As those of you who followed Just DFACs, Ma’am, know, I got started in blogging as a food critic and eventually morphed into a regular grumpy-ass critic. Well, I’ll be getting back to my roots with this post and, I hope, many more restaurant reviews as I document Stuff I Ate.
Since I began my hobolife about 6 weeks ago, Joan and I have made several trips to The City for doctor appointments, visiting our eldest, shopping and the like. And, yeah, with only one city in the province (shut up Sydney, ya are not), we yokels refer to Halifax simply as “The City” as in “I ain’t bin to The City since they built the New Bridge”. Oh, I guess I should mention that the “New Bridge” is the Mackay that was built in 1970…not to be confused with the “Old Bridge”, the MacDonald, which opened in 1955. Anyway, we dined out quite a bit while in The City and I’ve got some shit to say about that.
The Secret of The Great Wall
Our go-to city place for authentic Chinese food used to be China Classic on Quinpool Road…its Spicy Squid was phenomenal. Unfortunately, it got sold, renamed and shittified several years ago. It was then that we discovered the wonder that is The Great Wall on Bedford Row. While we only eat there every couple of months or so, the owner, Patrick, always remembers us and warmly greets his “friends from The Valley”. And yes, there is more than one valley in Nova Scotia but the ones that aren’t the Annapolis Valley don’t count.
Having found several dishes we love, we pretty much always order the same thing: Dumplings, Salt and Pepper Squid, Ginger Beef, Singapore Noodles, and Beef with Peppers in Black Been sauce on Rice Noodles. Yeah, that last one seems like a rather long name for a dish but that’s only because it doesn’t appear on the menu. Joan had ordered it some time in the distant past and on each subsequent visit would remark “I don’t see it on the menu” inexplicably surprised that it remains not there. So, she always describes it for the waitress and Patrick whips it up for us.
Finally, the mystery of how Joan ever saw this dish on a menu was solved during our last visit. The waitress suggested that “if you guys like more authentic Chinese food, you ought to use the Secret Authentic Menu”. Holy shit, there’s apparently a secret menu that is primarily intended for use by their Chinese customers! The dishes are listed in both Chinese and English…I bet this is the one an extremely Anglo-Saxon waitress once gave to the very perplexed, non-English (or Chinese) speaking, mother of our Korean exchange student when we took her there. Needless to say, my blurting out “She’s Korean” didn’t lessen the awkwardness of that situation.
Anyway, the food at the Great Wall is always perfectly prepared and the service is excellent. We’re definitely going to be giving the Secret Authentic Menu a try on our next visit.
The Nova Scotian Government recently relaxed the laws governing micro-breweries. Now, I don’t know all the ins and outs of the changes but it appears they’ve finally wrested control from the People’s Central Committee of the Baptist Church Temperance Union or whoever the hell was keeping our liquour laws aligned with 1950 mores.
These changes have resulted in a proliferation of small breweries around the province. One of them, Bad Apple Brewhouse, opened up about a mile from my place. This is totally awesome in that I used to have to travel to The City to buy kegs for my Kegerator. The Politburo still doesn’t let you buy kegs anywhere but at a brewery so having one close to home, that produces wonderful, unique craft beers, is essential for the post-modern hobolife.
Back in February, when Jeff at Bad Apple told me he was selling his brew to Stillwell, a beer bar in Halifax, I was immediately intrigued. I kinda like beer, you see. Since, Joan and I were spending the night in Halifax due to some minor surgery she had scheduled for the next morning I took advantage of the opportunity to drag my non-beer drinking wife to Stillwell.
The place was quite a bit cleaner, brighter and more chic than most of the bars I’ve drunk beer in. Hell, the people in it were cleaner, brighter and more chic than most people I’ve drunk beer with. There were quite a few hipsterish, young twenty-somethings who fit right in with the young, black-wool-toque-wearing hipster waiters. Thankfully, there was also a group of four 40-50 year old guys standing at a table near the front…the sight of them made me feel slightly less anachronistic.
