Thursday, December 11, 2008

IEM Session #6- Something Ain't Kosher Here- Special Memphis BBQ Sandwich Edition

This is my second attempt at an IEM session away from my home turf. The first one was in NYC, but the lack of drama on that session made it tough to ever get motivated to write about it. Additionally, I deviated a little from the regular format and ate several different foods over 2 days. It just didn't end up how I had envisioned. On the Memphis session, not only was I doing barbecue pork sandwiches exclusively, the session was in conjunction with the Gonerfest music festival. The session was a tribute of sorts to the great city of Memphis, especially the fine people at Goner records who put on this annual festival that gives gonowheres from all over the globe something to look forward to in their lives other than cirrhosis of the liver. The session yielded far more excitement than the one in NYC, which seemed pretty ordinary somehow, even though I was eating stuff from as far away as Uzbekistan. Still, I'm not sure I want to do too many of these traveling episodes. The logistics of the usual East Bay versions are much more conducive to the outrageous. I know where the colorful characters are in Oakland. And since I'm at home, I'm able to do more pitstops, which allows me to recharge and eat more and ergo, write more. Also, when I travel, I can't go home and get my camera when I forget to take it with me. On the Memphis session, I had to get a disposable camera from Walgreen's. Hence, the even shittier than usual snapshots. One of the best parts of the Memphis session was the fact that I got to be driven around by my "celebrity friend," Mitch Cardwell, for a few of the stops. Crockett, California's greatest export, Mitch is a writer, promoter, lover, and bon vivant. I couldn't ask for a greater personality to accompany me on an eating session.

I ate at a lot of great places on this trip, but there were plenty I couldn't hit due to lack of time and stomach space (as usual.) For some reason, I wasn't able to route A&R on this session, which has been my favorite Memphis bbq spot since I first tried it in 2002. I also really wanted to try Neely's (not Jim Neely's Interstate) ever since I saw Pat and Gina Neely's show Down Home With the Neely's on the Food Network. The couple is so cute that you just want to pinch their cheeks, tie them up, and throw them in a river. They're supposed to have great bbq, though. Other people swear by Rendezvous. I could've probably eaten at 8 bbq places a day for a week in the Memphis area and never gotten to all of them. Next time I come to Memphis (hopefully at next year's Gonerfest), I probably won't do another session, but you can be sure that I will eat plenty of pork, even if I don't write about it. If you've never been to Memphis and you have even a passing interest in American music, I highly recommend taking a visit, even if you don't eat pork. I always have a great time down there and the pork is only 75% of the fun.

Eating Day: September 25, 2008

1. COZY CORNER- 745 N. Parkway- 10:58am- Sliced Pork- $4.95

This place is in a part of Memphis I don’t usually visit, unless I’m specifically going here to get BBQ. I think it’s in NW Memphis, but for all I know, they could refer to that area by some other name. It’s pretty close to the river; you can see the goofy pyramid from there. The whole block was being torn up and resurfaced. I’d be surprised if Mitch didn’t get tar on his rental car. Like a lot of the BBQ places I visited, Cozy Corner isn’t near anything. It doesn’t seem like the place you’d accidentally find. You have to go looking for it.

The wall adjacent from the entrance is strewn with signed celebrity photos, including Robert Duvall and other titans of showbiz like Jerry Lawler, Sherman Hemsley, and Kid N’ Play. There are some cryptic signs also. One sign lists all of the restaurant’s hours and then it just says the words “We Will Be Closed” under the list of hours. Is this a call to action telling us that they will be going out of business someday in the future? Another sign says “No illegal smoking.” Does this refer to crack/marijuana or is it a prohibition against smoking your own meat on their premises?

I’ve been to Cozy’s before. Their ribs are legendary, as are their Cornish game hens, but I’d never had a pork sandwich there. None of my Memphis friends seemed to mention Cozy’s for sandwiches, so I wasn’t expecting too much. We got there just in time. There was no line when we arrived, but by the time we left, folks were waiting outside to get in there. Even without a line, they were slow. I never understand what a long wait is about at a bbq place. They’re not smoking it to order, you know. Normally, I don’t mind waiting a while for my food, but on an IEM session, I can’t be lollygagging around. I was surprised that the hot bbq sauce on the sandwich was actually hot. It wasn’t challenging or anything, but there was some serious heat there. In most cases, I always think they gave me the mild by accident, because the “hot” sauce is usually not even slightly spicy. At Cozy’s the hot is hot. It’s also sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. The meat was chopped pork with just the right amount of smoke on a sesame hoagie bun topped with really good non-runny cole slaw. In addition to the chopped pork, there were also pieces of sliced/pulled pork shrapnel in there with plenty of crunchy bits. I reckon we were probably the first customers to order pork sandwiches that day and they really hooked us up. If I wasn’t on a session, I would have gotten up and ordered another 2 sandwiches immediately. These sandwiches were just about perfect. Somebody was really going to have to throw some serious heat to beat this place. It’s always weird when you get such a great entry right out of the gate. I almost felt like I should just stop there and call off the competition. But I was in Memphis for Gonerfest. And when you're in Memphis for Gonerfest you eat pork. Lots of it.

2. P’S & Q BAR-B-QUE- 510 N. Missouri St, West Memphis, AR- 12:10pm- Chopped Pork- $3.90 regular

NOTE: Sandwich photo unavailable due to stupidity

I knew nothing about West Memphis other than it’s the place where a creepy "goth" kid with a terrible haircut and his 2 dimwitted followers were convicted of killing some toddlers and then became a cause celebre for alternative rockers everywhere. Metallica even provided the soundtrack for 2 documentaries about these "falsely accused" teens. Memphians seem to regard West Memphis as somewhat of a shit hole. I only spent about 45 minutes there, and saw roughly 20 blocks along 2 major thoroughfares, so I can’t really make a fair judgment on the town, but West Memphis didn’t look too crummy from what I saw.

Despite its name, P's and Q wasn't a strict bbq joint. In fact, they seemed to have a lot more non-bbq items than bbq. There were a lot of breakfast items on the menu and they seemed to be really pushing their burgers. Everyone in there was white- behind the counter and in front of it. I don't know how it is in the South, but in Oakland, white people seldom run bbq joints, and when they do, the bbq is weak at best. I didn't judge, though. I was willing to let these caucasians show me that pork is color blind. Well what do you know? P's and Q fulfills their own stereotype. The sandwich was a dead ringer for what was billed as "bbq on a bun" at my elementary school in Houston, TX. The pork was chopped to smithereens, was somewhat dry, and had near-negligable smoke flavor. It was served sans-sauce on a very standard small hamburger bun. There was a squeeze bottle of both hot and mild sauce on the table. I couldn't tell the hot from the mild, but they were both overly sweet with the consistency of caramel syrup you'd find on a make-your-own-sundae bar. The sandwich was far from inedible, but it was on the small side, considering its price. P's and Q seemed to be a hangout for local blue collar types, so I would guess there are other items on the menu worth trying, because Joe Six-Pack (fuck you in the neck, Sarah Palin) wouldn't frequent a place like this if there weren't at least a few knockout dishes being served there.

3. WILLIE MAE’S RIB HAUS- 321 W. Broadway, West Memphis- 12:29pm- Chopped Pork- $3.49 small

I haven't spent much time in the South, so I don't pretend to understand how race relations work down there in 2008. I lived in Houston for a while as a tween, but that was a long time ago and I never really saw any black people in the part of town where we lived. Anyway, in W. Memphis, it seemed like P's and Q was the "white barbecue place" while Willie Mae's, just a few blocks away, was the "colored barbecue place." I don't know if this is some de facto holdover from Jim Crow days that nobody told me about, but I found it pretty weird.

Despite the teutonic spelling of "haus," Wille Mae's was run by a jovial, large, African-American gent who wanted to know where we were from and why we were there. Once he found out we were from Oakland, he said, "I didn't know they had white people there." I should have said, "Yes we do have a few white people there, except they're all yuppie-hipster lamewads who would gladly pay you $15 for one of your sandwiches so they could say they had "an authentic Southern experience." The dude just kept on talking. He said he lived in California once, San Diego if I remember correctly, and he really liked it there. I think he had been in the Navy. He said he had to move because it was too expensive there. He had also lived in Flint, Michigan for a bit. He said he wouldn't live there again if you gave him "a whole row of houses." Roger and Me was right. Flint does suck. The guy kept on visiting with us asking questions about where we lived and what we had planned in Memphis. He probably would've kept talking forever if a bunch of uniformed school kids hadn't come in. I don't know if they were relatives of his, but he was talking to them like he knew them well. My sandwich arrived shortly after the kids did.

Right off the bat, I noticed that the bun was toasted, which is not too common with bbq places anywhere. Toasting is always a nice touch. The pork was chopped, but unlike P's and Q, it wasn't cut into such tiny morsels. The meat was quite smokey, but not overly so. It was very tender. I had ordered mine with hot sauce, but once again, I detected no trace of heat. The sauce was really thick and syrupy and almost as sweet as at P's & Q. When I bit into the sandwich, I would occasionally get a crunchy bit. I took off the bun and saw some crispy pork pieces (I think they're knows as "burnt ends"), but I'm quite sure that they weren't the only crunchy element going on in the sandwich. I believe that some of that texture was attributed to crystallized sugar in the sauce! Despite this oddity, this was a pretty good sandwich all in all. If I ever start a "See the World of the West Memphis 3" tour, the admission price will include lunch at Willie Mae's.

4. PAYNE’S- 1765 Lamar- 12:45p,- Chopped Pork- $3.50 regular

I imagine there are probably more barbecue joints in West Memphis than P's and Q and Willie Mae's. I'm curious if they're all segregated like those places seem to be. I'm happy that Mitch and I were able to enter Willie Mae's and break the color line at that establishment. Since that day, I like to think of myself as the Jewish Jackie Robinson of barbecued pork.

We left Arkansas and headed back for Memphis. Payne's would be my last bbq joint with Mitch acting as the Morgan Freeman to my Jessica Tandy. He was anxious to try Payne's, due to the praise it receives from Memphis' shit-rock luminaries. I've eaten there at least once on every visit to Memphis, but this was Mitch's maiden voyage at Payne's. Eating at Payne's takes planning. Their hours are unpredictable. They close early on the days they are open and I believe they're completely closed on Sundays and Mondays (at least), so don't go there without calling first. They're located inside what appears to be a former automobile service station. The remnants of garage doors are still visible on the side of the restaurant. The place is kind of dark, not only from the dim lighting, but also because the place is so smokey from all of that pork they're churning out. Eating there is probably a similar experience to commiting suicide by running your car inside a locked garage, if your car ran on wood, rather than gasoline. I can think of worse ways to go.

I like the Payne's pork sandwich. It was bigger than both offerings in West Memphis and almost as substantial as the one at Cozy Corner. The pork is perfect with just the right smoke and the perfect consistency. The chunks were bite size, not hacked to bits. The cole slaw is similar to the stuff you get on a bbq sandwich at Chef Edwards in Oakland. It's bright yellow, extra crunchy, and seems to be made without mayo. But once again, the whole thing is really sweet and the "hot" sauce would be an acceptable offering for ulcer sufferers or expectant mothers. I don't get it. I though Southerners were supposed to be tough. Turn up the heat a little, you inbreds! Don't get me wrong. I like sweetness on pork, but when the sugar isn't offset with some spicy heat, a pork sandwich can come across like a dessert. Maybe I've lived in Oakland too long, because I think I actually prefer the bbq sauce out here to the supersweet stuff that seems to be the default in Memphis. I know that most of the black folks running the BBQ joints in Oakland came from the South. I'm not sure from what area they originate, but wherever it is, it's an area where they don't try and put you in a diabetic coma along with raising your blood pressure and cholesterol. One disease at a time, please.

5. LEONARD’S- 5465 Fox Plaza Dr.- 2:15pm- Chopped Pork - $4.25

It was with great sadness that I parted ways with Mitch. It's always a great motivator to have an audience on an eating session and I couldn't have had a better companion on this journey. Mitch seemed genuinely interested in observing this endeavor, unlike my wife, who would rather receive a root canal than galavant all over town watching me make a disgusting pig of myself. Alas, Mitch had other things to do, so I went up to my hotel room for a brief rest before embarking on the next leg of the session.

