Sandwich Review: Taqueria Los Gorditos

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto  -- Basho
This haiku by Basho is one of his "frog" poems. At least that's what I'm told. I can't read the Japanese, but I recognize the structure of a haiku, lines with syllables of 5 / 7 / 5. In addition to the beats, haiku also also has rules dictating kireji -- a cutting word that divides the poem -- and specific references to nature. Luckily for me this poem has been translated so I can choose an English version by Dorothy Britton and figure out what this 17th-century poet was thinking.
Listen! a frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!
When translating the poem into English Britton had to make certain decisions: whether to adhere to the syllables, how to keep the elegant feeling of the poem without dragging it through a literal interpretation, and to mind whether the haiku reflects the voice of the original author. It feels like she did a good job, choosing "stillness" to pause the poem for example.

You might ask why bother with all the rules and structure? Why not just write the dang poem!?

One reason is because structure creates an artistic tension. The rules provide a framework for the art, but they also provide a challenge. When an author decides to write a haiku she accepts the rules (syllables, imagery, theme), but she also brings a palette of words, feelings and experiences ready to stretch the framework, creating a work unique to her own vision.

The same rules can be applied to food. Take a sandwich, for example. What is a sandwich? We could say it's anything between two slices of bread, but we'd be wrong. That leaves out huge swaths of perfectly sandwich-y food: gyros, hoagies, hot dogs, and falafel in pita for example. But I think it's essential that bread of some sort come into play in the making of a sandwich.

Which reminds me of an early memory of food "lost in translation." When I was a kid we used to drive across the country from Michigan to spend the summer in Oregon. On the way we'd pass through Green RiverRock Springs, Wyoming, which was just a notch in the rocky hillside. The town had what William Least-Heat Moon calls a "three calendar" cafe, and for a couple years we'd stop there and I'd order buttermilk pancakes. One year as we pulled into town everything looked different. Either they'd struck oil, or they were building a dam, but it was a minor boom town. The red hills were dotted with mobile homes and trailers for the workers. The cafe was still there, but it had been sold to a family from Detroit who turned it into a "soul food" restaurant. My entire world (for the day) was turned upside down. They no longer offered buttermilk pancakes. Still, we were hungry, and my parents needed a rest from driving. The town was still small enough that there weren't any other choices, so ordered a safe meal: the chicken sandwich.

When it arrived I was aghast: it didn't look like any chicken sandwich I'd ever seen. The plate held half of a roasted chicken sitting on a piece of white bread smothered in gravy.

Now, as an adult, I'm intrigued by this sandwich. It was probably an authentic BBQ chicken, and it may have been something really tasty. But as a kid that I was disgusted. The chicken had bones in it, which made it impossible to eat as a sandwich. And when I tried to pick up the bread it fell apart in the gravy. My understanding of a sandwich was something I could hold in my hands and gnaw on, not a floppy mess that needed a fork and spoon. I would have preferred a blob of peanut butter and jam without the bread over this.

So, for the sake of argument, I'll say that a sandwich has to have at least one piece of bread, and the bread supports the contents of the sandwich. The bread is key to the structure of the sandwich, forming the basic rule. In this case, the translation from "chicken sandwich" to the half chicken on white bread drowned in gravy fell within the realm of sandwich. Unfortunately my 10-year old brain had not yet learned to understand this context, and so I rejected it as a meal.

One would think that with age comes experience, but time and time again I've been surprised by new forms of sandwiches. A couple years ago I was at a Mexican restaurant and saw something on the menu that caught my eye: torta. A torta is basically the fillings for a burrito, but served on an oversize hamburger bun. Called a bolillo or birote the bread can be slightly crusty and is usually about 6 to 8 inches around. So, once more my idea of "sandwich" has been translated: a burrito relocated to a bready neighborhood.

So in my sandwich foodessey I figured I should include tortas, and what better place to try a torta than at a place called "the big fat one"? Los Gorditos restaurant at SE 12th & Division is from the same owners who run the burrito cart at SE 50th & Division. I've had their Super Stacy Burrito (recommended!) and their Garbage Burrito (meh...) so I had high hopes for the tortas. At $5 a sandwich the price is right, and they offer a range of meat and other fillings: Al pastor (spicy pork), pollo, carnitas, deshebrada, lengua, cabeza, encebellados, or chicharon. I went for the al pastor and a Sprite and grabbed a seat. It arrived without any surprises: it looked pretty much as described on the menu. The bread was nicely toasted, so it added crunch to the bite, and I like that they don't put too much mayo on it. Watch out for the avocado, it wants to escape by shooting out the side. I've had better al pastor, but it was tasty enough, and I added some of the red hot sauce (they also have green hot sauce). One torta is a full meal, earning the name "los gorditos." For something amazing, however, I'd go for the Super Stacy burrito.

