• Thailand Travels: Snapshots from the Markets of Isaan

    I’ve spent the past week traveling through Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand, the agricultural heartland of the country. Few tourists make it up this way—Isaan is a long way from Bangkok and the tropical beaches to the west, and there’s little in the way of mainstream attractions in most of the industrial cities and Mekong border towns.

    But the region is a great place to experience a more traditional side of Thai culture—homestays are more common here than hotels—and the food is some of the most complex and intriguing in the whole country.

    The town of Nong Khai, in the northernmost province of Isaan, is best known as a gateway to Laos, which is visible across the Mekong River and accessible via the well-traveled Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Despite its proximity to Laos, the food in Nong Khai is uniquely influenced by the Vietnamese community that settled in the area following the Indochina war in 1950s. The morning market downtown has a huge array of Viet-flavored prepared foods—miniature banh mis, lacy banh xeos and freshly steamed rice flour rolls—mixed in with the bounty of local produce on offer. Here’s a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.*

    * Major thanks to my Thai guide, Tip of Trikaya Tours. Apologies for any transliteration misspellings!

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  • Thailand Travels: A Noodle Dish from Chiang Khan You Need to Know About

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    I’ve spent a good portion of the past week camped out in Chiang Khan, a sweet, sleepy little town in northern Isaan’s Loei province, which borders Laos from across the Mekong River. Chiang Khan is a popular weekend getaway for Thai city-dwellers, famed for its traditional timber houses and the cute trinket-and-food-lined promenade that sets up along the river each night. There’s an abundance of coffeeshops here and plenty of street snacks impaled on sticks (meatballs, dried squid, barbecue chicken) to keep visitors happy.

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    But the real culinary powerhouse of Nong Khai is a diminutive woman named Chi, the namesake proprietor of Chi Kum Man Tong, a small restaurant on a side street that serves several varieties of northern Thailand’s beloved som tum (papaya salad) and a handful of noodle dishes. While noodles aren’t exactly hard to come by in Thailand, Chi makes a dish that’s virtually impossible to find out of Chiang Khan: dong daeng.

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    Essentially Thai spaetzle, dong daeng are thick, short fermented rice flour noodles extruded from a small metal press and boiled to-order. The noodles themselves are a variation of kahnom jeen, a type of fresh, skinny fermented rice noodle you’ll see all over Thailand.

    Chi, a Chaing Khan native, claims to have invented dong daeng—named after the “dancing” motion the noodles make as they cook—some ten years ago, adapting a family recipe that called for bite-sized noodle balls nicknamed “gai muah,” or “chicken heads.” When Chi’s shop started drawing crowds, it took her too long to make the gai muah to order, so she developed the tubular dong daeng instead, which are more efficient to make.

    After the noodles are boiled, they’re tossed, along with a handful of fresh mountain greens, into Isaan’s ubiquitous mortar and pestle and mixed with garlic, chilis, limes, fish sauce and crushed peanuts. The finished product, served room temperature, is a wonderland of flavor and texture: the thick, chewy noodles are offset with crisp-tender greens, and the slight sourness of the noodles dovetails neatly with the tangy juice from the tomatoes and limes.

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    To round out a bigger meal at Chi’s, she borrowed some charcoal grilled meats from the barbecue man who sets up shop across the street in the afternoon: gai yang, chicken pounded flat and painted with a sticky-sweet fish sauce-and-garlic sauce; and miang plaa, a whole Mekong fish stuffed with fresh herbs and coated in coarse salt before cooking.

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    Chi prepared a beautiful selection of accouterments for the fish, including a tray of fresh lettuce and a platter of fresh kahnom jeen and sliced shallots, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. The idea is to systematically eat the entire fish bite-by-bite, in individual lettuce wraps topped with a piece of each sliced accessory. It’s a lot of raw, strong flavors in a small package, but they work together beautifully, proof that even the simplest ingredients can come together as more than the sum of their parts.

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  • Thailand Travels: A Quick Guide to Northern Thai Street Food

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    You don’t see much Northern Thai food on takeout menus in America. Maybe it’s because the flavors of the mountainous, heavily forested region—bitter, spicy, delightfully funky—are harder to translate than the fried noodles and coconut milk curries popular further south.

    Maybe it’s because Northern Thais have a particular fondness for pig offal and blood, sometimes for breakfast. Maybe it’s because the staple of the Northern Thai diet, sticky rice, requires a labor-intensive process of steaming, turning and kneading before it’s ready.

    Portioning out a bushel of sticky rice at Thanin Market in Chiang Mai.

    Whatever the reason, it’s a pity that more people aren’t familiar with Northern Thai food, because it’s some of the most intriguing and satisfying in all of Thailand. Should you have the pleasure of finding yourself in Chiang Mai or its surrounding environs, keep an eye out for these dishes, all available from local markets and street vendors, that capture the taste and spirit of the region.

