In case you’re wondering what you’re missing in first class

Flat-iron steak, United Airlines Flight 1621, EWR -> SFO

After a long, flight-heavy trip between Europe, Morocco, and New Jersey, I couldn’t pass up splurging my United MileagePlus points on a Business Class Saver Award on the return flight to San Francisco.

Here are the riches of that decision:

– Flat-iron steak entree with grilled broccolini, gigande beans and red chimichurri sauce

– Goat cheese, rye bread, and fig appetizer

– Fresh granny smith apple, fennel and beet salad (I lifted this description off of the United website, I have no guarantee it was fresh)

Nothing weird-worthy about it, except the overly-strong charbroiled smell of the flat-iron steak—imagine if you vaped overcooked beef. I think they overdid it with the Liquid Smoke.

So if you’re imagining rich in-flight culinary experiences in first class, rest assured you’re not missing out. Though the three complimentary gin and tonic re/fills and the glass of wine weren’t too shabby, nor was the subsequently-necessary full-lie-down loungeability of the seats.

In case you’re wondering what you’re missing in first class

#WTFISTHIS

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Elvis Burger, Apple Fritter, San Mateo, CA

There’s nothing like a quirky burger. The burger is the quintessential American food. It is also our culinary canvas for adventurous ingredients that the average eater might have never encountered elsewhere. How many of our countrymen first encountered blue cheese or foie gras on a burger? Where else but the burger could the baconization of American cuisine have begun—when was the bacon burger not a thing?

These sociological reflections were far from my mind when I sat down for an Elvis Burger at Apple Fritter. (Actually, I ate the burger and a side of cajun fries from a brown to-go bag while gunning it up the 101 back to San Francisco, where I was late meeting a friend.) I just wanted a burger, as one does, and found to my delight a wealth of weird choices, including an eggy Brunch Burger and the doughnut-bunned Luther.

The menu captures the spirit of the Elvis, in my crappy photo above, with the tag #WTFISTHIS. Indeed: devilled egg bread, bacon bits, shredded cheddar, peanut butter, strawberry jelly, chips, jalapenos. What, first of all, is devilled egg bread, even? And is this madness?

Flavor: 4.5 / 5. Maybe it’s the peanut butter and jelly-loving kid in me, or the texture addition of the chips, or the always amazing combination of sweet preserves with spicy chili (if you’ve don’t know what I mean do yourself a favor and find yourself some habanero strawberry jam next time you are in a more-artisan-than-thou type store). But this was an amazingly tasty and balanced burger combination, all the more so for its grandly American flavor palette and ingredient list. It lives up to its name.

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Fun: 4 / 5. It’s a burger. Burgers are fun by their very nature—round, fat, meat-filled things that you handle with your hands and often have to stretch your jaws open to consume properly. They are primally fun—that’s why we love them.

Multiple factors conspire to make this a particularly fun burger. The ingredients, of course: the cheerful crimson of strawberry jam, the peanut butter, the very existence of something called ‘devilled egg bread’. Bacon bits—say no more. Texturally, the crunch of the chips contrasts perfectly with the densely soft bread and the mush of the meat itself.

And then, this place is just fun. It’s a prolific eatery—their burger menu is one of at least four menus, including all-day breakfast, lunch, cafe drinks and milkshakes, and its own Weird Dish-worthy array of doughnuts. The burger menu is divided into ‘Traditional’, ‘Interesting’, and ‘Bizarre’. My kind of place.

Funkiness: 2.5 / 5. It’s a burger. Ultimately, you can’t get too weird with a burger. But for a burger the Elvis gets you your weird. A well-executed mashup of a PB&J and a jalapeno bacon burger with the chips-on-the-side thrown in—and, again, that mysterious devilled egg bread. I will learn your secret, devilled egg bread.

#WTFISTHIS
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Fried chicken buffet, Gold Club, San Francisco, CA.

Nothing particularly weird about a fried chicken lunch buffet, right? Well, leaving aside the fact that the buffet costs $5, it’s located at the Gold Club in the SoMA. I’ll let you learn about the Gold Club on your own. Hint: dark blue lighting. Hint: that’s a pole in the background.

Now, don’t look at me like a regular, dear readers, I’m just a reporter investigating what is said to be one of the best lunch deals in town. At $5, it is that, though the quality of the buffet is about what you’d expect.

Just don’t come thirsty. At $6, that water was by far the most expensive part of this meal.

Indian sweets, Vik’s Chaat, Berkeley, California.

One of my favorite cultural experiences is to discover, all at once, the existence of a genre or subgenre of ethnic food that I had no previous awareness of. At their best, they leave a charged, atmospheric memory that informs impressions of that food from then onwards—the shared excitement of encountering Southern Indian dosas and uttapams for the first time in college, stumbling on ethnic Russian restaurant Gostiny Dvor in the alleys of Dongdaemun in Seoul to get my first taste of the sweet and doughy sourness of Russian dumplings, or pelmeni.

