“To Die For” BBQ Ribs

Anyone who knows me and has talked about food with me will very likely be aware of my love for all things pork. Pig in it’s various forms is without a doubt my favorite edible animal.

In many ways the pinnacle of porkyness is the BBQ rib. This is a treat I’ve had the great pleasure to sample in numerous forms. I’ve come to love all of the many versions that one can find across the American South. I’ve eaten BBQ ribs from West Texas to Eastern North Carolina & everywhere in between, so while it’s impossible to say which one I like the best I will say that I tend to like sweet and sticky sauces. It’s for this reason that when it came time to come up with a BBQ rib recipe for myself I chose this version.

What follows is TRUE BBQ. I’m talking about cooking LOW & SLOW. I’ve even employed a tried and true method by which one can smoke the ribs on your grill prior to cooking them. These ribs are brined and dry-rubbed as well. This is a combination that produces an amazingly good rib. Now while it takes a great deal of time and effort is very much worth it in the end. The name says it all…

I’d like to thank MeatHead the “BBQ Whisperer & Zen Master of Ribs” for his contributions to this recipe.

The Soak

Ingredients:

  • 1 litre Dr. Pepper
  • 1 litre pineapple juice, unsweetened
  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Method:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high.
  2. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  3. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

 The Rub

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • ¾ cup white sugar
  • ½ cup paprika
  • ¼ cup sea salt
  • ¼ cup garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger powder
  • 2 tablespoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons rosemary

Method:

  1. Grind spices together with mortar & pestle.
  2. Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a bowl. If the brown sugar is lumpy, crumble the lumps by hand or on the side of the bowl with a fork

 The Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 cups ketchup
  • ½ cup yellow mustard
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup steak sauce
  • ¼ cup black strap molasses
  • 4 medium cloves of garlic, crushed or minced
  • ¼ cup liquid honey
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind chutney

Method:

  1. In a small bowl, mix the chili powder, black pepper, and salt.
  2. In a large bowl add the ketchup, mustard, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, steak sauce, molasses, honey, hot sauce, tamarind chutney and brown sugar. Mix them until well combined.
  3. Over medium heat, warm the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onions and sauté until limp and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, and cook for another minute. Add the dry mix and stir for about 2 minutes to extract the oil-soluble flavours.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to pan. Simmer uncovered over medium heat for 15 minutes to thicken somewhat. You can remove chunks with an emersion blender if you wish.
  5. Refrigerate overnight for best results.

Hardware:

  • 1 gas grill
  • 1 tank of propane. No, you won’t need it all, however until you get used to this technique don’t risk running out by starting with a partial tank.
  • 1 in-grill smoke box.
  • 8 ounces by weight of hardwood chunks or chips. It doesn’t matter how many slabs you are cooking, 8 ounces should be enough. I prefer apple and/or hickory. Never use any kind of pine unless you want meat that tastes like turpentine. Never use construction lumber because it’s often treated with toxic chemicals. You do not need to soak the wood.
  • 1 pair of long handled tongs
  • 1 sauce brush
  • 1 good digital thermometer with remote sensor
  • 1 six pack of beer (for the cook, not the meat)
  • 1 lawn chair

Software:

  • 2 slabs of St. Louis Cut (SLC) ribs. That’s ½ slab per adult. If you use baby back ribs, get a whole slab per adult. You can use baby back ribs if you prefer. They are smaller and cook faster. Get fresh, not frozen meat if possible. Fresh meat has the best pork flavour and the most moisture. Ask the butcher to remove the membrane on the back side.
  • 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • The Soak
  • ½ cup of The Rub
  • 1 cup of The Sauce

Prep the Meat:

  1. Skin ‘n’ Trim. If the butcher has not removed the membrane from the back side of your ribs, do it yourself. It gets leathery and hard to chew, it keeps fat in, and it keeps smoke and sauce out. Insert a butter knife under the membrane, then your fingers, work a section loose, grip it with a paper towel, and peel it off. Finally, trim the excess fat from both sides. If you can’t get the skin off, with a sharp knife, cut slashes through it every inch so some of the fat will render out during the cooking.
  2. Soak ‘n’ Rinse. Put rib racks in a large zipper bag or baking pan and cover with marinade mixture. Place in fridge for 2 hours.  Remove and rinse the ribs under cool water to remove any bone fragments from the butchering. Pat dry with paper towel.
  3. Rub. Coat the meat with a thin layer of vegetable oil. This is done because most of the flavourings in the rub are oil soluble, not water soluble. Sprinkle enough rub to coat all surfaces but not so much that the meat doesn’t show through. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons per side of a large slab of St. Louis Cut ribs. To prevent contaminating your rub with uncooked meat juices, spoon out the proper amount before you start and seal the rest for future use. Wrap the ribs in plastic film and refrigerate them overnight

Prep the Grill:

Set up your gas grill for 2-Zone Indirect cooking. This is the method best suited for gas grills and also the one I use.

