Burmese Tea Leaf Salad With William Lue

Hello folks! Long time no post.  By my count it’s been about six months since my last entry and this time I really don’t have a good excuse for the long gap.  Ok, we did have a second kid back in April.  Does that count as a huge time suck? I’d say it does.   Allow me to make this a parenting blog for a minute. One kid: totally manageable – actually really fun especially as she gets older, more independent and comes into her own eccentric and goofy personality and allows each of the parents some much needed “me” time or even “us” time (date night, ya’ll!).  Two kids: forget it.  And an infant? Forget it even more – which you will with all the sleep you’re not getting. Gone are the days of two on one, tag-team parenting.  Now it’s one-on-one all the time and it’s not even fair. The three year old now has mad trantrum skills and the baby, well she’s a freakin’ baby whose cries can shatter the strongest of wills.  They. Are. Kicking. Our. Ass.  So long story short, I blame the kids for the lapse in deliciousting posts.  Well, it’s not all bad. After all, the new one can be pretty sweet:

We call her Momo because she’s such a little dumpling. Ok, ending parent blog now.

Back in August, our good friends from NYC, Donna and Anthony came to visit us in Oakland with their two kids.  A little back story on D & A:  they’re the ones I hold responsible – I mean to whom I’m forever grateful – for introducing me to Shef, my wife in life and food.  I’ll try to be brief. I met Donna a long time ago through a mutual friend in California.  Later, at the wedding of that mutual friend, I met Anthony, Donna’s date. This was a ten years ago. I was just about to move to NYC so I was glad to befriend Donna and Ant who proved to be welcoming and warm when I did land in NYC a month or two later.  Fast forward eight or nine months.  Summer in NYC.  I found myself happily single.  D & A (who at the time lived in Manhattan) invited me to this Hawaiian picnic in Central Park.  A friend of theirs had invited them  Now, Donna is somebody who always has a plan. And this occasion was no exception. She had also invited her good friend, Shefali, also single and ready to enjoy the summer, if you catch my drift.  And all credit to Donna and her machinations, this is where it all started.  Okay, if I was going to be 100% honest this was the second time we’d met. The first time we crossed paths was about six months prior, and let’s just say I wasn’t in the right head space to notice her charms – her charms at that point consisted of a lot of snot because she had head cold if I recall.  So for the sake of a good story, let’s count that Hawaiian picnic in Central Park as the starting point.  I was waiting for D & A at the entrance near Columbus circle when I spied this really cute -nay,  hot young woman walk by and enter the park.  Donna and Ant arrived a short time later and I walked into the park with them. As we approached the picnic, the woman whom I’d noticed earlier approached them and gave them each a hug. Stoked! “Do you remember Shefali?” asked Donna.  “Um, yeah…”  Though honestly, I had not recognized her from six months before, (like I said I was a little oblivious at the time and she was really snotty, so that first impression was obviously not so meaningful).  On this occasion, I was checked in and checking her out. Needless to say, I was bowled over by her beauty and sparkling personality.  But equally if not more importantly, I was impressed with her ability to eat. She was all about attacking the mountain of food that people had brought, going back for second helpings, thirds, fourths, etc.  I was like “who is this girl?” So, I got her number, followed up and the end, as they say, is history.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a photo of that fateful meeting:

Meeting and eating. This is where I met my future wife. I knew girl who liked spam musubi was the one for me.

Meeting and eating. Me holding up the spam musubi. Anthony in the middle and Shef looking funny.

