Dutch Treats: Rijsttafel

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Say what you will about a buffet, there’s no denying the glee that stems from having an assortment of dishes from which to fill up a plate. A little of this, a dab of that, a heaping spoon of the third. And when the buffet sits right upon your table, precariously balanced in small containers perched atop warming trays, well, that’s an experience worth seeking out.

Purnama rijsttafel at Indrapura

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I finally had the opportunity to sample the legendary Indonesian Rijstafel, the “rice table” so beloved by the Dutch and Indonesians alike. Our search for a casual yet high quality purveyor of this meal led us to Indrapura, right off Rembrandtplein and mere blocks from our accommodations. Arriving early on a Friday, we had the place to ourselves to begin, and the waiter provided nice attention, offering an Indonesian Bintang beer to accompany the “Purnama” rijsttafel.

After an appetizer of minced lamb in a fried pastry wrapper, the table began in earnest, with the waiter depositing a good score of small containers arrayed with some flair and a brief description. I could hardly keep track of what he was placing before us, but it all looked brilliant. The dominant tastes were of peanut sauce, coconut milk, and very mild spice, carried by a variety of pork, chicken, beef, and vegetables. Two bowls of rice, one plain white and one fried, accompanied the meal.

Purnama rijsttafel at Indrapura

I must confess to being underwhelmed by the spice levels. I had hoped for, and indeed expected, for heat to suffuse the meal, but on the whole, the tastes were subtle and the heat nearly nonexistent. I’ve had this problem in the Netherlands before, where theoretically spicy dishes came out with a “tourist” level of spice. Perhaps I should have let the waiter know that our spice tolerance sits on the high side of the scale.

Still, the total experience left us happy to have sampled such a wide variety of Indonesian dishes in a welcoming environment. A pleasant way to begin a Friday night, indeed, and a quintessential Indo-Dutch treat.

Beer Notebook: A Dutch Trio

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A recent trip to the Netherlands allowed me the opportunity to, well, buy Brooklyn Brewery products on the shelf of a local Amsterdam grocery store. But I didn’t do that. Whenever possible on trips, I try to quaff the local suds, three of which, all India Pale Ales, are presented here.

Jopen's Mooie Nel IPA

Jopen’s Mooie Nel IPA, sitting at an agreeable 6.5% ABV, surprised me with a decent level of hops bitterness (70 IBU) and a very long, and pleasant, finish on the palate. There were hints of floral and citrus flavor, but only hints, and that was just fine.

I like my beer hoppy, and any more citrus would have overwhelmed the beer. The head kept its shape for a while, and on the whole, I enjoyed this beer quite a bit, particularly with the fine Indian food we brought to the hotel room from our Amsterdam stand-by, Koh-i-Noor. Any future trips to the Netherlands will see this beer take a spot in the fridge.

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Road Bites: Hardee's Jumbo Chili Dog

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The whole point of a road trip, besides getting somewhere, is to experience the road. You can’t take a road trip on a major highway; you’ve gotta get on the lesser byways, the routes and throughways and bypasses. At the very least, you have to get off at an exit you’ve never taken and sample the regional fare.

But sometimes, you don’t have a lot of choices, especially right off of an exit or along a busy route, and the local restaurants tend to seem quite similar, with lots of Tony’s and Toni’s and Spitoni’s and Antony’s Pizzas that bespeak not regionalism but lack-of-originalityism. Perhaps there’s an authentic, regional specialty lurking in there somewhere, but at 55 MPH, it’s hard to tell. So what’s an intrepid road trip grazer to do? Regional fast food is where it’s at . . .

For the inaugural Road Bites review, I’m visiting a chain, Hardee’s, that was once a major player in the metro Washington, DC, area but now counts as a rare breed, at least within an hour of the Beltway. There’s certainly nothing particularly regional about their hamburgers, though they are well regarded for their fried chicken. But I’m not much of a fried chicken person, so, on the expert advice of my culinary companion, we stopped in at the Hardee’s on Route 29 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and picked up chili dogs, Jumbo Chili Dogs, to be precise.

