May 17, 2004
Tam Deli and Cafe
So last week Greg and I tried Tam Deli and Cafe on North Lamar. We got the grilled pork Banh Mi, Vietnamese Eggrolls, Shredded Yam and Shrimp Cakes, and Dou Hua. I have to say, my expectations were a bit too high. The food was good, but not as good as I was expecting after hearing so many praises of it. But this is just one girl's opinion, and I am, by no means, an expert in Vietnamese food.
Let's start with the Banh Mi. I noticed immediately the roll was a traditional french baguette. It didn't have the light and tender texture, and airy crumb and crispy crust like on the traditional Banh Mi baguette that is made with rice flour. Then I noticed they used regular mayonnaise on the sandwich. It looked and tasted like the kind that comes in a jar from the grocery store. The grilled pork was chopped and was very thick. It seemed like they actually used roasted or boiled pork, cut into slices and then grilled it slightly for flavor, then chopped again into smaller pieces. It was good, but not as good as the Banh Mi I'm used to where the pork is thinly sliced, marinated and grilled with lots of nice caramelization and tiny bits of charred pieces on it. The grilled pork in this sandwich was missing something, and seemed like it could've been a bit more tender had it been sliced thinner. Overall the sandwich was still very good, but I would choose Pho Cong Ly's Banh Mi over Tam Deli's. You should try the Banh Mi from both restaurants and let me know which you prefer.
Then we got a plate of Vietnamese Eggrolls and these fried cakes with shredded yam and shrimp. The eggrolls were alright. I still haven't found a place in Austin with eggrolls that I think can rival the Vietnamese eggrolls found in Houston. Again Cong Ly's are my favorite so far, with the exception that they aren't consistent. Sometimes they come out too greasy if they aren't watching the temperature correctly. The shredded yam cakes had shrimp and shredded yam mixed in a starchy batter and deep fried. They were served with spicy fish sauce. They were nice and starchy and slightly sweet, but didn't really have too much flavor beyond that. I think there might have been too much batter in them. The shrimp was chopped into large pieces and they left the shell on. It's edible cause it's been deep fried and adds a crunchy texture to the shrimp. I'm used to eating fried shrimp with the shell on and everything however it kind of put Greg off at first, but he ended up having no problem with them. I think maybe there were just too many of these little fried cakes in one order. It left a heavy feeling in our stomachs after. So make sure you go with big group when ordering this dish.
Then I noticed in the desserts section they had one of my most favorite desserts of all time, Dou Hua in ginger syrup. It's the softest, most tender tofu you've ever had, floating in a sugar ginger syrup and served hot. You can also have it cold in the Summer, but my favorite is when it is served hot in the Winter time, especially if I'm walking down the streets of Chinatown in NYC and have a hot cup of it in my hands. Traditionally it's also served with a ladel of sweet boiled peanut soup, but it wasn't an option here at Tam's. It was really soft and sweet and warm and perfect. The julienne of sweet stewed ginger added a nice garnish to the dish. CoCo's, a Taiwanese cafe here in town, also serves Dou Hua, but I haven't tried it yet.
Although I wasn't entirely impressed I will go back to Tam's for the Dou Hua and to try some other dishes. I'm curious about their Pho and Spring Rolls. So far, Sunflower Restaurant has the best freakin' Spring Rolls ever and I'm hoping I can find even better.
May 16, 2004
I've heard of the Chinese eating Cicadas, but never have I been so lucky to have tried one before. Since everyone is talking about the periodical cicadas that only appear once every 17 years, I thought I'd celebrate this momentous season (for those of you in the correct regions that will soon have an overstock of buzzing locusts) and post this recipe for Skewered Cicadas from Shanghai On Internet. Notice there are no measurements; It must be authentic.
1. Boil the cicadas, anises, salt, gourmet powder, rice wine for 5 minutes, then take the cicadas out of the pot.
2. Saute the mashed garlic, then put in water, rice wine, gourmet powder to braise them.
3. Deep-fry the cicadas until they look golden, then take them out and skewer them with bamboo picks, fry them in the pot for another minute, shape them with turnip, celery like cicadas getting out of mud.
4. Finally put them on a heated iron plate and pour the mashed garlic juice on them.
Yeah, so one of you, get right on it and let me know how it turns out.
