Quick junk food, Portillo’s is setup like a food court. This Chicago Classic is spreading locations across the country, selling quintessential Chicago dogs and Italian food. While people may dispute the quality, there’s no doubting the heavenly aroma when you walk through the doors.
A Chicago dog with everything on it… onions, pickles, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers but no ketchup! Not a special dog, but pile high like this makes it amazing.
Of course the dog wasn’t enough, so I also got the Italian beef with sweet peppers. Delicious, juicy, flavorful an light years better than the giant McDonalds across the street.
I made it through TSA security with only 20 minutes until boarding. Normally this would mean a sad sandwich packaged the previous night for $15. Luckily I’m at SFO and for a small airport the food options look surprisingly good. I pass up the packaged sandwiches, gourmet picnic foods, as well as the specialty pizza and hot sandwiches, choosing instead the sushi and noodle counter, Wakaba. Mesmerized by videos of Mt. Fuji, I quickly get a bowl of beef udon and a cold bottle of Sapporo while keeping track of my flight out of the corner of my eye. (Since when does TSA allow glass inside the security point?)
The broth is light, slightly sweet and very hot. The noodles and seaweed are nicely al dente. The beef is flavorful, but over cooked and not as tender as it should be. And after a long day of meetings, the Sapporo really hits the spot. Alas, I have to rush, and don’t get to finish the broth or last few sips of beer.
Does it hold up to a great noodle house? No. But it’s 40 feet from my gate. Besides, what’s being served inside your airport?
Another business trip, this time to Manhattan. My in-laws really wanted to meet me for dinner, an apparently my father in law has been talking about trying Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse for over a decade. Located inside of Grand Central Terminal, this picturesque location occupies the balcony opposite of the Apple Store.
Being a steakhouse, it has a fairly simple menu. 10 steak offerings, 5 of which are bone-in, a couple of basic chicken, fish, and pasta offerings. Naturally we skipped most of these and targeted the steak. My father-in-law and I both went for the Filet Mignon. I was looking for a smaller cut as I’m overeating on these business dinners. The steak was cooked absolutely perfectly at medium rare, although I think it had cooled off some while waiting on the other dishes. The filet had a beautiful thick crust of cracked pepper and just the right amount of salt, a simple preparation that really let the natural beef flavor shine through. The portion was much smaller than I expected though. Even though filets are smaller than other cuts, this seemed to be in the 5-6 ounce territory. The pepper was especially pungent, spicier than I can recall having on a steak, but not overpowering. On the side, we had sweet potato fries (soft and cool) with a horseradish sauce (no spice) and sautéed brocoli. I would skip the fries, but the broccoli was unusual with a slight crisp and a really nice buttery smokey flavor.
As I mentioned, the food was on the cold side, and service was really slow, perhaps partially because my mother-in-law ordered the rack of lamb. If I had known what would come out of the kitchen, I probably would have gone for this instead. A 4 rib rack, roasted, cut in half and then pan-finished, the result was basically 2 double-thick bone-in lamb rib chops. This dish dwarfed the filets, and was served on a bed of asparagus. Lamb’s usual gamey flavor was downplayed, and the low-temperature roasting meant that the fats had nicely broken down, leaving extremely flavorful and tender meat.
Overall, the prices were reasonable, the service extremely slow, and the food slightly sub-par for what a steakhouse like this should be delivering. The waitstaff seemed like tired typical New Yorkers, and it looked like the manager (or concierge, not sure which) took off promptly at 9pm. The saving grace for this place is the location, and if you can get a seat at the edge of the balcony, you can use your extra time people-watching over nightly commuters.
Billy Berks in downtown San Jose is your typical contemporary casual pub fare. Undoubtedly a popular pre-game destination, we walked in just after everyone had left to see the Sharks play.
Along with the usual macrobrews, we dug into chips + guac, buffalo wings, and calamari. All pretty typical fare although the calamari was served with two sauces, a sweet and sour, and a creamy cilantro instead of the usual cocktail/marinara combo, and the guacamole had mangoes in it. The buffalo wings were boneless, but had a really nice crisp that probably used a two-step corn starch and batter dredge that’s common in Asian cooking.
Upon seeing the standard-fare menu, I decided to pick something that looked a little different, the Mojito Skirt Steak.
This was a great choice. A generous helping of nicely marinated and grilled flank steak was prepared with a wine reduction and topped with jalapeños cut lengthwise and fried, garnished with an diced red onion chutney and half a lime. For me this dish set Billy Berks well above the typical sports bar. The beef was perfectly cooked, and the fried jalapeños were spicy without being overwhelmingly hot. The frying technique also blistered the skin on the peppers a bit, which releases a lot of great flavors reminiscent of roasted green chiles from New Mexico. The lime juice perfectly offset the sweetness from the wine glaze, and the onions were mild and added a nice flavorful crunch.
On the side I had a mushroom polenta. The polenta was nice and creamy, and not dense or gelatinous at all. It had a texture like a risotto, where the cooking liquid plus the soaked up starches create a sauce. Clearly they didn’t use the mushroom braising liquids in the polenta cooking, so the mushrooms tasted like they were added at the last minute, rather than an integral part of it.
On day 3 of our trip to Hong Kong, we started off with a very common Hong Kong dish, the butter cream bun. Found in every train station and marketplace, are shops selling filled buns. They’re even more common than the ubiquitous doughnut shop in the U.S., and fill a similar niche. Think of them as the Hong Kong equivalent to the Parisian crepe.
Unlike what you’d expect from Asian pastries, these are almost exclusively wheat-flour buns, and are baked instead of steamed or fried. For the most part, they have the consistency of Hawaiian bread, and are available with both sweet and savory fillings.
First off, my favorite of the bunch, butter cream bun. This was a sweet bun, almost exactly the same as Hawaiian bread, both in flavor and texture. It was stuffed-full with a soft, creamy, butter filling. Thankfully, not margarine, and also not heavy or oily as butter can sometimes be. Dusted over the top with shaved coconut, this was a perfect way to start the day!
We snuck in that first one as we were waiting for the train. We headed to the outskirts of the New Territories to visit my wife’s grandmother at her nursing home. We arrived just as she was finishing lunch, but she quickly joined us in the courtyard to gorge ourselves on these wonderful buns.
As I mentioned, many of the buns have savory fillings. This one had a nice stewed beef, and made for a perfect balance between a light snack and something more substantial.
Following the beef bun, were two filled with a tuna-salad mixture. These both were topped with chives, and had a hint of onion in the pastry itself.
This next one was a little different. Instead of being a bun, the “curry beef triangle” was baked in the style of a French pastry, with all the flaky crispy layers you could imagine. As you would expect from the name, the filling was a green beef curry. Slightly spicy, the contrast of texture and flavor between the pastry and the filling makes for a wonderful combination.
One last bun, appears to have been made using whole-wheat flower. Covered with sesame seeds, I can only guess at what the filling was. I apparently neglected to take a photo of the inside.
Now that I know about these buns, I can’t wait for a return trip. Apparently, there are peanut-butter filled buns, as well as sausage ones reminiscent of a bagel-dog!