Arriving in Tokyo

Mike-and-Chao-1st-Night-in-Tokyo

Our First Night in Tokyo

Our story begins in Tokyo. We flew direct from O’Hare  and landed around 4:30 PM (Tokyo time). Needless to say, this was a long-ish flight, so Chao’s feet were all locked up in his super-cool sneakers. Mike dragged him off the plane, then we jumped in a car and we were off!

We checked in at our hotel, the ANA InterContinental Tokyo, where we were met with a pleasant surprise: The Tokyo Fixer, who we weren’t expecting to see for at least a few days. (Remember him from our last post? Tour guide extraordinaire, Tokyo nightlife guru, and so on?)

He took us out to his favorite yakitori-and-beer joint, where we proceeded to spend the rest of our waking hours at the yakitori bar, eating every conceivable part of the freshest, most tastiest chicken we’ve ever had. So we’re eating plate after plate of chicken meatballs, gizzard, liver, crispy skin, things we don’t know the name of, etc., then some fried-then-grilled tofu, plus a steady stream of Yebisu (our favorite Japanese beer )… and then the jet lag starts to hit…

After three beers and a chicken each (just about), we shuffled back to our hotel to rest up for our first full day (and were met with–hallelujah–really good internet). Okay, here are two other very quick photos/observations from our first few hours in Tokyo. (This should serve as a warning, there will be plenty of possibly unrelated photos during this trip).

Superior Tokyo Cousin of 7-Eleven

So, how awesome is this: instead of rolling hot dogs and day-old pastries, the 7-Elevens in Tokyo have the assortment you see below. Um, what?

6AM Sake Craving, Anyone?

Even better: we walked by this fully stocked liquor stand, that just happens to be open–wait for it–24 hours. Need a little 4:00 AM Veuve, some 6:00 AM sake? Done.

Our Adventure Begins

Well, friends, this is it. Mike and Chao are off on our biggest adventure yet: we’re going to Asia. For the next month or so, we’ll be traveling around Japan, over to Hong Kong, down to Thailand, and seeing/eating/drinking as much as we can possibly fit in. It won’t be quite as easy to blog about our trip, but we’ll be doing our best (and bombarding you with more as soon as we get back). Continue reading Our Adventure Begins

Mike and Chao Double Down

This blog has inspired me (Mike). For too many years my dining life has taken a back burner to my office life. Go ahead and judge me, but I have on more than one occasion turned down a dinner invite because I had… work to do. And so now, without further ado, I say: NO MORE. I quit my job last week.

Now, what do you do when you find yourself riddled with free time and your final bonus check? That’s right, you go to VEGAS.

Mike-and-Chao-Do-Vegas

Continue reading Mike and Chao Double Down

Mike and Chao Crash Worlds of Flavor 2010

After a few days at Fleury, soaking up (literally) Napa life, we decided that we should check out the nearby Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America. We wouldn’t call it crashing, but we definitely weren’t your typical conference-goers (picture a starstruck, slightly drunk Mike and Chao wandering around like kids in a candy store). Was it necessary that we include both of the photos below? Yes. Completely.

Mike-Chao-Morimoto

The 13th Annual Worlds of Flavor Conference turned its focus this year to Japan; both huge fans of Japanese cuisine, we were elated. We got the chance to meet, talk to, learn from, and eat with 60 of the finest Japanese chefs and other experts on the food and culinary traditions of Japan (win). Here are our highlights, in no particular order:

1. Ivan Ramen

Pardon the momentary sentimentality, but this guy’s story is definitely the foodie’s version of ‘heartwarming.’ In a sea of Japan’s finest chefs, Ivan Orkin kind of sticks out. Not too often does a Brooklyn-born Jewish guy move to Japan to master the art of ramen–and succeed with flying colors.

Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen. Photo c/o Serious Eats.

The self-professed ramenjunkie is living proof that anything is possible–he now owns two restaurants in Japan and is considered one of the foremost ramen experts. Known to many as Ivan Ramen (the name of his restaurant), Ivan came to the conference with Team Japan and created what was arguably one of the top three dishes of the event.

2. Okonomiyaki

Now this was something that we really hadn’t seen in Chicago… or anywhere else for that matter. Think pancakes, but stuffed with savory/salty ingredients. In other words, the perfect breakfast.

okonomiyaki

 

More info: Wikipedia •  No Recipes •  Bento.com

okonomiyaki n. Typically made using pancake batter and a variety of ingredients including vegetables, fish, meat, etc. Often referred to as “Japanese pancakes,” or even “Osaka soul food.”