Strangely, even the biggest sandwich I ate thus far (Cozy Corner) was not all that big. I would be surprised if it weighed more than 1/3 lb. And some of of that weight is sauce and slaw. I was 4 sandwiches into the quest and I didn't feel full. Eating 12 sandwiches seemed well within my reach. And luckily, I felt that familiar pressure building downstairs that told me that my coal chute would soon be making a drop off. After watching CNBC for a few minutes and learning that my employer was just about to go under, I was more than ready to mount my throne. This turd was extraordinary, my friends. It was one continous spiral that encircled the bowl several times. It was smooth and without flaw as if it had been made by machine, not man. On closer inspection, I decided it looked like Mr. Softee's East Indian cousin. This stellar deposit allowed me to temporarily forget that I was probably about to lose my job. All I could think about now were the reverberations in my prostate and eating more pork. Huzzah!

Leonard's is on the southeast side of town, a part of Memphis I'd never visited. It took quite a while to get there and I missed my exit off the interstate a couple of times. It's in an industrial/office park area near a lot of auto dealerships. It's mostly a sit-down family restaurant with decor that sort of reminds me of a Bonanza/Ponderosa; lots of brown wood everywhere. The kitchen is hidden and you won't see or hear anybody chopping up pork like in most of the other places. All I saw was a 50-ish woman who resembled Flo from Alice in both appearance and speech. Nice lady. The standard chopped pork sandwich here is called "the Mr. Leonard." I like when places name a sandwich after a person, but it's way cooler when they name it after somebody other than the owner, e.g. "The Woody Allen", "The Larry David", etc. At first glance, the sandwich looked a lot like the one at Payne's. It was almost the same size, but the sauce wasn't as sweet and there wasn't much smoke to the meat. The pork was very moist and it was nice not having my teeth hurt due to excess sugar, but the sandwich didn't have much flavor, period. They never asked me whether I wanted hot or mild sauce, so I suppose there's only one variety. With a little heat, this could've been a contender, but both the sauce and the pork were kind of pedestrian. I noticed that this place also has an all-you-can-eat buffet for both lunch and dinner. Depending on the day of the week, the lunch buffet is either $9.75 or $12.00 and the dinner is either $12.00 or $15.00. Leonard's bbq pork sandwich wasn't anything to write home about, but it would be more than adequate when offered in unlimited quantities and in conjunction with other items like fried catfish, country fried steak, and desserts. Next time I'm in Memphis I will be eating at Leonard's buffet if I have to walk there. I know that Tennessee is one of the fattest states in the U.S. Eating at a buffet with seriously gluttunous fat fucks is truly one of life's great joys.

6. TOM’S- 4087 Getwell- 2:51pm- Pulled Pork- $3.99

Tom's is the polar opposite of Leonard's. Leonard's is a family restaurant where Rascal and Jazzy riders wheel along the buffet balancing 3 plates in their lap before they dine in comfortable surroundings, waited on hand and foot by cheery and efficient waitresses. Tom's, on the other hand, is a take-out joint where almost the entire staff have gold grills in their mouths and they speak a country-Ebonics hybrid that makes the folks in East Oakland sound like Olivier doing Richard III. The centerpiece of their decor is the employee punch-clock on the front counter. They have a bizarre ordering system that seems inspired by Katz's in Manhattan. You order your meal at one place. Then you go around the corner and watch them prepare your meal. (There's a tip jar there.) And at the end of the counter, by the punch-clock, you pay for the food. Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like at least 2 of these steps could be easily eliminated. Perhaps this is a kind of "Stations of the Pork", necessary for optimal results.

The pork had lots of great crispy bits in it with a good smoke to it. It was sitting on a bed of cole slaw that was really light on mayo and had big chunks of cabbage, just the way I like it. Once again, there was no hot/mild option. While the sauce was very thick and rather mild, it wasn't as sweet as most of the other offerings, so I enjoyed it quite a bit. Guy Fieri went to Tom's on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Tom's interior design scheme was completed with a photo of Fieri to accompany their beauteous punch-clock. When Guy visited, he talked to the owner, a Middle Easterner who bought the place a few years back. Apparently, he changed the rub a little and added some Mediterranean inspired herbs to the mix- e.g. oregano, thyme, rosemary. I couldn't taste any of these seasonings, but I was quite pleased with Tom's pork. It's too bad this place is so far out of the way in South Memphis, a little east of the airport. The quality sandwich and funky atmosphere could make Tom's quite a hit among the more adventurous pork-a-philes.

They have a closed-in porch room with a few tables for eat-in customers. It's separated from the rest of the establishment by a door. You could act a fool in here and the restaurant staff would never hear you. The air conditioner in there was on full blast and they were playing a radio station that featured one 80's top 40 hit after another. You still hear Huey Lewis on standard pop radio stations, but Roxette's "Dangerous"? Who's programming this station? I was starting to get a little queasy from the pork I'd been eating. I don't think I was really full yet. I figured I had room for at least 3 or 4 more sandwiches before I'd need to take a break for a while, but I was definitely experiencing smoked meat fatigue. The smokiness permeates your entire body. You can wash your hands, face, and hair, defecate, urinate, and exfoliate, but the smoke remains. I could've easily switched to pizza or tacos at that point and kept eating like a champ, but the smoked pork was exacting a toll.

7. JIM NEELEY’S INTERSTATE BBQ- 2265 S.3rd St.- 3:29pm- Chopped Pork- $4.50

I should've taken the town roads, rather than the freeway, to Jim Neely's. I could've used the extra digestion time. I had to pick up Kelly, Canderson, and Tiger Lily at the Civil Rights Museum at 4pm, so I was going to have to eat with vigor. There was no time for lingering and checking out the dining room. I had to order from the to-go counter in a separate room next door. I'd eaten at Interstate once before and recall that the dining room was coffee shop-esque and homey. That was the first and only place I'd ever eatnen BBQ spaghetti. It should've been better than it was, but they fucked it up by cooking the pasta to Chef Boy-R-Dee flacciditude. I don't think al dente is part of the southern lexicon. I also had ribs that day and vividly remember that they were superb.

I was at the take-out counter getting the small chopped pork sandwich. I figured I'd eat this sandwich, pick up the wife and chums at MLK's deathsite, and then allow myself to rest for a couple of hours before starting fresh around 6:30. The counter was staffed by a frowny 50-ish woman who never uttered a single word during our transaction. She was either sad, angry, worried, or a combination of all three. She clearly had bigger issues than making small talk with a dorky white yankee. I placed the order and gave her the money. She went in the back for a minute and then reemerged, only to stand with her back to me while she did nothing. After about 5 minutes, someone handed her a brown bag. Since I was the only one waiting, I assumed correctly that it was mine. I went outside to eat in the car. I figured I would be spurred to eat more quickly in the rental. Inside the restaurant, I might wind up reading a place mat or looking at all the memorabilia on the wall. In the car, all I could do was freeze in the blasting A/C, listen to XM radio, and eat. I took the sandwich out of the bag. Dear God in heaven! It had to happen eventually, but why now? This sandwich was at least 50% larger than every other sandwich I'd eaten that day. I'd been Ali Baba'd yet again. (See falafel session.) Oh, Jim Neely, why have you forsaken me?!

The pork was beautiful; moist with a delicate smokiness and chopped to the ideal configuration. The slaw was pretty standard mayo-based stuff, but not too sweet, and with an abundance of carrots, which was welcome. The sauce was mild. (Obviously, nobody asked me anything about anything, so if there was a sauce choice it was not offered to me.) It wasn't as thick as at Tom's, but like Tom's sauce, Interstate's mild didn't go crazy with the sugar. Once I took a bite of this sandwich, I knew it was a delicious, quality product in the upper echelons of Memphis pork. Alas, it also transported me to a place where I wanted nothing to do with eating. I was instantly past full. It was as if that first bite was the final passenger safely allowed on an elevator. After that bite, all other bites entered my pork-hole at their own peril. Despite this delicious sandwich, I could not enjoy this experience. And that was a shame. I began tearing off bite size pieces and swallowed each with a gulp of water like I was taking horse tranquilizers, an arduous process that seemed to take hours. Luckily, I received a call from Kelly informing me that they were going to be a little longer at the museum than they expected, so I had another 30 minutes or so to eat. And I needed every second. I think it took me a good 40 minutes to finish that thing. Of course, by now I was turning the rental Hyundai into a gas chamber that rivaled San Quentin's. I emitted ceaseless bowel explosions, but the pressure would not relent. In addition to being filled to the rim with food, every breath was completely permeated with smoke. I could not escape it. I felt like I was breathing in smoke, not oxygen. I tried eating outside, rather than in the car, thinking the smoke might dissipate, but this didn't work either. The smoke was in my soul like the Holy Spirit is in Shirley Caesar on an early Caravans record. At this point, I was more uncomfortable than during any session since fish and chips. When I finished the sandwich, I farted so loudly it was most likely audible in Nashville. Thanks for nothing Tennessee! YOU did this to me.

8. BBQ SHOP- 1782 Madison- 8pm- BBQ Pork Sandwich- $3.75

After picking everybody up, we went to the Goner record store to see King Louie One Man Band play his inimitable brand of good-time rock n' roll at the Gonerfest opening ceremonies. He is a personal hero of mine and was in rare form. After that, we returned to the hotel. I lay down on the bed feeling like a woman late in her third trimester. I fell asleep on my back periodically. Every time I tried to to turn over, I was awakened by the kicking of my pork baby. If not for the bbq fetus inside, I could've easily fallen asleep for hours. Unfortunately, I could only cat nap, because not only did I have to eat at least one more sandwich to make the session official, I had to watch bands for hours and hours and hours straight. Gonerfest is the premiere rock n' roll fest in the world for bands that play a mix of crumb-bum music that ranges from feces punk to crap garage to turd pop to diarrheah experimental. If a band is way under the radar, somewhat low budget in execution, and I think they're good, they probably are going to play at Gonerfest eventually. If you don't know about Gonerfest already, you probably like lousy music and should take the first train back to Russia. Sadly, at my age, seeing dozens of bands over 4 days is no easy accomplishment, even when they're bands you love. After a while, you just wish they could all shut up so you could talk about your plantar's warts. Despite my old age complaints, there were many great bands during the fest this year. Gonerfest always feels like summer camp. You see so many great people that you only see at the fest and you pick up and start talking to them like you had just seen them yesterday. And every year you meet new people from all over the place. It's always tough to say goodbye to these fine folks. Even if there weren't so many great bands every year, Gonerfest would be a blast just for all the great people down there for the event.

News of my pork eating session had gotten through the Gonerfest grapevine so I HAD to finish or I would feel like I had let down the entire poo-rock community of Memphis. There was no time for meat-induced slumber. After my brief nap, and enough gassy expulsions to engulf the entire Mid-South region, I felt a little better than before. I was definitely not hungry, but I no longer felt like jumping out of our 8th floor window of the Artisan hotel to end my discomfort once and for all. But it was time to eat, hungry or not. Restaurants would close soon and the bands would be starting before I knew it.

The BBQ Shop was just a few blocks from the hotel, but there was no way I was going to go walking in my condition. This is a step up in sophistication from most of the places I'd visited. Unlike most of the spartan pork joints, the BBQ Shop has a full bar, a hostess, and table service. Normally, these kind of things are a bad omen for bbq restaurants, but I withheld judgment because I figured Memphis might not relegate all bbq to "artisinal" (read: shitty-looking) establishments. Our waiter was a young rocker type with mussed-up hair, bad tattoos, and a tight t-shirt with an ironic design. I wouldn't be surprised if he played at Gonerfest sometime during the festival. It took unusually long for our food to arrive, but when the pen I use to jot my session notes died, the waiter gave me one of his pens. He wouldn't even let me pay him for it! What a southern gentleman! The sandwich came on a toasted bun. As stated earlier, I don't understand why all buns aren't toasted by law. Restaurateurs take note. Toasting is a real turd-polisher, no matter what you put on the bread. The pork came with just a little sauce. This place is famous for the sauce, but it appears they like to let you put most of it on yourself. There was a bottle of both hot and mild on the table in clear plastic squeeze bottles. The oil in the sauce had separated from the rest of the ingredients like you see in a vinaigrette, so I knew this had to be quality stuff. I took a bite of the sandwich as-is. The pork had a really good flavor and tons of the crispy burnt ends in there. It was well-smoked and had a lot of flavor in it already, so they must use some kind of serious rub. The pork was just a little on the dry end of the spectrum, though, so I shook up the hot sauce and squoze a little on my sandwich- on the bun and on the slaw. This sandwich was top notch. Not only was the sauce actually hot (not as hot as Cozy Corner, though), it had all sorts of spices going on in there, too. The oil, the tomatoes, and the slightly dry pork worked in concert remarkably. My hunger miraculously returned! I finished that sandwich in well under 5 minutes. Now that the session was official, all pain was gone. The BBQ Shop had restored my faith in pork and in Memphis in general. I could not wait to get to another place. I was ready to devour at least one more sandwich and fortify myself for a night of rocking, but I would have to step lively, lest we missed the kickoff of Gonerfest 5.

