Tootsies Salad Express–Familiarity with a side order of variety (and barbecue sauce)

“I think I’m going to be underwhelmed by Tootsies,” I said to my companion as we walked towards Reading Terminal Market. “Underwhelmed?” he responded, “I didn’t think you’d even been whelmed yet.”

True. When setting upon a project like eating at each stand in the Reading Terminal Market, clearly there are going to be places that you are just not looking forward to very much. Tootsies Salad Express, a throwback to nights at Sizzler with my sister who discovered it as a teenager and loved it mainly for the fact that she could put sprinkles on pudding, definitely fit in this category.

At the same time, Tootsies had a certain charm. As RTM shifts inexorably towards hip foodieism, Tootsies is a mainstay, with three islands with sneeze guards and an array of elderly men and women who, for all I know, have been eating Sunday lunch on the same stool since 1982. In fact, sociologist Elijah Anderson describes one such lady, who takes the bus from Germantown daily to eat at Tootsies, and maybe buy some produce for later, in his book Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. That’s the kind of loyalty that your local gastropub probably just can’t evoke.

remember that song "one of these things is not like the other"? it's the vinaigrette salad in the upper right.

My culinary time travel began with the prepared salad bar, which seemed to only include foods glued together with mayonnaise, from tuna salad to coleslaw. Somewhat drab pieces of cake were scattered around the edge, looking suffocated in plastic. I have a deep aversion to mayonnaise, so I passed this island entirely, as I did, honestly with the second, the DIY salad bar. It looked fine, actually, better than the salad bar at Whole Foods (and if anyone reads this works at Whole Foods, can you up your game a little bit? How about some nicer cheeses? Or some nuts? Did the corporate powers-that-be read those articles about how to work the Whole Foods salad bar system and counter by making everything completely uninteresting and not worth the price?) with a variety of greens, meats, and accoutrements. But, salad? Hardly what someone goes to Tootsies for, so I moved onto Island 3–hot prepared foods.

Well, Dr., I see an ancient sea creature, rearing up out of an oily lake. What's the spoon for? Not in mixed company, Dr.!

Vaguely Southern comfort food, this island offered mac ‘n cheese, collard greens, barbecue chicken, sweet potatoes, yams, chicken stew, sliced pork, white and brown rice, roasted potatoes, chicken tenders, fried whiting and probably another dish or two that I’ve forgotten. When in Rome, I thought, and dug in for some barbecue chicken, collards, and roasted potatoes. My companion requested I eat a chicken tender and fried whiting too, so I threw those on as well. It’s easy to see how unhealthy a meal could get, given the ability to just focus on fried foods to the exclusion of all else.

doesn't the potato in the middle look like Pac-Man?

Certainly, one doesn’t go to Tootsies for ambiance, or ecological friendliness, but, dammit if it isn’t pretty good food. Not the best barbecue chicken, but charred and saucy (though you can add more barbecue sauce on the side if you like, but my god, why?). Eating at Tootsies is sort of like eating at a combination of your neighbor’s pretty good picnic–the roasted potatoes were nicely crisp on the outside, soft inside, and well-salted as potatoes must be–and a decent cafeteria. Or a wedding buffet, held at the VFW. The chicken tender and whiting were both fried perfectly, with no hint of grease, but not much detectable flavoring either. I suppose that’s what the side sauces are for? Collards and mac ‘n cheese were satisfying too, tender in the first case and toothsome in the latter. In any case, it’s good southern-style comfort food, and a reasonable place to fill the gap left by the sudden closing of Delilah’s, which I wasn’t much impressed with anyway. The menu at Tootsie’s changes daily, and I’m going to have to check if they ever have fried chicken, which I’ve been craving, and which I’m going to bet they could do a pretty decent job on. What the Tootsie’s staff definitely does a good job on is offering familiarity within the context of variety and individualization, while maintaining a solid level of execution.

Now, if they only had some pudding and sprinkles, I’d invite my sister.

Recommended: anything vaguely Southern. Probably not the prepared salads, but I couldn’t say. Try one and tell me!

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Shy Goats and Local Honey – Fair Food Farmstand and Bee Natural

bread cheese and honeyLaughing, I pulled a chunk from the seeded demi baguette, watching as the crisp crust crackled, spilling crumbs and fennel and sesame seeds everywhere. I spread a layer of soft, runny cheese on it, probably too much but sometimes more is better, and, to prove it, drizzled local orange blossom honey over that, the golden syrup dripping over the crags and cream onto my thumbnail, which I sucked clean. Each bite was wondrous, a perfect combination of the chewy, slight sourness of the wild yeast risen bread, the tangy cheese melting, and the sweet perfume of the honey. I picked up the Cameo apple sitting next to me and attempted to slice it with a plastic knife. Hardly successful, but I was able to add that to the flavor combination–sweet and crisp. I sighed, leaned back and thought “this is what life is supposed to taste like.” And then a nearby man yelled, “put it in the garbage can! The garbage can! It’s right there!” My reverie was broken.

