Monday, June 25, 2007

Byrd Park Bloggers United by Pride

I live in Byrd Park, and I love it. My neighbors are fabulous. The parks are splended and sprawling. Bars are a 10 mintue walk away. Crime is on the decline. I could go on, but I want to touch on a specific aspect of Byrd Park that makes me proud. As a community, we are diverse, inclusive, and friendly to one another. Although Byrd Park is gentrifying and ridiculous development that is hostile to working class people is sprouting up in our midst, and many of us probably have a ways to go at developing real bonds across across racial lines, I am particularly thankful that so many LGBTs call Byrd Park their "gayborhood."

Another Byrd Park blogger, Kelly Stern, has taken this picture of Fountain Lake and is promoting it as a as a symbol of gay pride and solidarity to be posted by sympathetic bloggers. So, Kelly, my neighbor whome I've scarcely shared a word with, I'm happy to respond to your challenge. This blog is home to a vision of social justice, as well as delicious food, and thrifty spending. So, in honor of the fabulous people who help to make my neighborhood what it is, please enjoy this rainbow over Fountain Lake.

Solidarity forever.

ps: I'm having a yard sale this Saturday (20 boxes of books and some clothes). Click the link and see my Craigslist description, list of book genres, etc. I'm doing minimal advertising and just hope to have a relaxing day chatting up some of my neighbors during the sale.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Washer Repairs? No "Sears Suckers" here

After two and a half years living in my Byrd Park house, my front-loader Kenmore washer kicks the bucket. Last weekend, I was pulling a fully soaked load of clothes out and draping them over everything that I could find in my back yard. With the tub full of black soapy water, I paid a call to the Sears Repair hotline listed on the machine. The bottom line: $59 to come out and diagnose the problem and then X number of dollars to fix it. Immediately, I recall my last encounter using the Sears Repair guys to fix my parents' dryer. They quickly concluded that it was only a fuse that needed replacing. For $90 (+$59), the dude walked to the truck, grabbed a fuse, and stuck it in the slot, and closed the panel (five minutes total). "I can't believe I am doing this," I thought to myself as I made the appointment.

Four days later, my wet clothes are putrifying in piles at corners of my basement and a disgusting odor is coming out of the washing machine's tub of black water. So, needless to say, I was eager today when I came home early from work to meet the repair guy. After I spied the blue Sears repair van pass my house and park at the end of the block, I sat on the porch for 10 minutes waiting for him to get out and walk up the sidewalk to my stoop.

Once inside, he asked me what's wrong with the machine. "Won't drain. Won't spin," says I. "It won't spin, because it won't drain," he clarifies. And at first I start to take offense to this snide comment. But then it starts to sink in. Okay, this fact is part of his diagnosis procedure. After pushing buttons and turning dials, he blurts out, "Bad pump." Then he opens the machine and looks at the pump and tests wires with a little readout machine. Suddenly, he says that my pump is fine, but that I need a new timer. He walks out saying that he'll see if he's got one in the truck, leaving his toolbox behind.

Considering that this was moving along at a pretty good clip, I started to get excited about washing some clothes tonight. So, I paced around the house, got my checkbook ready, and made plans for dinner. But, time went by and before I knew it 30 minutes had passed and he's still sitting in his van at the end of my block. So, I called him up. And I got one of those, "Yeah, whatdya want?" kinda responses. It turns out that he can't find a timer for this model anywhere in Richmond.

Eventually, he comes back in and says he can fix my washer next week for $300 and follows up with, "Do you wanna do it?" I couldn't help but hear these words as either rhetorical or malicious, and my blood started boiling. "I'd be pretty stupid to take that deal." The old price tag is still on the washer and it says $349. I paid him his $59 and he leaves.

Immediately, my wife and I start trying to figure out where we'll get a new washer, how much we want to spend, how to move the old one out and the new one ion, installation, etc. The Sears repair guy did, however, give us a coupon for $65 off a purchase of a new Sears washer (over a $399 minimum) if we bring our receipt from this job in the next two weeks. Hmmm...

Consumer reports shows that the front loading washers are much more highly rated than the top loaders. However, they cost twice as much, starting at $700 and topping out near $1800. The top loaders are much cheaper, but maligned in all of the reviews. Lowes and Best Buy both sell an entry level Fridgedaire for $499, but the capacity is pretty small. So, off I go to the scratch'n'dent appliance store on Westwood Ave, hoping that I can get a bargain on something.

