Seattle Restaurants Finding Themselves Reinventing the Meal

Mark Canlis never expected to be running a drive-through burger joint out of the parking lot of his namesake fine-dining restaurant. But in the early days of the pandemic, that’s exactly what the Canlis owner and his team found themselves doing, selling cheeseburgers to over a thousand customers a day and creating traffic jams near their Queen Anne location. Like other Seattle restaurants innovating over the last year – but perhaps more dramatically – Canlis has continually reinvented itself as state regulations surrounding capacity limits for indoor and outdoor dining as well as rules for alcohol service have repeatedly shifted.

Today, Canlis operates a “yurt village” in its parking lot and is gearing up for the May 3 launch of “Camp Canlis,” which will include casual barbecue-style dining by a campfire as well as care packages you can ship to loved ones.

In a webinar hosted by the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP earlier this month, Mark Canlis said that he knew from the beginning of the pandemic that the restaurant was going to have to evolve to survive. But he focused his team on thinking creatively about what they could do next, not on what had been taken away from losing on-premises dining. “This is an amazing opportunity for something,” he recalled thinking at the time. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to figure it out.”

Mark Canlis said that many of the incarnations of Canlis during the pandemic – which have included a bagel shop, a meal delivery service, a drive-in movie theater, and a community college – were “miniature trainwrecks.” And some of them bled cash – a $14 dry-aged burger wasn’t sustainable, his accountants said – or made them look unprepared or unpolished. But taken as a whole, Canlis’s continual reinventions were successful in preserving jobs for most of the restaurant’s 115-person staff and helping it break even for the year, he said.

Canlis’s reputation as a fine-dining destination likely made its pivots easier, as curious customers kept coming back to see what the restaurant would do next. But nearly every dining establishment in the city has had to consider new ways of operating over the past 12 months. While almost everyone is packaging their meals for at-home dining and developing to-go cocktails, others are experimenting with creative ideas, revamping their menus and trying to transform themselves into a retail shop, a night market, a cooking school, or even a wholesale distributor.

Here are some of my favorite examples of Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic:

  • At Addo in Ballard, chef Eric Rivera offers a dizzying array of take-home tasting menus, including a pair of Easter-themed dinners. Choose “Good Bunny” and you’ll get a healthy-sounding butter lettuce salad, roasted ham, and strawberry shortcake ice cream, while “Bad Bunny” includes rabbit pate, a spicy rabbit leg confit, and foie gras and peanut ice cream. Rivera also sells retail items including canned and fresh seafood and Puerto Rican sazon and adobo spice blends. And he’ll even collaborate with you so you can create your own custom hot sauce.
  • Lady Jaye in West Seattle hosts a quarterly night market, which in March included an outdoor grill with Wagyu cheeseburgers as well as beef, whiskey, and crafts for sale. A couple days before that, the restaurant gave away 100 German bratwursts and chocolate chip and sea salt cookies to customers. And its “General Store” sells smoked and raw meats, including cuts such as bone-in ribeye and prime tenderloin, on Wednesdays through Sundays.
  • Jack’s BBQ, now with four locations in Seattle, hosted an online “BBQ camp” on Zoom with classes on the basics of smoking meats as well as an in-depth look at smoking ribs. And local chefs including Matt in the Market’s Matt Lewis, Osteria La Spiga’s Sabrina Tinsley, and Rupee Bar’s Liz Kenyon, among others, have partnered with Sound Excursions for online cooking classes in making jambalaya, pasta, curry, and more.
  • L’Oursin, a French bistro in the Central District, has shifted focus to become a retail market, selling wine, prepared foods, produce, cheese, and more. It also offers “Le Plateau Royale,” a 90-minute seafood tower for two that’s served on its covered patio. And in a transformation almost as dramatic as Canlis’s, the restaurant also operates Old Scratch, a counter where you can order fried chicken sandwiches or burgers for pickup or delivery.
  • Other Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic have also completely revamped their menus, often extending or shifting their hours as they pivoted from high-end dining. Manolin in Fremont, known for its seafood small plates, experimented with selling tacos last fall and is now serving bagels and smoked fish Thursday through Sunday mornings as The Old Salt. Meanwhile, Eden Hill Provisions, a restaurant specializing in creative upscale fare, now offers burgers, fries, and salads for pickup, and has bottles of wine, condiments, and pickled products for sale.
  • Want to stock your freezer with products from your favorite restaurants? For a while during the pandemic, Circa in West Seattle sold quarts of homemade frozen soup (but now only offers it heated). At Dacha Diner in Capitol Hill, you can buy frozen pelmeni (meat) or vareniki (cheese) dumplings. And you can purchase frozen soup dumplings as well as sauces from Xiao Chi Jie in Bellevue.
  • If you’re cooking at home and want to skip a trip to the fish market, Anthony’s Restaurants sells fresh and frozen seafood on Fridays from its wholesale distribution dock in Magnolia. This week’s offerings include halibut and lingcod fillets from Sitka, Alaska, as well as steelhead fillets from the Columbia River.
  • And if you want to fill your kitchen with fresh meats and vegetables, sign up for the CSA program run by Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island. You’ll get a weekly delivery of organic produce from around the Olympic Peninsula, housemade charcuterie, soups and stocks, baked goods, and more.