9. CENTRAL BBQ- Address- 8:55pm- Pork Sandwich- $3.99

Central wasn't too far from the BBQ Shop, but by the time we got there, I knew this had to be a quick stop. The bands were set to begin at 9pm, so even if the show started a few minutes late, we were in danger of missing the openers (The Limes) if I didn't eat like the wind. I didn't like the looks of this place. There was a big uncovered wooden porch area out front with a bunch of families sitting around. The kids ran roughshod making way too much noise. The parents were oblivious to their offspring and continued to drink beer and smoke cigarettes while they talked to each other about whatever parents talk about. There was no way in hell I was going to eat my sandwich out there, even if I had the time. The staff inside were having a grand old time laughing their asses off, talking to each other, and standing around doing nothing. Not a bad job for a teen. I thought they were about to close when we got there so I asked if it was too late to order. "No dude, you can still order, bro. Ha ha ha. Yeah." California's greatest gift to the world is the language of the stoner teen male. It's as ubiquitous in Tennesse as in Santa Cruz.

I took the sandwich and unwrapped it on the hood of the car. I ate it right there in the parking lot while standing so I wouldn't linger too long and miss the show. It was about average size compared to the rest of that day's offerings. I picked it up and realized that it wasn't even remotely warm to the touch. It was barely even room temperature. Not only was the bun cool, but after biting into it, I discovered the pork wasn't hot, either. Nice effort, Central. Things just kept going downhill from there. The pork was the driest meat of the day by a large margin. It was as if they had been drying it to make pork jerky and changed their minds a few weeks into the process. The sauce had a weird undertaste to it that reminded me of beer- and not the good full-bodied taste some foods will often have when beer is added. It tasted and smelled like a Solo cup of flat Old Milwaukee that had been left under a couch for 2 weeks after a keg party. I wouldn't have been surprised to have found a couple of cigarette butts on this sandwich considering the smell. Not pleasant at all. The sauce didn't do much to lubricate the dry meat, either. It just sort of sat there being disgusting. To top it all off, I'm pretty sure the bun was stale. The only thing this sandwich had going for it was the cole slaw, which had really crunchy cabbage in it and not too much goopiness. 5 bites into this endeavor, my hunger, which had been magically restored less than an hour ago, disappeared as fast as it had returned. With the dryness of the pork, the trainwreck of the sauce, the stale bun, and my complete fullness once again present, finishing the Central sandwich was a struggle.

I somehow managed to finish and we got into the car. I was annoyed that I wasted my time on that half-asswich. It was so far below every other offering that day. It was a shame to end the session on such a downer. We got to the show a few songs into the Limes' set. They were great, but I would've enjoyed them even more if I wasn't so stuffed and if my innards hadn't been topped with that misfire from Central. As the night progressed, I felt much better and I reckon I could've eaten 2 or more sandwiches. By the time Sic Alps played, I was so hungry I was ready to eat my shoe. Unfortunately, just about every bbq place in town was closed by the time the 2nd band hit the stage, so eating bbq again was pretty much a non-starter, unless I was willing to miss some bands. The first official night of Gonerfest was awesomely fun, even with all the smoked pork inside of me. Despite that night's discomfort and the fact that it smelled like a forest fire every time I urinated, I ate bbq twice more on that trip. You can't go to Memphis and not eat bbq, even if they are a little gun-shy when it comes to turning on the heat. Next time I'm down there, I'm bringing a second stomach and a bottle of hot sauce. That's what Elvis would do.

The Best:

  • Cozy Corner
  • BBQ Shop
  • Jim Neely's Interstate

The Worst: Central BBQ

COMING NEXT TIME (probably January): IEM#7- Cheeseburgers

Monday, October 20, 2008

IEM Session #5- I Scream from Ice Cream

Sorry this took a while. What can I tell you other than I’m lazy and it’s hard to do my writing at work when the sword of Damocles dangles over my head every second I sit in the cubicle. On principle, I ONLY write while at work. Plus, the television’s siren song is much too loud at home. My company got sold in the height of the recent financial meltdown and there’s a good chance I might get laid-off. I hope to continue doing these sessions every other month (give or take), but if I get shit-canned it might be difficult, unless I can figure out a way to pay for the sessions with food stamps or I can find some sort of a De Medici-esque patron to sponsor my gluttony.

An ice cream IEM session was a whole new twist. Ice cream is a dessert, not a savory item, so many people automatically figured it would be very difficult because they can't eat a lot of sweets, especially when they heard I was eating double scoops. The session would entail eating a vanilla scoop at each establishment (the control scoop) and another "wild card" scoop that would vary at each place. It definitely got challenging in the end, mostly due to poor strategizing (again!), but it was considerably easier eating the 8 item minimum on this journey than on any previous session. I exceeded the minimum by only 3 cones, but if I had planned better and had only a few hours extra to work with, I’m quite certain I could have polished off close to 20 cones. Really.

It was interesting that this was the first item where I got kind of tired of the item long before I got full. Many people love sweets and have no strong attachment to any savory food. They think they would love to eat dessert all day and nothing else. I’m here to tell them that they're wrong. After a while, your body needs more than sugar. You need something to break it up. I craved savory all day, but I couldn’t allow myself to eat anything but ice cream, due to limited stomach capacity. There I was, not in the least bit full, but the idea of eating any more ice cream just didn’t appeal to me. Even with fish and chips, the Everest of IEM sessions, I never got bored of them. I just felt like crap. However, after the fish and chips session, it took me over a year before I had even the slightest desire to even look at them again; I was eating ice cream again just a couple of days after this session. Ice cream is powerful stuff.

I really wish I could’ve eaten more that day. Despite my feelings of sugar fatigue prior to each entry after about #5, every cone was a joy after I started licking. That is, until I got miserably full towards the end. I’m not too picky when it comes to ice cream. I can definitely taste the difference between the crappy stuff and the good stuff. But if I’m offered a scoop of that off-brand stuff they sell in a 3 gallon bucket for $3.27, I’ll eat it gladly and I'll enjoy it! No matter what the foodies say, unless it’s VERY freezer burnt, ice cream is always good, even when you’ve already eaten 11 double scoop cones and your teeth are starting to hurt as much as your stomach.

Eating Day: August 10, 2008

1. NIEVES CINCO DE MAYO- 3340 E.12th St (in Fruitvale Market), Oakland- 12:55pm- Vanilla & Corn- $2.75

Cinco de Mayo is tucked inside the Fruitvale Village complex. I think the idea there was to have sort of an indoor mall with lots of local independent merchants, but as of now, they only seem to have a coffee vendor, the ice cream shop, and a “healthy” taqueria, which is obviously aimed at yuppies who take BART to work from the Fruitvale Station, because the locals don’t give a shit if their taco pork comes from Niman Ranch. And neither do I! The whole plaza around the BART is part of some neighborhood renewal thing, but I don’t see any locals eating at the sushi place or at Powderface (the coffee/beignet place), so the whole concept seems more like an attempt at gentrification. I’d rather wander out onto on International or walk up Fruitvale. The prices are better there and unlike Fruitvale Village, you don’t feel like you're inside a yuppie enclave within the barrio. Other than the churro place, Cinco De Mayo, and the tiny farmer’s market on Sunday, I don’t really have much use for this complex.

Kelly ate at Cinco de Mayo once before, but when she did, I instead opted for a churro from the stand in front of Fruitvale Village, where they serve freshly-fried churros that you can get stuffed with pudding! Why I didn’t get ice cream AND a churro is a mystery. Cinco de Mayo has a lot of flavors you won’t find anywhere else, some of which are inspired by items you’d find in the many markets and Mexican restaurants in the Fruitvale. They have rompope (a egg nog-like liqueur), horchata, avocado, cinnamon, hawthorn, rose petal, and “curled milk”, to name a few. The stuff has a really homemade feel to it. Don’t be surprised if you find chunks of unknown stuff floating around in your scoop and a goodly amount of ice crystals. It’s sort of lo-fi ice cream that way. The corn ice cream was crazy. It was sweet, but not overly so, and rather than being creamy, it had a chunky milkiness to it. It was a great change of pace from “regular” ice cream. And the corn flavor was intense. It was like chewing on a mouthful of Niblets and then gargling with the corn for a while before you swallow. The vanilla had the same texture as the corn. Since it was pretty yellow, I imagine that it has a bit of egg in it. It had slight cinnamon/nutmeg undertones, but also the faintest taste of alcohol, which is either from vanilla extract or perhaps some kind of a liqueur used in the mix. It was okay, but with all of the other flavors available here, I really wouldn’t order it again. Kelly ordered the cheese ice cream, which was mindblowing. I don’t know what kind of cheese they’re using, but combining the corn and the cheese would be an unbeatable combination. I loved sitting there in the sun eating that wacky ice cream watching the dude make churros, but since we had such a late start, we had to get into the city and start eating with a quickness.

2. MARCO POLO ITALIAN ICE CREAM- 1447 Taraval St. (@24th Ave.), San Francisco- 2:30pm- Vanilla & Arcoboleno- $2.80

Getting from Oakland to the hinterlands of San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon is a fucking nightmare. We took the secret back entrance that leads to the Bay Bridge toll plaza, and ONLY wound up sitting in traffic on the bridge with our thumbs up our asses for 30 minutes. But as soon as we started making our way across the city to the Outer Sunset, we became painfully aware of how long this journey was. It took about an hour and 20 minutes to make that entire trip, which according to Google, is just over 22 miles. Feh! Some may say that we were crazy to go out to the Sunset at all, but those people are morons. I lived in San Francisco for about 2 years in the late 90’s and that was long enough for me. As I’ve stated before, that place makes me crazy. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, there’s lots to see and do. Yes, there are tons of neato neighborhoods. Yes, there are a kazillion restaurants and some of them are actually as good as their hype. However, getting around the town is a pain in my sac; and as cool as the city is, I don’t think it’s worth all of its costs and challenges to live there. I would agree to live in SF again only if the following conditions were met:

  • 50% of the population must leave town.

  • The average rent on a 2 bedroom must be reduced to $700.

  • I would only live in the Outer Sunset (preferably further west than 40th Ave. and below Noriega.)

People who don’t live in the Sunset would say this is crazy talk. They’d say I was a fool to want to live where it’s foggy almost year round, where there’s nothing “happening”, and where you’re more likely to see an old Chinese lady in purple sweatpants than a schmuck in vintage Levi’s so tight that you can tell his religion. This is all true, but I love the Sunset. It’s not as crowded, you can find a parking place, there’s very few douchebags posturing, and there are no child’s portions disguised as haute cuisine in the eateries. This is one of the few neighborhoods left in SF that is neither a haven for multi-millionaires nor a playground for edgy people who look like they came out of a magazine that I’m not cool enough to read. And most of all, I like being so close to the ocean.

I know that gelato is the big thing right now, but I’m just not getting the excitement. I’ve only tried it a few times, but in my limited experience, it tastes like semi-melted ice cream. I hadn’t planned on going to any gelato places on this session, but unbeknownst to me, Marco Polo serves gelato. They were doing slow business when we arrived, probably because it was freezing out there and nobody felt much like ice cream. Like pretty much every other business in the Outer Sunset, this place is apparently run by Asian folks, so don’t go out there expecting to find some kind of authentic Italian experience. The kid behind the counter looked really bored. We were probably his first customers of the day. Arcoboleno is apparently a mix of vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, and almond. I think it’s of Filipino origin. I know it’s probably supposed to taste kind of high-fallutin’, but it just reminded me of opening a carton of Safeway Neopolitan ice cream and discovering that the strawberry third had already been eaten and the other 2/3 of the carton were starting to melt. Every lick pulled the stuff into a kind of a stretchy strand. Sure, It tasted fine, but it didn’t really feel like ice cream. And the flavor really wasn’t knocking my socks off any more than a decent store brand ice cream. The vanilla had the same wacky texture, but the flavor was a lot more pronounced than the arcoboleno, with a vanilla bean taste much stronger than Cinco de Mayo's vanilla. It really didn’t come across any better than a good quality soft serve cone, though. Like Cinco de Mayo, Marco Polo is on the cheap side of the ice cream spectrum. The scoops are a little bit smaller at Marco Polo, but if you like gelato, I would recommend this place because it’s about the cheapest gelato you’re ever gonna find around these parts. Plus, they serve some exotic Asian/tropical flavors you probably won’t find at the more la-di-da places: melon, durian, soursop, red bean, etc.