Alright back to the original reason for this post.  Donna and Ant were visiting us here in Oakland (already been two years since we moved from BK!) with their two kids. Yup, we’re all grown up now – kind of. We needed to eat dinner. I’d been hearing great things about this Burmese grocery store (?) near our house that also served really authentic Burmese food.  What?! I did a little internet research, because I’m resourceful like that.  I found out the place was actually a fully functional Burmese restaurant called Grocery Cafe because it occupied an old corner grocery store on a residential street in Oakland’s working class Highland neighborhood.  That’s the cool thing about Oakland. Smack dab in in the middle of these unassuming and unpolished residential neighborhoods you can find these gems like Champa Gardens or Vientien Cafe. It had been well reviewed by locals and the local weekly. Good enough for us.  We called and ordered about five dishes which comprised most of the small menu. Ant and I headed over to pick up the food. Sure enough, it was an old corner store with a make-shift kitchen separated from the front of the house by one of those refrigerated display cases that might have contained old macaroni salad and deli meats back in the day. Now it housed stacks of containers of homemade spicy Burmese pickles. The front of the house was a mish mash of second hand tables (like dining room tables you’d find at Goodwill)  and most of the seats were old church pews.  This was my kind of place. As we waited for the food we struck up a conversation with Mr. William Lue, the owner proprietor and some time chef of the Grocery Cafe. It turns out he’s been in the Burmese restaurant game for a good 30 plus years and has had a hand in running or cooking for many of the more well known and well heeled Burmese spots in the SF Bay Area.  Currently, he’s running a few Burmese spots in the East and North Bay, but the Grocery Cafe is his baby. Soft spoken, but with a deep resonant voice, Mr. Lue was not shy about describing his ambitions for the restaurant.   But it was when he started talking about the different dishes he wanted to  serve, that his language became evocative and poetic.   After over thirty years in the restaurant business, his passion for and excitement about the possibilities of Burmese food – the different ingredients, the regional specialties, the traditional preparations – and introducing it to the masses are palpable. I thought it would be great to video him making one of those dishes.   A couple weeks later, I managed to carve out some time in his busy schedule to film him for about an hour before he opened for business.  In the interest of time, I had him prepare the ever popular Burmese tea leaf salad.  I don’t know if it’s something the lay person could necessarily throw together, unless said lay person has their own vat of seasoned and fermented green tea leaves. But it’s a great example of how simple ingredients can combine to produce really complex flavors and textures.  As prepared by Mr. Lue, it’s delicious – as was all the other food we ate with D&A.  Please enjoy.



Nicaragua = surfing (tried to) + eating (nailed it)

Thanks to Rubes for immortalizing the moment.  Now I can quit pretending I know how to surf.

I got up on one! Thanks to Rubes and his water treading skills for immortalizing the moment. Now I just need to figure out how to make the wave look more giant.

A mere week and a half ago – plus a few days and add a few more days depending on when I actually post this and when and if you read this – I found myself in Nicaragua along with nine other fellows to help our buddy, Chris A (aka White Chocolate),  celebrate the big 4-0 in style… Nica style.  And by Nica style, I mean we spent a week in Miramar, Nicaragua at an awesome surf camp run by the great folks of Surf Tours Nicaragua.  It was kind of funny because with the exception of three of us, none among us would remotely consider ourselves “surfers” – unless you count the internet.  But, we were game to try and over the course of several days with expert instruction provided by Greg, Carter and Hector everyone pretty much succeeded in getting on at least one solid wave and having a boat load of fun – while avoiding serious injury. Also, we were  pretty much in bed by 10 pm each night. Yup, this is 40.

Fortunately, when we weren’t flailing – I mean shredding the sick swell – we were lying in hammocks on the covered deck overlooking the beach, watching the waves and discussing the beach break as if we knew what we were talking about. Okay maybe that was just me.  All in all, it was an awesome time – totally relaxing and punctuated by good food and many Toñas.  The staff at the camp  cooked consistently solid and tasty breakfasts, lunches and dinners (upon which the overwhelming fan favorite, Salsa Lizano, was liberally applied).  But there were  a few meals in particular that blew my flip flops off.

One evening we made the five minute walk to a neighboring woman’s house where she had set up a several tables under a roof in her front yard to accommodate the 16 or so of us hungry for dinner. She cooked nearby in her outdoor kitchen and with just two cooking fires, she prepared a feast of lobsters, rice and tostones (green plantains).  It was la bomba! Check the photographic evidence below.