  1. Remove your cooking grates.
  2. Remove any lava rocks if you have any in your grill.
  3. Adjust the temp. Preheat your grill to about 225°F. This will take some time. Try to keep it there throughout the smoke/cook. Cooking at 225°F will allow the meat to roast low and slow, liquefying the collagen in connective tissues and melting fats without getting the proteins knotted in a bunch. It’s this magic temperature that creates great texture, retains moisture and keeps the meat tender. If you can’t hit 225°F, get as close as you can. Don’t go under 200°F and try not to go over 250°F.
  4. Place a disposable foil roasting pan full of water under the cooking grate(s) on the side you will be placing the ribs (unheated side). Make sure it’s large enough to have its edges as close to the walls of your grill as you can.
  5. Place half of the wood you chose for smoking (4oz) in the smoke box and set it over the section above where the heat will be. Put the smoke box as close to the flame as possible. Resist the temptation to add more wood. Nothing will ruin a meal faster and waste money better than over smoked meat. You can always add more the next time you cook, but you cannot take it away if you over smoke.
  6. Replace the cooking grates.

Get Cooking:

  1. Put the ribs on the grill over the indirect or non heated  area, meaty side up. Close the lid and go drink a beer, read a book, or make love.
  2. When the smoke dwindles after 20 to 30 minutes, add the remaining 4 ounces of wood. That’s it. Stop adding wood. If you have more than one slab on, halfway through the cook you will need to move the ribs closest to the fire away from the heat, and the slabs farthest from the flame in closer. Leave the meat side up. There is no need to flip the slabs. Otherwise, keep your lid on. Opening it  just upsets the delicate balance of heat, moisture, and oxygen inside your grill. It can also significantly lengthen the cooking time. No peeking. If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’.
  3. Allow 5 to 6 hours for St. Louis Cut ribs or 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs. The exact time will depend on how thick the slabs are and how steady you have kept the temp. If you use rib holders so they are crammed close to each other, add about 1 hour. To check to see if the ribs are ready. Use the bend test. Pick up a slab with tongs and bounce it gently. If the surface cracks, it’s ready.
  4. Now brush both sides of the ribs with sauce and put them directly over the hottest part of the grill in order to caramelize and crisp the sauce. With the lid open so you don’t roast the meat from above, sizzle the sauce on one side and then the other. Stand by your grill and watch because sweet sauce can go from caramelized to carbonised in less than a minute! One coat should be enough, but if you need two, go ahead, but no more! Don’t hide all the fabulous flavours under too much sauce. If you think you’ll want more sauce, put some in a bowl on the table.
  5. If you’ve done all this correctly you’ll notice that there is a thin pink layer beneath the surface of the meat. This does not mean it is undercooked. Rather it is the highly prized smoke ring caused by the combustion gases and the smoke. It’s one sign of Amazing Ribs.

Creole Crawfish and Corn Chowder

This has not been a summer of creative cooking. We did still host our annual Crab-Boil however  so I did cook. After having some crawfish and andouille sausage left over (ok, we kept some for ourselves) I thought about ways to use it that would be fairly easy and not usual for me. What I decided on was a soup and more specifically a chowder.

Below is what I came up with and it was very well received by those who tried it.

Due to crawfish being not that easy to get and already peeled meat almost impossible (and after peeling mine for over an hour) I think it would be safe to substitute shrimp and scallops to turn this into a seafood chowder. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Ingredients:

  • 8-10 ounces of andouille sausage links
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 ½ cups onion, finely chopped
  • ¾ cup carrot, finely chopped
  • ½ cup celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, Minced
  • 2 cups red bell peppers, finely chopped
  • 4 cups frozen corn
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 2 ½ litres chicken stock (can use fish or shrimp stock if desired)
  • 2 cups russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
  • 4 Teaspoons Creole seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp thyme leaves
  • 1 ½ pounds cooked, peeled crawfish tail meat
  • 2 cups whipping cream (one 500ml container)

Method:

  1. Grill andouille until nicely browned on the outside. Does not have to be cooked through, just grilled. Halve and cut into ¼ inch slices.
  2. Warm a large pot over medium heat and add 2 tbsp butter, onions, carrots, and celery. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes.
  3. Add the andouille. Cook, stirring for about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic and stir in.
  5. Add the remaining butter, bell peppers and corn to the pot and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring often.
  6. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables in the pot and stir constantly for 2 minutes.
  7. Add the chicken stock to the pot and stir to combine.
  8. Add the potatoes, Creole seasoning, cayenne, and thyme to the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and continue to cook for 20-30 minutes, or until potatoes are very tender.
  9. Add the crawfish meat and whipping cream, stir and cook for 5 to 8 minutes.

