Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hidden Treasures

I wouldn’t say I’m a world traveler or a gourmand by any means, but I have certainly eaten in enough places to know that some of the best food can be found in places other than fine dining establishments. Food trucks, airports, holes-in-the-wall kiosks—you can get some damn fine eats in some unexpected places.

Unexpected Snack Joy
For example, the best buffalo popcorn shrimp I ever had was at a tiny gate-side bar in the Knoxville, TN airport. I don’t eat a lot of popcorn shrimp, as it’s generally bready, greasy, and tasteless—what my friend Andy calls “breaded shapes.” But back in ’96, my boss and I had some time to kill before our flight to DC, so we went to the bar for a beer and some snacks. The regular bar food options were on the menu, so I decided on the shrimp.

And what a snack they were. Just enough breading to be crispy, but not heavy. Although they were small, they were meaty and still tasted like shrimp, not just fry grease. And the buffalo hot sauce had actual flavor, not just heat—vinegary, peppery, and zingy. I’m salivating right now.

Sadly, these will always be associated in my mind with JonBenét Ramsey, as the story of her disappearance was on the news as we sat there in the bar. I probably need therapy because of it. Or more shrimp.

Sandwich Des Dieux
On foreign soil, I found the best sandwich known to mankind. I was on a trip to Paris with my sisters and my mom. My younger sister, Sarah, was part of a dance/performance art piece that was part of an arts festival going on, so Mom, Maria, and I decided to go see her. It was Maria’s first trip to Paris, and I was eager to make sure she had a great time

We were staying in a small hotel in the 5th Arrondissement on the rue des Ecoles, not far from the Seine, Notre Dame, and Ste. Michel—a great central location for sightseeing and getting around on Metro. We quickly discovered a little café/bar around the corner where we could get coffee and pastries for breakfast before setting off on our adventures. There were plenty of restaurants recommended by my guidebook that were within walking distance (including one Brasserie Balzar, where we saw NBC’s David Greggory dining with his family, speaking perfect French, and being very tall). And we had already introduced Maria to the joys of Nutella at the crêperie by the Centre Pompidou. But it was when we went across the street from the hotel to the tiny snack/newspaper kiosk in search of a quick snack that I was transported.

Let me talk to you about the jambon beurre. It’s ham. And butter. On bread. Simple enough, nothing amazing, right? Au contraire, mon frère. This was thinly sliced French country ham that must’ve come from very happy pigs. I don’t normally love ham—find it too salty—but this had the smooth flavor and gentle fattiness of prosciutto, but thicker. And the butter: unsalted, slightly sweet, super creamy. Ho, man. And as if that weren’t enough, in place of the usual crusty baguette, this sandwich des dieux came on a soft, slim roll that was just slightly sweet, perfectly blending with the porky meat and creamy butter. I thought Maria was going to lose her mind.

She said she tried to recreate it at home, but you just can’t get the same ingredients in, say, Central Washington that you can in Paris. I found a jambon beurre at Marvelous Market in DC, and while it’ll do in a pinch, the baguette is too hard, and they put cornichons in it. I like cornichons as a rule, but they are not in my memory, so they do not belong in my sandwich.

Noodles for the Soul
Speaking of finds on my home turf, it was a chilly, rainy day when Ali and I decided to see a movie. We got tickets to whatever it was at the Gallery Place cinema, which is just on the edge of Chinatown. Ali insisted on taking me to a tiny little noodle shop she had been to recently, so after some walking up one street and down another, we finally found it—Chinatown Express.

You have to keep your eye peeled for this place, because not only is it teeny-weeny, but it’s also below street level. You’ll know you’re at the right place, though, when you see the red, roasted ducks hanging in the window, the fish and lobsters in the tank below them, and the old guy hand-stretching noodles behind the counter. He had a long jump rope of dough between his hands and was kind of boinging it up and down while simultaneously stretching the stuff like taffy. It’s an amazing thing to see, and I have no idea how it works.

What I do know, however, is that the food in this absolutely-not-one-frill-to-be-found place (avoid the bathroom, if you can) comes out fast, hot, and snorkilicious. We each got noodle soup, which almost slapped you in the face it was so fresh, and I think some dumplings as well. Ali likes to doctor her noodle soup with lots of hot sauce, and it wasn’t long before she was sniffling and red in the cheeks. But that was some damn fine soup, and the next time I feel chilled to the core, I’ll be back.

Provided I can find the joint, that is.