On my way to the car, I get another idea and in a couple minutes, I've pulled up to the Cary Street Appliance store at the Allen Ave intersection. I've always seen the place as kind of an eye sore on Cary. But, it can't hurt to look, I figure. At least I'll feel out what's available at the low end of the spectrum. Inside, a middle aged black man named Lynn sizes me up and points me to his shiniest previously owned washers. They're Whirlpools and they look like cheap-Os to me, since I was replacing a new-fangled front-loader. $225 he tells me and just a little extra for delivery, installation, and hauling away the old one. Hmmm... I tell him that I'm just getting started in my research and then I high tail it out the door. But I keep thinking about Lynn. I'd been in his place a few times, but never really trusted their merchandise. He gets it used and sells it for relatively cheap. Maybe he'll cut corners in other places. Warranty? Customer service? On the other hand, his shop has been there for years. They must be doing something right. With one discount store and three big-boxes on my agenda for the night, it occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't look any further.

Before I get two blocks away, I've got my wife on the phone and I'm pitching to her the idea of a working washer in our basement tonight for less than half the minimum price we were thinking of paying. She's game. So, I haul ass back to Lynn and we both look at the washer and then at the clock. It's almost 6pm on Friday. I make my proposal. "Lynn. $250 and we go install this in baby my basement right now and you can have my old Kenmore." He's game, but he wants me to know that he doesn't have any use for front loaders. The old-timer disdains the new design saying that they're hard to repair.

A minute later, Lynn is suggesting tomorrow (when I'll be outta town). It's his delivery/installation guy's birthday and he wants to go home sooner than later. I point out that I'm only 5 or 6 blocks away and we all smile. "Shoot, I didn't know this was a neighborhood gig," he says. "Let's do it." Something about me (tattoos?) must be screaming "Southside."

Within minutes, Cory, the very young appliance deliverer is cruising by my house in his pick-up, seeing me on the porch and smiling as he circles around to the alley. Once he's in my yard, I wish him happy birthday and offer him a cold beer. Alas, Cory does not drink. His only wish is to go home, shower, and then go to Kabutos with his lady. The two of us push heavy washing machines around for 10 minutes and talk about food. He urges me to try Kabutos and I counter by suggesting that he order something with wasabi. Since he doesn't drink, I figure he should get a rush by some other means.

One day and four loads of laundry later, my wife is telling me that I did a good job handling the washer situation. Since then, I've been beaming about my knack for bargains. Anyhow, if the moral of this story isn't clear, let me clarify: Sears repair guys run a real racket. Look to the small local businesses for used stuff that'll get the job done.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Muy Sabrosa: Authentic Mexican and the Taco Truck

Yesterday, I ate Mexican food twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. These two favorite places of mine are very different and very special.

Readers of this blog will already know that I love the flavors of Latino cuisines and that I actually believe that any food served inside of a tortilla is better than any food without a tortilla. So, I'm either an authority on the subject of Mexican food, or merely a fanatic. But seriously, since my wife and I went to Mexico for our honeymoon (luna de miel, en espanol), we have raised our standards for Southwestern inspired cooking. Now, we are seldom satisfied with the combination plate, or the 7lb burrito wrapped in foil.

My new outlook first took me to Taqueria del Sol (<---- painfully inadequate website) in the Merchants Walk shopping center on W. Broad, just past the Glenside/64 (the same strip-mall where the beloved Marshalls, oasis of bargain hunters resides). I went there weeks ago on a weekend morning while running an errand and thought I'd see if they served huevos rancheros, one of my favorite dishes.

When I stepped inside this fairly typical looking Mexican restaurant storefront, I was greeted by a packed house of Latino faces turning to look at the lone gringo. A little intimidating, I must admit. Although, I'm not really a shy guy. Hardly distracted by my entrance, the crowd of customers was jovial and relaxed in the way that brunch crowds tend to be. There was only one tiny table available, and I took it.

Once seated, I noticed that at least half of the customers were leaning over large white bowls of I dunno what. What could this be? I've never been served anything in a big bowl in a Mexican restaurant (except maybe a margarita for two). Well, I ordered my huevos and enjoyed my chips and salsa while occasionally craning my neck to peek at la comida del otras personas. I also noticed some drink fountains that circulate various fruity beverages, and one of them was stark white. Horchata! This fabulously sweet drink is made with boiled and strained rice, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. So soothing and satisfying. You have to try it and/or make it at home.

