Thai Fried Chicken

All other fried chicken is dead to me. This one has a ton of cilantro, garlic, and two kinds of pepper, and it culminates in the crispiest, most flavorful chicken I’ve ever experienced. (Rice flour, as it turns out, is the secret to perfectly crispy fried chicken. Who knew?) Really, this chicken is last meal good.

In this world, there are two types of people: those who love cilantro and those who hate it. Very little ambivalence about the green herb often mistaken for Italian parsley. This recipe is definitely for the cilantrophiles. The garlic is pretty powerful, too, so if you’re a vampire or planning to kiss someone after dinner, this probably isn’t for you. (If, on the other hand, you’re trying to avoid either of those things, this is your meal!)

The recipe I started from is Jarrett Wrisley’s, as found on the Atlantic‘s website. I have converted it from metric (as it was written), adapted it to be clearer where I felt it was vague, and updated it to reflect a few minor changes I made.

• 4 lbs chicken legs and thighs, skin on
• 1/2 bunch of cilantro (or about 25 stems), leaves and stems, finely chopped
• 3 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
• ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
• 14 cloves garlic, medium-sized, chopped
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 2 Tablespoons fish sauce
• ¾ cup rice flour, plus another 1.5 cups
• about 5 oz chicken stock or broth
• Peanut oil, enough for a depth of about 2″ in your favorite pan (I actually
use a small dutch oven/pot, to minimize splattering!)
• about 1/2 cup scallions and more cilantro, chopped, for serving (optional)

First, finely chop the cilantro and stems, and peel and roughly chop the garlic.

Place coriander and peppercorns into a mortar and pestle and pound to a paste, then add garlic and cayenne pepper and salt, continuing to pound to a fine paste.

Stir in fish sauce and chicken stock and mix well. Then, gradually incorporate the first 3/4 cups of rice flour until you have a smooth, wet batter.

Marinate chicken in this batter for at least two hours (ideally overnight.)

Take chicken out of the fridge and allow it to reach room temperature. Place the remaining 1.5 cups of rice flour in a shallow pan. Heat 2″ of peanut oil to about 365F in a deep-sided pan or dutch oven, then dredge each chicken piece in the rice flour just before frying until just past golden brown (about six minutes per side, in my experience.) Allow chicken to cool on paper towels for a few minutes, or hold it in a warm oven while you finish frying the remainder of the pieces.

Sprinkle chopped scallions and cilantro over chicken and serve. A little sriracha on the side makes a nice accompaniment for those who want to add some spice!

REVIEW: Fish Story, Napa Riverfront

September 12, 2010

Fish Story opened in Napa’s Riverfront complex on September 20, and is a venture from the well-established Lark Creek Restaurant Group (known for Parcel 104, Yankee Pier, Lark Creek and others). All of the fish and shellfish on the menu is compliant with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch standards for sustainability.

The restaurant’s riverfront location is an elegantly-appointed space that was bustling even on a Tuesday night in October. I was greeted warmly by the hostess and promptly seated outdoors, on a part of the patio that was beneath an overhang of the building, sort of like a sheltered, covered porch. It was a perfect temperature on an unseasonably warm October evening. But it was dark – very, very dark – at my table. Surrounding tables seemed to be adequately lit, with directed halogen spotlights shining down from the high ceilings above. But mine was on the inside of a pillar, so remaining daylight was blocked, and even at 6:45 it was difficult to read the menu, the cocktail list, and the Food & Wine magazine I had brought with me. I used the light from my iPhone, and spotted a favorite Bay Area beer – Trumer Pils – and ordered it. Moments later my server came back and informed me that they had run out of Trumer. None of the other three beers on tap were similar, so I ordered a bottle of Amstel Light instead.

I asked my server if I could perhaps get a candle or something to help lighten my table a bit, and she quickly brought a candle, which helped. Meanwhile, I heard disappointment from a nearby table when they were informed that Fish Story had already run out of Dungeness Crab for the evening. (At this point it was only 6:45.)

I ordered a Little Gem salad (baby lettuce with beet, crumbled blue cheese and a vinaigrette), a lobster roll, and butterscotch pudding.

The fresh but sparse Little Gem salad

The salad was fresh and the vinaigrette was light but flavorful enough. The salad itself was not overly interesting, visually, with just a few ingredients in fairly large chunks. (Forgive the harsh camera phone photo of this and the other items.)

The lobster roll, with house-made potato chips and cole slaw

The lobster roll was simple and fresh, chunks of lobster salad on a toasted roll, though there was a slight mixup when it was delivered to the table. My server brought it, and told me she had been able to have it made with my special request of no pickles in the chopped lobster mixture. Then, thirty seconds later another staff member showed up with a lobster roll, saying, “here, this one is a little fresher.” Because he said that instead of referring to my special-order request, I was hesitant to swap the entrees with him. I explained my no pickles request, and he said, “yes, this is the right one.” So we traded, but it was sort of an awkward and odd exchange, and was representative of the the polite but halting, slightly disorganized flow of the service I experienced at Fish Story. The house-made potato chips served with the lobster roll were very good.

The butterscotch pudding was excellent, and is a favorite dessert of mine from the Yankee Pier, which has a location in my hometown of San Jose.

When the bill came - without the benefit of the camera flash seen here - I nearly mistook the sea glass for candy!

