Friday, June 24, 2011

And Then I Found Ribs

From my college days in Madison trolling the Capital Square or Library Mall for cheap lunch, I have always approached the food cart with a certain carefree attitude, impervious to any potential health risks associated with dining from a mobile eatery that can easily move to evade health officials (a risk cited by a respected friend and colleague). Some of my street lunches have included the ubiquitous hot dog and chips (sampled in every city I have ever visited like some sort of gastronomical litmus test), Vietnamese from Madison's famous I Am Here cart, and the best knish I've ever had from a cart outside the New York Library. The Silver Platter is not in this category of mobile eatery.

On Central Avenue between Eastern Avenue and Bank Street, the Silver Platter lunch cart sets up shop daily Monday through Friday. The menu consists of familiar classics like brisket and mac and cheese, but with a gourmet twist. For example, the mac and cheese has lobster and truffle mixed in, and the brisket is served with Aoili. In addition, there is a good variety of seafood options - yet another reason why I enjoy the East Coast so much - like Buttermilk-Soaked Calamari, Firecracker Shrimp and Seared Scallops with prosciutto. (To see their menu, visit their Facebook page.)

All of this was very interesting, however I was on a mission for one particular item. This week all of my lunches have been working lunches where I nibble at some variety of salad while those around me actually get up and leave the building for a moment. And, every day, when they return with their lunch, I have smelled the unmistakable aroma of ribs. So, when opportunity presented itself today, I took the stroll down Central to get myself a little of that.

The cart is parked in the middle of the block about half a block shy of Mustang Alleys. When I arrived, a line had not yet formed, and I quickly ordered the Sweet Chili Baby Back Ribs (no sides or soda). The operator of the cart proved a couple of slices of watermelon to tide me over while I waited, an unexpected and very civilized touch. We made light conversation. He got me caught up on the expansion of Bagby Pizza to include a bar (follow the link to their site for more info), and I recommended that he contact Iced Gems for a Friday lunch combo. If they both set up next to each other, many of us would just show up with folding lawn chairs and camp out by their carts and never make it back to the office. They would kill.

The wait was so short I did not even clock it. I received a hefty serving of eight ribs on a bed of fried onion strips that held the sauce of which there was plenty. The meat easily fell off the rib bones and could be eaten with a fork, thus eliminating the potential hazard of getting sauce all over yourself from chewing the meat off the bone like a dog. And the sauce was amazing. It is both sweet and spicy as the name implies. The spicy comes in part from a healthy dose of red pepper flakes that enhance the flavor without becoming the primary note. the main component of the sauce is the sweetness, which tasted like a fruit base - mango or peach, I could not discern which. It's this sweet fruitiness that is the principle flavor of the sauce, so sticky it confirmed the exact location of the cavity I am getting filled next week. The spicy chili is a strong supporting player here and hits the tongue as the sweetness approaches the very edge of being overwhelming. The spice rises up and balances it out. Neither hot nor cloying, the Sweet Chili sauce on these ribs is near perfection. And though I have been only eating to my personal capacity and blogging about the evils of deliberate overeating, I rejoined the Clean Plate Club with much enthusiasm, eating the entire portion that could have easily fed two.

This extreme rib experience was followed up with another Iced Gem - the raspberry-filled lemon Elizabeth, which was superior to last week's Red Velvet. Filled with seedy and flavorful raspberry jam and creamy lemon icing, this moist little cupcake revealed the reason behind this bakery's name. It was indeed a perfect little gem of cake to top off a completely indulgent lunch. (CORRECTION: The Iced Gems truck is actually staffed by an employee and not the owner as reported in my last entry.)

With aching teeth and bloated belly, I faced my afternoon meetings feeling woozy but satisfied.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Here Comes the Cupcake Truck

The gourmet cupcake thing has fascinated me since I first heard of it about a year ago. Who doesn't like cupcakes, especially when they come in flavors like Birthday Cake and Chocolate Volcano? Baltimore has what I consider to be the perfect execution of this bakery trend - the cupcake truck, properly known as Iced Gems.

With headquarters in Reisterstown, the owner of Iced Gems drives to key intersections in the Baltimore metro area where she sells her cupcakes for a few hours at a time before moving on. She uses Facebook to alert her customers of her travels throughout the city. She is usually in the Harbor East district on Friday afternoons and has a loyal following among my coworkers. Today I finally caught up with her during my lunch break and found out what the fuss is all about.

The concept of driving around with a van full of cupcakes is genius. The whole experience has the childhood nostalgia of the ice cream truck. The van is a similar size with a side window for service. The flavors are posted outside next to the window and vary from the classic vanilla to the more exotic English Rose. People waiting in line are almost giddy with anticipation. And, for $2.50, they get a modestly sized cupcake with a generous topping of icing.

