I had my doubts that I could find a shrimp dish to equal the ones from Fumi’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. Their shrimp is reason enough to trek out to the North Shore of Oahu. My favored combination of garlic, butter and sriracha (optional) sauce is a heaven-sent recipe.

That was before I found Don Pepe Taqueria, an institution in Fresno since 1995. You could order standard Mexican fare (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas) but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed on their specialty: shrimp. The location on N Blackstone has drawn so many loyal customers over the years that two more outlets opened to satisfy growing popularity. Pick any day of the week, any hour, and you’re likely to find the place packed. To be heard over the noise inside, you may have to shout out your order at the counter. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll feel rushed to decide when people line up behind you. If dining in, you might have to wait for a table to free up. But service is fast and you’ll be eating soon enough.

At the top of the seafood menu is Shrimp Botana, served ‘regular’ or spicy. A full dozen poached crustaceans, butterflied along the underside and in-shell, are piled on top of a cabbage-avocado-tomato slaw. There’s no way to eat these gracefully; it’s best to use your fingers. Besides, you’ll not want to waste time with decorum in getting these babies in your mouth.

I ordered mine spicy (top image). The shrimp were smothered in a glorious, bright reddish-orange hot sauce, reminding me in no small way of Fumi’s. The shells pulled off easily if messily. After polishing off the meat, I sucked on the shells to vacuum up every last drop of sauce, using a ton of napkins to wipe mouth and hands.

My wife’s Tostada Ceviche was unusual in the sense that the topping was a minced paste of raw fish, lime juice and cilantro, topped with two poached shrimp and avocado. Both fish and shrimp were very fresh. This too was an excellent dish.

I personally know of no other place that serves ice cold bottled beer with rim flecked with salt and plugged with shrimp and lime. A very nice touch.

Other ways to enjoy their shrimp are the tacos, burritos and shrimp cocktail.

I have relatives who live in Fresno. For you, Don Pepe is reason enough to stop.

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Don Pepe Taqueria (original location)
4582 N Blackstone Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 224-1431

Don Pepe Taqueria
4950 N Woodrow Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 292-3188

Don Pepe Taqueria
7029 N Ingram Ave #108
Fresno, CA 93650
(559) 261-9744

Fog Lifting Over Pasture


Fall is in the air. In the Northwest we get foggy days early in the season. I was taking back roads in the morning around Eugene, Oregon, when lifting fog was lending its mysterious beauty over the landscape.

Paradise Lost, Paradise Burning


Not to be smart-alecky, but wild fires in the West are now a hot topic. I haven’t personally seen one, but they’ve affected my life here in the Pacific Northwest, enough to make me worry about the future. A year ago, I was looking forward to spending some time again at Whistler in British Columbia. Fresh air. Unparalleled mountain scenery. Beautiful forests. While the area is famous for its winter sports, there is a different experience altogether after snow melt. I’d only been there once before (in July 2011) when wildflowers were everywhere and miles of hiking trails were open. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Whistler-Blackcomb is a spectacular part of Cascadia, roughly a two-hour drive north of Vancouver. It was a bummer therefore that last September, in all our time at Whistler, the skies were shrouded in smoke from wild fires burning in British Columbia. It started out as brown haze on the horizon but visibility got progressively worse each day. It was not unlike fog where objects not more than 100 feet away appeared hazy, except the air had a brownish tint and the temperatures were warm. After the first day, my wife and I couldn’t take hikes to higher elevations because of health warnings. That summer of 2017, wild fires in California were making headlines. Washington and Oregon had their share, including the Eagle Creek fire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge (top image from katu.com). Seattle for the first time I can remember suffered under smoky skies for the better part of August and into September. In August of this year, when we went to Lake Chelan to visit friends, a pall of unhealthy, stagnant air hung over the glacial lake. Smoke from a local forest fire was to blame. After I got back home from Chelan, I never saw blue sky for two weeks. Local health advisories were issued to stay indoors if possible, avoid physical activity outside. Two consecutive summers of polluted air might be seen as the beginning of a trend. The consensus is that fires of immense scale and their resulting dirty air are the ‘new normal.’ For many days this summer, Seattle’s air quality was routinely worse than Beijing’s, the AQI as much as five times more severe. Global warming is taking its toll here as elsewhere on the planet. Normally thought of as a wet, verdant corner of the U.S., Washington is becoming hotter and drier. For four consecutive summers that I can recollect, we’ve hardly had a rainy day from May through September, shocking when compared to when I moved here in 1979. Those days recall Mark Twain’s alleged quip, “The pleasantest winter I ever spent was one summer on Puget Sound.” The precipitation in the ’80s was more like endless days of drizzle, now superseded by heavier rains funneled into fewer months. The difference between then and now, a span of nearly thirty years, is dramatic. Snow today is practically a no-show. On my own property, I’ve noticed telltale changes. Two Western hemlock trees died this year because of prolonged drought over the years. Western red cedar, in my mind the more iconic conifer in the Northwest than Douglas fir, is struggling. Under ideal conditions, they can live over a thousand years. For several years in a row, they’ve shown signs of exhaustion. On every branch, one or more sprays die, not only on my specimens but everywhere I look. With current trends and repeated stress, is it any wonder I think they’ll be lucky to make it another ten years or so? By late summer, a high fire danger was declared on 95 percent of Washington state. In the past, this was unheard of. So instead of rejoicing in the splendor of our vast, green forests, I now worry that in the not-too-distant future, climate change will turn them into gigantic kindling that will fuel ever larger, more uncontrollable fires and forever change the paradise that I’ve come to love and cherish. Summertime in the Northwest has always been something to looked forward to, but nowadays it fills me with a little dread.