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  • Laos Travels: A Guide To Laotian Noodle Soups

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    Laotian food isn’t particularly well-known in the States. Many of the flavors are similar to those used in Northern Thai cuisine, but Lao fare tends to be more bitter, more earthy, and less spicy than the food of its neighbors. Still, there’s a lot to love, from the chopped meat salads known as laaps to the hearty meat-and-eggplant stew orlam.

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    Oodles of noodles on display at a market in Vientiene. Dried rice vermicelli at left, and three sizes of of rice-and-tapioca flour khao piak sen noodles, dusted with fresh flour, to the right.

    But the food you’ll encounter most often on the streets—in cities and one-street villages alike—are noodle soups, which are eaten mainly for breakfast and lunch. Noodle soups are their own galaxy here. The variety of noodles alone makes it possible to eat a different kind of noodle soup every day for a week without repeats, and the Lao love of condiments means that every table comes equipped with at least half a dozen different sauces/chilis/vinegars/pickled things to further customize your bowl. Here’s a look at some of the soups to seek out in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane.

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  • Snapshots from Vietnam: A Guide To Hanoi’s Best Street Food

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    Hanoi is a street food paradise. The mazelike alleys of the tourist-heavy Old Quarter and the more traditional Truc Bach lake area are crammed with stalls and makeshift storefronts, all bearing toy-sized plastic stools and advertising what they sell with bold signs out front. Many vendors sell only one or two dishes, and since Vietnamese uses a Roman script, it’s easy to tell what they are, provided you know the some basic street food vocabulary.

    Pleasantly overwhelmed and short on Vietnamese language skills, I turned to Aussie expat Mark Lowerson, aka Sticky in Hanoi, who, along with his partner Tu (aka Vietnamese God), runs street food tours of the city. The tours are very small, very personal, and ideal for intrepid eaters looking to branch out beyond pho and banh mi (no offense, pho and banh mi). I was particularly interested in seeking out regional Hanoi specialties, so Mark cherry-picked a few stops for dishes I didn’t find elsewhere in the country.

    Armed with a clearer culinary understanding and some shiny new food phrases post-tour, I continued eating my way across the streets of Hanoi with a newfound appreciation for what I was actually chewing. Here’s a look at some of the fare that makes Hanoi’s diverse street food scene so delicious.

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  • Snapshots From Thailand: The Markets of Krabi

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    When I went to southern Thailand this winter, it was a reunion of sorts. Years ago, I spent a month in Trang, a small industrial city that few people outside of Thailand (and many within) have ever heard of. I was ostensibly there to teach English, but I spent every spare minute hanging around the staff cook, trying to absorb her secrets through some sort of language-defying osmosis.

    During a school holiday, I went shopping at the morning market with the cook, and I’ve never been so overwhelmed and overjoyed all at once: bushels of futuristic-looking exotic fruit, blood-soaked fishmongers dispatching fresh seafood, and clusters of noodle soup vendors perfuming the whole joint with their spicy bubbling broths.

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    Mmm, offal soup.

    My Trang tenure years ago set the stage for my three-month Southeast Asian adventure this winter, and I intentionally saved Southern Thailand for last. I based myself around Krabi, a low-key town on the Andaman coast that’s popular with tourists as a jumping-off point for several mind-bogglingly beautiful tropical islands offshore. Many visitors give Krabi short shrift, stopping only long enough to drag their backpacks off of a bus and onto a longtail boat, but I camped out in a dingy budget hotel for one reason: markets.

    Krabi’s morning meat/seafood/produce market (aka the “wet market,” named for the water that that keeps live seafood kicking, fresh produce sprightly, and sprays down the cement floors each day) is ginormous, while the two Krabi night markets have a reputation as a street food lover’s paradise.

    Curry!

    Southern Thai food is markedly spicy, even by Thai standards, and many dishes have a distinct sour kick. Due to its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, a Muslim beat runs through the cuisine, too: rich coconut milk curries like Massaman are popular, as is spiced biryani rice and roti flatbreads. Fresh seafood abounds, while pork is virtually absent (it’s kept in a totally separate building at the Krabi wet market); fresh herbs, leaves, and Indian-leaning spices like turmeric make frequent appearances. It’s a lush cuisine—bold and colorful and endlessly complex—seemingly designed to burn itself into your cerebral cortex, both figuratively and literally.

    Thai doughnuts

    Of course, certain street snacks know no regional boundaries: the “processed meats on sticks” phenomenon that seems to have all of Southeast Asia under its spell is in full effect here, complete with Angry Birds-shaped fishcakes on skewers. Orange-hued fried chicken confronted me at every turn, not that I mind meeting fried chicken in a dark alley at night. Fried dough balls have a place in every culture, it seems, and here they take the form of butterfly-shaped crullers, served with cups of sweetened condensed milk and pandan sauce.

