Thank you, Chef

Local-Drinks-Anthony-Bourdain-thumb (Photo courtesy of 8list.ph)

A Tribute To Anthony Bourdain

June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018

I’d never met the man but I felt like I’d lost an old friend when I found out of his passing a week ago. I’d gotten to work, sat at my desk and went to Facebook on my iPhone. When I saw a post about his death, at first I was stunned then I hoped that it was a mistake or another hoax. Next, I felt the grief and tears wanted to flow out but I suppressed them just in case a student walked in and I had to explain myself. Gutted. Like a fish.. Such was the impact Anthony Bourdain had on us home-cooks. Well, this home-cook, anyway. He was a hero of mine. As a writer, chef and lover of life, Anthony Bourdain was on my list of people I would most like to meet and have a meal with. And for that meal, I’d suggest somewhere like a dampa in Baclaran or an outdoor food stall in Singapore. He was a people’s man, an everyman, who appealed to those like me who were a fan and never got to meet him. In interviews, in his shows and in his writing, he came across as a regular guy who could easily let the fame and fortune go and recall his roots. Maybe it was his love for New Jersey, his upbringing here that makes him endearing to me; another Jersey Boy. He came across, to me, as someone I could’ve known and shot the bull with at a friend’s house in Glen Ridge, side-by-side on Lifecycles at the gym I used to work in in West Caldwell, or at a bar in Asbury or Point Pleasant. He had his demons and vices but we all do and I hope and pray that he is now at a better place. I offer condolences, too, to his family and friends and I pray that they’re recovering in peace.

I read Kitchen Confidential in 2017, having purchased a copy around 2009, and it reinforced my affection and even idolatry of Chef Bourdain. It’s all about his early life as a chef and the things we don’t see behind the swinging double doors of the kitchen and it’s written with a candidness that makes the reader feel like he’s sitting with Bourdain and sharing stories over a beer. The beer, of course, would’ve been opened over the side of a folding table and drank straight from the bottle. As a book Kitchen Confidential is one of my favourite books I’ve ever read and offers a taste of how fascinating Bourdain was as a person and personality.

I’d heard about him but I didn’t truly discover Anthony Bourdain until I stumbled on a rerun of an episode of No Reservations when he goes to Singapore. It must’ve been late at night so when I saw Singapore and food, my attention was naturally piqued. As a foodie from Hong Kong – often referred to as Singapore’s ‘twin city’ – and a lover of a good Curry Shrimp and Chicken Rice, I watched the show with keen interest. I was also writing my own book, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, at the time and there’s a scene in it set in Newton Circus and several references to food so watching this particular episode also became a form of research. As much as I drooled over the food and longed, believe it or not, for the city’s humidity and the sounds of clanging woks and loud waiters yelling orders in Chinese, the show’s host also mesmerized me. Bourdain’s carefree attitude and yearning for a cold local beer to go with the local cuisine and who isn’t afraid to get messy and sweaty enjoying both turned me into an instant follower. Add to all that the fact the he loved Asian food, especially lechon (Filipino roast pig), made him even cooler.

More recently, I was a fan of The Taste, The Voice of cooking shows in which the contestants – professionals and home-cooks alike – prepare an audition dish and present it to the judges and, if selected, have to choose which coach is going to mentor them throughout the competition. More than once, my wife and friends suggested I audition but, as competent as I feel in the kitchen that I could maybe have offered something that would get me on a team, I don’t have the culinary skill to keep me on the team. So, I never applied. If you’re a fan of Bourdain, you know that he was one of the show’s producers and judges. Naturally, in my culinary fantasies, I would get on his team. (Although, Nigella Lawson, another culinary hero of mine, was also a judge and mentor so choosing a team might not have been so cut-and-dry. Haha!)

More than his culinary skill and knowhow and his status as a celebrity, Bourdain made the world a smaller place. Through his various travel food shows, he offered that top-notch food isn’t limited to Michelin-rated restaurants. There’s quality in a dive in the back woods of Korea or Vietnam and getting messy adds to the visceral joys of dining. He also opened the world’s eyes to the notion that food is more than what goes in someone’s mouth and, hopefully, tastes good while offering sustenance. He shared that food is culture and that people make food in more ways than by just putting the ingredients together. He reminded us that an essential ingredient in every dish is heart; the chef’s love for the food and the people for whom he is making it. He showed Filipinos celebrating Christmas, late-night eats in Thailand, pre-dawn markets in France. Outside of the food, he showed how the people live – their homes, their streets, their languages – and he was never afraid to get down and dirty.

