Friday, November 09, 2012

Homemade Banh Sung


Banh sung is like the unknown cousin of bún cha gio. Just like bún cha gio, the dish includes: vermicelli noodles, nuoc cham, a variety of herbs and veggies, spring rolls, and another type of protein. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the noodles are thicker in banh sung and bouncier than the noodles in bun cha gio. There's also an additional coconut milk-based condiment. I asked VN and she didn't know what I was talking about. My parents then informed me that the dish, in fact, is from Cambodia.

The dish started early in the afternoon with making spring rolls. Shredded cabbage, carrots, diced onions, oyster sauce, sugar, and a bit of sesame oil were quickly stir-fried together. Once the flavours were right, we left the pan off the heat to cool off.

While we waited for the filling to cool, a package of vermicelli were cooked and drained. The vermicelli noodles were tossed with a bit of vegetable oil to prevent sticking.

The coconut milk-based condiment sauce was made by frying some sliced green onions in vegetable oil, coconut milk, salt until aromatic. The sauce was slightly thickened with a cornstarch slurry.

We took out some frozen spring roll wrappers/skins to defrost. This brand is not bad at all. Mom and I sat down to roll the spring rolls once the filling cooled off.

Half of the container of wrapped spring rolls were deep-fried until blonde. They were popped into the freezer for future meals after they drained and cooled down. The other half were fried until golden.


Mom also marinated some pork earlier. Her marinade is closer to the Vietnamese sweet-ish marinade with fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar (Mom used homemade simple syrup), and a bit of oyster sauce. The pork chops were cooked on the barbeque outside. The pork chops were so fragrant! I feel bad for our neighbours.

We ran around the house grabbing some of our homegrown herbs: stinky fish herbs, thai basil, and Vietnamese coriander.

The only thing we had to do was put our own bowls together; vermicelli, herbs, shredded carrots, slivers of cucumbers, crushed peanuts, fresh herbs, slices of pork, nuoc cham, coconut milk sauce, and spring rolls. Did I miss anything?


Monday, November 05, 2012

Aladdin Bakery and Convenience: It's All About Their Pies


Lucy and I have been on a hunt for these meat pies (aka sfiha) and zaatar pies since elementary school. I've briefly written about our memories of the pizza days at Bayshore Public School here. Special days like pizza days or milk days were awesome, but it was also exciting when we had our regular snack and lunch breaks. We learned about different cultures through our friends' snacks and lunches. I remember that everyone was always envious of what other food people brought from home. I mean, Lucy and I brought stuff like lasagna and Chinese food (fried rice) in thermoses for lunch, but we also took sandwiches as well. While JL and I would bring toasted seaweed snacks, some friends (who were Lebanese) brought flatbreads topped with spices. Being introduced to other cuisines by friends was such an intriguing experience. Back then, I likened the flatbread to the taste of pizza.

Since then, I remember trying a bite of somebody's meat pie from a now-closed shawarma place near my high school. The flavours were familiar. I couldn't put my finger on it. I also found a place near Chinatown that sold zaatar, but they weren't the same. Something was off. I think I have photos of it somewhere. Anyway, I did some research on the internet and found read about the Aladdin Bakery. I made a mental note of it.

Fast forward to earlier last month; I was waiting at a bus stop on Carling Avenue and, unsurprisingly, the 85 Bayshore bus didn't show up on time. I checked for the next bus. A number of other people and myself, had to wait for another 10 minutes until the next bus came. That gave me plenty of time to check out the Aladdin Bakery and Convenience store, which was a few meters away. Local Tourist Ottawa wrote about the store two years ago. Read about their experience here.

There were plenty of pies behind the counter top. People in front of me ordered some pies, waited for the young gentleman to pop them into the oven to warm up, take them out and wrap the pies for them. Then the customers went to pay for the goods at the cash, where an older gentleman with flour still on his hands, arms, and apron, helped them out before going back to the kitchen to make more pies.