    I spent two nights in Krabi, at the tail end of my trip. I’d been on the road, mostly by myself, in a very foreign part of the world for several months in a row. I wandered through the night market as it was gearing up for the crowds; the calm before the storm, with vendors wooing me with samples of cinnamon-laced massaman curry and eggy pad thai. At the morning market, I was the only tourist in sight, and I was rewarded with a breakfast of a singular steamed fish paste curry and a biryani so richly flavored I’m still ashamed for ever thinking rice was boring.

    At the tail end of my fact-gathering mission, I realized that as soon as I thought I had things figured out, something else would inevitably come along to blow my mind (and palate). And really, that’s what I had been looking for all along.

    Here’s a look at ten more market eats from Krabi that I’m still dreaming of today.

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  • Snapshots from the Mediterranean: The 25 Best Things I Ate in Cyprus

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar unless otherwise noted]

    When I told people I was going to Cyprus for Christmas vacation, I got a lot of blank looks. The small Mediterranean island is a popular summertime destination for European tourists and expats (particularly Brits), but few Yankees make it ashore, which is understandable given the time and expense it takes to get there. Still, I wanted to go someplace quiet, beautiful, and very far away from New York, which Cyprus in the off-season offered in spades. It wasn’t until after I’d booked my flight (with a layover in Moscow, of all places) that I got excited for the gastronomic component of the trip.

    Calling Cypriot cuisine a blend of Greek and Turkish oversimplifies things: yes, there are strong influences from both on either side of the island,* but look at a map, and you’ll notice that Cyprus is geographically quite close to the Middle East, whose flavors moonlight in many meals. Then there are the edible cameos from the country’s immigrant communities: a Filipino enclave in the capital, Nicosia/Lefkosia (the Greek/English name), and Eastern Europeans and Caucasians, too.

    *A brief lesson in Cypriot politics: Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided in two: the Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-Cypriot Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. A UN-controlled “Green Line” maintains a buffer zone between the two areas, though residents and visitors are allowed to cross the border with a passport.

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    A typical mezze selection

    All this, combined with the country’s agricultural and coastal riches (think fields of citrus and carob and shores stocked with octopus, sea bream, and bass), and the genuine friendliness of literally every single person I broke bread with make Cyprus a very worthwhile destination for those who travel to eat. Cypriots take mealtime (and coffeetime) seriously—dinners often last for hours on end, with bottles of homegrown wine lubricating conversation. Most of the food is prepared simply, emphasizing the quality of ingredients, almost none of which are imported. Village life is still the norm in much of the country, but even in the cities, tavernas serving home-style dishes are still major gathering points.

    We road-tripped around the country for 10 days, staying in coastal cities and mountainside villages, meeting sincere, welcoming people all along the way. In recent years, Cyprus tourism officials have pushed an agrotourism program, in which traditional stone houses in historic villages are restored into guesthouses, often complete with a kitchen. We stayed in several of these houses around the country, most notably To Spitiko toy Archonta in Treis Elies, whose gregarious proprietor, Androula Christou, took us foraging for wild greens and invited us to her family’s Christmas dinner. And although we didn’t stay with her, Elena Savvides-Doghman of Orexi Catering in Droushia was an invaluable resource in helping us understand Cypriot culture and cuisine, and one of the instrumental forces in turning Cyprus into a food-lover’s paradise.

    I tried to narrow my list down to just a few of the best things I ate; in the end, that “few” turned out to be 25. Included were two—yes, two—of the definitive “best version of X I’ve ever had in my life, anywhere;” while many others were foods entirely new to me. Take a look through the slideshow to see them all.

    But wait, there’s more! Follow Serious Eats on Facebook, Twitter,Pinterest, and Google+!

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  • Behind the Scenes: Making Olmeca Altos Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico

    [Photographs: Michael Dietsch]

    Note from the Author: On a recent press trip hosted by Olmeca Altos Tequila, I toured the Destileria Colonial de Jalisco to see firsthand how tequila is made.

    The Los Altos highlands of Jalisco are known for their iron-rich red soil and high altitude: we’re talking about 7,000 feet above sea level. (Take that, Mile High City!) This is where Olmeca Altos tequila is produced, in Arandas, about two hours east of Guadalajara. The distillery, Destileria Colonial de Jalisco, is fairly modern, having opened in 1997 to handle production of Patron, which, thanks to a business dispute, was only briefly produced at this plant.

    The distillery makes a few tequilas just for the Mexican market, as well as three brands for export: Olmeca, Olmeca Tezon, and Olmeca Altos. The original Olmeca is a mixto tequila, a blend of agave and sugar. (Need a refresher on tequila production and styles? Check out our primer!) Tezon is a 100%-agave, pure-tahona tequila, which means not only that it contains no sugar but also that it’s made entirely from agave crushed by a large stone wheel, as opposed to a roller mill. (I’ll explain the differences between tahona milling and roller milling in more detail later. Incidentally, Tezon is not currently available in the United States, but it might return here in the near future.)

    Piñas

    Tequila is made from agave hearts, called piñas.