Tales of a travelling foodie. The Russian Truckstop

I was reading a review on Foodosophy today and while leaving a comment I was reminded of a story I have told many times. It’s about one of my travel experiences that must be one of the more unusual I’ve had the pleasure to add to my list of anecdotes.

This story can begin with what is most certainly a cliché opener but suits it very well…

It was a dark and stormy night, (see, I told you so) I was on a bus in Russia travelling from the city of St. Petersburg to Moscow with the same group of travellers I had seen most of Scandinavia with. This motley crew consisted mainly of Aussie and Kiwi students and professionals. There were a couple of Canucks such as myself whom it seems were there just to keep the rest from entering areas of certain cities where the local cops don’t even go, being killed by mob types while drunk and mouthy or perhaps being arrested for drug possession while crossing international borders (these are a few of many more tales that I rather enjoy relating to others).

I had, over the time I’d been in Europe seen, met and travelled with so many strange and interesting people from these two countries that I often found myself wondering if there were anyone left in the Southern hemisphere. Who, if anyone was running the place right now? And if not whether the last ones out had in fact remembered to turn out the lights when they left.

These people were not foodies or experienced travelers and they most certainly could not be mistaken for history buffs as my constantly having to explain who certain figures were(such as the Vikings and Rasputin) would indicate. It was my impression from having spent several months with a number of the same sorry group that they travelled for no other reason but that previous generations of their countrymen had informed them that they had a really good time doing so and the booze was fairly good in other countries. None the less I had enjoyed my time with at least a couple of them and they had even saved my life in Norway when while stricken with some unknown local virus I had a fever too high to allow me to think.  After a couple of weeks they’d taken me to hospital where I received immediate treatment for the Pneumonia that was now present in every lobe of my lungs and would according to the doctor have caused full respiratory arrest within days. I like to think they did so out of some sense of altruism and not merely because my coughing and sweating was becoming annoying, not to mention I actually knew where we were going to head next and had set things up.

So, after a couple weeks of recovery and several cheaply acquired doses of frighteningly large pills of unknown content I found myself in a cold bus surrounded by semi-drunk companions speeding down a dark rain-soaked highway. A highway full of a disturbing number of large potholes which our “driver” managed to barely avoid hitting by using the aptly named “suicide lane”. The victims of this road lay in the ditches on either side and the length of time some of the now deceased vehicles had been there was evidenced by the lack of paint/wheels/glass on many of them.

This barely roadworthy transportation had been arranged for us by the enigmatic figure we’d come to rely on as our local “fixer” and we’d decided to call Dodgy Serge for what to us were obvious reasons. This bus trip had however not lived up to Serge’s previous work for us and I was wondering if this was the final act in Serge setting us all up to trust him before we became an unfortunate statistic at the hands of his unsettlingly nasty cohorts(a few of which we’d met). He did however redeem himself with tickets to a Russia vs. Finland hockey game in Moscow that was “sold out” and he managed to also get us in to view Lenin’s tomb after it had been permanently closed to the public.

We were to have left St. Petersburg earlier in the day but the bus we should have been using had been “taken”. This was the simple explanation Serge had given me via the payphone I was to wait for his call on. Thus we had the cold and perhaps barely maintained coffin on wheels in which we now found ourselves. As mentioned before the weather on this evening was bad and the rain was coming down so hard that I began asking what my companions wanted to do to deal with what was becoming even for us an unusually dangerous situation in my view. They were characteristically unconcerned until the driver hit the brakes a short time later and managed a full 360 before stopping and informing us that the wipers had stopped working. This was enough to persuade the lot that finding somewhere to spend the night may just be a good idea.

We drove on for another 30 minutes or so at a much more life-extending speed until the driver announced that we were close to the outskirts of a town called Tver and he knew of a “hotel” we could spend the night in. We all quickly agreed that since driving on would endanger us to more of a degree than we were willing to accept at the time we would stop here and continue on to Moscow in the morning. We were told by the driver it wouldn’t cost any more money paid to him. It seems he felt that not rendering his wife a widow tonight was worth more than money. All we need do was cover his room cost for the night.