Nope, this was no picnic alongside a pristine river, it was a locally-sourced lunch spread bought from and consumed at the Reading Terminal Market, made possible with the help of the Fair Food Farmstand and Bee Natural.

he shook his head 'no' at my petting attempts

The mission of the Fair Food Farmstand is offering only locally-sourced produce, dairy and sundry products. This past weekend, two local producers were on hand–shy goats, who hid against their keepers’ legs rather than lick my proffered hand. The cheesemaker, from Shellbark Hollow Farm in West Chester, PA, was friendlier, suggesting that we partake in samples of his various goat cheese wares.

Did you know that goat cheese can taste like brie? Or be sharp? I didn’t either. The ladies offering samples weren’t giving up any secrets either. What wasn’t secret was the deliciousness, and I happily purchased one of each type, along with a local Cameo apple and a (regular old cow-milk) yogurt.

oh, you, honeydripper

I had one more vision in mind, though. To gild the lily, somewhat literally. Bee Natural sells only honey and bee products, like beautiful beeswax candles that reminded me of being in Fatima, Portugal. I chose two relatively local honeys, a wildflower and an orange blossom, that wouldn’t overwhelm the delicate cheeses. A final stop at Metropolitan Bakery for bread and I was ready to picnic in the midst of convention goers and tourist families.

The local food movement has gained popularity over the last several years. For the politically-minded, locavorism is a more humane method of food production, which keeps our communities closely connected with farmers, who are neither giant agri-businesses or located on the other side of the equator, and which, ideally, would recalibrate our quite clearly broken food system. The consistency of outbreaks of pathogens in our supposedly safe food supply and the difficulty in identifying their source is certainly one good reason. If you know where your food comes from, you’re likely to be able to regulate it reasonably well. And you won’t have to worry about the spread of illness throughout countries, as happened recently in Europe with bad bean sprouts.

The wonderful blog History at the Table addresses the question of whether locavorism is viable better than I can, so click away! But it seems to me that when people have better knowledge of how they get food, where it comes from, who makes it, what kind of labor goes into making it and what the real costs are, this can only be for our benefit. Like so many things about foodie movements, though, I’m concerned about the “classing up” of this trend, as with restaurants who list the pedigree of their rutabagas for premium prices.

That being said, eating local at the Reading Terminal Market is neither dear nor unpleasant. My ad hoc picnic oozed flavor and texture. The local yogurt was creamy perfection, as far removed from the insipid, watery nonfat sugar bombs in the supermarket as a shy little goat named Magic is from a chicken raised in a cage so small it can’t turn around. The cheeses were so extraordinary that by later that evening I was drooling for the salad I was preparing for lunch at the office the next day. Even my humble apple seemed crisper, tastier, more satisfying. While I’m not sure that the political and economic system we live within will really allow the local foods movement to grow the way it needs to in order to be revolutionary, it’s a worthy effort. I’m also not sure that American palates, so used to finding everything available all the time, will be able to get used to the considerably smaller range of seasonable items (check out this map and see what’s available in Pennsylvania in March for a sad, sad picture). Nonetheless, I smile every time I see a glass-strewn lot transformed with raised beds and when I have to wait on line at the farmer’s market. And even when the goats are shy, I’ve got to smile at them too. Since they’re the source, after all.

Recommended: buy local! Fair Food Farmstand and Bee Natural are your friends. And find and eat this goat cheese. It may change your life.

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12th St. Cantina: East Coast/West Coast

We’ve gotten so used to the words “reading” “terminal” and “market” as a phrase, that it’s easy to forget why those particular words are being put in that order. Terminal markets, according to Wikipedia, are central sites, usually in urban areas, that serve “as an assembly and trading place for commodities….usually at or near major transportation hubs.” Farmers would ship their produce via railroad, like the Reading, to a terminal market, where wholesalers would peruse the goods. While such markets still exist in some areas (one thinks immediately of the Fulton Fish Market, which, when it opened in the early 19th century, was part of a larger market) many have survived by turning themselves into eater’s paradises, where an average family or a couple can pick up some interesting produce and indulge in some ethnic cuisine. In that regard, much as I love it, Reading Terminal Market isn’t all that unique. 

