Category Archives: Edibles

Hot Pepper Kit Kat

Exciting culinary news! My friend Elaine gave me a Japanese hot-pepper-flavored Kit Kat bar.

Hot pepper Kit Kat


The chocolate is slightly darker and subtler than an American Kit Kat, so around the classic wafer crunch you get a bit less of an aggressive sugary kick.

There is hot pepper in here – probably cayenne. It appears halfway through your bite and leaves a pleasant afterburn when you swallow. Not too spicy, not as bad as, say, American “cinnamon” hard candies. All in all, very pleasant. Tasty! I would absolutely eat hot pepper Kit Kat bars again.

Elaine informs me that Amazon stocks a variety 18-pack of mini Kit Kats for $30. You also get wasabi, rum raisin, purple potato, and “pumkin pudding”, among other flavors. If you want, you can also get 12-packs of the hot pepper, wasabi, purple potato, and other flavors. (Purple potato is only available in the southernmost regions of Japan: “Okinawa and Kyushu Area Limited Flavor”. Cool.)

Elaine also pointed me to a website where you can get a crate of wacky Japanese candies delivered to your door for $12 per month. Every month you get a “mystery box” that might include lychee gummies, “chocolate mushrooms,” little koala-shaped crackers with chocolate filling, or let’s be honest, it could be anything.

Of course, as my friends and coworkers well know, my favorite Japanese candy is Every Burger, the little chocolate cookies lovingly shaped to look like cheeseburgers.

Every Burger

Complete with fake sesame seeds.

Oh, Japan, how are you skinny?

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Adventures in Wedding Catering

On September 27, I got to attend the wedding of my friend-for-life, Michelle. In fact, she invited me to be “man of honor” – and her groom, Todd, had a best woman. It looked to be a wonderful wedding. Besides the loving, in-tune couple, there was the lakeside ceremony, the tiny guest list, the casual atmosphere, the well-written original vows, and (let’s be honest here) the organizers’ impeccable taste in booze. Everything was kept in the metaphorical family: Todd’s best woman would bake the cake, I would bring the rings to the ceremony, Michelle’s father got assigned decorating duty, Todd’s family knew somebody who knew the officiant, and both bride and groom were good friends with the professional caterer who agreed to supply nibbles.

Until the caterer canceled a week before the wedding.

People have told me it was nice to step in and bring food. That’s flattering, but I don’t know. I never realized that other options existed. I simply thought, “Huh, now I’m catering,” and texted our mutual friend-for-life, Rory, to ask him if he would help. Yes, of course: off we went.

To be sure, our attempt would not be that heroic. For one thing, I recklessly decided not to tell anybody other than Rory, and make the whole thing a surprise. For another thing, there was going to be some food already. Scardello, Dallas’s foremost cheese shop, was providing two big cheese platters with prosciutto, salami, nuts, and figs, and of course there would be wedding cake.

Based on my questions to Michelle (it really helps you plan a surprise if you have a reputation for asking a lot of questions), she had hoped for bruschetta and a few other simple dip-type appetizers. Nothing complicated and no full fancy meals. With a little help from Michelle’s own online directory of recipes idea (thanks, Pinterest!), Rory and I settled on four items:

  • traditional bruschetta topping (tomato, basil, and balsamic)
  • another topping featuring artichoke and parmesan (recipe considerably modified from an original in Southern Living)
  • a dip of white beans, Hatch green chiles, cumin, and garlic
  • oil-brushed, salted, and toasted baguette slices for the three dips

This is probably the most I have ever cooked without using onions. (Well, okay. I used green onions for garnish.)

The bean dip could not have been simpler. Step one: put your beans, chiles, and spices in a bowl. Step two: put them in the blender. Step three: garnish and eat.

Bean dip recipe

Pictured: Step 1 (left); Step 3 (right)

The traditional bruschetta was simple, too, but not easy. For one thing, Rory had to slice about 20 Campari tomatoes (aka “the flavorful kind of tomatoes”). For another, the tomatoes released moisture over time, so that the texture in the bowl started as “bruschetta,” by reception time was “stew,” and today is “lake.” Not that it is really a problem. I mean, lake water was never this delicious.


Mildly terrifying sight for anybody who doesn’t love prep work. Who loves prep work? By the way, paid celebrity endorsement for Global chef knives, although you should use a serrated edge for tomatoes.