    Both the entry-level Olmeca mixto and the top-shelf Tezon are popular in Europe, but the two tequilas occupy very distinct and disparate positions on liquor store shelves. Pernod Ricard, owner of the brand, wanted to develop a new tequila to occupy a middle ground in the market between the mixto and the fanciest bottling.

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    Jesús Hernandez walking us through the tequila-making process.

    Jesús Hernandez, master distiller at the Destileria Colonial de Jalisco, met with bartenders from England who wanted a tequila that was both mixable and sippable, with an agave-forward profile that also carried lively fresh citrus notes. But they really wanted something a little more affordable than many of the 100%-agave brands that were available.

    So Hernandez got to tinkering in his distillery and came up with Altos, which is made from a blend of two distillates: one is the same tequila that goes into high-end Tezon, the pure-tahona juice. The other is crushed using a roller mill, which makes for a more efficient process and provides the citrusy notes those bartenders were looking for. Altos is available in two expressions: Olmeca Altos Plata (an unaged blanco tequila) runs about $20 in the US, and Olmeca Altos Reposado sells for about $25. They’re just now ramping up US distribution, so if you can’t find it just yet, keep looking.

    Copper Stills

    Want a peek behind the scenes where Olmeca Altos is made? Head on over to the slideshow »

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  • For the Best Food in Bangkok, Hit the Streets

    [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    You can wander the streets of Bangkok for weeks, pointing at every single thing that looks tasty, handing over a couple dozen baht, and eating until you burst, all without ever trying the same thing twice. And you’d have difficulty spending more than around $10 a day doing it. And, in fact, that’s pretty much what my wife and I did for the few days we were there.

    Everywhere you go, from the fancy shopping malls downtown, to the grungy streets of Chinatown, to the vast semi-outdoor markets—even in the hyper-touristy areas around the gorgeous wats and palaces in the old city—you’ll find hawkers offering fresh-cooked meals, sometimes eaten straight out of hand, sometimes while perched on little plastic seats around a makeshift picnic table.

    Here’s just a taste of what you’ll find:

    Stir-Fries

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    Stir-fried pork or chicken with holy basil and chilies is one of the most common street-side dishes. If you order it, don’t forget to ask for a fried egg on top. I forgot and paid for it with an only slightly less delicious meal.

    Mango Sticky Rice

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    We were warned by the lady selling the mangoes that they were out of the best one, so we’d have to settle for something not as sweet. It was still the best mango sticky rice I’ve ever tasted.

    You know mango sticky rice from Thai restaurants in the States—sliced mango served on top of sticky rice with sweet-and-salty coconut cream and puffed rice crisps—but you haven’t had the real deal until you’ve tried it with the incredibly sweet and luscious Thai honey mango. This version, made with three colors of sticky rice, comes from a small shop across the street from Soi 38, a downtown alley famous for its (comparatively mediocre) food stalls.

    Special thanks to Bangkok native and Serious Eats’ Thai food columnist Leela Punyaratabandhu for sending us here (and for all the other great recommendations she gave us).

    Roast Pork Belly

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    You can take your pick of roasted pork belly from the Chinese-style roasters (who also sell crisp roast duck), or fried pork belly from the Thai fried-stuff-vendors (who usually carry great fried chicken and other snacks). I prefer the latter, mostly because the Thai vendors serve their fried food with a tangy and spicy chili sauce.

    This batch came from a vendor in Or Tor Kor market near the Mo Chit bus terminal.

    Sausages

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    Most of the sausages you find in Bangkok are of the mildly seasoned, fermented Isan style. You can get them grilled on the street for a couple bucks. But if you poke around, you’ll also find sai oua, a sausage from Northern Thailand flavored with charred makrut lime, galangal, chilies, and other aromatics. It’s generally not as juicy as its Isan neighbor, but what it lacks in moisture, it makes up for in flavor.

    I like to eat my sai oua with nam phrik noom, a spicy roasted chili paste from the north. Nam phrik is also great with fried pork rinds or raw vegetables.

    Steamed Crab

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    My wife is a crab fiend. The only thing that stops her from eating mountains of crab for every meal in the States is the prohibitive price. That’s not as much of an issue in Bangkok. We picked up this tray of steamed crab swimmerets—a full kilogram of them—for around 15 U.S. dollars. Not cheap by Thai standards, but a worthy splurge for Adri.

    Curry

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    You can easily identify curry stands by the rows of pots laid out front. Most will have at least a half dozen varieties of curry, as well as various simmered or stir-fried dishes held in hotel pans. Feel free to fish around inside the pots to take a look at what’s inside.

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    Whatever you pick, it’ll come served on a plate with rice. The little green things in this red pork curry aren’t peas—they’re tiny bitter eggplants. The Thai use chopsticks only for noodles; everything else is eaten with a fork and spoon. To eat like a local, hold the fork in the hand you’d usually hold it in, with the spoon in your knife hand. Use the fork to pull a bit of curry and sauce into the rice, then press the whole clump up onto your spoon. Deliver the food to your mouth using the spoon. Sit and ponder how this method of eating came to be and why the prongs of the fork are never actually used for anything.

