Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pepper Sisters in Bellingham

This blog entry is fuelled by guilt. I recommended this restaurant to my dad and his friend from Bellingham after looking on Yelp for an alternative to our favourite Mexican places in the city, Casa Que Pasa and Tadeo's. I am an Elite Yelper and usually find the reviews on Yelp to be accurate...but they were off when describing the food and ambience of Pepper Sisters. We should have gone to Casa Que Pasa.

My dad's buddy knew about Pepper Sisters and agreed that we should break away from our regular places to try this highly touted "Southwestern" restaurant on the outskirts of town. We were immediately sceptical upon entering: it was bright, sterile, and cavernous. Our excessively cheery server guided us to a table at the window and handed us our vegetarian-biased menus. Do not eat here if you possess a passion for carne asada and carnitas. The dishes here are dominated by veggies and poultry. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but the menu is definitely not balanced. Desperate for flavor and protein, my dad ordered the Pork Burrito and our friend ordered the Pork and Posole Stew. I tried to be open-minded and ordered the veggie Blue Corn Rellenos. I figured they couldn't mess this up since a standard chile relleno is vegetarian, but the Pepper Sisters version was packed with goat cheese. A little goat cheese mixed with the jack cheese would have added a pleasant zing to the filling, but there was so much chèvre that it just ruined the dish. My dad said that the density of his pork combined with the mandatory whole wheat tortilla it was served in resulted in a dry and disturbingly bland burrito. Our friend said the stew was so-so, but that he could have easily made it at home.

Adding insult to injury, our bill was almost double what it would have been at most other Mexican restaurants in the city. And I'm sorry, but a few pieces of deep-fried dough ("sopaipillas") don't warrant these inflated prices.

If you are vegetarian or are dining with vegetarians, I would actually recommend Pepper Sisters, despite my negative review. They have a huge number of options for those who are unable or are unwilling to consume pork and red meat (aka the backbone of both Mexican and Southwest cuisine). I won't be back here though.

PS - The owner, Susan Albert, has never lived nor cooked in the Southwest.

Keywords: "Bellingham Mexican Restaurants", "Alex Dawkins", "Vancouver Mexican"

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Beau Thai in Portland

In cities rife with trendy restaurants and high turnover, it is satisfying to dine at establishments that have been around for years. It is true that these types of family-run neighbourhood 'institutions' often rely upon regulars and have the tendency to rest on their culinary laurels, but these restaurants are important to a community's identity and economic foundation. I was in Portland with my mom in May of 2013 and she really wanted to go out for Thai one night. We stumbled upon Beau Thai on 21st Avenue, but before we entered I Yelped Thai restaurants in the northwest. I quickly discovered that Beau Thai failed to place in the top three. This was a bit disconcerting so we checked the menu of nearby Red Onion and another place on 23rd. They looked good, but they also looked like they were trying a bit too hard. We opted for Beau Thai, and not only was the food flavourful and light (we ordered the roasted eggplant stirfry, pad thai, and salad rolls), my mom remembered that she had eaten there five years before with my dad. She spoke to the owner, who was serving us, and expressed how much she liked the restaurant and the food. The owner was over the moon that we had come all the way from Canada to eat at her restaurant, and she described some of the challenges the restaurant has had as of late.

This was a great dining - and socio-economic - experience. As a diner, you have the ability to influence your neighbourhood with your wallet. Next time you are going out and are tempted to try that new bistro serving biodynamic spot prawn risotto with preserved lemon, or what have you, consider using your money to support a restaurant with history and cultural significance :) Red Onion may have had dishes with more complexity and obscure ingredients, but Beau Thai served solid food with a local flavour.

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Portland Thai Restaurants", "Beau Thai Portland"

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Rocanini Coffee Roasters

My first time here was at a Yelp event in March and I learned a great deal about the coffee industry at this crash course in roasting. I would not recommend Rocanini as a cafe. This is a roastery, in the factory and small manufacturing district of Vancouver, and the cafe within the business is clearly an addendum. Sharif was hosting the event I attended and he was extremely open and frank about both the coffee world and his business' practices. For example, I learned that the average cost for one pound of decent green beans in North America is $5. This means that roasters add between $10-$15 to roast, package, and distribute their product. This seemed like a lot to me when Sharif was describing it, but then he explained that money must also be spent on marketing and staffing. A $10-$15 markup is not a huge amount.

The most valuable activity we participated in at Rocanini was a cupping session based on SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) standards. Cupping involves brewing a predetermined amount of freshly ground beans with a consistent amount of water at 195-205 °F (95 °C) and then both sniffing and slurping the coffee after four minutes. This method forces you to really concetrate on the idiosyncratic qualities of EACH bean, in its purest form. I find taste tests like this to be the most helpful when trying to memorize traits of my favourite foods and drinks that come in unique varieties: single malt, wine, cheese, and cured meats.

At Rocanini we cupped Sumatran, Ethiopian, and Costa Rican grounds. The flavours were completely different from one another, and these differences would not have been as pronounced had the beans been blended or diluted with milk. Sharif explained that coffee aromas and taste profiles are really affected by altitude, and that this is one of the reasons Indonesian coffees are more earthy and one-dimensional than beans grown up in the mountains. The Ethiopian coffee was floral and acidic, while the Costa Rican was nutty with hints of citrus.

After this experience I could really relate to those who are obsessed with this dynamic bean, and it's hard not to become a bit snobby when one spends so much time studying and appreciating a favourite subject (i.e. drink, artist, animal, tv show...). However, as Sharif said, sometimes you just feel like a Timmy Hos. The staff at Rocanini are knowledgeable without being pretentious, and this seems to be rare in the coffee roasting world.

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Vancouver Coffee Roasters", "49th Parallel"