Recently, over the last three or four years, there have been posts in Facebook and articles in The New York Times and other publications touting Filipino food as the next wave of food. In the 1980s, Japanese food had a global breakthrough in everyone’s culinary enjoyment. Sushi, sashimi, wasabi, miso and other Japanese words became part of the global culinary lexicon. A few years after that, Thai food and tapas made inroads. Various forms of fusion cuisine popped up everywhere next. Middle Eastern food also had its moment in the spotlight. So, too, did Korean food. Now, it’s the time for Filipino cuisine to shine. As an Asian American who is mostly Filipino, this is exciting, but I can’t help from feeling that Bourdain, thanks to the courage of his televised global gastronomy, had a hand in this.

Anthony Bourdain was a chef. He was a writer. He was a television star. He was a celebrity. He was the coolest. At his core, however, I think he was just a Jersey guy who loved food. He didn’t care who made it, where it was made and, even how it was made. The bottom line was that the dish should be full of flavour and make him feel something. Kind of like life. Kind of like him.

 

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Mogo and Cubacan – Eating at Asbury Park

Mogo – Korean Fusion Tacos

Boardwalk and First Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ 07712

Monday – Thursday and Sunday 11am-10pm (or later)

Friday and Saturday 11am-3am (or later)

eatmogo.com

and

Cubacan Restaurant

800 Ocean Ave, Asbury Park, NJ 07712

(732) 774-3007

Open 11:30am – 10pm

cubacanrestaurant.com

I was recently at Asbury Park, somewhere I haven’t visited in more than twenty years. The boardwalk is still there but with some new storefronts and eateries. The Stone Pony, of course, is still there. So, too, is Convention Hall. What wasn’t there twenty years ago, however, that is there today are Cubacan and Mogo.

We were there as part of a mini-weekend getaway, staying at a friend’s place in Sea Girt. The weather wasn’t conducive to the going to the beach so we ventured into Asbury Park so my wife and son could experience a Jersey–perhaps, The Jersey–boardwalk. The rides and such weren’t too keen on our son’s list of things to do but the mini-golf was. We were also pressed for time and the weather wasn’t on our side so we made it a quick visit. During our time there, naturally, we got hungry so we perused the boardwalk and examined a couple of menus until we decided upon Cubacan for lunch. I’ll discuss more on that later.

As we strolled along the boardwalk, our son became famished and needed an immediate snack–or so he said. We came upon a small takeout stand called Mogo, which my wife and I had both heard of but never tried, so we decided to give it a go. Our son is not very adventurous when it comes to food and less so when he’s almost hangry (extreme hunger that leads to anger that turns a person into Karen Black a la The Exorcist). Our son has not yet exhibited hangriness (yet) but my wife has on occasion so it’s natural that one day he might. As for now, he takes after me–just deal with it.

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While Mogo was intriguing to my wife and I, my son didn’t want to have anything to do with it so he settled for an orange soda. So much for being famished. My wife and I, on the other hand, ordered one Bulgogi (beef) taco, one Sae Woo (shrimp) taco and one Jae Yook Bokkeum (pork) taco. Before I go on, let me say that I love Korean food. Ever since I first tried Bulgogi at Arirang Restaurant in Hong Kong–once in Causeway Bay but now in Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui­–to today when I go to Palisades Park, New Jersey or K-Town in Manhattan or Keo Ku Restaurant in Parsippany, New Jersey, I’ve had a love affair with Korean food. In fact, I count Kalbi Chim as one of my all-time favourite dishes. However, I also have to confess that, while many fusion dishes do succeed, I am, generally, not a fan of fusion cuisine. I was excited to try Mogo for the first time but, I’ll admit it, I was also apprehensive.