The translation from burrito to torta may be an ingenious innovation, but it doesn't work for me. In a burrito the beans provide enough carbs, and the tortilla suffices to hold it together. A torta bolillo is usually too floppy and tends to lose the fillings out the sides, ending up with half of it on your plate. Like the English translation of Basho, it's missing a few beats. Nevertheless, there are times when I get a craving for a torta.

In addition to burritos and tortas Los Gorditos advertises "Vegan or meat breakfast" and "soyrizo". Watch out for the parking lot, it's awkwardly placed so large cars might have to park around the corner. When I went it was "cash only," but they might accept debit cards now.

Taqueria Los Gorditos
1212 SE Division, Portland, OR
(503) 445-6289
7am - 9pm
7am - 3pm Sunday

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Using Scrum to Grow "Best Practices"

The Scrum project management method. Part of t...Image via Wikipedia
I've noticed agile proponents have issues with the phrase "best practices."  This article, for example, complains that "best practices" are often:
  • Handed down by an authority, such as a consultant, management, or other "experts"
  • Boilerplate rules that may not match your organization's size or culture
  • Anecdotal, almost arbitrary guidelines that don't explain why you should use them

Personally, I like the phrase "best practices," but only because I need a way to name the goals I've set for myself and for my development team.  "Standard Operating Procedure" sounds so 1950's, and the "standard development process" is pretty vague.  The phrase is "best" because it's the best way we've tried so far, and "practice" because we're still on the path to getting it right.

But, there's still the problem of setting those best practices. We don't want arbitrary boilerplate imposed on us by a consultant or by management. And this is where Scrum, or any other Agile framework helps.

We use a Scrum framework for development, and we chose a sprint iteration of two weeks. At the end of every sprint we have a functional review to demonstrate the recent changes to key people in our organization. Immediately after the functional review the development team holds a 15 minute retrospective of the sprint. The agenda for this meeting looks like this:
Process Review
After the functional review we have a retrospective on the development process itself. We answer three questions:
1) What was good about the process so far?
2) What do we want to change?
3) What 1 thing are we going to try to improve for the next two weeks?
The development team starts by listing the "good" items. Sometimes, depending on the mood of the functional review, this can take some digging.  But, we try to get at least one "good" thing from each person at the meeting written down.  Then we talk about what we want to change. By keeping the question neutral it helps to avoid focusing on blame or rehashing problems, but instead asks for solutions.  Team members offer suggestions, and from the solutions we choose one item that we want to focus on -- in essence, something we want to practice.  Finally, at the beginning of the next functional review meeting we check to see whether the "1 thing" we changed was effective.

"So what?" you may ask, "What does that have to do with 'best practices?'"

Well, after enough sprints, you may find you've written your own set of "best practices."  Moreover, they aren't handed to you by someone one who has a corporate agenda, or may not even know your name. They've been evolved organically by the development group as a set of aspirations.  The team implicitly understands the best practice because:
  • They lived the problem.
  • They participated in creating the solution.
  • The practice was created organically within the corporate or development team culture.
  • It's a goal, not a mandate.

Here is the team's actual list of resolutions after six sprints:
  • "Log test coverage and review the logs"
  • "Close the feedback loop from the functional review by reviewing changes with trainers, etc before halfway through the sprint."
  • "We're having too many meetings. Can we schedule some every other week, or once per month?"
  • "Get the right people in the room. Too often it's just the development team."
  • "Provide a forum for presenting daily changes. Set up an "alpha" station for the trainers and support staff."
  • "Each person should take their own notes during the scrum"
  • "Use the "parking lot" model for tangential ideas"
In some settings these items may be obvious, but not everyone on our team has the same level of technical experience.  It was only after two weeks or more of difficulties that the team decided to change, and the change came from within.  If the change didn't work out, well two weeks after adopting the resolution we review whether the change was successful.  If it doesn't make our development process any better we're free to scrap it and try something else. After a while the successful changes become internalized as "best practices."
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Sandwich Review: Madison's Grill

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources" -- Albert Einstein

As a meal, the humble sandwich gets no respect. Often it's just meat and cheese thrown between two slices of bread, dressed with a bit of mayo or mustard.  In this form it takes less than a minute to prepare, and it will probably be eaten with less thought than scratching an itch or tying your shoes.  Given that, why spend time and money going out for a sandwich?

Well, yes, given that. But as James Beard said, "Too few people understand a really good sandwich." In my opinion a really good sandwich is one that looks simple, but lingers in your memory for days, maybe months. If you were at sea with nothing to eat but raw fish, a "really good sandwich" sandwich would haunt you during dreams, taunting you with the idea of crisply toasted bread, or the aroma of melted cheese, or the tang of a spicy mustard.  A good sandwich has nothing to hide but its back story, bursting with corned beef and sauerkraut, leaving you wondering how it came to be on your plate.  And that's why I was at Madison's Grill for lunch on a Thursday afternoon.

