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Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbia Eats: Sakura Japanese Restaurant

I don't know what it was about Sakura Japanese Restaurant, but for some reason I passed off on it during the years I lived in Columbia. Tucked behind Coplon's in Forest Acres, it was a place that almost didn't want to be found, and for the most part hasn't by Columbia's food scene. That's somewhat unfortunately, because this quiet restaurant in the heart of Columbia would become the site of what may be my most memorable meal in Columbia, and anywhere for that matter, in recent memory. And it all began with a salad.

A small, quaint dish of lettuce and carrot, topped by this astoundingly good sweet, sour, luscious miso vinaigrette. Though it was a simple salad, it'll be one that I'll be talking about for days because of the vinaigrette alone - and this is coming from a guy who despises most salads. Things got even better when our appetizers came out. First was a sinisterly fantastic dish of natto and uni. Natto may be something that's not necessarily hitting the mainstream any time soon, but uni is one of the great wonders of the sea, a melt-in-your-mouth piece of urchin roe that tastes like butter with the fresh scent of ocean. Wrapped in surprisingly crispy nori, it was a dynamite bite, in that head-knelt-back, eyes-to-skies sort of way.

Along with the sushi came orders of aged tofu and squid teriyaki. The squid was simply prepared; slightly charred on the broiler and carefully constructed on top a pool of teriyaki. Every once in awhile a dish comes along and changes my perceptions of an item. This may be one of them. The squid was so tender and light that it almost resembled a good quality steak. The teriyaki was warm and sweet, a nice marriage with the squid.

And then there was the aged tofu. When I eat out, I look for things that I personally believe I simply can't do in the kitchen. More often then not in Columbia, that doesn't happen, but this aged tofu is one of the few exceptions. Four beautifully crisp tofu swimming in a stellar dashi and topped by dancing bonito flakes, it was a presentation that was both practical and extraordinary in design with its play on textures and tastes from top to bottom. The tempura on this tofu is so practiced and precise that I don't think I can recall a time I had anything like it. A glorious dish that actually also married well with the squid.

Things were going along swimmingly as we reached the entree portion of our... lunch. Oh man. My lunch companion for the day decided to go with the eel teriyaki, a wonderful dish of lightly grilled eel dropped in teriyaki and served a top rice. Simple, but incredibly comforting.

I went with the katsu don, a chicken and egg thing served on top a bed of sweet roasted onions and rice. Also simple, but devastatingly good; it's a dish that anyone could relate too. Easily recommended for those fearing the unknown in this astonishingly honest Japanese restaurant.

No Reservations, The Lowdown on SakuraAtmosphere: Casual and comforting. Plenty of dining space.
Costs: For lunch, on the money. Prices and food
ranging from $5-12, enough to fit anyone's budget.
Try: Uni, just to say you did at least, and the katsu don for
those looking for something closer to home.
The aged tofu is the quiet champion though.

It will take time for me to get over the fact I ignored Sakura and Forest Acre's other gem, The Other Store, for so long. It's an incredible family restaurant serving remarkably traditional Japanese food - not an easy thing to find to say the least. There is surely more room for exploration in the menu of Sakura, and more than enough combinations of sushi for both newcomers and veterans of sushi and sashimi to be entertained with. If you are in Columbia, take a chance and wander into the depths of Forest Acres for a taste of the good life.

Sakura Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Columbia Eats: Alfresco Mobilista

I was fortunate enough to have Columbia's food truck rodeo coincide with my fall break this week, which meant I finally had the opportunity to hunt down and tackle Columbia's up-and-coming food truck contender Alfresco Mobilista, or Alf Mob for those in the know. Alfresco's been turning a few heads and proving they are more then just a catchy name with their inventive plays on Mediterranean favorites, giving perhaps not-so-subtle Southern nods to traditional favorites like the gyro and Grandma's meatballs.

I was quite a bit late for the rodeo, but fortunately just in time to catch one of the last chicken meatball gyros and hickory smoked pulled pork quesadillas of the day. The chicken meatball gyro features three deep fried spheres of chicken, coaxed with spices, battered by panko, sat on top of a bed of sweet and sour slaw and dressed with an aioli and stout chili Q-sauce. Whew.