    Pad Si Ew

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    Pad si ew is readily available stateside, and the best versions I’ve had at home rival what you can get in Thailand. Wide, flat rice noodles (slightly thinner than Chinese chow fun noodles, but pretty much the same) are stir-fried with scrambled egg, chopped greens (in Thailand it’s usually a form of kale; in the states it might be Chinese broccoli), and sliced meat, and flavored with soy and fish sauce.

    In place of salt and pepper, you’ll find dried ground chilies, fish sauce (often with fresh sliced Thai chilies floating in it), vinegar with mild sliced chilies, and plain white sugar on your table. Season as you see fit. In Bangkok, they tend to like things very sweet and hot. I saw a teenage girl pile four heaping spoons of sugar and a spoonful of chilies onto her noodles before stirring them up and chowing down.

    Mangosteen

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    The mangosteen, known as the Queen of Fruit, happens to be my favorite fruit of all time and, lucky us, they were in season while we were in Thailand. The little aromatic fruit with the hard purple shell run around $9 a pound in New York City’s Chinatown during their short, one month season. In Bangkok, the most you’ll pay is about a dollar a kilo, and we found them for around half that. That’s about as many mangosteens as you can eat for a quarter. Not bad.

    You eat them by scoring the thick, astringent purple skin and then carefully prying it open, revealing tender, segmented white flesh inside. If you do it well, the white segments will pop right out of the skin and you can eat it whole, savoring the mildly sweet, fragrant flesh, spitting out the one or two large seeds it contains.

    Check out more food in these photos I took from a previous trip to Bangkok.

    The Best of the Best

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    So of all this awesome food, what was the very best? Like many of the things you discover in Bangkok, we found it by accident. We walked out of our hotel near Chinatown one afternoon and started walking east without much of an end-goal in mind. After winding our way through some narrow alleyways, we ended up on Thanon Charu Mueang, near Wat Duang Khae, under the big highway underpass. I saw a lady working a hot wok near a picnic table, and spied a young couple with their faces buried in a plate covered in fried basil leaves.

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    That’s the dish for me, I said to myself. I then repeated it out loud for Adri’s benefit. She gave one of those small dutiful sighs that I’ve figured out means, “This is our fourth lunch of the day but I’ve nobody to blame but myself, I knew what I was getting into when I married him,” then sat down and asked me to order her a beer. She sipped on iced Chang while I went to the lady and, after much pointing and gesturing, managed to communicate, “I’d like the same delicious-looking thing as that couple sitting over there.”

    She nodded, smiled, and got to work.

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    She started by chopping garlic and hot Thai bird chilies together with a large cleaver before dumping them into a small bowl.

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    Next, she added a couple spoonfuls of sugar, a big glug of fish sauce, and a small dash of thin Thai oyster sauce, and set the bowl aside.

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    Next up, thousand-year eggs. This Chinese preparation involves curing raw duck eggs in salt and tea leaf ashes for several weeks until the whites develop a dark brown color and firm texture, with a creamy green yolk.

    They’re actually much milder in flavor than you’d expect, tasting mostly like boiled eggs, but with a slightly camphorous, sweet aroma.

    After peeling them, she did something that I was not expecting at all:

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    Yup, the deep fryer. She halved the eggs and dropped them in, pulling them out after their exteriors turned bubbly and crisp. I’ve honestly never thought to deep fry an already-hard egg, but given the results with thousand year eggs here, I’m gonna have to give it a go with regular boiled eggs when I get home.

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    With the eggs cooked, she moved on to a hunk of pork, thinly slicing it. Pretty much every food stand you go to will slice proteins to order here.

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    She heated up some oil in a blazing hot wok, then added the pork slices, stir-frying them just for a moment before adding the eggs along with the garlic, chili, and sauce mixture.

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    Next, she cooked down the sauce until it was almost all evaporated, concentrating its flavor into a tight glaze. The dish was transferred to a serving plate, then she turned back to the fryer.

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    In went a huge handful of holy basil, a Thai variety with a slightly more savory, almost minty quality to it compared to sweet Italian basil.

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    She fried it for just a few seconds until it all crisped up, then drained it and dumped it on top of the stir-fry.

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    The finished dish is so damn simple, but it offers an amazing array of textures and flavors. The egg, with its crunchy fried exterior and creamy yolks; the tender slices of pork, deeply flavored with fish sauce and chilies; the crisp curls of fried garlic. It epitomizes the things I love most about central Thai cuisine with its almost haphazard attitude toward technique—an attitude that nonetheless manages to produce some seriously tasty end-results.

    I can’t promise that this woman is here every day, but if you do visit Bangkok, I’d suggest swinging by her corner. Even if she’s not there, you’re destined to run across something delicious.

