Wednesday, July 30, 2008


If everyone had the same taste...

...there would only be one flavor.

Sometimes, I get homesick for loud brownfolk. Homesick for a world where aunties arrive, competing for loudest entrance to a room. A world where the dining room seems to tilt as one more pot of pancit noodles or another platter of plantain fritters is added to the table.

(we get excited about karaoke; we are, afterall, ASIAN)

When I can't fly back home to my NY, I head straight down to SoCal where my "California" cousins have been calling San Diego home for over 30 years. Of course, when we get together, there is plenty of eating going on. Witness the edible carnage at a lazy Sunday afternoon bbq in Temecula...

(we get excited about meat marbling, too)

But, for the brown and down, meat—beef, fish or pig!—is not officially eaten in Filipino homes until a bowl of sawsawan is prepared. Loaded with salt, tang and kick, the sawsawan is essentially a condiment. Yet, so much more. Think of it as a dipping sauce that makes use of all those tiny bowls that come with a full dinnerware set. And, you thought those were for ice cream! Well, think again.

(this was an enormous bowl of sawsawan made by my cousin's husband who does the equivalent of "keeping kosher" by "preserving pinoy." Romel's sawsawan is composed of chopped fresh tomato, white onion, jalapeƱos—seeds included, pickled peppers, probably a couple whole garlic cloves, lemon juice, vinegar and soy sauce.)

Sawsawan, usually a "sour accompaniment," is delicious with any grilled, broiled, baked or fried meat. It can be as simple as a bowl of patis. Or, a side of soy sauce, calamansi juice and a few dry red chilies. How 'bout a small dish of bagoong with chopped green mangoes?

With warm, steamed white rice and a meat of choice, sawsawan makes a meal more personal. Perhaps, you're partaking in a host family's favorite sawsawan. Maybe, your little dipping bowl transports a solitary meal to a place called Home. If you want to get REAL, eat with your hands*: Squish together mounds of meat and rice, dip and enjoy. A friend once wrote that her perfect lover would relish the scent of patis on her fingers and seek out her vinegar kiss.

Sawsawan. Flavor. Try it.

(it's guaranteed to empty your rice pot!)

*Kamayan: "Eat with your hands"

Monday, July 14, 2008

More Strawberries (Happy Bastille Day!).

Today at work I had a fried chicken craving. I announced it to the first person I saw in the hallway, but he couldn't help me. Then, I told Julie. And, she was glad to bend my ear:
"Bakesale Betty's," she said. "They have chicken sandwiches, and they only have one kind. But, it's really, really good. Don't tell anyone you're going. You'll be buying sandwiches for the whole office!"
She went on to passionately described the coleslaw-stuffed, fried chicken on a roll concoction at Betty's.
This is what I lovelovelove about the Bay Area. It's what brought me here. Eighty percent of the nations produce grown an hour away, and nearly everyone's everyday passion for food. I used to think that I tended to gravitate toward "foodies" or whatever people who stock four different kinds of paprika like to call themselves, but after ten plus years in the Bay, I know I can't get through even the simplest meal—pizza, a bagel, a packet of oatmeal even—without hearing some kind of strong opinion about food.

Transplant or local, like a rite of passage, nearly everyone in the Bay has had an artichoke, knows what aioli is (and how to make it!) and can tell you the difference between wild and farm-raised. Food crazy is in the air, the water, the food. The whole, organic food. Whether you happened upon your food passion as a waiter or a food snob or both, we love our food. Especially, OUR food. Bay Area food. Which brings me back to Bakesale Betty's...

The drive from Emeryville was a little under ten minutes (with the speed bumps). As I pulled up to 50th and Telegraph, I could already see the line about twenty deep at the door. Magically, a parking spot opened. Then, I fell in line noting the lunch crowd hunched over bare ironing boards serving as cafe tables.

(all pictures courtesy of my fellow yelpers)

Almost immediately, someone filed behind me, assessed the waiting line and muttered with conviction.

"It's so worth it," he said to himself. "So worth it."

"Yeah, there's a wait," I said stating the obvious.

"Have you ever been here before?" he asked.

"No. This is my first time."

"Really? Wow."

He thought I was a tourist.

"Where are you from?"

I explained the fried chicken craving. It's so worth it, he said again. And, he went on to passionately describe his morning ritual of Betty's pear-ginger scone, coffee and a fried chicken sandwich—he saves it for a few hours until lunchtime—that he eats at work in Martinez.

"You drove here from Martinez?" I asked.

He said yes. Then, he said, Is that far? But, he didn't seem to mind. Especially, if it meant he could get Betty's fried chicken sandwich in his stomach. Passion. For food.

The line moved fairly quickly, and before I knew it I was wide-eyed inside the shop. A mound of ginger cookies and a whole pie brimming with berries welcomed me like a grand dames on silver stands. The air buzzed with the yammering, hustling staff—about a dozen people including Betty clad in her signature blue wig!—assembling and stuffing pastry boxes and filling and calling out orders. The air was just slightly sugary.

I ordered two chicken sandwiches, a ginger cookie and a strawberry shortcake (yet another craving I've had since strawberry season went into full swing). The single-file line pressed through the door with ravenous eyes.

Just beyond the glass partition where the staff made sandwiches, it was a tremendous scene. Not one but two (3 gallon cap.) metal bowls stacked with freshly fried chicken breasts, a third bowl heaped with an even fresher cabbage slaw flecked with vibrant pickled red onions and hands, very fast hands, inserting chicken and slaw, chicken and slaw into a delicate yet substantial torpedo roll.

(the chicken sandwich is $7.75; they also have chicken pot pie and sometimes egg salad sandwiches, I hear)

The price for such a great lunch spot tip was getting a fried chicken sandwich for Julie, too. But it was a pleasure in itself to watch her eat the damn thing in about fifty-five seconds.

"You saved my life," she said. "This is the only thing I eat fast. Uh, well, this and In-n-Out."

The chicken was incredibly moist, and the slaw was laced with sweet (champagne?) vinegar dressing instead of traditional mayo. Bakesale Betty's quenched the fried chicken fiend in me, for sure. Or, for now. I even got to try a delicious "bakesale" good—the strawberry shortcake.

Betty's famous shortcake mounds, layered in sugared strawberries and a heap of dense, whipped cream sure was tasty. But, I wouldn't say it surpassed my friend Anne's strawberry shortcake— Anne employs the big guns: thick strawberry puree, irish-secret-recipe shortcakes the size of your head, creamy light dollops—

But, I wouldn't want to get into every little detail from cream to crumb though. I wouldn't want you to think I was a food-obsessed, crazy, FTW, all-passionate Bay Area foodie.