I'd heard a lot about Madison's Reuben Sandwich, some of it from the owners, Steve and Hiroko Brown. They said that patrons claimed their Reuben was the "best in town."  Ok, I'm not going to split hairs here: everyone has a right to their own opinion so it's impossible to say whether one sandwich is "best." But I needed to find out for myself whether this was a "really good sandwich."  Steve told me they cooked their own corned beef, stewing it with potatoes and spices until the flavor penetrates the meat. I wondered whether I'd be able to tell the difference.

Madison's is named for their street location (at 11th & SE Madison), but they also wanted to include a presidential theme, decorating in dark wooden tables and paneling, giving the restaurant a solid feeling. At the table across from me sat a convocation of five men who talked like they were somehow related to Portland's microbrew industry, earnestly discussing beer and beer distribution.  The rest of the customers were a mix of professional and blue collar workers.

After a bit my sandwich showed up.  The menu describes it as "marbled rye stacked with traditional corned beef, Emmentaler Swiss, 1000 Island and sauerkraut" with a side of fries for $9.  At first glance it looked like a nice typical Reuben, but then I bit into it. Not only could I taste the difference, I could see it. Instead of the usual wad of thin-sliced corned beef, this sandwich luxuriated in a gentle layer of tender meat.  It reminded me more of my home-cooked roast beef than something from a  deli.  This is the Reuben Sandwich you would make at home if you had a couple hours to simmer the corned beef, then another half hour to assemble and toast the sandwich.  So many times I've gone to a restaurant and ordered a Reuben and it tasted great, but it's obviously a restaurant sandwich.  Madison's has managed to make an authentic "home made" Reuben, and there's the secret: It's the sandwich you would have made if you only had the time.

And that's a good thing.  Two yardsticks I use for measuring a sandwich (or any meal) are ingenuity and authenticity.  The two goals are usually mutually exclusive: you can have an amazing meal, something that is so exotic you feel the need to evangelize your revelation; or you can have a meal that so epitomizes the experience you feel it should Microsoft should make it a standard desktop icon.  In this case, I'm clicking on the Madison's Grill Reuben Sandwich.

Still, there were a few things I would have tweaked: I prefer lots of horseradish with my Reuben. Luckily they have Beaver Brand horseradish on hand, so that was easily remedied. Also, I like my sauerkraut a bit more vinegary than most people -- I think it makes an interesting contrast with the cheese and the 1000 Island dressing.  But overall it was a hearty sandwich, with fries, and a calm relaxing atmosphere.
So, if I'm ever stranded on a desert island, I'm sure Madison's Reuben with be one of the sandwiches that come to haunt me during my raw fish dinner. It's an authentic Reuben, and a "really good sandwich."
Madison’s Grill & Catering
1109 SE Madison St. Portland, OR 97214
Lunch 11am - 5pm daily
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Sandwich Review: Bunk Sandwiches

For some reason the corner of SE 6th & Morrison felt more urban than normal. Maybe it was the problem finding parking, the jackhammer noise from the street repair crew, or the persistent panhandler, but this felt more like a brief lunch hour in lower Manhattan than southeast Portland.  The line outside Bunk Sandwiches didn't do much to change the view. At 11:45 am the lunch line – mostly young hipsters --spilled onto the street. I pulled out my iPod Touch, so I'd mix in with the crowd, and wondered what was inside that was worth the wait.

Inside, the space was cozy, noisy, filled with people talking about lunch, work, and who knows what. Everyone seemed to be excited to be there, even the employees. The cooks dominated a space behind the counter, slapping together sandwiches at the grill, or piling on the ingredients at the cold table. If you were quick enough you could grab a spot at the bar and watch as they prepared your meal.
I surveyed the menu and decided I couldn't decide. I'd heard good things about the Italian with Mama Lil's peppers, but the Pork Belly Cubano looked interesting, so I bought one of each. There were some sides, but I stuck with the default bag of kettle chips that accompany each sandwich.

After I ordered I skipped to the back of the restaurant to wait while others churned in and out of the place. I could see through the plate glass window that the line outside had grown longer.  I grabbed a Portland Mercury and leaned against a crate of poppy-seed Kaiser buns and tried to look hip -– or at least low-key.  After a bit the cashier called my name and I grabbed the bag to retire to a calmer milieu and enjoy my lunch.

