Friday, February 5, 2010

Five best things: Food

This is the first in a series, Five Best. The five best things I’ve ever tasted.

It has to be acknowledged that memories are imperfect, particularly when it comes to food. Creating a particularly memorable culinary experience often has as much to do with the circumstances surrounding it (what was happening in your life, the setting, the people with whom you shared the experience), and deciding the five best things you’ve ever tasted is tricky and imprecise business. But it’s fun!

5. Char Siu Bao (barbecue pork buns) from the bakery on Argyle Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong. I’ve eaten this Chinese dim sum specialty ever since first eating them in Hong Kong, and my first experience was out of a small bakery near the now-defunct Kai Tak airport on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Steamed instead of baked or fried, the buns are fluffy white bread wrapped around slightly sweet and slightly spicy barbecue pork. Perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner and an afternoon pick-me-up.

4. Pulled pork barbecue sandwich from Dick Howell’s in Florence, Alabama. I’m already sensing a trend here, and it won’t end with this entry – it seems I like barbecued pork. OK, so my culinary tastes are terribly unsophisticated. Sue me. Dick Howell’s is a dump of a restaurant – more a shack, really – in a residential area of Florence, Alabama. He smokes his meat there on the premises and makes his own vinegar-spicy cole slaw that goes on top of the meat. Heavenly.

3. Calamari strips at Fulton’s Fish House, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Yes, this is part of the Disney World-EPCOT complex, but both the food and setting are delightful. Of particular note is the calamari, which is soaked overnight in buttermilk and are tender but firm, then perfectly seasoned. They were so delicious that we went back the next day and skipped the entrée altogether.

2. Boston cream pie at the Omni Parker House in Boston. Long famed as the inventor of this delicacy, people go to the Omni Park (also the original source of Parker House rolls) just for its Boston cream pie. Growing up, my mother would make this treat from time to time, especially on my brother’s birthday – one cake for him and one for the rest of us. For the uninitiated, Boston cream pie isn’t pie – it’s layers of yellow sponge cake and vanilla pudding (OK, Omni Parker calls it “pastry crème and makes it with rum) stacked high, then smothered in a fudge sauce.
1. Suckling pig at Datong Restaurant, Guangzhou, China. I ate here in 1979 with a small tour group and some of the food was too exotic, even for me (I’m not a big fan of steamed sparrows). The last course was a whole suckling pig, drawing a low gasp from the table when it was unveiled. The skin was glazed and fired to a snap crunch. Just past the skin, there was a layer of fat that gave way to the most tender and spectacularly flavorful pork meat I’ve ever tasted (or ever hope to). You would peel off the skin, which had been cut into small squares, and eat it with your fingers. Then, with chopsticks you dig through the fat layer to find the tender meat below. Then, your eyes roll back in your head as you have a deeply religious experience.
Runners-up, in no particular order: Kathleen's talapia-potato-onion-spinach dish baked in foil and served in our very own home, Bruno's pizza (Logansport, Indiana), B&K Mexidog (Peru, Indiana), Italian Place Steak and Everything sandwich  (Utah Valley, Utah), blue crabs and beer (anywhere along the Chesapeake), Nielsen's frozen custard (Bountiful and St. George, Utah), a mysterious poblano-based vegetarian entree at the Greystone Restaurant (inside the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California), The Broker's filet mignon (Denver), world's freshest fish at The River's Edge (La Push, Oregon), chile verde in a now-defunct restaurant (Balboa Island, California), conch fritters and Kalik Gold beer (Nassau, Bahamas), the whole dining experience at the Marrakesh (Washington D.C. -- look around for spies), Etta's Seafood's fresh salmon (Pike Place in Seattle), the smoked-chicken-broccoli-black-bean soup at George's at the Cove (La Jolla, California), El Charro's tamales (Tucson -- the locals think it's become too touristy), the stacked enchilada at a now-defunct restaurant in Santa Barbara, the raw bar at A.W. Shucks (Charleston, S.C.).

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