My AFC Wild Card Cook-Off: Houston vs Buffalo

In celebration of the NFL playoffs this year, I have decided to pay homage for foods well known in the participating cities. Even if I haven’t been to some of the cities, it’s not hard to find a few culinary gems one can recreate in the comfort of their own kitchen.

After watching the game itself, I can draw a few conclusions:

  1. Buffalo is cursed. Josh Allen does appear to have the tools necessary to win a few games but he’s gotta learn how to use them. At 6’5″, he pitches the ball versus throws it which certainly isn’t helped by the fact, as an announcer put it, his receiving core are “smurfs”. His naivety was clear in the 4th quarter where he literally pulled his team out of field goal range and handed Houston the win.
  2. American announcers have a hard-on for JJ Watt. It became nauseating listening to those clowns suggest that JJ’s sack was the turning point in the game and that anybody who could even dream of returning from pectoral surgery so quickly is nothing short of a god. The man love was truly nauseating and a reminder of why I mute sports events at times, especially given the fact they mic’d him up and we all got to hear his Tony Robbins’ motivational crap all game.
  3. Watching DeShaun Watson it like watching a roulette wheel spin and you have the house on red. Events like his Houdini move in this game remind us he’s far from a sure thing and that JJ Watt probably had something to do with it anyway.

The food showdown involved a menu of items representative of the two cities. This one was a bit easy…ribs vs wings. In order to up the ante a bit I added a few other dishes; Texas Caviar and Western New York’s famed sandwich… the beef on weck. I haven’t been to Houston but it’s culinary scene seems to be improving. I also have a good friend there so it’s on my list for 2020. I have been to Buffalo numerous times (the last time to watch the Bills beat the Flaccoless Broncos) and have had the privilege of indulging in a Charlie the Butcher’s beef on weck. I have also dropped by the original Anchor bar to pig out on a platter of wings.

It started with making some Texas BBQ sauce. Although there are no shortage of online renditions of Lone Star sauces, there are a few commonalities which include a good amount of sugar and lots of apple cider vinegar. In the end, I opted for Aaron Franklin’s Masterclass recipe which in the end was a perky and more biting version of many of the sauces sold on store shelves. The back ribs were slowly cooked (275 degrees)for a few hours and the sauces was added for the last 30 and the temp upped a few degrees which resulted in a slight caramelization but a maintenance of the strong vinegar flavour.

Texas caviar is a side dish open to creative interpretation as well. Usually it consists of some combination of the following ingredients: black-eyed peas and/or black beans, peppers, jalapeno, tomato, onion and avocado. Then it is usually dressed with some kind of vinaigrette ranging from Italian dressing to an olive oil with red or white wine vinegar. I used all the above ingredients to maximize taste and texture and finished it with aforementioned olive oil/red wine vinegar combination. The subtle acid nicely cut the fattiness of the other dishes and provided a bit of refreshment similar to smart Josh Allen play in the second half if you happen to be a Bills’ fan.

Texas Caviar

I cook wings all the time and opted for a straight forward oven-baked version sauced with hot sauce and butter in typical buffalo style. When it comes to wings, there are no fancy sides necessary…celery and carrots with a tub of blue cheese works every time. I often go full out deep fry but I was kind of drunk and lazy by this point.

Wings…Carrots and Celery Missing..I was a little sauced myself.

Since wings are pretty easy I tackled the famed beef on weck as well. I seasoned up an outside round and threw in the oven for a few hours (at the same temperature as the ribs) until it was medium. After a rest, I sliced it up and through on some homemade Weck buns (ensuring to leave the polarizing caraway seeds off half the batch). I wasn’t the biggest fan of this recipe which called for almost 25 minutes of bake time at 425 which would have turned them into footballs even Tom Brady couldn’t deflate. They were a little dense for my liking but gives me something to work on for next year..just like Josh. In the end, it was no Charlie the butcher but made for a great pigskin snack.

For dessert I went with a dish from the eventual game winner; Texas bread pudding with a Whisky butter sauce. It was a pretty standard pudding using some old buns and brioche I had kicking around (I wouldn’t recommend the weck buns given the caraway!). I threw in some raisins and pecans for good measure. The whisky sauce called for 1/3 cup of bourbon which retrospectively was a bit much reminding that everything (including the risk of getting drunk off dessert) is in fact bigger in Texas.

Texas Bread Pudding with Whisky Butter Sauce

My Take

Although not a game for the Super Bowl, “wide right” may be tempered somewhat by “don’t get sacked when you’re in field goal range in overtime” or “I don’t give a shit if he’s Houdini…tackle him”. As for the food, both regions represent great party foods. The BBQ sauce was tangier than I’m used to buying and would almost pass as a good wing sauce as well. The Texas caviar would shut the pie holes of any vegan viewers (or you could just slap down some carrots and celery and keep the extra blue cheese for your wings). For dessert, I suspect many Bills fans would have ignored the pudding and lapped up the Whisky sauce as a new way to drown this decade’s new football sorrow.