In fact, last summer, on a wonderful trip to Los Angeles with my companion, who had gone to graduate school there, we explored the Grand Central Market. While Reading Terminal Market is much more tourist-ready, the Grand Central Market offered its own array of regional and national delicacies, as you can see in this video, which gives a nice sense of the Market, as long as you can ignore the Casio keyboard sounding background music.

For some unremembered reason, we were there early in the morning, maybe right after it opened. Workers, just coming off the night shift, were sipping beers and  eating dinner-for-breakfast, while, in another corner, fresh fruits were being juiced for eye-opening smoothies.

Given the sizable Chicano and Latino populations, it’s no surprise that every chili pepper imaginable (or at least in this girl’s imagination) seemed to be available. And the pastries! Platter upon platter of sweet Mexican pastries, all for cents. While they crumbled to sweet dust when bitten, dunked in coffee they were divine.

I had a hankering for similar grub on a recent foray to RTM, and ended up at the 12th Street Cantina, the Market’s only Mexican restaurant as far as I can tell. In homage to West Coast Mexican food, I ordered a fish taco, which, a sign assured me, would be cooked when ordered. And, in order to really judge, I accompanied it with an adobe pork taco and refried black beans. Red and green salsas are available on the counter, along with a variety of hot sauces.

spicing things up

Both tacos were good, though not great. The fish taco was nicely spiced, but inexplicably came with tomato and lettuce rather than the crunchy cabbage slaw that would usually accompany this dish. Even stranger, there was no lime wedge with which to brighten the fish, though a bit of hot sauce was welcome.

that's the pork, in the back

The adobe pork was tasty, if a bit dry. Slow-cooked pork, it was shredded, with more lettuce and tomato. It, too, benefitted from a liberal application of the salsa verde, which left a tingling in my mouth. Both tacos, though, were watery, probably from the veggies, which made eating them messy.

desert island food

The gold medal goes to the refried black beans, however, which could be a desert island dish. Well-spiced, creamy, warm and filling, the beans were excellent. Don’t really think too hard about the lard that was probably the source of such deliciousness. Sometimes, it’s better to just bask. Which is easy to do at 12th Street. Unlike most Market restaurants, not only does it have it’s own seating area, but it’s actually decorated to reference the cuisine it serves, with tiled walls and bright colors. Now, only if they started serving some beer, than this Cantina would be the perfect hangout spot, east or west coast style.

a bit watery, but maybe that's for the fish in the taco?

Recommended: Adobe pork, salsa verde, refried black beans.
12th Street Cantina on Urbanspoon

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The Girl With the Most Cake: Beiler’s v Flying Monkey

Does Jerry Seinfeld still do stand up? If so, I imagine he starts his routine thusly: “So, what’s the deal with whoopie pies? They’re not pies and they don’t make whoopie.” Ba dum duh. Semantics aside, whoopie pies are everywhere these days, from the vegan versions at my local coffee shop-shout out to Grindcore!-to being a special Edy’s ice cream flavor. In fact, Ferran Adria was working on a whoopie pie before El Bulli closed. It was going to be chocolate air surrounded by a solid block of flash-frozen cream made with the stamen of Madagascar vanilla flowers. Ba dum duh.

mmm...sticky

Like a postmodern superhero, whoopie pies have varying origin stories. Some claim they were created in Maine, which has named them the official “state treat” (not to be confused with the “state dessert,” blueberry pie). Others suggest that they are a Pennsylvania Amish tradition. The story goes that these easily portable snacks would be tucked by loving bonneted women into lunch pails. When the husbands opened them up they would shout “whoopee” in joy, which is somewhat hard to picture, considering the beards and straw hats involved.

mmm...monkey

Reading Terminal Market is home several Amish eateries, including Beiler’s Bakery, which sells whoopie pies in various flavors. But there’s a new kid in town vying for the whoopie pie crown. Flying Monkey Patisserie is probably best known for the Pumpple, a monstrosity of sweetness, in which apple and pumpkin pies are baked inside chocolate and vanilla layer cakes. Truly an architectural feat (and perhaps a culinary one, though I haven’t tasted one) the Pumpple also shows Flying Monkey’s penchant for playing with old standbys. To which end, whoopie pies are available there in at least four or more flavors at any time.

Time for a showdown–Amish whoopie pie v. hipster whoopie pie. Whose whoopie will reign supreme?

