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Having the guts: On eating fried intestines, or the offal truth about Buffalo restaurants

Sauteed Spicy Peppery with Pork Intestine at China Star

Today my dining review spotlights China Star (4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-7198), a generic-looking Amherst storefront hiding a chef who can throw Sichuan fireballs straight down the center of your plate. I say chef instead of cook, because his dishes demonstrate adeptness at subtler, more intricately balanced dishes than you find at your average Chinese storefront in the 716 area code.

One small but telling sign is the chile vinaigrette hidden at the bottom of a bowl of Chili Minced Pork with Noodle ($4.95) and ladled over pork-stuffed pasta tidbits in Wonton with Red Chili sauce ($3.95). It's sweet and sour, sure, but subtly -- underneath it's all toasty roasted chile tempered with garlic and ginger.

(There may be other places doing that right now, but I don't know of any. But I would like to: send tips to agalarneau@buffnews.com, please. As restaurant reviewer, I see my work as helping lead a public conversation, not preaching from a pulpit. So I need to know what people who think about food are thinking.)

Having thrilled to the work of Sichuan-skilled chefs in Manhattan (Grand Sichuan International) and Flushing (Spicy & Tasty), I suspected that this fellow, who I got to meet briefly but couldn't really converse with, had other surprises worth experiencing. Show me what you've got, I thought.

When I ordered the "Sauteed Spicy Peppery with Crab or Pork Intestine" ($14.95), I said, "crab, please," because I did not leave the house that day intending to expand my horizons in a visceral dimension. But Lili Wang, the proprietress, said they were out of crab.

"I guess I'll have the intestines." I said it because I was willing to suspend my disbelief, and put myself in the hands of a chef whose name I do not know, but whose work I'd appreciated.

I was rewarded. In this case, at least, I added a dish to my personal list of things to enjoy every once in a great while. Or when people harrumpf that there's no good reason to cross the city limits to eat in Amherst.

It got me thinking. I haven't been writing the main restaurant review for long, but I have been eating in Buffalo restaurants for 30 years. There's a lot of sameness out there, places playing it safe with the chicken breast, garden salads and chocolate cake. Honestly, I can't blame the folks in charge. Restaurants are businesses, and the prime directive is to stay in business, providing livelihoods for owners and employees, so they are generally risk averse.

I wonder, though, if people aren't ready for more new and different than restaurant owners know. In the Internet age -- where people get hungry for dishes and cuisines they've never had, only seen on televisions or computer screens -- the masses can be keenly aware of what they're missing. 

The Buffalo area has zero vegan restaurants that I know of (please email me if you know one). Only one strictly vegetarian that I know of (Palace of Dosas). No hardcore traditional tapas, a fully Spanish place. No Arab restaurant that makes its own pita bread. Portugese. Moroccan. No Peruvian place that slings tangy, smoky wood-fired rotisserie chicken.

I could go on. (Better, I should write a story about the great unmet hungers of Buffalonians. Send nominations for "The Next Great Cuisine to Obsess About Now That We Have Ethiopian" to agalarneau@buffnews.com.)

But many of the restaurants we do have could try a little harder. I'm not saying offal is the answer, the zenith of culinary experience, but it's a subcategory worth talking about, a measurement of risk-taking. At Bistro Europa, Steve Gedra, Buffalo's Mad Hatter of Meat, recently sold out a calves brain special. He could do that because he has cultivated a group of regulars who would basically eat anything, fauna or flora, that he put on his specials board. Because he said it was yummy, and they trust him.

This is not to say restauranteurs should try to be Steve Gedra. One is enough.

But, dear owners, would it kill you to take a chance? To try to tickle some fancies? Maybe run a few odd specials that the kitchen's top dog really, really loves. Let that be enough reason to put their brainstorms on the specials board: the man or woman who's exhausting themself in the kitchen, making money for me despite all the challenges and co-workers and the snow, really wants to try to feed this to customers.

If those dishes strike a chord, you might expand on them. If that happens, maybe more customers might stop in, even if you're not on the way home and don't have a parking lot. If enough customers learn to trust the kitchen, you can sell them all manner of diverse experiences. Even guts.

It doesn't work? You can always go back to chicken Caesar.

***

(Yes, that's the dish in the picture above, a good dose of intestines for two to four interested parties. Photo by Rick Criden. Here's another set of China Star photos by Kevin Purdy featuring Double Cooked Pork ($9.95, good but I like Peking Quick One's better), Chong Qing Spicy Chicken (in review), and Spinach with Ginger Sauce ($5.25, a piquant, agreeable greens treatment).)

Buffalo hot sauce slinger aiming for Wal-Mart's shelves

Tom Cooper of Lovejoy would like your vote.

The retired restaurant worker, 53, has taken to Facebook and hit the phones to garner
support for his culinary dream: seeing his hot sauce on Wal-Mart's shelves.

"Buffalo Tom's Gourmet Hot Sauce" -- "The Only Real Choice," the label says -- is one of
about 4,000 products in the retail giant's "Get On the Shelf" contest. The top ten
vote-getters move on to Round Two.

Preliminary round voting ends April 3, and buffalotoms.com links to the sauce's contest
page. It sports a video of fan testimonials, spelled out in earnest Comic Sans, from around
the world.

Cooper first bottled and sold his sauce 10 years ago, he said. After a four-year break it's
available again, at Marco's Italian Delis in Buffalo and Amherst. A 12-ounce bottle goes for
$5.

"Even if I don't win, I'm accomplishing my goals," he said. "The recognition is priceless."

Love at first bite: Ben learns Ethiopian at Amherst St.'s Lucy Takeout

Check out this terrific primer on encountering Ethiopian cuisine from Buffalo.com's Ben Tsujimoto.