Sandwiches: Not Only Damn Good but the Possible Key to Better Understanding the Generation Gap

More and more, the news is filled with stories of millennial opinion and influence. I recently read an article in Forbes magazine outlining the pending transfer of wealth from the boomers to the youngest generation and the disaster which may ensue. The #okboomer movement has been plastered all over social media and I even had to watch a news story about millennial preference for mayonnaise versus cranberries as an accompaniment for Christmas turkey. Things were further fueled by a recent discussion/argument I had with my son about the definition of a generation. I adhere to more of a biological definition whereas he looks at it more in a social context. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a generation is “a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor” or “a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously” so by definition we are both correct. However, I find it hard to define a generation by an arbitrary range of years endorsed by Wikipedia. For example, I have a daughter born in 1995 and my aforementioned son was born in 1997. Depending on the day of the week, both exhibit varied levels of millennial qualities such as entitlement, cluelessness and a hands-off but highly opinionated concept of social justice. However, despite having the same parents and being born 2 years apart, the are supposedly of a different generation since the most agreed upon cut-off for Generation Y (aka. millennial, echo boomers) and Generation Z (who avidly insist they are NOT millennial) is 1996.

So instead of using the letters XYZ or trending hashtags to categorize generations and since this is a food blog, maybe I can explain my thoughts using an analogy more in my wheelhouse…the sandwich.

Boomers– Boomers are the upper part of the sandwich. Historically, they have protected the rest of the sandwich from things like aggressive cling wrap, flies and other sandwich predators and generally are seen as crusty. These days, many see the upper crust as unnecessary as indicated by preferences for open faced concepts like avocado toast or tuna melts.

Generation X- Gen Xs are the sandwich filling. They touch both the upper and lower parts of the sandwich and are the most necessary for the total functionality of the sandwich. Although sometimes feeling a bit smothered by the upper crust, there is a general appreciation of the role they play (and played). Tuna is tuna and turkey is turkey…there is much less of a need to acutely define themselves.

Millenials/Gen Y, YZ etc. aka Echo Boomers. The base of the sandwiches. Feel as if they are burdened by bearing the weight of anything above them. As a result, they probably eat Big Macs upside down (after ordering on Skip the Dishes) to feel a sense of entitlement. Unlike the boomers who admit they are simply bread, it is important for millennials to sub divide themselves into categories like gluten/dairy free, organic, thin, texas toast, spelt, 12 grain, brioche, rustic, artisan, olive, vegan, panetonne or sourdough.

Speaking of sandwiches, I’m a huge fan of sandwiches and figured this would be a good time to review some of the better ones I’ve had this year. First, a few observations:

  1. I sadly did not eat enough sandwiches last year. Lunch is a meal I’m often likely to skip so it usually means the chance at a good sandwich is sacrificed.
  2. In some situations, a sandwich can be enhanced with a good side, vibe or concept so I also take this into consideration.
  3. Tacos and burgers are not sandwiches….they are…well…tacos and burgers.

Charlie the Butcher– Buffalo

I love regional foods and Western New York’s Beef on Weck in one of the best. Charlie the Butcher in Buffalo offers one of the best. The combination of the salted bun, tender beef and quick dip in the au jus makes for a near perfect sandwich. In addition, the sides are incredible (try the slaw) and if you are lucky enough you might even see Charlie himself slaving away in the kitchen..hard hat and all.

Good Friend Sandwich Company-Brantford

I stumbled across this place after a quick google search and have been back a few times since. It is a house converted into a homey sandwich shop owned and operated by aboriginals. While waiting you can peruse the shelves and look at language books or have a fun conversation with the woman behind the counter who is super friendly. There are a dozen or so choices including an apple and brie cheese panini with an addictive caramel dipping sauce (pictured below), the bacon butty (bacon on buttered buttermilk bread) and classics like pulled pork and beef dips. A small handful of chips is mandatory with every sandwich based on the simple logic that you can’t have a sandwich without a simple side…works for me.

Good Friends Sandwich Company- Apple and Brie Cheese Panini

Larder– Cleveland

Larder comes with great fanfare as it was a James Beard semi-finalist for best new restaurant in 2019. Set up in an old firehall, the space is adorned with old stoves, shelves of pickles and elixirs. The pork shoulder Reuben was a solid sandwich and is available with plenty of deli sides and served by very pleasant staff.