Consensus scene-stealer, though: the artichoke dip. No, you don’t need spinach and a hot broiler to make artichoke appetizer magic. Here was the recipe I used (notice that this produces approx. 1 wedding reception’s worth of dip):

What You Need
– 2 jars marinated artichoke hearts
– a standard bottle of grated Parmesan
– two or three Hatch green chiles (or another pepper, like chipotle or poblano)
– a jar of mayonnaise

What You Do
1. Finely chop up the artichoke hearts and chiles. Throw them in a 9×13″ baking pan.
2. Add the whole bottle of Parmesan to the pan (it’s okay to do less, depending on your preferred flavor balance)
3. Mix in 1.5 to 2 cups mayo
4. Bake at 400 (F) for about 5-6 minutes. You’re not looking for it to change color, just to get it hot for a bit. It can be served cold just fine. Give it another good stir.
5. Eat.

This could be eaten with bread, crackers, or by itself on a spoon. To quote my own first reaction to the taste-test: “This is the savory version of chocolate frosting.” Rory adds that it might be great served hot on chicken breasts or pork.

artichoke dip

I like green onions, okay?!?!

The No-Longer-Super-Secret Trick to Killer Artichoke Dip!
Lemonaise. The Ojai Cook’s Lemonaise is a miracle ingredient, the kind of thing you should put alongside shallots, fish sauce, lime juice, capers, and cumin on your Secret Ingredient Shelf. Instead of high fructose corn syrup and the approx. 15 weird chemicals listed in Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Lemonaise is spiked with an acid kick of lemon, a drop of garlic, and a healthy swirl of mustard. You can see the mustard seeds. Sometimes I eat Lemonaise with a spoon. It is the best mayo outside of Belgium, a total delight, and available at Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other fine stores. Seriously, for this endorsement these people should pay me. In jars of mayonnaise.

Uh, did I mention I don’t like mayonnaise? This stuff is the bomb.

Look for this. You know you want to.

Anyway, Back to the Wedding

The day couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather was perfect: a sunny Texas day, without the excess heat. The food prep went without a hitch, which is weirdly fortunate. At lunchtime Rory and I saw Michelle, who was utterly calm. “I feel great,” she said. “I’m not worried about anything anymore and I haven’t felt cold feet once.” She asked what we were planning to do before the ceremony. We said, “Drinking!” She believed us without question, which is a little insulting. But we do keep our promises, so we took care of an excellent South African shiraz during the three-hour cooking process.

The shores of White Rock Lake were a beautiful venue site. Casual, too: runners and bikers kept stopping with congratulations, and some of them zipped through the photos. I believe the photos were great anyway, since there were such wonderful people in them. The ceremony was short and achingly sweet, and in case you’re wondering, the ring looks like this:

Michelle's ring

Not too shabby

The reception was a rousing success. Having only 25 people means that everyone actually meets everyone else–and that the happy couple get to sit down and eat something. They didn’t need to spend two hours working the crowd or shaking hands. The cheeses disappeared instantly, I never saw a trace of the prosciutto, and then people started devouring the bruschetta. And there was cake: Jean Marie, Todd’s best woman, had baked the cake the night before, put it on the cake stand, and then watched in horror as it fell to the floor. So she stayed up until 3:30 a.m. baking a second one.

Somehow I got stuck with the chore, “take home leftovers.” The top layer of cake was whisked off by the groom’s family for safekeeping, but the rest of the cake was charmlessly mashed onto a platter and handed to me, along with about half the bean dip and just under half of the two bruschetta styles. So at this point I’ve enjoyed three slices of Jean Marie’s early A.M. handiwork. Please, if you live in Dallas, come eat some of this cake. You seriously have no idea how much cake I have.

A great time was had by all. Plates quickly filled and emptied. The bride sat down with Rory and me and said, “Everything’s going well. I don’t know where all this food came from.” Rory said, “We do.” Delicious cake with preposterously great frosting was served. Todd gave every guest a bottle of his home-brewed lager. (It’s good.) The reception was over in a rushed 75 minutes, too short, but older family members had to get home and the glowing couple had to go off honeymooning. A hardcore group of celebrants moved to a bar to celebrate our mutual joy with beers.

“Is anyone going to order food?” the waitress asked.

Guiltily, Jean Marie confessed: “I’m starving.”

So the father of the bride bought everybody hamburgers.


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Who Needs French Chefs?

It’s the hot new trend in Paris, taking the town by storm: French food made by foreigners.

What? What? The country that protects its language against invading words; the country that protects the names of wines and cheeses against foreign imitators; the country that snootily looks down on everyone else’s pitiful attempts to exist–France is going crazy over French food, made by pretenders??

Yup! Case in point: Frenchie, Paris’s hottest table, a restaurant I had no chance in hell of getting into. The head chef is Gregory Marchand, a Frenchman who grew up in an orphanage in Nantes. And then he apprenticed with great chefs in the following French food hotspots: London, Hong Kong, a tapas bar on a beach in Spain, another spot in Spain, London again, New York City.

