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Cheesy, Noodley Goodness

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong KongSometimes you don’t need anything fancy or gourmet; sometimes you just want a bunch of cheese, noodles, and tender pork.

And that’s exactly what you’ll get at Sun Kee Cheese Noodle: pure, unadulterated comfort food.

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong Kong

I mean, just look at that.  It’s just a big old glop of creamy, cheesy sauce on top of a mound of noodles and unctuous pork cheek.

I think you get a better idea of what’s going on here after the noodles have been mixed with the sauce.

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong Kong

It’s so good.  The noodles themselves are nothing special — I’m pretty sure they’re just instant noodles — but that sauce is rich and creamy, with a satisfyingly sharp cheesy flavour.  The tender slices of pork are a perfect accompaniment.

It’s kinda like mac and cheese, only with noodles instead of macaroni, and with big pieces of tasty pork.

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong Kong

Hidden away at the back of a sketchy little mall, the place pretty much defines the term “hole in the wall.”  But when the food is this good, I’ll eat it in a broom closet.  Just gimme that bowl of cheesy, creamy noodles.  I don’t care where I eat it.

More Michelin-Starred Food in Hong Kong

Tim Ho Wan in Hong KongThere’s a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong called Tim Ho Wan that both has a Michelin star, and is delightfully affordable.  So as you’d expect, it’s insanely crowded.  I mean, look at that madness in the photo above.

It doesn’t help that the restaurant is way smaller than you’d expect (dim sum joints tend to be absolutely enormous, but not here).  They do, however, cram as many people as they possibly can into a fairly small space.  Pretty much everyone has to share a table, which is quite common at Hong Kong restaurants.

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong

It’s totally worth it, though.  Everything I tried here was the best version of the dish that I’ve had.

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong

These baked buns with BBQ pork?  So good: sweet, with a lightly crispy shell, and a generous filling of perfectly cooked pork.

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong

These had a similar filling, but were deep-fried and amazing, with a perfect balance of crispy and chewy.

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong

And these shrimp dumplings?  Holy crap.  The shrimp was cooked to absolute perfection, and the wrapper was just right — not too thick, not too thin.  I honestly don’t think it’s possible to make these things any better.

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong

It wasn’t all fun and games, though.  These rice rolls filled with pig’s liver were shockingly unpleasant.  And I really like liver!  But the flavour here was all metallic bitterness; that pig must have lived a hard life, and it didn’t taste like it was seasoned with anything.  It was an odd misstep in an otherwise superlative meal.

Souping it up in Souptown

Pork and rice soup in Busan, South KoreaOne of the specialties in Busan is a soup called dwaeji gukbap — pork and rice soup.  There’s a whole stretch of road in the Seomyeon area of town that features nothing but one restaurant after another that specializes in the dish, so yeah, it’s a big deal here.

I picked one pretty much at random (I did have a recommendation, but the signs were all in Korean, so I had no idea which was which), and went in to get my soup on.

Pork and rice soup in Busan, South Korea

They love including pictures in their menus here, which is a boon for clueless travelers like me, because I can just point to what I want to eat.

Pork and rice soup in Busan, South Korea

The soup is an elaborate affair, coming with several bowls of condiments (and the requisite kimchi, of course).  It’s a bit bland at first, but once you start adding the various pastes, vinegars, and add-ons, the soup really comes alive.

Pork and rice soup in Busan, South Korea

It’s incredibly hearty, too, with a ridiculous amount of very tender, thinly-sliced pork, and a heaping amount of rice.  It’s a really satisfying lunch.

Porky Goodness at Oink

Oink in Edinburgh, ScotlandThere’s not a whole lot that you can absolutely, positively count on in this world, but here’s one thing:  when a restaurant has this on display in their front window, I’m gonna be going inside that restaurant.

Oink in Edinburgh, Scotland

If there’s a more glorious sight in the world, I’d like to see it.

Oink, as you might imagine, specializes in pork sandwiches.  One of the more interesting things about it are the add-ons to the sandwich; to go with the pork, you can either choose from a sage and onion topping, or haggis.  I went with haggis, because I’m in Scotland, so obviously.

You also get your choice of sauce; I had mine topped with mustard mayo.

Oink in Edinburgh, Scotland

It’s a pretty great sandwich — the pork is very simply spiced, allowing its natural flavours to shine through, and it’s nice and tender while still maintaining some texture (some sandwiches like this have a tendency to be one-note mushy).  The haggis and the mayo do a great job of complimenting the pork, but still allowing it to be the star of the show.   It’s quite good.

HOWEVER.  They get minus infinity points for having all that glorious crispy skin on display and then not including any in the sandwich. I guess you have to ask for it?  That’s ridiculous.  You’re ridiculous, Oink.  Where’s my crispy skin??