3.POLLY ANN- 3138 Noriega (@39th Ave), SF- 2:53pm- Vanilla & Macapuno- $4.25

It was pretty sunny, but the wind was making it quite frigid in the Sunset. I had a jacket on, but I was wishing I had worn a parka, especially since I was eating all of that ice cream. I was getting really hungry for savory foods, too. Other than the ice cream, all I’d eaten that day were a few “Limon” Lay’s potato chips to cleanse my palate between flavors. Those chips are awful. Whose idea was this flavor? Fake lime flavor doesn’t taste like lime. It just tastes kind of sour and makes your tongue feel funny. I suppose they served their purpose, though.

I used to have a girlfriend that lived way out there off of Noriega. It took her an hour to get from her apartment on 44th Ave. to her job near the Embarcadero, either on the N-Judah or the 71 bus. (Note: Another proviso to my qualifications for living in SF is I would also have to WORK in the Sunset, because I’ll be damned if I would do that kind of a bus ride to go 5 miles.) I’m pretty sure I ate at Polly Ann back then, but I don’t remember it being like this. It's covered with signs that have funny and/or corny slogans on them. Here are some of the better ones: "Everyone that enters this place makes us happy; some when they arrive, some when they leave.” “If they don’t have ice cream in heaven, I’m not going.” “If there’s anything a depressed person hates, it’s a cheerful person.” In addition to the signs, there’s a big roulette-style wheel behind the counter that lists all of their available flavors. If you can’t decide on a flavor, the counterperson will spin the wheel to help you make up your mind. They probably got tired of people asking them to recommend one of their gazillion flavors. (If the wheel lands on a “Free” space, the cone is free.) Like Marco Polo, Polly Ann also specializes in Asian/Tropical flavors, but in ice cream form, rather than gelato. Some of the more interesting ones were honeydew and pomegranate. They also have Bumpy Freeway, their own version of Rocky Road.

I’d heard of Macapuno before, but never ordered it. It’s young coconut, also a Fillipino flavor, if I’m not mistaken. This stuff was out of this world. I was in utter ecstasy eating this scoop. It was so creamy and perfectly sweet and every lick was like French kissing the inside of a coconut. There was coconut flavor in the ice cream base itself, plus there were little chunks of coconut in there. Unlike the gelato, the stuff was lickable, and not all stretchy. Eating ice cream is much more satisfying to me than gelato when licking it from a cone. I could see enjoying gelato with a spoon, where it would be more like cold pudding, but in a cone, I have no use for it. The vanilla scoop had the same creamy consistency as the macapuno, with even more vanilla flavor than the Marco Polo scoop. Strangely, the vanilla-ness seemed to increase with every lick. It’s true that the cone here costs almost twice as much as the Cinco de Mayo cone, but they also give you almost twice as much ice cream. Not only that, there’s a bathroom in this place. Three of my favorite things on Earth are the Outer Sunset, huge ice cream cones filled with awesome flavors, and a clean public bathroom. Poly Ann is for real.

4. MITCHELL'S- 688 San Jose Ave. (@29th St.), SF- 3:38pm- Vanilla & Halo Halo- $4.80

As expected, getting to the Mission from Noriega was a schlep and a half. Why didn’t they bore a big tunnel in that hill so I wouldn’t have to wait so long between ice cream cones? The city planner’s office never consults me about anything. Mitchell’s has been around for more than 50 years. It’s an institution that specializes in a lot of the same Filipino/Asian flavors that they had at Polly Ann’s. In addition to their famous ice cream store, they sell their ice cream to various other stores throught the Bay Area. (FYI, St. Francis Fountain on 24th St. serves Mitchell’s.) There is always a line at Mitchell’s with many of the same “ethnic” types you see out at Polly Ann’s, but there’s also a goodly number of Mission yuppie-hipsters, who sometimes make me want to move back to Iowa.

You take a number and wait to be served by the young clerks sequestered behind glass like at a check-cashing place. I waited about 10 minutes until they called my number over the P.A. I was surprised to be served so fast, considering how long the line was, but they seem to have their business down to a science. Halo Halo is a Filipino flavor that is a mix of Buko (baby coconut), Langka (jackfruit), Ube (purple yam), Pineapple, Mango, and Sweet Beans. It was ridiculously creamy and soft, but not elastic like gelato. Despite its exotic ingredients,the flavor was very subtle and reminded me of whatever flavor that was in those purple Push-Ups they sold at public swimming pools/little league games in my childhood. It was sort of a letdown. I figured it would blow my brains out, but it was just sort of there. The vanilla on the other hand, was even better than Polly Ann’s version with a really strong vanilla taste. The fat content here has to be off the charts because every lick seemed to coat my tongue with grease as if I had been licking uncooked bacon. I loved it. I’ll definitely return there to see how their Macapuno compares to Polly Ann’s and I need to try the Coconut-Pineapple and some of the seasonal flavors. The scoops here were quite big, but I still wasn’t near full and was really craving something non-sweet. Adding any unnecessary volume to my gut was out of the question, though, so I convinced myself I could remain satisfied with eating more ice cream. This actually worked for a little while.

5. MAGGIE MUDD- 930 Cortland Ave (@Folsom), SF- 4:10pm- Vanilla & Bear Claw- $3.60

I can’t believe I lived in the Bay Area for as long as I have without ever going into Bernal Heights. You know the residential district on the hill above Mission St. where you often have to park when you go to the Argus, Knockout, El Rio, etc? For some stupid reason, I always thought THAT was Bernal Heights. Nope. If you go out on Mission and take a left on Cortland, there’s an actual business district about a mile from Mission St. This is a really old neighborhood. There are some of the usual Victorian type houses you see in the rest of SF, but also a lot of structures that seem to pre-date the Victorians. With the views of the bay and all of the old-timey buildings, I bet this was a really neato place to live not too long ago. Unfortunately, it’s now jam-packed with a bunch of rich “earthy” couples and their offspring, who are undoubtedly big proponents of the dubious Slow Food movement. The women all looked way too old to have babies, so I suspect some sort of genetic funny business is afoot in Bernal Heights. (I love pigeonholing people!) Am I jealous I don’t get to sit around on my keester like they do and enjoy their scenic views? Of course I am! But that doesn’t mean they’re still not a bunch of douches who I wouldn’t want to take an elevator ride with, let alone share a meal with. Despite the vibe of Bernal Heights, it was surprisingly easy to find parking in the neighborhood.

In keeping with the neighborhood's vibe, in addition to regular dairy-based ice cream, Maggie Mudd’s also features dairy-free ice cream facsimiles and not just the usual soy-based stuff. They even have a coconut milk based product. I’ve got to hand it to them for trying something different. I returned here after the session to try the coconut milk stuff and it was actually the best non-dairy ersatz ice cream I’ve ever had. As for the real ice cream, their product is decent. It definitely is not as much of a “craft” type product as some of the other places on this trip. It was more like a Ben & Jerry’s experience, though probably fresher than the Ben & Jerry’s in the Safeway freezer case. Nothing wrong with being like B&J at all, but it just doesn’t have that uniqueness to it that some of the other places had. I expected Bearclaw to be some sort of donut-type concoction, but it was actually a chocolate-based ice cream with chocolate-covered nuts inside. I’m not the biggest fan of chocolate-based ice creams in general, being more of vanilla/butter-based advocate, but it was good for what it was. I might’ve liked it even better if I wasn’t so amped to get ice cream with donut chunks, though. It was pretty creamy stuff and had a lot of nuts in it. And they didn’t seem to cheap out and use crummy chocolate in the base. The vanilla was just so-so compared with some of the others on this trip- not too vanilla-y. Once again, it was a pretty creamy consistency, but I’m certain neither flavor has anywhere near the kind of fat content they’re working with at Mitchell’s. If you live in the area, you're probably a yutz, but I would totally recommend you visit this place. And if you’re a vegan or lactose intolerant, you MUST go here.

The highlight of the visit was watching the 2 teen Filipinas eating their ice cream cones. When that obnoxious “I Kissed a Girl” song came on over the radio, they began looking into each other’s seductively while they licked their cones, giggling all the time. They pretended to make out a little, without actually touching lips. Kids, this is San Francisco. Didn't you see? There were some real-live lesbians just in there ordering ice cream. Your faux gayness is not shocking anybody! It’s just cute.

6. BI-RITE- 3692 18th St. (@Dolores), SF- 4:44pm- Vanilla & Balsamic Strawberry- $3.25

I didn’t think it would ever happen, but I was finally starting to feel a little full from the ice cream. The SF summer was even colder than usual. It didn’t even warm up when we arrived in the heart of the “sunny” Mission District. It was gray and windy, not the weather you want while you’re eating ice cream. Bi-Rite is some sort of “slow food”-affiliated establishment, so I wasn’t expecting much from them. They’re big on letting you know how their organic/sustainable dairy supplier is only 45 miles away and all their spoons and cups are biodegradable. I always figure a place who tries too hard to do all of that shit is gonna give me a skimpy cone that does not live up to its high-brow pedigree. That’s great that you’re not hurting the Earth and your honey lavender flavor is “created with organic dried lavender and honey that is gathered on Mint Hill,” but if the ice cream doesn’t pack a heavy punch, I’m really not impressed.

The line at this place dwarfs Mitchell’s line. And there’s no kind of orderly number system at Bi-Rite to ensure everything moves smoothly. If it wasn’t so cold the day I went, I reckon the line could have been much longer. And the people in this line were possibly the most annoying examples of Bay Area in-your-face “progressives” that I’d experienced on a session. There were so many hipsters, so many sexually alternative types, so many vegan stockbrokers, etc, etc. All of them diligently living up to their stereotype, lest a tourist mistake them for a fellow rube. An androgynous bicyclist in the usual uniform was talking loudly and carrying a bell on a stick, doing a conspicuous jig as s/he pored over the list of available flavors. S/he clearly wanted everybody in line to know how liberated s/he was. I get it, sir/lady, you have an alternative lifestyle unencumbered by the fetters of the mainstream. Brava/bravo! But alas, your show is over now, so order your goddamn cone, hop on your Turdmobile, and get the hell out of here.

If I wasn’t in the midst of a session, this San Francisco-fied nonsense coupled with the wait and the cold would’ve been enough to make me pick up a half gallon of the store brand stuff at Safeway. But my patience with the lines and the freaks was rewarded. The ice cream there is otherworldly. Like Cinco de Mayo, you can tell the stuff there is really homemade. It really has that human/artisan (hate that word, but it applies here) touch that you don’t get when an ice cream was made in large batches by a large machine. The balsamic strawberry didn’t taste like balsamic vinegar and it didn’t have frozen chunks of fruit. It had the most delicate strawberry flavor and a very dense, creamy consistency. It was not melting quickly. I could have gone for some chunks of strawberries in there, but the ice cream on its own was definitely a thing of beauty. The vanilla, however, was something else. This is probably the best vanilla ice cream I’ve ever experienced. Kelly said it was reminiscent of the homemade vanilla ice cream she had as a child and I can see where she’s coming from. There were vanilla bean flecks everywhere and the most intense vanilla flavor I could imagine. It had kind of a pudding aftertaste, but despite the obviously high fat content, it didn’t give me the greasy tongue I got at Mitchell’s. People often use "vanilla" to describe something bland or ordinary, but that does not describe this stuff. This is hardcore vanilla and worth any amount of goofy San Francisco-isms you must endure to get it. I got a sample of the Salted Caramel and I have to say that flavor was even better than the balsamic strawberry. Putting the salted caramel and vanilla on one cone might induce a standing wet dream.

