Philly Pho ‘Ph’est

Pho Cali 
1005 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

entrance

Once again, I am on the hunt for “pho”-tastic bowls of delicious pho from all over. What can I say? I’m a pho-colic. (#Copyright) One of my old reliable spots where I know I can go for a tasty, steaming bowl of pho anytime is at Pho Cali, located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

wall deco

interior

Pho Cali has very fast service, big portions and a revamped interior—very modern, but still typical layout for the neighborhood. While it’s not a huge place, there are about 50 seats and usually a seat available. Each of the tables is outfitted with its own condiment tray filled with traditional pickled jalapeños, Sriracha sauce, sambal olek—a Southeastern garlic and chili paste, among others, as well as packets of chopsticks, a squeeze bottle of hoisin sauce and Asian soup spoons. Very convenient. While this place might not be as cheap as some of the places on Washington Avenue in South Philly, but you’re also paying slightly extra for Center City location. Typically it’s about $6.50-$9.50 for a bowl of pho. Still cheaper than a lot of other places.

summer rolls

Pho is delicious. Fact. But it tastes even better when it follows some sort of tasty appetizer. Not only does the starter whet the palate, but it also stops me from inhaling the entire bowl of pho in like five point two seconds flat. Is that a world records? One of my favorite appetizers here is the Summer Rolls with Shrimp and Pork or Tom Cuon. The summer rolls are wrapped in a thick chewy wrapper of pliable, soft rice paper. It’s stuffed with big chunks of shrimp, though not a ton of pork, and lots of vermicelli noodles to help fill it up. The dipping sauce was pretty thin and a little bland on its own, but after adding a bit of the sambal, tithe flavors really popped. The heat made the earthy, peanut overtones of the sauce pop. Very fresh appetizer and at $3.95 for two rolls, it’s a pretty good deal.

pho

Up next is the pho. I usually go with the Deluxe House Combo (Dac Bet Xe Lua). For $9.50 you get a huge bowl of food. It might be more expensive than some Vietnamese restaurants, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. The broth is very clean and clear, and doesn’t feel greasy or heavy. At the same time, the soup gives you a blank canvas to work on—perfect to doctor up with some chili sauce, hoisin, lime, herbs, etc. There’s a good amount of noodles and meat—especially for the price—mostly brisket and flank steak. There are also scallions in the soup, which isn’t seen everywhere, but gives it a very mild onion flavor.

garnish

Pho Cali always provides a super fresh plate of traditional noodle soup garnishes including basil leaves, sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts, and lime wedges. The basil gives the soup a slight floral note as well as a sense of freshness, the bean sprouts help cool the soup down, the jalapeños give it s nice bite, and the lime helps cut through some of the fatty meat. I also add hoisin to sweeten it up a bit and chili sauce, which flavors the broth over time. The heat of the broth not only cooks some of the beef, but also helps release the spice from the chilis. By the end of the bowl, I’m ready to gulp down the leftover broth, which is deliciously full of concentrated flavors from all the add-ins.

Overall, is this the best pho house around? No. Is it always tasty and able to satisfy my pho-holic cravings? Oh yeah! Next time you’re in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and craving a meaty, comforting noodle soup, head on over to Pho Cali for your “ph”-illing of pho.

Searching for Pho-land-ia on the UES

Vietnaam88
1700 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10128

So I have a confession to make. My name is Jon, and I’m a pho-aholic. Yes, I am plagued with this unquenchable desire to find delicious bowls of pho across the land. I yearn for overnight beef broth with just the right touch of fatty content, the perfect slurpable bowl of noodles, and, of course, lots of meat. Sometimes I’ll have a great bowl of pho in a fancy restaurant in Hong Kong, sometimes I’ll find it in a small neighborhood noodle shop in the city, and sometimes it will be in a strip mall in a sketchy looking neighborhood. No matter—if it’s delicious, then it’s where I want to be.

Photo Nov 21, 8 16 48 PM

I actually found this place through another Vietnamese restaurant in another part of NYC. Up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood near Columbia University, there is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese eatery called Saiguette. At this joint, it’s taking tight quarters to a whole new meaning. There’s window counter seating for about four people—maybe 6 anorexic individuals, but the food is super legit. It is clearly meant to be a takeout and delivery hotspot, and it is. Their food is spicy, flavorful and feels very authentic. In fact, they were written up as a top pick for cheap eats and great Vietnamese food in NYC by Grub Street.