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Mogo Tacos; bottom to top, Bulgoggi, Sae Woo, Jae Yook Bokkeum

As tacos go, they were okay. I might even say they were good. They had the requisite taco trappings–vegetable garnish, some kind of salsa, the taco and the protein filling. Unfortunately, as a ‘fusion’ taco, I was a little dissatisfied. I was very excited as I bit into the first taco–the Bulgogi–and I wanted terribly to be knocked off my feet. I wasn’t. The beef itself was very tasty and comparable to most Bulgogi I’ve had at other Korean restaurants. Unfortunately, and here’s one reason why I don’t typically dig fusion cuisine, the tastiness of the meat and the sweat renderings of the Bulgogi marinade and seasoning were overshadowed by the pico de gallo and romaine lettuce. I didn’t taste the meat until several chews into my bite and this wasn’t because I’d bitten off only a small chunk of meat. It was like having a salad followed by the main course in one bite instead of having the two tastes come together in culinary harmony. With the Sae Woo, the shrimp itself lacked any kind of flavour. It was simply some kind of cooked shrimp buried under the toppings of its taco. The menu description says “tangy sweet and sour shrimp” but I tasted neither sweet nor sour in the shrimp when I pulled a piece out of the taco and ate it by itself. Lastly, the Jae Yook Bokkeum taco offered some redemption. The pork was delicious and something I’d like to have over rice. In its taco, combined with citrus-mayo slaw, there was something in each bite that the other two lacked. Each part expressed its own identity and they combined nicely with each bite. Unfortunately, the beef took a backseat to the pico de gallo and the shrimp just kept silent.

I’m not panning Mogo but I’m also not giving it raves. There was a long queue when we stopped by and there are days when things don’t always go right. The beef and pork, by themselves, did have tremendous flavour and as victuals, on a whole, there was some spicy kick and a nice contrast of crunchy and soft in each taco. As Korean fusion cuisine, however, at least on that day, it didn’t work for me and I really wanted it to. As a result, I’m still not a full-on convert to fusion cuisine. I would like to try Mogo again. Perhaps if the line isn’t long or maybe I’ll go to their sir-down restaurant, which is also located in Asbury Park. Unfortunately, I live a little far from Asbury Park so my next taste might not be for a while; but, hopefully not for too long a while.

As an Asian, good or bad, I’m naturally drawn to Asian and Pan Asian things. As a longtime student of Taekwondo, a Korean martial art, I have a pull towards Korean things as well. From both viewpoints, I wanted to love my Mogo tacos. I truly did but, alas, that didn’t happen. My experience with Mogo reminded me of something Bruce Lee said to Dan Inosanto, his best friend, student and training partner about martial arts and, specifically, the Filipino martial arts. He’d told Guro Inosanto, who is Filipino American, not to embrace the Filipino martial arts just because they’re Filipino. Bruce Lee was a pragmatist and examined many different martial arts and combat systems to develop himself into the best martial artist and fighter he could be. He took from (western) boxing, fencing, non-Chinese martial arts and Chinese martial arts to express himself. The same concept can be applied to cooking.

It was after our Mogo experience that we walked up and down the boardwalk, peered in storefronts and examined menus. The most interesting was from Cubacan–the first restaurant whose menu we looked at– and it was there where we decided to have lunch. Having had tacos to tie us over, we skipped ordering any starters.

For drinks, my son, whom I already mentioned is obsessed with orange soda, tried Cubacan’s version. It was house-made and not a Fanta or Sunkist and tasted more like an Italian Blood Orange Soda but with less fizz.

 

My wife and I weren’t sure if our son was going to like it but he did and gave it a ‘thumbs up’. For my wife and I, we tried the Red Sangria. It wasn’t as sweet as the Red Sangria I make, the recipe of which I stole from a Spanish restaurant on West 4th Street in Manhattan’s West Village. Nonetheless, it was a refreshing fruity drink that, if you’re not careful, you’re going to feel when you stand up. It wasn’t one of those cocktails that hide the alcohol but it wasn’t overbearing either. Regardless, it was delicious and perfect for a summer shore getaway.

For lunch, my wife had the Mejillones; blue bay mussels in a green jalapeno soup with fennel. There was, as expected, a hint of fresh garlic in the salsa.