In a future post, I’ll be examining how successful the transitions have been for Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic, and considering the long-term implications for their businesses as the pandemic starts to wind down.

What are your favorite examples of restaurants reinventing the meal during the past year? Leave a comment and let me know!

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

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What I Ate: Cauliflower “chilaquiles” at Eden Hill Provisions

Some Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic, like Eden Hill Provisions, have completely revamped their menus

Why People Say There’s No Good Mexican Food in Seattle

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard somebody say that there isn’t any good Mexican food in Seattle. Right? OK, everyone, you can put your hands down. Although Yelp lists around 240 Mexican restaurants in the city, somehow the consensus is supposed to be that none of them are any good. But that’s entirely wrong. There’s excellent Mexican food all across Seattle, and the people who think there isn’t might be basing their ideas on a false conception of what Mexican food is supposed to taste like.

The funny thing is that I’ve heard the same sentiment about Mexican food expressed in other places I’ve lived, like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Why might that be?

Seattle resident Michael Kostin proposed one answer in a recent discussion in the Seattle Foodies Facebook group, responding to a parallel suggestion that the city doesn’t have any good barbecue. “People aren’t really saying that there isn’t good barbecue in Seattle. What they are really saying is that there isn’t barbecue like they remember from wherever they think they had good barbecue,” Kostin said, adding that the same theory applies to Mexican food as well as to other international cuisines. “Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.”

For Mexican food, the issue gets even more complex when you consider how diverse the cuisine is, with seven distinct culinary regions. “There are a lot of different regions in Mexico, and they have different characters and different flavors,” Seattle resident Drue Chatfield pointed out in another Seattle Foodies thread, discussing Mexican restaurants. And so, the fish tacos you might remember from a trip to Baja won’t taste anything like the black mole you might have eaten over pork in Oaxaca, and a Mexican restaurant in Seattle might specialize in one style or the other – or in something else entirely.

Both of these explanations are magnified by the recent pattern of California residents moving into the Seattle area. From 2012 to 2016, almost twice as many people moved into King County from Los Angeles County as from any other county, according to a report in the Seattle Transit Blog. And six of the top 10 counties where people lived before moving to Seattle are in California.

That means that many Seattle newcomers have fresh memories of good Mexican food – which  there certainly is a lot of in southern California. Like anywhere else with a large Mexican population, a diversity of styles is represented in that region. But some people remembering the Mexican food they ate in L.A. might only be remembering their favorite taquerias, or the beloved burritos that were filled with guacamole.

Another reason some people might think there isn’t good Mexican food in Seattle is that it takes effort to seek it out. Around four percent of the city’s population identifies as Mexican, according to the 2010 census, but they’re not concentrated in a single area. And restaurants and food trucks that represent the best of Mexican cuisine are spread out across the city.

Also, if you just want to get your food close to home, you’re likely to find a good number of Mexican fast-food or fast-casual options nearby. Taco Time has nearly 70 locations in Western Washington, including seven in Seattle, while Azteca has 11 restaurants within a 50-mile radius of the city. Most people wouldn’t put either chain in their list of the best Mexican food in Seattle.

So, when you’re looking for good Mexican food in Seattle or in the surrounding area, where should you go? I’ll suggest a half-dozen of my favorite spots:

  • Tacos Chukis, now with four locations across the city, in Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Beacon Hill, and the Central District, has spectacular (what else?) tacos, with my top choice being the house specialty that features adobada pork and grilled pineapple
  • When I’m craving an overstuffed burrito, typically with carne asada, I head to Rancho Bravo in Wallingford or Capitol Hill
  • As I wrote about a few weeks ago, my favorite taco truck in North Seattle is Loxicha, where I usually pick up a plate of tacos al pastor and a creamy horchata
  • For Oaxacan food, I like La Cocina Oaxaqueña in Capitol Hill, although others swear by La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard
  • Luna Azul in Greenwood has fantastic fajitas, mole dishes, and salsas
  • In south Seattle, the “taco bus” Tacos El Asadero is a can’t-miss spot in Columbia City that seems like it’s been around forever