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While Saiguette is super small, with its own brand of fierceness, Vietnaam is their sister restaurant and basically Saiguette all grown up and rebranded for the Upper East Side. t resembles many Asian restaurants that can be found around New York City. There is a large dining room with many tables crowded together by a long booth, and other stand alone tables dotted around, with some sort of Asian inspired decoration to make it stand out. At Vietnaam, there is a beautiful bamboo divider wall between the kitchen and the dining room. It does make the restaurant feel unique, and also serves another purpose of separation of spaces. While the atmosphere might be different—and oh how I missed the squeeze necessity and precarious balance required for the small window stool of Saiguette, I got over that nostalgia quickly since I had a whole table to myself. What a luxury!

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Vietnaam offers a number of Vietnamese staples—from steaming bowls of pho to overflowing plates of vermicelli noodles to aromatic curry dishes or elevated banh mi sandwiches. Regrettably—actually totally not a hardship at all!—it requires multiple visits (or palates perhaps) to try everything that looks good on the menu. They help you out a bit with this by subtly (i.e. overtly) encouraging you to order extra food by making all food 10% off while dining in during lunch. Yesss! Don’t mind if I do, which I did.

Photo Nov 21, 7 11 09 PMThe Summer Rolls appetizer (Nem Chao on the menu), one of my favorites, were a solid choice. They were fresh and didn’t seem super cold, which was good. Often I’ll order some fresh or summer rolls and they are like ice—how long have you kept these in the refrigerator bro? Appetizer foul 😦 The summer rolls here, though, were fresh, with crunchy lettuce and a chewy and elastic rice paper wrapper. They were filled out nicely with a mix of veggies, vermicelli noodles, shrimp and lettuce—though I wish there was a bit more shrimp. The accompanying peanut hoisin sauce was delish; creamy, nutty, spicy and had a wonderful mouthfeel as it coated the roll. These also came with a second sauce—a more traditional nuoc cham sauce that was spicy and vinegary that highlighted the crisp lettuce and soaked deep into the roll’s filling. Wonderful way to start a meal.

Photo Nov 21, 7 18 02 PMIf going for the summer rolls and trying to be “healthy”-ish, then an order of Nem, or Vietnamese fried spring rolls, was absolutely necessary—if only to maintain proper food karma. The spring rolls were super crispy. As I broke through the crisp outer layer, the steaming hot filling of ground pork, shrimp, taro, glass noodles, mushroom and jicama that was both tender and firm filling filled my mouth. The skin was still chewy with a thick texture, and though they were fried the rolls didn’t feel too oily. They were served simply with some of the ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce to give them a fresh finish, though for a couple of extra dollars you could add some cucumber, lettuce and herbs to the dish. I love how it’s so no frills—more authentic that way I think. They also cut these up into bite sized pieces, so easy to eat, which was good since it was a generous portion.

Photo Nov 21, 8 14 22 PMAnother favorite starter from Vietnaam, is the Laksa. Laksa is a curry and coconut milk based soup that is not exactly Vietnamese in origin, but actually from Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines. In the last few years, it has become much more well-known and popular all over Asia, as well as the rest of the world. One reason that this soup rocks is that it is so comforting when done right—they do it right here! It feels like a warm Southeast Asian hug, and will warm you up from the inside out. The broth is creamy and a bit frothy with some tang from the lime, warming heat from the curry, an aromatic aroma and a sharper heat from the accompanying chili sauce. The chicken was cooked perfectly, though they do a shrimp version as well  (or even vegetarian or tofu if need be). They’re all delicious and this makes for perfect leftovers. Not your grandma’s chicken noodle soup!