7. BOMBAY- 552 Valencia (@17th St.), SF- 5:11pm- Vanilla & Mango- $4.95

After the Bi-Rite cone, I was almost entering the uncomfortable state that usually occurs much earlier in an eating session. I was not in any sort of real pain, mind you, but was almost at that point where civilized people shun food for several hours. And while I was completely over ice cream, I wasn’t anywhere near that place where I’m ready to throw in the towel. Ice cream is a weak foe compared to the likes of falafel. Bombay was just a few blocks from Bi-Rite, so we didn’t have to move the car! When in SF, it takes little more than a good parking space to make me happy. Bombay does pretty slow business compared to Bi-Rite. There are no lines and no signs talking about how politically correct their ice cream is. The have similar flavors to the “Asian” stuff found at Mitchell’s and PollyAnn’s, but a few are uniquely Indian, like Bedam Kesar Pista, Chai Tea, Saffron Rose, and Cardamom. I probably should have ordered one of those, but I had heard good things about the Mango.

I’m not a huge fan of mango in general. It’s what I call a “low percentage fruit.” That means that for every 10 fruits eaten, less than 5 are tasty. I would rate mango somewhere around 30%. I’m generally let down when I eat one. Perhaps I just don’t know how to pick a good one or maybe I only like them at a certain point of ripeness. (FYI, watermelon and pineapple are probably the highest percentage fruits, both hovering in the high 70’s/low 80’s.)

I figured correctly that the mango ice cream would not include that funky mango flavor I can’t stand, but I still wasn’t really that into it. I think bigger mango fans would enjoy it more, though, because Kelly really dug it and said it had an intense mango flavor. To me, it tasted like the “Fruit” flavor Trident gum (in the orange wrapper) from the old days. Not terrible, but not what I was expecting. Also, I’m pretty sure their freezer was kind of messed up, because the stuff was melting rapidly, even though the outside temperature was in the low 60’s that day. Even in its mushy state, you could tell the stuff had a really high fat content and I felt that tongue-film I had experienced at Mitchell’s, which I find somewhat satisfying. The vanilla really wasn’t anything special, though. It was kind of like ice milk (do they even make that anymore?) and the vanilla flavor was pretty wimpy. It might be better on its own, but coupled with a strong flavor like mango, it really got lost. I wouldn’t recommend ordering it. There are more interesting flavors to be had here and this kind of pedestrian vanilla seems unnecessary. I’ll definitely return here for the other flavors and I liked the Bollywood music they played and the mural of Bombay-ites eating triple scoop cones. According to their sign and website, they also serve Indian chaat (street food) like samosas, daal, etc, but I could neither smell nor see any of that stuff. For all I know, they had put the hot food in the freezer and that what was causing the ice cream to melt so fast.

8. ICI- 2948 College (@Ashby), Berkeley- 7:04pm- Vanilla & Peppercorn- $4.75

After sitting on the Bay Bridge in traffic for about 45 minutes, we arrived at Sketch, a chi-chi ice cream place on 4th Street in Berkeley, about 5 minutes after they closed. That whole street is like the third concentric circle of hell, so I’m guessing I didn’t miss much. By the time we got up to College and Ashby, another Berkeley douche-haven, I was actually starting to get pretty hungry; hungry for ice cream, even. The line at Ici is ridiculous. People wait here for up to an hour to get a scoop of what they think is the ice cream equivalent of Beluga caviar. The place was started by the former pastry chef of Chez Panisse, so they’re all about using the “best” ingredients and charging you too much for waiting in line so you can be seen with a bunch of other a-holes.

By the time it was my turn to order, I was so hungry I was ready to gnaw off my own foot. Guess what? Peppercorn ice cream tastes like peppercorn. It was in some sort of white ice cream base and was very creamy. It was a little sweet, but the peppercorn flavor was definitely front and center. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. It tasted like peppercorn. I kind of grew on me as I ate it, but I don’t see myself ordering this again. It’s just not the kind of sensation I crave when I want ice cream. The bourbon vanilla was also insanely creamy with a very strong vanilla flavor, but no trace of bourbon. It was one of the better vanilla offerings of the day. Another plus is the cone. The bottom of the cone is coated with what appears to be melted chocolate chips. In addition to being delicious, it reinforces the cone and prevents hole-drippage.

It is not in dispute that the ice cream here is good. It’s clear that the purveyors have a commitment to making an artistically excellent product. But is it worth 4.75 and an interminable wait for 2 scoops barely larger than golf balls? The short answer is fuck, no. The longer answer is, Chez Panisse and all of Alice Waters’ disciples can eat a dick. Yeah, it’s great that they only use organic, locally grown products and make everything with the utmost precision with a high regard to presentation. But I can’t help thinking that they only do this stuff so they can brag about how esoteric they are and charge exorbitant prices, even when they serve portions that would leave a newborn hungry. When I think about how this back-to-basics approach is relegated to rich people and pretentious cocksuckers, it makes me want go eat a Hot Pocket and a Caramel Drumstick. To be fair, Bi-Rite is traveling in the same circles as Ici, but their double scoop cone was $1.50 less, considerably larger, and had even better flavor. And their line moved a lot faster. I endorse them fully, despite all of their goofy affectations. Unless Ici lowers their prices and starts serving much bigger cones, Je ne mange pas Ici!

I certainly didn’t get full eating the Ici cone. Kelly bought me a sandwich while I was waiting there. It was a thoughtful attempt to allow me to eat something other than ice cream before I went to the next place, but the next place was Fenton’s, so I wasn’t about to eat anything before I got there.

9. FENTON'S- 4226 Piedmont (@ Entrada), Oakland- 7:04pm- Vanilla & Butter Brickle- $4.25

Like Ici, Fenton’s has a long line, but it moves pretty quickly, if you’re just getting a cone to go. Fenton’s is the anti-Ici. While Ici tastes like it was made by hand, Fenton’s has sort of a commercially-made essence to it, even though their product is also made on the premises. I’m not denigrating Fenton’s, you understand. It’s just that their ice cream doesn’t have the imperfections you’re going to see at a place like Ici or Bi-Rite. It’s almost like comparing apples and oranges, though. Sometimes you want a more muscular ice cream and you don’t care how “artisinal” it is. Unless you grew up in some sort of naked-free-love commune in Humboldt County , Fenton’s is going to recall the ice cream of your youth much more than Ici. Fenton’s isn’t pretentious. They’re not trying to impress anybody with their prestigious Slow Food pedigree and they’re not offering flavors like peppercorn so shit-heels can discuss the ice cream like it was wine. They want to give you fatty, old-timey ice cream in portions that will bring even an experienced glutton to his knees. The single scoop at Fenton’s is substantially larger than the double scoop at just about every place I visited. And Fenton’s double scoop is just stupidly large. Each scoop is the size of a regulation softball, so balancing both scoops on a mere sugar cone can be precarious.

Fenton’s vanilla reminds me of summer camp. Despite it’s semi-commercial qualities, it surpassed Ici’s offering. The stuff was impossibly rich and creamy with a strong vanilla flavor and sweeter than should be allowed by law. It definitely wasn’t “complex”, but so what? It’s ice cream, not Pinot Grigio, chump! The butter brickle was jam-packed with brickle, what ever that is, and the base was like licking a stick of butter rolled in sugar. I defy anyone to eat this ice cream without grabbing his/her own crotch in joy.

A few years back, Fenton’s almost burned to the ground and was closed for almost 2 years. It was a sad time for me. I heard the structure was apparently torched by some disgruntled employees who were retaliating against the management. Normally, my inclination is to side with the proletariat over “the Man” in all cases. However, whatever the management had done, removing this noble ice cream from the masses was not an appropriate form of direct action. But now I was mad at Fenton’s for another reason. They had become my Ali Baba (see Falafel session.) Eating 2 scoops here was the equivalent of eating 3-4 cones anywhere else and I doubted I could go much further after eating Fenton’s so late in the day. But since we had such a late start and ice cream places close early on Sunday, I had to get a move on.

10. LOARD'S- 2265 South Shore Mall (Next to Appelbee's), Alameda- 8:30pm- Vanilla & Avocado- $3.95

Eating at Fenton’s before Ici (rather than vice versa) would’ve been a smart move, but eating at Loard’s after Fenton’s just added insult to injury. It was at this point in the session where I began to feel like I could die of a food overdose, a sensation that comes much earlier during other sessions. As I shuffled from my car to Loard’s, I wondered if I could possibly put another ounce of ice cream in my scoop-hole after Fenton’s did me like that. This shopping center is now called Alameda Towne Centre, recently changed from South Shore Mall, but whatever you call it, it felt like it would be the site where I would cover an ice cream parlor with shit and vomit. That would’ve been a shame, because Loard’s is a cute place, with olde-fashioned décor reminiscent of Farrell’s, which I loved so much as a kid. They even have ice cream parlor chairs- in an ice cream parlor! They’re a small chain with about a dozen Bay Area locations and they make their own ice cream at a small factory in San Leandro. Like Maggie Mudd’s, you occasionally will even see their stuff at grocery stores, too. It's sort of like a cross between Mitchell’s and Fenton’s, as they do some of the weirdo tropical/Asian flavors, but they don’t really seem to play them up as much as Mitchell’s does. Like Fenton’s, they have that sort of homemade-commercial quality and they serve big (not as big as Fenton’s, though) scoops.

The place was empty when we arrived, save for the teen girl employees who sat around looking bored and singing along to the R&B station playing over the speakers. I don’t know what to say about the avocado ice cream other than it was an ungodly shade of bright green and I guess it tasted like avocado with sugar in it. I don’t know why I expected it to be anything else, but I’m of the close-minded opinion that avocado is better savory than sweet. Eating an entire maxi-scoop of that stuff after Fenton’s was difficult. The vanilla was similar to Fenton’s, especially in consistency, but the vanilla flavor was a little toned down at Loard’s. I suppose that was for the best in this case, because mixing strong vanilla with avocado might not be the best combination in my condition.

I really thought I might pass out from butterfat poisoning. I felt my bowels twitch and since Loard’s had a bathroom (YES!), I attempted to take full advantage of the toilet. I had to go behind the counter to get back there, walking pass the teen girl employees’ newly-arrived gay friend. I swear that guy checked me out! It was the first time in my life I get checked out by a gay dude and I was too stuffed with ice cream to enjoy it- the story of my life. I sat down, but nothing happened except a little tinkle and a lot of noxious gas. If you’ve ever been inside a dairy, you know what it smelled like in Loard’s bathroom. Don't go in there, gay dude!

11. TUCKER'S- 1349 Park Street (@Alameda Ave.), Alameda - 9:00pm- Vanilla & Pralines & Cream- $4.75

Due to the time, after Tucker's, there was little chance that I could eat a cone anywhere else other than Merritt Bakery, who stays open to midnight on Sundays. I’m not sure how Fenton’s, Loard’s, and Tucker’s got saved for last. This was the pinnacle of poor planning. All I can do is blame the snafu on the late start and the logistical nightmare of navigating San Francisco. If I was smart, I would’ve started with Tucker’s and ended with Fenton’s, or at least spaced the 2 out several hours apart. Other than Fenton’s, which dwarfs all other ice cream cones, and possibly Polly Ann’s, Tucker’s was the biggest cone of the day. This was not how I wanted to end this session.

Tucker’s, an Alameda institution since 1941, has a great slogan on their t-shirts, which is also painted on their wall, “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” These are definitely words to live by, but I HAD eaten dessert first (and second and third and fourth) and was now certain that I didn’t want to eat anymore dessert. I got my cone and when I saw how big the scoops were, I knew there was no way in hell I could eat it in my state. I took a couple of tastes and could not believe that the stuff still tasted good to me. Their pralines and cream was so much richer than the Baskin-Robbins version I got almost everyday after school during my sophomore year of high school. It was loaded with walnuts (or are they pecans?) and the amount of caramel in there is just ridiculous. The ice cream base is so buttery, sweet, and creamy that one scoop of this would’ve challenged many people eating on an empty stomach. This is without question the best version of this flavor I’ve ever tried. The vanilla has a very strong vanilla taste and is also very creamy and sweet. I think Tucker’s may be working with more sugar and butterfat content than just about anybody out there, which would’ve been great under standard conditions. But in my state, all I could do was lick, elicit a brief smile of joy, but then grimace in discomfort. I just couldn’t eat anymore. I got a cup and put the cone in there scoop side down. Yes, I had already eaten the 8 item minimum, but this stuff was too good and too expensive to throw away. I took the cone home and put it in the freezer, determined to eat it when I got my second wind.