Beiler classic v. Flying Monkey classic

In a show of scientific objectivity, I decided that a control was necessary: one classic whoopie pie from each, chocolate with vanilla cream. Our test differed from each. From Beiler’s a red velvet whoopie, facing off a Guinness whoopie pie, with chocolate layers surrounding a Guinness stout cream cheese filling, from Flying Monkey.

While each whoopie pie cost the same, $2.50, the bang-for-your-buck prize goes to Beiler’s, whose whoopies are about the size of a baby’s head. They taste much better, though. The chocolate layers are crisp around the edges, giving it a bit of texture. The filling is what a Twinkie dreams about–which I mean as a compliment. It was airy, light, sweet and tinged with vanilla, collapsing perfectly beneath the chocolate cake. In comparison, Flying Monkey’s classic was denser, not a virtue in this battle, especially with the filling. Cream cheese frosting is delicious, don’t get me wrong, but while it’s easy to flavor and make in mass quantities, sometimes its tang and mouth feel are not the best match. My companion, however, preferred Flying Monkey, so maybe I’m the outlier.

the beer is in the middle (just like with real people)

Beiler’s red velvet was not quite as delectable. I realized after biting into it, that I probably should have chosen a whoopie pie that was more different from the classic, given that red velvet is simply a less chocolatey chocolate cake. The first bite of Flying Monkey’s Guinness whoopie tasted sour to me, but the flavor mellowed into something unidentifiable as beer, but tasty nonetheless. Again, though, Beiler’s beat Flying Monkey on texture and moistness.

Winner: Beiler’s. And me? I got to be the girl with the most cake.

Recommended: whoopie pies from Beiler’s, especially the classic. They also make adorable mini pies and other baked treats, which you can read about on Messy and Picky’s blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Monkey Patisserie on UrbanspoonBeiler's Bakery on Urbanspoon

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Blow Out: Golden Fish Market

Have you seen Brian DePalma’s film Blow Out? If so, that clip will make a lot more sense.* Set in Philadelphia, a long tracking shot follows John Lithgow as a stone-cold killer (really, a part he was born to play) as he stalks a victim through the old Reading Terminal Market, when it actually was connected to a train station, giving its name a bit more sense. In the original he pulls his murder weapon–an ice pick–from the open case of a seafood market, which all seems a bit hard to believe. Even in the early 80s were ice picks so easily accessible?

No matter what else has changed, seafood markets are still alive and well at Reading Terminal Market. Like Golden Fish Market, tucked back near the Amish section. The icy interior of its cases display tens of varieties of fish, as well as some prepared items. My companion and I were flying to visit his parents on Christmas Day and my heart was filled with sadness about the prospect of my holiday dinner consisting of a pretzel and a frappucino. At least I’d make us a nice meal the night before, and pulled out my copy of Marc Vetri’s Il Viaggio De Vetrian amazing cookbook that includes a recipe for brussel sprouts so good you’ll swear you could eat nothing else for a week and be happy. Many of the recipes are quite difficult and involve lots of meat (including a baby goat), but the Porcini-Crusted Halibut with Blueberry Sauce seemed ideal: an unusual pairing of flavors, a small number of ingredients, and a chance to try the Golden Fish Market.

I bought 10 ounces or so of halibut, for a couple bucks over $20. As much as I love to cook, I don’t often buy meat, so maybe I should’ve been pickier about the thickness of the steaks. They were a little thinner than Marc Vetri recommended (in the book, not in my kitchen. Though I wish he would come to my kitchen. Here’s an open invitation, Mr. Vetri: any time, you name it, and I’ll buy the ingredients and the wine.)

Jonathan Best Gourmet Grocer supplied the dried porcinis and champagne vinegar. The recipe was astoundingly quick to prepare. After grinding the porcinis into dust, I made the blueberry sauce, letting it cook longer than called for to get some thickness. Setting that aside, I coated the fish with the porcini dust mixed with oil, and sprinkled a bit of salt and pepper. They cooked beautifully, those filets, coming out moist and tender. However, the porcini crust could have used more oomph. Maybe I measured my porcinis wrong and should’ve ground more of them? Nonetheless, served with a salad of baby spinach, roasted cherry tomatoes with rosemary, and almonds with a champagne-and-honey vinaigrette, it was a delicious meal that almost made me forget the eight hours of traveling that awaited us the next day.

*you can see the source material here starting at about 1:15.

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Tea Leaf

Tea Leaf SignThe woman was blocking the cash register. “Can you believe that?” she opined, “I don’t have pets. And he just brought his dog with him to my house! On Thanksgiving!” The woman behind the counter shook her head. The other patrons, sitting at stools, shook their heads. “I should’ve told him there’s a good animal shelter nearby, if he needed a place to leave his dog!” More commiseration, all around. When she left, one of the women at the counter asked, “she’s a regular, right?” Apparently this is the kind of place Tea Leaf is: where regulars come and share anecdotes of their life expecting, and receiving, smiles and support.