Photo Nov 21, 7 25 18 PMFor the main event, and what I judge every Vietnamese restaurant by, is the pho (pronounced “fuh”). Nowadays, you can find multiple varieties of pho—shrimp, veggie, chicken and even some fancy types such as one made with a Porcini mushroom or duck base. They’re almost always tasty, and if you’re looking for a unique spin on the classic bowl of pho, I highly recommend the Mushroom Pho at Stock in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia or the Pho Bo Satee at Nha Trang One in NYC’s Chinatown. The mushroom pho is as hearty and comforting as a beef based soup, but lighter at the same time. It’s also super earthy from the mushrooms and manages to make the tofu in it taste delicious—a great vegetarian or vegan option. The pho bo satee from Nha Trang One is spicy from an infusion of peanut sate sauce. The sate gives it a wonderful depth of flavor and thickness to the broth. It also has that wonderful peanutty note that many people love about Thai dishes—think a rice noodle soup version of a beef sate appetizer.  Back to Vietnaam….I ordered the Spicy Pho, which I usually don’t do since I like to spicy up the bowl myself. The pho was spicy but still mild—I added additional sriracha sauce to mine. The chili oil used to spice up the soup gave it a vibrant red color, and left a slow, lingering heat that made my lips tingle by the end of the bowl. The broth itself was clean tasting, which means they did their homework and skimmed the fat, but also had a lovely unctuousness to it that we all secretly crave. The bowl was filled with lots of noodles and meat—fatty brisket, firm, but not rubbery beef meatballs, and thinly sliced beef eye round that is placed into the piping hot bowl of soup raw and cooks on its way to the table. This was a big bowl of pho, so it was worth the hefty $12 Upper East Side price tag. I’ve returned for many more bowls of pho.

Vietnaam is a hip, fun place to eat at if you’re on the Upper East Side. They give generous portions, quick service, tasty dishes. Is it the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had? Hmmm…hard to say, but it was definitely some of the best in NYC. Only thing missing was perhaps that certain “je ne sais quoi” that its sister restaurant, Saiguette, has as a hole-in-the-wall joint. Come to Vietnam if you’re ready for a grown up bowl of pho and other Vietnamese favorites..

Vietnamese Fusion in Downtown Seattle

Stateside
300 East Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122

IMG_4796IMG_4786It was the end of my first official day at the International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, and I was too lazy to walk very far from the hotel or cab it to the international district, and needed a break from the rich and heavy seafood that Pacific Northwest is known for—though it was delicious! I found Stateside, which had great reviews on both OpenTable and Yelp and made a reservation for later that night. I was seated at a high top table with bench seating on one side and a view of the rest of the restaurant, and look out onto Pike Street through he large glass windows. The space was very hip with a great downtown location, and you would never know this was a Vietnamese restaurant without looking at the menu. Stateside is known for its unique and modern fusion approach to traditional Vietnamese flavors, while also incorporating bits and pieces from Chinese and French cuisines. You won’t find any pho here, but rather dishes like crispy duck or mushroom fresh rolls bursting with fresh herbs, chili cumin crusted pork ribs that melt in your mouth, heirloom tomato salad dressed with rice wine and black garlic, and more. The place was crowded and hopping, and I’m glad I thought to make a reservation ahead of time. The uphill walk built up my appetite, and the smells of fish sauce and lemongrass as I walked through the door made my mouth water.

IMG_4787I started out by ordering a cocktail because that’s just what I do on vacation. No judging! The Viet Milk Punch ($11), which had recently moved to the dessert instead of cocktail menu is a modern twist on the classic sweet iced coffee drink available at many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. It features cold brewed coffee—it’s Seattle, isn’t coffee appropriate?—condensed milk, egg white and dark rum. The condensed milk made the drink sweet, but not over the top, and the rum helped mellow our the sweetness and the egg white gives it a lovely frothiness. It was served in a pretty petite wine glass, and definitely fits on the dessert menu. Either way, it was delicious and a refreshing way to start the meal.

IMG_4789The Chili Cumin Pork Ribs ($13) seemed to be very popular on Yelp, and came highly recommended by the waiter, so made an appearance for the appetizer course. The ribs, of course, came with wet naps—how classy! lol—which just added to the charm of the place. Right away, the smell of chili came wafting from the ribs. The meat itself was practically falling off the bone, and had an intense smoky flavor from the almost whole cumin seeds. The slightly charred meat was garnished with scallions and herbs with a nice spice level—didn’t even have to ask for it to be spicier—and they were surprisingly meaty. These are not your mama’s spare ribs! Towards the bottom end of the rib is a fat cap that basted the rest of the meat—it made it so succulent and delicious.

