Category Archives: Review

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

Serious Coffee at Shanghai’s Sumerian

Though replete with cafes, Shanghai is still lacking in serious, high quality coffee. Sumerian, which opened this past summer in Jing’An District, successfully fills that void with its emphasis on Fair Trade beans and sophisticated brewing techniques.  All of the beans are roasted in-house by owner David Seminsky, ensuring a fresh, high quality cup of coffee.

Upon walking into Sumerian, patrons are greeted with a sunny, clean, modern interior.  The main counter is lined with Japanese siphons, which slowly drip intense cold brews, perfect for iced coffee.  There is also a small pastry case filled with delectable looking baked goods, some of which are imported from the U.S.

On all of my visits to Sumerian, I ordered the Kyoto ice drip coffee (RMB 32).  Smooth and light, with pronounced chocolate flavors and subtle sweetness, it was the perfect iced coffee.  Even now that I am back in Philly, the land of La Colombe, I still dream about the Kyoto iced coffee from Sumerian.

Though coffee junkies like me are certainly willing to pay a premium for great coffee, many customers in Shanghai are more reluctant.  In an effort to educate their customer base on the virtues of third wave coffee, Sumerian offers weekly cupping classes on Saturday afternoons, from 12-2pm.  Cupping, which is very popular here in the States, is quite rare in Shanghai, and I’m really glad that Sumerian provides this service.  For coffee geeks seeking serious coffee in Shanghai, look no further than Sumerian.

Sumerian
415 Shanxi Bei Lu, near Beijing Xi Lu
陕西北路415号,近北京西路
136-2174-0969

Saved by the Sandwich at Sunflour

After a month of eating nothing but Chinese food, I hit a wall that every laowai (or expat) living in China must hit–I simply could not stomach anymore Chinese food.  The thought of another bowl of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), or  another plate of sheng jian bao (pan fried dumplings), or even my favorite Shanghainese dish hong shao rou (soy sauce braised pork), made me grimace.

But thankfully for me, there is an abundance of delicious and affordable Western restaurants and cafes in Shanghai, catering to the thousands of hungry and homesick expats living in the city.  My favorite among them was Sunflour, located a few short clocks from my apartment on tree-lined Anfu Road.

Sunflour Cafe quite literally saved me from starvation, on that fateful day in Shanghai when I was lost amidst a sea of Chinese restaurants.  After a few hours of wandering around the French Concession in search of an affordable, non-Chinese lunch option, I was about to give up and go home, when I turned the corner onto Anfu Road and discovered Sunflour.  Immediately lured in by the smell of fresh baked bread and pastries, I decided to give their lunch menu a try and ordered the grilled chicken sandwich with tomato, rocket, avocado, and mayo on a baguette (50 RMB).

The sandwich was phenomenal.  The baguette, baked in-house, had a crisp exterior and soft, airy interior that held up well under the moist grilled chicken.  I loved the addition of tomatoes, avocado, and rocket arugula–a combination of fresh ingredients that one would certainly find in my home state of California.  Accompanied by a lovely bean salad, Sunflour’s grilled chicken sandwich was a steal at 50 RMB (just under $8 USD), and was just what I needed to refuel after a long and hot summer day in Shanghai.

I couldn’t leave Sunflour without sampling one (or rather, all) of their delectable macarons.  I split a gift box of macarons (50 RMB) with a friend, which included a lovely assortment of six macarons.  My favorite flavor was the lemon, a refreshing end to a refreshing meal.

Sunflour
Room 104, No. 322, An Fu Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai
上海徐汇区安福路322号104室
6473 7757

Noodle Bull’s Aromatic Beef Noodle Soup

One of my first meals since arriving in Shanghai was one of the best: braised beef noodle soup at Noodle Bull.  A sleek, minimalist interior gives the impression that Noodle Bull may not be authentic, but this is clearly a misimpression. 