Shizuku, Portland’s Significant Japanese Restaurant


Four years ago, I lunched at Chef Naoko Bento Café, a Japanese restaurant on the edge of Portland’s downtown district. The storefront was unremarkable like the surroundings. Interstate 405 was practically its western border. On my visit, a semi-truck parked just outside blocked sunlight from lighting the interior. The atmosphere inside was a lot more pleasant. The interior was cramped though. Customers sat at the few tables spaced close to each other. At one of them, a diner sat near enough to my wife and me to be almost sitting at ours; we wound up having a nice conversation with her. But the food sang, made by the creative mind and skillful hands of owner and chef Naoko Tamura using organic and natural, mostly locally sourced ingredients. It was here I had my first taste of food (chicken) marinated in shio koji.

In 2016 Tamura-san engaged the services of world-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to redesign and expand the interior to something more formal. The result was a complete transformation. Officially opened in December 2016, the restaurant was renamed Shizuku. Gone is the feel of a neighborhood cafe. There is a minimalist makeover, the most striking additions being ceiling hangings made to look like sudare (bamboo screens) and a raised platform with a table where diners could sit seiza-style (legs folded under one’s thighs), surrounded on two sides by a rock garden (top image).

‘Sudare’ ceiling hangings

With renovation came menu changes. Dinner is now prix fixe omakase-style, Thursdays-Saturdays only. The makunouchi (bento box) meals that used to be served at Chef Naoko for lunch and dinner are no more, replaced by lunch trays, donburi and udon, served at lunch only, Wednesdays-Saturdays.

My wife and I were in Portland for three days for family reasons. One of our dining stops had to include Shizuku. We chose lunch over dinner because of economy.

The quality has not changed. Popularly a chicken dish, Shizuku’s tatsuta-age was made with battered and fried Oregon rock cod. The fish, tasty enough from marinade, perked up with an untraditional dipping sauce of bird’s-eye chiles and lemon juice.

Oregon red rock cod tatsuta-age lunch tray (shredded cabbage, wakame and green onions)

Udon has always been one of Chef Naoko’s specialties. It’s probable that the then Chef Naoko Café and now Shizuku has the best in the city. The noodles are freshly made with perfect substance and chew. Chicken, dried bonito and kombu form the basis of the broth. The one that filled Prawn Tempura Udon was subtly flavored with hints of lemon peel. A superb batter, light, crispy and not in the least greasy, coated the tempura, served on the side.

Prawn tempura udon with kale, wakame and green onions

It’s gratifying to experience firsthand that Tamura-san is still at the top of her game. Based on the menu changes for Shizuku, she has the opportunity to demonstrate her creativity and skill even more, especially with omakase. Her calling card is the imaginative and deliberate use of fresh, unadulterated, untreated and vetted local ingredients in traditional Japanese cooking (for example, visible rolled oats from Bob’s Red Mill, based in nearby Milwaukie, fleck the tonkatsu batter). She’s a bold experimenter, like when she makes miso from ingredients other than white soy beans. Aside from Ota Farms tofu (also in Portland), she makes her own from hazelnuts. Tamura-san reminds me of our own local Japanese chef, Mutsuko Soma, who’s made quite a reputation for herself in Seattle, not to mention being named a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Her soba is the stuff of legend.

As for that lone raised platform and table in the corner, you won’t find me sitting there, beautiful as it is in its Japanese austerity, not only because I can’t sit with my feet beneath my butt for very long but more importantly, I don’t like to stand out as if sitting on a pedestal. Still, I’ll be back at Shizuku again whenever I’m in town.

Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 227-4136

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Nue: The World’s Street Food


It’s the thing nowadays to have street food at restaurants. Many of us have gone traveling abroad that noshing on things foreign is not the hesitation it once was. International food is now within easy reach, a cookbook, restaurant or food truck away. These are exciting times if your palate runs far and wide. 

In Seattle, up until now, street food has been relegated to a specific national cuisine. Three years ago, Nue opened in the Capitol Hill neighborhood with a dedication to global street food, bites from all parts of the world, a result of the food finds of co-owners Chris Cvetkovich and Uyen Nguyen when they go traveling abroad. An ambitious agenda, to be sure. The name nue is based on a mythical Japanese chimera whose body is composed of different animals. One manifestation combines monkey, snake, tiger and tanuki, a metaphor for the culinary variety one should expect to find inside.

Take Filipino Tosilog for instance, a popular breakfast item in the Philippines. I personally like fried rice and eggs in the morning, so this combination along with tocino (cured pork meat) sounded like a winner. The meat is a marriage of sweet and savory from straightforward ingredients of salt, sugar, spices and lots of garlic and sticky from caramelization. The fried rice (sinangag) is prepared with nothing more than soy sauce, green onions and bits of fried garlic, served alongside two sunny-side-up eggs. I only wish Nue was closer to me for breakfast. 

Filipino Tosilog

Chengdu Chicken Wings Tower (top image) has quite the following. This is quite understandable. It can be ordered by themselves or paired with waffles. The presentation is spectacular, about a half dozen fried wings stacked vertically, pinned together by two bamboo skewers and underlain by a pool of bracing dipping sauce. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the batter their characteristic bite and numbing sensation. Dipped in the sauce of red bird’s-eye chiles, mint, basil, lime juice and fish sauce, the wings took me to heaven. 

Sunny Bunny is a curry dish based on bunny chow from South Africa. Truly street food, kind of like a bread bowl, it was a staple of East Indian laborers who worked in and around Durban but now popular all over South Africa. Nue uses a partial Pullman bread loaf hollowed out in the middle and filled with a thick, bold masala curry of chicken and vegetables and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. If the original bunny was made to be portable for migrant workers and the torn-off bread pieces used for dipping, Nue nixes all that by generously ladling the curry to overflowing, obliging you to use fork and knife. 

South African Sunny Bunny

How do the chefs at Nue make those perfect fried eggs?

I’m usually indifferent to cornbread. This changed a bit when I had Nue’s based on a Caribbean recipe that includes pineapple and shredded coconut. It’s moist, slightly sweet and buttery, that competes with another terrific cornbread that I had at the Turquoise Room (La Posada Inn, Winslow, AZ). 

Cornbread with Whipped Butter and Maple Syrup

Others in my dining group had Puerto Rican Mofongo (plantain mash, smoked chicken and fried eggs) and Mexican Desayuno Michoacana (chorizo, sweet potato, pasilla pepper, avocado crema, fried tortillas and eggs). 

Nue’s plan is to change the menu periodically based on exciting culinary finds throughout the world. These have appeared in the past or are now on the menu: Israeli Shakshuka, Syrian salad, Dutch Patat Oorlog, Egyptian ‘Eggs Basyounadict,’ United Nations Fried Rice, East Indies Brussels Sprouts, Ecuadorian Biche de Pescado, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and so on. With all this variety, there is one potential drawback. For sharing, an eclectic mix poses the risk of choosing food with no complementary flavors. In fact they can compete, as I and dining companions have found on two separate occasions. The Sunny Bunny fought the chicken wings and tosilog for dominance, for example. That’s not to say that the dishes in themselves weren’t good. The three just mentioned were outstanding, in fact. Don’t let that stop you from dropping in. Nowhere else in Seattle can you find such a culturally diverse menu of high quality. Like the Japanese monster, Nue boldly embodies its mixed bag of diverse elements.

Nue
1519 14th Ave
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 257-0312

Wonders Along North Beach to Glass Beach


The hike itself isn’t anything special. It’s a nice easy tramp from North Beach Park to Glass Beach in Port Townsend. There’s no trail. You simply tread on sand, some of it rocky, along the shore flanked on one side by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on the other by cliffs.

What you do get are tide pools abundantly covered in seaweed (of the kind known in Japanese cooking as wakame), anemones, little crabs, limpets and barnacles, seabirds and otters, and on a clear day a magnificent view of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, two inactive volcanoes in the Cascade Mountain Range. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Mount Baker

Barnacles

Barnacles on rusty iron debris

Otters

Driftwood