Friday, December 21, 2007

"Don't worry, it tastes like chicken"

Barbados ‘Mountain Chicken’, $18.50
Front Porch, Outer Mission

Front Porch, San Francisco
When the Nibbler wants to feel like one of the cool kids, he heads over to Front Porch. Fitting in isn’t easy: mop-headed hipsters posing in the corner, dreadlocks swaying to a lounge beat, lipstick lesbians making out at the bar.

But this time, fortunately, there was no need to try to blend in. This time, I was there for a legitimate purpose: garlic roasted quail. Yes, yes! Eating little birds doesn’t get much better than roasted quail. Taking in the scenery as I slid into a dimly lit booth, I could practically taste that poor bird on my lips.

“Unfortunately we’re out of the quail tonight, but we have a couple specials to tell you about.”

Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. Damn cool kids ate all the quail!

“… the Barbados Mountain Chicken is eighteen fifty.”

“What was that?”

“Barbabos Mountain Chicken. The frogs' legs.”

“Frogs… taste like… chicken?”

“That’s what they say.”

“Like miniature chickens... in the mountains?”

“Umm, yeah, I guess so. From Barbados."

“I'll take the Barbados Mountain Chicken!”

Now, I don’t know about other frogs' legs, but the ones from Barbados are very small and very skinny. Definitely smaller than the legs of minor game fowl. “Like a crooked joint,” noted the Guzzler.

The legs came fried in a cornmeal batter, which made them appear a bit more substantial, but there didn’t seem to be enough mass or surface area to accommodate the residual grease. “Like a pile of soggy, crooked joints,” the Guzzler mumbled again. The meat was highly accessible and clean off the bone, but it was so smooth you barely felt it on the tongue.

Now, the Nibbler can certainly work with lean limbs. No problem with that. And he’s learned to deal with the extra pool of grease here and there. That’s just navigation.

But when it comes to trickery, to the downright lies those marketing folks come up with, well, that’s the last straw. Pond water, that’s what frogs' legs taste like! Plain old pond water.

Whoever said they taste like chicken probably thinks the breast is the best piece. Or, worse, they probably like turkey! No appreciation whatsoever for the sweet meat of delicate small birds! No knowledge of that glorious prize wedged right between skin and bone!

Skin & Bones ranking, Front Porch, San Francisco

Frogs' legs, Front Porch, San Francisco

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cutting Corners in the New Beijing

Worcester BBQ Wings with cinnamon, ginger, and paprika, Y18
Pure Girl Bar, Sanlitun, Beijing

BBQ chicken wings at Pure Girl Bar, Sanlitun, Beijing
Unlike its neon neighbors around the corner, Pure Girl Bar has no line, no 50” plasmas, and no Mongolian hookers. But it does have wings.

Unfortunately it took the Nibbler three Jonnie Walkers to realize that Pure Girl didn’t actually make the wings on premise. They arrived, order by order, from an undisclosed location. Clearly I was waiting for a guy on a bike to make his way across town.

But no matter. The Nibbler has plenty of time to wait for the sweet meat between the skin and bone. My late afternoon drinks lent a sparkle to Pure Girl’s sidewalk view of modern China: hurried Westerners on cell phones, local poseurs happy and proud, African hustlers keeping their heads down, and the oldest people you’ve ever seen in your life dodging traffic on bikes.

BBQ chicken wings at Pure Girl Bar, Sanlitun, Beijing
Surprisingly, the wings arrived warm. But a menu inviting you to “pick your sauce” rarely bodes well, and the Pure Girl was no exception. The sauce wasn’t bad. A nice mix of sweet and spicy, perfectly glazed on an even crisp. But you can never shake the taste of the bottle it came in. Food scientists have tried for decades to replicate that homemade sensation, in which individual flavors pop. They even have a name for it: amplitude. Pure Girl Bar suffers from their continued lack of success.

Well, that and the fact that chickens in China are poor copies of their Western brethren. They seem to have big chucks of fat in random places under the skin – a trait engineered out of existence by Arkansas mega-producers but clearly not yet globally defeated.

Doused with Jonnie Walker, I still found myself reasonably satisfied when the doe-eyed waitress offered me a Tour of Han. Much giggling ensued when I asked several times where Han was. Fortunately a German club promoter, taping a flier near my table, cleared it up: “she says you can get 2 for 1”. Xiexie!

The Nibbler's Rankings for Pure Girl Bar in Sanlitun, Beijing

Sunday, April 08, 2007

There’s nothing sadder than an aging rock 'n roll star.

Buffalo Wings with housemade sauce, $5.50
Cal Neva Lodge Circle Bar, Incline Village

Buffalo wings at Cal Neva Lodge Lake TahoeWith frayed carpeting and empty dining rooms, the Cal Neva Resort soldiers on as a novelty item, milking every drop it can from the days when hipsters thought it was cool.

Now, the Nibbler feels at right at home at a place that’s worn at the elbows. And he certainly understands the need to hold your head high against the quiet sting being forgotten.

But if it’s a casino without a craps table, well, then he gets cranky. And if it’s a bar with shitty wings, well, then it’s time to go.