IMG_4788Along with the ribs I had the Crispy Duck Fresh Rolls ($9)—a twisted mashup between a fresh summer roll and a crispy spring roll. The rolls were served with a mild dipping sauce made from a blend of oyster sauce, soy sauce and scallion oil. The rolls were filled with shiso leaves, Thai basil, spearmint, vermicelli noodles, and crispy duck. The roll is then flash-fried. As you bite into it you get the crunch of the duck skin, the chewiness of the fresh roll wrapper and noodles, the sweet herbaceousness of the basil, and the refreshing many flavor fo the shiso leaves. The sauce wasn’t too salty and balanced from the sweet oyster sauce and spicy scallion oil.

IMG_4792For the main event, I had my eye on one dish and with another recommendation of the waiter, I got the Bun Cha Hanoi ($19). This dish took a classic Vietnamese noodle bowl to the next level. It came in three separate bowls that I was encouraged to mix together and enjoy. Pork sausage patties that were super moist with great grill marks were served in a delicious broth made with caramelized fish sauce that flavored and tenderized the meat. The broth had an amazing umami flavor—I could drink it. Throughout the sauce there were small pieces of pork belly that provided a nice texture contrast with slight crisp on outside corners of the pork. The lemongrass shavings and palm sugar in the sauce also helped soak up fish sauce caramel so it wasn’t too salty, but there were plenty of “salt bombs” in the best way. The noodles were garnished with  scallion oil and a ton of fresh herbs that perfumed the whole dish. The third dish was a plate of pork and shrimp imperial rolls that were crispy on the outside and meaty inside. I tossed a couple of these with the sauce and noodles, and the rest I dipped into the broth. The waiter was very knowledgeable about the menu and very nice. He brought me a Fresno chili sauce (made from Fresno chili peppers, water, oil, vinegar, garlic, ginger, scallion and a bit of sugar) to go with the imperial rolls that really made them pop. This dish was not only filling, but also so creative. Yum yum!

IMG_4795After an already filling two courses, the question was this: dare I go for dessert? I was on vacation, so the answer was of course: yes. The Vanilla Goose Egg Custard ($8) had an aroma of Jackfruit when I lifted bowl to my nose, which might have come from the inner layer of the fruit inside the dessert. The top layer of the bowl was a tuile cookie in the shape of a Thai flower. A tuile is a thin, crispy wafer like cookie that’s originally from France and named after the shape of a tile. The cookie has a very slight sweetness to it that reminded me of a fortune cookie. I used my spoon to crack down through the crunchy layer and encountered a layer of Jackfruit, which is prevalent in Southeast Asia, and has a mild taste between a melon and a peach. Underneath the fruit was a layer of the goose egg custard, which was soft with an almost yogurt-like consistency, but slightly richer than everyday custard or pudding. It was nice to end the meal with a light dessert, since the rest of  it was so heavy. It actually reminded me of a breakfast parfait that I’d order with yogurt, fruit and vanilla. Some of the other desserts like the Vietnamese Coffee or Tea with Condensed Milk Creamsicles sounded delicious and uber-creative, but I had already had my Viet Milk Punch. Next time I’ll definitely try them though.

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Lunchtime Gorging at Saffron Indian

Saffron Indian Cuisine
1214 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Growing up in New York City I was exposed to ethnic foods and international cuisines from a young age. While my mom might have cooked chili or burgers for us a lot, it was just as common for us to eat a bowl of pad Thai noodles, a shawarma sandwich, or even a plate of yummy chicken tikka masala. Indian food was very popular in our house, and I’ve loved it ever since. So when I’m hungry for a filling lunch and see an Indian lunch buffet for only $7.99, there’s no question that I’m going to check it out.

I walked into Saffron (formerly known as San Samosa) and was told I could sit anywhere I’d like. It was a weekday afternoon, so not that unusual for a good number of tables to be open, though there were unfortunately a few that were still dirty and hadn’t been turned over yet. The service seemed fine, with one person on the floor, and the interior was kind of dark. None of these things mattered though–I was there for the food! I did like the Indian Bollywood music playing in the background though.

