Monday, May 31, 2010

God Save The Mouse

Summertime in my middle class childhood always meant shutting the oven down for three months and cooking mostly outside on the grill. My dad can barely boil water without screwing it up, and is awkward at best in the kitchen (which is why my mom has always insisted that he KEEP OUT.) But put that man outside in front of a grill and he turns into the BBQ master. In a Manistee Throw down, he’d kick Bobby Flay’s ass right back to New York City.

At his house in Florida, he even built his own fire pit in the back yard so he can cook over a wood fire. Of course if you’re gonna have your own fire pit, you have to fashion your own grill to go with it, which he has also done. A metal pole rises out of the pit and an industrial strength grate, about the heft of a sewer grate, attaches to the pole from an arm and an adjustable metal ring. I’m not nearly as adventurous, so I’ve settled for a really good charcoal grill. I hate cooking with propane.

My dad and I also share a passion for smoke cooking. Growing up in a commercial fishing community, we were part of the smoked fish capital of Upnorth Michigan. Many of the charter boat captains ran smoke houses on the side to earn extra money. Some guys ran smoke houses for a living. Not to be outdone, my dad, who does everything over the top, created his own smoke house right in our back yard. He picked up and old refrigerator from the junk yard, gutted it out, bore a four inch hole in the back, retrofitted it with extra metal shelves, and the Barnett Smokerator was born.

Although my parents couldn’t make it down to Flint this weekend, I channeled my father’s outdoor cooking prowess as I prepared a backyard BBQ for about two dozen of our friends. Like my dad, I like to go big, be different, and find unique ways to riff on an old American Classic. Instead of the traditional hotdogs, potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans, I made recipes that turned all that on its head. My menu was Bratwurst, smoked, then grilled; spicy sweet potato salad, Alton Brown’s Asian Slaw, and Cuban Black Beans.

The adventure started when I pulled the smoker out of the garage. It was covered with dust and cobwebs because I hadn’t used it in at least six months. I think the last time I used it was to smoke a Thanksgiving Turkey which, by the way, is on par with Tator Tot Casserole. When I pulled my Brinkmann, two grate, electric smoker, into the light of the driveway, I was horrified at what I saw. Right in the middle of the lava rocks was a wad of shredded newspaper, and nestled in the middle of it was a giant mouse—with three babies!

After Alexis got a good look at them and ran off, I tipped the whole thing over in the underbrush to get them out. The mother ran off, and we were left staring at three little lumps of grey clay with tails and ears.

“Should we save them?" Philip asked.

“How the hell are we going to do that?”

Without missing a beat, he simply said, “We’ll tell them about Jesus Christ.”

By the time I stopped laughing, the little buggers had already burrowed into the brush, so we considered them officially “saved” and began sanitizing and sterilizing the smoker. I had to get new lava rocks, scrub it with scalding bleach-water, and dry it with my hand blowtorch, but in the end, it actually looked like a whole new smoker.

And it did a fantastic job cooking the bratwurst. For those of you not familiar with smoke cooking, it’s really quite easy. I soak chunks of wood in water for several hours, wrap them in aluminum foil, and lay them directly on top of the lava rocks. Above the heat source is a pan about three inches deep that I fill with water. Above that are the two grates that I place the meat on. The rest is just a matter of putting the lid on, plugging it in, and leaving it alone. Since I was going to finish the brats on the grill, I only cooked them for an hour, just long enough to get a deep smoky flavor. Then I put a nice char on them over the charcoal grill, and the result was a pile of smoke-grilled sausages that were gone within minutes.

I thought about writing up the recipes and sharing them with you, but since I pilfered them from the internet, I’ll just give you the links. These side dishes take some time to prep, and in the case of the Cuban Black Beans they needed almost four hours to cook on the stovetop, so if you try this meal, and you definitely should, leave yourself plenty of time to make it. I did it in two days.

Spicy Sweet Potato Salad:

Alton Brown’s Asian Slaw:

Cuban Black Beans:,1950,144182-255196,00.html

Monday, May 24, 2010

And The Tator Tot Goes To......

Now that the Mexican Restaurant Tour has officially ended, Stephanie and I have spent the last few weeks reminiscing about all the places we visited and all the great experiences we had over the past eight months. We’ve even gone back to a few of our favorite joints just to make sure they’re still living up to their greatness.