The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want,” and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked.” Anything we want in a pancake on the grill? Yes, please.

3. Meeting Hiroyuki Sakai

We were both pretty awe-struck when we got to meet Chef Hiroyuki Sakai, one of the original Iron Chefs. There are no words to explain how cool this was. Chef Sakai wasn’t presenting or cooking or anything, just hanging out and trying things, you know, no big deal. Keeping it casual. (Also, did you all know he has a MySpace page?)

Chao & Chef Sakai

4. The Ice Smoker

Whoever thought this one up: thank you. We couldn’t imagine of a better way to wrap up the conference than–wait for it–an IRON CHEF CHALLENGE between Masaharu Morimoto and David Chang.

The fact that we were able to be in the presence of both of these chefs was enough for us–but to see them battling? Incredible. Morimoto recreated one of our favorite Iron Chef moments*, part of the Holiday Ice Battle in which Morimoto defeats Bobby Flay… using an ice smoker.

Morimoto preparing dinner for Mike & Chao (…and some other people, too).

We think it was snapper, but we were in a fame/food/sake-induced blackout.

5. How to Make Soba Noodles

Celebrities and knife skills and ingredients aside, this was a testament to ultimate requirement for doing something well: painstaking patience. During this thirty-minute demonstration, one chef highlighted the ins and outs of soba, how its made, the ingredients, and so on, while the second chef stepped patiently on the sheet of uncut noodles… for the entire time…

It’s a practice that ensures the proper distribution of pressure and the right consistency for the noodles. When the demo ended, the soft-stepping chef received a standing ovation and the undying respect of everyone watching.

Final Takeaway

Okay, so here’s the main thing that we walked away (well, flew away) thinking about: In restaurants here, we tend to cook everything (or most things) in-house, and that’s a valued trait–knowing that what you’re eating was made (and sometimes even grown) on the premises. There’s something to be said, however, for the specialized focus of most restaurants in Japan; instead of having the same kitchen staff master ramen, sashimi, sushi, udon, and so on, each restaurant has their focus, their specialty, and as such, they really do master the art of whatever they’re serving/stepping on.

Practices aside, we were blown away by the quality of ingredients, the precision and consistency of the work, and the knife skills–down to the way they cut fish in order to extract different flavors. The attention to detail wasn’t a special quality of certain chefs, it was a standard across the board.

Additional Coverage

Scenes from “Worlds of Flavor” 2010

FoodGal

Iron Chefs Galore at CIA’s Worlds of Flavor Conference

Jay Friedman, SunBreak

Japan’s Star Chefs in America

Yukari Iwatni Kane, Wall Street Journal

What Chefs and Writers Learned at the CIA’s Japanese-Inspired Worlds of Flavor Conference

Paolo Lucchesi, SF Gate

Three Great Techniques from the CIA Conference

Harris Salat, The Japanese Food Report

*Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a video of the Iron Chef episode online–mostly just forums/blog posts where people say things like: “Freaking BRILLIANT” and “ONE OF MORIMOTO’S ICE CARVERS JUST MADE A MEAT SMOKER OUT OF ICE THIS IS INCREDIBLE.” >> If anyone does have a link to a video for this ep, post it as a comment and we’ll give you tons of credit.

Mike & Chao Drink All Day

Mike-and-Chao-Drinking

…but we should probably give you some of the back-story before we talk about drinking wine straight out of the pump-over equipment. As part of our recent trip to California (link to Mexican food post), we also swung by Fleury Estate Winery, one of Napa’s finest boutique wineries and a destination/product Mike’s been all about for the last few years. We did the tastings, learned about the production, got the full tour, but what struck us more than anything was the life of a vintner.

There’s definitely a misconception (one that even we, scholars that we are, might have even bought into) about the life that goes along with moving to Napa and making wine. There’s a sense that the days of a vintner are spent swirling a glass of wine in front of perpetual sunset. Continue reading Mike & Chao Drink All Day

Ode to a Torta

Chicago has quickly become the capital of Mexican food north of the border. Are we biased as Chicagoans? Yes. Does that make the statement any less true? Nope. As residents of this fair taco-filled city, we felt it was our duty to investigate one of the West Coast’s top contenders. So when we hit California, we beelined for the the Mission District.