We pulled in to what from this point on I’ll refer to as “the truck stop” and parked near a small building that looked like a house. Myself and a few others got out and ran through the rain to the office with our driver who now had to act as interpreter for us. The negotiations with the manager went very smoothly, no doubt aided by the fact we said we’d pay in American dollars. We managed to get enough rooms for all and quickly agreed to a price that we felt was quite good considering they threw in a dinner and breakfast as well.

Soon we were all grabbing our packs from the bus, getting keys and running across the lake of mud that was the parking lot to the oddly barn-like building we had been told by the manager would be our home for the night. We walked up the wide wooden stairs to a hallway with 15  large wooden doors, some of which were not useable due to missing handles. Two bare bulbs lit the narrow hall and the floor was bare wood which creeked badly when any of us moved. I found my room and tried the key. It never even fit the lock and I was able to just twist the handle and push the door open. Others had the same feature on their rooms.

Now, I have to say that I’ve travelled a fair bit and am not easily disturbed by what would be considered to be shall we say less than luxury accommodations in many countries, but the room in which I found myself bunking with long-time roomy Tony this night was an true eye-opener for me. I discovered upon entering the room and quickly looking it over that perhaps it may be better to leave the truck stop and take our chances with the storm. After all the rest of the trip to Moscow wasn’t really that long and the rain could be letting up. This was a feeling shared by most of my companions and one that had the driver not vetoed it and refused to leave would have surely been acted upon.

Our room looked oddly medieval with large wooden furnishings and panelling, the bathroom consisted of a small toilet like device, a wash basin and a large raised tile platform that was apparently the shower, although the lack of a curtain made this assessment not 100% provable. I made the mistake of using this thing only to discover the water was dark yellow and the smell we were so offended by upon opening the door to the the bathroom had not actually come from either the toilet or the rotting walls as we’d previously thought. I closed my eyes and holding my breath quickly scrubbed the previous two days off myself. Unfortunatly I felt no cleaner after this experience. Tony wisely decided he could wait one more day before showering upon smelling my new aroma.

The door to our room had been broken down on what seemed a number of different occasions based on both the damage and numerous subsequent repairs that were visible and the lock did nothing aside from make an interesting grinding noise when we tried to use it. Tony and I decided it would be a good idea for us to move the large, heavy wooden bureau in front of the door while we slept. We’d also come to the conclusion that given we were on the second floor we reasoned the window that did not close or lock was less likely to be the entry point of those we were certain would visit during the night.

The group had agreed to meet in the restaurant an hour after we’d arrived so I headed down and across the parking lot to the building it was housed in. I entered a dark smoke filled hallway and at first wondered if my instructions were correct as to where to go, but after making my way down the corridor I discovered the bar and soon a large open space with a stage at one end that reminded me of a school gym. I found a few members of the group and after giving our ticket to the guy at the bar we entered the dining room. Some more of our companions were already sitting at a long shabby table with drinks in their hands and we quickly moved to join them as the assortment of large mean looking Russian truck drivers eyed us and made comments to others nearby. Tony joked that perhaps we were to be the entertainment for the night and pointed to the stage that seemed so very out of place. We didn’t laugh.

Soon the rest of the group was at our table and we now felt better knowing that with nearly 20 of us it would be very unlikely that we would be bothered while eating dinner. We all agreed that strength in numbers had served us well in the past and would do so again should we need to employ it. I note that even the most rowdy of our group had expressed no intention of hanging around after dinner and sharing a few drinks with the locals.

Shortly after the group was together we received our food, obviously we were not going to be asked what we wanted and while this was annoying we were all pleased to see the plates of what looked like chicken arrive at the table. We examined the food and thought maybe it was a schnitzel of some kind or perhaps chicken Kiev. It did look quite good and we all began to eat.

I cut off a piece of the chicken on my plate and now realizing how hungry I was promptly put in my mouth and began to chew. I immediately noticed a disturbing crunch and felt the sting of bone slicing into my gums adding the taste of blood to the mouthful of what? chicken? was I still thinking this was chicken that shredded my mouth? I looked at my friends and saw the expressions of surprise and disgust on their faces, some had even spat out what they’d put in their mouths. I used a napkin to remove what I’d bitten off and placed it on the table.