Ya know, at this point, I want to fast forward, because last night's visit was far more important than my first visit to the Taqueria del Sol. To make it quick, the huevos rancheros were awesome and the red sauce was so delicious that I wanted to lap it up like a dog. When I paid my bill, I casually walked by a few tables and peered down into the big white bowls and saw an orange/red broth with pieces of chicken (with the bones) sticking out. The server said, "caldo de pollo" is very popular at this time of day. This, I recalled, was nowhere on the menu and neither was the horchata (pronounced without the "H"). Hmmm, the real stuff is under the counter and you gotta ask for it. Nice.

Since that visit, I've been telling everyone to check this place out. But weeks and months passed before I was able to visit again, this time with Karen. Since before the place recently opened, we had both been curious about the place, because we noticed ceviche on the menu posted in the window. Although it's a classic fish dish, few Mexican restaurants serve it because it's fairly delicate (being raw fish marinated in lime juice). Surely, this was a sign that Taqueria del Sol was un poco diferente.

So, I had to order the ceviche and they had to check and make sure that they had it ready. Being a little nervous about ordering the only non-shrip seafood dish on the menu (and it being essentially raw), I asked if it was "good" in both english and spanish with my best, "please don't poison me" expression (although the real verdict would come later that night). Anyhow, the platter came out and I wolfed it down with gusto, feeling like a heel for my prejudices. The plate was brimming with a mound of finely chopped flounder meat, mixed with loads of cilantro, finely diced onions, slabs of avocado and of course copious amounts of lime juice. Tortillas were included to scoop it all up and I loved every minute of it, only to be awoken from my foodie dream-come-true by my wife interrupting my feast with, "Well, are you going to talk to me, or what?!"

Oh, yeah. This was sort of a date. Silly me. While having a transcendent experience with my entree, I'd totally neglected my wife. Speaking of Karen, she ordered the enchiladas poblanos which were served with dark rich mole poblano all over the plate. To describe this sauce would take several more paragraphs, but just imagine loads of broth, oil, and chilis blended and simmered for hours with unsweetened cocoa, ground pumpkin seeds and maybe ten different thickening agents. As they say, the sauce is the dish. But, it's an acquired taste, and probably best experienced in its native regions of Mexico. But, the stuff at Taqueria del Sol isn't bad at all. So, give it a try.

Karen and I washed this grub down with two tall glasses of iced horchata, which was actually a mistake. While delicious, the drink is just sweet enough and thick enough to prematurely fill you up. So, my tip is to split it, and if a second is in order... Oh, one last thing. On each of the tables were specials listed in those plastic encased table tents. Seven different kinds of meat are offered to make up a plate of three tacos. They also had gorditas and sopes. This style of menu was reminiscent of the offerings in Mexico and I'll bet that the target audience is local latinos. I dunno. Just a hunch. But being mostly a vegetarian, I don't think I'm going to find out any time soon. Why don't you go and let me know? I'll bet that stuff is the real star at Taqueria del Sol.


Earlier in the day, I left my VCU office on Franklin Street just long enough to visit Nate's Taco Truck, located where Grove and Stuart converge in front of the Performing Arts building and the VCU library. Nate is out there most weekdays during lunch and he's developed a loyal following since starting up in the VCU area over the past year or so. I think he first caught my eye with his flyers that morphed his bespectacled face into Any Warhol's enigmatic Che Guevara silhouette. A little bit hippy, Nate is not to be confused with those consistent purveyors of big piles of tasteless rice wraps on Main Street (aka Mobile Munchies).

What Nate offers is, however, a mysterious concoction of spices and herbs and beans and cheeses and meats (tvp or potato melange for the vegetarians), all in taco-sized soft tortillas. Whatever his secret is, the stuff he serves is delicious and prepared with a Cheshire cat's smile. My favorite is the potato taco. So good. At five potato tacos and counting, I still haven't found a potato in a single bite, but I'm not complaining cuz it tastes so good. What is that stuff anyhow? Try it and leave a comment here and end my speculation. And tell me what I'm missing out on by passing up the beef/chicken tacos.

One novelty item on the menu is a Frito Pie. If you already know what this is, pardon my naivete, but this popular convenience food was news to me. Nate opens a mini bag of Fritos and tosses everything that he would otherwise put into a taco right into the bag and hands it to you with a fork. And you know what? It's not bad at all. I guess it's all about the fixins, and that seems to be Nate's speciality.