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  • The Best Things I Ate in Mexico City and Puebla

    Tlacoyitos, a Mexico-City specialty. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

    I’ve been immersed in Mexican cooking for years. As a cook working in New York City restaurants, many of my colleagues were from Mexico, and they cooked Mexican food for the staff regularly. Then, since moving to Jackson Heights, Queens, in January—one of the country’s most diverse neighborhoods with a big Mexican community—I’ve become obsessed with Pueblan specialties like cemita sandwiches. Not to mention the standard amount of Mexican-food-eating we all do in this country.

    But for all my exposure to Mexican foods, I’d never actually been to Mexico, a travel omission that was feeling more and more glaring as the years went by. When a good friend decided to have a wedding in Tulum several weeks ago, my girlfriend Kate and I made sure to tack on our own trip to Mexico City in the days preceding it.

    Here are some of the best street foods, snacks, and restaurant dishes we ate there, as well as a few highlights from an impromptu visit to Puebla.

    Fresh Tortillas

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    I’d argue that one of the main things that separates really good Mexican food from all the rest is the quality of the masa, the corn-flour dough that’s used to make tortillas, tamales, and countless other corn products. At the very least, I think that’s one of the biggest problems with Mexican food in New York City: There’s not nearly enough good, freshly made masa here, and our Mexican food suffers for it. (It’s not an accident that one of my favorite Mexican foods in New York is a sandwich that’s served on bread, not tortillas.)

    I actually have a really weird Proustian memory of fresh-made masa from my childhood (weird, in that you’d sooner expect a guy who grew up in Oaxaca to have a deep-rooted masa memory, not a half-Jewish guy from Brooklyn who’d never been to Mexico before).

    When I was little, I’d visit my bubbe in Silver Spring, Maryland, and we’d frequently go to the Children’s Museum in D.C. The place was really cool: I remember staring in wonder at a wall of license plates from every single state, and dressing up in a real firefighter’s coat to slide down a mini version of a firehouse pole. But one of the most memorable parts of that museum was a small, dark room in an area of the museum dedicated to Native Americans. It had an especially hallowed feel, and on some visits, a woman would be sitting on the floor of the room, pressing freshly made masa into tortillas, and then cooking them on an electric griddle. She’d hand them to the children as snacks.

    To this day, that smell triggers intense memories for me. I don’t know for sure, but I think she was using fresh nixtamalized masa, that is, made from scratch and not from masa harina, because the memory comes back strongest on the rare occasions that I get to eat the real thing.

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    Walking around Mexico City, where plenty of independent mills still make fresh masa daily and sell the tortillas for a song, the aroma pours out onto the street. My mind returned again and again to that recess in the Washington D.C. Children’s Museum.

    What I’d give for these kinds of tortilla-makers in New York.

    Insects

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    I’m just gonna cut to the chase and show you the thing that will gross the most people out: Insects. A lot has been written about the potential for insects to become an important high-protein human food-source, and in much of the world hardly an eyelash would bat at the idea. But here in the States, eating insects is still a troubling idea for a very big portion of the population.

    I’ve always wanted to taste more insects, and while the opportunity has come up from time to time, this trip to Mexico City was my first big chance to go hog wild on bugs. And the thing is, if you haven’t eaten bugs yet, let me tell you: Bugs taste good.

    First, we have the fried worms you see in the photo above. They’re actually not really worms, but caterpillars. More specifically, they’re caterpillars that feed on maguey plants (the agave used to make tequila and mescal); in Mexico they’re called gusanos de maguey or chinicuiles.

    But what do they taste like? To me, they’re like the lovechild of French fries and fried clam strips. That makes them an incredibly delicious food in my book.

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    I’ve eaten ants before, mostly in gag gifts like those silly lollypops with bugs encased in the candy. But I’d never had ant eggs before. They’re called escamoles, and they have a wonderful creamy, almost caviar-like texture (but with less of a liquid-y pop) and a mild, earthy flavor. The ones above were cooked with garlic and maybe a little butter, and we ate them folded into tortillas.

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    My pal Ernesto here is about to take a nice big bite of escamoles, and just look how happy he is! See? There’s no reason to fear ant eggs! (In case you can’t tell by his expression, we were pretty sloshed on mescal at this point.)

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    Apologies for the low light in the photo above: Kate and I were in a mescal bar lit exclusively by candles. Still, I wanted to get a shot of our spread: mescal, orange slices, pumpkin seeds, some baby corn, and a nice big bowl of chapulines—grasshoppers cooked with lime juice and salt, among other things. They’re tart and crunchy and as addictive as pretzels. No, scratch that, they’re definitely more addictive than pretzels. In dark rooms, though, I’d recommend not thinking too much about how they could be mistaken for a bowl of roaches. Roaches are a line I will not cross.

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    One last insect call-out was this dish from the stellar restaurant called Pujol (more on that below). This is a signature dish at the restaurant: fresh baby corn, still connected to their tender husks, smoked in a dried gourd and coated in a creamy sauce made from coffee and red ants. I can’t say I was able to discern the exact flavor of the red ants, but altogether it really is a remarkably delicious dish with an equally striking presentation.