I now took a good look at what was on my plate, it still looked tasty sitting there and I used the fork and knife to remove the coating mix and skin that was on the piece. There underneath was what I can only describe as a chicken back that was repeatedly hit with a hammer or run over with a truck perhaps. This thing was flattened completely, there was only the small sharp fragments of bone that opened my gums and no visible meat at all. We were not happy but decided it would not be worth making a stink about and as a result just ate the skin and limp veggies, washing all down with what in my case was very potent vodka.

We were beginning to get ready to leave when the lights dimmed and the groups of truckers who until now were doing no more than mulling around drinking and talking suddenly all sat down at the other tables in the room and became quiet, they looked towards the stage and this prompted us to do the same thing. I was amazed by what I saw there.

What I saw was something that to this day is both hilarious to discuss and perhaps frightening enough to make me wonder if I’d been sharing in some mass hallucination. One brought on by something having been slipped into our drinks in order to render us more easily overpowered when we were to be rolled for our money and packs.

The show we witnessed that stormy night in a dangerous looking truck stop in the middle of Russia was a young lady dancing. No, she was not naked nor touching herself in any way. Quite to the contrary she danced in lovely clothes holding large feathers to very nice classical music. All in all the routine was quite elegant and well performed. Scanning the assortment of large, scarred, tattooed and hairy truck drivers that surrounded me and noting the intensity with which they watched this show was unearthly. They made no noises and no crude gestures were offered to the girl before them who moved beautifully around the stage. It was a form of what I’ll crudely describe as culture-shock that prior to this moment I would not have guessed was even possible. And while certainly aided by being tired and not having eaten the feeling was none the less exceedingly uncomfortable.

After a period of time I was able to get hold of myself and I looked at my companions. They too were in utter disbelief at what was happening, as evidenced by the looks of shock on their faces. This was so unsettling (in a Twilight Zone/Weird dream sort of way) that we all quickly and without a word spoken seemed to decide at once to remove ourselves from the situation. We all got up leaving food and unfinished drinks on the table as we swiftly returned to our rooms. There was a very large man in the hall outside our rooms and we moved past without eye contact, hoping he wasn’t there to relieve us of our belongings and that we’d just interrupted him.

Tony and I for our part never even spoke about what we’d just witnessed. Laughing about the strangeness of it all was something reserved for later. We were honestly just happy that upon returning to our room we found nobody had tampered with the chains we’d used to lock our bags to the perhaps 800 pound beds and that the huge guy in the hall had not decided to nudge the door open for a look. We moved the heavy furnishings in front of the door and climbed into bed with thoughts of leaving as early as we could the following morning.

None of the group had their doors kicked down in the night and in fact not one of us had any problems at all. This may have been the result of the 6’9″ guy with a gun that wandered up and down the hall where all of our rooms were that night. Hearing him plodding back and forth on the squeaking floor caused me so much grief that I finally -and to Tony’s horror- had to look into the hall at around 3 am. I received a smile and Zdra-stvu-eetee from the monster of a man who was the same one we’d seen earlier. He raised a palm to me and said “go, sleep now, good and safe”. I closed the door, told Tony that we were apparently being guarded and after blocking the door again (for good measure) went back to bed. We thanked the manager the next morning for the protection and before departing left him a US $10 tip (may not seem like much to you, but converted to roubles it was two months pay for him). None of us had slept well (Some hearing the pacing back and forth in the hall never slept at all) but it was over with.

We decided not to have breakfast at the dining room and opted instead to consume some of our portable stores in order to leave as quickly as we could. The rain had ceased and the drive to Moscow was mostly uneventful other than the usual lane changes and passing of slow-moving vehicles in the suicide lane. Upon arriving in Moscow the bus died with a huge smoky bang just inside the city. We were however able to get to our next stop-over via subway so we decided to move on. We wished the driver luck, gave him his money and after a call to Serge were on our way. When we finally discussed the previous night and all that it had entailed it was with the levity of looking back and having moved on. This was aided by a great deal of vodka.

A Foodies Life in a Smaller City

We’ve lived in the “City” of Airdrie now for a couple of months and thus far my impressions of the place are not as good as I’d hoped… at least in a few ways, chief among these being culinary variety.

When we said we were moving to Airdrie one friend of Nancy’s refered to this little city as a “cultural wasteland” and asked what on earth would possess us to move here. While I’d never go so far as to use such judgemental terms I have found that our neighbours have a good number of pick-up trucks and that their driving habits are lacking normal couth.  For example; the tendency to use the slow-lane to and from Calgary as their own personal express way or never using the signal-lights except as a quick “F-You” type flash as they cut quickly in front of a Slow Moving vehicle (only doing 120KPH in a 110KPH zone)is somewhat indicative of a more “Hick-Town” mentality than I’d hoped for when planning to move here.