And, for good measure, here are another half-dozen highly regarded places that I haven’t yet had a chance to try:

  • Carmelo’s Tacos in Capitol Hill, with one stand located inside the Hillcrest Market and a permanent restaurant coming soon
  • El Taco Loco, which you can find inside the Ballard Liquor Store on Market Street
  • Asadero, a Mexican steakhouse in Ballard and Kent that offers taco takeout boxes including one with two pounds of wagyu beef, two dozen tortillas, pints of three different salsas, and accompaniments, all for under $50
  • Carnitas Michoacan in Beacon Hill, where I have my eye on the carnitas burrito and tacos made with fresh corn tortillas
  • El Quetzal, also in Beacon Hill, with an appealing menu of tortas
  • Birrieria Tijuana in Burien, where customers line up for cheesy beef tacos to dip in consomme

Sergio Juárez, a Seattle resident from Aguascalientes City in Mexico, concurs that there’s lots of tasty Mexican food across the city. “I can pretty much find anything truly Mexican and authentic I want,” Juárez said in a spirited thread in the Seattle Foodies Facebook group. “Don’t get the hate.”

Clearly, Seattle’s no different than most big cities across America. The Mexican food in Seattle might not be what you remember from where you used to live. But there are still tons of great options for you to seek out and enjoy.

Where are your favorite places to get Mexican food in Seattle and the surrounding area? Leave a comment and let me know!

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

More from SeattleFoodHound:

What I Ate: Ceviche tostada at El Colera in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Good Mexican food in Seattle might not remind you of what you ate in other places

Regional Burgers and the Search for a Seattle Style

I’ve been thinking a lot about regional burger styles lately, mostly because I’m experimenting with cooking less meat and haven’t eaten one in over a month. And when I heard Seattle resident Kenji Lopez-Alt reference an “Oklahoma City” burger on a recent episode of the Special Sauce podcast, it raised a few curious questions. First, what the heck is an Oklahoma City burger? Did the city steal the style from Seattle along with our NBA franchise? And if the city doesn’t already have a regional burger identity, what would Seattle’s look like?

First things first. From a handful of burger roundups floating around the Internet, I learned that an Oklahoma City burger is a thin griddled patty into which onions are smashed during cooking. As the story goes, a chef at the Hamburger Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, invented the style during the Depression to help stretch the expensive ground beef he had on hand into a bigger burger. The smashed onion patty soon caught on in El Reno, just outside Oklahoma City, and eventually became popular elsewhere in the region.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many corners of America claim their own regional burger styles based on common toppings available locally. Sometimes these are added directly to the grilled meat, but they can also be slathered onto the bun. In your travels you might encounter a California burger with avocado or guacamole, a Southern burger with pimento cheese, a New Mexico cheeseburger with green chiles, or even a Missouri goober burger with peanut butter.

But more intriguing to me are the examples of regional burger styles that, like the Oklahoma City burger, involve transforming the meat itself, either through cooking techniques besides grilling, or by adding ingredients to the patty. Here are a few versions you might seek out on your next visit to these places:

  • The Juicy Lucy, invented in Minnesota, is a burger patty that’s stuffed with melted cheese, usually American or cheddar
  • The butter burger, a Wisconsin creation, has butter mixed into the patty before cooking, with more butter added on top of the burger as well as on the bun
  • The Mississippi Slugburger mixes bread crumbs or other extenders like flour and soy meal into the patty
  • The Connecticut steamed cheeseburger cooks the burger in a steaming cabinet rather than on a grill
  • The Frita Cubana, originally from Cuba but widely available in Miami, is a thin patty seasoned with paprika and cumin (and then topped with thin-cut potatoes, raw onions, and ketchup)
  • The Tennessee deep-fried burger is smashed to a thin patty and then fried in oil

So what’s Seattle’s quintessential burger style? There are any number of candidates for the best burger in the city. My favorites include the mushroom burger at Uneeda Burger, topped with gruyere and truffle aioli, the Big Max at Eden Hill Provisions, with patties that are a mixture of wagyu brisket, dry aged beef, and bacon, and the Rough Draft smashburger I still need to try and recreate at home.

Still, while these are all great burgers, none of them seem ubiquitous enough to represent a distinctive Seattle style. I wonder if the lack of a singular burger identity is a symptom of a larger question about what makes Seattle truly Seattle. Is there a burger we should name after Mt. Rainier? One that’s inspired by tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon? Or should some enterprising chef develop a Juneuary burger to commemorate our gloomiest season?