It’s a fun place for people watching. At one of the large, high tables there was another, lone 50ish guy enjoying his pint and peacefully reading the paper. In walked a group of four young women, who could have been no more than 19-20 years old. Unable to hear them over the mild din of the place, the pantomime drama that unfolded as they navigated the social awkwardness of the young adult world was delicious to watch. They had to sit at the table with the “old guy” which was seemingly distasteful enough for them but it was also clear that one of the women didn’t want to sit beside one of the other women. So, after some clumsy futzing about with chairs, they ended up with three on one side of the table and one on the other. It looked ridiculous. I could see the “old guy” smirking as he watched them from the corner of his eye. As soon as a booth came open they moved to it and, once again, we watched a slow motion soap opera unfold as one girl made sure she didn’t sit next to her nemesis and throughout their stay neither talked to nor made eye contact with the other. I’d love to know that back story! Fuck, I’m glad I’m 51. But I digress.
There are 12 taps on the wall arranged from lightest to darkest brew and, ingeniously, the colour of the pulls approximates the colour of the beer they dispense. Above each tap, on the chalkboard wall, there’s a thorough description of each beer. They even include the alcohol content for those who choose beers based upon their bang for the buck. I started with Bad Apple’s Falconer’s Flight Smash IPA they had brewed especially for Stillwell. It was a good ale but didn’t have as much body as their delicious American Pale Ale that I have on tap at home. I also tried Picaroon’s Dark and Stormy. I’m glad I only got the 5 oz taster size…it turns out I don’t like Dunkelweiss. It was really winey…just as was I after tasting it. My last beer was a pint of Propeller Pilsener. It was light, refreshing and a great palate cleansing accompaniment to our sticky dessert.
The food wasn’t your typical, store-boughten, direct from freezer to deep-fryer. pub fare. Not only was it unique, freshly made and delicious but the prices were extremely reasonable. Most ranged from $4-6 and, while ravenous pigs might be disappointed with the portion sizes, I thought they were just right for someone who wants to offset a little peckishness without compromising their beer consuming abilities. Remember, beer has food value but food has no beer value. I had the Southern Fried Chicken Leg which had been prepared using a buttermilk and Sriracha brine and had a great, if somewhat messy, honey glaze. I loved it. Joan had The Diner Burger which had toppings of bocconcini and a rosemary mushroom duxelle. Yeah, I didn’t know what a duxelle was either. Turns out it’s just a fancy name for stuff mushed together. Normally, such pretension would annoy me but it seemed to go with the toques. Regardless, it tasted great.
As much as I do my mandatory old man griping about the hipster get ups and toques indoors (of all things!), the service was excellent. Our waiter could describe the qualities and origin of each of beer and took his time helping us in choosing our snacks. So much so, in fact, that I think our order of Sailor Jerry’s Doughnuts (with miso butterscotch) got a little overdone as he and I discussed the various brews. He suddenly dispatched himself to the kitchen with a cry of “Oops, the doughnuts” in the middle of our conversation. Joan felt Sailor Jerry let them soak up a little too much grease while I found the extra lardishness delightful.
I very much enjoyed Stillwell. The food is excellent and the beer selection is eclectic and ever changing. Sure, I may be a
little lot older than their cool, hip demographic but, goddammit, out of shape, middle-aged guys are pretty much THE experts on beer drinking and we have the guts to prove it. I’ll certainly be back…maybe even rockin’ some skinny jeans pulled midway up my beer belly.
Kimchee Comme Ca
Later that evening we went to Seoul on Duke St. for some Korean food. We’d been there several times before and it was reliably good but rarely spectacular. This latest experience was pretty much the same. Our starters were some very meaty gonmandu fried dumplings and the complimentary kimchee and we enjoyed them both. While Jaeyuk Bokeum iis always a sweet dish, Joan found hers to be a little cloying so. I tried something new with the Haedeopbap which is essentially a raw salmon salad with a spicy/sweet sauce. I really enjoyed the sauce but the salmon had obviously been frozen as it was still icy/hard in the middle. This made the dish somewhat unpleasant.
And, hey, you know those cheap wooden chopsticks that are attached at one end? Yeah, the ones that you need to break apart and every time you start to do so, you think “Oh fuck, one of these is gonna break” but you keep pulling anyway and, much to your surprise, they always break cleanly as they’re supposed to? Yeah, that didn’t happen. For the first time in my life, I broke ’em wrong. I swear I did nothing differently than usual. Anyway, the experience put me in a sour mood which may have made me enjoy frozen salmon less than I should have.
