From the Bollard.com
January 25, 2007
Off the Eatin' Path
By Zachary Barowitz
photo by Chris Busby
If you've ever been curious enough to try the pigs feet and sausages floating in those big, murky pickle jars behind blue-collar bars, then you might be interested in the notorious Southeast Asian bar snack called balut. This is a fertilized, hard-boiled duck egg with a partially developed (75 percent, I'm told) duckling embryo.
They sell balut in Portland at Makot Pech Asian Market on St. John Street, near the Greyhound bus station. However, much to my surprise and dismay, unlike other balut I've eaten, the ones at Makot do not come pre-cooked – a messy discovery I made one day on the bus.
Fortunately, Makot Pech has plenty of other exotic foods that are not only good and cheap, but fully cooked and ready to eat on the go. If you like Italian sandwiches, try the Vietnamese sandwich ($2.50), which the market's Laotian owner called an "Asian Sandwich" (perhaps their popularity has spread?). It's cold cuts on French bread with cilantro, hot chilies, cucumber, shredded carrot, and pickled Asian vegetables. The French influence is further felt by the inclusion of pate (well, liverwurst), along with what looks like headcheese and chicken loaf. But like the Maine Italian, it's the veggies that make it special and set it apart from the grinders, heroes and hoagies to the south.
Another, lesser version of this sandwich eschews the cold cuts for "barbecue beef": slices of meat in a barbeque sauce (corn syrup, vegetable oil and, apparently, ketchup). The consistency of the meat is fairly inconsistent – sometimes it resembles pulled pork, other times beef jerky – but, regardless, the meat is always chewy and the sauce always sickly sweet.
Makot Pech used to sell locally made Vietnamese sandwiches, but these are made in Boston and only available Mondays after 11 a.m. and Fridays after 3 p.m. One sandwich is enough for a light lunch.
The bun bow. (photo/Zachary Barowitz
The sticky rice. (photo/Zachary Barowitz)
Two items that require, or prefer, microwaving are the bun bow ($1.25) and the sticky rice ($2.50). The rice comes wrapped in a banana leaf. Both come packed with a surprise.
The steamed buns, which resemble a softball, look like the type found in New York's Chinatown, but the filling of sweet ground pork and half a hard-boiled egg is tastier and more interesting than the traditional Chinese pork buns. These can be eaten cold, but the bread can sometimes be dry. To cook the bun, moisten the outside and nuke it for about 35 seconds, or steam it for five-to-ten minutes.
The sticky rice is like a dense, chewy, Asian tamale (the banana-leaf wrapping imparts some fine flavor). It has yellow beans that resemble corn meal, and flecks of pork. This item takes about two-and-a-half minutes in the microwave. Weighing in at about a pound, one of these is a big meal.
On the lighter side are summer rolls (three for $2.50): shrimp, noodles, lettuce, cucumber, shredded pork and mint leaves wrapped in a soft, translucent rice paper and served with ground peanuts and a sweet sauce (water, sugar, and red pepper flakes). These are not the world's best summer rolls. The shrimp in each roll are actually half shrimps cut lengthwise, and the rice wrapper skins stick to one another in the package and tear upon removal. Plus, the peanut/dipping sauce could be thicker and creamier.
That said, they are fresh, and even a mediocre summer roll is great. Makot Pech's are better than mediocre. One pack of rolls and a bun are enough for lunch.
Along similar lines are tapioca balls stuffed with peanut and what could either be dried pork or dried shrimp ($2.50). The balls are chewy and the filling is sweet. These are served with lettuce, caramelized onions, cilantro and a small Thai pepper.
There is also a selection of three-for-a-dollar fried foods: egg rolls, fried bananas and fried potatoes. I once watched in horror as a fellow bus passenger worked through a bucket of fried chicken on his way from Cleveland to Spokane, but room-temp fried foods can be appealing – and not only when hung-over. The egg rolls are crisp, but otherwise unremarkable. The other items are like fried dough, with a thick, slightly sweet batter crust specked with black sesame seeds. The flavor is good, but more than one might leave grease stains on your gullet.
Lastly, there are Asian desserts. Most people could not name an Asian dessert, and for good reason, as the emphasis on color (bright pink, Kelly green) and texture (gelatinous, yet chewy), coupled with some of the flavorings – herbs or red bean, for example – make the experience much like eating a sweetened Hello Kitty eraser.
The flower cracker. (photo/Zachary Barowitz)
Surprisingly, some of the sweets at Makot Pech are pretty good. The flower cracker ($1.75) is a very crisp (even when dunked in tea), fried, tessellated cookie, flavored with black sesame seeds and coconut milk, that breaks off into intricate geometric units. The yucca cake ($2.50) is like bread pudding, very dense and gelatinous (tapioca is made from yucca). The flavor is delicate and not overly sweet.
The strangest deserts are the yellow beans with tapioca and the tot chong. Both are served with coconut milk on the side, and are basically varieties of Asian tapioca puddings. The yellow beans ($2.50) have a slight crunch, and sit amid a very thick and sticky syrup or gel. The accompanying coconut milk is slightly salty, but pleasant. Tot chong ($2.50) is softer – the substance resembles bright green maggots – and is eaten like a soup with palm sugar syrup and coconut milk. Once you get used to the texture, the flavor is subtle and not too sweet.
All of the food at Makot Pech is arrayed on the counter, so there is no waiting and no prep time. None of the offerings require refrigeration (though the summer rolls stick less when cold), but the sandwiches and buns are better eaten sooner rather than later.
The bottom line…
Food: Very Good (4/5 stars)
Price: Excellent (5/5 stars)
Service: Polite, but vague.
Exotic Quotient: Very High (5/5 stars)
Recommended dishes: Cold-cut sandwich, summer rolls, sticky rice with pork and yellow bean, flower cracker, tot chong (cold sweet soup) and yucca cake.
Makot Pech Asian Market, 229 St. John St., Portland. 761-9577. Open daily from 9 a.m.-7 p.m.