I sat down on the couch and opened my belt and farted for close to 5 minutes straight until the gas knocked me unconscious. I woke around 11:30. I went to the bathroom and produced a khaki-colored B.M. that had the consistency and volume of a institutional-sized can of Duncan Hines cake frosting. Our tiny bathroom smelled like the livestock building at the Iowa State Fair. I sprayed air freshener liberally, but it was no match for my khaki dung heap. After the nap and the defecation, I was fully restored and famished. I ate the grilled ham and cheese sandwich Kelly had bought me while I waited in line at Ici. It was cold now and the cheese was congealed, but after eating nothing but ice cream all day, I ate that sandwich like a man who had been stranded in the Sahara for a month. After the sandwich, I was still starving. The cupboard was pretty bare, except for a few items that would require much more preparation effort than I was willing to exert at that late hour. And then I remembered the Tucker’s cone in the freezer.

Maybe it was because of the ridiculously high fat content, but the ice cream didn’t even stick to the paper cup they had given me. The naysayers said I would be totally sick of ice cream for months after this session. They were wrong. Here I was less than an hour after finishing my last cone, devouring the Tucker’s cone in orgasmic bliss. It was even more sensually exciting than the first cone of the day. Ice cream is better than your or me. It doesn’t subscribe to the rules of nature. You can eat it all day and it will make you feel like a fighting dog beaten mercilessly after a loss in the pit, but only a couple of hours later, you will embrace your master and beg for more. I've actually met people in my life who’ve told me that they don’t like ice cream. I looked at them as if they had said, "I don’t breathe air." It’s a totally incomprehensible statement. People breathe air and people love ice cream. Those are 2 of life's certainties. Ice cream is your God.

Best Vanilla

  • Bi Rite
  • Fenton's
  • Mitchell's

Best Wildcard Flavors

  • Macapuno (Polly Ann)
  • Pralines and Cream (Tucker's)
  • Corn (Cinco De Mayo)

Next Time (Probably November): BBQ Pork Sandwiches- In Memphis, TN

Thursday, July 17, 2008

IEM Session #4- The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Falafel in San Francisco

If you don't know what this nonsense is all about, you had better read the intro .

I told you I’d be back in July! After the response I received about the taco session from the 12 dorks on the Internet, I was really excited to keep the momentum going and do another session ASAP. For reasons you will soon understand, this session was a lot more work than the last one and not as fun, so I hope you will appreciate my labors. I do it all for you.

Unlike tacos, and similar to fish and chips, falafel is not available early in the morning or late at night around these parts. In the East Bay, few falafel joints are open before 11am or after 9pm, so I reckon I had only 10 or 11 eating hours for this session. Before you question the difficulty of eating 8 falafels (8 items= the official IEM minimum) when I’d previously eaten 36 tacos in one day, understand that the smallest falafel eaten was heavier than 4 average-sized taqueria tacos. This was not a session for novices.

This was a life-changing session that I almost wish I hadn't embarked upon. With fish and chips, the food sickened me like I couldn't have imagined, and I haven't eaten them since IEM #2, more than a year ago. However, I know in my heart of hearts that I still really like fish and chips, in general. The problem was strictly with me eating a ton of them in one day. I experienced what can only be called a grease and batter overdose that day, yet I fully expect to resume eating fish and chips on a semi-regular basis in the near future. But after eating so many falafels and tasting what they are really all about (at least in the Bay Area), I have re-assessed my opinion of them as a food. I thought I loved falafel, but after this session, I’m not so sure. I doubt I’ll be eating many falafels in the future if this session is indicative of what I can expect from them. Perhaps somebody in the know will tell me that most falafels around here are an affront to God and should not be considered as a yardstick by which to measure falafels as a whole. But if some helpful Tom, Abdul, or Shlomo doesn't make his presence known soon, I’m guessing I’ll restrict my falafel-eating to once-in-a-blue-moon occasions and only at places where I’m sure I’ll get what I’m expecting.

Eating Day: June 28, 2008

1. BONGO BURGER- 2505 Dwight Way (@ Telegraph), Berkeley- 10:18am- Full Falafel-$5.75

Bongo Burger is just off of the main drag on Telegraph Ave. right near UC Berkeley. This an area I don’t like to visit too frequently. Naturally, it’s always packed with college kids. Everytime I’m on that street and I see all of the fresh-faced youths wandering around with their book bags, I get depressed. They just remind me of how much I squandered my youth. These kids think they know everything. Maybe they do. They got into Berkeley, after all. They know what they want to do when they grow up. At their age, I was killing time as a liberal arts major at a crummy Midwestern technical/agricultural university and didn't want to do anything except watch TV, play in a band, and buy records. I would bandy about career ideas, but I wasn't really interested in doing any of those things. I once had a college adviser give me a test that asked me what I would do with my time if I won the lottery and I didn't have to work. I think it was supposed to determine my true interests to help me chart a career path. I'm pretty certain that I actually wrote down “nothing,” which was the truth, especially back then. The counselor made me come up with a second choice. I can’t remember what I told him, but since it wasn't my real answer, the test was pointless, so it’s no surprise that I’m stuck in a dead-end cubicle job that I keep only for the paycheck and the benefits. If there are any UCB kids on Telegraph that are aimless in their career plans, they better quickly figure out what they’re going to do and stick with it, or they’re gonna end up like me. And I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

The full falafel at Bongo has 4 big falafel patty/balls smashed down inside a pita along with shredded lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, and copious amounts of tahini sauce. The falafel was nice and spicy and was cooked to order. They had the correct balance of pepper, cumin, parsley, and garlic, but there were some problems. It’s true that I’ve never been to the Middle East. I don’t know what AUTHENTIC falafel is supposed to taste like, but I know how I like it. I like the balls fried crispy on the outside with an al dente inside, not unlike the texture of cooked couscous. Bongo's falafels were pretty crunchy on the outside, but they were quite mushy within. They weren't so mushy that I didn't enjoy the sandwich, but an extra minute in really hot oil could have really helped these balls. Also, the pita was paper thin. With oversized falafel patties, the vegetables, and the massive amounts of sauce inside, the damn thing just fell apart. I would be reminded throughout the day that a good pita is hard to find around here.

2. TURKISH KITCHEN- 1986 Shattuck (@ University), Berkeley, 11am- $6.25

Although the workmanlike falafel at Bongo was quite large, I was far from full afterwards and was confident that this session would go smoothly with only a modicum of discomfort. I walked up and down the Telegraph strip checking to see if the 3 other nearby falafel places had opened for business, but I was out of luck. I headed down to Shattuck and arrived at the Turkish Kitchen just as they were opening. It was 11am and I had only eaten one falafel. By this time on the last session, I was already in the double-digits on tacos.

Turkish Kitchen is in the space formerly occupied by Truly Mediterranean. The new place has many of the same generic Middle Eastern items as the old place, but they now also have a few dishes specific to Turkey, which is a good thing, as I’m not aware of any other Turkish restaurant in the area. There’s a big-screen TV on the wall. It was tuned to a Turkish satellite station that was playing a talk show hosted by a guy who was clearly a big fan of Larry King. He had the same haircut and glasses and even wore suspenders and a tie without a jacket and he had his sleeves rolled up. Despite the host's western-isms, all of his guests looked like extras from Midnight Express.

I was only the second customer of the day, but it took at least 15 minutes to get my food. I gather they had to wait for the oil to heat up, so I wouldn't expect this long of a wait for a falafel later in the day. I was pleased to see the falafel sandwich here was almost half the size of the one from Bongo Burger. If places kept serving me portions like this, it would've been smooth sailing start to finish. The falafel was wrapped in lavash, rather than pita. I understand lavash-wrapped falafels are more common in certain Middle Eastern areas and I definitely prefer it to the crummy pitas most of the places served on this session. A pita has to be really soft, fluffy, and fresh, otherwise it really sucks for falafel. Lavash is kind of non-descript and inobtrusive, so if you don't feel like putting forth the effort for a high-quality pita, for God's sake, just use lavash on the falafel. Lavash is sort of invisible-tasting. Overall, the falafel here was better than Bongo's. The seasoning was balanced nicely, and although it wasn't as spicy as the Bongo falafel (a slight disappointment), other than that, everything about it was superior to Bongo's version. The balls were quite crunchy on the outside and the inside wasn't mushy at all. I could actually detect large pieces of beans inside the Turkish falafel, while Bongo’s insides were like spicy malt-o-meal. In addition to the falafel balls, the lavash was stuffed with diced onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce (despite the fact the menu said red cabbage), and they didn’t go overboard with the tahini sauce. This was a pretty light sandwich. If I wasn't power-eating, I could easily have eaten the falafel, another sandwich of its size, and one of their Turkish main dishes, and still would have had room for baklava. I was doing great. I liked how the second falafel was better than the first and how I wasn't even slightly full yet. I figured things were going to get better as I went and envisioned a deliciousness-inspired hallucination by the time I got to falafel #8 that evening.

3. APOLLO CAFE- 501 Fell (@ Laguna), San Francisco- 2:33pm- $5.99

In retrospect, going to San Francisco for this session was an idiotic move on my part. The only reason I went there was so I could eat at King of Falafil, which used to hold the title as my favorite all-time falafel. Had I only remembered what was happening in the city that particular Saturday, there’s no way in hell I would've gone over there. I could've saved myself a world of pain if I'd just stayed on the right side of the Bay. I rarely go to SF, and if there’s a “happening” going on, I avoid that town at all costs. I boarded BART at West Oakland and immediately knew something funny was going on. The train was packed with flamboyant teens making out with other flamboyant teens of the same gender. And there was 2% more guys than usual sporting Rob Halford hats and handlebar moustaches. I then realized that it was Gay Pride weekend. Every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (just added!) individual and his/her/its mother was in SF for this event. “More power to them!” I said to myself, supporting their cause, while figuring this huge crowd would have no impact on my journey to total garbanzofication. But as soon as I got off the train, I discovered that their political agenda would throw a monkeywrench into the machinations of my eating session.

I exited at the Civic Center station on the Grove St. side, directly in front of the Burger King across from the big library and adjacent to a place called Gyro King, which I had read had excellent falafels. To my chagrin, I noticed that the entire street was cordoned off and guarded by a big Bear who asked for a $5 "donation" to allow entry onto Grove St., a hub of the Pride festivities. He stood there like Charon, waiting to ferry me across the river Styx and into the land of assless chaps. On any other day, I would've coughed up a fin and walked through the festival to check out the goings on, but on this day, I had falafels to eat and didn't have time for rainbow flags, gloryholes, or original cast recordings of Annie Get Your Gun. Sorry gay friends, but I had a mission and it really wasn't about you that day. Call me a homophobic fascist if you must, but while I sincerely support your right to marry and to engage in unlimited public sodomy, I draw the line when a festival of buggery supersedes my ability to eat 8 falafels in one waking day without having to pay a toll. Besides, I believe there’s a passage in Deuteronomy where God commands the Israelites to eat chick peas mixed with mannah until they can eat no more and to build their huts with their golden droppings. Talmudic scholars have interpreted this to mean that frequent gorging on falafel-like dishes is a commandment from the Almighty. Thus, your infringement on my eating session was naught but an attack on Judeo-Christian values! Repent sinners!

Because I couldn't get to the Gyro King without paying $5 just to walk the half block to their door, I decided to walk around the Pride area to the next place where I knew I could find falafels- the Apollo Cafe in Hayes Valley. Chances are, if you live in a large city and you have a computer, you are familiar with, the website where users can rate local businesses in their area, especially restaurants. I've always taken those reviews with a grain of salt, due to the ridiculous criteria some reviewers use to rate restaurants. I've read several reviews where a reviewer will actually knock off a star from an eatery's review because there was too much traffic on the street where the place was located. After eating at Apollo, I now feel that Yelp reviews are essentially worthless. From this day forth, I will use Yelp only to find out if a place exists and will completely disregard the reviews. There were people on Yelp hyping up Apollo as having the best falafels ever. How is this possible? Did the owners post their own reviews? I know that food is very subjective, but there is NO WAY that anybody alive would consider this the best falafel, if they’d ever eaten another falafel anywhere.

