Sunday, September 2, 2012

Finally, finally, made it out to Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe in Chelmsford, MA.  This appears to be a pizza joint converted into a Chinese take-out place.  From the name, you wouldn't expect to find a few of the best Xi'an dishes outside of Flushing, Queens.  As might be expected, you order at the counter, help yourselves to utensils and napkins, grab sodas out of the fridge, and are served on trays.

Larry T and John B joined me for a romp through the menu.  Everybody had their own bowl of Hand-Pulled Noodles -- imagine a 3 foot long noodle, roughly equivalent to a lasagna sheet in texture and made entire by hand.  Star of the menu, certainly.  Served warm with a spicy chili sauce and minced garlic in a lot of chili sesame oil.  Stir it up, and dig in.  Larry was having some difficulty making a neat, polite bite full using only chopsticks, which occasioned this piece of advice:  "Look, it's too long. It'll be easier to just put one end into your mouth and start sucking." 

We each also had our own flatbread sandwich, filled either with pulled pork or spicy strips of flank steak with chili peppers and lots of cumin.  Sadly, the pork was nothing special.  The steak - made of beef rather than the typical lamb, no doubt in deference to local patron's taste - was much better, with the cumin redolent of the best of such sandwiches. 

Despite being, admittedly, full at this point, we couldn't let this opportunity pass.  So we shared two more noodle dishes.  The Xi'an cold noodles were typical thin wheat noodles in a milder version of the minced garlic in chili sesame oil sauce, with toppings consisting of shredded carrots and cucumbers, bean sprouts and cilantro.  Also included was what was described as a tea egg, but to my eye looked and tasted more like a soy-simmered egg.  Stir it all up, and voila!

The last noodle dish was the House noodle soup.  The same thin wheat noodles in a chicken-based soup with a splash of vinegar and the same spicy chili sesame oil.  The veggies in the soup were what I'd guess would be corns, peas and carrots out of a frozen bag.  One wouldn't think it special, but for the thin strips of scrambled egg (think Tamago, but not rolled) and especially the double-cooked pork belly, which elevated this otherwise plain noodle soup.

The only real disappointment was due to the fact that my favorite Xi'an dish, the Liang Pi noodles (on the menu as "Xi'an Chilled Noodles") sells out early and are available only on weekends.  We missed out.  Doh.  We were also tempted to try the Lamb stew with noodles, but ran out of appetite.  A return for the Liang Pi noodles and Lamb stew is on order.

It should be noted that Gene's also serves a few, uh, American dishes, no doubt to appease the local workforce stopping by for lunch - or more likely, the less-adventuresome friends who are being dragged here for lunch.  These include Lo Mein, chicken teriyaki, crab rangoon, chicken fingers, etc.  No, we did not order any of those.

Bottom line -- very highly recommended for anyone who appreciates Chinese noodle dishes, particulary Xi'an style with lots of garlic and chili sauce.  Worth a try, in any event.  We'll be back.

Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
257 Littleton Rd
Chelmsford, MA 01824
(978) 256-6789

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A hop down to Atlanta for a Fried Chicken Sampler

Yes, I have an abiding love and passion for Popeyes Fried Chicken, explored in great detail elsewhere.  I honestly think the spicy thigh is the best piece of fried chicken in the world, hands down -- and even the Wall St Journal agrees, comparing it to "legendary" fried chicken joints across the South.

A very short trip to Atlanta allowed me the opportunity to test this theory myself.  I flew in on a Monday, arriving at lunchtime.  I walked right by this Popeyes outlet in the ATL airport, which brought back the fond memories of enjoying some chicken at this very outlet on my way to Zurich and Maranello.  But, for once in my life, I passed by an airport Popeyes because I had to save room for . . .

Mary Mac's Tea Room, one of the few remaining grand dames of Atlanta tea rooms.  Although fully update, it still has an atmosphere of what I imagined to be, say, 1957, though it's fully integrated today (about 40% of the diners were white during my visit).  Walking in, I was reminded of just how friendly Southerners really are, and their hospitality isn't the result of hours of Danny Meyer-esque training.