I’ve also noticed since living here the somewhat disturbing fact that without exception thus far every bar I’ve driven past or entered is busy EVERY SINGLE NIGHT OF THE WEEK! Often when I’ve been to these places the dining side has far more families than one would ever see in Calgary at a similar or exact same place. It’s not as if there are no restaurants to dine at so why choose a loud place like Brewsters to take the folks and the kids on a Tuesday night? I can only hope that I’ll also find the same thing occurring in the better restaurants around town. I’ll know for sure when I’ve gotten out a bit more after the weather warms up.

We do have access to some fairly good food including sushi at Sushi Haru, but this highly rated place suffers from something that I’ve noticed is common here, namely that the more interesting menu items one would find normally at a similar place in a larger city are always missing. The nigiri list at Haru is perhaps 10 items long and when asked about the absence of certain things the staff points out something I’ve heard from several owners in town. They’ve told me that the patrons simply don’t eat the more unusual or authentic food they offered when they first opened, so it was removed from the menu. Truly sad.

The owner of a local Vietnamese noodle shop told us that when they opened they had common ingredients in their Pho such as beef tendon but that the people ordering it complained of the weird stuff in their soup. I’ll not for the sake of kindness say what should be said about anyone who complains that the food from another culture contains things not normal to them. Of course I don’t blame the owners for making these changes to the menu, after all they would lose money if they continued to offer things the clientele will not eat. I just wish that my fellow Airdronians had a little more … um, what’s a good term to use here?…. one that won’t insult my local friends….. how about refined palette? yeah, that should work. I hope that places such as the somewhat over-priced yet good Taj Indian restaurant will succeed here since we need them. And of course on the other end of the spectrum I hope as well that stores such as Five Guys Burgers, Nathan’s Hotdogs and DQ are not the only places that are busy every day.

While I do believe in promoting local places above others and will thus choose an Airdrie location prior to considering the drive to Calgary (and this is for all business, not just dining) I will also not hold back on any reviews or opinions I have just because the store in question might need a boost. If the food sucks I’ll be sure to say just that. This having been said I do not expect that I’ll find almost anything that resembles a recipe true to the culture it represents, so with this in mind I’ll try to be more forgiving.

We’ve now been to several places multiple times and will begin to post reviews soon. Also, despite what I wrote above I actually look forward to a Nathan’s Chili Cheese or Chicago Dog with a side of Beer Battered Rings…It’s been a long time old friends, a long time. 🙂

P.S. I will state for the record that any Nathan’s hotdog eating contest entered (such as the one June 18th in Calgary) will be for the sole purpose of this blog and my readers and in no way should be used as a standard by which one measures my own cultural depth.

Alabama Jacks

We’d decided to take a more scenic route from Miami to the keys and having heard about Alabama Jack’s from some fellow riders I suggested we drop in for lunch before crossing to the keys.

Now any place that looks like an open air market on the side of the road with a large number of bikes and cars in the lots is going to attract my attention. It just happens that Nancy found it interesting as well, so the chances that we’d drive by were exactly ZERO. The odds were sealed by the sign that stated they had the best Conch Fritters in the Keys (more on this later). It was even better to walk in and be warmly greeted by both staff and at least one pleasantly glowing patron. Although I tend to think the fellow would have warmly greeted just about anything that moved near him.

The place was rustic and had a great feel about it with a little country music charm. I’m not a fan of cheap “bought-at-Walmart” plastic chairs but since they are open air in a place that gets a fair amount of  rain and where the humidity is always high I guess they can be forgiven. There are several tables and a bar with one side of the place open to the Everglades. The decor was interesting and eclectic in the way some chain places try to replicate (Montanas for example) but with an actual non-theme park/corporate attitude that I found relaxing.

‘Bama Jack’s is built over the water on the estuary from the Everglades to the Gulf of Mexico and we chose to sit right next to the rail over-looking the very clear and slow-moving water where boats were tied up so their owners could enjoy a cold one.. There were birds gliding past just above the surface and we could see large fish hanging around. We discovered why both were there soon enough.