Overall, Fish Story has a sustainable menu of fresh seafood, with a good selection. The food that I experienced was not overly exciting or creative in its preparation or presentation, but it was good, nonetheless. The air of disorganization (true, it has only been open for a little under a month, but it was opened by an experienced restaurant group, so I think it’s fair to expect a bit more) makes me hesitant to order more complex/delicate fish dishes, at least until more of the new-restaurant bugs have been worked out. Keep an eye on Fish Story; the sustainable model is commendable, and it has all the right ingredients to potentially be excellent once it settles in.

REVIEW: Una Pizza Napoletana SF, Opening Night

Una Pizza Napoletana is the sort of place you just want to love. The nondescript, industrial facade of its building looks more like the garage it was in its last life than the edgy, artisanal pizza-making operation it houses in its present. It makes you feel as though you’re in on some fantastic secret. As I stood in the inaugural line on September 15, Una Pizza’s first night of business in San Francisco, there was woodsmoke and a hint of legend in the air. Pizza aficionados spoke in excited tones of how long they’d waited to try Anthony Mangieri’s famed pies. A few fortunate ones related their experiences at Una Pizza’s previous location, in New York’s East Village. Names of “grail” pizzerias like Patsy’s, Pizzeria Bianco and Grimaldi’s peppered the conversation.

Una Pizza started in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in 1996, then moved to the East Village in 2004. It developed a distinguished reputation and patrons lined up outside until Una Pizza closed for the night – not at a set time, but whenever pizzaiolo Mangieri ran out of dough. In July, 2009, Mangieri closed the shop in New York with a plan to move west to the milder climate of California. He considered my hometown, Santa Cruz, but ultimately settled on 210 11th Street in San Francisco.

After a two-hour wait – the space only holds 32 diners at a time – I was finally in the door. From there I got a prime view of Mangieri working his magic, making the pies and sliding them into the blue tiled pizza oven made in Napoli.

The space is sparsely appointed, basically just a concrete floor with plain walls. The pizza oven is the dominant feature (rightfully so), flanked by stacks of the Estonian Birch that keeps the fires burning. St. Antonio Abate, Mangieri’s named saint, watches over everything from a perch above the pizza oven. It’s spare, it’s edgy, it’s perfect for a temple of pizza purism.

I was led to the seating area, having reviewed the menu online so that I could be ready with my order immediately, to help advance the line behind me as quickly as possible. (Plus, yeah… I was hungry by this time!) But no one asked me for my order for another 20 minutes. Which was fine; it was the first night and I can forgive a staff still figuring things out. The menu at Una Pizza is extremely basic. There are no appetizers or salads, no desserts. Just four 12″ pizzas: Marinara (tomatoes, olive oil, oregano, garlic, basil and sea salt), Margherita (tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, basil, sea salt), Bianca (Buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, basil, sea salt) and Filetti (Fresh cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, basil, sea salt.) A fifth pizza, the Ilaria (named for Mangieri’s wife) was listed on the website but not yet available that first night. It features smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, arugula, olive oil and sea salt. Each pizza, large enough for one hungry person (which most are likely to be given the wait and lack of first courses) is $20. The menu also includes a few Italian wines and two Italian beers. The spartan menu, much like the industrial-chic decor, suits a serious and focused pizzeria just fine, in my opinion. So I did not consider the limited selection a negative.

I ordered the Margherita and an Italian Lager. As I waited, I was surprised to notice, at an adjacent table, two pizzas that looked very different from one another. One looked like the ideal Napoletana-style pizza, with the requisite char marks, and the other looked sort of anemic and underdone.

When my pizza arrived, it looked like the better of the two pizzas at the next table. The crust had uneven edges riddled with bubbled areas and black char marks around the rim and on the bottom… Perfect.

I picked up my knife and fork – in keeping with Italian tradition, Una Pizza serves their pies unsliced – and cut my first slice. My impression of the first bite was that the crust was good, the cheese was perfect and the sauce was imperceptible, but more than anything the whole slice was extremely salty. Overly so. (And I’m a salt fiend; it takes a lot for me to think something is too salty!) When I got to the edge of the slice, I found that the outer rim crust was actually rather gummy inside, with a chewiness similar to that of a leftover piece of pizza that’s spent a night in the refrigerator. That was unexpected and disappointing. As I continued eating, it became evident that the crust was actually charred to an unpleasant extent; it was bitter, and that combined with the extreme saltiness made for an experience that was not at all good, and fell far short of the hype.

I can forgive the slow service, the minimalist menu and the $20 price. Those are all trivial things if the pizza is really a transcendent experience, an ideal representation of a Napoletana-style pie. But it wasn’t. If I hadn’t been starving after waiting almost three hours, I would have sent it back. I can’t forgive that. Because consistency is part of the craft. The master pizzaiolo limits all variables – the ingredients, the number of tables, the menu – to the most he can accommodate while still maintaining his quality and reproducibility. Even opening night shouldn’t make a difference; lines out the door have been a way of life for Mangieri for years now, and the equipment and operations are the same no matter where he sets up shop.

I do believe that Una Pizza Napoletana can and does produce pizzas worthy of its hype, some of the time; there are enough rave reviews to attest to that, and it’s obvious that Mangieri is an artisan and a purist with the level of passion it takes to achieve perfection. But for an extended wait and a $20 pizza, I don’t want to play Italian Roulette; I would like to be reasonably certain I’m going to get one of those hype-worthy pizzas, rather than the one I got.

Una Pizza Napoletana
210 11th Street @ Howard
San Francisco, CA 94103
Open Wed-Sat, 5pm until out of dough