Monday morning (culinary) quarterbacking

June 13, 2011

It was definitely a filling weekend, and it all started on Saturday, at Sun Wah BBQ. After reading about the Cheng family in the New York Times last Wednesday, I kicked myself for not having been in for awhile; knowing we were going to be in Uptown on Saturday, I made a reservation for 20 of us, pre-ordered a couple of ducks, and let them do their magic:

Ever since they ditched the tiny storefront on Argyle and moved around the corner into the new, spacious digs on Broadway, the barbecued duck and pork have been stealing the show. Nearly every table orders the multi-course dish, which starts off with a platter of sliced breast and thigh - juicy and impossibly moist - along with the crispy, crackling skin that is only achieved through a process that can only be described as time-consuming and labor-intensive (giant, vertical ovens and great recipe for a glaze help). At the table, you're also given some sweet hoisin, a few thinly-sliced shards of carrot and leek, plus the pillow-soft gua bao - the bun that made David Chang famous. The hoisin is smeared on the bao, then the duck meat and skin are placed in between the soft clam shell of a bun, along with the crunchy vegetables. These do-it-yourself sandwiches are so good, I could barely stop at four. The carcasses are brought back to the kitchen, and the remaining bits of meat are used to make a second course - usually fried rice. A third course features an enormous tureen of soup made with the bones and odd bits of the duck left over. Honestly, this is the only thing you need to order here, but plan on one duck for every three or four hungry adults.

On Sunday, I took the kids to the Logan Square Farmer's Market, which has suddenly exploded, with at least a dozen new booths stretching further East along Logan Blvd. Zullo's is a must for their tiny, spherical zeppole (doughnuts), but so is the Jo Snow Syrups booth.

Melissa Yen used to run Vella Cafe in the space that's now Belly Shack. She took one of her popular items - homemade sodas - and reverse-engineered it into a line of flavorful, all-natural syrups bearing such hyper-seasonal personalities as rhubarb-basil, cardamom-rose and strawberry-balsamic. You can have a custom-made soda (she charges the water with a handy little device you can get at Bed Bath & Beyond), but the real treat - especially this time of year - are the feather-light snow cones. Using a hand cranked device, the "snow" in this case is just that - shaved ice - which amply absorbs the intensely-flavored syrups, and doesn't cause dental damage like those pebbly state fair booths I abhor. 

Last night I served as one of the judges for the annual Ribfest, along Lincoln Ave. in the Northcenter 'hood. My fellow judges - Mike Sula from the Reader and Gary Wiviott, LTH co-founder and a master of low-and-slow cooking - were stunned by how many of the 16 entries arrived at our judging table either completely devoid of flavor, obliterated by overcooking/baking/grilling or just buried in sweet (very possibly canned) barbecue sauce that absolutely overwhelmed the ribs. 

Not surprisingly, the ribs that won the "people's choice" last year, wound up at the bottom of our respective judging sheets this year. The winner was a dark horse: thinly-sliced Korean-style short ribs (kalbi) from Woori Village, a Niles restaurant that probably had few, if any fans going into the event. Next year, we're going to have the sauce on the side for the judging, and I pray to God someone learns how to properly slow-smoke baby backs.