I have to say, if this was how it was served to me, I would have been pretty happy. The chicken meatballs were crisp and flavorful, almost like a meaty falafel. Paired with the slaw, it was a nice duo, one worth revisiting either with the gyro or perhaps better yet with the fried chicken bistro salad which adds fried onions to the mix for more texture. The meatballs were just a touch dry, and this wouldn't be much of an issue in any other case, but the pita, disappointingly, was a bit on the burnt side, slightly dry, and fell apart here and there during the eating process, raising the notice on the dryness of the meatballs a touch. A soft, warm pita would have been pretty spectacular, tying the pieces together into a well-built vessel.

I wasn't sure how to feel about the quesadilla. On paper, it sounded pretty fierce with the slow roasted pork, pesto, jack pepper cheese, and stout chili Q-sauce slathered all over, but the real final result was a bit mixed. At its best, it was a nicely crisp quesadilla packed with flavor, but in it's less exciting moments there were a points where things just got wildly soggy from all the juices and sauces dripping about, which became somewhat unappealing. I think I would unfortunately have to pass on this bite the next time I venture over to Alfresco. On a more upbeat note, a glance at the desert of the day, a chocolate bread pudding, looked amazing. A heaping bowl of chocolate pudding topped with homemade whipped cream, it seemed like a steal for $3. If there is one thing Bone-In and Alf has proven, it's that they can churn out some devastatingly good-lo deserts.
No Reservations, The Dig on Alf Mob
Costs: There's a little less on variety here, expect
upwards of $7-9 for everything outside of dessert.
Try: Either the chicken meatball gyro
or from what I hear the shrimp burger.
Find out where they are at:

My first taste of Alfresco was a bit uneven, but they provide an exciting menu that has the potential to come together wonderfully through time. I did arrive late on the scene this day, so there's a chance I may have just gotten the unlucky end of this, but from what I had Alfresco looks like it has a bit of catching up to do if it wants to match up to the quality of its local competitors Artisan Bone-In and 2 Fat 2 Fly. The creativity is wildly fantastic though; I think it may be what catapults Alfresco above and beyond as word spreads out about their exciting rifts on Mediterranean favorites. A few tweaks, a couple of months and this could be a really amazing truck to be reckoned with. Here's hoping they are up to the challenge.

Alfresco Mobilista on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Hunter's Manual: A Guide to South Carolina Barbecue

I may not be the foremost expert in South Carolina barbecue, but the general consensus that it's "only" mustard barbecue and more of a younger sister compared to North Carolina's well-known whole hog tradition is one consensus I'd like to put a end to, and fast. The following is a quick and dirty guide to what you'll usually find in your average SC barbecue joint, including a little bit about hash, South Carolina's staple stew.

A Brief Aside on "Barbecue"
Barbecue is a term that's often kind of thrown out there for any form of grilling, but the proper use of the word in the South revolves around not a particular method as commonly used elsewhere, but just to the actual act of roasting specifically pork itself. While it's fine to refer to grilling other meats and fishes as barbecue, it is generally preferred that you refer directly to the meat you barbecue when you are barbecuing a none-pork product, or just label it grilling.

South Carolina Barbecue
Contrary to popular belief, there is not one, but four types of barbecue in South Carolina. The difference around the four is in the basting and finish, namely the sauce. The most well-known to the region is mustard, mostly inspired by the German heritage found in the state thanks to a mass movement during the mid-to-late 1700s. The taste can be described as a sharp sweetness chased by the mellow, meaty pulled pork. There's also a bit of tang from the mustard and vinegar generally found in the sauce, but nowhere as powerful as the most well-known Carolina style barbecue sauce, the vinegar and pepper. On paper, something so wildly sour in principle may seem a bit daunting, but that sharp vinegar flavor becomes surprisingly addicting after a few bites, almost sweet even. Vinegar and pepper is the oldest of barbecues, and the one you'll most likely find anywhere you go in the Carolinas and even Georgia or Virginia. In South Carolina, mustard is generally found in the lowcountry and midlands while vinegar touches more on the NC/SC border and much of the northeast region of the state.

The other two forms of barbecue that can be found in South Carolina are the light and heavy tomato versions. Located mostly in south, southwest portion of the state, light tomato sauces are essentially vinegar and pepper sauces doused with ketchup for a slightly sweeter sauce. Heavy tomato sauce is predominantly a west SC thing, and what people generally attribute barbecue sauce to be with it's thick, smoky, molasses flavor.