Despite my Proustian introduction to this post, Vik’s Chaat’s Indian sweets were unlikely to brand my memory with chamcham and mava jamun. I suppose I was already pretty familiar with the rudiments of Indian desserts anyway—no stranger to rosewater, pistachio, khoya (dried evaporated milk solids, like in gulab jamun), or cardamom. If you’ve experienced the mainstays of Indian dessert menus—gulab jamun, kheer, rasmalai—you’ll have a pretty good sense of what you’re starting with here.

Still, walking into the enormous cafeteria of a restaurant, in the warehouse-y region of North Berkeley, I expected myself to walk away bedazzled. Kid-in-the-candy-shop, like. The display cases of sweets are impressive—you wrap around them while waiting in line to order your meal (in our case a delicious cholle bhatura and a lamb baida roti, though pass on the dhokla, a fermented rice and chickpea cake that is made in advance and relatively flavorless.) The classic supermarket checkout tactic, the tempting ambush of candies and sweets.

Needless to say we went for it, ordering the following:

  • Pink chamcham – paneer, rose syrup, khoya, pistachio, sugar
  • Yellow chamcham – paneer, saffron, khoya, pistachio, sugar
  • Mava jamun – milk, khoya, rose syrup, sugar
  • Petha – ash gourd vegetable and sugar

Flavor – 2 / 5. I likely would have been significantly more awed by these desserts if they tasted better. They were too sweet, though, and had that quality that syrupy desserts have when they’ve been sitting in their own syrup for too long—stagnant, cloying.

Note that this shouldn’t dissuade a visit to Vik’s Chaat for their meals, which are exceptional and cheap. If you want to sate a sweet tooth, stick to their tasty rose lassi.

Fun – 4 / 5. There is a reason I got excited by these in the first place. It has the variety and visual stimulation of a candy shop. Of course, candy shops get old quickly when you can no longer stand pure, undiluted sugar.

Funkiness – 1.5 / 5. Most of these desserts aren’t very funky at all—again, consisting of ingredients you’ll find in any Indian restaurant dessert menu. The petha was the item that caught my attention—“Ash gourd vegetable? Intriguing.” I’m too often a sucker for quirky sounding food names—turns out this is nothing more than winter melon.

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Guess what? Pork butt.

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Pork butt tater tots, Tank House, Sacramento, California

It was a 4th of July weekend. With a minor-league River Cats baseball game behind us and a rodeo replete with calf roping, bull riding, and motocross stunts ahead, we needed a really American meal to whet our whistles.

Nothing says “America” like BBQ. On the recommendation of our Lyft driver we checked out Tank House, where we found this gem of a weird dish. More poetically, rough-cut cylindrical gems of fried potatoey goodness blanketed in velvety cheese and topped with lusciously silk-stringy pulled pork and smoke-rich barbecue. When the moonlight alit on the cheese at just the right angle…

Flavor: 3.5 / 5. Hard, really, to go wrong with tater tots covered in pork and cheese. Fat3. We’d really need a category here for “How you’d feel the next morning after eating a whole bunch of these” to fairly capture the full force of this meal. But, live for the day at least once. They are delicious, even as tater tots go. The tots stay crispy and fresh-flavored, the cheese accompanies and layers without gumming or competing, and the pork is wet, oh so wet.

Fun: 4.5 / 5. Pork butt! Tater tots!

Funkiness: 1 / 5. Pork butt, while exotic and fun sounding, is just pulled pork. We probably eat it all the time, though I’m no expert on pork cut provenance. There’s a reason, anyway, that we generally obscure anatomy when naming our meatstuffs. To my disappointment, Tank House recently changed their menu (at least online) to the more anodyne “pulled pork tater tots”. Squeamish people, ugh.

Guess what? Pork butt.

A meal fit for a mermaid

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Razor clams and shrimp carpaccio at La Sirena, Cadaques, Spain.

There’s something particularly intriguing about the odder varieties of our fruits of the sea (Italian’s poetic frutti del mar is so much better than our dull ‘seafood’.) The forms seafood takes can be utterly foreign to our earthy experience: your average fish is a limbless, hydrodynamic oval; from there, things just get more gargantuan, bulbous, or monstrous. All seafood is at least a little weird for us, which makes variations on familiar foods surprising. For example, we expect this common bivalve, the clam, to be round and tiny. Instead it arrives in long, fat, oily fingers, putting us in the mind of the claws of some grotesque Halloween character, or a Freddy Kruger.

Another kind of culinary dissonance happens when transposing common preparations of foods, as between seafood and landfood. What was your first carpaccio—tuna? Your first beef carpaccio, then, becomes a strange cousin: raw cow meat. Somehow this novelty extended, for me, into shrimp. I’d never seen any member of the shellfish family in carpaccio form. Hardly mindblowing—shrimp sushi is commonplace. But it was a pleasant enough, and tasty enough, surprise.

