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Pig Heaven 

Some costly meals during an East Coast trip remind us that good things often come in inexpensive packages

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004
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During a recent trip to the East Coast, I spent hundreds of dollars in the pursuit of good meals, trying a catholic assortment of new, well-reviewed places, ranging from a tiny, cozy storefront offering eclectic seasonal cooking in Philadelphia to a huge, glitzy modern American cuisine emporium in a former bank building in D.C. to interesting Indian-fusion cooking in an underdecorated room in midtown Manhattan.

And on my return I found that the most memorable dishes, the ones I would love to eat again and again, the ones I feel the need to describe with gusto to my friends, were a plate of noodles that cost $4 and a pretzel that cost $1.40. Both were consumed in Philadelphia, under the aegis of my friend Jeff Weinstein, erstwhile restaurant critic of the Village Voice and author of one of my favorite food books, Learning to Eat. Jeff whisked me to Nan Zhou, a small, nondescript place in Philadelphia's Chinatown, almost as soon as we'd gotten off the train from New York. The only décor was provided by the man making the fresh noodles at a table in the back, flinging the fat tube of dough onto the floured surface repeatedly until it magically broke into thin strings. He then threw the noodles into boiling broth, and about 20 seconds later they were served to us. Jeff ordered my usual, the beef noodle, in which the fragile pasta is served in a bowl of broth with thin slices of stew beef and chopped onions; he instructed me to order the dish described as "hand drawn noodle with fried soy sauce," an unalluring description that translated into a plate of steaming noodles topped with a delicious thin ragout full of ground pork and crowned with lots of leafy cilantro. The steaming hillock looked like more than I could eat, but somehow I found myself twirling the last strands on my fork within a few minutes. Nan Zhou offers its impeccable noodles in a dozen variations, including lamb noodles, clam noodles, and chicken leg noodles (ranging in price from $4 to $5.50); I can't imagine any future trip to Philly that wouldn't include a feast there.

Nor would I want to miss the treat we had just a few blocks away at the Reading Terminal Market. Jeff steered me through the aisles of the place that advertises itself as "America's greatest public market since 1892," pointing out Bassett's Ice Cream ("Here since the beginning") and the scrapple at Dutch Country Meats on our way to my second revelation in dough: a pretzel made before our eyes by young girls in Amish costume at Fisher's Soft Pretzels. In a ritual that rhymed with the one we'd just witnessed at Nan Zhou, the baker picked up a tube of dough and, instead of flinging it onto the floured surface, deftly twisted it into, yes, a pretzel shape, which she quickly dipped into a container of melted butter and another of salt. A few minutes in the oven, another swish through melted butter, we handed over a buck and change, and it was ours. I'd initially thought myself too full of noodles for perfect enjoyment ("Can we come back tomorrow?" I begged. "No," Jeff said firmly. "The market's closed on Sunday," which he agreed was an odd decision for a place billed as Philadelphia's third-greatest tourist attraction after the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall). But within a block or two's stroll, the Best Pretzel I'd Ever Had was just a salty, buttery memory.

In the interest of complete honesty, I will admit that I did have one startlingly good, startlingly original, and expensive (though not startlingly so) meal in New York at Wylie Dufresne's new restaurant, wd-50. The dish I was dying to try was his much-written-about starter of fresh oysters somehow compressed into a tile-shaped square, but I was saddened to learn it had been taken off the menu ("He wanted people to order something else!" our waitress said). The block of foie gras topped with tiny silvery anchovies dusted with crunchy unsweetened cocoa nibs that I ordered instead was dazzling, as were my main course of chunks of long-cooked pork belly with fava beans and a bit of anise-scented sauce and my dessert of roasted pineapple served with lychee-cilantro sorbet and a squiggle of hot red-pepper jelly.

Still, as tasty as the offerings at wd-50 were, even a cursory glance at their ingredients reveals a kitchen aesthetic that's risky and challenging. Sometimes we want to dive into soft, pillowy dishes that are simply delicious, like the noodles and pretzel I enjoyed in Philadelphia. Or the two plates of pure pig heaven I discovered on my second visit to Mi Lindo Yucatan, a new Mexican spot in the Mission District.

My first lunch there was at the invitation of my colleague, the omnivorous Jonathan Kauffman of East Bay Express, whose snappy, erudite column has introduced me to many exciting places. The clean-but-modest premises (cash only, Formica tables, linoleum floors, the only décor a couple of red stripes painted around the open kitchen and a few pieces of folkloric Mexican dress casually nailed to the white walls) belied the somewhat grand subtitle printed on the menus: "El Arte de la Cocina Yucateca" (helpfully translated as "The Art of Yucatecan Cuisine"). But there were, indeed, many unfamiliar dishes on that menu, including salbutes, polcanes, and chilindrinas (among the more familiar empanadas and tamales) under antojitos, all of which we sampled on the platillo Mi Lindo Yucatan, an appetizer assortment that included two small versions of all of the above, plus flautas and tamales. The salbutes, like tiny chicken-and-avocado tostadas, were my favorite bites; the polcanes, nutty bullet-shaped cornmeal dumplings stuffed with lima beans and pumpkin seeds, and chilindrinas, tortilla squares filled with spinach and hard-boiled egg and drizzled with tomato sauce, were chewy, doughy, and interesting, if not completely alluring.

We went on to a shared plate of poc-chuc, a heap of tasty chunks of charbroiled pork, which we wrapped in puffy homemade corn tortillas with black beans and grilled onions, while Jonathan regaled me with tales of the street foods of Beijing and Shanghai he'd sampled on a recent trip. The kitchen was out of most of the desserts listed, so we settled for one called queso Napolitano, which turned out to be a wedge of dense flan paired with a ball of decent commercial vanilla ice cream.

"Next time have the cochinita pibil," was Jonathan's bit of parting advice, and it turned out to be as brilliant a tip as Jeff's insistence on the noodles with fried soy sauce. When I eventually tried the dish I was back for lunch with Joyce, and her moans of delight as she devoured the luscious, juicy chunks of pork flavored with achiote, which came to the table still wrapped in the banana leaves they'd roasted in, were extremely gratifying; I felt almost as proud as if I'd cooked it myself. I was less thrilled with the relleno blanco de pavo I'd ordered -- moist slices of roast turkey with garnishes of raisins, green olives, a flavorful heap of chopped gizzards, and a slice of homemade turkey sausage, but drenched in a slightly wan, gluey white sauce. (The same assortment of meats is better served by Mi Lindo Yucatan's black mole sauce.) We washed down the meal with an excellent cantaloupe agua fresca.

For dessert we shared a good rice pudding and an inadvertent rerun of the flan and ice cream (I forgetfully looked at "queso Napolitano" and decided it must be a cheese-based sweet). And since I was taking a couple of lunch items to go for officemates (crisp chicken flautas under drifts of crumbled queso fresco for $1.50 each, and a plate of boneless grilled chicken breast with orange-cilantro salsa, grilled vegetables, and rice for $7.25, which looked and tasted like a grilled chicken entree as served at trendy places all over town for more than twice the price), I threw in an order of frijol con puerco for my own dinner, later.

The stew of massive, succulent pork chunks in black beans was so delectable that I found myself duplicating Joyce's happy moans. Which pig dish did I like better, I wondered? The only fair way to judge, I decided, was by returning to the source and doing a side-by-side comparison. Probably -- certainly -- more than once.

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Meredith Brody

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