But that’s not enough. After all, Marchand was still born in Nantes. So on one of my days in Paris, I spent my time tracking down the best local food–that’s not made by locals.

Let’s start with breakfast:

This one's got apple filling.

This one’s got apple filling.

Apricot tart!

Apricot tart!

Procured from the patisserie right across the street from the apartment where my friends Catherine and Mike lived–a bakery named Mori Yoshida, after the Japanese genius who runs it. The shop itself is so spare, so economical, that it makes an IKEA look like a baroque cathedral. All the pastries rest on two shelves, hanging from the ceiling by chains; in the corner there’s a cash register, computer, and a case with macarons. That’s it.

Mori Yoshida’s apple pastry is delicious, highlighted by a crispy, crack-it-with-your-teeth outside texture that’s just oh so exciting to bite into. But the best thing there is the vanilla bean macaron. In a city awash with macarons, not all of them great, this one stands out: it’s a flood of creamy vanilla flavor, the real stuff, brewed with booze. It’s the kind of sweet treat that overwhelms your taste buds.

A few miles away, in the Left Bank neighborhood of St. Germain, is a small empire of eateries run by Cuban-American Juan Sanchez and New Zealander Drew Harré. There’s a bar, a sandwich shop, a modern-style bistro, and a wine store, La Dernière Goutte (The Last Drop). I stopped at the wine store and grabbed a few bottles, receiving expert advice from the clerk, who was, as you’re no doubt expecting, Australian. (My criteria for the wine: good, fairly affordable, and totally unavailable anywhere in the United States.)

Then it was on to the Cuban-American-Kiwi bistro, Semilla. It’s a delicious place with a set menu that offers you a trio of appetizers (you get all of them) and then your choice of main course. Two things distinguish Semilla from the typical French bistro. The first is its humor:

Great wine list, or greatest wine list?

Great wine list, or greatest wine list? You can click all these photos to expand.

The second is a focus on green vegetables. This is a little surprising, right? But Paris is all about potatoes. At Bistrot Paul Bert, one of the essential old bistros (and rather annoyed by us foreign intruders), I had a great starter bowl of green beans (topped with foie gras), but the main came with a side of potatoes. At Jeanne B., an exceptional lunch was accompanied by exceptional potatoes au gratin. In America we have a tradition of steak with mashed potatoes; in France the potatoes are fried. And in the German-influenced Alsace province, east of Paris, the potato is an even more persistent friend.

Semilla is probably the only French restaurant I visited where potatoes were not on the day’s menu. My order of fresh fish was presented like this:

No, I don't know what some of those green things even are. Marjorie???

No, I don’t know what some of those green things even are. Marjorie???

Leave it to a Cuban-American and a New Zealander to free Paris from the shackles of the potato.

If you’re visiting Paris and want to partake in this trend, there are more places to go, places that I missed. If you’re hankering for local food in Belleville, you might stop by La Baratin, run by Argentine chef Raquel Carena. One of the trendiest places in town is Le Timbre, a tiny room near the Jardin du Luxembourg, run by a guy named Chris Wright who hails from Manchester, England.

Hey, you’re in Paris. Who needs a French chef?

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Farm-Fresh Food Fest

This week my friend Michelle and I started a trial membership in a CSA. No, we didn’t become rebel soldiers or Hollywood casting directors; CSA is short for community-supported agriculture. Basically, you cut a check to an independent local farm and every other week (or, if you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, every week) they deliver you a box of that week’s freshest produce. We signed up with Johnson’s Backyard Garden, which I think is misleadingly named, because their backyard garden is big enough to deliver fresh goods to Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.

And also, you get a lot of stuff. Specifically:

CSA delivery

Michelle took this picture; I took all the rest. Click any photo to expand.

Four cucumbers; one giant scary cucumber that was fuzzy and hairy; amaranth; kale; mint; five Hungarian wax peppers; five jalapeño peppers; four sweet purple peppers; two zucchini; four squash; a whole bag of okra; a giant spaghetti squash; a dozen small potatoes; four shallot-like onions; four eggplant; and orange and purple carrots.

This was the part where we thought: crap. What are we supposed to do with all this food?!?!

So Saturday we got together at 1 p.m., hit two groceries, and began prep work at 3 p.m. We finished cooking around 10:30 p.m.


The Cooking Adventure

Here’s what we did!


Well first of all, a LOT of prep work.

Have you ever wondered, like since seeing it in the first picture, what the inside of a purple carrot looks like? Here’s the answer:


Weird; the answer is weird.