Tea canisters at Tea LeafWho knew? A relatively new addition to Reading Terminal Market, Tea Leaf is more niche than most. It serves tea, either bought by weight, or by the cup. The list is impressive, with a range from green genmaicha to flavored bourbon vanilla black tea.

Not having had it in years, I chose a large cup of Lapsang Souchang, a smoked black tea. Instructed to let it steep for only five minutes, I’m sure in our inability to find a seat, I overbrewed it. Forgive me, tea gods! Indeed, before I even opened its lid, I could smell the campfire flavor seeping through. Which neurologist can explain why smoke tastes so good to humans? Fire bad, intoned Frankenstein, but we educated folk do love it in our cheese, beer and scotch.

Lapsang Souchang

You can smell it, right?

Honestly, though, a large cup of the milky, smokey drink was too much. Perhaps some time I’ll go back for a proper cuppa and a chat. Tea Leaf is the ideal place for sampling while searching for the place where everybody knows your name.

Recommended: tea!

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Year End: Top 5 Worst Food Moments of 2011

On day two and 2012 is already shaping up to be a good food year–warm, cakey donuts at Federal Donuts followed by a mouth-tingling dinner at szechuan palace Han Dynasty  (the cumin lamb and dan dan noodles are as good as you’ve read about). But such peaks of pleasure only take on meaning in a larger world where food quality, shall we politely agree, is often hit-or-miss at best. So, in the spirit of the best of lists that fill our glowing screens at this time of year, let me offer my 5 worst food moments of 2011, in no particular order:

1. The Nuclear Banh Mi of Death: Cafe Nhu Y

This small storefront offers up a tasty menu of banh mi, including more than the usual number of vegetarian options. The bread, too, has a perfect crackling crust, complementing the fillings. Why is this otherwise delectable banh mi on my list? Because tucked into the round end of one half of a sandwich was a spice concoction that nearly made me cry. Imagine me, happily munching away when suddenly my mouth flames up. Figuring I’d just bit into an errant piece of pepper, I opened the sandwich to find nothing out of the ordinary. Oh good, I thought, must’ve eaten all of whatever that was. Wrong. One more tentative bite and the burning sensation that oozed its way down my esophagus made me wonder if I was going to hurl. Truly. I couldn’t eat another bite.

2. Raw (Fish) Deal: Tokyo Sushi

It wasn’t bad, really, but the sushi at Reading Terminal Market’s Tokyo Sushi leaves me cold. Overpriced, underwhelming. Leave these fishes on ice.

3. Rancid Red Wine: My House

Arrogance can be defined as a trait that causes a person to take unnecessary risks, believing that they are invincible to the hazards of life. When a friend offered me a glass of homemade red wine, which was stored in an old office water cooler bottle, “sealed” with a piece of tin foil and a rubber band, I should’ve paused. When he mentioned that he’d made it years ago, with the unspoken corollary that it had travelled with him in varying states and through various states and had probably been living in my basement, the temperature of which fluctuates between city morgue and Louisiana swamp, I should’ve passed. But no, I drank. And learned my lesson.

4. The Saddest Thai Iced Tea in All of Philadelphia: QT Vietnamese Sandwich

Thai iced tea is a wondrous thing–jasmine tea brewed with star anise and mixed with creamy sweetened condensed milk. Where better to get one than QT, the fantastic tiny Vietnamese sandwich shop in Chinatown that my companion swears by? Learn my lesson: eat the sandwich and skip the tea, which was a watery mess that tasted so sweet it might have been brewed from Hello Kitty. I threw it away after two sips.

5. Egyptian Betrayal: Alexandria

At the start of 2011, my companion and I went to Cairo to visit a friend. He was worried about getting food sickness, completely understandably since he’d contracted a pretty terrible bug long before I’d met him on a visit to Guatemala. I promised that I’d do my best to insure his health. On our first real dinner, we went to a wonderful seafood restaurant on the Mediterranean in Alexandria. Plate after plate of mezze came out–most of which were raw vegetables. After he began eating–after!–it occurred to me that eating salad was probably the least safe thing one could do. But since he’d already eaten it…..I didn’t say anything till later. Not one for understatement, he told me I’d betrayed him and I hoped that I’d get sick and not him. Luckily neither of us did. Oh, and then there was a revolution. #firstworldproblems.

Happy eating in 2012!

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