My extended weekend in Boston also provided me with a good opportunity to check in on a fairly recent discovery of our: Coda, in the Back Bay neighborhood (a short walk from Back Back Station). Coda is basically the little sibling of the more recognized The Salty Pig around the corner. While the Salty Pig focuses on “Salty Pig Parts of All Varieties”, with other menu items, burgers, and cocktails also available on the side, Coda is more relaxed, and is basically a “cocktail bar with a decent food menu.” Indeed, we first discovered Coda when rendezvousing with relatives in Back Bay, wanting to seek out a nice cocktail while we waited, and Coda was the find. But seeing the food emerging from the kitchen, I figured it was worth a revisit for some food.
When I was in Boston a few weeks ago, I decided it was time to go find a burger spot I had been looking for in Cambridge. But this was not your usual burger spot. I first found this place when looking for a cocktail in Cambridge, having gotten a recommendation for “Brick and Mortar” along with an address of 567 Massachusetts Avenue. Heading there, however, I only found Central Kitchen, a fairly well-recognized dinner establishment, and no cocktails. But…. see that unmarked door next to Central Kitchen? Through that lies Brick and Mortar, one of Cambridge’s Speakeasies, known for interesting cocktails and good bar food.
Brick and Mortar is actually a rather cozy little bar (which makes for a pleasant drinking experience during the early evening, but by late evening the place quickly becomes crowded, with a long wait list to get in). The cocktail list at Brick and Mortar is quite impressive, and they are definitely in on the current trend of using bitters, gins, and other botanicals to make some very interesting cocktails. Past victuals that were particularly pleasing include the “Lido Shuffle” with Cocchi, Aperol, Chartreuse, and Lemon, or the “Gail Collins” with Mezcal, Sloe Gin, and Bitters. But on my first two visits, it wasn’t just the (excellent) cocktails drawing my eye… I noticed that several of the other diners had ordered burgers, and the burgers looked quite good indeed. So this trip, while I did get a “Sister Mary” (with Tequila, St Germain, Aperol, and grapefruit) my primary goal was to get a burger.
One of my annual traditions is volunteering at one of the local FIRST Robotics competitions, usually as a Robot Inspector or a Judge. This year’s volunteer assignment was for the New England District Championship at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, and that gave me another opportunity to check out some of the Brookline area dining options.
One particular place had caught my eye since I had walked by it several times on last year’s “Death March” (my annual tradition of walking ~20 miles through an urban area, exploring neighborhoods and eateries that I normally wouldn’t visit). That place is right in central Brookline in the basement of a building: Roast Beast.
The end of February is when Winter starts to soften a bit, and up here in these Northern parts, that also means the gradual introduction of two additional events: the introduction of “mud season” (in which the local dirt roads become almost impassible due to the combination of melting snow, poor drainage, and frost heaving), and “maple season” (in which you drive down those same muddy roads visiting shacks emitting large amounts of steam, in which maple sap is being boiled down). It’s a fun time of year, and quite a few places make a pretty big to-do of it. Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, have sponsored Maple weekends when you can go touring around, but our friends over the border in Quebec take this a lot more seriously (primarily since Quebec produces far more maple syrup than anywhere else, even if some of it occasionally gets heisted), and several large sugaring operations in Quebec host elaborate “Cabane à Sucre” celebrations, usually with copious amounts of food featuring maple. But there’s one of these that outdoes all the others: Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon.
While I’ve talked about many of the dishes that demonstrate the ethnic fusion of Hawaii, few of them embody the multicultural fusion of Hawaiian cuisine as much as “saimin”. Saimin is basically a noodle dish that is a mild fusion of elements taken from each the major cultures of Hawaii’s plantation era: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian, and Portuguese. The resulting dish is a noodle soup that bears a lot of resemblance to Chinese “mein” and Japanese “ramen”, usually with some other ethnicities adding ingredients, such as Spam, gyoza, udon, or wontons. In any case, much of the Kahili neighborhood had Saimin joints popping up during the middle of the 20th century, usually run by recent Okinawan families. And pretty much everyone I know that grew up in Hawaii has told me stories about how much saimin they ate as a kid, either as soup, or as the related “fried min” (pan-fried noodles with the same sorts of toppings). Oahu has dozen of Saimin places, and one of the older, more classic, and, quite frankly, no-frills places is Palace Saimin.
