Snowmageddon 2014

imageToday’s snowstorm felt like déjà vu, since it seemed like yesterday the first Snowmaggedon struck DC.  I remember trudging through Tenleytown to Whole Foods with my roommate, and cooking up a storm in our tiny kitchen.  I remember watching an epic snowball fight in Dupont Circle.   And I remember blogging about it all right here.

In reality, of course, it’s been four years since the last Snowmaggedon.  My life is very different now from what it was then. For starters, I am no longer an unpaid intern or law student.  I graduated from law school last year, and moved away from Philly–my adopted city for the last three years–back to DC.  I now work as a lawyer and have gradually been adjusting to the big-law life.  I feel like a different person and much more adult than when the last Snowmaggedon hit, and when I first started this blog.

Yet there are some things that are still the same.  I am back where it all started, in DC, and am excited to find a dynamic and vibrant restaurant scene that, like me, has grown a lot over the past few years.  I still have an insatiable appetite and deep love for food.  And even though I’m now a salaried employee, I’m still the Unpaid Gourmet at heart–and will still be on the lookout for unique and affordable eats and “not-so-cheap but worth it” meals.

I hope to continue sharing my dining adventures and experiences with you, readers, on this blog.  It may have taken Snowmageddon to bring me out of hibernation, but I promise there are lots of good things–both old and new–to come this year on the Unpaid Gourmet.  Stay tuned, and stay warm!

Brew Dogs Airs Philly Episode on Tues Oct 8!

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Attention Philly beer enthusiasts!  Brew Dogs, a new show about craft beer, will feature Philadelphia’s thriving craft beer scene tonight at 10|9c on Esquire Network.  Brew Dogs stars James Watt and Martin Dickie, owners of the UK’s fastest-growing craft brewery and makers of the world’s strongest ale, and chronicles their travels to America’s top craft beer cities. 

In each city, the boys collaborate with a top craft brewery to make unique and oftentimes bizarre locally-inspired drafts. The boys’ draft in Philly may be the craziest yet–a colonial-era beer infused with 320 copies of the Declaration of Independence and corn that the boys grind themselves. And as if that wasn’t crazy enough, the boys partner with Victory Brewing to brew the beer atop a Fourth of July parade float!  They claim it’s the “most American beer ever made.”     

I chatted with James and Martin about their brewery, the show, and their time in the city of brewery love. Below is the interview:     

1. Tell me about Brew Dogs. How did you guys decide to start the brewery? What sets Brew Dogs apart from other brewers in the UK? 

Martin and I have been longstanding beer enthusiasts and we were increasingly dissatisfied with the selection of industrially brewed and buttoned-up ales that dominated the UK market.  So in 2007 we started BrewDog to make our own beer.  We started in small batches, bottling by hand and selling our beer wherever we could.  We were only 24 then and put everything we had into the success of our beer and our overall mission of producing not just better beer than what was out there – but the best beer you can find.  We are not afraid to experiment with bold flavors and uncommon expectations of what beer should be – whether that means making the strongest beer in the world or giving our beers names that raise an eyebrow.  We’ve been very proud of the product we’ve produced since then.

2. What are your impressions of the American craft beer scene?

We love it! Unconstrained by tradition or convention American craft brewers follow their muse and riff on classic beer styles creating the most exciting beer culture anywhere in the world.

3. This season, you guys make beer with some pretty unique ingredients, including sea kelp, chiles, and cactus! What ingredients turned out well? Were there any that turned out badly? What is the weirdest ingredient you guys have used in your beers? 

We used the world’s hottest chiles, pharmaceutical grade caffeine, meat-smoked malt, foraged yarrow and kelp from the bottom of the Pacific and even harvested fog to use for our brewing water in San Francisco. The weirdest thing had to be in Philly, when we added 320 million copies of the Declaration of Independence to the beer.

4. While in Philly, you collaborated with Victory Brewing on a colonial style beer. What exactly is a colonial style beer?

A colonial era beer is the type of beer Ben Franklin would have made when he home brewed. We used a recipe that dates back to the American revolution and also used ingredients they would have had available at that time like corn which we actually ground ourselves on a working mill from 1750!