True to form, the sandwiches are as brash as the establishment. The Italian Cured Meats sandwich ($9) is a hefty sandwich, bursting with aroma as well as flavor. I needed extra napkins for the amount of olive oil dripping from it.  I'd heard some hubbub about Mama Lil's peppers, but to my surprise although they enhanced the flavor of the sandwich they weren't used very well, piled on top of the lettuce instead of buried deep within.  The meats were tasty, a bit salty, but nothing to write home about.  On the whole I had a problem with the structure of the sandwich, but I'll save that for another blog post. In short, it was a serviceable Italian grinder.

The lunchtime jewel, however, was the Pork Belly Cubano ($8).  When I read the description "ham, swiss and pickles," I pictured a hot ham sandwich with a dill pickle on the side.  Not so! I don't know how they prepare the pork, but it tasted like a cross between bacon and corned beef (yes, corned beef).  It had layers of flavor which I couldn't even begin to describe: black pepper, sweet bacon, zest of smoke.  The genius is putting the pickle into the sandwich. It adds to the crunch, but also stands apart from the meat, cheese and bread.  Believe me I thought kindly about this sandwich the rest of the day.  So, yes, it was worth the wait in line.

OK, I'll admit it: Bunk Sandwiches has got something going on. It's also open for breakfast on weekdays and Saturday, so I plan to stop by there sometime soon and try the Bacon Egg & Cheese on a hard roll (as pictured on their website).

Bunk Sandwiches
621 SE Morrison , Portland, OR
Monday - Saturday 8-3
Lunch served 11-3p


Sandwich Review: Laurelhurst Market

OK, everybody has heard that the sandwich was first invented when the Earl of Sandwich asked for some meat between two slices of bread so that he could eat while gambling right? Except, it's not true. Yes, there was, and still is, an Earl of Sandwich, and it's likely that the meal was named after him. Also, it's more probably that Sandwich was dedicated to his work for the navy than to the gaming tables, so he probably ate at his desk. But Wikipedia says the idea for sandwiches were more likely carried to the Earl by his by his Grisons Republic born brother-in-law, Jerome de Salis. The republic is in the eastern part of what is now Switzerland, and is known for cured & dried sliced meats.

So, what we have is an obvious, and everyday part of the American menu ensconced in mystery and invention. What better way to describe all the sandwich possibilities? Also, since these are leaner times more people have been trying to stretch their money, changing vacations into staycations, movie nights into Netflix nights, etc, so Portland foodies may be scaling back too. This is possibly one reason there's been a burst of sandwich restaurants in PDX.

I figured I'd take up the foodessey challenge and visit some of these places during my lunch hour, checking out whether the sandwiches are better than I could make at home.

My first stop was Laurelhurst Market. Officially the full name is "Laurelhurst Market Restaurant and Butcher Shop," which intrigued me. From the outside it looks like a modernist restaurant -- I doubted whether the butcher shop existed. Imagine my surprise at the case of meats greeting me as I stepped through the front door. The Laurelhurst Market is not for vegans, or probably even for vegetarians. Nearly everything on the evening menu proclaims meat. The Choucroute Garnie (roughly translated as "sauerkraut with a garnish") starts the description with "Duck Confit, Boudin Blanc, Braised Applewood Smoked Bacon" and has sauerkraut as the fourth item, finishing with "Duck Fat Roasted Potatoes."

We were there for lunch, however, which was confined to sandwiches. I chose the steak sandwich with red onions and horseradish. On Tuesdays they make fried chicken and my wife opted for the fried chicken sandwich with pickled celery, Frank's hot sauce, mayo and bleu cheese. All the sandwiches are $7, and for a dollar more you can add a bag of kettle chips. Other than cookies they don't have any other sides available during lunch.

The dining room is austere, but casual, well-lit by the large windows facing the street. You could easily watch people go in and out of Music Millennium, or check out joggers heading through the Laurelhurst gates. Lunch wasn't noisy, even though there were some people with younger kids, and it was a relaxing atmosphere.

My steak sandwich was tasty, but not outstanding. The sliced steak was perfectly cooked -- slightly less than medium rare. But the amount and consistency of the meat, while tender, needed some contrast. I would have preferred a bit more horseradish, or thicker onion slices to give it structure. The real gem, however, was the fried chicken sandwich. The pickled celery and the hot sauce worked together almost like a chutney. The bleu cheese stood out, but wasn't obnoxious. The fried chicken was tender and gave enough crunch to the sandwich to make every bite interesting. This was definitely a sandwich I wouldn't have made for myself, and it was worth the $7.

I plan to head back to Laurelhurst Market, either on Tuesday for the fried chicken sandwich, or one of the evening meals.

Laurelhurst Market Restaurant and Butcher Shop
3155 E. Burnside, at the Gates of Laurelhurst
Butcher Shop Hours - Open Daily From 10am to 7pm
Restaurant Hours - Open Daily From 5pm to 10pm (Sunday 5pm to 9pm)
Open 7 Days a Week

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