I ordered their infamous, traditional beef noodle soup (30-35 RMB), and a glass of their housemade suan mei tang (sour plum juice).  The beef broth in the noodle soup was incredibly aromatic (possibly from the addition of star anise), with a soothing and savory flavor.  It was rich without being overly greasy or full of MSG.  The beef was tender, with just the right amount of fat melting in your mouth.  I also enjoyed the vegetables, which added some freshness to the dish. 

Surprisingly, the suan mei tang quite enjoyable.  I am generally not a fan of the drink because it is usually too tart for my taste, but Noodle Bull’s version had a nice balance of sweet and sour, with a deep plum flavor.

With good food, cheap prices, and a refined atmosphere, it’s no wonder why foreigners and locals alike flock to Noodle Bull.

Noodle Bull
A Mansion, 1/F, 291 Fumin Lu, near Changle Lu
富民路291号1楼, 近长乐路
(86 21) 6170 1299

Song Fang Maison de The: A Lovely Teahouse in Shanghai’s French Concession

Possibly my favorite place in Shanghai, Song Fang Maison de The is a lovely teahouse in the French Concession featuring premium Chinese and French teas.  The teahouse is a labor of love from owner Florence Sampson, a Paris native and longtime Shanghai resident.  Every detail, from the vintage tin cans lining the shelves, to the old-fashioned Chinese bird cages hanging from bamboo rods on the ceiling, to the elegant floral patterned cushions, adds to the charm and whimsy of the shop.  You certainly pay a premium for the tea, priced at 40-70 RMB per pot, but it is certainly worth it for the quality of the tea an sheer loveliness of the shop.   

Partly because I am pressed for time, and partly because Song Fang is so pictureque, I will keep the descriptions short and let the photos speak for themselves. 

Song Fang’s signature tea tins 

Third floor seating area. 

Song Fang features both a Chinese and a French tea menu.  The above photo is of the Chinese tea set, with naixiang oolong cha.  The tea was very aromatic, with some floral and even milky notes.  My friend and I absolutely loved the tiny tea cup and the adorable frog ceramic teapot.   

The French teas are served in whimsical Western-style teaware.  I enjoyed the China Blue tea (60 RMB), a pleasantly fruity white tea with coconut, blackberry, and orange.  My friend and I also shared a slice of freshly baked peach cake (40 RMB), which was light, buttery, and utterly delectable.  

Despite the fairly steep prices, Song Fang Maison de The may be my favorite teahouse in Shanghai.  With its charming setting, high quality teas, and knowledgable staff, Song Fang is definitely worth paying a premium for.

Song Fan Maison de The
227 Yongjia Lu, near Shanxi Nan Lu
永嘉路227号, 近陕西南路
Shanghai 200031
(86 21) 6433-8283

A Memorable Lunch at Blue Duck Tavern

As a summer associate at a law firm, I was lucky enough to go out to many fancy lunches over the past 2 months.  But at the end of it all, the one lunch that stands out most in my mind is Blue Duck Tavern, for its truly spectacular yet unpretentious American cuisine.

The interior is distinctively American, perhaps to reflect its cooking.  Old-fashioned rocking chairs and an open-style pantry greet guests at the front reception.  The expansive dining room features dark oak and wood paneling, and feels elegant without being stuffy or overly formal.

The meal began with the watermelon gazpacho, which I recently waxed poetic about in a previous post.  For my main dish, I  ordered the chilled lobster salad with frisee, avocado, grapefruit, and honey citrus vinaigrette ($15).  It was truly a delightful summer salad, featuring a substantial amount of lobster.  The honey citrus vinaigrette accented the sweetness of the lobster, and highlighted the citrus notes from the grapefruit.  Beautifully presented, and perfectly executed.

We shared a couple sides as well.  The roasted asparagus ($10), topped with bacon, a hard cheese (perhaps parmesan or grana padano), and egg was crisp and slightly charred on the outside, and perfectly seasoned.  Surprisingly, the daily harvest vegetables ($9) were also delicious.  I was expecting your typical boring sauteed vegetables (which is probably why I didn’t take a photo), but what arrived was a gorgeous plate of buttery sugar snap peas and carrots.  The simple preparation–butter, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of fresh herbs–really highlighted the freshness of the vegetables.