To begin, the waitress brought over a fresh basket of naan bread to the table, which I appreciated since it hadn’t been sitting at the buffet for a while. The bread was nice and hot from the tandoori oven with a crisp exterior, a chewy and slightly doughy middle, and had an overall puffiness to it that characterizes naan. It was the perfect vehicle for mopping up extra sauce on the plate.

I first tried the Samosas, which are always my first pick. There’s something about fried foods that make me want to eat them first. The samosa was deep-fried with a crunchy, crispy exterior and the buffet offered an array of condiments such as mint chutney, onion chutney, tamarind sauce, hot sauce, raita, and even ranch dressing for some reason. I like to dress my samosas up with some tamarind sauce and mint chutney. The tamarind has a wonderful sweet and sour flavor that plays well against the somewhat smoky potato-based filling, and the chutney wakes up the flavors in the Indian fritter. The filling itself was tasty, though a little loose. I loved the whole peas throughout that still maintained a big of crunch.

The Aloo Cabbage isn’t something that I see on many Indian menus, but looked interesting. In fact, it was delicious. The cabbage was cooked down with tender potatoes, but still had a bit of a bite, so it wasn’t super mushy. The cabbage became almost braised in its texture, and it reminded me of an Indian play on Irish potatoes and cabbage. What really made this dish Indian were the traditional warming spices: smoky cumin, spicy curry, earthy garam masala—yum! The turmeric also lent some exotic flavor as well as a yellow-orange color.

The Chicken Biryani was cooked using authentic basmati rice—you can taste the difference—with big chunks of (not dry) chicken. The dish wasn’t too sweet or spicy, but had a slight tang to it. It wasn’t the best biryani I’ve ever had, but solid for a buffet and was a great alternative to plain rice. Some hot sauce and yogurt raita made it pop more.

Chicken Tikka Masala is a classic dish in almost every Indian restaurant in America, and is usually a staple of Indian lunch buffets—this version was special though. The sauce was super smooth, but not as heavy as many cream based sauces. You could tell that it had been cooking for a while and that the flavors had time to develop. The sauce was freakin’ delicious and I could’ve eaten it by the spoon…or naan-ful. There was a building heat from the toasted spices that make the base of many Indian dishes, and it had a wonderful velvety mouthfeel. There was a deep aromatic flavor that likely came from cooked down shallots or onion. The dish still had the identifying the flavor profile of tikka masala, but was almost reminiscent of a Malaysian chicken Rendang dish.

On a side note, most of the condiments were good, but pretty standard. The Onion Chutney, though, was excellent. It had a nice abrasive heat and bite to it, as well as some acidity. It helped cut through the richness and carb-fest of the meal. It also had a satisfying crunch, and the temperature contrast was nice with the (mostly) hot dishes.

The Tandoori Chicken was perfectly cooked—I had a drumsticks—with slightly crispy skin, and the meat was moist, and got juicier the closer I got to the bone. Often I feel the need to squeeze some lime over the chicken, but not this time. There was also a slight saltiness to the meat that probably came from a brine—smart cooking since it will prevent the chicken from drying out. The tandoori oven also gave the meat a bit of a smoky and charred flavor.

The final savory dish I sampled was the Veggie Kofta, which were torpedo-shaped kebabs of a vegetable and grain mixture. They were definitely sweeter than the other dishes, and had hints of cinnamon and cardamom. The kofta pieces were pretty meaty and held up well in the very large amount of sauce. Great dish for vegetarians as the patty mixture has a lot of protein rich ingredients.

Dessert offerings were average in the amount of offerings and tasted pretty good. The Mango Pudding definitely had a strong mango flavor and was very sweet. The pudding was very tangy, but tempered by the high amount of sugar. It was also very thick and set—no soupiness. This was a serious dessert, and the flavors helped curb my craving for a mango lassi with my lunch. The Kheer, or Indian rice pudding, is a much more common buffet dessert and every place has their own spin on the sweet treat. The rice was cooked and not mushy. It also wasn’t too sweet, which was nice in comparison to the cloyingly sweet mango pudding, though it got sweeter as you ate it. It was a no frills dessert, but tasty and classic. This dish too had background notes of cinnamon, cardamom and allspice. It was a nice way to end a heavy meal.

While the service isn’t the best around, the great Center City location and the tasty offerings at the lunch buffet—for only $7.99!—make this a great stop for lunch on any day of the week. Enjoy your Indian feast! अपने भोजन का आनंद लें!