The cake-to-icing ratio appear to be about 6:1, which is not bad and certainly better than the grocery store, your neighborhood Starbucks, or the recently-departed Cake Love. I peeked into the interior of the van and saw neat rows of cupcakes on bakery racks, each uniform in this ratio with some flavors (like Peanut Butter Cup and Oreo Cookies) having an additional garnish. The overall appearance was quite appealing.

Carrot Cake was not on the menu today, so I went with my close second - Red Velvet. The single cupcake was carefully placed in a small bag for me. I handled my cake with the utmost care and got it back to my desk unscathed.  I noticed that orders of multiple cupcakes are placed in a box with dividers to keep the cakes separate. Individual boxes might also be a good idea. The bakery in Chicago's renown Bakin' &  Eggs served me a carrot cake cupcake to go in a box that survived 10 hours on the Turnpike before I finally ate it somewhere near Pennsylvania.

Around mid-afternoon, the sweet tooth bit. As I sized up my cupcake, I was glad that it was not too big and looked to be a normal serving size rather than the gargantuan portions that are becoming part of the American way of life. It is always a shame to have more than you can finish as the left overs so often go to waste.

The icing was creamy and substantial but not quite as tangy as I like my cream cheese icing. The sweetness of the icing was complemented by the well-flavored cake that had a genuine cocoa taste with a light hand on the sugar bowl. The cake tasted made-from-scratch without the tell-tale super-moistness of mixes that always strikes me as somewhat unnatural. This is not to say that it was dry. On the contrary, the texture of the cake was just about perfect. It held up as I ate it with a plastic fork. I am pleased to say that most of it ended up in my mouth rather than my desk.

I was also impressed with the cocoa that came through in Iced Gem's Red Velvet cake. I have had many red velvet cakes that made me forget that it is actually a variety of Devils' Food with cocoa as its foundation. This flavor, along with the sticky sweet icing made for the ultimate afternoon snack. Now I, too, am hooked.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Appeal of Crab Rangoon

When I completed the PMP exam and learned that I had passed, my first thought was that the computerized testing system had made a mistake. Despite the ProMetric staff notarizing the print out confirming that I had indeed passed, there was a lingering doubt on the edge of my brain that was sure that I would receive an email from the PMI on Monday explaining the error.

Then I felt a wave of relief. I danced in the elevator on the ride down from the (ironically enough) 13th floor and called my counterpart with the news.

Being the dedicated wife that I am, I scheduled my PMP certification exam on our anniversary weekend, and we had discussed dinner in the city at Tapas Teatro on North Charles Street (a review will be coming at some point this summer). On returning from the exam (also in the city), I was exhausted and declared that what I really wanted was Crab Rangoon.

My dietary fixation with Crab Rangoon, aka cheese wontons, has always mystified Gareth. They are greasy and heavy and usually upset my stomach. As far as comfort food goes, though, they remain in my All Time Top 5. The little packet of deep-fried, melted cheese is definitely part of it. The plum sauce accompaniment create a sticky sweet juxtaposition to that salty, greasy wonton that really hits most of my favorite flavor points.

My two favorite spots for Crab Rangoon are:

1. China Palace, Rt. 40 next to the Waffle House, Havre de Grace. The Crab Rangoon at China Palace are perfect triangles of goodness that take several bites to consume. This allows for the forbidden double-dip into the plum sauce after the first bite when the cheesy filling is exposed. Trust me, it's worth the scornful looks. China Palace features a thicker wonton skin that seems to handle the deep frying without becoming too greasy; however, it gets a little chewy as they cool, so it is best to eat them all at one sitting.

2. Wok To Go, Churchville Road behind the Advanced Auto Parts that used to be Hollywood Video, Bel Air. Facebook Friends will already be aware to my frequent check-ins at Wok To Go. As a regular customer, I am compelled to note the successful execution of creative sushi and contemporary Chinese take-out that Wok To Go has achieved. The quality of the food is consistently good and flavorful, and we have both enjoyed everything we have ordered. The sushi selection ranges from traditional rolls to more ambitious combinations of fish and veg that stay within the highly palatable realm - nothing too weird. The Chinese dishes are all standard fare but with a fresher and more robust taste. A dedicated posting is long overdue and will be forthcoming.

The Crab Rangoon at Wok To Go are wrapped in a very light wrapping with a dollop of cheese in the middle and the edges gathered together like a sachet. The end result is a cheese wonton that is slightly larger than bite-sized but most often ends up being eaten in a single bite anyway. The gathered edges create little creases that holds the plum sauce nicely. While a large mouthful, it delivers a complete package of crunchy, creamy texture, and sweet, salty flavor. I invariably scald the roof of my mouth on the first one and continue in blissful agony until I have cleaned my plate.

So, on the night of my 12th anniversary, I and my newly-minted certification forsook romance in the name of well-deserved comfort. Gareth congratulated me and went along with it. And I remained somehow skeptical of my achievement until I received the official email from the PMI, but never doubted for a moment that choice I made 12 years ago.