Deep fried skin without any hint of crisp is always a problem, as the mushy exterior extends into the meat. The Nibbler was reminded of a long-neglected bowl of Cap’n Crunch, while his partner that night, the Guzzler, mumbled something about a soggy diaper.

Under normal circumstances these wings’ gristle would have sparked an offensive comment loud enough for the room to hear. But it actually seemed irrelevant in the face of a mysterious sinewy texture from skin to bone. Elastic strings, long enough to wrap around the teeth but too thin to be detected by the naked eye, sent me into contemplative silence that was only broken by some more mumbling by the Guzzler, this time something about the Donner party.

Fully doused in Tabasco, and with grease neutralizing any attempt at real flavor, each wing sent a stream of orange blood down my forearm, pooling on the video poker display and requiring Rick the bartender to assist with an occasional wipe down.

Thank God for the 14 Plasma TV’s ringing the bar, not to mention Rick’s champion mullet, to distract me enough until we got the bill.

The Nibbler's rankings for Cal Neva Lodge Lake Tahoe

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Martinis, Pressed Cloth Napkins, and Wings

Buffalo Wings with creamy blue cheese dressing , $7.25
Perry’s, Union Street

Buffalo wings at Perry's San FranciscoAh… Union Street. Twinkling lights, gelled hair, and perky breasts in tight sweaters. When The Nibbler needs to feel sophisticated, he heads north for some window shopping, and never hesitates to stop into Perry’s some Buffalo wings served by a neck-tied waiter.

Buffalo’s own Anchor Bar would be proud. Nothing experimental here, and they do the classic recipe pretty well. A pleasant accoutrement to the dark wood, nostalgic photos, and efficient grown men behind the bar.

Perry’s advantage is spice control. Time and time again, The Nibbler is let down by standard-issue wings that are either childishly sweet (like cheap ketchup) or needlessly punishing in their heat (like an amateur Bloody Mary). Perry’s rich flavor delivers a kick that tingles but never burns.

That said, you navigate a bit too much gristle and fight a bit too much drip (nothing on the shirt, but grease slides down the hand to the wrist). And the sauce, while well balanced, is a bit expected. Fortunately it’s enough to please the crowd: from the well-heeled older couple by the window, to the neighborhood gadfly interrupting people at the bar, to the squeaky-voiced gossip teams in back.

The Nibbler's rankings for Perry's San Francisco
Buffalo wings at Perry's San Francisco

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fulton Flats Make-Over: Awesome Wings against the Odds

Crispy Adobo Wings, $7
Poleng Lounge, Fulton & Masonic

Adobo chicken wings at Poleng Lounge San FranciscoIt was bound to happen. Dumpy hip hop club Storyville has been reincarnated as Poleng Lounge. Almost all the bases are covered: communal ottomans, reclaimed-wood tables, dreadlocked DJ, exotic house cocktails and an alluring list of South Asian tapas.

It’s a worthy cover-up, indeed, but as all those nearby renters know,
Western Addition roots can be stubborn. Hmm… Is that duct-taped pipe above me bouncing the halogen spotlight into my eyes? Is that stale beer smell coming from me, or wafting in from the back room? Is the language-challenged waitress looking at me funny because she recognizes me from a Tenderloin massage parlor? Any why am I – of all people – the most stylish unpaid person in the room?

Fortunately they make a damn good – and highly original – plate of wings. Six lightly fried and juicy drumettes with a tangy glaze that tickles the tongue. The sensation is delicate and balanced, a little bit of spice and a little bit of citrus. (I guess that's what
Adobo means?) The meat is clean off the bone, and the skin is sealed but not dry. There’s no dipping sauce, and rightfully so, but an accompanying pickled squash salad provides the kick a spicy traditionalist may be looking for.

The Nibbler's rankings for Poleng Lounge San Francisco

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Someone Forgot to Shave at Stinson Beach

Smoked Buffalo Wings with Ranch, $8
The Sand Dollar, Stinson Beach

The Sand Dollar Bar & Grill, Stinson Beach, CA

The Sand Dollar is possibly the coziest watering hole in the Bay Area. After a day of sun and wind on the beach, you're gently nursed back to reality by the diverse camaraderie and scratch margaritas at the well-worn oak bar.

Too bad the new chef’s chicken wings are hairy. And a little rubbery. It’s a shame, because the smoker in the backyard gives these wings a truly unique flavor, and one that’s nicely complemented by a mild bbq glaze that’s got kick without trying too hard.

Apparently these wings are baked after they’re smoked. The two-step process is just enough to set the glaze without drying out the delicate meat, but doesn’t do much to crisp up the skin or melt the fatty strands inside.

If you’re like The Nibbler and are OK with floppy skin, you’re in for an interesting smoky treat. But the stray hairs, the springy touch, and the immediate need for dental floss all made Lola cry foul. “Cadaveresque”, she called them. Half of our group stopped after one wing.

Smoked Buffalo Wings at The Sand Dollar in Stinson Beach

The Nibbler's rankings for The Sand Dollar in Stinson Beach