Wednesday, October 31, 2007

REVIEW - Pho Grand

Pho Grand
3195 South Grand
St. Louis, MO 63118
(314) 664-7435

Right, right. Everyone in St. Louis has already been to Pho Grand. Well, sorry, but I had a mad craving for pho all weekend and my regular pho-making local, Banh Mi So, was closed for vacation. It doesn't hurt that Pho Grand is consistently great and greatly consistent, either. It also didn't hurt that Pho Grand actually got better after it was moved to another location down the street, which is more than I can say for one of my older Vietnamese favorites, LemonGrass.

Speaking of LemonGrass, there are a few choices for Vietnamese if you happen to be on South Grand near Tower Grove. I've been to nearly all of them, and I prefer the cozy, warm, more informal atmosphere of Pho Grand to other places that cover their seats in plastic and space tables to provide elbow room enough for the rudest of Americans.

We walked into Pho Grand at around 6:00pm on a Sunday night, and even though the dining room looked nearly full, we were seated immediately. This was a preview of the service at Pho Grand, which is attentive and efficient. I want to say that it borders on militaristic, but that implies unfriendliness, and that's just not how it is there. For anyone who wants a Chochkie's-type of server who offers to set you up with some chicken fajita poppers while giving you a good look at his dental caps, Pho Grand might not be your type of place. But for someone who wants a swift, competent, and cordial server, please get down to South Grand for some pho.

For an appetizer, Graham and I split an order of Crispy Chicken Wings. They come seven to a plate, covered in a caramelized garlic sauce. The wings were a burnished bronze, coated in a sauce studded with minced garlic and red chili flakes. The sweetness of caramelization was most evident at first, but the heady garlic and the chili provided just enough heat to make these wings not at all like anything you'd get at TGI Friday's. Or Chochkie's.

They weren't soggy, they weren't burnt, and there was enough gristle around the tender globes of meat to make you believe that maybe, just maybe, these wings were different than the ones KFC reportedly has grown mutant Godzilla chickens to achieve. But it was the sauce that made these wings. It may be gauche to run your finger through the sauce when all the wings are gone, but I'm only human.

We'd been encouraged to order our entrees at the same time as we ordered our appetizer, which explains why our server landed my pho and Graham's shaking beef as soon as the last chicken wing left the plate. It didn't seem rushed, though, because the chicken wing plate (still pooled with the glorious garlic sauce) was allowed to stay.

I've never been to Vietnam, but based on what I've read and how it makes me feel, I can only guess that pho is what Vietnamese moms make their kids on sick days. It's the perfect comfort food. You start with a clear broth. From there, cook some rice noodles, protein, scallions, and leafy veggies or herbs in the broth. Aromatics like lemongrass, ginger, and other herbs are used, but what kind and how much depend on the cook. Pho is served basically plain with a plate of vegetables and sauces on the side. Like in most Asian countries, food is garnished by the eater.

Pho Grand has several different versions of pho, including beef, chicken, tofu, seafood, and ones with vermicelli noodles instead of the fatter rice noodles. I chose a version with medium-rare sliced eye of round and beef meatballs. The sliced beef scared me at first. Because it was cooked in the broth, the pink color was gone from all but one slice. Also, the slices were so thin that the meat had crenulated, creating something that looked terrifyingly similar to tripe (Pho Grand does serve a tripe pho, if you're into that). However, they had a very tender, beefy texture in the mouth, a full flavor, and there was none of that sweat-like smell that tripe can produce. The so-called meatballs were actually slices of smooth beef sausage. Again, these were pale from cooking in the broth, but the flavor was so good and they were packed with juice.

My pho had the standard aroma and flavor, but there was also something like either star anise (looks like pinwheels of cinnamon and tastes like licorice) or galangal (spicy, astringent, ginger-like herb). Although pepper is usually served on the side in Vietnam, Pho Grand grated theirs directly into the bowl. To garnish my pho, I usually go with some torn basil, cilantro, lime, garlic-chili sauce, and a few squirts of hoisin (think Asian soy-barbecue sauce).