Our first trick: we recognized that the mint leaves were going to be hard to get rid of, so we used some of it, along with a whole lot of lemon zest, to broil up some lemon-cumin-mint chicken. Surprisingly tasty, I’ll have you know, partly because the ingredients were used in just the right amounts, so the flavor is actually rather subtle and a little tangy, not overpowering.

Next, Michelle took care of the sweet peppers along with a bunch of basil from Central Market in a batch of basil pesto.


The basil pesto was going to serve as dressing for some ravioli we made using the squash and a shallot, along with a bit of crabmeat. The ravioli turned out to be a pain–not necessarily to form, which Michelle found relatively simple, but to keep from (a) falling apart in the pot, and (b) sticking together into one giant blob of noodle on the plate afterward.


Michelle does hand modeling on the side.

Meanwhile, I was forming pork meatballs, along with the jalapeño peppers and onions, plus other goodies: an egg, parsley, breadcrumbs. They turned out to be really freaking tasty, especially when dipped in a tzatziki dip we made with yogurt and one of the cucumbers.


Mmm, meat.

Also going on: along with some store-bought stew beef and tomatoes, we killed off the entire consignment of okra and Hungarian wax peppers in a gigantic pot of stew. Most of the carrots and half of the potatoes went into the stew, too. The pot of stew ended up making probably about 10 meals’ worth of food, although the Hungarian peppers turned out to be far less spicy than advertised, so we had to kick in a whole ton of salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne. This defines thick and hearty.


Put in some beef, potatoes, tomatoes, orange carrots, purple carrots, hot peppers, onions, beef broth, a couple pounds of okra, spices… baby, you got a stew goin’.

Meanwhile, I grated the zucchini, squash, and a couple of red potatoes into a great big Neapolitan tricolor pile of veggie goodness.


There’s actually much more zucchini under the mound; the pile’s only about 15% potato.

I was making an oddball variation on a Turkish classic: mücver, or zucchini fritters. Oddball because I forgot to include one of the central ingredients, feta cheese. (It was 9:30 p.m. Can you blame me?) On the other hand, because we had them on hand, the fritters included both red and green onions. And they came out golden-crispy and utterly delicious.

At some point I looked up and Michelle had carved out the spaghetti squash and mixed it up with some mushrooms and dressing for a veggie side dish. (Johnson’s Backyard Garden strenuously denies growing spaghetti squash and claims this is some other variety, but…nope.)


Remains of the Squash

Oh, remember that feta cheese I tragically forgot to use in the zucchini fritters? That will serve as part of the garnish for the eggplant, which got sliced and broiled and paired with a shallot vinaigrette.

Head spinning yet? Trust me, mine was. Seven hours of nonstop home cooking was enough to convince me that I could never work in a restaurant. Michelle felt similarly. Our only break between 3 and 10 was when a dead spot in the cooking allowed us time to go and build two IKEA nightstands. At the end of the night, Michelle quickly cooked up the kale and amaranth so it would keep in the fridge longer, but before we collapsed in exhaustion, there was one more thing left to deal with.

The rest of that huge bunch of rapidly-dying mint.

Now, at some point, the plan for the pork-pepper meatballs had been to make them lamb meatballs with mint, but I strongly oppose the prevailing societal view that lamb needs mint flavoring. Also, lamb is expensive. So there was only one option left to us.

We reconvened Sunday and made our own Oreo cookies.


Form the chocolatey dough; use a cookie cutter to make it into small circles; bake for 12 minutes until roughly Oreo-textured; turn upside-down; drizzle half with a combination of mint, heavy cream, and white chocolate. Set the other half on top.

We’ll be honest: these tasted kinda weird. The dough has a bit of saltiness and the filling is runny. But hey, they’re not bad as a chocolate delivery device.


Left over from the CSA produce haul: a couple shallots, a few small potatoes, a couple cucumbers Michelle will slice and drop into her water pitchers; and the gigantic, hairy, terrifying cucumber we’re very literally afraid to touch.

Now in my possession: by my count, 12 main course portions and 6 veggie sides. I plan on freezing the stew for use in the future and chowing down on meatballs, ravioli, lemon chicken, eggplant, and zucchini fritters for basically this entire week. Michelle got just as much food out of this (slightly more; she kept the kale and amaranth, since I already have some spinach in my fridge). I don’t expect to go to a grocery store for 10 days.

In our day of cooking, we used up two-and-a-half heads of garlic.