The Healthy Non-Choice
As I mentioned, we were in The City for Joan to have a minor surgical procedure. As I waited around in the hospital, I wandered down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. All the choices were pretty healthy with nary a deep fryer or chocolate bar in sight. I chose a pre-packaged tuna sandwich and bottle of water. After paying for it I moseyed over to the condiment area for some salt. I fucking love salt. They had no salt. There were two bins…each filled with pepper. I chalked this up to a temporary shortage…until I came down later for a doughnut. I’d noticed the Tim Horton’s there on my first visit and as Joan lollygagged in recovery, I thought “mmm…doughnut”. So, I went down the 3 floors to Tim’s only to encounter a wall of fucking muffins! Sure, muffins are ok in a survival situation but once one has doughnuts on the brain, they’re simply inadequate. It appears the QEII Health Centre has decided I’m not old enough to make my own dining decisions.
I’m sorry to tell you, Big Brother, that your nefarious plan backfired. You see, we’d stopped by Freak Lunchbox on Barrington Street after leaving Stillwell the day before. It’s a cool store that has all kinds of retro candy. On my first visit I wondered “How old must this Lucky Elephant Popcorn be? It can’t be safe”. Turns out, however, that their inventory wasn’t found in some decrepit 1970’s era warehouse in Cleveland…it’s being made fresh for us boomers. Filling up bags with “penny candy” was wonderfully nostalgic but the young’n behind the counter seemed perplexed when I handed her a quarter in payment. I don’t think me eating $17 worth of candy in their waiting room was QEII’s intended outcome when they denied me a goddamn apple fritter.
There must be some sort of massive conspiracy of people trying to get me into shape. I was chagrined to notice that, at some point in the last 30 years, Peddler’s was turned into a gym. Were they hoping that, on some mid-afternoon, I’d drunkenly wander into the premises looking for some cheap draft and Swell Guys tunes, as I was wont to do circa 1984, and I’d accidentally do 4 miles on a treadmill while waiting for the guy with the tray to come around? Yeah, ain’t gonna happen.
Last week, we spent another night in The City to attend a reading at a University by an author of whom I’d never heard and whose books I’d never read. My wife, however, loved her writing and, like the good husband that I am, I tagged along and we spent the night. Thankfully, our youngest daughter is a cook at the Delta Lodge in Kananaskis so we get the “family rate” at the Delta Halifax. That makes being a good husband a lot more palatable.
The reading was, to my unlettered mind, a train wreck. There were very few people there…5 students, 4 profs and us. The woman doing the introduction, who I assume was a prof, had the charisma of an opossum as she stumbled and mumbled her way through it, inducing empathetic cringes throughout the tiny audience. I can’t imagine the pain her lectures must cause her students. The author herself seemed a little bitter and to just want to get it over with.
Thankfully, a student’s phone started to ring about 15 minutes into the author’s talk and, while his clumsy fumbling through his bag as it rang 4 times was annoying, it pissed me off just enough to forestall the incipient nap which had been about to overwhelm me. Then there was the student who noisily arrived about 10 minutes into the author’s talk and, rather than quietly taking a seat in one of the many, many unobstructed chairs, decided he just had to push through behind Joan and I so he could sit with his non-phone-answering friend. Asshole.
Staving off unconsciousness yet again, I began to muse about how university culture and behaviour, particularly behaviour while someone is giving a presentation, differed so markedly from what was expected of us when I was in the Air Force. As I was fantasizing about the rude students and inept prof being berated by a red faced Chief Warrant Officer, the Q&A portion of the talk started. One of the profs in the audience asked a question and, although all the noises he made were words, they made no sense when he strung them together as he did. I figured he was just a pompous windbag but my wife later informed me that he’s actually a renowned Canadian author who just happens to also be a pompous windbag.
Once again, I’ve wandered off topic. Oops. Anyway, before the reading we went to Talay Thai on Barrington for dinner. We started with spring rolls and fish cakes. The spring rolls had been voted best in Halifax by somebody but that somebody had obviously never eaten at Fong Sing (discussed below) on Lacewood. They were meh. The fish cakes, made with what tasted like salmon were, however, meaty, full flavoured with lots of herbs, and very filling. They are, thankfully, nothing like the mushy, bland fishcakes one gets at diners throughout the Maritimes.
I asked for a Tiger beer but, despite it being on the menu, it was unavailable. I was going to default to Singha, a reliably decent Thai brew when the waitress suggested something that sounded like “Shin – a very good Thai beer”. Always open to new beer experiences, I ordered one. Unfortunately, she took the bottle away after filling my glass and I didn’t see the name. The bottles I espied on other tables with my crappy eyesight and subsequent google searches lead to me to believe it was Chang beer. It’s imperative that I positively identify it so I never have to suffer through it again.