As I mentioned in the previous review, we spent the last full weekend in February up in Quebec visiting Montreal and the surrounding countryside for the Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon dinner. But the fact that the Cabane a Sucre starts off in the morning made this more or less a required overnight stay in Montreal, so we decided to visit a few of our favorite Montreal watering holes (Le Cheval Blanc and Dieu du Ciel), and then ducked over to a place I had found online that focused on small plates (since we knew that the next day was going to be a feed-fest): Le Chien Fumant (“The Smoking Dog”), a small bistro in the “Eastern” part (have I mentioned, Montreal directional conventions seem okay, until you look at a map and realize that “North” is really more of a “West-Northwest” sort of direction) of the Plateau neighborhood.
After we returned from Hawaii, our next weekend was spent up in Montreal. While the main purpose of our trip was to go to the annual Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon (more on this later), it also gave us another trip through Vermont, this time over lunch. I’ve had one place on my hit list for a while: The Mad Taco. I originally discovered The Mad Taco at the 2011 Vermont Brewers Festival: they were one of the food vendors at the event, and two things stood out about them: (1) they served tacos which did not suck (this is not trivial in Vermont!), and (2) they had some seriously good hot sauce. Since then, I’d been making a note to stop by and try their location in Waitsfield, VT, but it never seems to work out. But a while ago they opened up a second location in Montpelier (in what used to be the retail location of SamosaMan before they imploded in scandal), and our late morning arrival finally gave us an opportunity to try them out.
For our last meal in Hawaii, we decided to check out Alan Wong’s The Pineapple Room. Alan Wong is one of of several Hawaiian Chefs (along with Sam Choy, Roy Yamaguchi, Peter Merriman, and Bev Gannon, amongst others) that have worked for the last few decades to establish “Hawaiian” as a proper cuisine type. For all my discussion of local Hawaiian food, such as the Loco Moco, the Spam Musubi, and the Plate Lunch, there’s also a lot going on in Hawaiian cuisine in the fine dining sector. One of the places that’s often recommended is Alan Wong’s restaurant, called simply “Alan Wong’s Restaurant”, but our itinerary didn’t have the time, and we didn’t have the stomach space, to visit there. But Alan Wong also runs a lesser known restaurant, The Pineapple Room, which is nicely hidden away inside Ala Moana Mall. Specifically, inside the Women’s department in the Macy’s. It’s also fairly easy to get reservations there, and you also have a pretty good chance of getting a walk-in seat. So on our way to the airport (after a pleasant hike up to Koko Crater), we stopped at Ala Moana for some light shopping and one last meal.
If there’s a single place that really represents what “Hawaiian Food” is, the first place probably has to go to Zippy’s (their competitor L&L Drive Inn comes in at a close second). Zippy’s is a combination fast food and casual restaurant (literally, since most Zippy’s have both the fast food counter and a table service dining room) that started in Honolulu in 1966. Filling nominally the same sort of market niche that Denny’s does on the mainland, the key to Zippy’s is that just about every local Hawaiian food item I’ve talked about is on their menu in one form or another. Spam musubi? Check. Plate lunch? Check. Saimin? Check (both fried and as soup). Teriyaki burger? Check. Portuguese sausage? Check. Shrimp plate? Check. About the only thing I didn’t see on their menu was a malasada. So their motto is “All your favorites”, and at least with Hawaiian food, I think they’ve got that covered. So, on our last morning on Oahu, it was finally time for me to make some time for a stop in at Zippy’s, ducking into their Kaneohe location right by the Windward Mall.
On our way up to our rental condo on the North Shore, every time we were leaving Kaneohe and heading north on the Kamehameha highway, we ran into two places that triggered my “Offbeat Eats” sense. One is an older place on the West side of the road called the Hygienic Store, which is basically a convenience store (the name comes from it’s former life as the “Hygienic Dairy”). We never made it in there, so we’ll have to save it for another trip. But across the street is some sort of abandoned business, but out in the parking lot are two food trucks that make up Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken. There was something cool about the hand-scrawled sign for chicken that make me interested, and when my friend Mark in Kaneohe mentioned that they were actually really, really good, we decided to follow up on it.