Pop Szechuan

When I heard Minh Tran's life story I lost my cynical feelings about Ping's. Instead, I tasted the cuisine of a man who learned to cook Chinese food in Duluth, transformed that information into a kingdom, and hasn't taken a vacation for 20 years. So I beg you, Tran, take a vacation. Go to San Francisco or New York, and eat, and reimagine what Chinese food can be. This town is ready for the next level.

TABLEHOPPING

DERBY DAYS:Ever waste two minutes? Watching commercials, waiting for a traffic light, looking out the window. Sure you have. Next time you're in an elevator, consider this: In the time it takes to brush your teeth the fortunes of many Southern people and horses can be decided. Yes, it's time again for what's billed as the most exciting two minutes of the year: the Kentucky Derby. And what would a Derby be without a mint julep? Just another two minutes, I assure you. The drink is as essential as hurricanes are to Mardi Gras, or champagne is to weddings.

Mint juleps must be made with bourbon--and, in case you forgot, bourbon is only that whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, from a grain mash containing at least 51 percent corn, balanced with barley and either wheat or rye. According to Surdyk's manager Mark Osborne, "premium bourbon is hot." Surdyk's currently carries about 25 bourbons, including new swank brands like Basil Hayden's, Rip Van Winkle's 20 Year Old, Knobb Creek, and Booker's Noe.

Now for the hot tip: Surdyk's will be serving up real mint juleps --to quote Osborne: "Real mint, real Booker's Noe, real sugar, real ice"--from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday to celebrate Derby Day. Here's the basic guide
for the drink of gentry, courtesy of the online magazine Epicurious:

Classic Mint Julep

* Crushed ice

* 4 sprigs fresh mint

* 1 tsp. superfine sugar

* 3 oz. bourbon

Fill a collins glass with crushed ice. In a small glass, muddle [smoosh with a spoon] the leaves from two mint sprigs with sugar and a dash of club soda or water. Add bourbon, stir and strain into collins glass. Stir again with a long-handled spoon until the glass frosts.

There you are, simply sipping your julep on your porch, when a julep snob attacks. He insists that you must only drink juleps out of silver or pewter cups. He yells. He screams. He tries to wrap your glass in tin foil. Get him off your porch by telling him that juleps were originally drank out of glasses, but then too many julep-drunks dropped their glasses all around the racetrack, endangering life and foot. That's where the tradition really came from. Damn julep snobs.

LOOKING FOR LOVE: There are things terribly, terribly missing in my life. I need help. Desperately. So I appeal to you, my lovely readers. Have you experienced (or even heard of) anywhere between Fargo and La Crosse that serves: a) A fresh-squeezed lime juice Margarita? b) Something really fascinating and delicious done with a buffalo steak? c) Anything with tiny little baby squid, stuffed or otherwise? d) Remarkable clam chowder? Any tips would be appreciated. Write me at City Pages, 401 N. Third St., #550, Mpls., MN 55401, or e-mail me at dmoskowitz@citypages.com.

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