When I walked into the place I got a little nervous. It’s essentially a convenience store/coffee shop with some refrigerated deli cases. I didn't see room for a fryer. Unless they cooked the falafel in the back somewhere, I was in trouble. The people there were very nice and excited to see a customer, as the place was totally empty. After I ordered, the counter guy said something in a foreign language to what I assume was his mother. She knelt down and opened a small refrigerator and pulled out a large Tupperware-like container. Uh-oh. She opened the container and pulled out 4 falafel balls! If I wasn't doing "a bit" and if time wasn't of the essence, I would've cancelled the order then and there. I had a cold falafel reheat about 10 years ago that was one of the worst things I've ever eaten. Not only does refrigerated falafel get extremely dry, it also gets bitter. A falafel should be eaten IMMEDIATELY after it is fried. Every second that passes after frying detracts from its overall quality. It’s bad enough to serve a room temperature falafel mere minutes out of the fryer, but serving a cold falafel, even a reheated cold falafel, is beyond the pale. I sighed and sat down while the lady heated up the balls in the microwave. The guy asked me if I wanted homemade hot sauce on the falafel. You’re damn right I want hot sauce, Jack! I’ll need everything possible to cover up the taste of those old-ass falafel balls you’re working with. Gimme hot sauce, ranch dressing, caramel, and marshmallow fluff- anything to cover up that funky stuff you're about to serve me, you evil, evil man.

As expected, this sandwich was nothing short of an abomination. Not only did I get reheated falafel balls, they had the affrontery to serve me them on a tortilla. No, it was not lavash; it was a cold flour tortilla! Nice effort there, folks. And despite their time spent in the microwave, the falafel balls were still cold inside. I can’t comment on how they were spiced, because other than the hot sauce (the only thing that kept the thing from being utterly inedible), all I could taste was that dry bitterness I had experienced the only other time I’d eaten a falafel prepared like this. Somehow the balls were still mushy. After sitting in the fridge, I would've expected them to firm up like a Jell-o mold. There was some tomato, lettuce, and tahini on there, but so what? The whole thing was a trainwreck. I came to SF for this? Damn you, homosexuals, and your $5 street toll! I was originally going to eat at Gyro King before heading north towards to King of Falafil, but I figured I should eat at least one falafel in the general area, so I came over to Hayes Valley. On my way over there, I actually spotted a new falafel place (Kebab-something-or-other) on Hayes, I believe. I should've just stopped there, but I decided to opt for Apollo, due to its stellar Yelp reviews. Stupid.

The only thing positive I can say about the falafel sandwich at Apollo was that it was small. Three entries into the game and I was not even satiated, let alone full. The plan now was to walk over to Fillmore, take the #22 bus up to Bush and then walk along Bush until I got to the corner of Divisadero, the home of King of Falafil. Why I didn't follow this plan is a mystery lost to the ages.

4. ALI BABA'S CAVE- 531 Haight (@ Fillmore), San Francisco- 2:51pm- $4.75

I walked up the hill on Fell St. in disgust until I had a realization. There was a Middle Eastern place in the Lower Haight where I had eaten a falafel once in about 1998. As I approached Fillmore St, I instantly decided to change my plans. I would eat at the Lower Haight place; then take the bus to King of Falafil; then walk back to Fillmore and Bush; and then take the 22 bus to the Mission, where I would eat at Truly Mediterranean (16th and Valencia) and Jerusalem (Mission and 24th.) It seemed like a great idea at the time.

Ali Baba looked like a contender. There were multiple fryers and a large grill. This place wasn’t some falafel pretender convenience store like Apollo, even though they had a seemingly endless clientele of skinny 20-something guys who wore tight, threadbare, thriftstore t-shirts that were originally owned by 7-year-old girls. And these guys wore these flimsy shirts with a scarf and no jacket. (What’s the deal with that look? Do those guys have cold necks, but hot torsos? Worst. Look. Ever.) But then I ordered the falafel and the fucker took previously-fried falafel balls out of the fryer basket and put them in the lavash as-is! Jesus man, if you’re too lazy to make me some fresh balls, at least dunk those old balls in the hot oil for a minute. I sat down, annoyed, but the room temperature falafel balls would be the least of my problems at this place.

Holy crow. This thing was massive. It was bigger than the previous three falafels combined. I mean, it was the size and weight of an American child’s leg. You know those gargantuan (usually mediocre) super burritos they sell in the Mission? This thing was bigger than those. The guy had grilled the whole sandwich on the grill like they sometimes do with a burrito, but he was so busy talking Arabic on his cellphone that he left the damn thing on there way too long. Now I was stuck with a falafel the size of a Buick with room temperature balls surrounded in a wrapper the texture of a saltine. Luckily, the balls themselves were not even close to being as bad as Apollo's. They were pretty crunchy outside and not mushy inside; the spice balance was right and the hot sauce I had requested was actually pretty hot. But, the falafel balls were still suffering, due to the fact that they had been sitting around for at least a few minutes. They were already starting to get that slightly bitter undertaste I mentioned earlier. To be fair, the flavor really wasn’t THAT bad. On a regular day, I’d probably have no serious issues with this sandwich, even with the unheated balls. And if the guy would’ve just stuck them in the oil, the falafel would’ve likely been as good as the one at Turkish Delight and better than Bongo's version. But with three falafel sandwiches in me already and a truckload of lukewarm cracker-wrapped bitter balls to deal with, I was not amused.

I finished the first half of that monster without too much effort, but I began to slow when the previous 3 sandwiches stood up in my stomach demanding to be recognized. I was able to finish the whole thing within about 30 minutes, but at the end I could barely move. I didn’t know what to do. I went to the bathroom and tried to take a dump but only emitted a "phantom deuce," which provided very little relief. I needed to take my time before I ate anything else, so rather than take the bus, I decided to walk to King of Falafil, which is about 1.5 miles away. In my condition, I figured it could take a seriously long time for me to get all the way over there, which might allow me to regain some degree of hunger. And if the King of Falfil falafel was as good as I remembered it to be, I was counting on it to revive me into an eating frenzy. If only it had worked out that way...

5. KING OF FALAFIL- 1801 Divisadero (@ Bush), San Francisco- 3:59pm- $4.75

I waddled along Divisadero, but the trip didn’t take as long as I had hoped. I arrived still stuffed from the Ali Baba chick pea log. Alas, the walk had provided no relief. As I was about to cross Bush St., I looked into the window at King of Falafil and I began to panic. There were chairs on top of many of the tables. Oh no! Were they closed? I could see that that there were still some people inside, so I shuffled across the street as fast I could to see if they were still serving. I asked the girl behind the counter if I was too late for falafel. “It’s never too late for falafel!” was her response. Great answer. Maybe this trip to SF wasn’t a total bust, I thought to myself.

When I lived in SF, I used to come to K of F as often as possible for the falafel, the burgers, and the fresh cut fries. There’s a big sign inside that says they're the 6-time Billy Award winner for best falafel. I have no idea where this award is bestowed, whom the competition is, or who the judges are, but it seems like a prestigious prize. The K of F falafel balls I remember were huge, very crispy on the outside, and nice and dense on the inside. Their texture was exactly like a Long John Silver’s hush puppy, if it was made out of garbanzos, rather than cornmeal. The seasoning was always perfectly in balance, with no single ingredient upstaging another. And the King always coated the outside of the balls with a lot of sesame seeds, which I really love. If there is indeed an award for excellence in the falafel arts, the K of F balls I knew were a truly worthy recipient.

I’m now well aware of the fact that I walked into K of F minutes before they were officially closed, but that does not excuse what happened on this visit. The lady took a massive pita and laid it on the grill. After it was warm, she cut it in half. I was overjoyed that it would only be a half-pita sandwich because Ali Baba remained precisely where he had stood in my belly prior to my walk up Divisadero. But then you broke my heart, King of Falafil. How could you do this to me? The lady took room temperature falafel balls out of a bowl and put them in both sides of the pita. Nooooooooo! I’ve been going to this place since 1998. I’d never once had a falafel from K of F that wasn’t blazing hot right out of the fryer. I’d never even seen them throw a pre-cooked ball back in the oil. It’s always been freshly made balls there- sizzling, dark brown, and extra crunchy. But today, they totally lamed out on me. C’mon King! If I’m too late to get a real falafel, just tell me. I would’ve been really bummed that I had walked that far only to find you closed, but at least I’d only have myself to blame. Because you gave me second rate cold falafel balls, I now have to hold a grudge against you. I’m sure I’ll eventually try you earlier in the day to make sure you still have the power to make the best damn falafels west of the Mississippi, but I’ll do it reluctantly. The way I feel now, I’m actually considering contacting the Billy Awards to demand they revoke your award. For shame!

To make matters even worse, both sides of that pita were for MY falafel. I had figured the other half was for a call-in order or something. No, it was all for me. Even though they told me I didn’t have to take the falafel to go, I couldn’t eat it in there. I was too disappointed. It’s like when your best friend lets you down and you can’t look him/her in the eye for a while. I went outside, sick to my stomach from both garbanzos and resentment. I didn’t want to eat anything, let alone a cold-ass falafel the size of a bisected wheel of brie. I went around the corner and sat on the steps outside of the backdoor of the hospital. I unwrapped the first half and took a bite. I was still so stuffed, it was hard to chew, let alone swallow. All those sesame seeds were there and the color was right, but everything was cold, not even lukewarm. And the pita was thin and brittle and the whole thing was falling apart in the paper. Perhaps it was just the coldness of the balls fooling my tongue, but the balls were bland. All I could taste was oil, the sesame seeds, and the freezing cold tahini they drowned the balls with. I forced myself to eat half of the first half of the falafel, but there was no way that I could even finish half of that thing in one sitting. It was too cold, too tasteless, too messy, and I was too full to eat anything else, especially not a falafel that represented utter defeat.

Fuck you, San Francisco. You’re overcrowded, too expensive, full of yuppie and hipster jerks, and on Gay Pride weekend, you made me hate you for serving me three consecutive letdown falafels. I had to get out of that town. There was no way I was going to be able to eat the 2 additional sandwiches I had planned in the Mission. And even if I could have, I couldn't bear to deal with anymore SF falafel half-assedness. I just wanted to go home to Oakland. I could've gotten on a bus somewhere, but I decided to walk and burn off some more chick peas and disillusionment. I walked down Bush all the way to Market St., stopping occasionally to take tiny bites of the first half of the falafel. It took me at least an hour to span that distance (about 2 miles), but by the time I got to the Montgomery BART station, I had finished the first half. I was still as full as when I left Ali Baba, but now my feet hurt, my stomach hurt, and my feelings hurt.

When I got on the train it was packed. All those free-spirits laughing and kissing and talking like Rip Taylor in their homosexual finery just made me feel worse, especially because I couldn’t sit down, due to the crush of LGBT(I) revelers. I didn’t get to sit until I made it to my car, which was parked on the street outside of the West Oakland BART. I sat in the driver's seat, panting and emitting a constant stream of vapors that had an aroma that reminded me of my childhood when my dad would go get Chinese take out in those little square cardboard containers and I'd smell that food while I sat in the back of the Galaxy 500. Yes, I said it! My farts actually smelled better than those SF falafels tasted. I needed a nap, but sleeping there would’ve asphyxiated me faster than if I had parked my Civic in a garage with the engine running and the door closed. I drove home as fast as I could. I unbuckled my pants and sat on the couch and farted and sobbed. Farted and sobbed. Goodbye San Francisco. You, your toll-taking Bears, and your crappy falafels have let me down for the last time.

6. SIMPLY GREEK- 4060 Piedmont (@ Glen), Oakland- 7:58pm- $5.89

There I sat with my pants undone, filling the room with gaseous reminders of my unsuccessful journey to The City. The remaining half of the K of F falafel lay on the coffee table before me, but I could barely touch it. By the time Kelly returned from the salon, I think I had eaten no more than 4 bites out of the remaining half. The tahini had turned into a thick paste, it smelled awful, and was colder than imaginable. As I grimaced, Kelly once again yelled at me to quit, but that was out of the question, of course. She said if I wasn’t going to quit then I had to start eating again immediately before all the falafel places were closed. But before I could go to a new place, I had to finish the K of F falafel, which sat there mocking me. I got a big glass of water. After each bite, I would drink a big swig of water, and flatulate vigorously. To my surprise, I somehow managed to ingest the foul offering in its entirety a mere 3 ½ hours after I had purchased it. Even more time had passed since I ate at Ali Baba, yet that cursed 2x4 of spiced beans would not relent. I had no idea that I would be so uncomfortable this late in the day, but my digestive organs continued to strain against my abdominal cavity at full force. Yet I had to continue. Time was running out.