When we started the tour, I expected to see a wide variety of preparation and presentation of food. I expected a whole lot of Tex-Mex. And I expected that I wouldn’t be blown away by the quality of the food. As you can tell by many of my posts, I was certainly wrong about my last expectation. The food was far better, collectively, than I imagined, and a lot of the places I had never been to are now on my list of favorites that I’ll go back to over and over again.

The number of restaurants that served Tex-Mex (or Midwest-Mex in some cases) far outnumbered those that served what I would call authentic Mexican food. The difference between Tex-Mex and authentic, by the way, is quite dramatic. To me, authentic is distinguished by its preparation—it’s prepared with fewer ingredients, and those ingredients are packed with flavors and textures that make the food unique; authentic is much lighter in taste and flavors, and yet it’s a much more complex mix of flavors. Cheese and heaviness do not dominate authentic Mexican food.

The most surprising thing I learned, though, is that Flint has a robust Mexican Restaurant scene run by owners who care about their customers, who care about making really good food, and who are an integral part of their community. What’s surprising in all of this, is that the Mexican Restaurant scene is so low key that too many people in the larger Flint community don’t even know how special and important it is to the area, both culturally and economically. Of all the places we’ve been to this year, over half of them were places I’d never been to before.

My hope is that by sharing with you all the places Stephanie and I have visited, you’ll be inspired to try some of them yourself (I know many of you already have). To help you think about the great food and the great places that serve it, I offer you the following lists, which you should feel free to print, post on your refrigerator, and consult the next time you get a hankering for good Mexican food. You might even print an extra copy or two to share with your friends. It’s a small gesture that will go a long way to supporting our Mexican restaurants now and into the future.


In the end, we were able to visit 25 Mexican restaurants in and around Flint. I shared with you in an early post that UrbanSpoon. Com listed almost 60 Mexican restaurants in the area. After I eliminated all of the national chains (I could believe how many Taco Bell’s we have in this county!), the number dropped considerably. Still, we have a lot of choice when going out for Mexican. Here are the ones that we tried:

El Potrero (Hill Road and Fenton Road)

Poncho’s (Dort Highway and Atherton Road)

Alejandro’s ( Elms Road) CLOSED

El Charrito (Downtown Davison)

Tia Helita’s (South Saginaw Street)

Senor Lucky’s (Davison)

La Familia Morales (Fifth Avenue)

The Red Baron (Center Road)

El Especial: (Linden Road and Pasadena)

Nuevo Vallarta (Saginaw Street, Grand Blanc)

La Azteca (Court Street at Corunna Road)

El Cozumel (Court Street, in Courtland Center)

Sagebrush Cantina (Leroy Road, Fenton)

Soyla’s (Saginaw Street and Second Street)

Puerto Vallarta (Linden Road)

Guadalajara Grill (South Dort Highway)

El Adobe (North Saginaw, Mt. Morris)

El Charrito (Richfield Road)

Fajita’s Grill (South Saginaw, Grand Blanc)

El Rio Ondo (Davison Road and Irish Road)

Laredo (Lapeer and Genesee)

El Chico (North Dort Highway)

Los Ponchos (Fenton Road)

Marie’s (North Genesee)

Lupe’s (Elms Road)


Regardless of where we went, the foods in the list below stood out as our favorites. Sometimes they were the only good thing about our meal, while at other times they were a part of a whole tableful of goodness. After much deliberations, and a couple of really good Margaritas at Blacktone’s one hot afternoon last week, we settled on the following favorite dishes. We’ve tried to include two in each category so you can compare for yourself and see how different preparations of the same food can produce different kinds of yumminess.