May 8, 2004
My first year living in the dormitory in college I made friends with a Japanese girl, Tomoko. When Tomoko moved off campus the next year, we'd frequently go to her apartment where she'd cook us authentic Japanese dinners. She would teach us how to make miso soup, potato and beef korroke, how to make the perfect tempura batter and what Panko breadcrumbs were. While we were waiting for the food to cook she'd often make us green tea, or my favorite, Ichigo Miruku, which means strawberry milk in Japanese. You basically take a few fresh, ripe strawberries, add a sprinkle of sugar, pour just enough milk over them to cover, slightly crush the strawberries up in the milk, then eat with a spoon. Apparently this is kind of a classic way that a lot of Japanese kids grow up eating strawberries. I couldn't find any info about this online and I'll warn you now not to search for Ichigo Miruku because I, unfortunately, found out it's also the name of a Japanese porn star. Anyways, Tomoko would crush the strawberries for me and eventually I took over the job of the berry crushing and got quite good at it. I do this now with any seasonal berries I find at the market. My favorite is blackberries with cold cream poured over them instead of milk. The systematic crushing of the berries with your spoon is really satisfying and a bit cathartic. And watching the bright berry juices ooze into the cream, coloring it the palest of pastels is delightful.
May 1, 2004
Everywhere I turn Vietnamese sandwiches are popping up all over and I couldn't be happier. Growing up, we'd get the grilled pork sandwiches from this small Vietnamese cafe, Givral's, in Houston every weekend when we went Chinese grocery shopping. They were so good my Dad and I would fight over any extra sandwiches that were left over. My uncle, who is partly Vietnamese, likes them so much whenever he comes to Houston he always takes back a dozen of these sandwiches back with him to Florida on the plane. To this day, when I go to Houston to visit my parents, my Mom always brings me a Vietnamese sandwich when she goes grocery shopping. I consider them a comfort food of sorts and for the longest time I had no idea what they were called. When we'd buy them from the shop we always referred to them as Kao Rou Mian Bao in Chinese, which translates into "grilled meat bread" (or sandwich). The wall menu at Givral's called it a "BBQ Fajita" sandwich in English which was of no help. It wasn't until recently that I learned the delicious things were called Banh Mi. Banh Mi basically means "bread" in Vietnamese and refers to the soft, crispy baguettes of French origin that the sandwiches are made with. What makes Banh Mi different from a regular French bread is rice flour is used in the dough which makes the final baguette lighter and have an airier crumb. You'll notice when biting into a Banh Mi that they have a very light and crispy crust that contrasts so nicely with the warm inside that is softer than any French baguette you'll ever have. A lot of Vietnamese grocery stores will have true Banh Mi in their bakery sections and they are cheap! If they have been sitting out all day, they are still just as good if you take them home and warm them up in the oven. To this day I can't eat a regular French baguette without wishing I had a Banh Mi in my hands instead. If the Asians didn't invent the French baguette they sure as hell know how to perfect on it.
One of my regular dining spots here in Austin, Pho Cong Ly on Research, just recently added Banh Mi to their menu. They have one of the best bowls of Pho in Austin, and I have to say their grilled pork Banh Mi is pretty damn good too (I've had many Banh Mi from different places that aren't quite as good). Another place in Austin that I read has really great Banh Mi is Tam Deli and Cafe on North Lamar that I have yet to try. There are different kinds of Vietnamese sandwiches but the grilled pork Banh Mi, pictured above, have marinated, grilled slices of pork, julienned carrots and daikon marinated in vinegar and sugar, cilantro, cucumber and thin slices of fresh jalapeņo. All of this yummy goodness is sandwiched inside of a fresh Vietnamese baguette that is slathered with some sort of homemade mayonnaise or butter concoction that, to this day, I have no idea what it really is. It has the consistency of mayonnaise and the color of butter, but doesn't taste like either one. Any restaurant that serves Banh Mi that I've asked have always told me that it was "butter". It definitely is some kind of fat or oil-based emulsion. Whatever it is, it adds just the right amount of zip to the sandwich. Jenny tried the grilled chicken Banh Mi, which is exactly the same except with chicken instead of pork, and said it was excellent as well. Other versions of Banh Mi have cold slices of ham loaf and pate sandwiched in the same bread and with the the same fresh vegetables and fish sauce. I've never tried one of the pate Banh Mi because I cannot ignore the siren call of the grilled pork Banh Mi, but I plan to one day soon.
The best thing about Banh Mi is that they are cheap. I've never come across a Banh Mi over $2.75 unless it was at one of those Americanized gourmet sandwich shops and delis (almost $6!) that serve their own versions of Vietnamese sandwiches that for some reason never really taste right. Maybe the secret is in the mayo concoction and maybe that's why every Vietnamese establishment tells their customers it's "butter" whenever anyone asks. The atmosphere at a gourmet deli may be nicer though I think I prefer the smaller price tag and any place that uses a secret ingredient, but that's just me.