The Next Best Thing

Though I would have liked to go eat at St. John — a restaurant that’s pretty famous for helping to popularize nose-to-tail eating in London (and the world) — it’s a bit out of my price range. You know what is in my price range? A restaurant called Hereford Road that was opened by a chef who worked at St. John.

Hey, when you’re on a budget, you take what you can get.

Liver at Hereford Road in London, England

They have a set menu at lunch where you can get an appetizer, a main, and a dessert for £15.50.

It’s a pretty amazing deal, though aside from the dessert, nothing was particularly great. There was a starter of liver on toast and a main of bubble and squeak (which is kind of like a meatless hash) which comes topped with thickly-cut pieces of pork belly. Everything was a little bit too greasy; I don’t know if you can really tell from the photos, but there was oil leaking out on the plate on both of those dishes. And while the pork belly tasted okay, the skin was so tough I couldn’t cut through it even with a steak knife.

Rice pudding at Hereford Road in London, England

The rice pudding for dessert, on the other hand, was pretty magnificent. I don’t think I’ve ever had rice pudding that didn’t come out of a can or a cup, so my standards probably aren’t super high, but it had a deliciously rich custardy flavour, and the rice had the perfect texture — soft, but not too soft.

Porky Goodness at the Oldest Restaurant in Berlin

RestaurantThe oldest restaurant in Berlin is called Zur Letzten Instanz, and it’s been around since 1621 (so, not quite as old as the bakery I visited in Austria, but still pretty darn old).

Pretty much everyone seems to be in agreement that when you come here, you have to order the grilled pork knuckle (also known as a roasted ham hock — basically a huge chunk of pork, bone and all, from just above the pig’s foot).  I require very little encouragement to order a huge chunk of pork, so obviously that’s what I got.

Sweet, sweet pork

The first thing you notice is the uniformly crispy skin (ultra crispy, in fact).  It’s amazing.

Actually, the whole thing is pretty amazing.  I mean, it’s a big hunk of tender pork encased in potato-chip-crispy skin.  If this doesn’t look and sound delicious to you, then you and me are very different people.

Pork!

It comes on a bed of cabbage cooked in malt syrup, which is a perfect accompaniment to the pork; the sweetness of the cabbage helps to cut the richness of the meat.  It’s pretty great.

A Couple of Tasty Treats in Graz

Tasty stuffTasty Treat Number One: I had a pork dish called schweinsbraten at Gasthaus zur Alten Press, and if that sounds extremely Austrian: yeah.  The whole restaurant was extremely Austrian.

Restaurant

When you’re in a place like that, you have to wonder how much of the design/decor is earnest, and how much is just them playing up the stereotypes to appeal to tourists.

(Not that they get many tourists in Graz — even my Airbnb host was a little puzzled as to why I was there, so I explained that I was visiting for the Arnold Schwarzenegger museum, and he feigned interest, like “oh, I was thinking about going there…”  You’re clearly not interested, Airbnb guy.  We don’t need to play this game; I know I’m a weirdo.)

Either way, the food was delicious; it was a great example of a really simple, comforting meal, with fork-tender pork, semmelknödel (which tastes kind of like an Austrian version of the stuffing you might eat on Thanksgiving), and cabbage, all topped with a rich gravy.

Bakery

Tasty Treat Number Two: Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax has been around for almost 500 years — since 1569. Coming from Canada, where there was a pretty huge deal made about our recent 150th birthday, going to a bakery that’s more than three times older than that feels a bit strange.

The lady behind the counter spoke perfect English (which is delightfully common here), so I asked her what she recommended, and she suggested the Mozartkugel.

Delicious

This consists of a marzipan centre, surrounded by what basically tasted like thick chocolate buttercream frosting, a cakey pastry, and more marzipan, with the whole thing covered in a generous coating of good quality dark chocolate.

Marzipan is one of those ingredients that can magically make pretty much anything more delicious, so I enjoyed this quite a bit.

The Porchetta Sandwich of my Dreams

BaccanaleThere’s a place back in Toronto called Porchetta and Co. that serves what was, up until now, the best porchetta that I’ve ever had. I had kind of assumed that it was porchetta perfection; I honestly didn’t think it could be topped.

It has been topped. Sorry, Porchetta and Co.: your porchetta sandwich is officially garbage.

I wasn’t even planning to eat at Baccanale; I was actually on my way to another restaurant, but then — wait, what’s this? Oh, that looks good.

Tasty lookin' porchetta

Andrew Zimmern signs off every episode of Bizarre Foods with “if it looks good, eat it.”

I try to live my life by those words.

So yes, I ate the porchetta sandwich, and its deliciousness shot through me like a lightning bolt.

So good

The porchetta was everything. Every element of it was almost upsettingly good. It was porky, salty, herby, fatty, crispy, tender goodness.