With apologies to the Dick’s Deluxe, maybe the quintessential Seattle burger isn’t a hamburger at all. Considering our abundance of seafood, maybe it’s actually a salmon burger. Or perhaps the regional style we should claim is the teriyaki chicken burger, influenced by the city’s large Asian population.

But until someone invents the archetypal Seattle burger, we might be left taking our cue from the Seattle Dog, which as late-night Capitol Hill revelers and stadiumgoers know, is a hot dog topped with cream cheese and sauteed onions. I’d suggest that a burger with these toppings should be known as a Seattle Burger.

And, with a nod to Oklahoma City for having its own regional burger style (and a middle finger for stealing our NBA franchise), I have the perfect name for the Seattle-style burger. From now on, let’s call it the SuperSonic.

Do you have a favorite regional burger style, or a nomination for a Seattle-style burger? Leave a comment and let me know!

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

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What I Ate: Beacon burger from Perihelion Brewery

Cities like Oklahoma City have their own regional burger styles, so why not Seattle?

The Great Nanaimo Bar Controversy Doesn’t Mean You’re Doing it Wrong

The decadent dessert known as a Nanaimo bar, named after a city in British Columbia, is composed of three layers – a crumbly base, a custardy middle, and a chocolatey top. You might think that stereotypically polite Canadians would all agree that no matter how they’re made, that Nanaimo bars would be universally honored as a delicious national treat. But you would be wrong.

The New York Times reported last week that Canadians reacted with outrage after its Instagram account posted a photo of some unconventionally looking Nanaimo bars along with a link to a recipe. One commenter called it “an insult to Canadians everywhere,” while another said that “you’d be laughed out of the bake sale with these counterfeits.”

What was the shameful transgression? According to some Canadians, the proportions of the layers were wrong: the base was too thick, and there wasn’t enough custard. And the top layer of thick chocolate ganache wasn’t smooth, but (egads) rippled.

This isn’t even the first time that Nanaimo bars have generated outrage in Canada. In 2019, Canada Post released stamps featuring five regional desserts, and the Nanaimo bar stamp was quickly criticized for its middle layer appearing too thick. One commenter even made the shocking suggestion that the filling appeared to be less like custard than – wait for it – peanut butter.

Related: The Spicy, Crunchy Condiment That’s Also an Ice Cream Topping

In our highly polarized world, there are plenty of other cases in which someone with a strong opinion about food decides that someone else’s version is wrong. CNN reported last year about a Malaysian comedian called Uncle Roger who went viral after posting a video showing that a BBC presenter making egg fried rice drained her rice through a colander after boiling it, and that she had rinsed it with tap water. “This rice cooking is a hate crime,” one outraged writer tweeted.

And in the most recent example I’ve learned about, the city of Bologna, Italy, has decreed what should be the proper dimensions of the long, flat pasta known as tagliatelli. Its chamber of commerce even keeps a solid gold replica of a piece of tagliatelli showing how wide the dough should be before cooking. The official recipe the city keeps on file states that when cooked, authentic tagliatelli should be 8 millimeters wide, and that 12,270 strands of it should be as tall as the Torre degli Asinelli, a Bologna landmark. “Any other size would make it lose its inimitable character,” the deed says.

I’m here to reassure you that you’re not doing it wrong, whether you like your Philly cheesesteaks with cheez whiz or provolone, or you prefer your North Carolina barbecue sauce to be made with vinegar or ketchup. It’s great to be passionate about what you like and what you don’t, but that doesn’t mean you should restrict others from experimenting and finding out what they enjoy. And if you let your palate be your guide, you might learn that finding a new way to prepare a recipe might lead you to a pleasing result.

Of course, if you stray too far from what’s generally accepted as the ingredients of a particular dish, you might want to call it something different. A carrot cake probably shouldn’t be called a carrot cake if it’s not made of carrots. (Go figure, I just found a whole bunch of recipes in which you can make carrot cake with pumpkin, butternut squash, zucchini, or even pineapple. Thanks, Internet!)

But I can’t think of a good reason that a slightly thicker piece of pasta, some rice that’s been drained through a colander, or even a cookie bar with a different proportion of layers should be castigated by people who believe that they’re the true arbiters of taste. So go ahead, make a Nanaimo bar with a deeper layer of chocolate or a dollop of extra custard. Instead of being mocked on social media or laughed out of a Canadian bake sale, you just might find yourself getting the nation’s stamp of approval.