We ordered a couple of drinks. I had to try a local brew so the Key West ale was a given. Being so close to the Keys we felt compelled to order Conch and since we both have a favorite version of this tasty shellfish and both were on the menu we got them. Nancy asked for the Conch Salad and as for me… Anyone who’s been reading here for a while will know that on this trip I discovered a new addiction…Conch Fritters. Now, I’ve loved fritters since I was a kid and my Grandmother made us the corn variety. Since her passing though I’ve never been able to find any that were that good in any restaurant this however hasn’t kept me from sampling almost every one I see on any menu just in case. The ones I had in Nassau were amazingly good and started a quest to taste every Conch fritter I could locate while in Florida. Of course if you are indeed a regular reader you’ll know that this particular quest caused me no end of mental agony and on occasion a certain degree of intestinal distress. It seems that most Conch fritters in Florida are just boring and oily, with some being just plain nasty. I’m guessing that is due to them being over-sold as a “must-have” for tourists. My quest had only just begun when we stopped at Alabama Jack’s that day and the honeymoon was in full swing. I’d had some poor examples of fritters since The Bahamas but just chalked it up to bad luck.

On this day I was to sample a conch fritter that would solidify the above thought and galvanize my will  as I pushed forward in my search. They arrived with my beer and looked great. These were truly what I’d been searching for. They were crispy and light, full of flavour and were not oily. Served with a dipping sauce that I quite liked and a key lime wedge these are very good and may well deserve the title they claim.

Nancy’s Conch salad was small, it came served like a salsa in a bowl with tortillas. We both liked it and found that the ingredients were fresh and the flavours worked well together. I’m not sure about the chips but did not know if this was common or not so I’ll just say it was interesting as a choice.

While dining we noticed that both the large fish and the birds were tending to pay a good deal of attention to us and were both now quite close to us and in ever-increasing numbers. Just for fun I flicked a piece of tortilla in the air and to my surprise it was snatched immediately by a swooping bird in mid-flight. I crumbled some more up in my hand and dropped it over the side of the rail… the fish went nuts. This was without a doubt why they hung around near the place. I’m not one to generally feed wildlife and stopped quickly but it was something else to see the birds aerobatics and the fish swarm in.

All told we had a very nice snack at Alabama Jack’s and would strongly suggest that anyone driving to the Keys avoid the super-slab and take the back roads (for more reasons than this) on the way in order to drop in.

No, I’ve not died…

I’ve simply been busy/lazy for some time.

Life can at any moment catch us all by surprise and manages to suck up our time. Between selling a property, buying a new home, renting a property, travelling, getting a new job etc. I’ve managed to burn months before I knew it. I apologize to my readers for this absence and will make every attempt to post more in the near future.

We’re still busy with Christmas, moving and work and while we don’t go out as much as before I will endeavor to post reviews when we do.

Thanks for being so patient (those that have not e-mailed me weekly at least) and have a Merry Christmas!

Taiyo Japanese Restaurant review

Anyone who visits here and reads my reviews or has dined with me is well aware of my longstanding enjoyment of sushi. I’ve been fortunate enough to sample it in restaurants all over the world and have developed a fair palette for the delicate flavours.

Unfortunate then that I live in a part of Calgary where there are few choices that don’t involve travelling farther than my inherent laziness will permit. When sitting in my office and the craving hits me I generally ignore it. I settle for something else rather than drive to the nearest place that serves acceptable sushi. Yes, there are grocery stores nearby but I have never been that desperate.

Given the above information it’s easy to understand how hearing of a new Japanese restaurant opening very close by would arouse a healthy curiosity on my part. My only hope was that other than a new place to try Taiyo would also prove to be one that offered sushi and that the aforementioned sushi would be good.

Taiyo is located in the Creekside Shopping Centre and as such is really the only Japanese restaurant in the area. Sure you could drive to Crowfoot hoping one of the places there will be having a good day or take your chances with mall food courts or the previously mentioned supermarket offerings, these however are not as good an option now(not an option at all in my view) since this store has opened.

I’d only just heard that a new Japanese place was opening and since I had a desire to eat some sushi and wanted to get a little riding in while the clouds had briefly parted I jumped on my bike and headed over to give Taiyo a try.

It’s not surprising that I had not noticed the signage go up here since this place is at the far North end of this long mall. I only ever find myself there when visiting Rona. If I’d not had my spies inform me of its existence I may well not have found Taiyo for some time. Luckily this was not the case.

Being a storefront location the owners have put “glass etch” window film up and you cannot see into the restaurant. I had expected a basic open space with bare walls and a few tables. I was pleasantly surprised at the nicely thought out and attractive dining room I found when I entered. There is a sushi bar at the far end near the kitchen, couples seating, booths, floor-level style booths and a private dining area for groups. All in all a well made casual dining room.