The Mysterious Goop Known as "Hash"
South Carolina's response to North Carolina and Virginia's brunswick stew, hash is basically leftover barbecue pieces finely chopped and cooked to death with potatoes, onions, maybe some carrot and spices. The name "hash" most likely arose from it's similarity to a corn beef hash with all the ingredients thrown in. It's consistency, however, is what separates it from the well known breakfast favorite. You'll generally find a thick, stew-like version in most restaurants, but there are also looser versions that exist that have more of a soup-like consistency. It often has a sharp, sour kick, a touch of spice, and some sweet and meatiness from the pulled pork. Served with or on rice, hash is a great side unique to South Carolina.

To learn more about South Carolina's barbecue history, check out

For a few restaurants to check out in the Columbia area, check out:
Little Pigs
Doc's Barbecue

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On the Prowl: Charleston Food Truck Rodeo, Take Two

It was take two for me this past weekend in Charleston for their food truck rodeo. This time located close to the downtown area at Post and Courier, the rodeo saw double, some places even triple the number of people, meaning some long waits at a few of the popular stops, but with more trucks and food to take in, it was worth the wait.

Before the rodeo, however, I made a stop earlier at the day at Charleston's farmers market in Marion Square. Many food truck vendors were there booth style, but one stand in particular stood out for me - Street Food Hero, a banh mi station. They had several varieties of banh mi (a Vietnamese sandwich) available, including lemongrass chicken and five spiced pork. Grabbing the last banh mi of the day (score!), I tried their take on the classic banh mi with pate and Vietnamese meats. The sandwich definitely had a more modern spin to it with all the ingredients and the consistency of the pate, but at the heart of the sandwich was a very good banh mi that I'd love to tackle again any time of the week.

After a brief rest and some shopping, it was time to move up King St. to Post and Courier for the rodeo. With the goal of a five buck max/min at every food truck, I embarked on my second excursion into the slightly more but still relatively unknown, starting with Roti Rolls. An eclectic truck serving up a variety of local rolls on roti, a South Asian bread similar to Indian naan but a bit flakier like filo dough, Roti serves up a pretty interesting menu ranging from more conservative choices like the curry vegetable roti roll to the more sinister with the Thurman Murman, a dangerous concoction involving creole mac and cheese and braised short ribs. Being on the $5-per-truck rampage though, I opted for their ceviche. Fresh jack fish hit with citrus and heirloom peppers, the ceviche was a nice, cool refreshing start to the trip. The ceviche also came with a piece of roti. Hot, flaky, and a little buttery, it was a great compliment to the cold, tangy ceviche. For four bucks, this was a steal.

Next, I hit up a familiar face from my last trip, the Happy Camper Snoball truck to pick up a luscious lemon lime snoball, the perfect snack to have in hand while waiting for my "Holy City Brewing Porter braised barbecue sandwich with pickled onions on brioche" at Hello My Name is Barbecue. Unfortunately, the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, a barbecue sandwich with six slices of beer braised bacon (!) was out of my budget, but the porter braised barbecue sandwich was good and hefty on its own. It was a bit on the dry side with the giant brioche and sauceless bbq, but a choice of five homemade sauces on the side changed that quickly. Butternut squash barbecue sauce? Hello indeed! They also served taco versions of the sandwich, which may be the better bet to cut the dry factor.

After a small break, a friend arrived in time to check out PotKettleBlack. On my last trip there, they had a pretty devilish bacon theme going on, but this time they had a light and had an apple-inspired menu up. My friend opted for the curry apple squash soup, which was topped with bacon. It makes everything better doesn't it? Mild, with a bit of spice from that curry, it was a good buy for $4. I decided to move my day into desert, grabbing some fresh apple slices topped with their homemade caramel. Pretty much fail proof in design. A smattering of toppings were left on the side for anyone to play with, keeping things fun and interesting. Just don't touch those red hots.

Sensing a crash about to occur, we decided to go out with a bang and tackle the most popular truck at the rodeo the day, Diggity Donuts. I already loved the heck out of this place the first time around, so I was pretty excited and willing to wait in the gargantuan line for this one. Unfortunately, a chunk of the menu had been slashed by the time we made it to their window (hour wait!), but we managed to gather up what was left, including the peanut butter sriracha, classic cinnamon sugar, two butternutmeg squash, and a minty moijito. I have some slight reservations about the squash, but the moijito was a sinister pleasure. You could really taste the mint in this one, and a sour spike of the moijito hits you like a train on first bite - in a very, very good way. Not a bad way to end a long and delicious day.