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

What I Ate: Diablo cookie with chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne from Tacofino on Vancouver Island, Canada

Tasty desserts in British Columbia include Nanaimo bars and these spicy chocolate diablo cookies

Why Asian Restaurants in Seattle Deserve Your Takeout Dollars

The past year has been a difficult one for the entire dining industry, but perhaps no group has been more deeply affected than the owners of Asian restaurants. As soon as a mysterious virus was known to have originated in Wuhan, China, Chinatowns across the country began to see a steep decline in sales, as many people falsely blamed Asian-Americans for the pandemic. According to one widely circulated statistic, 59 percent of mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants have closed during the past year. And in recent weeks, a troubling trend of violence toward Asian-Americans has only made the situation worse. Now more than ever, Asian restaurants in Seattle and other cities need your help to ensure they’re able to weather the current storm.

“Chinatown is in trouble. What’s at stake right now is the survival of Chinatown,” cookbook author Grace Young, who’s known as the Stir-Fry Guru, said on a recent episode of the Special Sauce podcast. In October, Young partnered with the Beard Foundation and several well-known chefs and cookbook authors to launch a social media campaign devoted to saving Chinese restaurants.

Over the past year, at least 17 restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown have permanently shut down, according to the New York Times, including Jing Fong, a mainstay of the neighborhood that had been in operation since 1978. In San Francisco, Eastern Bakery, the oldest bakery in Chinatown, reported a 70 percent drop in sales during one of its busiest times of year, according to the Washington Post. Nearby, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is baking at least 40 percent fewer fortune cookies than they would on a normal day. Young explained that Chinatowns in these cities and others are dependent on tourism and office workers, both of which have declined dramatically during the pandemic.

But the challenges faced by Chinese restaurants aren’t limited to reduced foot traffic. Recent incidents of racism against Asian restaurant workers have exacerbated the problem in several cities. Jason Wang, the CEO of Xi’an Famous Foods, a chain with eight locations in the New York metropolitan area, told the New York Times that two of his employees were punched in the face, unprovoked, on their way to or from work. Wang said that he’s decided to close his restaurants earlier in the evening than he used to, in order to ensure his employees’ safety. And in San Antonio, Noodle Tree restaurant was vandalized with racist messages this week, a few days after its owner gave an interview on CNN criticizing Texas governor Greg Abbott for lifting the state’s mask requirement.

Related: Omsom Starters Provide a Shortcut to Asian Flavors

I’m not aware of any specific incidents of racism against Asian restaurants in Seattle. But Asian-Americans including former governor Gary Locke marched last weekend to decry recent acts of violence in the city. One Japanese-American woman and her boyfriend were beaten in the International District in late February. Prosecutors said it was a “vicious and unprovoked attack,” although they did not classify it as a hate crime.

However, in a new national study released this week based upon police department statistics, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes was reported to have risen by nearly 150% in 2020. And though the perpetrator of yesterday’s shootings in Atlanta that targeted Asian massage parlors claims the acts weren’t racially motivated, they’re more evidence that the trend of violence against Asian Americans has continued into 2021.

A good way to show your support for the Asian-American community in the face of all this racism and violence is to spend your dining dollars at Asian restaurants in Seattle. Some of my favorites include Seven Stars Pepper in the International District, Pho Cyclo, with multiple locations around the Seattle area, and Pop Pop Thai Street Food in North Seattle. Whichever type of Asian food you pick, and whether you choose to visit a restaurant in Chinatown or in your local neighborhood, you’ll know that you’re doing some good for a community that deserves your patronage.

Which Asian restaurants in Seattle would you like to support? Leave a comment and let me know!

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

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Asian restaurants in Seattle like Chef King deserve a little extra support right now

For Lovers of Math and Dessert: Here’s Where to Buy Pie in Seattle for Pi Day

One of my favorite food holidays on the calendar is coming up this weekend, and it’s not too late to start making plans to celebrate. Every March 14, people who love both math and dessert have the perfect excuse to eat pastry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as they observe Pi Day. Sure, you can always bake your own pie, but I prefer to leave this holiday to the experts. Here are a few of my favorite places to buy pie in Seattle for Pi Day, as well as a handful of restaurants that are offering specials to mark the occasion.

  • My first stop to buy pie in Seattle for Pi Day is usually A La Mode Pies in Phinney Ridge and West Seattle. I’m partial to Mexican chocolate mousse and toasted coconut cream, but you also can’t go wrong with peanut butter mousse. Fruit lovers have a variety of pies to choose from here, including marionberry and hazelnut, strawberry rhurbarb, or the signature Blue Hawaiian, which includes blueberries, pineapple, and toasted coconut. You can order a slice or two at their cafes (get there early on Pi Day before they sell out) or pre-order a whole pie to pick up.
  • At Pie Bar in Ballard, you can get slices or whole pies from their walkup window. Fruit options include berry crumble and apple crumble, or you can try one of their cream choices, like pb&j or banana cream.
  • Macrina Bakery is selling special tartlets for Pi Day, including a berry and a chocolate banana cream. Order online at least two days in advance for pickup at any of their five locations.
  • Preorder whole pies at The London Plane in Pioneer Square, or buy slices in store on either Saturday or Sunday. Their flavor options are coconut cream, raspberry rhubarb, and chocolate cream.
  • Coconut cream is also the special Pi Day flavor on offer at Super Six in Columbia City. The whole pie is topped with whipped cream, sesame brittle, and lilikoi caramel.
  • Watson’s Counter in Ballard is serving up s’mores, caramel apple, and lemon meringue pies on Sunday. The restaurant says it’ll be announcing ordering information on their Instagram feed.