Flavor: 3.5 / 5. The long, meaty razor clam strips have much to recommend themselves over your average clam. Traditional clams have a far-too-high effort to reward ratio with their stingy individual morsels of meat. They also, in my opinion, tend to be too soggy and sauce-logged for that reason—good for a clam pasta sauce but disappointing on their own. Razor clams pack a punch, on the other hand. Thicker, longer, and meatier than a mussel but without that chalky, spongy texture mussels have. With a little olive oil, garlic, herbs, and lemon, it’s a nonpareil seafood starter in my book.

Shrimp carpaccio is about what you’d expect, except you wouldn’t expect the flavor to be as subtle, velvety, and melt-in-your-mouth as it is. In its layer of olive oil you quickly exhaust the portion and are left wanting more, though you have to reluctantly admit that a dinner-sized portion of the stuff would be killer on the arteries.

Fun: 3 / 5. Oysters are the most fun seafood for their slurpability—razor clams have the same advantage. And, as something to look at, they are even more fun than their fancy sibling—long, sleek, a little creepy. If I were 10 years old I would have certainly tried to don the shells as monster fingers.

Funkiness: 2 / 5. As fruits of the sea go, these aren’t the weirdest nor the most strangely prepared, but it’s no hamburger.

A meal fit for a mermaid

Lobster and clams, Round Pond Lobstermen’s Co-op, Round Pond, Maine.

Lobster roll, Fisherman’s Grill, Portland, Maine.

Saison Dell’Aragosta, Oxbow Brewing Co., Newcastle, Maine.

LOBSTER BEER. *Mic drop*

I’m going to be completely candid off the bat that I’m largely using the excuse of lobster beer to talk about my experience of lobster across the state of Maine. Since at least 1836 when the Burnham & Morrill Company started to can lobster for general consumption, lobster has been a universally recognizable foodstuff, if a little exotic seeming (just look at the damn things). Since the 1920s, it began to gain an aura of luxury, in stark contrast to its early years when prisons would serve lobster to prisoners—and prisoners complained about it.

To soapbox briefly, the history of the lobster lends a certain perspective on our culinary mores. If lobster, the very archetype of American luxury food, was once considered repulsive and bizarre, then the future-minded eater ought to be looking to what we find disgusting today for inspiration *cough* insects *cough*. Entomophagy, baby. I bet we’ll all be eating tarantula all’arrabbiata and grasshopper pie (the literal kind) in a decade’s time.

In the meantime, we can all agree on lobster’s luxurious virtues—and Maine’s special claim to crustacean excellence. My only resolution, visiting the state for a recent wedding weekend, was to eat as much lobster in as many forms as I could find it.

Round Pond Lobster Fisherman’s Co-op offered the most conventional lobster experience, a stone’s throw away from Damariscotta, the cute, quaint, very New England town the wedding was held.

  • Flavor: 4 / 5. It’s a lobster—you know what that tastes like. But these are lobsters fresh off the boat, boiled by pros, meaty and messy with their simple melted butter dipping sauce and boiled corn sides. All for only $7 a lobster.
  • Fun: 3.5 / 5. Right on the water, the view on a foggy, quiescent summer afternoon is gorgeous. Add to that lobster’s status as the only food that you not only can wear (a la lobster bibs), but kind of have to. It’s an interactive eating experience—learning how to crack open lobsters is second only to learning how to use chopsticks in the childhood pride you get in honing your dining chops.
  • Funkiness: 1 / 5. Just a lobster.

Fisherman’s Grill in Portland was the product of Yelping “best lobster roll” on the long drive up from Boston. It boasts a four-lobster lobster roll. Four lobsters. Four. Lobsters.

  • Flavor: 5 / 5. Four lobsters hits the spot in a way that fewer lobsters can’t. The roll comes full to overflowing with perfect lobster meat—juicy with just the right level of chewy, perfectly mayoed, succulent with flavor. Doesn’t get much better than this. Which is why it was $35.
  • Fun: 4 / 5. It’s huge! And you don’t have to crack any shells or anything, just chow in on some lobster meat. Instant fun. Lobster just feels fun, doesn’t it?
  • Funkiness: 1.5 / 5. Again, just a lobster.

Oxbow Brewing Company was the weird detour for the sake of getting their Saison Dell’Aragosta, a beer they boil lobsters in (they eat the lobsters themselves, otherwise that would be something I’d love to get my hands on). I couldn’t resist trying it, especially as I’m already a fan of saisons.

  • Flavor: 3.5 / 5. A good, solid saison. Ultimately it didn’t taste much like lobster (often the case with crustacean beers—see oyster stouts for a more findable example). But it was a good, refreshing, tart and crisp beer.
  • Fun: 3 / 5. Most beers are fun to drink—this one is also fun to talk about.
  • Funkiness: 3.5 / 5. Lobster beer! Say no more. This one gets instant quizzical looks from companions and onlookers, regardless of whether or not you are getting strong lobster tail notes from it.
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