Monday, July 25, 2011

Apocalypse Cakes - Book Review

Those who know me know that I have a preoccupation with the end of the world.  This interest is not based on any particular belief that the world is going to end soon, rather it is centered mostly on a fascination with what other people believe about the end of the world.  I read about the apocalypse, watch films about the apocalypse, and even have a collection of works stored on my Kindle which are recommended as preparation for the zombie apocalypse.reading

Needless to say, I was delighted when a friend recently gave me Apocalypse Cakes: Recipes for the End by Shannon O'Malley.

This book recognizes that even during the end of days, we may need a treat.  Some recipes require limited ingredients (e.g. The Seismic Haitian Mud Cake needs only mud, shortening, and salt) while other require some... um... specialty ingredients (e.g. virgin's blood and a sacrificial knife are optional ingredients for the Hail the Devil's Food Cake).  Even among these less practical recipes, there are some pastries that seem absolutely delicious (e.g. The Swarm of Locusts Grasshopper Pie).

While I prefer improvisation over following recipes, I genuinely want to try some of these recipes soon.  The book itself is whimsical, but many of the recipes seem solid.  I hope that they will be as delicious as they seem (minus the virgin's blood).  Each recipe is accompanied by a photograph and a delightful description.  It is a unique book which will look great in anyone's post-apocalyptic kitchen.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mad Mex: A Good Review

Last time I was in Pittsburgh, I went to the Mad Mex in Oakland.  As you may remember from my previous Mad Mex review, this particular Mad Mex is a bit of a train wreck when it comes to ambiance and service.  The food is always delicious (although, it does occasionally arrive cold), but the cramped location and surly front-of-house staff consistently detract from what could be an exquisite eating experience.

At least, that was the trend until I visited the Oakland location two weeks ago.

On this particular Sunday, I was craving Mad Mex but couldn't be bothered to go to one of the other locations, so I just went to the closest.  I knew that they would have excellent food, and for me, excellent food can eclipse most annoyances.

I arrived at the Oakland location at about 5:15.  I figured that if I arrived early enough, it wouldn't be too cramped.  I was right.  The restaurant was only about half full.  When I walked in the door, I was greeted almost instantly by a cheerful hostess and was shown to my seat.  Already, this was an improvement on my last Mad Mex experience and all of my visits to the Oakland location.

One reason why I love Mad Mex is their effort to source local and seasonal ingredients.  In the summer, they have fresh, local corn on the menu.  I knew before I arrived that I would be having grilled corn for dinner; however, I had yet to decide what else I was going to have.  As I perused the menu, the server arrived at my table, took my drink order, reviewed the specials, and asked if I had any questions.   She was both polite and even made me laugh at one point.  I started to wonder if I had been transported to an alternate universe.

As my in the restaurant continued, I knew that it was only a matter of time before the whole thing disintegrated.  I was wrong.  The service was perfect, and while waiting for my meal, the server stopped at my table regularly to check on my progress and to fill my water glass.  When the food arrived, it arrived hot and in a timely manner.  My starter of corn on the cob with chipotle aioli was delicious, and my mains of Pennsyltucky Fried Fofu was crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside (and it wasn't missing any of the components - a problem that I have had in the past).

I was there for less than an hour, and even though I took my time eating, I never felt rushed, nor did I feel like a nuisance who was intent on interrupting the serving process by my presence.  It wasn't just a good experience on the Mad Mex Oakland sliding scale, it was an extraordinary dining experience by any standard. 

I had a lovely time, and if they can keep up this level of service, I may just have a new favorite Mad Mex location.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pittsburgh Popcorn Company

One of the places that I love to visit when I'm in Pittsburgh is The Strip District.  The Strip District is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh which is known for its plethora of ethnic food stores, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.  On the weekends, the streets buzz with street vendors, but that was only a secondary reason for my visit to The Strip on Sunday, July 3.  On that day, I was there for the popcorn.

Pittsburgh Popcorn Company has three locations - Oakland, Downtown, and The Strip - and I would have been happy to visit any one of them if they had what I was looking for.  On this particular Sunday, only one of the three locations did, so on this lovely Sunday morning, I found myself wandering down Penn Avenue searching for dill pickle popcorn.