My meal here started with a potlikker (complimentary for 1st time visitors), which I learned is the hot liquid from boiling collard greens and seasoned with pork.  The waitress indicated that I should break up a small piece of cornbread --itself embedded with pork!-- and dip it in the liquid, like dropping oyster crackers into chowder.  Tasty?  Sure.  But since I didn't have any childhood memories of this tradition, it didn't make me dying for more.

I ordered the Southern tradition of a meat and two sides, in this case the fried chicken meal for $12.50, with four pieces (leg, thigh, wing, breast), along with an extra side.  I also had the first of many sweet teas in Atlanta, the version here being an exemplar of the breed.

The fried green tomatoes:  fried to perfection; the crisp and hot exterior was a nice contrast to the cooler, crisp bite of the tomato.  The cheese and veggie soufflĂ© was delicious, though somewhat indistinct.  The sweet potato soufflĂ©, complete with a dab of marshmallow fluff, was sweeter than many desserts.

But what about the chicken?  The chicken was . . . good, but better can be had elsewhere.  The dark meat was very good, and the crust was traditional.  The breast suffered from being overcooked and dry.  Overall, I'll give Mary Macs high points for ambiance and wonderful service, not to mention an excellent value.  I'd eagerly return to sample the other Southern specialities, but the fried chicken?  Good, but not memorable.  I'll add that Mary Macs does have a Goodwill Ambassador that roams from table to table, offering guests a back rub.  Hmmmm....

A late dinner was had at Curly's Fried Chicken, a take-out storefront that seems to be a renovated, modernized version of what may have been a long-standing neighborhood favorite.

Very upscale, nattily dressed and German-SUV-driving African Americans comprised the majority of the patrons, while the remainder consisted of local college students.  Surprisingly busy for 10:30 pm on a Monday night.  A few parking spaces out front, and only a handful of bar-top tables.

I had the Dre's Combo for $8, with three thighs, a slice of white bread, cole slaw and a heaping pile of fried okra.  The frying technique was impeccable, with each piece of okra being a nugget of juiciness encased in a pipping hot shell.  The chicken had a very light cornmeal coating.  Though cooked properly, it wasn't particularly seasoned, and the pieces were definitely traditional "fryer" chicken, on the small side.  Hot sauce was available, but the chicken was supposed to be "spicy", though it was barely detectable.  Verdict:  the chicken was better than Mary Mac's, but still not nearly as good as Popeyes.

Lunch on Tuesday had to be rushed, as I had a plane to catch.  I stopped at The Busy Bee Cafe, but the line out the door convinced me to just order it as takeout.  The interior is what one might expect a 65 year-old Atlanta institution to resemble, though the website is thoroughly hipster-ized. 

The food was definitely disappointing.  I had the fried chicken special for $12.99 - two pieces, dark or white, and two sides.

The carrot souffle was sweetened carrots mixed in a blender and served with an ice cream scoop.  The broccoli and cheese casserole appeared to be those two ingredients, blended and stirred into a box of rice pilaf, and again served with an ice cream scoop.  The chicken was somewhat overcooked, though crispy, with a flour crust.  No particularly outstanding flavor.  Just standard fried chicken that could be had most anywhere, probably even at your local Chilis.  Not a great value either, and overall, something of a bummer.

What did I learn in my 24-hours in Atlanta?  That I did possess the will to bypass Popeyes, not once but twice (the thought did occur to get a piece on my way home through ATL, if only to scrub the memory of the Busy Bee).  That I do very much enjoy traditional Southern cooking, and look forward to going back to Mary Mac's.  And Curly's Fried Chicken resembled nothing so much as Kelley's Roast Beef in Revere.  Popeyes still reigns.  Got suggestions?  Let me know!

Addendum:  I also grabbed a small order of Mighty Wings, a new menu item that McDonald's is testing in greater Atlanta.  Really, I happened to be in the one place in America that McDonald's is testing fried chicken; how could I *not* try it?  Quick verdict:  I got the batch at 5pm, and I suspect it had been sitting in the holding station for some time.  Overcooked -- but it showed great promise, as it was still quite tasty.  If McDonald's decides to make it a standard menu item, it'd raise the average for them (see the review here).