Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Aug 17, 2009
04:02 PMSmall Dishes
What exactly is a sandwich? Technically, I suppose anything between two slices of bread would qualify. However, there are open face sandwiches and clearly defining exactly what constitutes bread is problematic. I believe there’s a valid argument that bread per se does not a sandwich make. Clearly food evolves and much of what we routinely eat today would have been unheard of a generation ago. Certainly with the popularity of ethnic food, what substitutes for a sandwich elsewhere has been embraced here. Whether they are sandwiches in disguise or actually alternatives to the same can be debated. I’m just happy they’ve made it to the menu. A PB&J or grilled cheese is comforting, but sometimes I crave a little more titillation.
The empañada—a pastry filled with just about anything and everything—is enormously popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Big and small, fried and baked, no doubt they were the inspiration for Hot Pockets. Café Costa Rica began as a cart on State Street, dubbed the Mango Man. The Mango Man empanada—filled with cheese, beans, spinach and potato—is a house specialty. Beef and veggie varieties are on the menu as well and the homemade Costa Rican-style salsa essential to their appreciation.
Calzones are turnovers made from leftover pizza dough; the name comes from a style of trousers popular with Neapolitan men in the 18th century. Not surprisingly, calzone are most often stuffed with what you would expect to find on top of a pizza: mozzarella, sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions, etc. Marinara sauce for dipping is frequently served on the side. Zones have outgrown the pizza parlor. A growing franchise is D. P. Dough, founded in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1970’s. With locations in more than a dozen states, one is here in Madison. D.P.’s tout over 52 varieties with wily names like “wake and bake” (bacon and eggs), “danger zone” ( Mexican-style) and “construction zone’ (build your own). Glass Nickel Pizza Co. bakes a more traditional calzone, stuffed cheese and your choice of two pizza toppings.
Fallafel originated in Egypt where it is always made from fava beans. Shaped into oblong patties that are deep-fried, it’s served on pita-style bread called lafa. Fallafel is popular throughout the Middle East and concocted from both fava beans and chickpeas (garbanzo beans). The falafel you’ll find in this country most often contains chickpeas as its main ingredient; is shaped into small balls and served on pita bread. King of Falafel closed for about four months but is open again. The recipe of their namesake combines fava beans and chickpeas. Served in pita, it’s paired with yogurt sauce and fries, but you can add hummus. The menu also includes an appetizer version (no bread). Shish Café makes a stellar Syrian-style falafel served with tahini sauce that is available as both as entrée or appetizer.
The gyros is a stepchild of souvlaki, a meat kabob often served wrapped in a pita—traditional Greek fast food. Though its roots are undeniably Old World, both the name—“gyros” (or “gyro”)—and the product—the processed meat on a spit—are modern American inventions. Gyros first appeared at restaurants frequented by Greek-Americans on the East Coast in the early 1970s. But, its popularity quickly spread across the country. The concept of roasting meat on a vertical rotisserie was not new in Greece, but using processed meat (usually a combination of lamb and beef) was. In the U.S., gyros inevitably come with tzatziki (cucumber) sauce and lettuce and tomato. Gyros appear on both the lunch and dinner menu at Plaka Taverna, served with choice of fries, onion rings or salad. Additionally at night, there is an unorthodox chicken rendition.
Spring rolls—vegetables and meat wrapped in soaked rice paper—are a staple throughout Southeast Asia. My personal favorite is the Vietnamese summer roll—served cold rather than fried. In Vietnam it’s called gỏi cuốn that literally means “mixed salad roll” and is eaten as a light meal rather than as an appetizer. The filling can vary but usually includes a combination of pork, shrimp and vegetables and always fresh mint. Traditionally, a simple dipping broth accompanies the rolls, but Hoisin sauce, ground peanuts and Sriracha chili sauce are welcomed condiments. Ha Long Bay (recently opened on Willy Street) no doubt has the most comprehensive selection of Vietnamese specialties in town as well as some Thai and Laotian dishes. They have four different versions of the summer roll, including one wrapped around a crunchy fried egg roll.
For ions, a crispy golden shell that you could safely assume came from a box defined the American taco. Gradually as the availability of Mexican food grew, the soft taco—two overlapped tortillas served open face and then folded over to eat—became more popular. The choice of taco fillings has expanded beyond hamburger and refried beans, too. Shredded beef and chicken, chorizo, fish and even barbecued lamb top the list; tongue and tripe for the more adventurous. My personal favorite is abobo-seasoned pork steak. Not surprisingly, one of the best places to enjoy a taco is at a taqueria and Madison boasts several good ones including Taqueria Guadalajara, Taqueria El Pastor and Antojitos el Toril.
Gỏi Cúôn Sot Tuong
(Summer Rolls with Dipping Sauce)
¼ cup yellow miso (shiro)
3 tablespoons chopped peeled onion
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoon Vietnamese ground red chile paste (sambal oelek)
1 tablespoon chopped roasted unsalted peanuts
Put soybeans, onion, sugar, and vinegar into a blender, cover, and purée until smooth. With the motor still running, gradually add ¾ cup water through hole in blender lid. Transfer to a small saucepan, bring to a boil, then simmer over medium-low heat until thick and reduced by about half, 10 to 15 minutes. Allow to cool.
8 ounces boneless pork shoulder
18 medium shrimp
2 ounces dried rice vermicelli or thin rice sticks
12 8¼-inch round, dried rice paper wrappers
1 cup bean sprouts
1 bunch mint
1 head Bibb or red and green leaf lettuce, leaves separated and halved lengthwise
Cook pork in a pot of simmering salted water over medium heat until cooked through, about 30 minutes. Drain, transfer pork to a cutting board, and allow to cool. Cut pork into thin 1- × 2-inch slices and set aside.
Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add shrimp, and cook until pink, 1 to 1½ minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Peel, devein, and halve shrimp lengthwise, then set aside.
Bring another small pot of water to a boil, add noodles, and cook until softened, 2 to 5 minutes. Drain and rinse noodles under cold water until cool. Drain noodles well and set aside.
Spread a clean damp dish towel out on a work surface. Fill a wide bowl with hot water and place it next to the towel.
For each roll, dip 1 rice paper wrapper into the hot water for 8 to 10 seconds, turning it to wet completely. Lay wrapper flat on the damp towel. Lay 3 pieces of shrimp, cut side up, along bottom third of wrapper, leaving about a 1-inch border on bottom and sides. Layer 2 to 3 slices of pork, a small handful of noodles, 6 to 8 bean sprouts, and 4 to 5 mint leaves on top of shrimp, in that order. Roll up 1 piece of lettuce lengthwise and put on top of mint. Using both hands, gently press down on filling and roll wrapper around filling once into a tight cylinder, folding sides of wrapper over filling halfway through. Trim off top unused part of wrapper. Set summer roll aside and cover with another damp towel.
Put dipping sauce into four or six small dishes (depending on the number of diners and add some chile paste and peanuts to each. Serve summer rolls on a plate with dipping sauce on the side. Garnish with lettuce leaves and branches of mint, if you like.
Serves 4 to 6.