Saturday, September 09, 2006

Chewing the (roasted) Fat – ‘Foods to Die For’ Meme Item #3

This is my continuation of a Meme called: ‘5 things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die’, started by Melissa, of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I was selected by Haalo, of ‘Cook (almost) Anything at least once’, to offer my thoughts on the subject. Where upon I promply broke the rules and called mine 'Foods to Die For'. This #3 in my ascending list of 'Foods to Die For'. With #s 2 and 1 still to come.


First you render duck down to get the fat, then let the fat cool until creamy and white.

Once you have a big pile of that, you fry up some duck skin into cracklings. Super crispy pieces of insanely tasty deep fried duck skin.

Next, you mix the two together.

Then you eat it! (I have it on good authority that you do NOT die instantly of a heart attack).

Usually this little heart-stopper of a snack is made with rendered pork belly fat and pork cracklings. But the duck sort of kicks it up a notch.

Scooped onto big, soft, puffy pretzels. Washed down with Bavarian beer. The flavor is truly to die for. There is something about fried fat, awful as it sounds, that tastes fantastic. And fried duck fat is as good as it comes. I could die a happy man on the aroma alone.

This dish known as ‘Greibenschmalz’. Or in the case of the duck version, ‘Entengreibenschmalz’. If you’re ever in Munich – try it just once (really, just once!) before you die.

This stuff has been banned in SoCal for 50 years. It tops the list of the ‘10 Most Fatty Prohibited Items’ that the border patrol here searches for when you enter California air space (specially trained dogs find it pretty quickly in your luggage at the airport).

Then there’s the Amsterdam streets filled at night with munchies-crazed escapees from the many ‘coffee’ shops wolfing down cones filled with wonderfully golden deep fried frites still glistening with fat and dripping with mayonnaise. Which they get freshly deep fried from the mountains of ready cut potatoes at one of the many kiosks lining the streets advertising ‘Vlaams Frites Huis’.

Talk about foods to die for! Or, maybe better said, foods that will just plain kill you!

But, believe me, Munich and Amsterdam do not have the corner on the high fat foods market. I’ve eaten things in Italy, England, France, Japan(!), and many other places that are probably still stuck to the walls of my heart. Oh, carefree youth!

Most everyone loves to chew the (roasted) fat, even if they never would admit to it in public.

It must be a hold-over from those Neanderthal times, this love of fried or roasted fat. Ingrained in our genetic taste buds somewhere as the taste of survival in a harsh world. It’s a fundamental flavor, critical to fine haute cuisine as well as roadside foods. And sometimes, it seems, you just need to get a fat fix.

Over here, we wallow in beef fat. In the form of our beloved grilled burgers. Smothered in fatty sauces, with cheeses and bacon on top. And grilled steaks. Almost nothing says mid-West US like a good corn-fed steak fresh off a wood grill.

Although I don’t eat burgers or steaks much anymore (what with TeenGirl practically vegetarian, and all the talk about poor cows, not to mention lambs or baby cows). (Funny how chickens and fish have escaped that protective cloak of immunity).

But there was a time. I’ve tried steaks in a lot of places. Texas steaks in Austin, San Antonio, Houston. Chicago (reputed to have the best steakhouses). New York (the most expensive by far, though far from the best). Even out here in SoCal (don’t bother). I’ve had many a Steak au Poivre avec Pommes Frites at teeming street bistros in Paris. And plenty of Gaucho style steaks from Argentina with that awesome chimichurri sauce.

And they were occasionally good. Some even verged on great. Restaurant reviewers swooned over these places (probably all the free steaks they got). People who normally ate Spam and Burger King for lunch told me how wonderful the flavor at their secret steakhouse was. Hmmm.

Servers wheeled in gigantic carts laden with raw, aged cow carcasses for me to choose from. Every cut. Every thickness. Served in clubby, dark, wood paneled rooms. With plushy upholstered booths. Always grilled on the rare side of medium rare (still a faint heartbeat at the very center, but can no longer moo!).

I tried ‘em. But they were not to die for. All the steaks in Chicago, New York, or anywhere else don’t hold a candle to the best steak place.

Grilled steak with all the fixins to die for is found in Arkansas.

First, you have to get to Little Rock. A bit off the main tourist track.

Then you take a cab to the absolute worst part of town – and Little Rock has some pretty rough parts of town – because you would not want to leave your car there a street like that.

The cab driver knows where you want to go. It’s the place with a guy sitting out front with a shotgun on his lap. No kidding. As the cab stops, on a dark, grimy street, in front of a ramshackle-looking building – the only one for blocks with any lights on – the cab driver and the shotgun guy hustle you into the door. No sense getting killed before you have time to pay! (Just as a note – this was in 1997, so maybe things have changed a bit.)

There may have been a sign of the door, advertising Doe’s Eat Place. But I didn’t see it.

Inside is bright. Super bright. One large room, filled with picnic-style tables covered with plastic table cloths. Kitchen in the rear. Clean, neat, but simple.