Of course, if none of these choices will satisfy your cravings for pie in Seattle for Pi Day, you can always just order a pizza pie. Happy Pi Day, everyone!

What I Ate: Homemade chocolate coconut chess pie

Homemade chocolate coconut chess pie in Seattle for Pi Day

Travel Flashback: Fried Chicken at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster

Three years ago this week, I visited New York City in the midst of a late winter snowstorm, and made a pilgrimage to Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem for a decadent fried chicken lunch.

Samuelsson, the acclaimed chef who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, opened Red Rooster in 2010 after a stint as the executive chef as Aquavit, for which he was named New York City’s best chef by the James Beard Foundation. In his riveting 2012 memoir, Yes, Chef, which I finished last month, Samuelsson recounts that he wanted Red Rooster’s cuisine to tell the story “of all of Harlem’s residents – Latin, Southern, Caribbean, Jewish, Italian.” And the menu he offers today still nods toward those communities, with dishes such as sweet potato and coconut soup, bucatini with crab, shrimp, and lobster, and a grilled caesar and shrimp ceviche with green chile.

What I was most eager to try at the time, though, not knowing much about Samuelsson except for seeing him win Top Chef Masters, was his version of soul food. My lunch started with cornbread served with honey butter and tomato jam, as well as a plate of luscious deviled eggs whose exact preparation is lost to history. From there, I devoured his signature fried chicken and waffles, served with greens and pickles. Was there dessert? I don’t recall, but if I were there today it would be hard to pass up either the salted caramel donuts with sweet potato cream and raspberry-lime jam, or the rum-chocolate cake with roasted pineapple and red velvet cream.

In his memoir, Samuelsson explains that he knew he had to include fried chicken on the Red Rooster menu, but because he didn’t grow up eating it, he had to experiment with it during “an entire summer of my own private fried chicken master class.” The recipe he describes involves a complicated process of marinating the chicken in coconut milk, curing it in lemon, steaming it, and then frying it. The result was memorable – a well-seasoned leg with a crunchy coating and a juicy interior, served over a crispy cornmeal waffle and offset by sharp pickles.

Samuelsson mentions in the book that when he opened Red Rooster, he made a point of accompanying his fried chicken with pickled watermelon rind, an element that might otherwise traditionally have been discarded. He said that he wanted the restaurant to have a “waste-nothing mentality,” so he also used the rind as an accompaniment to an Ethiopian coffee-crusted duck, and broccoli stems for a citrus-glazed side dish. In a 2019 interview, Samuelsson expanded on the theme of food waste, noting that more than a third of edible food is wasted. He asked chefs and home cooks to think about how they might use “that one tomato that might be a little beaten up but is still packed with flavor, or avocado that’s just a little bit darker than the rest but not spoiled.”

At a time when food insecurity is still prevalent for many people, it’s worth keeping Samuelsson’s message in mind and attempting to reduce the amount of produce we waste. And hopefully soon, we’ll able to return to Red Rooster and savor his fried chicken again, appreciating even more the effort it took both to create the dish and to incorporate elements that might otherwise have been thrown away.

What I Ate: Fried chicken leg and waffles at Red Rooster in New York City

Red Rooster fried chicken

Mark Your Calendars! National Ranch Dressing Day Is Coming Right Up

Today is International Women’s Day, a day to honor the often-overlooked achievements of women and to bring attention to gender equality issues. But much less importantly, it’s also National Peanut Cluster Day, a day to celebrate a confection made by combining nuts with melted chocolate. Don’t get that confused, though, with National Peanut Butter Day (January 24), National Peanut Butter Cookie Day (June 12), National Peanut Butter Fudge Day (November 20), or even National Peanut Day (September 13). Almost every day on the calendar is now marked by the observance of one national food holiday or another. 

Where did all these peanut-flavored holidays come from? You might not be surprised to learn that they’re widely credited as the invention of the National Peanut Board, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that was authorized by Congress in 1996 and created in 2000. But their true origin will remain a mystery. The board told The Counter in 2018 that it wasn’t responsible for making up any of these holidays, though it does enjoy celebrating them as a way to promote peanut consumption.