5. You guys brewed the beer atop a Fourth of July parade float. How did that go? 

Epic. We love the 4th of July, the day when all Americans celebrate Will Smith single-handedly defeating an alien invasion.

6. What is the craziest place you guys have tried to brew beers? 

The bottom of the Atlantic was pretty crazy. We have also brewed on train, on a ferry, on a sailing ship, on a float, on top of a 15,000 ft mountain and on a raft made of beer kegs floating down the Willamette River!

7. In Philly, did you have a chance to try any local restaurants? Or cheesesteaks?!

We definitely got our hands on at least one cheesesteak while we were in town.  Only wish we were able to stay in Philly longer to experience more of what the city had to offer.  We’ll definitely be back.  

8. What is your favorite experience or memory from this season? 

In the first episode while we were in San Diego, Martin stripped in an old folks home during a rousing game ofdominos.  I loved it.  The ladies were quite taken with him.

Be sure to check out Brew Dogs and the most American beer ever made tonight on Esquire Network at 10|9c!

American Spirits Bartender Competition

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Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the American Spirits Bartender Competition, hosted by the National Constitution Center and the Hotel Monaco. The event was, in part, to celebrate the National Constitution Center’s exhibit, American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of the Prohibition, which perfectly portrays the dynamic history, trends, and sprit of the Roaring 20s.

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The competition took place at the Hotel Monaco’s Stratus Rooftop Lounge, a posh yet cozy venue with terrific views of the city.

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The competition featured bartenders from XIX, 10 Arts, Square 1682, and the Stratus Lounge, all showcasing a different Prohibition-themed cocktail.  Nate Churchill of XIX (pictured above) won the competition with his Orange Blossom cocktail, featuring Bluecoat gin, fresh lemon and orange juice, honey, and bitters, served up in a mason jar.

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Chauncey Scates, of Square 1682, offered the Powder Room Punch, which mixed Bluecoat gin, cointreau, Jasmine Tea, lemon, grenadine, and dashes of Peychauds and Angostura bitters on the rocks.  The cocktail was very earthy and fruity, with a pretty coral color.

Bess Gulliver (pictured at top) represented the Stratus Lounge with the Jazz Baby, made with Bluecoat gin, Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao, and Averna Amaro, garnished with a flamed orange peel.  The drink reminded me of an Old Fashioned, but with gin instead of whisky.

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Stephen Diaz of 10 Arts served my personal favorite cocktail of the evening.  Featuring Bluecoat gin, St. Germaine, fresh raspberry syrup, and a splash of Dry Brut champagne, the drink tasted like an effervescent raspberry sorbet.  The St. Germaine, an elderflower liquor, added a lovely floral finish.

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The competition was certainly a success.  Thanks to the National Constitution Center for inviting me.  And be sure to check out their exhibit, American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of the Prohibition, where you can learn all about the history and culture of the Prohibition era and channel your inner flapper!  The exhibit runs through April 28, and admission is free on Sundays.

The Salt Lick: Hill Country’s Best BBQ

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With this being my last year as a student, and by extension my last spring break EVER, I decided to go big–Texas style.  I spent one glorious week in Austin, enjoying the warm weather and exploring the city’s incredible food scene.  Of course, no trip to Austin would be complete without sampling the Lone Star State’s most famous dish: BBQ.  I stopped at The Salt Lick and Franklin Barbecue, two of Austin’s most famous BBQ joints, and am happy to report that both lived up to, and went far beyond, my wildest BBQ dreams.

The Salt Lick, located about 45 minutes outside of Austin in Driftwood, TX, is a Hill Country institution.  For over 45 years, The Salt Lick has been serving its signature BBQ, cooked over a legendary open pit.  The meat smokes for hours atop a low fire of oak wood and pecan shells.  The mouthwatering aroma hits you about a mile away, as you drive up the highway and arrive at The Salt Lick’s idyllic grounds.