House Salsa: El Cozumel and Laredo (smooth) Laredo (chunky)

Hot Salsa: Laredo (chunky) El Potrero (smooth) El Rio Ondo (extra hot)

Salsa Combination: El Especial (the trinity) El Rio Ondo (the quartet)

Chips: Lupe’s Senor Lucky’s Laredo

Cheese Dip: Lupe’s Laredo

Beef Stew: El Charrito (Richfield Road) Laredo

Refried Beans: El Potrero El Rio Ondo

Mexican Rice: La Familia Morales Laredo

Green Sauce: El Potrero El Adobe

Tacos: La Familia Morales Los Ponchos

Golden Tacos: La Familia Morales Larado

Enchilada: Soyla’s El Adobe

Chimichanga: El Charrito (Davison) Laredo


As I’ve always said, the food is the star in any dining experience, but the supporting actors and actresses have to pull their weight too. I’ve had good meals that were ruined by other aspects of the experience. I’ve also had food that seems to have been enhanced by my fascination with a non-food aspect of my visit. The following short list is a good example:

Ambience: El Adobe Alejandro’s (now closed) Lupe’s

Curbside Appeal: El Adobe Nuevo Vallarta

Quirkiest experience: Guadalajara Grill El Chico


And then there are the Tator Tot Casserole Award Winners. These dishes were so good, they rose above the Favorite Food category and became worthy of being honored in a category all their own. Stephanie and I agreed that no matter what else is being served at the restaurants where these award winning dishes are served, we’d always go back just for them. These are our favorites of the favorites!

Bean Dip: El Potrero

Chorizo Dip: Nuevo Vallarta

Chile Relleno: El Potrero

Hot Salsa: El Laredo—chunky with habanero


Burrito Verde: El Potrero


Fish Tacos El Rio Ondo


This was a tough category to narrow down because so many of the places we visited, we’d definitely visit again. But these are the ten that we’d probably go back to the most. Maybe it’s for the service, or the overall quality of the food, or because they’re making good progress in establishing their businesses and we feel strongly about giving them our support.

El Potrero


El Adobe

El Especial

Los Ponchos

La Familia


Nuevo Vallarta

El Cozumel




As the summer months creep up on us and we take time away to recharge our batteries, I’ll be cutting back on the frequency of posts until September, but I won’t be cutting back on my chronicles of food and culture in Flint. I’m expecting to publish a post a week through the summer, and I’m expecting to cover new eateries that may open up in the coming months, old favorites that I’ve been meaning to get back to, and some of the many cultural events that take place in and around Flint, like the Flint Art Fair, Back to the Bricks, and the Crim Festival of Races. If you hear of exciting events in the area this summer, drop me a note and let me know so I can share them with everyone else.

And stay tuned for the next tour that Stephanie and I will embark on come September: the Flint Coney Island Restaurant Tour. We’ll be sharing what we learn about the history of the Coney Island, the original coney island hot dog recipe, the scandals that followed this recipe, and of course the many Coney Island restaurants in and around the Flint area. The Coney Island is a culinary fixture in our town and we intend to explore every nook and cranny of it and bring it to you on a weekly basis.

So, enjoy your summer, keep watching for new posts, and tell all your friends to join us in the fall for another great year of stories, critiques, and goofy asides about food and culture in our beloved Flint, Michigan.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pot Sticker Party

Philip told me a cute joke a few weeks ago: I have CDO. That’s OCD but the letters are in the right order. As it should be. I chuckle whenever I retell it, but as we were waiting for our breakfast Sunday Morning at Westside Diner on Ballenger Highway, I thought about that joke in a different light.

I’m always the last one to get the memo, but when did eating breakfast out on a Sunday in Flint all of a sudden become the popular thing to do? We went to three restaurants before settling on Westside. Every place was packed to the gills and the parking lots were completely full. Doesn’t anyone go to church anymore? Every table at Westside was full, so we had to sit at the bar. That’s where I reconnected with my CDO moment.

We were seated right in front of the window looking into the kitchen, so I had a perfect seat to watch the whole operation of feeding the masses as it unfolded. With orders coming in hand over fist, you’d think the kitchen would be a complete mad house. Not so. There were three cooks back there, each one calmly doing his own thing, yet food was flying out of the kitchen faster than the servers could get it out. It was CDO.

You have to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive to be a short order cook in the first place, but these three were working as a single, well-oiled machine. One did nothing but cook eggs, the second cooked meat, potatoes, and the occasional pancake, and the third one barked out the orders, made the toast, and brought each dish together in its final form. The scene was breathtaking, and they made it look effortless. They obviously had a well rehearsed plan, and they were sticking to it.