As for me, I'm headed outta town for a week. But I should clarify something. The semi-raw fish at Taqueria del Sol caused me no problems whatsoever. The rest of the night was digestively uneventful, just the way I like it. According to a comment on this blog about my honeymoon eating adventures, that's the insurance policy of the lime juice. Not only does it cook the food with its acidity, but it also protects you from indigestion. My hat goes off to the contributions of Latin America to my taste buds, among other areas of the public sphere.

And on that note, I'd like to wish my sister in-law, Karina, a big congratulations for weathering the INS appeals process and finally getting a visa so she and my brother can relocate their family from Veracruz, Mexico back to the states.

Buena suerte.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Introducing: Grilled Ramen

Tis the season to grill, but it is always the season to eat cheap noodles. So, I have devised a frugal recipe for your grilling pleasure. Introducing: Grilled Ramen.

If you love the taste of a good char on just about anything, then this is a fun and frugal dish that you should add to your repertoire. Now the staple food of college student cooks, the apathetic, and the budget conscious obtains it's bbq boy scout patch. First, a note about our main ingredient: I am loyal to Nissin brand Oriental Flavor ramen (tasty, vegetarian, and always on sale), but feel free to use whichever brand/flavor you prefer.

There are two schools of thought on preparing ramen. The first is to follow the instructions on the packet and add 2 ½ cups of water, creating a noodle soup with a diluted flavor and slightly mushy noodles. The other is to add much less water, creating an intense flavor that evenly coats the resilient al dente ramen (my old favorite method).

There is a time and a place for both methods. However, my newly developed technique focuses on flavor and feel by taking the broth almost completely out of the equation, thus preserving the integrity of the ramen. The result is a rollercoaster of unique texture and smokey savoriness that mirrors the curlicue character of the beloved noodle cake.


Marinate ramen cake in sauce (see below for sauce suggestions), flipping to be sure of absorption throughout the noodle cake (about 20 mins, just enough time to get your fire going).
Ramen cake is ready to be grilled when it has become tender, but still cohesive.

Place on medium flame grill (charcoal is best).

Lift corner every minute or so to look for char marks (about 3 minutes). A little smoke should inform you that it's about ready to flip.

Flip when it’s getting crunchy and black/golden brown spots cover one side. Be sure to detach the whole thing with your spatula before moving it, or else the cake may pull apart, creating a much less appetizing mess (and frustration).

Serve plain or with chives, scallions, grilled tofu or veggies, etc. If there is any remaining marinade drizzle it over top of the noodles

Your grilled ramen cake will have chewy spots and moist spots, but every bite will be flavorful and fun to eat. Tear it apart with chop sticks. Invite friends to dig in with you. It's fun, romantic, contemplative... Whatever mood strikes you, I am sure that a few minutes before the hot fire will sooth your savage beast and satiate your appetite with fire-cured noodle goodness.

For a soupier version, serve "au jus" by pouring the desired amount of boiling hot water over the grilled noodles and letting it sit for a few minutes (but be careful not to dilute the flavor too much). If you have any ideas for grilled ramen, I'd love to hear them. Post your experiments here as a comment. The sun is shining and it's time to have fun by the fire.

SAVOR THE FLAVOR: a sauce for any occasion

For "Grilled Ramen Sauce" you basically just need a concoction that is somewhat syrupy, so it glazes the noodles, watery enough to be absorbed by the noodles, slightly sweet, so it caramelizes, and packed with tangy flavors that will compliment the charred spots.

A lazy method: use 1/3 cup of hot water to dilute 1/3 cup of your favorite asian sauce/marinade like terriaki, szechuan, etc.

An easy method: whisk together the following ingredients

Flavor packet from ramen
2 tblsp soy sauce
Squirt of sriracha (or favorite hot sauce) to taste
Couple dashes of rice vinegar (or lemon or lime juice)
A few drops of toasted sesame oil
½ tsp sugar
¼ cup of hot water
A sprinkling of sesame seeds (optional)

Master sauce: whisk the following ingredients together

2 tsp fresh ginger, minced and ground or passed through a garlic press
1 clove garlic, diced and mashed to a pulp
2 tblsp soy sauce
1 tblsp rice vinegar
squirt of sriracha/sambal (or your fave hot sauce)
a couple cranks of black pepper
2 tblsp olive oil
1/4 cup hot water
1/2 tsp sugar/honey/maple syrup

Well, now it's your turn. I am continually experimenting in the kitchen (and on the porch), so you'll see some more suggestions from me about this in due time (plus, I've got more pictures). But, I'd like to know about the versions of grilled ramen that you come up with. So, dig in and write back.