Hardee's Jumbo Chili Dog

Now this is quintessential road trip food. You just don’t find hot dogs on fast food menus these days, and these were grilled. Grilling should be the only legal way to cook hot dogs. The quality of the dog was sufficient—I’m not expecting locally sourced organic Angus beef here—and it fit just so in the toasted bun.

Likewise, the chili sauce (it would be a stretch to call it chili) matched my expectations for a fast food chili dog. The meat was finely ground, moderately spiced, and modestly portioned; the sauce itself was loose but not watery. It stuck to the dog and the bun, and whatever spilled out could be easily scooped up with the serviceable french fries. Topped off with very finely diced onions, the Jumbo Chili Dog hit the spot. Lucky I got two of them.

I’m not thinking that the Michelin inspectors need to stop by, and I wouldn’t necessarily even recommend that a hungry traveller make a detour, but for a bite on the road that takes one back a few decades, it works.

A Sky Lined with Cheese: Cincinnati Five-Way at Skyline Chili

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Travel has taught me to eat like a local whenever possible. Journeying to some far-flung destination only to chow down on a standardized, same-as-in-Peoria burger can only be justified in the direst of circumstances—say, an overdose of shepherd’s pie in Dublin or a surfeit of souvlaki in Athens.

Thus, armed with a desire to get to know my surroundings on a quite literal gut level, I convinced my boon traveling companion to stop in an exotic locale during a recent road trip: a fast-food strip just off the I-70/I-75 intersection in Dayton, Ohio, where the highway overpass stanchions are festooned with carvings of soaring jet fighters. All for a Cincinnati Five-Way from regional chain Skyline Chili.

Finely ground meat with a savory/sweet spice mix in a tomato-y sauce characterizes Cincinnati chili, though given the fierce regional rivalries between types of chili, a rivalry almost on par with those of barbecue aficionados, there are some who claim that it’s not chili at all. There’s meat, there’s spice, there’s a thickish sauce—close enough for me.

Traditionally, Cincinnati chili is served atop thick spaghetti with an accompaniment of oyster crackers and then garnished in some number of “ways” corresponding to the number of ingredients: three-way is your basic chili, spaghetti, and cheddar cheese; four-way adds either beans or diced onions; and five-way (which is the only true way) combines it all.

Many midwestern fast-food/casual restaurants serve either the full five-way or a stripped down Chili Mac version (just chili and spaghetti) as a menu staple, and I’ve sampled it over the years from more than a few, but never from Skyline Chili.

So, a plate of Cincinnati Five-Way was duly ordered and came out from the kitchen in a matter of moments, piled high, oh so high, with thinly grated cheddar cheese, making for a towering first impression:

Cincinnati Five-Way Chili at Skyline Chili

I’m not certain if they grate their own cheese on premises, but it lacked that usual fast-food bagged cheese taste, and it melted nicely into the hot chili beneath, an important consideration given that a Cincinnati five-way is purely an experience of all the parts at once. No solo players here—one simply does not sample a bit of spaghetti then a bit of chili.

The chili itself, the first amongst equals in this gustatory assemblage, had a decidedly sweet taste, with far more cinnamon than I’m used to in Cincinnati chili. The overall impression was savory, but the sweet bite lingered, perhaps accounting for the squeeze bottles of hot sauce at every table. The onions had a nice dice to them, allowing for good coverage of the dish, while the beans I found lacking in quantity, making the overall dish closer to a four-and-a-half-way.

As is the bane of most fast-order pasta, the thick spaghetti was on the overcooked side, but not terribly so. I imagine that if we had gone during the lunch rush we’d have fared better with the spaghetti. The pasta was well drained, though, so that the bowl was not awash in pasta water, a perennial challenge for this dish. One wants the oyster crackers to soak up the remaining chili sauce, not water.

Overall, the experience was satisfying for fast-food chili. As my traveling companion put it, not a food one would crave to an extent that an eight-hour road trip would be undertaken for it, but definitely worth stopping for on the way to something else. Not every meal can be life-altering.

Plus, they have a drive through window. I don’t quite comprehend how one would go about eating a Cincinnati five-way on the road, but the mere fact of that window’s existence makes me happy to live in this country . . .