Of course, we had to order the infamous hand cut BDT triple fries ($10), which are quite extravagantly fried in duck fat.  We felt a bit miffed when only a handful of fries arrived at the table, but be warned–a few fries are more than enough.  The fries are very thick-cut and rich, yet not greasy at all.  Definitely worth ordering if you have never tried duck fat fries, but not a dish for the faint of heart or calorie-counters.

I’ll admit we went a bit crazy on desserts.  But at $9 each for a sizeable, delectable portion, the desserts at Blue Duck Tavern seem to be a good deal.  Though I glanced over this at first, the milk chocolate banana s’mores ended up being my favorite of the three desserts.  It was more of a deconstructed interpretation of a s’more, with crumbled graham crackers on the bottom, a caramelized banana custard, and a homemade marshmallow on top.  The marshmallow was blowtorched just before arriving at our table, and had slightly smoky flavor, which accentuated the caramelized banana custard nicely.  Overall, it wasn’t an overly sweet dessert, which is what I normally think of when I think of s’mores.

The chocolate cake with sour cherries was quite decadent and fudgey, but nothing too memorable.  I did enjoy that it was served warm, along with the cold whipped cream on the side.

The apple pie was much larger than we expected, and easily could have been shared by 4 people.  I loved the caramelized sugar on the crust, which added a divine crispiness.  The apple filling was much tarter than usual, and in my opinion, a bit dry.  I like my apple pie filling gooey, or smothered in a bit of just-melted vanilla ice cream.

If you are looking for someplace to host a special meal, Blue Duck Tavern should certainly be your pick.

Blue Duck Tavern
1201 24th St. NW
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 419-6755
Blue Duck Tavern on Urbanspoon

Best Summer Soups in DC

This summer has been exceptionally scortching in DC.  Yet even with 100-degree plus temps, I still found myself craving soup–the one dish that is certainly not desireable in this heat.  Luckily for me, several DC restaurants have adapted their menus for the summer, featuring an abundance of refreshing soups that highlight the season’s produce.  Here are three of my favorites:

Blue Duck Tavern’s Watermelon Gazpacho

Known for its rustic American cooking, Blue Duck Tavern manages to elevate even the simplest of dishes with its emphasis on fresh, local ingredients.  Its watermelon gazpacho ($12, photographed above), recently featured as the soup of the day, was emblematic of its refined culinary approach.  Each bite was utterly refreshing, with the sweetness of the watermelon tempered by a generous drizzle of olive oil, ultimately making the soup more of a savory dish.  Served chilled, with fresh baked croutons and minty, slightly licorice-flavored herbs on top, it was a terrific, unique take on the classic gazpacho.

1201 24th St. NW
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 419-6755
Blue Duck Tavern on Urbanspoon

Fiola’s Summer Corn Gazpacho

I look forward to corn on the cob every summer, and Fiola’s summer corn gazpacho captures that sweet corn flavor in every bite.  The soup arrived chilled over a bowl of ice, garnished with beautiful purple flowers.  The texture was thicker and smoother than your typical gazpacho, with kernels of fresh golden corn throughout.  Featured as a starter on their “Maria’s Light Menu” (which is a steal for $24), Fiola’s summer corn gazpacho was a light and cooling introduction to what would be a fabulous lunch.

601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 628-2888
Fiola on Urbanspoon

Brasserie Beck’s English Pea Soup

Brasserie Beck’s English pea soup has the distinction of being the only hot soup to make this list.  Its temperature was not an issue at all, as the soup was possibly one of the most delicious dishes I ate all summer.  Creamy, pale green soup was poured over thick pieces of bacon, and topped with a perfectly poached egg and chives.  Despite the rich ingredients, the soup was incredibly light and left me wanting to lick my bowl for more.  It was creamy, earthy, savory, sweet, and slightly smoky all at once, but the fresh pea flavor definitely stood out above the rest.

1101 K. St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 408-1717
Brasserie Beck on Urbanspoon