Larder’s Pork Shoulder Reuben

Deli Board-San Francisco

San Francisco is a haven for overpriced but great food and Deli Board is no exception. You’ll pay close to $20 US for a sandwich but it’s well worth it. There is a core menu plus daily specials so there is no shortage of choice. I went with a special called the Bubba (roast beef, bacon, cheddar, provolone, cherry pepper, slaw and 1000 island) served on their garlic dutch crunch bread. The space is clean and the service is efficient but this sandwich was so good you could have served it out of a Coleman cooler on a street corner and I’d still be happy.

The Bubba

Loops-Columbus

The Italian beef sandwich at Loops in Columbus was memorable. One of Guy’s DDD choices, the star of this Chicago-style sandwich was the giardiniera which provided a tangy and spicy punch to otherwise normal roast beef.

Loops’ Italian Beef Sandwich

Mermaid Avenue Sandwich Factory– Kingston

Any place that hinges its entire concept around a music group is cool with me. In the case of Mermaid Avenue sandwich company it’s Wilco, the Chicago based alternative band. They have a nice variety of offerings and while you wait you can get your fill of all things Wilco. My choice was the “How to Fight Loneliness ( Deli chicken, honey mustard, apple slices, cheddar cheese & bacon). I’ll admit, the protein was a little scarce but overall it’s a fun place to pop into for a quick bite.

Cake and Loaf-Hamilton

This bakery usually puts out 1-2 sandwiches a day on rotation and it’s first come first serve. However, I did call in advance and they were able to hold me a couple for pick up. In particular, the chicken jalapeno in incredible as is the tuna melt. While there, the bakery itself is amazing as well. You can score everything from scones to a take home pulled pork and mac and cheese pie.

My Take

First, I think I need to eat a few more sandwiches because there is no shortage out there. Second, I think I will start to refer to generations in the context of foodstuffs especially since I’m convinced my generation is the exciting stuff. Soon enough things will change and the next generation can take over the filling and stress the keto, oceanwise, free range or whatever makes a good hashtag or social cause. In the meantime, wait for your #okboomer inheritance, #stayinyourlane and remember #cranberriesarebetterthanmayo.

Looking for Redemption at Shawshank: My Own Amazing Race Without the Need for a Permanent Reminder

Sometimes you come across things by chance. The initial plan on the way from Cleveland to Columbus was to hit one of the many Amish buffets that populate mid-Ohio. However, I still super full from the previous day. Curious about the weather, I flipped on the news to look at the map and get the forecast and saw that the town of Mansfield, Ohio was about halfway to Columbus travelling down highway 71. After a quick internet search, I discovered two things; Mansfield, in particular the Ohio State Reformatory, was the venue for the 2019 Inkcarceration tour featuring the likes of Godsmack, Five Finger Death Punch and a whole lot of tattoo artists which, as a guy who’s skin is a blank canvas, wasn’t particularly appealing. Second, the same prison was the hub for the filming of the Shawshank Redemption which hit theaters 25 years ago. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this movie, which follows the wrongful conviction Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) has achieved cult-like status. That year, it couldn’t compete with Forest Gump and the Lion King but surprisingly, it didn’t even crack the top 50 in box office earnings that year and was even beaten by the likes of Beverly Hills Cop III, Richie Rich and the Schwarzenegger classic Junior. Nonetheless it was nominated for 7 Oscars including best picture (at a a time when there weren’t 17 candidates), best adapted screenplay and best actor for Morgan Freeman. It failed to win any. Also, it seemed a fitting tour stop given the fact I stomped around Bangor, Maine last year posing near numerous landmarks referenced in Stephen King’s “It” so why stop now.

One can tour the reformatory for $15 and we got lucky because it was the first day it was open following the concert (they were still disassembling the stages and cleaning up the grounds when we arrived). The tour is a peek into the history of the Ohio penal system with a number of Shawshank references scattered throughout. One gets a bit gobsmacked (or is it Godsmacked) viewing things like the electric chair, shanks (made from spoons, pencils and other routine prisonware) and the eerie symmetry of the numerous cells stacked on top of each other. In regards to the movie, you can also the warden’s office, the infamous “Brooks was here” room, the solitary confinement area where Andy spend a lot of fine as well as the tunnel that was used for his escape. Cardboard cutouts of various characters including the ominous Captain Hadley are strategically placed throughout the grounds to recreate many of the movie scenes.

Other movie scenes scattered throughout the town of Mansfield itself which are identified by Shawshank Trail signs which made me feel like I was competing on the amazing race. These included the building who’s front facade was the movie’s halfway house and the green bench Brooks rested and reflected on after his release. There is also the Food Way(now a convenience/grocery store called the KV market) which was used in the movie. It was purchased by a Brampton family and now looks nothing like the market Red was employed at following his release. I had a nice chat with the owner’s son about life in rural Ohio and whether the Honey Jalapeno Fetty Wap chips were any good.