Hungry for Sushi in Center City

Photo May 16, 2 57 15 PMAki Sushi
1210 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Photo May 16, 2 57 21 PMI had just left the gym and was feeling Hungry…with a capital H. I thought, what could I eat that would not only fill me up for the day—or a week!—but not necessarily weigh me down. The answer was obvious: sushi. Aki Sushi is located in the Midtown section of Center City, also known as the Gayborhood, and has been open for over six years. When I’m hungry, I stop in for their All You Can Eat sushi special for $26.95. The all you can eat menu is extensive with a large selection, and everything brought out when it’s ready. The service is great, and while it might be slow, all of the food is fresh and delicious.

Photo May 16, 3 12 03 PMI started off with the Pork Katsu appetizer, which was a bit on the small side, but in context, didn’t need to be a large plate—there was a lot of food coming my way! The pork cutlets were fried super crisp and stayed juicy. They were not too greasy, but could’ve used a bit of salt. The dipping sauce was not too sweet and it was a nice way to start off the meal.

Photo May 16, 3 09 05 PMThe very popular Sashimi Appetizer comes with six pieces of sushi grade fish selected by the chef. My plate came with three plump pieces of brightly colored salmon and three opaque tuna slices. The sashimi was very fresh and cut into thick pieces, which gave them a meaty texture and the cold, but not frigid temperature allowed the delicate flavor to shine through. The shredded daikon garnish was not only very classic, but also served as great absorption for extra soy sauce.

Photo May 16, 3 12 00 PMThe next dish to come out was the Gyoza, or Japanese dumplings. Dumplings happen to be a personal favorite of mine, and I’ve eaten them in so many places that I always look forward to them. The gyoza were pan-fried and greasy in a pleasing way—especially with all of the smooth fish. The filling was made up of meaty, minced pork and paired with an acidic, vinegary dipping sauce. The dough was cooked perfectly and the sauce helped cut through the heavy filling without overwhelming the simplicity of the dish.

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Spider Roll (left), Shrimp Avocado Roll (right)
Wanting to try some more fish dishes, I ordered the Spicy Spider Roll and the Shrimp Avocado Roll. The spicy spider roll was a bit of a departure for me since it was a cooked roll, but I always like to try new things and it came recommended by the waitress. The roll was filled with soft-shelled crab, which was nice and crispy after being coated in a tempura batter and deep-fried. The roll as a whole had a good level of spice to it, and the spicy mayo wasn’t too overpowering in either creaminess or heat. The nori wrapper was exceptionally chewy—in a good way—and slightly warm from the heat it absorbed from the freshly fried tempura. There was a great textural contrast when I bit into the end pieces and got to experience the full-on crunch as the crab spilled out the sides of the roll. The Shrimp Avocado Hand Roll had seemed like a plain choice, so I opted to shake things up a bit by ordering it as a hand roll. A hand roll as opposed to a regular maki roll is cone-shaped,  and the filling and rice are packed into the cone in what seems to be a greater quantity, though it is only because the roll is shorter. In addition, it is not as thin as a maki roll or as tightly rolled. The roll was actually (surprisingly) delicious. The sushi chef used whole shrimp, and not cut up pieces or shrimp paste, and allowed for a wonderful mouthful of perfectly cooked shrimp. In addition, there were big slices of avocado that lent a good freshness to the roll. The roll was also wrapped tightly enough to keep it together, but ate more like a wrap sandwich than a traditional sushi roll.

Photo May 16, 3 43 31 PMThe Chicken Yakitori appetizer arrived at the table piping hot and freshly cooked. The meat had a slightly crisp exterior and was still moist, though it—at first glance—seemed like it might be dry. The dish wasn’t drowning in sauce, so you could taste the chicken and it was a nice break between various forms of sushi. The fact that it was hot was also a nice change-of-pace from the cold fish.