Once your garnishes are mixed, it's time to eat. Chopsticks are used for the solids, and spoons are used for the broth. While it's totally acceptable to slurp your broth, please don't tip your bowl to your mouth like you're drinking cereal milk. (Yes, I understand how that sounds, but I've seen Midwesterners eat, okay?) Another thing to remember is that although pho is soup, it's filling like a stew, and it doesn't re-heat very well. This might be my only complaint about Pho Grand, because the enormous bowls of steaming, tasty goodness are just about impossible to finish.

Graham got the shaking beef (Bo Luc Lac). This is tender, peppered beef chunks sauteed with onions, garlic, chili, and sometimes (though not at Pho Grand) pineapple. The mess is served with rice, cilantro, julienned carrots, and the standard tableside garnishes. Graham raved about it, and I believe he also said "Dude, even the rice is good." Luckily, I have a very generous boyfriend who doesn't mind if I nick a piece (or four) of beef off his plate. Luckily, he's got a girlfriend who's enthusiastic about letting him try some pho.

Dessert isn't a very big deal in Vietnamese cuisine, at least not in the standard American way of doing it. However, I am who I am, and that is a person who loves sweets. To remedy this, we each ordered an iced coffee.

Vietnamese iced coffee is very different from anything you can order at Starbucks (thank god). For starters, the coffee itself is very strong, French-roast coffee. Pho Grand's menu advertises that theirs is French chicory coffee (chicory is a root with a very bold, bitter taste, and using it in coffee is common in French-colonized places like New Orleans and, well, Vietnam). The coffee comes to your table as a glass topped with a metal strainer. You wait for the coffee to strain into the glass, which already contains a few inches of sweetened, condensed milk. Once the coffee has drained, you mix the two together and fill your glass with ice.

It's dense. It's syrupy. It's strong. It's bitter. It's sweet. It's the most awesome coffee drink you've ever had and will (hopefully) break you of that $5.00 a day Frappucino habit. Pho Grand's iced coffee is some of the best in St. Louis. I highly recommend ordering a glass no matter how full your pho left you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

SHOW - The Next Iron Chef America

I think that modern medicine is all wrong. Fat, salt, dairy, eggs, and all that other goodness isn't what's going to lay me down with a heart attack. It's actually going to be The Next Iron Chef America's fault. Two episodes in and I'm addicted to this show. I bite my nails (what little of them I have left), I pace the room, and I catch myself almost pressing the mute button because I can't stand the suspense anymore. Seriously. It's insane.

My favorite is already Michael Symon, probably because I read Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef and really liked his style. Based on what I know about the other contenders, I was also pulling for Traci des Jardins, who surprised the hell out of me by getting eliminated at the end of the first episode. I knew about Gavin Kaysen from last month's Food and Wine's Best New Chef's issue (his recipe was Greek salad with feta cheese mousse....mmmm, feta). I vaguely knew of John Besh, but that was mostly because of his previous Iron Chef America appearance.

The other contenders -- Chris Cosentino, Jill Davies, Morou, and Aaron Sanchez, I knew nothing about. Of these, Jill Davies is already gone (last night, weird partially-frozen salad the problem). Chris Cosentino seems like a kickass line chef, but kind of an asshole that I really wouldn't want to go drinking with out of fear that he'd call the bartender names and punch someone in the back of the head for no reason. Morou seems like a freaking assassin, and I mean that in the best possible way. He's fast, he's smart, he's sneaky. I think that he's definitely got a shot. Aaron Sanchez hasn't done much besides piss me off. He's frequently caught touching his food after time has been called, and once whined to Alton Brown about not being able to plate his food after the challenge was done. "Are you kidding me? Seriously?" Um, dude, have you ever seen Iron Chef? Either version? You can never plate after time, that's part of the game!

If anyone wants to know how to reach me next Sunday, it's safe to say that I'll be crouched in the corner of my couch, sweating and swearing and trying to remember what cheap action movies The Chairman has been in.

Friday, October 12, 2007

RANT - How Hard Is It To Cook a Hamburger???

And I'll get to that, I will, but first I wanted to say how cool it is that people are commenting. Most have been positive, which is super awesome. One has been cryptic ("Give it a rest," from Anonymous) and one has been critical ("nothing new...used an italian name," from another Anonymous).