Here’s some advice for anyone looking to join a CSA:
1. Plan out multiple full menus to use all the ingredients you’re going to get.
2. Try to get your delivery close to the weekend so the produce will mostly still be fresh when you have time to cook the insane amount of produce you’ll be getting.
3. Be willing to say things like “I really want to try making X, but I guess that will have to wait until we get through this CSA box.”
4. Take risks. If you’re not comfortable saying “hey, lemon-cumin-mint chicken could be good,” you might have a hard time.
5. Be really, really hungry.


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Operation Bacon Makin’

Whew! It’s been nine months since I last posted on this blog, but a lot has changed in the interim: I now live in Dallas, for one thing, at a new job in a new home with a new car (after a careless driver pulled in front of my last one). But today I’m going to talk about a very different, but equally essential, part of becoming an independent young man in today’s society.

Knowing how to make your own bacon.

Operation Bacon Makin’ was a long time coming. The process of buying and curing the proper cut of meat, slow-roasting, and getting it ready to serve requires some prep work.

The first step was realizing that making my own bacon from scratch was not just possible, but desirable. For that (and for the instructions used) I owe Michael Ruhlman, whose book Ruhlman’s Twenty explains: “Making your own bacon is as easy as marinating a steak. When you do, you’ll find out what true bacon is all about, as opposed to the brine-pumped, water-logged versions available at the supermarket.” Now who could resist a description like that? Answer: not me.

Step two was procuring the necessities. Don’t just run out and find a slab of pork. First you’re going to need an extremely large Ziploc/Hefty bag: 2.5 gallons at least. More difficult to procure is sodium nitrite (not nitrate), a powdery salt which acts as an antimicrobial agent. Notice I didn’t say you need sodium nitrite, but you will want it, because it also provides bacon with its color. Think about it: pork chops aren’t bright red, so why is bacon? Because sodium nitrite is pink.

To acquire sodium nitrite, look online. From Butcher & Packer I got basically a lifetime supply for $10 ($2.50 plus a hefty shipping charge).

Now, following Ruhlman, find a grocery store that sells pork belly. This wasn’t easy: I was turned away at Kroger and Whole Foods, and one Hispanic butcher counter guy thought I was asking for stomach. At last I found my quarry for just over $3/lb. at Central Market. I bought five pounds.

Future bacon!

I discarded the slice on the left. Fat makes bacon fun, but this section was literally nothing but fat.

I now had everything required for Bacon Makin’:

Pork belly, crushed garlic cloves, salt, brown sugar, three kinds of pepper (black, red, cayenne), and bay leaves.

Pork belly, crushed garlic cloves, salt, brown sugar, three kinds of pepper (black, red, cayenne), sodium nitrite, and bay leaves. (click to expand)

I combined the various ingredients more or less the same way you would marinate a steak, threw the pork belly into a gigantic Hefty bag, and stored it in the fridge for a week.

The hardest part begins: waiting a week before you can have bacon.

The hardest part begins: waiting a week before you can have bacon.

During this time, I turned the bag and slosh the seasonings around a bit so that one part doesn’t taste way more garlicky (or whatever) than the rest. My pork belly created mad amounts of condensation on the fridge shelf, so my future bacon lived fairly consistently in a puddle. And lo, on the seventh day, it was time to slow-roast the bacon in the oven. The wire rack I have for my baking sheet was small enough I had to further cut the pork belly into smaller pieces, but here’s what slow-roasting does:

Slow-roasting, before and after. Afterwards, a tip: find a corner, tear off bits, and eat them shamelessly.

Slow-roasting, before and after. Afterwards, a tip: find a corner, tear off bits, and eat them shamelessly.

Now the pork belly is ready to wrap up and store in the freezer, or slice up and throw in the frying pan! Since this is 5 lbs. of bacon, I recommend not eating it all at once. I have about three-quarters of my supply in the freezer. With the rest, it’s time to enjoy the delicious results. Homemade bacon really is different: its flavor is fuller, richer, but also subtler, so you’re not so much clubbed over the head with baconness as seduced by it. Using Ruhlman’s rub, there’s a nice hint of pepper and spice without it being excessive or aggressive (the cayenne was my idea). Plus, you can slice each piece to the thickness you want.

And all of a sudden that ordinary turkey sandwich is a turkey club. I’ve also thrown bacon into pasta and served a few strips plain with breakfast.

Left: bacon. Right: bacon. Background: thing that doesn't have bacon.

Left: bacon. Right: bacon. Background: no bacon.