I ordered a spicy meat pie and a zaatar pie, then stood back and waited. The guy behind me ordered a spicy cheese pie and a spicy meat and cheese pie. Meat and cheese, you say? I thought to myself. "Actually, can I also get a spicy meat and cheese pie as well?" I asked the young gentlemen. He grabbed a meat and cheese pie, shook some red spice blend inside the folded pie and then popped it into the oven. "Thanks!" By that time, my other two pies were finished warming up. He wrapped them up and then took out the spicy meat and cheese pie, wrapped it, and then placed all three pies into a paper bag. I paid for the pies (about $2 each) and headed back outside to wait for the bus.

There was also spinach pies available too. I didn't see any on the counter. Maybe next time.

The smells coming off of the warm paper bag was intoxicating. I couldn't resist taking a look inside. The fluffy zaatar pie was screaming for attention. I tore a piece off and as I savoured the bite, memories of Bayshore Public came flooding back. I quickly texted Lucy and tried to convey my excitement in a couple of texts. One of them read something like this: "Just bought a bunch of pies from Aladdin Bakery on Carling. I love unexpected food adventures!"

Once the bus came, I found a seat beside an older lady. She commented how the small paper bag was so fragrant. I think I tightened my grip on the paper bag a bit. I smiled and told her that I got the pies from Aladdin Bakery, and that based on my tiny bite of the zaatar pie and the perfume from the store and the bag, the pies were delicious. She said she had tried it a couple of years ago and had been meaning to return for a visit. After a brief conversation, the friendly lady got off at Carlingwood Mall.

When I got home, I warmed each of the pies in the toaster oven and shared them with the family. My parents liked the meat pie more than the others. I enjoyed them all. The crispy thin base of the wonderfully spiced meat was remarkable! The zaatar pie had a thicker and fluffy base. It was equally remarkable. It was ten times better than the stuff I've tried over the years. Unfortunately, Lucy missed out and didn't get any. I guess I'll just have to go bring some back soon.


Aladdin Bakery and Convenience
1801 Carling Ave.
Ottawa, ON
Aladdin Bakery on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Union Local 613: Some Hits and Misses

Avoiding the mistake I made last time I tried dining at Union Local 613, I called in and made a reservation for an early dinner. Union is being talked about all over the Ottawa and the interwebs. I thought it was intriguing to try some Southern food and, more specifically, fried chicken which is sous vide beforehand. My only previous sample of Southern fried chicken was at Jean Alberts earlier this year.

We were guided to a table towards the back of the restaurant and given the clipboard menus. Their non-alcoholic beverage options ($3 each) looked good: Cola, Earl Grey soda, sweet tea, hibiscus punch, raspberry lemonade and finally a mint, basil and cucumber drink all made in house. Lucy and Jimmy both settled on the sweet tea. I decided to give their Earl Grey soda a try.

The Earl Grey soda was refreshing. It reminded me of a pitcher of tea with oranges we made a couple of years ago (no idea why we didn't make it this year). I enjoyed how the drink wasn't too carbonated too. I'd order this again.



The knowledgeable waitress gave us some boiled peanuts while we waited for our mains to arrive. She explained that the peanuts were soaked and then boiled in salted water to get the texture. I had trouble cracking open the soft peanut shells, but when I did, I popped out super tender salt-boiled peanuts. The peanuts brought back memories of the past. I remember we used to have boiled peanuts like this when we were younger. To Jimmy, the boiled peanuts was reminiscent of the peanuts he ate in Taiwan.

I ordered the 2-piece yardbird ($11) with a side of cheddar and roasted garlic hominy grits ($5). Our waitress explained that there weren't any sides included in the mains. Also, because the chicken was sous vide, she told me not to be alarmed if the meat and bone was pink. My two pieces of chicken consisted of a chicken breast with a wing attached, as well as, a drumstick. I tackled the drumstick first.