I'll deal with the good and the bad, at least I'm being read. But I would also like to remind everyone that I never claimed to be doing or making anything new. Remember, I'm just your average citizen who likes to eat. Most of the people I know are the same way, and I'm not about to spend $40 to cook something fancy at home that people might be afraid to eat (though someday I will take a risk and introduce them to oxtails). But you know, if I can make someone feel more proficient about making some relatively simple pasta, I'm going to. But thanks, Anonymous, for saying you might come back. Welcome in the first place.

On with the show....

It's a Rant because I'm fairly poor right now, at least until my paycheck next week. This issue has been on my mind, anyway, and I really want to know WHY so many restaurants in St. Louis find it impossible to cook a hamburger to order.

Maybe my upbringing screwed me. I was raised in a family of enthusiastic cooks, eaters, and carnivores, so cooking something medium rare to medium was never a mystery. When it came to meat, pink tasted better. Blood meant flavor. Bring on the gore. Unfortunately, 8 out of the 10 times (mostly a guess, I'm really bad at math) I just want a hamburger in a St. Louis establishment and order it medium, I get well done. If I'd wanted gray I would have asked for it, wouldn't I?

This happens everywhere, even the restaurants who are supposed to know what they're doing when it comes to burgers. O'Connell's, Blueberry Hill, McGurk's, Affton Cafe, et al. In fact, the only place that hasn't let me down is Fast Eddie's, but I'm a Southsider and those drunk Sundays with cheap eats don't happen often.

I'd understand the "oversight" if I ordered a burger in a finer place and the cooks wanted to punish me, but jeezus peezus, we're talking pub atmospheres here. The Eater cannot live on french fries and beer alone, no matter how much she would like to.

If anyone knows of a place that honors the tradition of simple, slightly bloody ground beef, let me know. I'll even be happy to drive awhile to get there.

And in case anyone's interested, here's a brief shot from the PETA (people eating tasty animals) party I attended this past weekend. The list of food I had consists of deer stew, red beans and rice with turkey neck bones in the mix, meatballs in simple marinara, crawfish etoufee, bison sausage, and elk burger (cooked perfectly!). Like a champ, yo.

Monday, October 8, 2007

NEWS - St. Louis Magazine Restaurant Issue

Beyond the RFT and Sauce, I'm not normally a fan of local publications. They seem like excuses for rich people in St. Louis to pretend they're just as fancy as rich people in other cities and take pictures of themselves wearing all those sparkly clothes. I'm not a class warrior, but that's my reason and I'm sticking to it.

A recent exception was the latest issue of St. Louis Magazine, named The Restaurant Issue. After I skimmed past the "society pages" (if that's what you can call them in this town), I got to check out the Almost Perfect Best New Restaurants (clever title), osmosize How To Be a Critic (to be helpful, especially for the Anonymous commenter who simply wrote "give it a rest"), and read an article about super-smart restaurateur Larry Levy.

Bonus points for Matthew Halverson, whose article "Hot Plates" admits that while there may be a Latin cuisine boom in St. Louis, it's really nothing new for the rest of the country.

This issue makes me feel all tingly inside.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

RECIPE - Gnocchi Pomodoro with Salsicce del Pollo and Roasted Garlic

Blah blah blah, The Hill. While many St. Louisans enjoy the bland and boring far at Cunetto's seemingly out of habit, I'll reserve The Hill for delis and make my pasta at home. Here's what I used to make some pasta this weekend....

Clockwise from left to right, you're looking at gnocchi, tomato-basil marinara, a merlot-malbec blend, kosher salt, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, chicken sausage, and garlic.

Instead of something typical like spaghetti bolognese (that's spaghetti with meat sauce, by the way), I felt like making some Gnocchi Pomodoro with Salsicce del Pollo and Roasted Garlic (and that's gnocchi with tomato-basil marinara, chicken sausage, and, well, roasted garlic).

Let's start with the sauce.

I'd like to take this opportunity to defend sauce-in-a-jar. First of all, I hate large pieces of tomato. Second, I'm not spending $10.00 on fresh herbs. Lastly, I'm not an Italian grandmother who has all day to spend on Simmer. Thus, Trader Joe's Tomato Basil sauce is about to get an upgrade.


Roasted garlic has a great, mellow flavor that works well in the background of an acidic tomato sauce. Personally, I feel that you can never have enough garlic and rarely enough olive oil, so this steps includes plenty of both.