The next day, the surf wasn’t so good (as if that really mattered to us amateurs) so the whole surf camp took a field trip to 1) Volcan Masaya – an active volvanoe 2) the town of Masaya, home to an artisan marketplace (aka souvenirs) 3) an amazing lunch at Bakus restaurant located above Laguna de Apoyo, a lake in extinct old volcano crater – not that the location mattered because we were all entertained by the copious amounts of meat and a DVD of  this year’s Billboard Music awards (Nikki Minaj giving a faux lap dance to Lil’ Wayne should be required lunchtime viewing) 4) swimming, chilling and participating in a hold our breath underwater contest in the fresh pristine waters of the lake.  Then we drove back that evening (eight of us in the back of the surf truck driven Carter -aka Carlitos the Heartbreaker) through the most torrential thunder and lightening storm just to make things more exciting. Que buen dia!

The next day, a few of us woke up early and took the boat to try our hands at spear fishing.  Okay, I’m going to chalk this one up to the poor visibility caused by river run off from the rain storms because basically we didn’t see shit.  Well, except for PK whose spear “misfired” when he had his target in sight (so much subtext there) and our guide and surf camp head honcho Greg who did see a trigger fish well enough to shoot through the eye!  The rest of us had no luck so we trolled a bit and ended up catching three pretty good sized fish, two of which were Spanish mackerel.

Later that evening, Greg made fresh sashimi with the mackerel.  Oh. My. God. So fresh, buttery, and melt in your mouth delicious. Que ricissimo!

All and all, it was a great trip hanging with the fellas.  And of course we all had our wives to thank for being the type of wonderfully supportive partners who held it down on the home front so we could surf (kind of), eat ridiculously well (or not – do cheeze puffs and skittles have any nutritional value, Chris A?) and chill in such a beautiful part of the world.

Sunset view from the deck: pretty ideal.

Sunset view from the deck: pretty ideal.


Pupusas at Los Cocos

Pupusas and caldo de pollo.

Pupusas and caldo de pollo.

Pupusa.  Just say it. “Pupusa”.   I don’t know if onomatopoeia would quite qualify in this instance, but doesn’t the word “pupusa” just sound like something bursting with savory goodness?  Indeed these Salvadorean treats rank up there with some of my favorite foods for a number of reasons.  Basically they’re fat tortillas (corn usually) stuffed with any number of ingredients (beans, cheese, pork or chicken, a even flowers –loroco) and fried on a griddle so the outside becomes nicely browned and crisp while the inside corn meal and fillings remain soft and moist, like a tamale.  The best part is when a bit of the cheesy insides ooze out onto the hot the griddle and add another layer of delicious crispy crust to the pupusa. They’re then served with a tomato-y hot sauce and a nice vinegary cabbage and carrot slaw, the acid of the sauce and salad perfectly complementing the rich savoriness of the pupusas.  They are supremely satisfying both to the palate and the stomach.  They will fill you up.

My first taste of pupusas was not in El Salvador but in Guatemala, when I was a young lad many many years ago doing the young lad backpacker thing down in Central America.  I was studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango  and one day I was searching for a late afternoon snack in the parque central .  I sampled a pupusa (not even that fresh of the griddle) from one of the food venders who’d set up shop. Mind blown.  And then when I crossed over into El Salvador and encountered more and different varieties of pupusas, what was left of my mind was blown further.  Living in SF – still as a young lad – I was ecstatic to find that I could find fresh and delicious pupusas at such favorites as Panchitas and El Zocolo.

But eight years living in NYC, meant a long hiatus from great pupusas.  Sure, I could occasionally get some good ones at the Red Hook Ball fields (at least before they became over run by hipster foodies), but there were few Salvadorean restaurants that I was aware of where I could indulge to my heart’s content.  Then a few months ago, we moved back to the Bay Area and I’ve been reunited with delectible pupusas once again.   We live in Oakland, just a stone’s throw away (or a nice bike ride) from Los Cocos, one of the sole Salvadorean restaurant in the Fruitvale district, a neighborhood where Mexican taquerias predominate (not a bad thing, just stating a fact).  I first ate at Los Cocos years ago with my friend Matt and when we feasted on pupusas and incredibly flavorful caldo de pollo (chicken soup). So, it was a real joy to bring Shef and K to this spot a couple months ago when we were newly arrived to Oakland. It was just as I had remembered it – decorated with Salvadorean tchotchkes, the air inside hazy with cooking grease.  In other words, perfect. K got her first taste of pupusas and it’s fair to say, she loved them.