Simply Greek has the best gyro I’ve ever had in the Bay Area. I realize this statement doesn’t say very much, considering the dearth of gyros around here, but I believe their gyro could hold its own even in Chicago, where by law there are 17 gyro/hot dog/Italian beef stands on every block. Although I was in agony, I fully expected them to at least give me a top-notch falafel so I could taste something delicious as my colon ruptured. But, boy, do these guys get falafel wrong!

I'll list the only pros about their falafel. Firstly, they fry the balls to order, which had never seemed like a big deal before, but after what I’d been through in SF, it now seemed like the ultimate gesture of fine cuisine. Secondly, the pita at Simply Greek is far and away the best pita of any place around here. It’s thick, fluffy, soft, chewy, and tastes fresh. And they grill it a little to give it a toasty/smokey kind of taste. Other than those two things, they got EVERYTHING very, very, wrong. My God, the balls were beyond mushy. The outsides barely had a crust and the insides were like peanut butter. And the seasoning was just vile. They went crazy on the cumin. Cumin is a very aromatic type of seed. If you exceed the correct amount by even a little bit, it overpowers everything. They used tzatziki sauce, rather than tahini. While this in itself wouldn’t have been a terrible thing, when it was coupled with the assault of the cumin it made for a very unpleasant overall experience. The pita was loaded up with iceberg lettuce, but no onions to help offset some of the cumin taste. Eating this thing was a nightmare. Even if I wasn’t full beyond the limits of common decency, this falafel would have been very difficult to finish. Every bite of that peanut buttery cumin goo brought a little vomit into my esophagus. I had to eat very slowly, lest the whole effort come to a screeching halt right there on Piedmont. I don’t know how I finished the falafel there. This was probably the single most disgusting item I’d eaten at any stage of any session of IEM. The only thing that comes close is the whiting I ate from JJ Fish during the Fish and Chips session, which I threw away after one bite. I cannot stress strongly enough- do NOT get a falafel from Simply Greek. Get a gyro or souvlaki if you’re a carnivore. If you’re a vegetarian, get a Greek salad or hummus. I’ve had all of those items and they were excellent. I can’t believe the owners have ever tried the falafel they serve. I’m guessing they found a recipe online somewhere and substituted "tablespoons" for "teaspoons" for the cumin amount listed.

I really wanted to stop at that point. The excuciating fullness was bad enough, but having to contend with such terrible-tasting falafel was really depressing. I really thought I liked this particular food, but maybe I didn't. If so many places are serving such unpleasant items, and listing them all under the banner of falafel, perhaps I need to reassess my feelings on this foodstuff.

7. D'YAR- 2511 Durant (@ Telegraph), Berkeley- 8:53pm- $4.99

I wasn’t happy to have to go back the UC Berkeley Telegraph Ave. area again. I didn't want to see those go-getters when I felt like my abdomen was being inflated from inside with an air mattress pump. I was afraid they'd be mocking me somehow. But my pickings were getting slim. D’yar used to be called Eat-a-Pita. I know I ate there a really long time ago, but I can’t remember it at all. All I’ve heard from other people is how bad Eat-a-Pita was, but the new place is pretty good. If you like falafel and you haven’t already consumed 5000 metric tons of garbanzo patties when you go there, I expect you may enjoy D’Yar. The place was clean and they were playing decent Arabic music, rather than the cheesed-out Arab-pop that some of these places play. The owner guy had an awesome combover and a sweet moustache and was very much the captain of the ship here. He was training 2 new guys on the proper way to cut the meat off the spinning shawarma meat log. He was patient, but very particular with how they should cut it. One of the guys cut off a slice that looked completely usable and delicious, but the owner took the knife back from the trainee and re-demonstrated the “correct” way to cut the meat off of the log, working the knife with a Zorro-like flourish. The piece of meat the owner produced was exactly the same as the one the trainee had cut. It seemed kind of anal to me, but maybe Allah commands that spinning meat is cut in a particular fashion (while facing Mecca, perhaps.) Both of the trainees were Mexican and began talking to each other in Spanish and shrugging their shoulders while the owner came over to take my order. I believe I heard them use the phrase “pinche Jefe” once or twice. Face it, owner guy. In 10 years, all restaurants in the US will be completely staffed and owned by Mexicans and they’ll be cutting the meat-log the way the want to do it, so get over it.

It was cold as hell in there, but the cold was helping me from falling into a falafel-induced slumber. D’Yar’s falafel wasn’t a dirigible like Ali Baba, but it was still pretty big, so I had serious doubts if I could finish it off within a reasonable amount of time. I was under the impression that, if necessary, I had until 11pm to get to the falafel place in the Emeryville International Market food court to fulfill the 8 falafel minimum. I had that as my ace in the hole, or so I thought, but I really wanted to get the final falafel from one of the nearby places so I could get home sooner. The D'Yar falafel was in lavash that had been somewhat toasted, but not cracker-ized like Ali Baba’s. The guy brought me some homemade green hot sauce, that wasn’t very hot, but imparted some interesting herbal flavors to the already complex spices in the falafel itself. In addition to the usual suspects, D’Yar’s falafel seemed to have a slight undertaste of cinnamon, which was actually quite pleasant here, as all the seasonings were perfectly in balance. I also used the red hot sauce from the condiment area, which was much hotter than the green stuff and gave the sandwich a great kick. The balls were rather crunchy on the outside, and while they were a little less firm on the inside than I prefer, they were better than several of the places today and would be totally worth eating under normal circumstances.

I was actually enjoying the flavor of the falafel quite a bit, but I really had hit the wall. Everytime I bit into the falafel, the bite of food would travel mere inches down my esophagus before returning into my mouth like a boomerang. It was getting late and I couldn’t tarry any more in hopes of building up an appetite again. I had to purchase another falafel somewhere and eat both the final falafel and the D’Yar falafel at home later that night to fulfill the session. I wrapped the falafel in foil and we walked up the street to see if the falafel place in the Durant Food court was still open. They were closed. As we walked further up Durant, I almost puked on the sidewalk at least 3 times before we reached the car. I wasn't nauseous, you understand. I was just about to overflow. Buckling my seat belt was a chore of monumental effort. When I was finally strapped in, I drove past the Sunrise Deli on Bancroft, but they were also closed. (Is that place EVER open?) It appeared that the food court in Emeryville would indeed be the last stop on this trip to chick pea damnation.

8. 5 Star Pizza (3109 Telegraph @31st), Oakland- $5.25

When we got to the Emeryville food court, I about shat my pants out of panic (not from the garbanzos.) The parking lot was almost completely empty. It wasn’t even 10pm yet and the review said they were open until 11pm on Saturday. We walked to the door and learned the whole place had closed at 9! Fuck Yelp! That site is no good. Don’t read that thing anymore. From this day forward, if you want to know where to eat, you should only trust IEM, because Yelp is full of lies and ignorance.

After having a tantrum about that place being closed, my mind began scrambling. It was 9 o’clock. Where the hell could I get a falafel that late? I had read another Yelp review about some other place in Emeryville (Wally’s), but I wasn’t able to find it. (Note: I found Wally’s on a later day and it was exactly where Yelp said it was, but I’ve yet to try it.) I was drawing a blank. Once again, one of my biggest gripes about living in the Bay Area came to light. Why does everything have to close so early here? At 9pm in New York, things are just getting started. In Oakland, 9pm is “last call” for a good chunk of the restaurants. Things stay open a little later in SF, but not by much. What a rip off.

Here’s what I was facing: it was 9pm, I was stuffed beyond comprehension with 6 1/2 falafel sandwiches in me, but if I couldn’t find an 8th falafel to eat, the whole session wouldn’t count, per IEM rules. Believe me; I was going to be VERY pissed if I had eaten all of those nasty things for nothing. I began to think hard, which was not easy, because I was constantly distracted by the explosions coming out of my pants. I went into a meditative state and then it hit me. Was that pizza place on Telegraph near Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland still open?

We had eaten at 5 Star Pizza once in 2001, less than a month after 9/11. The place was run by some kind of Muslims/Arabs. When we got there to order a pizza for pick-up, we found about a dozen heavily-bearded guys in various Islamic headgear and kaftan-like garments looking like they were auditioning to be Bin-Laden impersonators. They were all yelling at each other in Arabic and pointing at the TV, which was set to Al Jazeera’s endless footage of the aftermath of the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. I’m sure these guys were all America-loving citizens who were merely expressing their outrage towards these cowardly attacks on the U.S.A. (insert sarcasm emoticon here.) But in that post-9/11 climate of fear, I have to admit seeing these dudes was really a little scary. We walked past the Osama lookalikes towards the counter, hoping they didn’t shout “Allah akbar!” and blow themselves up right then and there along with us and the pizzeria. What a waste of pepperoni that would've been. But, they didn’t even notice us. When we ordered the pizza, we noticed the menu also listed sandwiches, burgers, falafel, and some other Middle Eastern fare. I remember the pizza being pretty mediocre, even by Bay Area standards, but I made a mental note to try the falafel there sometime.

Until this session, we never returned there and we referred to the place only as “Terror Pizza.” I drove down Telegraph with my fingers crossed. They were open! No Bin Laden guys anymore. Maybe they’re all at Guantanamo, or they were in the back making shoe bombs. Or perhaps they thought the pizza at 5 Stars sucked and they now go to Lanesplitter to hang out with douchebags in the Temescal. There were just a couple of West African-looking guys this time talking on their cellphones. I had no idea what time this place closed, so I was afraid they might not be able to make a falafel this late, but the counter lady was really friendly and said I could have one. “Is it okay if it’s on a roll?” she asked. At this point, I didn’t expect much from any falafel. I just had to eat this one and the other half of the D’Yar falafel to make the session official. I didn’t care at all what kind of breadlike carrier they gave me for the falafel balls. It took a few minutes to get the sandwich. Once again, I expect it took a while to get the oil hot. It was wrapped in foil and was about a foot long, but somehow it was quite lightweight. I took the sandwich and went home.

I sat on the couch. I was still in no shape for eating. The D’Yar falafel was really cold now, so its taste had deteriorated considerably from when I ordered it. I’m sure it was close to 11pm by the time I finished that thing, which was done by taking dozens of pea-sized nibbles. And then something strange happened. I was suddenly hungry again. I was going to finish the session! I unwrapped the 5 Star falafel. The sandwich consisted of a few falafel balls on a sesame roll with some hand-torn pieces of iceberg (not shredded) lettuce, and some diced onions. There was no tahini that I could detect. I bit into the sandwich. The balls were only slightly crunchy on the outside, but the inside wasn’t mushy at all. It had that grain-like consistency I really like. And the seasoning was subtle, but flavorful. Best of all, the roll complemented the balls perfectly. It was a soft roll, similar to the great rolls you get at sub/hero shops back East. It was missing tahini, but I didn’t miss it. (Perhaps it was the lack of tahini that kept the sandwich from getting freezing, which is what became of the D’Yar and King of Falafil sandwiches that sat around for hours before they were fully consumed.)

I couldn’t believe it. The sandwich was somehow considerably better than the sum of its parts. Despite all its idiosyncracies, this was a great falafel. I ate it in less than 5 minutes and probably could’ve eaten another one at that point. I was astounded. How did this happen? Just an hour before, I was bloated and feeling like I never wanted to bite into a falafel again as long as I lived, but when I ate the 5 Star sandwich, it tasted like the greatest falafel I’d ever eaten. If not for that falafel, I might seriously have considered NEVER eating one of those things again- at least not around here. I was seriously let down by so many inconsistent sandwiches on this session, with many of the purveyors too lazy to serve hot falafel balls. If not for the 5 Star sandwich swooping in to save the day, I’d have lost all faith in falafel. Granted, I’m still going to be much more particular about falafel in the future. As soon as I walk into a joint, I’m gonna come right out and ask them a bunch of questions about their method of preparation. And if they’re using pita, I’m gonna ask to see one first. If a place is using cold or reheated balls and/or papery pitas, I getting the hell out of there and I’m getting a fucking cheeseburger or something. (Note: I went back to 5 Star this past weekend. The falafel was still sans-tahini and was still on the same sesame roll, but this time I ate it with an empty stomach. And it was still delicious! Believe that.)

The Best:

  • 5 Star Pizza
  • Turkish Kitchen

The Worst:

  • Simply Greek
  • Apollo Café

IN AUGUST: Inhuman Machine #5: ICE CREAM!!