Dining: Taking Suggestions
This month, our restaurant critic let other people decide where he should eat.
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If a gumbo is like a soup over rice, jambalaya is a New Orleans version of fried rice—except the rice is long grain and not fried, cooked up instead in a mixture of stock, vegetables and meats, absorbing the flavors. But it ends up much the same, rice flecked with a confetti of good things to eat, in this case, chicken and tasso (spiced, peppered and smoked pork shoulder). You can almost hear Hank Williams singing his hit, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” as you eat it.
My wife waxed rhapsodic about the crawfish étouffée, which is a cousin of a gumbo. Since food is nearly a religion in New Orleans, how to make an étouffée is a matter of theological debate. Some cooks make it with a tomato-based sauce, which to others is heresy. Faulk makes it with a roux.
“That’s how my mama made it,” said Faulk. “I don’t know any other way.”
Finally, because how could we not, we had catfish and hush puppies. “I’ve never had a hush puppy before,” said my wife. “They’re great, sort of like a savory andagi.”
When I talked to Faulk later, he said he used his own seasoning mix for his dishes. He wouldn’t divulge its ingredients, but would say there was no red pepper.
That’s what I love about New Orleans food. It’s piquant, but not necessarily hot, despite all that bam! bam! bam! in which Emeril indulges. “I can make it spicy if someone asks,” said Faulk. “Then they put hot sauce in it anyway. I don’t see how they can taste the food.” And believe me, this is food worth tasting.
Dinner for four cost $126, with tip, and that includes Faulk’s wife’s pleasant, unfancy homemade desserts. (Try the sweet potato-coconut pie, sweet, not overwhelming, smooth but with texture, solid, not heavy). It does not include alcohol. You’ll have to bring your own or visit the Tesoro across the street, which is much stronger in the beer department than the wine.
Siam Garden Cafe
1130 n. Nimitz Highway // 523-9338 // Open Sunday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
I ran into Betty Pang, the chef whose Indonesian and Singapore-inspired Green Door Restaurant is back to being a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall, this time on Nuuanu Avenue.
“Where are you eating out these days?” I asked. She couldn’t remember the name, but described to me what sounded like a late-night karaoke place on Nimitz, near New Eagle Café and Sensually Yours, the adult store. Not a location I’d necessarily go looking for a restaurant.
“It’s Thai,” she said. “Real Thai. I can’t stand most of the Thai food here, but this is gooood.”
Given Pang’s acute taste buds, and her fussy standards on Asian cooking, I decided that, however improbable it sounded, I ought to take her to dinner. We ended up at a restaurant named, like hundreds, perhaps thousands of Thai restaurants nationwide, Siam Garden.
It looked like a Thai restaurant, too. Lattice-work ceiling, red chili pepper lights around a display of Thai beers, a singing-dancing Thai video playing on a flat-screen TV.
After arguing for a while—you order, no, you order—we compromised, taking turns choosing dishes. Betty wanted a pork Panang curry, something I am reluctant to order because it’s usually too peanut buttery for me. “See,” said Pang, “not sweet. I can taste that I am eating Thai food.”
I ordered a fish filet with chili sauce, which tasted surprisingly sweet-sour, rather than chili-basil. “No, it’s good,” insisted Pang. “Just right, except that they used vinegar for sour instead of lime juice. Vinegar’s cheaper.”
I also ordered something that left Pang unimpressed, although I thought it was remarkable, yum makeua, a roasted eggplant salad with shrimp and pork. The eggplant, shrimp and pork were warm, the eggplant soft, the shrimp and little nuggets of ground pork toothsome. But these were tossed with slivers of white and green onion, carrot and cilantro, creating a pleasing contrast of warm and cold, soft and crunchy, plenty of lively flavors set off this time by real lime juice and a deft array of spices.
The best thing was the fried chicken. Really. I would never have ordered it. Fried chicken in a Thai restaurant? Pang insisted.
It sometimes pays to be wrong. The largely boneless pieces of marinated chicken came in a glimmering gold and brown batter, hot, crunchy, ready to dip in a Thai sweet-sour sauce, with touches of ginger and garlic.
“I wonder how they make this crust?” I said, idly.
“Rice flour, tapioca, ginger, garlic, wine, white pepper,” said Pang, who then launched into a five-minute explanation of how she made the batter, first dissolving the tapioca in boiling water, or cold water, I forget which. Her explanation was so complicated it convinced me I’d rather go to a restaurant and pay $7.99 for a platter full than to try to make it. Besides, I was busy eating all the chicken.
“How did you learn so much about Thai food?” I asked, finally.
“Nobody would teach me because I didn’t speak Thai,” she said. “So I joined the nuns.” She once spent 17 days in a Thai temple in Aiea, so she could work in the kitchen and learn how to cook Thai food. “When I leave, the priest said he would miss my cooking, the taste.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You became a nun for 17 days because you like Thai food?”
“Well,” she said. “I like Buddhism, too.”