Photo May 16, 3 45 33 PM
Sweet Potato (bottom left), Aki Tempura (top row), Rainbow Roll (bottom right)
The meal was rounded out by a trio of maki rolls. The Aki Tempura Roll was unique in that it wasn’t the filling that was fried, but the whole roll was lightly fried giving it a slightly greasy, but also crispy exterior. This roll probably had the most beautiful presentation of the meal; it looked like it was overflowing with the blue crab topping, and a lot of fish in the center. The crab topping gave this roll a decadent creaminess, especially with the tempura outside. The Rainbow Roll, though, was very fresh, and the cold temperature stood in stark contrast to the warm tempura roll. The roll was topped with avocado, and each piece alternated between a salmon or tuna garnish. Sliced cucumber inside the roll gave it a needed crunch factor with the softness of the fish and avocado. The final roll of the day was the Sweet Potato Roll. I’ve had various versions of sweet potato rolls, and though this roll wasn’t very unique– The soy sauce and wasabi are necessary to help flavor it—it was still tasty. The sweet potato was soft but not mushy, and lost some of its starchiness after being cooked. It also helped clear the palette after such a fish heavy meal.

The sushi at Aki is top notch and absolutely delicious. Come here hungry, and leave happy. Just make sure you take the time to enjoy the meal–I promise, you’ll love it!

Authentic Thai Spice in Hell’s Kitchen

Pure Thai Cookhouse
766 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10019

I love spicy food. It’s a fact of life, and I’m always on the hunt for a new dish to satisfy my heated cravings. For me though, even better than a dish that makes me sweat, is a plate of food that also brings flavor to the party.

Photo Mar 21, 6 57 43 PMPure Thai Cookhouse is a small, hole in the wall restaurant in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood styled after a historic Thai shophouse. Pure is the sister restaurant to Chef David Bank’s Land Thai Kitchen, located on the Upper West Side. While Land is also known for its spicy dishes and heat, it features more traditional Thai meals. Pure specializes in dishes found from Thai street vendors, as well as farm dishes or rural and market dishes throughout Thailand. The food at Pure is super authentic, and takes you on a culinary tour of the many regions of Thailand. While it only has about 20 seats, this place is packing people in for its bold flavors, great service and unique spin on Thai eats. This is a great place to take a date, some friends or even your parents for elevated Thai food.

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The Chicken Curry Puffs ($8) appetizer might have seemed to be pretty standard fare, but were anything but ordinary. The filling was made from moist caramelized chicken, earthy onions, and tender sweet potato. Although the sweet potato gave it a touch of sweetness, the filling was also flavored with warming spices that gave it a mild touch of heat. The chicken was aromatic, and had an almost creamy consistency from being braised and helped along from the potato starch. The puffs had a perfectly flaky crust, that was slightly chewy with crisp edges. The plate came with four good-sized pieces and garnished with a tangy cucumber relish. The relish not only cut through the heaviness of the dish, but also helped cool it down.

Photo Jun 20, 1 04 04 AM

The Ratchaburi Crab and Pork Dry Noodles ($11/$13 lunch/dinner) is a favorite of mine. The egg noodles are handmade from a secret, family recipe, and you can really taste the difference from those that come in a box. The noodles are dressed with a mild sauce flavored with fish sauce, palm sugar, rice wine vinegar and lime. It’s tangy, sweet, sour, salty and pungent.  The lump crab meat is flaky and delicate, and there’s a lot of it to soak up excess sauce. The pork was slight salty—in the best possible way—with a pleasant chewiness that makes it almost “chashu”-esque, similar to the delicate pork belly found in a bowl of ramen. The yu choy and scallions gave the bowl a wonderful crunch and textural contrast to the other soft components. The sauce is mild enough and the perfect vehicle to spice up with the chili and sauce garnish basket placed on the table. Be careful though, you don’t want to overwhelm the vibrant taste of the noodles with too much heat.

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Photo Jun 19, 3 01 40 PM

If you’re in the mood for something more stir-fried or curry style, the Wok Chili Turmeric with Beef ($11/$13) is absolutely delicious. Flavored with kaffi­r lime leaves and thai chilis, the heat is very prevalent in this dish. I ordered it Thai spicy since I love it super-spicy and the beef can definitely handle the heat of the turmeric chili sauce. The asparagus and string beans provide a nice crunch, as well as a sense of freshness to the saucy plate. The chili marinade makes the beef very tender and keeps it from getting dry. The turmeric in the sauce gives it a lovely orange color, and a backbone of warmth. The side of rice is essential to this dish to not only sop up extra sauce, but also to take the edge of heat off of the dish. A generous portion of jasmine rice is included for no extra charge, but for an extra $1 you can get sticky rice. I like to use my fingers to grab pieces of rice and dip it into the excess sauce.