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My friends and I went to Salt Lick on a Saturday afternoon, and had to wait for an hour (which turned out to be nothing compared to Franklin–more on that below).  By the end of the hour though, we almost didn’t want the wait to end!  It was absolutely beautiful weather that day, perfect for walking around the expansive grounds or listening to the awesome live band playing outside.  The Salt Lick certainly knows how to keep guests entertained and play up its Texas charm.

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After the hour lapsed, we were promptly seated in one of the many dining rooms.  I appreciated that the hostess did not force us to share a communal table with strangers, instead giving our small group of 3 a huge table all to ourselves.  Our waiter, Matt, was also awesome, accommodating our many photo requests and menu questions.

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We ordered an all-you-can-eat family style meal ($19.95 per person) and a double beef ribs plate ($19.95).  The family style meal came with unlimited brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw, beans, bread, and housemade pickles.  I can wholeheartedly say that I loved everything on my plate.  The brisket was fall-apart tender, with just the right amount of fat that instantly melted in my mouth.  While I am not a big sausage fan, I could not stop eating Salt Lick’s; it was spicy and smokey, with a nice bite to it.  And everything was doused in Salt Lick’s famous BBQ sauce, made with a secret recipe rumored to have 32 ingredients.  I literally could drink the sauce–it was sweet and mustardy, without being pungent or sour.

Surprisingly, another favorite was the sides. The coleslaw had a clear Japanese influence, perhaps from the owners’ mother, who was Japanese-American from Hawaii.  Flecked with sesame seeds, the coleslaw had a mild rice vinegar flavor and had just the right acidity to counterbalance the meat.  I also could not stop eating the bread, which was not your traditional white sandwich bread.  This bread was fluffy, light, and slightly sweet, almost like Hawaiian bread.

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The beef ribs were almost comical in how large they were!  The meat was very rich, and intensely beefy.  I could only eat one bite, but that bite was magical.

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For good measure, we decided to order the BBQ chicken ($10.95), which is only available “when in season.”  It turned out to be a good decision, because that was possibly the best BBQ chicken I’ve ever had.  The smoke completely penetrated the chicken, leaving the meat moist and flavorful.  The skin was completely coated in that luscious sauce, some of which caramelized over the grill.

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As if we weren’t full enough after our BBQ feast, our awesome waiter Matt brought over a complementary peach and blackberry cobbler for us to try.  Topped with vanilla ice cream, the cobbler was comforting and tasted like it had been made with love.  I especially loved the topping, which was more cake-like and not the more traditional biscuit or crumble topping.

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And obviously, I couldn’t leave Salt Lick without trying a slice (read: a SLICE, not a whole pie) of pecan pie ($4.95).  In contrast to other pecan pies I’ve had, Salt Lick (or maybe Texas in general?) tops their pecan pies with a layer of whole pecans, rather than mixing pieces of pecans with the filling.  The pie was delicious, with the thick crust offsetting the sweetness of the filling perfectly.

The Salt Lick was overall, the best BBQ experience I’ve ever had.  Every detail, from the rustic setting to the gracious service to the stick-to-your-ribs BBQ, added to our memorable experience.  The Salt Lick is certainly a tourist trap in every sense of the word, but it is a tourist trap well worth going to, and can’t be missed on any trip to Austin.  I would go back in a heartbeat.

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The Salt Lick
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619
(512) 858-4959
Open everyday 11am-10pm
Cash only and BYOB

Girl Power and Top Chef

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After tonight’s epic finale (part 1) of Top Chef, I had to break my 3-month radio silence and express my sheer joy that 2 fierce females are the finalists! Readers and Top Chef fans, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first time in the show’s history that two women are the sole finalists. It’s a truly momentous occasion, showing just how far women have come in the culinary world.

And yes, I realize that a woman has already won Top Chef–Stephanie Izard, the insanely talented and bubbly chef from Chicago, now of Girl and the Goat fame. But somehow, I’m even more excited for the Brooke-Kristen battle, and truly admire both of these women. They not only outcooked the boys in the kitchen, but did so with grace and integrity. Neither of them had to be loud (unlike…ahem…JOSIE) or attention whores (ahem…STEPHAN), resort to cooking copious amounts of bacon (ahem…JOSH) or exude sultriness a la Padma (although I have to admit, I do kind of have a girl crush on Kristen). They both just cooked their asses off, stayed cool under pressure (except when Kristen “peed in her pants a little” as Tom barked for more tuna), and stayed true to who they are (which was ultimately poor Sheldon’s downfall).