I channeled the genius of this approach when Philip and I recently hosted a Pot Sticker Party for eight guests at our house. We offered the meal up at a Service Auction at our Church a few weeks ago, and the thing sold for forty-five bucks a person. Sixteen people bought tickets, so we’ll be hosting a second one later this summer.

Pot sticker parties are so much fun because they’re intentionally social, and everybody gets to help make what they eat. Throw in a few side dishes, and you’ve got a delicious Asian dinner party that looks almost effortless. Except that it’s not. It takes a great deal of preparation and planning, and once everyone arrives, you need one person to take control, assign duties to each guest, and orchestrate the event from beginning to end.

This is where my inner control freak comes out. And it all starts with the planning.

Pot sticker menus are fairly simple by design. The dumplings take center stage, but you need a soup course, both to kick off the official eating part of the night, and to allow the cooks a little extra time in the kitchen. A couple of side dishes as accompaniments to the postickers is more than enough. A simple dipping sauce or two is essential, so don’t forget to include them. The more difficult part of the menu is creating a variety of fillings for the pot stickers. You can use beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or shrimp (combinations of these work really well too). Vegetarian pot stickers rock the house if you have a good recipe, but be prepared for a lot of prep time. (I have a great recipe, if anyone’s interested).

While making, cooking, and eating the pot stickers only takes an hour or two, the prep time can take anywhere from six to seven hours, depending on how many people you invite. We started our prep two days ahead of time because finding six uninterrupted hours at our house is simply not possible For last week’s party, we made four fillings: ground chicken, ground turkey, shrimp, and vegetarian. With some variations, each of the first three fillings consisted of a mixture of the raw meat/shrimp, lots of finely chopped ginger (I don’t use measurements, but the more quantity the better, I’ve found), minced garlic, finely sliced scallions (and tops), mounds of chopped cilantro, and varying amounts of sesame oil. I think I used over a pound of fresh ginger root for this whole event. That in itself takes a good hour to chop. Once you’ve got all the ingredients in the bowl, the rest is easy. Just mix it up for a few minutes, put it in a zip lock back or cover it, and store it in the fridge for up to a couple of days.

I made a Thai sweet and hot soup to go with our meal, and I chose this recipe because it’s about the easiest Asian soup recipe I could find. It comes from a great cookbook called THAI: the essence of Asian cooking. I got it from the discount rack at Borders for three or four bucks. Basically, you combine vegetable stock, Thai red curry paste, lime zest, brown sugar, soy sauce, fresh lime juice, and finely cut carrot sticks in a pot. Once the mixture comes to a boil, turn down the heat, simmer it for about twenty minutes, and it’s done. To serve it, put chunks of extra firm tofu and fresh spinach leaves in the bottom of the bowl and pour the broth over it. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a great way to start a meal.

For sides, all I do is cook up a big old batch of sticky rice (sushi rice), which I serve in individual bowls alongside the pot sticker plates, and for our most recent gig, I made a simple Asian slaw. It too was pretty uncomplicated: finely cut Napa cabbage, red and yellow peppers, chopped Serrano peppers, cilantro, and a dressing of rice vinegar, peanut butter, soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil.

Before any of that can be enjoyed, however, you have to make the potsickers.

Just before everyone arrived, I painstakingly set up the assembly line: a newspaper-covered table with foil-covered cookie sheets (I also use baking trays and cutting boards as well—the point is, you’ll need a lot of surface space as the pot stickers are made. The official count last week was 350 pot stickers made by eight people. Small bowls of water were situated between the pans, and a small spoon was placed in front of each person’s station.

Working in teams of two, each team working with a different filling, the routine goes something like this. You lay a wonton wrapper in the palm of one hand and scoop a very small amount of filling into it with the other. Then you wet your finger, rub it all along the edges of the wrapper and seal it into a half moon shape. There are two basic approaches to doing this. One is simple to fold the wrapper in half and seal it all along the edge. The other is to crease as you go, which makes a nice little pattern and makes the dumplings look just like those you get at a restaurant.

As the trays get filled with dumplings, the runner, that was me, puts each finished tray in the freezer for about ten minutes. This flash freezes them so they don’t stick together while they’re waiting to go into the pan. The runner also has to get a fresh pan, refill the meat bowls, replenish the wrapper supply, and most important, refill everyone’s drink who’s working the assembly line. And he does all this while starting to fry the first batch of pot stickers. When you fry three to four hundred of these babies, you gotta get started as soon as possible. Part of the fun of this kind of party is eating a batch, taking a break and socializing, eating another batch, socializing some more, etc. etc. It’s not uncommon for our Pot sticker parties to last until well after midnight.