Replete with excellent color photos and video, Tsujimoto tells you everything you need to get started exploring this intricate cuisine. He hadn't tried Ethiopian food before he encountered it at Lucy Takeout, 388 Amherst St.

(Buffalo Rising's Newell Nussbaumer checked out Lucy Takeout's veggie offerings here.)

Live chat at noon with News Food Editor Andrew Galarneau

Buffalo got a new food truck on the road this week. People are enjoying the offerings of the city's first Ethiopian restaurant. I had the guts to try intestines.

What else foodish can we discuss? Join me here at noon to get in on the conversation.

WARNING: I won't be holding my regularly scheduled chat two weeks from now, April 11, so if you have Easter food questions I can try and help you today.

Recipes: Elaine Pampalona Bartkowiak's Italian Love Cake

Here's another no-fuss classic from Depew's Elaine Pampalona Bartkowiak, the News March Cook of the Month. It's dead easy to knock together. The result, with a cheesy bottom layer and whipped topping -- is impressive for the effort.

Italian Love Cake

1 box lemon (or fudge marble) cake mix

2 pounds fresh ricotta cheese

¾ cup sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 (3 ¾ oz.) box instant lemon (or chocolate) pudding

1 cup milk

1 8-ounce carton whipped topping

Mix cake mix as directed on box. Pour into greased and floured 9 x 13 inch pan.

In separate bowl, combine ricotta, sugar, eggs and vanilla.  Mix well; spoon over top of unbaked cake.  Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Cool in cake pan.

Mix pudding with milk; fold in whipped topping. Spread over cooled cake. Refrigerate and allow to set up before cutting to serve. Excellent the next day.

Buffalo coffee ninjas gather for March 30 barista bracket

It'll be frothing nozzles at 10 paces as Buffalo coffee artistes duel to create the best latte art, Friday March 30 at Spot Coffee, 1406 Hertel Ave.

The Buffalo Barista Jam is a "latte throw-down," said organizer Jacob Casella, Spot's coffee operations manager. "Baristas go head to head in a single-elimination bracket. They pull their shots, steam their milk, and then free-pour a design."

Three judges will evaluate the pair of contestants for "symmetry, definition, use of space" and other criteria, and then pick the winner to move on. It's $5 to enter, winner takes all. The event goes from 7 to 10 p.m.

Casella says he hopes it's the first of many coffee culture events. It's "mostly just a chance for baristas, roasters, coffee shop owners, and coffee lovers to get to meet each other and compare notes," he said. "Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DC and other cities do monthly jams of different types, with big turn-outs, and I'd like to see us get there as one ingredient in a better coffee scene."

Local Restaurant Week starts Monday; make reservations or a grocery store run

Most of the tables are probably spoken for in the best restaurants on the Local Restaurant Week list (Buffalo version). But if you want to gamble on finding new favorites, the ticket price won't get much lower.

For $20.12, you can get a meal or two at more than 175 restaurants in the Buffalo and Rochester areas. So instead of getting the same pizza, why not try something else, just this once? Restaurant Week runs from Monday, March 26 to April 1.

Had a good experience? Bad experience? Tell me all about it at agalarneau@buffnews.com - and know that I would never share your notes without your permission.

'All About Roasting' is James Beard award finalist

Molly Stevens' latest cookbook, featured in the News in November, was honored with a nod in the "Single Subject" category of the 2012 James Beard Awards, among the nation's most prestigious cookbook honors.

Stevens, a Buffalo native and Nichols alumna whose 2005 book "Braising" won numerous awards, spent five years researching roasting techniques and fine-tuning recipes for "All About Roasting" (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Here's the rest of the nominees (PDF) in cookbooks, restaurants, food writing, electronic media, and more. Winners will be announced in May.

Recipe: Green Beans with Crisp Shallots, from Mark Bittman's 'How to Cook Everything'

Here's a good entry-level recipe from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything: The Basics," featured in today's Buffalo News. "Boiling and then sautéing vegetables gives you more control over doneness," Bittman writes.

TIME 30 to 40 minutes; MAKES 4 servings

Green Beans with Crisp Shallots

Salt

1 1/2 pounds green beans

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup sliced almonds, optional

1. Bring a stockpot of water to a boil and salt it. Fill a large bowl with cold water and lots of ice cubes and keep a colander handy. To trim the beans, snap or cut off the stem end and any brown spots. Cut them into 2-inch pieces or leave them whole.

2. Add the green beans to the boiling water and cook until they just start to get tender but remain quite crunchy, 3 to 5 minutes depending on the size of the beans. Drain the beans and immediately plunge them into the ice water. Let them sit for a minute to cool thoroughly, then drain them. (You can prepare the beans up to a day before finishing the dish; cover well and refrigerate.)

3. Put the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter melts, add the shallots and cook, stirring once or twice, until they’re golden brown and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the shallots to a plate lined with paper towels. Leave the fat in the pan.

4. Add the green beans to the skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve hot or warm with the shallots on top and almonds sprinkled over if you’re using them.

Gelato cafe with outdoor seating asks city to open on Elmwood

A new gelato cafe with outdoor seating may be in Elmwood Avenue's future, according to an application to the City of Buffalo.

Owner J. Letizia has filed a request to use five feet of the sidewalk for an outdoor seating area with a 42-inch railing, according to city records. Because it's a proposed change in use, and because it's in the Elmwood special zoning district, the city has to approve the plans.

The building, 988 Elmwood Ave., at Potomac Avenue, was the former site of home, a furnishings store. (Yes, that store's name is spelled with a lower-case "h.")

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