Here’s another picture, closer to the middle of the sandwich that gives you a better idea of what the porchetta distribution looked like. The pork was an amazingly well-balanced mix of thinly-sliced lean pieces and thickly-cut fatty pieces. It was tender and amazing, with just enough fat to keep things interesting, but not enough to overwhelm.

THE BEST

And the crackling. Oh, the crackling. There was enough of it that every bite had some, and it was so intensely flavoured and perfectly crispy — but not overly crunchy — that it defied logic and reason.

The flavour almost bordered on too intense — too herby and salty — but it never was. It was perfect.

I mean, the whole damn thing was perfect. I’m being ridiculously effusive here, but how could I not? It was all so good.

The bread was pretty great too: hot and crispy on the outside (they put it in a panini press to order) and fluffy on the inside, with just enough heft to hold up to all that amazing pork.

The only downside? I used to love Porchetta and Co., but it’s ruined now. Absolutely ruined.

Saved by a Random Food Festival (or: The Greatest Pork Sandwich I’ve Ever Had)

Food in the parkSo here’s a thing that happens a bunch in Portugal. You’ll head to a restaurant, all excited to try whatever dish they’re known for; you’ve walked a few kilometres to get there, and oh, what’s this?  Yeah, they’re closed for the next three weeks.  Apparently Portuguese chefs love to shut down for the month of August.

This recently happened to me (for the third or fourth time), and so I was wandering around looking for something to eat.  I very quickly (and fortuitously) stumbled on a park that just happened to be hosting the Porto Food Festival.

Look at all that pork

The most compelling booth featured an older guy expertly dismantling a suckling pig and turning it into tasty-looking sandwiches; I can’t say no to a delicious pork sandwich, so I ordered one.

I’m not 100% certain about this, but I’m pretty sure that this sandwich can grant wishes.  That’s how magical it was.

This is the stuff dreams are made of

It was so good.  The pork was amazingly tender, with the perfect amount of unctuous, melt-in-your-mouth fat.  It was perfectly seasoned with just a little bit of salt to bring out the rich, porky flavour; sometimes pork can be a little bland, or if it hasn’t been freshly prepared, can taste a little gamy.  This was neither of those things.  It just had a really clean, immensely satisfying pork flavour.

They were also ridiculously generous with the crispy bits of skin; usually in a sandwich like this you’ll get a few pieces, but here the crackling was abundant enough that it was practically in every mouthful.

Apparently this booth is run by a restaurant that’s been roasting pork since 1983 called O Zé Pacheco.  All it takes is one bite to tell they’ve been at this for many years.  It was phenomenal.

Bifana Crawl

You know what’s better than eating one bifana?  Eating two bifanas.  And you know what’s even better than that?  Eating three.

Actually, I should probably explain what a bifana is, since even I hadn’t heard of them before I started preparing for this trip.  It’s a Portuguese specialty; a sandwich made with thick slices of pork stewed in a sauce made from wine, garlic, and other spices, and served on a roll.   Mustard and hot sauce are available on the side, but it’s an exceptionally simple sandwich: just tender, flavourful pork, and bread.

Inside the restaurant

The first place I went to was a restaurant called Beira Gare.  It’s super easy to order — you sidle up to the bar and ask for a bifana, and they immediately slice a roll in half, pull some of the sliced pork out from the bubbling juices, and before you know it the assembled sandwich is on a plate in front of you.

Tasty bifana

I devoured the first sandwich and almost immediately realized that I couldn’t just leave it at that.  I had to try at least one more.  You know, for the blog.

So I found myself at Casa das Bifanas, where the ordering process is identical — go to the bar, ask for a bifana, and consume said bifana.  The whole thing — from ordering to consumption — takes about five minutes.  It’s great.

Tasty bifana

By now I was actually getting pretty full, but I had a thought: at this point I was just a guy who ate a couple of sandwiches.  If I ate one more, then I did something.  So I ate one more.

My final bifana was procured at As Bifanas do Alfonso, which was the smallest restaurant by far — about the size of a large walk-in closet.  But the ordering process was identical, and the sandwich was just as satisfying.

Yet another tasty bifana

Because that’s the thing — all three sandwiches tasted pretty much the same.  Which is to say that they were all similarly great: an addictive mingling of tender pork and soft, ever-so-slightly crusty bread that soaks up the juices.  Even the sweet mustard seemed to be the same at all three places (it compliments the very salty sandwich quite well).

Still, if I had to choose, Beira Gare would be my favourite, if only because the pork there was slightly more tender (they were also more generous with the meat, but at €2.50, fifty cents more expensive than the other two contenders).  Afonso would be a close second; that one had the most pronounced garlicky flavour.  But they were all pretty damn great.