I first tried PPC's dill pickle popcorn about a year ago when I was working across the street from their Downtown location, and I have been obsessed with it ever since.  PPC has a set menu of flavors and a rotating weekly menu of specialty flavors.  Every time I visit Pittsburgh, I check the menu to see if they are offering my beloved dill pickle popcorn, but for the last few months, I have missed it every time it was available (usually by only one day).  On July 3, the planets aligned and finally I was in the right place at the right time.  I bought the second largest bag they offer.

A friend, upon trying it for the first time, described it as tasting like the pickles on a Big Mac.  To me, it just takes like pickles and popcorn.  It is a well balanced combination of vinegar, salt, and dill on a crispy vehicle of naturally sweet popcorn.

PPC offers other delightful flavors which are all eclipsed in my mind by the magnificent dilliness of the dill pickle flavor, but I suppose I should talk about some of the other flavors as well.

The Wisconsin Cheddar is pretty standard; although, sometimes they don't mix it properly and there are lumps of cheddar powder which I refer to as "cheddar bombs".  Overall, when not mixed properly, it can be a little overpowering, but the cheddar flavor tastes great in moderation.

Chocolate and Peanut Butter Popcorn is one of their signature flavors.  It is my sister April's favorite flavor.  It is standard popcorn which has been unevenly coated with what tastes like a melted Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.  The uneven coating is very important in this case as it offers a welcome break from the richness of the chocolate and peanut butter.  I find that when I hit a pocket of popcorn which hasn't been coated, it helps me to enjoy the coated popcorn all the more.

Nutella is quite similar to the Reese's and Peanut Butter Cup, but with hazelnut instead of peanut butter.  Like the dill pickle popcorn, it is one of the specialty flavors.

Smacker Jacks is much like the snack with the "coincidentally" similar name (*wink, wink*).  It is standard caramel popcorn with peanuts, but honestly, that combination has always been a bit sweet for my tastes even when it shares its storage container with a mystery prize.

Finally, I have also tried the Buttery Movie Style.  It was pretty standard, but instead of the flavored trans-fats that most movie theaters call "buttery topping", it is topped with actual butter.

If you are in the far flung reaches of the United States, it is important to note that the Pittsburgh Popcorn Company does ship nationally.  Unfortunately, they do not ship their specialty flavors, so you have to trek to Pittsburgh to indulge in Nutella, Dill Pickle, Cajun, or Watermelon flavored popcorn, but in my opinion it is completely worth the trip.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

El Arepazo Latin Grill - Review

Yesterday, on my way to the North Market (and the Food and Ohio Wine Festival), I stopped by El Arepazo Latin Grill on Pearl Street in Downtown Columbus.  Pearl Alley is home to the Pearl Market on Tuesdays and Fridays, so I have actually been near El Arepazo many times, but I never stopped in. 

I was missing something wonderful and didn't even know it. 

El Arepazo Latin Grill specializes in Venezuelan food.  They have meat, fish, and vegetarian entrees, but I was there for their eponymous arepas.  An arepa, as I found out, is made with two flat, round corn patties (kind of a thick corn pancake) between which there is a savory filling.  I chose the vegetarian option which is filled with rice, black beans, shredded lettuce, tomato, queso fresco, and banana peppers and topped with their "famous" cilantro sauce.  The arepa was difficult to eat.  The corn patties were a little tough to bite through and the filling caused them to slide around a bit, but after making a bit of a mess, I dug in with a fork and had much more luck. 

Even though the arepa was messy, it was delicious. 

The cilantro sauce - which tasted like it was made with cilantro, lime, jalapeƱo, and sour cream - was amazing.  I chose the mild option but wish I had tried the spicy variety as well.  I also wish that I had indulged in a second helping of the sauce.  I did not use it wisely and it was gone far too quickly.  It was the perfect thing to complete the dish, and I found myself scraping the remainder from the container to get the most of the 1 oz allotment. 

El Arepazo had other vegetarian options, desserts, and side dishes, but the arepa was so filling that I couldn't have indulged had I wanted to - that's actually saying a lot since I tend to have a big appetite and it takes a lot for me to turn down flan and fried plantain.

It was a great lunch and I can't wait to return to try some of their other options.