Our Tour Guide

Led by our San Fran tour guide, left, we made our way over to Taqueria Cancun. As you can see in the photo, he was hand-selected based on his hunger level, his capacity to eat while walking, and his propensity to try new foods.

That’s not completely true; he’s a friend… but those are still important things to look for in a friend/tour guide.

Chips and Guac

First things first: three Pacifico beers with limes and an order of chips and guac. As you can see in the photo, Chao had some difficulties holding himself back while I took a photo.

We both agreed: the chile flake tortilla chips were extra-thin and crispy, something you don’t always find in Chicago. Spicy guacamole, paper thin chips, fresh salsa–it was hot and crunchy at its finest.

Tacos

Next up: tacos. We tried the taco de cabeza (beef head) and the taco de lengua (beef tongue). Each was loaded with meat, enough meat to require two tortillas (at the risk of everything falling apart).

The meat, although tasty, was pretty much the bulk of the taco – a definite switch-up from what we’re used to in Chicago (the land of sauce and fillings).

The winner of the day–maybe the trip–was the fried pork torta. This was truly one of the best tortas any of us had ever tried. It was that perfect blend of melted, creamy goodness but without any sacrifices on flavor.

Fried-Pork-Torta1

 

It was an explosion of fresh guacamole and tomatoes, sour cream, melted mozzarella, and fried pork. The salty/savory flavors of the fried pork playing off the smooth-and-creamy awesomeness of the guacamole… We really should have titled this post “Ode to a Torta.” Or, “The Creamy Pork Sandwich That Changed My Life.”

So, if we had to choose between the Mission and Chicago? Had to decide between Taqueria Cancun and, say, Big Star?

Well, the people behind Big Star have truly hit the trifecta: price, quality, and authenticity. AND, they only use one tortilla in their tacos (which may seem like a petty criticism, but two tortillas are just too many).

The Mission was incredibly authentic and beyond affordable, which made it fairly easy to overeat (if there is such a thing). But, from what we’ve tried, Chicago does have something over the Mission. What the Windy City lacks in proximity it makes up for in flavor. Now, if only we could find a torta like that in Chicago.

Mike Hearts Street Meat (Plus Non-Meat Street Eats, Too)

There has been a a lot of talk in Chicago lately about food trucks. Correction: there has been a lot of talk in cities such as New York and Los Angeles and Portland about the amazing food trucks that keep sprouting up in their fair cities and a lot of talk in Chicago about WHY WE DON’T HAVE ANY.

So, here’s the lowdown in Chicago: Food trucks are allowed but only if there is no actual food being cooked on the truck. Everything that is sold needs to be pre-packaged in a licensed kitchen – which kind of misses the point. Nevertheless, Gaztro-Wagon, Happy Bodega, and Phillip Foss’ Meatyballs Mobile are pretty popular additions to the burgeoning scene in Chicago.

But, if you’ve known me an hour, you already know that I like to do things right. So, when 48 hours in New York City showed up on my travel itinerary, I decided to dig a little further into street meat culture. I sought out the best of the best, the masters of their trade, and tried to squeeze them all in to the allotted time (fail).

Bistro-Truck-2-1024x764

 

1. Bistro Truck

My first stop was the Bistro Truck, a Moroccan-meets-Mediterranean truck in Union Square. I went for one of their best-selling sandwiches, the Chicken Brochette, and it was truly unreal. Tender pieces of grilled chicken with a roasted tomato-caramelized onion charmoula (below), a sandwich made all the more delicious by my discovery next door. Continue reading Mike Hearts Street Meat (Plus Non-Meat Street Eats, Too)

Confessions of an Airport Diner

LOMO retro waiting room
LOMO retro waiting room

Airport food has pretty much always resided in a category  alongside hospital and rest-stop fare. As a veteran of the friendly skies and not-always-friendly terminals myself, I’ve sampled a good deal of airport food, and I can tell you firsthand that there are several exceptions to that rule in the last few years. In fact, you might even deem it a movement in some airports.

I put together my top 5 airport meals based on my experiences. Am I suggesting you drive out to the airport for dinner, tonight? Nope. But you just might be surprised by your next layover feast.

Continue reading Confessions of an Airport Diner