A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part Three

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Sarcone's Deli in Philadelphia, PAWith three sandwich stops already in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, one might think we had sampled the full range of tastes on Ninth Street, but the epic Philadelphia Sandwich Tour had one more stop on this street.

Having just consumed a sublime meatball sandwich, washed down with a birch beer, at George’s Sandwich Shop, we headed north on Ninth for a few blocks until we came to the home of all that lovely, crusty, seeded hoagie bread, Sarcone’s Bakery. We didn’t stop in for fresh rolls, though, because a bit further down the block sits Sarcone’s Deli. A simple fact about all fresh foods is that their essential taste is best closest to the source, true for Tastypies and Guinness alike. Forty feet is pretty close to the source, and these rolls were fresh, befitting the best hoagies (but not necessarily the best sandwiches) on the tour.

Of all our stops, Sarcone’s was the busiest. The phone orders came in steadily, even as the line to place carry out orders grew and grew. A crew of four worked steadily, slicing long loaves of that delectable bread down to hoagie size and layering it with meats, cheeses, and sundry toppings. And if I’m not mistaken, there was a signed Brian Propp Flyers jersey overseeing the proceedings. Classic Philly right there.

We ordered two hoagies, though had my constitution been up to the task, I think I would have ordered the entire menu. Our first hoagie was the acclaimed Junk Yard Special (turkey, proscuitto, sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers, sharp provolone, mozzarella, red wine vinegar, oil, and herbs), a hoagie featured on the Food Network (auto-play video, beware!).

The Junk Yard Special from Sarcone's Deli in Philadelphia, PA

Of course, I managed to take the picture of the Junk Yard Special with the non-seeded side of the roll facing the camera (I was hungry, if you can believe it, and eager to dig in), but the essential quality of the hoagie’s construction can be seen. There’s so much going on at once in this hoagie. The herbs and red wine vinegar help to tie everything together, and the variety of textures at play—the soft, oily red pepper, the salty smoothness of the cheeses, the crack of the crust—made for an incredible gustatory experience. This is high food art right here.

And yet, our second Sarcone’s hoagie, The C.C. (roast beef, sauteed spinach, roasted garlic, sharp provolone, Balsamic vinegar, oil), proved a point I’ve come to realize about truly, truly great sandwiches.

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A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part Two

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The first day of the Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, scrumptious as it was, served merely as appetizer. Cue the music from Rocky, because day two is the main event, taking place in Philadelphia’s sandwich epicenter, the Italian Market.

Truth be told, the Italian Market is only nominally Italian these days. As we walked along South Ninth Street, we saw tons of Asian and Hispanic markets, including a live poultry shop, and had our gustatory purpose been less narrowly defined, we’d have eagerly stopped in a taqueria or a dim sum restaurant. But this is not a Philadelphia Burrito Tour, so on to the sandwiches!

We took SEPTA’s Broad Street Line to Ellsworth-Federal and walked a few blocks down Federal to one of Philadelphia’s most famous hoagie shops, Chickie’s Italian Deli. Rick Sebak’s Sandwiches That You Will Like, the Citizen Kane of sandwich documentaries, profiled Chickie’s, and I was afraid that it would be crowded from the get-go, but given the cold weather, we were the only customers when we arrived around 11 A.M. on a Saturday morning. I hadn’t counted on the shop being quite so small—really just a narrow aisle upon entry where you place your order, with the rest of the shop given over to the food preparation area. So, we sat outside, in the cold. We sacrifice for our art.

VIP Seating at Chickie's Italian Deli!

The owners and staff were busy making catered sandwich platters, but they gave our order priority when we walked in. Given the number of sandwiches that we would be eating throughout the day, I opted for small size, and person behind the counter gave me a look and pointed to the sample roll for the small size—not a seeded Sarcone’s roll cut from a larger loaf, like the medium and large sizes, but a plain, single-serve roll. I must not have had enough coffee, because I still picked the small size regardless. Don’t order the small at Chickie’s! The roll is so important to a proper hoagie, and I made a rookie mistake.

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