The Shawshank trail also scoots up to Upper Sandusky (which is south of Sandusky….). Here you can see the courthouse where Andy was originally sentenced in the movie as well as the workshop where many of the prisoners worked throughout the movie. Other than that, it is a quaint Northern Ohio place with a picturesque central street where you can get a decent coffee and a friendly small town smile at a place called Beca House Coffee Co.

Given I stumbled across Mansfield by fluke at the 11th hour, I didn’t have a chance to venture to Ashfield or Butler to sit under the “Shawshank oak tree” and ponder why I might want to get “Brooks was Here” tattooed on my forearms in sanskrit. I guess I don’t really have to; I bought the beer koozie which I can nicely tuck it away in a drawer when the novelty wears off.

Now Playing…Wahlburgers: Identity Crisis…Starring Mark, Donnie and the Other Guy.

I suppose if you have the last name Wahlberg, it makes sense that you throw your at into the burger business, especially where you are backed by two pop culture icons who have graced the big and small screen as well as the music business for 25 years.

Wahlburgers recently opened its first Toronto franchise along side the SOHO hotel on Blue Jays Way.  I immediately thought a few things when I entered the place for the first time:

  1. This place is pretty big.
  2. What a hideous shade of green.
  3. Why are the staff acting like I’m in a Parkdale eatery instead of a downtown tourist trap? A black shirt or a cardigan should not make one better than me.

I was seated quickly and ordered a pint.  At this point I realized it’s quite hard to get a pint from the burger based joint and be able to watch a tv at the same time. The adhere to a list of local brews on tap and also feature the Wahlbrewski North which is brewed on contract by a local brewery.  The price range is $7-7.50.  I really had no interest in the $12 adult cocktails (although I will give them credit for using clamato instead of tomato juice in their Caesars..it looks like they did their homework).  Their $15 adult frappes look sickly sweet and look as if they would appeal to teens with fake IDs and those who feel comfortable drinking as many calories as they are about to eat (what the hell is whipped cream liquor anyway).

The menu is mainly burgers with the typical sides (salads and fries) but you can also get a portobello burger, a sandwich made of turkey with all the fixings and typical offerings off a kid’s menu if necessary.  I ordered the BBQ bacon burger with the sauce in the side.  In addition I ordered a side of famous Wahl sauce which is normally served with some of the other burgers on the menu. As a side, we split the fries and an order of tater tots.

While you’re waiting you can watch a montage to the Wahlberg brothers (Donny, Mark and the other guy) on a loop (including new and old footage and plenty of references to the A&E show) which runs on the televisons in strategic positions set throughout the restaurant.  Otherwise, you can also read the wordle-like large poster which lists all of Mark’s movies in the event it’s a trivia question or a dinner party conversation starter sometime in the future.

The burger was decent.  The patty was not overcooked although I would have been happy if it was closer to medium.  The bun/patty ratio was good. I enjoyed both sauces but was glad I didn’t ask for either directly on the burger since I think a little too much would have cut into the taste of the burger overall.  The clothespin was a bit woody….but probably better than the fries (see below).

BBQ Bacon Burger $9.95
BBQ  Bacon Burger $9.95

Wahl Sauce
Wahl Sauce

The sides were horrible.  The “naturally cut” fried clearly didn’t mean freshly cut and the tater tots were “just like I remember them”…over salted and greasy potato sponges.  Given the fries I get can get at other joints for about the same price, these were an embarrassment at $3.50 each.

Fries and Tater Tots $3.50 each
Fries and Tater Tots $3.50 each

My Take

I will be interested to see the fate of Wahlburgers in Toronto. It has a bit of an identity crisis.  I mean, where else can you grab a $7.50 pint to go with your slice of government cheese?   Despite the celebrity endorsement, it sill likely be more geared toward a sports fan than it will a patron of the SOHO itself.  It’s saving grace may the fact you can get a decent burger at a decent price in a place where dad can have a beer, mom can ogle Marky Mark’s abs and the kids can eat hot dogs and shitty french fries (I swear as long as there’s ketchup there’s no such thing as a bad fry to a child) and wonder why they can’t have a $15 drink called blueberry pie…all at a location within walking distance of a Jays game.  Otherwise the tricky parking and popularity of numerous other burger joints in the area may make it an ongoing struggle.

Personally, I  I think I could replicate my experience at Wahlburgers with a green sharpie highlighter, a  pound of decent ground beef, a Kraft single, a bag of McCain fries or tater tots and a toaster oven; all while watching Muchmusic retro while I talk to my annoying hipster cousin on speaker phone.

With other burger joints like Burger’s Priest, P & L burger and other options like Hero and Five Guys in town, I think this new kid will get knocked off the block pretty quick.

Wahlburgers on Urbanspoon