Jimmy Carter, our nation’s goober-loving 39th president, isn’t responsible for those holidays either. But his successor, Ronald Reagan, is the one who created a popular food event that’s widely celebrated every summer. (No, not National Jelly Bean Day, which, by the way, is April 22.) In 1984, Reagan signed a proclamation into law declaring the third Sunday of July as National Ice Cream Day, as well as the entire month of July as National Ice Cream Month. Three years later, Reagan also proclaimed that June 25 would forevermore be known as National Catfish Day.

Some of our national food holidays are a bit less official, the invention of enterprising food companies and their marketing departments looking for a way to drum up sales or get free publicity. In 2006, IHOP created National Pancake Day, which normally falls on Mardi Gras (also known as Shrove Tuesday, a day when historically, Christians would make pancakes to use up all of their dairy products before Lent). On that day, IHOP gives customers a complimentary short stack of buttermilk pancakes and raises money for local charities, while getting a ton of positive press for its invented holiday. Meanwhile, National Rotisserie Chicken Day (June 2), was created by Boston Market, which sells an awful lot of, you guessed it, rotisserie chicken.

The truth is that literally anyone can invent a national food holiday. And one food blogger, John-Bryan Hopkins, did just that. His website Foodimentary.com has an exhaustive list of national food days, including more than 170 that he made up himself. When Hopkins started cataloging these events, he realized that there were some days that didn’t already have a food product associated with it. So he filled up the calendar with events like National Tater Tot Day (February 2), National Onion Ring Day (June 22), and even, for Leap Day on February 29, National Frog Legs Day.

If you want to create your own national food holiday and make it a little more official, companies can apply for recognition for an undisclosed fee from a website called the National Day Calendar. Marlo Anderson, who created the Mandan, North Dakota–based tracker, told Slate in 2014 that it commemorates 1,100 different annual holidays. (Today, it’s recognizing National Peanut Cluster Day, as well as National Oregon Day, International Women’s Day, and National Prooofreading Day. Of course, it spelled that word correctly.)

If you’re looking for something to help you beat back the winter doldrums — and you’re feeling hungry — there’s something to look forward every day this week. (These days, it can be hard to tell one day from another, which might be why some of these holidays are so appealing.) Tomorrow is both National Crabmeat Day and National Meatball Day, Wednesday is National Blueberry Popover Day and National Ranch Dressing Day, Thursday is National Oatmeal Nut Waffles Day, and, not to be outdone, Friday is National Baked Scallops Day.

Personally, I’m looking forward to June 11, a day to celebrate my favorite dessert, German chocolate cake. (It shares that day with margherita pizza.) But if I can’t wait until then for something sweet, maybe I’ll declare that Reagan got it wrong. Here’s my own proclamation: From now on, every day is National Ice Cream Day.

What I Ate: Margherita pizza with New York-style dough from Serious Eats

Margherita Pizza Day is a national food holiday celebrated on June 11.

The Easy Way to Make a Perfect Poached Egg

The quintessential poached egg has a firmly set white that surrounds a barely cooked yolk. Use a fork to gently pierce the surface of the neat round package, and the yellow will ooze all over your plate, ready to be sopped up with the edge of your toast, English muffin, or bagel. It’s a nice alternative to scrambling or frying your eggs, even if you use Jacques Pepin’s nifty technique that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

But how do you get the poached egg to keep its shape and come out perfectly? The egg’s journey from the safe harbor of its shell to a simmering pot of water to your plate is a treacherous one. Some chefs think that adding vinegar to the water can help the egg stay intact. Others advise wrapping it in plastic, or using a sous vide cooking method that poaches it more gently.

I’m certainly no eggs-pert, but as usual I turned to Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab to get his advice. Lopez-Alt says that an ingenious trick for getting the poached egg to hold its shape is to crack it into a dish and then pour it through a fine-mesh strainer. That will cause the egg whites that aren’t held tightly to the yolk to drain away. When you’re ready to start cooking, simply immerse the strainer in the pot and slide your egg out into the water.