The thin, but crisp, coating on the chicken was something I wasn't expecting. I was thinking of the typical flour batter, but they dredged the chicken in a mix of flour and cornmeal. The meat was super tender and juicy. I made sure the juices ran clear, despite the waitress' explanation of what to expect with the chicken. There was something in the seasoning of the chicken that through me off. It reminded me of Indian cooking and Mongolian hot pot, and then it clicked - there was cumin. Cayenne pepper comes to mind when I think about Southern cooking, not cumin.

After the drumstick was finished, I turned my attention to the white meat. I was disappointed at the moistness (or lack thereof) of the white meat. I tried to use the provided hot sauce to liven the chicken up, but it didn't work. The hot sauce was plain and didn't have any personality. Looking back, I should've started with the white meat instead of the drumstick.

As for the roasted garlic hominy grits, they were creamy and comforting. It took me a couple of bites to wrap my head around the grits. At first, it tasted like mac and cheese. But it wasn't macaroni, it was like small diced potatoes or something. But they weren't potatoes at all. They were corn! Whaaaa?

Lucy settled on the special of the night: pork schnitzel with apple butter and sun chokes ($25). She got a side of brussels sprouts, leeks, tasso (ham) and chilli ($5.50). I'll let her fill in the blanks on her and Jimmy's opinion.

From what I tried:
- lots going on.. in a good way
- balsamic vinegar? sweet balsamic vinegar? apple butter? whatever it was, it was tasty

Lucy's comments (in purple for the rest of the post):

The schnitzel wasn't pounded crazy thin, like I prefer, but the chef knew what he was doing.  The thick slab of pork remained juicy, even when I polished off the leftovers the next day.  I can't remember much about the breading or the chopped veggies and herbs on top - only that it tasted fresh and bright (likely from the cilantro and parsley).  The apple butter was smooth and sweet, providing a nice balance to the meaty schnitzel.  I particularly enjoyed the sunchokes, which provided a great textural contrast to the soft pork.  I would return for this dish, which was the feature of the night.

The brussel sprouts were lightly grilled and maintained their bite.  It was a little bland on its own, but when eaten together with the mains, the flavours popped.  They were pretty good, but didn't blow my mind.  I didn't notice the chilli peppers at all.

Jimmy got the fried rice white shrimp, smoked rabbit and sausage gumbo ($20) with a side of fingerling potatoes, cauliflower, and bacon hash ($6).

From what I tried:
- too salty
- flavours were muted

The gumbo was an almost winner for me.  Though no one else felt it, I thought the spice level was nice.  I did choke on my first bite (since I'm a big baby when it comes to spicy food).  It was a good change in flavours and textures when switching between my schnitzel and his gumbo. It was definitely saltier than I prefer, but when eaten with the brussel sprouts or the hash, it brought balanced to the flavours.  The next day, we reheated the gumbo with another bowl of steamed rice, and it tempered the salinity well. 

Jimmy complained that the hash was too bland, and I had to agree.  The crunchy cauliflower was the highlight of the side. 
We were all too full to try their desserts and we didn't even finish our entire meal. No problem, we took home the leftovers to enjoy at a later date.
I'd return to Union Local 613 to try their other dishes, but I wasn't very impressed with the fried chicken and salty gumbo. Their earl grey soda and schnitzel were good though. It just didn't live up to the hype for us. While the local chefs may enjoy a bite here after they close up their own shops, it just wasn't our favourite.

I'd say that the prices appeared reasonable, until you realize that you have to factor in the price of the side dishes.  For a place that has a casual, low-key feel, I wasn't happy that I was paying regular restaurant prices.  I didn't see why the fried chicken was so highly hyped (I must admit that enjoy KFC from time to time), and while I appreciated the ambiance, the prices didn't seem to match.  I may return next year as the restaurant will probably change quite a bit by then.  Until then, it's not on my highly recommended list.


Union Local 613
315 Somerset St W
Ottawa, ON
Union Local 613 on Urbanspoon


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