    Milanesa Cemita in Puebla

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    Cemitas were one of the foods I was most excited to eat during our trip. And I’d assumed that Mexico City—a bustling metropolis located just a few hours away from Puebla—would be an easy place to find some truly great ones. But it became pretty clear after a few days that while there are spots in the DF that sell cemitas, the only way I was going to try the real deal would be to go to Puebla. So Kate and I hopped on a bus to Puebla early one morning. In case there were any doubts, yes, I will travel for hours just to eat a sandwich.

    Even in Puebla, though, we had trouble finding a good cemita at first. I was almost in disbelief: Was it be possible that New York actually has tastier cemitas than Puebla, Mexico? Thankfully, the answer ended up being no, though there are some interesting differences between the cemitas I get in Queens and the ones I ate in Mexico. (One day, in a larger cemita piece that I’m planning on writing, I’ll share the story of one of the worst cemitas I ever had, right there in Puebla, the heart of cemita country.)

    As we walked the streets in search of something to restore my faith in the cemita as it’s made in Mexico, we finally came across Cemitas del Carmen (above). It called to me like a mirage in the desert.

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    Inside, I found a man I can only describe as the Dom Demarco of cemitas. He lovingly put my milanesa (breaded cutlet) cemita together, pan-frying the cutlet to order, masterfully shredding the Oaxacan cheese into angel-hair-thin strands, thoughtfully placing the leaves of papalo, and layering each successive ingredient with such care. It was a joy just to watch.

    The result was the beauty above, an example of perfect construction and proportion.

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    He asked us to sign the wall. We were the first English speakers to do so, and I couldn’t help putting a little Serious Eats tag in there, just so it was clear which gringos had wandered in first.

    Travelers to Puebla, be sure to seek this place out (and sign your names next to ours)!

    Tacos Arabes in Puebla

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    Puebla is also home to one of the more interesting taco variations: tacos arabes. A relative of al pastor tacos, tacos arabes also feature marinated pork cooked on a spit, but instead of being served in a corn tortilla, they’re served in pita-like flatbreads called pan arabe.

    It’s like a gyro and an al pastor taco smashed into one. Why haven’t more people started selling these? (Especially places that serve crap tortillas…)

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    Barbacoa Tacos at Arroyo, Al Pastor Tacos at El Vilsito, and Suadero, Longaniza, and Cabeca Tacos at El Borrego Viudo

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    Barbacoa taco at Arroyo

    There’s no way to go to Mexico and not eat an obscene number of tacos. First up, the barbacoa tacos at Arroyo, which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest Mexican restaurant in the world. It certainly did seem huge, so I’d believe it.

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    The barbacoa, here made from sheep, comes as a massive slab of meat that you pull apart in shreds and chunks and stuff into tender tortillas, topping it with whichever of the housemade salsas you desire. I’ve seen several trusted sources that claim that Arroyo is one of the best places to get barbacoa, and while I believe that, the Arroyo experience is about more than just the meat: The dining rooms are packed with families out celebrating birthdays and other milestones, the ceiling rafters flutter with colorful paper flags, and mariachi bands play Colombian hits like Jorge Caledon’s Que Bonita Es Esta Vida*.

    I couldn’t help but sing along when the band whipped that one out. It’s infectious!

    Update: A reader informs me that Jorge Caledon’s track is actually a cover of the original Mexican version by a group called Tres De Copas. I think I’ve found the recording here. Oh, and look, now I’ve found a mariachi version as well.

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    This guy’s face spells FUN.

    For more Mexico-City taco intel, I reached out to my good friend Jordana Rothman, who’s currently writing a taco-focused cookbook with Chef Alex Stupak. They’d taken an insane whirlwind taco tour of Mexico City a few weeks before, so Jordana had eaten at literally dozens of taquerias and sent me her handpicked favorites. Score!

    Jordana’s top pick had been El Vilsito, and I have to agree. Not only are the al pastor tacos great, but the whole scene is worth taking in. Apparently it’s an auto-body shop by day, and then at night they roll up the walls to unveil the taqueria. There’s an electric energy there, and it isn’t because there are shelves of spark-plugs nearby.

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    The taqueros themselves are worth watching. I’ve never seen such deft carving and taco assembly: Holding the tortilla at hip height, these masters of marinated pork slide their knives along the skewered meat, and paper-thin slices tumble into the tortilla below. Then they swipe at the pineapple perched at the top of the skewer, flicking the slices of fruit through the air and catching them in the taco-holding hand. It’s not even showmanship, it’s just pure skill and efficiency.

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    Ernesto makes one more cameo with his al pastor taco. We’d actually already had a full sit-down dinner, and this was the first of several after-dinner tacos we ate the night. It’s what I’d call a Bang-Bang-Bang.