Once the filling is all gone and the “making” phase is over, our guests were again split into teams and each assigned a new task. Some helped Philip set the dinner table, some cleaned up the assembly line mess, and some helped prepare the side dishes and cook the dumplings. Cooking pot stickers is unbelievably easy—if you follow a few basic rules. Like using only non-stick frying pans. I’ve tried everything, and the best pan is the basic ten dollar nonstick, Meijer pan. It’s gotta have a lid too, because there are two stages to frying pot stickers. In the first stage, you have to heat a tablespoon of peanut oil on the highest temperature you’re stove will tolerate. (Peanut oil can cook at the highest temperature of almost any oil without burning.) Once the oil is smoking hot, set as many pot stickers in the pan without letting them touch each other. They’ll stick and make a big mess.

Although the temptation to jiggle them, touch them, turn them, fondle them, and/or shake them is great, just leave them alone for about five minutes. Let them get very brown on the bottom, almost burnt is ok. Then, in stage two, pour in a quarter cup, give or take, of vegetable stock, put the lid on them and leave them alone again. Let them cook until almost all the liquid is evaporated. Then shake them around so they don’t get glued to the bottom of the pan. When the liquid is absorbed, they’re done and ready to be plated.

Just so one person doesn’t get stuck in the kitchen all night, and so that everyone can see firsthand how to cook the dumplings, we usually rotate the cooking staff so two people at a time are in the kitchen. We use two big pans so to maximize how many we can make at once, so after the two pans of pot stickers are done, then two new cooks take over. By the end of the night, everyone will have had an equal hand in contributing to one of the coolest dinner parties you can imagine. You can either try this yourself at home or come to the Service Auction next year and bid on ours. For the right price, we might even let you stay and clean up after everyone leaves.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Culinarians of the Caribbean

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of working on a cooking team headed by Ron Kruger, Flint Journal’s Food Editor, who staged an incredible Caribbean dinner for 50 at our church. It was the Annual Service Auction , a major fundraiser event, and Ron volunteered to plan and execute the meal. I jumped at the chance to work with him because I want to learn more about Caribbean cooking and because of Ron’s vast knowledge of food.

The menu: Jerk Chicken, Black Beans, Coconut Rice, Caribbean Slaw, and Key Lime Cake

The Bar: Cuban Milkshakes, Strawberry and Strawberry/Mango Daiquiris, and Caribbean Tea

What follows is a photo highlight of the event, including a sweet chocolate cake made with vodka and Kahlua, an auction item I put the winning bid on and then gave to the two-year old who was bidding against me.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Living La Vida Lupe

Cinco de Mayo is my favorite holiday because, aside from celebrating Mexico beating up on the French for trying to forcefully immigrate to their country en masse, it’s also an American celebration of Mexican culture. In my world, that means paying homage to the National Drink of Mexico: The Margarita. I like mine frozen, so buying a smoothie machine a few years ago so I could make Cuervo Gold Margaritas myself and thus celebrate all year long turned out to be a smart move.

And really, how can one stage a proper celebration of Cinco de Mayo without good Mexican cuisine?

Stephanie and I have been celebrating Mexican food and culture in Flint for the last eight months by having lunch at locally owned Mexican restaurants. We’ll continue to scout out new eateries and go back again and again to our favorite places, but we brought our 2009-2010 Flint Mexican Restaurant Tour to an official end Wednesday by having lunch at the newly opened Lupe’s on Elms Road.

And what an interesting history Lupe’s has. If you remember from a few posts ago, I learned of the impending opening of Lupe’s from Cookie, who owns Laredo’s, who once owned Cookie’s Taco House with her mother, but who left the business to become a hairstylist, but then came back to the business to open Laredo’s, while her mother and brother still own Cookie’s Taco house, and other family members own and operate El Rio Ondo, Al Azteca, La Familia Morales, El Especial, and few more I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Lupe’s, which opened a week ago, began as Alejandro’s in the same building that it occupies now. Alejandro’s, which is the other restaurant owned by Cookie’s family, moved from its current location, to the strip mall next door on Elms Road. Because of a dispute with the owner of the strip mall building (that’s as much as I know), Alejandro’s closed its doors recently, moved back to its original building just to the south of the strip mall, and re-opened as Lupe’s.