You know when you go to a friend’s place and, in accordance with law, he offers you a beer and, after you accept, he tells you he brews his own? You get that sinking feeling in your gut as he hands you a glass filled with a cloudy, funky-tasting beer-like substance and you have to choke it down? Yeah, it was like that. It tasted like home-brew by someone who really doesn’t know how to remove sediment or, in fact, brew. Yeah, I drank it all but only on principle.
As we perused the menu, Joan raved about a squid dish she had tried on a previous visit sans moi. Remembering it as having been deep fried, she ordered the Garlic Squid. While properly cooked and, therefore, tender, it really didn’t have much more flavour than one gets from standard deep fried calamari rings. This is not the dish Joan had in mind…we’ll have to try on of the four other squid dishes next time.
The highlight of the meal was the Basil Chicken. It was pretty much the perfect dish. The fresh taste of the basil and slight sweetness of the sauce was just enough to offset the mild-medium chili driven heat. We liked it so much that we googled a recipe for Thai Basil Chicken and made a special trip to that great Asian grocery, Taishan, on Queen Street, to get some Golden Mountain sauce, a prime ingredient. We made it at home later that week and it was at least as good (maybe better?) than the awesome stuff at Talay Thai. So, if you go to Talay Thai and don’t get the Basil Chicken, you’re an idiot.
Mex in The City
The next day we went to one of my favourite fast-ish food places in The City, Habaneros on Windmill Rd in Dartmouth. They’ve got an interesting set up at this one in that they share the space with a burger/poutine joint called Cheese Curds. As good as Cheese Curds’ burgers look, I’ve never eaten there because I love Habanero’s too much to forgo a chance to scarf down their tacos.
Habaneros’ menu can be a little intimidating at first…there are just too many choices. You can select from soft flour or hard corn tortillas or a combination with is a hard shell inside a soft shell. Then you can select the filling: pulled pork, beef, chicken, beans or rice. The last step are the toppings and there are too many to list but be sure to get some of the fresh pico de gallo. My new standard order is three tacos. One hard corn tortilla with beef, one soft flour with pulled pork and a combo-tortilla with chicken and I just randomly get different toppings for each one. It’s a new taste every time.
One this occasion, Joanie decided to give Cheese Curds a try. She opted for the Pork Schnitzel Burger. I’m sorry to report that neither one of us liked it one bit. The bun was nice and fresh and the bacon jam condiment was great…but the schnitzel tasted anything but homemade. It had a mushy, almost wet sawdust-like consistency. She didn’t eat more than a few bites…and Joanie loves her schnitzel. I’d be willing to give the place another try as their burgers look good…if a little too over-top-big for my appetite…but as long as I know awesome tacos are a few steps away, I don’t think I’ll be eating there.
Having heard how much I loves me some Habaneros, imagine how delighted I was when, just a few days ago, we saw a Habaneros food bus parked at Bayers Lake. I have no idea why it’s made to look like a giant frog but it sure is noticeable. My hopes of a delicious taco lunch extravaganza were quickly dashed, however, as we pulled up only to see a large sign reading “Cash Only”. “Well, we could go find a bank machine”, I muttered dejectedly, to which Joan replied “Fuck it, let’s get Vietnamese”. So, WTF, Habaneros? What is this, 1937? No one carries cash anymore. Why don’t you take Interac or Visa? There’s an app for that, fer chrissakes. Argh!
Fong Singin’ for our Supper
After the Habaneros bus debacle, we headed on down Lacewood to Fong Sing, our favourite Vietnamese restuarant in Halifax. This unassuming little place is in one of the ubiquitous strip malls that dot this part of town. While we’ve eaten here many times, we haven’t explored too much of the menu. We really like what we really like and that would be the Spring Rolls and Salad Rolls for starters and the Vermicelli with Grilled Pork (me) or Vermicelli with Tofu (Joan). We’ve also tried the Lemongrass Beef and Pork, Hot and Sour Soup and pretty much all the Pho variations, and, while their all really, really good, nothing beats the spicy freshness of the vermicelli dishes. We feel virtuous and healthy after eating lunch at Fong Sing. We should do it more often as it obviates the need for our far-too-frequent Windsor McD’s drive-thru binges on the way home from The City…and the inevitable self-loathing and mild nausea that accompanies them.
Them city folks sure got some good eats even if they is kinda stuck up.
“A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one” – Aristotle