Lopez-Alt offers these additional tips for improving your poached egg technique:

  • Use eggs that are as fresh as possible. He says that the freshest eggs have the strongest membranes that hold the white together, so an older egg is more likely to spread when it hits the water.
  • Turn your burner off once your water comes to a boil. The more agitated your water is, the more likely it is that your egg will fall apart. It will only take about 4 minutes for eggs to poach in simmering water.
  • Swirl your eggs gently once they start cooking, which will help them poach more evenly and keep a more rounded shape.
  • Don’t bother adding vinegar to the water. Although this might help your eggs set a little bit faster, it’s more likely to make them come out tough.
  • Do add salt to your water. This won’t affect the cooking process, but a little seasoning will make your eggs taste better.
  • If you’re making breakfast for a crowd, feel free to poach eggs in advance, cooking them a few at a time. Store them in cold water on your counter for a few hours, or in the refrigerator overnight. Then you can simply reheat them in hot water for a few minutes before serving. Just be sure to transfer the eggs carefully when you’re moving them from one dish to another.  

Try out these tips and see if they help improve your poaching technique. But to get perfect results every time, I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that will only come with … eggs-perience.

And what if you need an accompaniment to go with your poached eggs? Someday I’ll have to write about the sauce I learned to make during a long weekend in the Netherlands. I really enjoyed my Holland days.

What I Ate: Poached eggs on a bagel with Yotam Ottolenghi’s shatta chili sauce

A perfect poached egg has a firmly set white that surrounds a barely cooked yolk.

 

Six New Ways to Cook Vegetables and Bring Variety to the Table

Regular readers to this blog may know that I’ve been trying to eat less meat and reminding myself that once-hated vegetables taste great when they’re properly cooked. But when you’re spending a lot of time in the kitchen, it’s far too easy to fall into the same ruts of blanching broccoli, grilling asparagus, and steaming green beans. That’s why I was excited to come across Thomas Keller’s series of instructional videos about new ways to cook vegetables on MasterClass. Keller demonstrates a few less familiar techniques for working with carrots, parsnips, eggplants, zucchini, beets, and more, using methods that help bring out the best flavor and texture from each ingredient.

Keller explains that it’s worthwhile to select vegetables when they’re at their seasonal peak, especially while they’re young (i.e., newly picked), and to use the cooking method that’s most appropriate for each one. For preparations like roasting zucchini or baking beets, the cooking process aims to remove moisture from the vegetable, which helps concentrate their flavor. Keller also discusses how different methods of preservation can make good-quality vegetables available to you even when they’re not in season.

Here are few of the new ways to cook vegetables that I’m looking forward to inserting into my rotation:

  • Glazing carrots: This method highlights the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Cook your carrots over high heat, with just enough water to cover them, and a teaspoon each of butter and sugar. The water will evaporate as the butter emulsifies and the glaze reduces. Don’t overcook the carrots or you’ll start to caramelize the sugars instead of leaving the vegetable shiny.
  • Pureeing parsnips: For this root vegetable, as well as others like rutabaga or celery root, Keller suggests simmering it in a pot with cream and water. Once it’s fully cooked, transfer the vegetable and its cooking liquid to a blender. Add butter and process until it’s completely smooth.
  • Roasting zucchini: First, slice the vegetable in half, score it with a crosshatch pattern, season it with salt, and let it sit for half an hour to draw out the moisture. Then, sear the flesh in a hot pan with neutral oil for about five minutes. After the zucchini is well-caramelized, roast it in a hot oven for another 25 minutes, which makes the interior come out soft and creamy.
  • Baking beets: This technique is preferable to boiling beets, but it may take a while, depending on the size of your vegetables. After you clean them, season, and sprinkle with oil, wrap them in foil and bake until you can insert a knife and feel very little resistance. Then, peel the beets while they’re still warm (using gloves to protect your hands from stains and parchment paper to cover your cutting board). Season with salt and dress with your favorite vinegar.
  • Preserving eggplants: Similar to a preparation you might use for duck, you can confit this vegetable by slow-cooking it in oil at a low temperature. First, as with zucchini, it’s best to score the eggplant and season it before cooking to draw out as much moisture as possible. Place it in a baking pan, cover with warm, neutral oil, and cook at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes. You can add flavor to the dish by using the same technique to preserve garlic. The vegetables will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week if they’re stored submerged in oil.
  • Pickling radishes: You can endlessly vary this preservation technique by using different vegetables and flavor profiles for your pickling liquid. In one preparation, just combine water, sugar, white wine vinegar, garlic, thyme, and mustard seeds in a pot and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Then pour the hot liquid over your vegetables (radishes, peppers, onions, and cauliflower all work well) and chill in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat.

With each of these techniques, make sure you have the right amount of seasoning to bring out the best flavor of each ingredient. And to make your vegetables taste even better, it’s often worthwhile to complement them with additional fresh herbs. Or, for many preparations, you can’t go wrong with some extra melted butter.

What are your favorite new ways to cook vegetables? Leave a comment and let me know!

What I Ate: Roasted zucchini garnished with parsley

Roasting zucchini is one of my new favorite ways to cook vegetables