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    After El Vilsito, we headed to El Borrego Viudo, a Mexico City institution that specializes in cabeza (from the meat of beef heads, above) and suadero (a beef cut from near the belly, below) tacos. The longaniza (sausage) tacos there were also pretty great. Bang-Bang-Bang.

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    Breakfasts at Red Tree House

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    On the very strong recommendation of a friend, Kate and I stayed at a hotel called the Red Tree House in Condesa, a great neighborhood for walking and eating.

    I don’t usually put much thought into the places I stay when traveling, as long as they’re clean. For me, a hotel is mostly just a place to store my stuff and sleep, and otherwise I don’t want to be there. The Red Tree House really challenged my thinking. The staff there is exceptional: personable, helpful in a way that goes above and beyond, and frankly, you just kinda want to be pals with them all (we actually did become pals with them—Ernesto, whom you saw above eating the ant eggs and al pastor taco, works there and Kate and I ended up going out with him and his girlfriend quite a bit).

    Anyway, when we first arrived at the hotel, they told us they served breakfast in the morning. That’s the kind of thing I normally tune out. I’m in Mexico City, dammit, and there’s a whole city’s worth of food to eat outside these hotel doors: I’m not wasting one square inch of stomach space on a hotel’s continental spread.

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    Turns out I’m an idiot. I looked forward to breakfast at the Red Tree House more and more every day: fresh tortillas with refried beans and melted cheese, or with flavorful stewed tomatoes, or with salsa verde (and more melted cheese), plus churros, fresh papaya, on and on. It’s worth whatever digestive real estate you can spare. (And no, they’re not rewarding me in any way to write this.)

    Quesadilla at the Lagunilla Market

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    Kate, Ernesto, his girlfriend Sally, and I spent a Sunday wandering the Lagunilla flea market, a sprawling tangle of tents stretching several streets and filled with all kinds of interesting tchotchkes. Ernesto and I got blotto pretty quickly, first on massive paper cups of michelada with sticky chile-infused, cherry-red syrup dripping down the sides, then with a bottle of mescal Ernesto had stashed away in a bag. Only later did we find out that the police had been at the market nabbing people for drinking in public, so I guess I narrowly dodged a trip to a Mexican lockup.

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    This one stand at the market caught my attention with its wide comal (griddle) and buckets of fresh masa, some from blue corn, some from yellow. There were all sorts of things to order, but I went for a Mexican-style quesadilla, which features an ovoid tortilla filled with heaps of melted cheese.

    Tlacoyitos at El Parnita

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    Tlacoyos, which also go by the diminutive tlacoyitos (perhaps only when they’re made in a smaller size?), are a specialty of Mexico City that I had never heard of before.

    The ones pictured here are from a restaurant called El Parnita. It’s a trendy place that makes a lot of good seafood (among other things) and, as we discovered, there can be a bit of a wait to get a table. Everything we had was delicious, but these tlacoyitos stood out in my mind: they’re almond-shaped cakes of masa stuffed with refried beans and topped with melted cheese and avocado, so simple and so good.

    Pretty Much Everything at Pujol

    Pujol’s “aguachile”, an artistic riff on a classic type of Mexican ceviche.

    As I mentioned above and also in my article on aguachile (a style of Mexican ceviche), chef Jose Enrique’s Pujol was one of the most exciting meals I’ve had in a long time. One of the sad side effects of working in the food industry and eating a lot of really excellent food all the time (I know, poor me!) is that it can become harder and harder to feel truly ecstatic about high-end restaurant experiences. At a certain point, it’s rare to encounter great food that you feel you’ve never seen before.

    Pujol was not one of those experiences. Everything felt new to me—unfamiliar ingredients, different flavors, totally refreshing. It’s one of the best things about travel, really. Pujol is tasting-menu only, and it’s hard to choose a favorite dish, so I’ll give you a quick tour of several.

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    This wild mussel was amazingly sweet, backed up by a fresh ocean brine and topped with a broth infused with guajillo chiles and cucumber.

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    Fish taco with longaniza sausage, black beans, and hoja santa (a type of herb).

    Pujol offers three different tacos on the menu, and guests generally each choose one of the three to try. Kate and I opted for all of them.

    They’re the most beautiful tacos I’ve ever seen.

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    Suckling lamb taco with avocado-leaf adobo and guacamole.

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    Smoked mushroom taco in a roasted corn tortilla with tomato seeds and watercress.

    Tuna Tostada at Contramar

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    Our last stop in Mexico City, Contramar, is another excellent spot for seafood, like fish tacos done in the style of al pastor (surprisingly good) and octopus aguachile. But I think the highlight for me was this tuna tostada that the restaurant brought to the table as an amuse-type freebie. Topped with fried leeks and avocado, it managed to be both light and fresh, yet also rich and deeply flavored.

    If you’re only in Mexico City for a day, which places should you go? Sorry, no way to choose. You’re just going to have to make a Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang day of it.

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