And pictures of Bill on the wall. Everywhere. Bill Clinton larger than life. Smiling. Shaking hands. Hugging people. This is Bill’s place. His official unofficial headquarters. While he ran his campaigns for Governor of Arkansas and for President. No Republicans here! This is like a temple to Bill. (I loved it. But it was killing my colleague!).

We waited. Only a few other tables were filled on that weekday evening, but it was probably well past the main dining hour. The waitress was talking to the people at the other table, one foot up on the bench (picnic table bench, of course), leaning over with her order pad on her knee. No hurry here. As in a time warp, things happen when they happen, and no sooner.

She eventually sauntered over to us. We inquired about a menu. She pointed to the tiny plastic card holder that was sitting on a corner of the table. The kind that usually advertises daily specials or drinks.

There were three items on the menu. Porterhouse. Sirloin. And T-Bone. That’s it.

When she came back, she sort of sized us up, and declared that she would not serve us the porterhouse, as we were first-timers, and we were not ready for that experience yet. It was just a matter of fact declaration. No insult intended. She ordered us each a T-Bone, beginner’s size. Smiled and turned away to put in the order.

It didn’t matter. We were still in shock, or maybe awe, at a menu where the meat portions started at 2.5 pounds (more than one kilo of meat!), and went up to 6 pounds. We naively came to the idea that the 6 pounder was for families. In retrospect, I am not so sure.

The feast began.

Think butter. And fried fat. And lots of it. All the fixins were on the way.

But first came about one tablespoons worth of cole slaw. At the most. In a teeny tiny bowl. As I look back at it now, this seems like a sort of conscience cleanser. So you can say afterwards “Hey! I ate my vegetable! Now I am allowed to eat bad things!”.

Then came the deep fried bread. Deep fried bread! I haven’t had that since I was a little kid. A big basket full of it. We over indulged. Not realizing what was to come.

Next came a bowl of new potatoes. Floating in melted butter. Not buttered new potatoes. But little round balls of starch literally bobbing in butter. Enough potatoes for 4 people, enough butter for 10. We were starting to get the idea of what was to come.

Then came the steaks. But to even see the steaks, you had to move aside the mountain of French fried potatoes covering the entire plate. Maybe the better part of a foot tall pile of French fries. Crisp. Steamy. Hot.

And finally, under all that, an enormous slab of grilled beef. Easily 2 inches thick, maybe three. Easily. The tines of the fork did not go all the way from the top of the steak to the plate underneath. Beautifully grilled. Charred on the outside. Blood red on the inside. Cut away from the bone into somewhat bigger than bite-sized pieces. Huge. A huge slab of meat. Dripping with butter. I am positive they grilled these beasts in butter somehow.

Everything arrived in a sort of calm, unhurried, friendly manner. With a smile. And an occasional inquiry as to how we were doing. No stress here. No push to get you out the door as soon as possible. It was all about enjoying the food.

And, yes, we did dessert too! Barely!

Now, you may think it’s all about the size of the portions. But that is just not so. The thing that impressed me about the whole experience was that everything was done well. And the steaks were literally to die for. Best quality, perfectly aged and grilled. This was not just excess pushed to cover up poor quality, as is so often the case. This was wonderfully prepared food, just in portions larger than I was accustomed to.

And you could not stop eating it. It was not possible. It was that good. The bread and the fries were wonderfully crisp. Not greasy. The steak was tender like warm butter, with more steak flavor than I’ve ever had in a steak. The potatoes cooked but not over cooked. The butter fresh and rich.

We were not paying top New York dollar for this. We were clearly not some fancy celebrities or politicos. This was not a special evening, with a special menu. This was just the people who worked there, caring about the food, how it was procured, prepared, and served. And ordinary people like me, enjoying it.

On the way out, the waitress escorted us to the waiting cab, chatted a bit on where we were from, why we were here, etc. Maybe with the tip we left she wanted to up the odds of us living to come back again.

Now, I’ve been to 12 course dinners in Paris, and LA for that matter. That cost 20 times as much. Exquisite foods. Unbelievable combinations. Outstanding wines. But somehow, you expect it there. That’s the whole point of the exercise. Indulge. Push the boundaries. Taste the limits of culinary achievement. And that is fun to do. No question.

But often it is the simple things done perfectly that are so rare to find. And because it is such a rare thing, the enjoyment is that much greater. A perfect steak with all the fixings. Everything was there, everything fit together. Plus were talking fried fat here. Whew!

It’s not the way I would choose to eat on a regular basis, but I am glad to have eaten there once before I die, and recommend Doe’s Eat Place, in Little Rock, Arkansas as a place to go for a steak dinner elevated to one of the ‘Foods to Die For’.


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2 Comments:

Blogger Kalyn said...

Hmm. My sister used to live there. I remember that all the menus seemed to have misspelled words. But I never got to eat here; have to remember it, although she lives in Wyoming now.

7:23 AM  
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9:10 AM  

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