Photo Jun 19, 7 09 54 PMThere’s so many great dishes to choose from on the menu at Pure Thai Cookhouse to satisfy everyone–from a Thai spice novice to a expert noodle slurper. Make sure to check out Pure, and also its sister restaurant Land Thai Restaurant a couple of miles uptown for a meal that will make your face sweat and your taste buds tingle!

Thai House of Deliciousness (or What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation, part II)

Thai House
8 Bograshov Street
Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is, in my opinion, an amazing cit. In some respects, it reminds me of mini-Barcelona with the beach and then a large downtown, and in some respects it reminds me of San Francisco with a slightly bohemian attitude. Either way, it has a killer food scene.

image1Continuing on my Israeli food journey, this stop was actually towards the end of my trip. After eating lots of local Israeli delights like hummus, pita, falafel, salads, roasted eggplant etc., I was craving something a bit different, so I decided on Thai food. When I asked around, and then looked online, Thai House off of Ben Yehuda Street near the beach was recommended over and over. After having eaten here, I wholeheartedly agree—this was definitely some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had. This place gets super busy around dinner time, and all day on the weekends since it’s a block from the beach. There were a lot of locals eating here, as well as some American tourists in the mood for an authentic Thai meal. I was at one of two tables filled when I came in and the whole room was filled when I got the check.

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image3I sat in the dining room that had bamboo walls and roof, and it very much lived up to its name of “Thai house.” The menu was big with lots of choices, and all of the dishes can be made to your spice level. I wish I had 10 stomachs to eat with, especially with the incredible smells emanating from the table next to me—lime citrus, spicy chili, umami fish sauce, sweet Thai basil, garlic, and more—each one more tantalizing than the next. The table decorations were very simple—no frills—and it was clear that the food and authentic decor are the main events here. I do have to say that I regret not trying one of the cocktail specials that sounded refreshing.

image5The best part of my meal here was really the food though. It was hard to choose from all the selections, but I think I chose wisely. I started with the Yam Neua Beef (46 shekels, ~$12), or grilled rump beef served with a hot chili fish sauce. When the plate came to the table it was presented beautifully. The sticky rice came in its own sack, and I was encouraged to tear pieces of the rice off with my hands and eat it with the spicy beef. The beef was sliced thin and garnished with sliced onion on top, and sliced cucumber below that almost became pickled from the heavily acidic sauce coating the beef. The meat itself was so tender and had been marinated in lime juice, chilis and fish sauce, and some sugar to tenderize the beef. The choice to cook the beef at medium rare also kept it from being chewy. It made it not only super pungent and spicy, but also light and meaty, and the sticky rice was able to absorb excess sauce. The plate was also garnished with small pieces of chili—leftover from the marinade—as well as some mint leaves. The dish was just fun to eat, and the temperature contrast between the warm rice and the cool meat was a nice touch.

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For my entrée, I wanted some sort of noodle dish and went with the recommendation of the waiter—Yum! The Pahd Sen Lian with goose (72 shekels, ~$19) had egg noodles that tasted homemade, and not mushy at all, as well as three kinds of mushroom—button, shiitake and oyster—morning glory—sometimes known as Chinese broccoli—and scallions. I requested the dish spicy, which it was, but I also added some pickled chilis to the noodles from the tray of spice condiments that was brought to the table. The result was a building heat that complemented the slightly sweet sauce on the noodles.Although the ingredients were very refined, the presentation and composition was almost rustic, but in the best way possible. I could imagine myself eating this dish in some small village in Thailand. The goose was also amazing. Not only is it rare that I get to eat goose meat, but it was cooked very well and included a good amount of chunk, breast meat. The fat was cooked off, which just left the tender, moist meat. It was slightly gamier than duck, and very meaty—satisfied the carnivore in me.

image8My experience at Thai House was in one word: delectable. The food was delicious and thoughtfully composed, the decor was authentic and at the same time the perfect level of campiness, and the location was wonderful. It was a great break from the hustle and bustle of my time in Tel Aviv and a satisfied my need for a spicy Thai meal. #Nomnom!