Eating at Los Cocos (with Matt again) a few weeks later, I asked Rosa the cook and owner of the restaurant if I could make a short vid of her cooking pupusas process.  She said, “sure!” So, this is the result.  Please enjoy and go find pupusas near to you because this vid will make you hungry.


Thai Cooking Made Easy! (Well, as experienced in a touristy cooking class…)

Along with cooking we also learned how to carve these carrots out of flowers.  Can you tell which one is Shefali's and which one is mine? (hint: mine looks like it was carved using a knife and not teeth)

Along with cooking we also learned how to carve these carrots out of flowers. Can you tell which one is Shefali’s and which one is mine? (hint: mine looks like it was carved using a knife and not my teeth)

I’m sure if you saw the previous post about pad thai, you’re aware of how highly I regard Thai food, both for its preparation and its dynamic flavors. Also, I’m a fan of employing badly shot vacation video from almost two years ago to give the few lucky readers of this blog an opportunity to savor more Thai food and watch Shefali and I stumble through the preparation of some basic Thai dishes.  You see, the summer before last, before Kaya and her voracious appetite made themselves known – actually, I think Shef was in the early stages of pregnancy with K (aka “The Eater”) – we were fortunate to find ourselves in Chiang Mai, Thailand, recuperating from our trip to India.  Believe me, Northern Thailand is the place to go for relaxing and eating.  As full fledged tourists, we enrolled in a one day cooking class at the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. Now, I fancy myself as somewhat knowledgeable about food and the way its prepared – Asian food in particular. Oh, I don’t know, maybe because I’m ASIAN? Sheeit! So I didn’t know how much I’d really get out of this class. Well, feed me some humble pie, because I got a whole lot of spicy goodness out of it. It was great!  The recipes were obviously dumbed down for farang students, but what really came through (bubbled up to the surface as it were) was the importance of using the freshest ingredients and cooking things quickly and with the intensity of high eat to seal in flavors. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but some of dishes I cooked in this class, I’d consider among the best Thai food I’ve eaten.  So without further ado, please enjoy these two videos which chronicle both our trip to the market and our cooking class. Please enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2


The Perfect Pad Thai? Quite Possibly.

About a month ago Shefali, Kaya, and I had the pleasure of spending almost twenty hours on two planes (with one layover) to travel 8,651 miles to Bangkok, exactly twelve hours ahead (timewise), where we would spend four short days before another two and a half hour flight (on one plane) to Hong Kong for another four short days. Then we came home. End of story. Actually no. We went to Bangkok and Hong Kong to spend our winter break with Shefali’s family in Bangkok and my family in Hong Kong. But more on that in a future (possible) post wherein I just talk about all the “first” foods that Kaya ate. Yeah, I’m that dad.

This post is about pad thai, specifically the pad thai found at Luang Pha Pad Thai restaurant in Bangkok. You know, that place on Maha Chai Road, a stone’s throw from the Wat Saket? Yeah that one. Ok, to be honest, we had some insider knowledge. Shefali’s sister  (not Thai) and her husband (Thai) told us about this place a year and a half ago when we visited them. And boy were we appreciative.  The flavor of that pad thai and the simple but elegant way it was prepared were etched into my memory. Plus I took lots of photos.

Shef wants this pad thai and bad... This is from our first trip to Luang Pha.

Shef wants this pad thai and bad… This is from our first trip to Luang Pha.

This small woman is a giant among cooks

This small woman is a giant among cooks

But seriously, watching this diminutive woman wielding this massive wok reminded me of what a pleasure it is to watch someone who is really good at what they do.   Each  gesture and motion is effortless, the perfect expression of thought into action. There is no wasted effort – efficiency epitomized.  Or, maybe it’s because this is her job and she does it everyday. In any case, the results are ridiculously good.  So, this past trip, Shefali and I brought her mom and her sis (and of course Kaya) along to experience quite possibly the perfect pad thai.  Please enjoy some photos and be sure to watch the video above which shows this awesome cook in action.  You might even learn how to cook some real pad thai.  Though good luck finding the shrimp fat oil…