Here’s an abridged version of Michael Ruhlman’s recipe (the book contains much, much more, including more photos of the process and a honey mustard cure which yields a sweeter result):

Bacon at Home

3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon sodium nitrite (optional)
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
4 bay leaves, crumbled into little bits
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes [I also added cayenne]
5 pound slab of pork belly

In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the cure. Place the pork belly and cure in a large resealable plastic bag, about 2.5 gallons, or in a nonreactive container of the same capacity. Seal the bag or cover the container and refrigerate for 7 days, occasionally rubbing the meat to redistribute the seasonings and turning the bag or the belly every other day.

Remove the meat from the cure, rinse well [remove all bay leaves!], and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the cure. The belly can be refrigerated in a fresh plastic bag for several days if you are not yet ready to cook it.

If roasting the pork, preheat oven to 200F/95C. Place the meat on a rack on a baking sheet/tray. Roast until the internal temperature reaches 150F/65C, about 2 hours. Begin checking the temperature after 1 hour.

If smoking the pork, smoke the belly with the wood of your choice at 200F/95C, until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 150F/65C.

Let the bacon cool to room temperature. Wrap it well in plastic wrap/cling film and refrigerate until chilled. The bacon can be refrigerated for 2 weeks or wrapped and frozen for up to 3 months.

When you’re ready to eat, you know what to do.


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London Food Haunt No 1: Casa Nostra Cafe

Our top-10 countdown arrived at my single favorite place to eat in London: the Casa Nostra Cafe. I’m a little daunted by having to describe the Casa Nostra, so let’s begin with a few statistics.

Yelp reviews: 0
Google Places reviews: 0
AllinLondon reviews: 0
Visit London reviews: 0
Trip Advisor reviews: no listing

It would probably therefore be advisable to provide a map so that you guys can actually find it.

6 Hastings Street. Why yes, my fellow scholars, that pinpoint is just three tiny blocks away from the British Library!

Obviously it is rather remarkable to find a cafe in London which nobody has ever reviewed online and which only three or four people, according to Google and Flickr, have ever photographed. And yet find it my friend Ned and I did, one cool day last October when we needed a quick lunch before popping back to the British Library. I’ve since gone back–what–thirty times? More?

The Casa Nostra Cafe recently brought on a big, jolly Polish lady to assist at lunchtimes. Until then, and even now outside of peak hours, the staff consists of two grandfatherly men named Mario. If you suggest that this is confusing, chef Mario will say, with accompanying illustrative hand gestures,  “No, no! Small Mario, Big Mario.”

Small Mario is the chef, his hair graying, his face set in a perpetual smile behind Geppetto glasses, with a pack of cigarettes somewhere in reach (for use outside) and the poofy white hat which denotes his profession and matches his white apron. Big Mario is the waiter, also in glasses but clad all in black as if to heighten the contrast between their sizes and indeed their personalities: he’s the contemplative one, the one who reveals himself by degrees with each successive visit.

Except for breakfasts, English cafe foods are almost all pre-made. Hundreds of chain shops sell BLTs in little paper boxes. Charlotte Street’s otherwise excellent Italia Uno, which makes sandwiches large enough to club a small animal with, has its pasta set out on the counter in unappealing tubs. None of this is done at the Casa Nostra Cafe. If you walk in the door, engage in a brief staring-contest with the board listing today’s pasta specials, and ask for something like the amatriciana (penne, ham, onions and spices in a tomato sauce), spaghetti polpettine (which is what Italians actually call “spaghetti with meatballs”), or the rarely-offered but earth-moving puttanesca (capers, olives, anchovies, and a whole lot of garlic and chili pepper), then Mario will bring you a glass of water and some silverware while Mario starts cooking your meal from scratch.

Pasta puttanesca, a hungerer's best friend.

Important caution: this is pasta as real Italians make it, without any of the bonus Olive Garden trappings. Yes, Mario comes around with parmesan, but if you order “pesto pasta,” you won’t get a basil pesto white wine cream sauce with pine nuts, onions, and a sprig of parsley. You’ll get noodles with pesto on them. If you order “spaghetti bolognese” or “spaghetti polpettine,” there will be some tomato sauce, to be sure, but not the inch-thick layer of gloopy rich vegetable chunks you get in cans.

Pictured: Thing That Would Annoy an Italian Chef

Mario and Mario will also be happy to serve you up a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad, or–from opening at 6 a.m. to the cafe’s ill-defined closing hour somewhere around 2 p.m.–a full English breakfast. Now, the full English breakfast is a sacred art in England, as you can imagine, although, like barbecue in the States, there are regionalisms: in Yorkshire, for example, they fry everything and serve you blood sausage.

The Full English at Casa Nostra is the best I have ever had:

Front row: toast, beans, sausage, fried egg, tomato, bacon. Back row: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (in English and Greek on facing pages), cup of tea. Please note that the cup of tea is included in the price, but Marcus Aurelius isn't ( on).