This is not the first time that Top Chef has broken barriers and glass ceilings. Last season, Paul Qui, an adorably introverted and incredibly gifted chef from Austin, was the first Asian American to be crowned Top Chef. Here’s hoping that an Asian American woman–Kristen Kish (there, I said it!)–wins the title next.

Photo courtesy of BravoTv.com

The Unpaid Gourmet Turns 3!

Today marks The Unpaid Gourmet’s third blog-iversary! Three years ago on this fateful day, when I was an unpaid intern in Washington, DC, I started this blog to share my budget-friendly culinary adventures around the city.  Three years later, I’ve continued to write The Unpaid Gourmet wherever I am, whether it’s in Philly, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Shanghai, or New York, exploring the local food scenes and searching for the area’s best affordable dining options.  I’ve loved every minute of it, and feel grateful to be able to share my thoughts and experiences with you, readers.

I’m not sure where the next three years will take me, but I hope they will be just as fulfilling and memorable as the last three have been.  Thanks to everyone for your support of The Unpaid Gourmet for the past three years, and here’s to celebrating what’s to come in the future!

Photo courtesy of CollegeFashion.net

In Defense of Guy Fieri

Undoubtedly, many have already heard about or read The New York Timesscathing review of Guy Fieri’s new restaurant in Times Square.  The review consisted entirely of questions–34 to be exact–featuring such ringers as “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”

The reviewer, Pete Wells, went on to insult not only the restaurant, but also Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives brand, describing the show as Guy “rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy.”  The review ended with a single word, that in any other circumstance would have seemed complementary.  But following two pages of seemingly endless swipes, the word–Thanks–only exuded snark.

While many applauded the review, hailing it a “critical masterpiece” and the “Best. Restaurant review. Ever. (No seriously: ever.),” few rose to Guy Fieri’s defense.  Appearing on the Today Show this morning, Guy mounted his own defense, asserting the reviewer probably had “another agenda” and calling the piece “ridiculous” and “overboard.”  Guy did acknowledge that his restaurant had its shortcomings, but nonetheless stood by his restaurant and food.  And to add insult to injury, word leaked that the NYT held a staff party at Guy’s restaurant the day that the review dropped.

I think I’m one of the few to side with Fieri on this one–and not just because I’m an unabashed fan of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  I found the NYT review to be way over the top and under the belt.  Reading through the first few paragraphs, I’ll admit that I was mildly entertained.  But devoting over 1,000 words to snarky rhetorical questions denigrating not only the restaurant, but the low-country, “no-collar American food” this reviewer thinks Fieri and his brand represent, seemed, well, overboard to me, and certainly elitist.

Yes, the food and service at Guy’s was probably not up to par with The New York Times, or even most people’s, standards.  But I think restaurant critics, and critics of any kind really, should adhere to the old standby rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  That’s not to say critics shouldn’t critique; that’s their job, and there’s nothing wrong with some constructive criticism, or expressing an opinion, albeit a negative one.  What I have a problem with is unnecessary snark, sarcasm, and snobbery, and elevating one person’s view of what is or is not good food above all others.  And the NYT review did just that.

In all honesty, the review might actually be a boon for Guy.  They say no press is bad press, and Guy has certainly gotten a LOT of press for this.  More people might actually go to the restaurant, curious to find out for themselves whether the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders really do taste like chewy air or whether the slow roasted pork shank really does have “the deadened, overcooked taste of school cafeteria vegetables.”  In the end, maybe Guy Fieri is the one who should say “thanks” to the NYT–for asking so many insightful questions.

Update: Other reviewers are chiming in, and though what they’re saying is not great, at least it’s more of a fair shot. Here’s Serious Eats review of Guy’s American Kitchen.