Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the White Whales

We're all cursed with our obsessions.
It's been just over three months now since I moved to the Capital Region, though in so many ways it feels longer (you get past the first month in a place, the seasons change, and everything becomes normal).  So it feels like a good time to take a step back and consider the food experiences I've had here.

I'll begin by mentioning that there have been a lot of great little discoveries, some of which I've written about--fried chicken and pizza, for instance--and some of which I've neglected to mention.  I've become totally accustomed to having some really solid Asian markets right in town.  I live in a place where I can get pretty good xiao long bao (at Ala Shanghai).  There's no shortage of quality Indian restaurants in the area which serve up some satisfying buffet lunches.

I don't doubt that if I keep searching, keep digging, keep eating in and around Albany, I'll have a lot more positive posts to throw out there.  But...

That's not to say that everything here is good, or even available.  This is the case almost everywhere; nothing against the Capital Region.  You don't want to know how many times K and I bitched and moaned about the pizza in Ohio.

But in a way, these complaints can be kind of fun.  They can lead to list-making.  And lists are always fun.

So lately I've been jotting down the notes in my head: what are some foods I've found myself longing for over these three months? 

Now, I could expand this to beer, too, the great craft beers that don't make it to every corner of the country--and this might deserve its own post, in honor of the release of my beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale, which is once again not distributed to the place I'm living.  (That sound you just heard?  No, not the wind--just me sighing, very loudly, at the thought of all that Christmas Ale being brewed to be drunk by people who are not me.) 

Like I said before, it's not a bad place to be for food, here in the Capital Region.  If there's something you want but can't get, the good news is a trip to Boston or New York isn't that difficult and will likely prove fruitful.  And in most cases you can buy the ingredients here that will allow you to make just about any dish you want at home.

So, onto what I'll call a "starter list."  Just a few ideas to get the discussion going--but I'd love to hear what others are longing for.

- Malaysian food.  What a dream of a cuisine: a combination of influences from Thailand, China, and India, all coming together to create some incredible dishes.  I'm especially partial toward roti canai and beef rendang--the latter of which I'm going to have a post about later this week)--but there are lots of dynamic options out there with flavors that, if spiced right, will blow your mind.  But it's not always easy to find Malaysian restaurants; the closest to the Capital Region is in Pittsfield, MA (I'll be talking about that, too, in the upcoming post).

- Ethiopian food.  It's easy to make jokes about Ethiopian food, but once you've actually had it, you realize how lame those jokes are.  I discovered Ethiopian food at Abay in Pittsburgh, and I've tried it in a few other places (St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Cleveland) with mixed results.  If you're unfamiliar with Ethiopian, I'd suggest just reading some of the descriptions off the Abay menu.  There are so many rich, spicy, strongly-flavored vegetarian and meat options on a typical Ethiopian menu, all eaten off the flat, spongy, and sour injera bread.  But it seems this is a cuisine we'll have to make do with searching out on trips to Boston and New York, at least for the foreseeable future.

- Pho (and Vietnamese food in general).  Here's the thing: there are a few Vietnamese restaurants in the Albany area, and I haven't even tried any yet.  But in talking on the Twitter to a few locals who have tried the pho at area restaurants over the years, I'm not exactly optimistic or hopeful about the offerings.  Pho seems like such a basic thing, a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, and the stories I've heard (and mixed reviews I've read on Yelp) make me really question what's going on out there.

Maybe more ideas will pop into my head by the time I post this, and please feel free to chime in--I want to know what's been in the discourse here for folks who have lived in the Capital Region for longer than I have.

And in the meantime, there are enough positives here that none of us will be running out of satisfying dining options anytime soon, which is more than I can say for some of those other places I've lived in recent years.


  1. I'm not a big fan of spiced Christmas Ales, but I do dig Goose Island's Christmas ale. That's available locally (at either Oliver's or Westmere beverage). The Lionheart Pub also has it on tap closer to the holidays. It might be a suitable, if not equal, substitute to your Great Lakes. By the way taking a trip west might yield better result for the GL stuff. I know it's brought into Rochester.

    While not Malaysian, Yono's does some pretty fantastic French-influenced Indonesian fare. Yono is one of the best known chefs in the area, and he does a pretty great job at his location on Chapel and Sheridan Ave.

    1. For some reason, even though I've had access to it in the past, I've always ignored the Goose Island Christmas ale. Maybe this will be the year I change that. But there is just something about the combination of spices in the Great Lakes version that I haven't found replicated yet (Natty Green's Red Nose Winter Ale came close, but they just distribute in North Carolina).

  2. There is always Taiwan Noodle on Central Ave. It's not Pho but it is homemade noodles in a pretty decent broth.

    1. Oh yeah, I like Taiwan Noodle, especially considering the prices. I've been there a few times and it seems like I've had half the items on the menu. Didn't love a couple of the soup bowls, but most everything is very tasty.

      Ala Shanghai also does a good job with their noodles, though I'm not sure if theirs are homemade or not.

  3. Don't bag on the Pho until you've tried it. There are some worthy efforts in the area. My favorite is Saigon Spring in Clifton Park. The beef broth there is so very aromatic in ways I have had trouble duplicating. I would recommend starting with the "Special Noodle Soup" (adding tendon if you like it that way). It has it all to give you a good idea of what they are about. Other than that, it is accompanied by the usual Basil, Lime, Jalapeno, Bean Sprouts, Sriracha, Hoisin combo that you get just about anywhere. I have to give them some extra points for having good tea as well. I will add that I prefer my homemade pho, but who wouldn't? For those who haven't tried (and don't cheat with flavor packets), making Pho is a lengthy and involved process. So being able to buy a pretty good bowl of it for a good price, totally worth it.

    1. No bagging, just expressing some trepidation!

      Your description of Saigon Spring makes it sound like the real deal, and with so many chain restaurants, from what I've seen, up in Clifton Park, it's good to have a new target up there.

      And yes, pho is one of those dishes that just doesn't really feel worth it to make at home (if you have good outside options).

      With the weather and your description, I am now officially craving some pho.

    2. Tried Saigon Spring over the weekend, though it felt too warm (this is all relative, of course) to get pho. Still, the two dishes we had were quite good and we'll definitely be heading back to try the pho. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Taiwan Noodle rocks! I love the homemade Soy Milk. Although, if you want Pho, this is nothing like it at all and will not hit the same spot.

  5. Poke your head into Mahar's from time-to-time. They have been known to drive out to Western NY just to pick up a keg or two of Great Lakes Brewery beer.