Now, the food at Casa Nostra is by no means the best food I had in London. Even the puttanesca may not crack my top five London dishes. No, the Casa Nostra takes the top spot because it is an experience.

When you read as much travel literature as I do, about intrepid westerners accidentally bumbling into The Perfect Local Place that nobody from out of town knows about, where everyone orders “the usual” and the food is perfect and the atmosphere inimitable, you start to feel cheated, like that place can’t really exist. There can’t be a secret kept so well it avoids the fate of Anthony Bourdain, a camera crew, and overnight fame. Indeed, on the Rome episode of his show Anthony Bourdain deliberately refrains from naming a restaurant because he doesn’t want to ruin its perfection.

Mario and Mario told me to tell my friends about them. Still–over the course of the year, more and more with each visit, a little voice in the back of my mind said, this is that place. This is the magic of the Local Hole-in-the-Wall. Eating at Casa Nostra you feel like you know a really great secret. The tiny dining room has posters of Italian country scenes and a small plaque with a corny Italian-American joke, in a frame that’s much too big.  The clientele are almost all people who live on the same block and they greet Mario and Mario by name. Day in and day out, small Mario hurls friendly insults at the cabbie who sets his taxi on the curb in front and dashes in for a sandwich and chips.

And then there’s big Mario, in black. He’s quieter, straight-faced, possessed of a thoughtfulness so deep it could easily be misread as sadness. Mario is fascinated by the madness of the English language, and cracks puns which, rather than drawing groans, reveal some sort of fundamental and even slightly embarrassing absurdity. He adds a dash of parmesan to your friend’s meal, turns, and says, “Some parmesan for you?” You say, “Yes please!” He finishes: “…or for your pasta?”

To get big Mario talking, bring a book. Any book will do. Mario loves books; he once told me he has two thousand of them at home, and that they are his “pride and joy.” He’s especially interested in (if I’m remembering this correctly) ancient Egyptian architecture and Japanese botany. Each new visit revealed a new facet of Mario’s reading. One day he told me the Latin names and origins of every weed in the pavement in front of the cafe. One of the weeds came from Peru; “a long way to come to live on this street.”

One day Mario set a glass of water in front of me and said, “水のガラス.” I said, “What?” Mario said, “水のガラス.” I looked perplexed and suddenly panicked: what if he was speaking in English and my confusion was an insult to his accent? But no: “It is Japanese for ‘glass of water.'” “Oh!” “Yes. Now you can say ‘glass of water’ in Japanese.” “Thank you.” A humble nod and Mario stepped away.

Then there was the meal, photographed above, in which I was reading an edition of Marcus Aurelius with Greek on the left-hand pages and English on the right. Mario picked up the book, said “Ah! Marcus Aurelius! Are you reading it in the original?” Somewhat sheepishly (since I had a good guess what was about to happen), I admitted to reading the English. He placed his finger in the middle of the Greek page and began to read aloud.

Big Mario mans the counter.

I’m always worried that the Casa Nostra Cafe’s appeal is only clear to me. I’m always worried that I will take people there and they will say, “why on earth do you love this place so much?” It can grow sadly quiet, and it has not been decorated or remodeled in what feels like decades; the lighting leaves everything looking rather yellow. Surely there are other places to get breakfast, and other places to get pasta, if not as good and not made right before you. The Casa Nostra’s charms are unflashy: the cast of regulars, the two Marios and their personalities, chef Mario’s unflagging enthusiasm, the not-infrequent squabbling in Italian, the days when somebody has left a gigantic wheel of cheese on the counter, the banter about plant species and Japanese gardens and seeing Aristophanes performed in the original Greek, the droll wit, the irrefutable authenticity of the whole experience. I suppose my fear has been that it is easy to visit once or twice and never realize that this is the place travelers always dream of finding: the totally unknown local haunt where all the cliches of the Undiscovered Gem can come true.

My fears reached fever pitch when I took my two best friends from America for a breakfast visit to Casa Nostra in February. Would they think me crazy? Would they love it as much as I do? All the worrying was for nothing. When big Mario found out that my friends had traveled all the way from Texas, he was so overjoyed that he started doing magic tricks with the silverware.

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London Food Haunt No 2: Tayyabs

Queuing–that is, standing in line, to you Americans–is a great English art form. If queuing were an Olympic sport, with judging for orderliness, peaceful disposition, lack of cutting, and lack of complaining, the English would win every round every year. And, in my eleven months in London and its environs, I have never seen a queue as perfect as the line to get a table at Tayyabs.