It’s been seven months since we ate at Alejandro’s, but walking into Lupe's for the first time, I see some familiar themes. The dining room, for example, is as beautifully and tastefully designed as Alejandro’s. With far fewer tables and a smaller space, Lupe’s feels like an upscale Mexican Bistro. (Considering Bistro is a French concept, and considering Mexico defeated the French in order to give Americans a Mexican holiday to celebrate—with tequila—it’s no surprise that Mexican restaurants are not usually referred to as Bistros.) My friend Kali reminded me, in fact, that the preferred term for Mexican restaurants is Cantina, which is actually Italian in its origin.

When I think of cantinas, I also think of happy, cheesy music. Mariachi Band stuff. I remember having dinner at an outdoor Mexican Cantina in San Diego many years ago with a bunch of my graduate school friends. Somebody at our table offered my best friend, Jake, and me forty bucks to slow dance with each other, tableside and topless, while the Mariachi Band played behind us. That’s a lot of money for a poor graduate student. We did it of course and used the money to buy more pitchers of the same margaritas that gave us guts enough to take the challenge in the first place.

But, once again, I digress.

Lupe’s dining room is painted that Southwest orange color, and each of the eight or so tables is adorned with a different colored table cloth, all from the primary, rainbow colors. A bar with six high-legged chairs separates the dining room from the kitchen, which you can peer into an watch the tortillas and taco shells being made from scratch. The smells wafting through the dining room are enough to kick your salivary glands and taste buds into high gear. What I like most, though, about the dining room ambiance is the conservative application of wall art. The number of pieces is minimal, and they don’t call attention to themselves like the placemat-as-billboard-announcing-the-daily-specials variety I’ve seen in far too many other restaurants.

The chips and salsa were also a familiar site, and taste, for me. The chips really caught my eye because, fresh from the fryer, they glistened with residual coat of hot oil. In the right light, they were almost angelic. Shiny and pale, set against the bold red house salsa, these babies were almost too good eat. But we managed. The flavor of the house salsa was as bold as its color, but it suffered a huge setback for me because it was laced with an unusually high concentration of ground black pepper. This made me unhappy at Alejandro’s and unfortunately it hasn’t changed at Lupe’s.

Our request for the hot salsa brought an interesting response from our waitress. She brought a small bowl of fresh minced jalapeno peppers and directed us to dump them into our dish of house salsa, which would apparently turn it magically into the house hot salsa. And it did. It also reigned in the overbearing black pepper taste with its slightly sweet, differently hot balance.

Over time, we’ve become leery of ordering queso dips because they’ve been so wildly inconsistent and often horrid. Today, though, we were treated to a delightfully simple, almost elegant queso that brought great pleasure to our palettes. It had a festive orange hue to it, not the glowing neon characteristic of its ball park nacho cheese cousin. This version didn’t coagulate into a half-set cement glob with a freakish orange sheen. Lupe’s queso had a smooth, silky taste to it, which is what happens when you set the can opener aside and make this dip with real cheese.

I’m of the mind that if something works and it’s good, then don’t change it. That’s about how Stephanie and I felt about our entrees. Our food was reminiscent of our Alejandro’s meals last fall. We liked it then, and we like it just as well, if not more, at Lupe’s. I traded in my usual chimichanga platter for Lupe’s golden taco plate, three hand made flour shells, lightly deep fried and filled with ground beef, lettuce, and pico de gallo. Stephanie went for the combo platter, which was also quite good, though the tamale was just ok. The beans were pretty typical, but their Mexican Rice got a snappy upgrade that we both rated quite highly. This version had freshly sautéed peppers and onions mixed in, which gave it a nice texture and a nice flavor.

This family certainly knows how to offer a full Mexican dining experience, and Lupe’s, of all the restaurants owned by the Cookie clan, leads the way by paying close attention to its quality of food, ambiance and décor, and quality of service. The result for customers like us is a happy relaxed experience worth celebrating.