First, preheat your oven to 325.

Take two or three cloves of garlic and peel them. I do this with a blunt object (actually an empty sake bottle). Placing the garlic on the board and thunking it once will break the hard base, which makes the skin crack easily.

Once garlic is peeled, trim the ends and smash the cloves. Smashing is quicker than dicing, plus I get to play with my chef's knife (NEVER a garlic press, which is a tool of the unholy and robs garlic of flavor and aroma). To do this, place cloves on a board and position the flat side of your knife blade over them. Then, press down firmly on the other side of the blade with your hand like you're stamping a paper. See?

Next, make a small foil packet and cover the bottom with a thin layer of olive oil. Place the smashed garlic inside and keep packet in the oven until the garlic is golden brown and mushy. (Do NOT burn garlic - nasty, nasty, nasty!)


Ina medium saucepan, heat about 1/6 or 1/4 of an inch of olive oil. Keep the burner on Low, because olive oil has a low smoke point. You don't want it to start burning off before you get anything in there.

While the oil heats, prep the sausage. Trader Joe's carries an awesome chicken sausage with spinach and fontina that I could eat hourly if I was allowed. In order to use them in sauce, you first have to remove the casing. With a paring or sharp steak knife, cut a slit lengthwise along the side of the sausage. Pull the casing apart and remove the meat.

Now that it's all loose and crumbly, break up the sausage into pieces. Drop the pieces into your oiled saucepan like in the blurry picture below.

Your heat should be a Medium Low now, and your garlic should be roasted. Add the garlic to the sausage and stir to coat everything in olive oil.

When the sausage is partially browned, add your handy sauce-in-a-jar. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Stir every so often to distribute fat and deliciousness.


To cook pasta, first you've got to boil some water. Easy, right? You'd think. When you're boiling water for food (as opposed to for sanitation, but I don't live in India...or Festus), there are two things to remember.

  • Thing 1 - Keep a strong boil. This means that when your food goes in, the water keeps boiling. If it doesn't, this is called "losing the boil." Losing the boil throws off your cooking times and means you're an inattentive bastard.
  • Thing 2 - Water needs flavor. Unfortunately, most people are guilty of underseasoning their pasta water. Whaaa? Yes, season your water. With salt.

Salt is a big deal. Wars have been fought over it (Solaria, Rosettia, Rome, France, Germany, Spain, even Texas). People don't realize the importance of seasoning in the history of armed conflict. Instead of fighting for the right to drive big-ass SUVs all over the planet, people used to fight for flavor. Saffron (Saffron War, 1374), nutmeg and cloves (Indonesia, 1600's), cinnamon (Java, 1825), and chocolate (Cortes' invasion of Mexico, 1518) sure beat the hell out of gasoline.

Now, Thomas Keller says that boiling water should taste like the Atlantic Ocean. Well, I've tasted the Atlantic Ocean, and not only is it gross, but my house isn't the French Laundry. (Forgive me, Thomas, for I have sinned.) For me, a small palmful of salt is enough.

When I'm cooking pasta, I also like to add a little olive oil to the water. It prevents the pasta from sticking and imparts a little flavor.


Gnocchi is a potato-flour dumpling pasta that looks like tiny loaves of bread. It's chewy, doughy, and fantastic about absorbing sauce. Be careful not to overcook (3 to 4 minutes, tops), because gnocchi can get gummy fast.

Add gnocchi to your boiling, salted, possibly oiled (according to your preference) water. Step back and admire your culinary prowess.


It's been 3 to 4 minutes tops, and your gnocchi's done. Take the pot off the burner and dump into a strainer. Toss the gnocchi a few times to remove excess water. Plate immediately (cold gnocchi gets gummy, too).

Cover gnocchi with your salsicce del pollo and roasted garlic pomodoro.

Cover THAT with shaved or grated Parmesano-Reggiano. I prefer the pre-deconstructed kind, but that's because I'm a klutz who doesn't trust her fingers near a grater. If you're less of a spaz, feel free to get a wedge and grate it yourself. (But for the love of god, do not ruin everything with Parmesan-in-a-can.)

Look at what you've done. Thank you, thank you.