Every night from about 7 p.m. onwards, hungry lovers of Pakistani food wait for their fill of London’s definitive curry and tandoori. At the head of the line is a tall manager with a tie who holds a receipt-tape list of everyone who’s made a booking for the night and furiously crosses out each name with pen when the appointed party arrives, and then makes them wait a few minutes anyway, probably to scare them. The main line files past the door to a private dining room, past three small tables for couples or singles, across the front desk with its phones and business cards, along a wall back into the restaurant past plaques and newspaper clippings attesting to Tayyabs’ nearly 40 years of legendary cooking, past the corner where people who need to use the bathroom politely say “excuse me” and duck across the burgeoning queue, across the face of the sweets counter where an aging man tends to the wares and puts your ordered-up desserts in little paper bags, and then, if the queue is particularly long on this night, out at last into the main dining area, while seated people around you devour food so divine they all look like they’re being kissed for the first time. The longest I have ever stood in line for a table at Tayyabs was 50 minutes.

The service is brutally efficient, totally inhuman, and a miraculous example of hive-mind. Waiters swoop in on your table with crispy papadum crackers and chutneys, communicate almost solely by eye contact, and bring your meal before you’ve even had a chance to want it. I once clocked the turnaround time on a complete table-busing at 30 seconds, including the supplying of fresh place settings. The waitstaff are like a swarm of bees, one of them always appearing out of nowhere to address your slightest need, take your finished meal or pile even more stuff on your table. This is fortunate because Tayyabs have maximized their floor space by cramming tables so close together that customers are effectively unable to move.

My friend Michelle illustrates how to get trapped in the corner by zealous staffers pushing tables together.

So you get the idea: Tayyabs is an institution, on the same block since 1974, with no amount of expansion able to stem the flood of customers. The restaurant roars with life, loud, happy life, and since it doesn’t serve alcohol a little over a third of the life roaring through the restaurant is drinking booze it brought from home (Tayyabs doesn’t charge any “corking” fees either).

And then there’s the food.

Pictured: lamb heaven (foreground), spinach heaven (back left), banana lassi heaven (back right)

Your choices are many, so visit often. The “dry meat,” a favorite of my professors, sounds decidedly unappetizing but isn’t really all that dry; it just doesn’t come in a sauce. The lamb falls apart underneath your fork. Of course, it also does that in the karahi gosht, or lamb curry (above), and also for that matter in the chana gosht, a stew of lamb and chickpeas (bottom of post). Tarka dhal (lentils) come rich with spice–not the spicy kind so much as the mouthwatering-flavor kind–and the spinach dishes draw contented sighs, but the real stars are the meat dishes, expertly grilled to a tenderness the English are otherwise very shy about. The chana gosht, in particular, is like a Bollywood wedding in your mouth: loud, exuberant, festive, brimming with every color in the flavor-palette, something you haven’t quite encountered before but something you know you can’t possibly miss for a second. (Yes, Tayyabs is Pakistani and therefore not of Bollywood. Whatever.)

If it all gets a little too spicy, make sure you have a jug of banana lassi at hand (the mango lassi is the only disappointment I’ve ever encountered here): the rich yoghurty banana drink will keep your tongue alive and your stomach peaceable no matter how spicy an item you order.

Saag allo (I think) (half-finished)

Take your time eating, because as soon as you finish the Tayyabs waitstaff will swoop in, take your plates, and bring you the bill and goodbye chocolates. There’s a queue, after all. But to fight it you may use your secret weapon: the naan. Tayyabs’ naan (just regular will do, you don’t need the garlic kind) strikes a miraculous trapeze balance between sponginess, feather-lightness, and grilled flavor, and there is no shame in abandoning your silverware and scooping your food up with your bread. In fact, the greater shame may lie in not joining naan and dhal in happy marriage.

Yes, yes, you must often wait quite a long time to eat at Tayyabs. Yes, waiters sometimes forget your drink or your rice. Yes, papadums are sometimes free and sometimes not. But this is not a restaurant you complain about, or even review. Tayyabs is like a really good friend: you get used to its quirks while learning to love it. Not that it’s very hard to learn. Not that it’s very hard to sink into your chair after a 50-minute wait, dip into the mango chutney, breathe deeply, and let a look of serenity rise up the lines of your face as you realize the wait has been worth it.

When I started telling people that I was moving to London, back in March 2010, one of the very first replies I got was the (at the time cryptic) remark, “I am jealous of your newfound proximity to Tayyabs.” Back then, of course, I had no idea what the speaker might mean. Now–well, if anyone I know says they’re going to London, I may well reply exactly the same way.

Up close and personal with chana gosht. God I'm going to miss this.

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