I was promptly greeted by a smiling pretty young lady and shown a table. The two sushi chefs behind the bar were working at making orders but were nice enough to smile and nod in welcome to me as I was seated. I asked for some sake and a glass of water and they were brought right away.

I took a look at the lunch menu and decided on an 8 piece nigiri combo with two pieces of  the house roll and 6 of nigiri which also came with miso soup and a salad. In addition to this I ordered some separate pieces of unagi and tamago, two of my favourites and some of the items I like to use to gauge the sushi in a new place. I found the prices of the sushi to be on the high side of normal for Calgary while the sake was priced about average. Adding the drink and extra nigiri was going to make this a filling if somewhat expensive lunch since I’d already decided to splurge for the green tea iced cream.

I was very pleased with the service I received and found that the two young ladies who served me were very attentive and friendly. I discovered while talking with one of them that Taiyo is family owned. My servers’ older brother and sister ran the place. The brother was behind the sushi bar and the sister was the other girl doing front of house duty along with the one I spoke to. She informed me that they had only been open a few days, as such I was fairly impressed with things so far.

Having my water filled when near the bottom of the glass is certainly nice but when moments after finishing with a plate or bowl it is removed and this is done with every one of several during my meal I can honestly say the service is far better than is common in Calgary. I also found the staff to be pleasant to speak to without being overly talkative. I hope this level of service is something they maintain as it will set them apart from any competition and will certainly bring guests back.

My soup and salad were on the table just shortly after my sake had arrived. The salad was fresh and I found the dressing to be light and tasty. The miso was the standard version I’ve had many times. It was not too salty and contained a good amount of tofu and greens.

I had not quite finished with my soup and salad when the nigiri platter was brought over. The sushi looked good. The presentation was minimal and clean. I saw that the meshi pieces were smaller than many in town and this is okay in my opinion, I’m not a fan of huge amounts of rice with my sushi. The fish looked to be well cut for the most part and proved to be quite fresh. The pieces weren’t too large to deal with as is becoming popular with the “more is better” crowd(something sushi lovers generally dislike). Upon sampling the nigiri I did find that the meshi was not firm and the portions tended to fall apart when handled. The two pieces of the house roll were firm and well made. I liked the combination used and will try this roll on its own at a later date. While the selection in this combo was nothing exotic the fish was fresh and tasted good, with the salad and soup it was priced again somewhat on the higher end at $14.

The separate pieces of nigiri I’d ordered arrived shortly after the main platter. The unagi looked very nice, it was slightly charred and crispy looking. It turned out to be very good. I hate cold or room temperature unagi and this was just right, warm with a small amount of sauce as opposed to the often dripping versions I’ve had on several occasions. The eel was also the proper texture leading me to believe it was fresh and as with the other portions was a fair size.

The tamago however proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. I really like this type of sushi and as a gauge for how good a sushi chef is in Japan it is perhaps unrivalled with every itamae having his own recipe. The egg on mine was slightly frozen in spots and overall the taste and texture were not as good as I’d have hoped for. I’ll give it another go when I visit again but don’t think I’ll be calling it a favourite.

On the whole I quite liked my visit to Taiyo. The food was fairly good for the most part and while not upscale it surpassed the offerings of the other far NW sushi places, several of which I’ve visited recently. The price may be an issue with some but for fresh fish served by lovely, friendly and attentive staff who go out-of-the-way to provide good service I’m willing to pay it. I’m certainly pleased that I can now satisfy my sushi cravings while expending as little energy and time as possible driving to acquire it.

Taiyo on Urbanspoon

UPDATE:

After visiting a second time I was very pleased to find that the tamago had been reworked using a new recipe and was very good. The owners worked together I’m told to come up with a version that would impress the customers, I’d say they succeeded in doing so. I will now say that this tamago is as good as any in town.

I have to say that if you love Unagi as much as I do you should visit Taiyo. I can state without hesitation that they offer the best version of this nigiri I have had locally. Unagi that is worth eating needs to be warm, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and not be smothered in sauce, this is just what you’ll get here. I also enjoy it just charred a little and it’s served exactly this way.

This time I induged in some ebi tempura prior to my meal and found that it was quite nice. The coating was good and there was very little oil to speak of on or soaked into the pieces of prawn.

I also sampled the house special roll called the “Sunshine Roll”(since Taiyo translates to Sunshine it’s fitting) at the suggestion of the sushi chef and was pleased with this creation. I would say that the pieces were a little thick for easy eating but none the less this is a very nice offering that I will be ordering again.

As on my first visit the staff were exceptional and I recieved very good service from both the front of house staff and the sushi chefs at the bar.