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Mejillones

Mejillones is listed in the menu as an appetizer which, after having the Mogo tacos and scheduled to attend a dinner party later, was exactly the kind of healthy, light and extremely tasty lunch my wife was looking for. While it was very tasty, it wasn’t different from many of the other mussels in green sauce I’ve had at other Spanish or Hispanic restaurants.

I was a little nervous that our son wouldn’t be inspired by anything on the menu. He’s very picky and only eight and I thought it was going to be bread and butter for him but Cubacan has, also as a starter, Sliders de Cubana.

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Sliders de Cubana

He ordered that and he thoroughly enjoyed it even though it was a touch spicier than he would have preferred. The sliders at Cubacan aren’t made just from beef. They’re made with beef and chorizo (Spanish sausage common in Spain, South and Central America and Mexico), which is on the dry side and tangy. (Don’t confuse the Spanish-style sausage with the Filipino kind, which I knew growing up also as chorizo but is more commonly referred to as longanisa. Of the Filipino chorizo, there is a sweet variety and a spicy variety.) Although he had his without it, the Sliders de Cubana also comes with Manchego cheese. Accompanying the mini burgers on the plate were some very tasty, freshly made French Fries.

For me, I was torn between a traditional Cubano or the Choripan, a sandwich made of chorizo, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato. I asked our waitress which she recommended but she informed us that doesn’t eat meat and hadn’t tried either one. She did say that the Cubano was very popular so I went with that.

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Cubacan’s Traditional Cubano

I’ve had a Cubano before but here it was elegantly balanced. Between the roasted pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, each bite blended each flavour perfectly so I could taste each part by itself while chewing the sandwich as a whole. Compared to other Cubanos, the pork in this one was not dry and it was thinly sliced. It also tasted like the Roast Pork my college girlfriend’s mother would make during the holidays. My ex-girlfriend’s mother was from Spain but her husband was from Cuba and I have to say, to this day, hers is still the best Cuban Roast Pork I’ve had. Cubacan’s comes close. The pickles with Cubacan’s version were also thinly sliced which prevented it from overpowering the entire sandwich. Overall, the Cubano at Cubacan was a near perfect sandwich and one I highly recommend. My son tasted it and it also received his approval so it must be good and kid-friendly.

Accompanying our meal, we ordered two side dishes–Garlic String Beans and Yuca Fritta (Yucca Fries).

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Yuca Fritta

The only Yucca dish I’ve had previously and subsequently made on many occasions is boiled peeled yucca that is drizzled with olive oil and fresh garlic; another dish I learnt from my college girlfriend’s mother. So, when I saw a different yucca option, I ordered it and, boy, am I glad I did. To be honest, I still haven’t worked out if the Yuca Fritta is dipped in batter before it’s fried or if the batter effect is a natural result of the yucca when it’s deep fried. Either way, it’s an excellent side dish. Adhered to the surface of some of the yucca fries were crystals of rock salt or, perhaps they were some kind of garlic rock salt (Is here such a thing and, if so, where do I get it?). This, for me, made the dish. Accompanying the Yuca Fritta was a small dish of what tasted like a garlic pesto dip.

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Garlic String Beans 

The Garlic String Beans were equally as tasty, sautéed lightly in olive oil and chopped garlic. They were cooked just right, maintaining their crunchiness without being hard.

Overall, our trip to Asbury Park was a successful one. We enjoyed some down time, away from the mundane monotony of our lives, our son enjoyed some mini-golf and we all savoured some new dishes. As a result of this experience, I may begin a third culinary mission–find the best Cubano. I’m already on a quest for the best New England Clam Chowder and a search for a version of the Monte Cristo my father introduced me to at The Holiday Inn in Hong Kong. On my last trip to Hong Kong, in 2007, the Monte Cristo was no longer on the Holiday Inn’s coffee shop menu and the coffee shop itself was very different from the way it was in 1978. Back to the present, I give kudos to both Mogo and Cubacan for their innovations in the kitchen. Unfortunately, Mogo didn’t deliver its best but Cubacan did and I’m looking forward to my next meal there.

My ratings:

Cubacan – 1 1/2 bites

Mogo – 1 bite

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.

1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.

1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.

1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.

2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this. This is what I want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal. Epicurean Orgasm!