Greatest Hits and What You Missed: Ron Jeremy, James Beard, Dumplings, and Pig

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"You know how whenever the federal government puts out a new budget or new income tax rules, there's always this B-roll footage shown on the news of some poor congressional staffer lugging around bound copies thicker than two phone books put together?

"Yeah, well that's kind of the stage we're at right now with the annual run-up to the James Beard Awards. A couple days ago, the venerable James Beard Foundation put out their big list of semi-finalists for the 2011 Chef and Restaurant Awards--the feel-good portion of the proceedings, where white jackets and beleagured owners from places like Anchorage, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis get to believe for a moment or two that they've got a chance at competing against the heavy hitters from Chicago, San Francisco, and NYC. And not to take anything away from these restaurants--at this stage of the game, it really is an honor just to be nominated--but every year there's this groundswell of food-writerly rumbling, wondering if this will be the year that some wild genius from out in the sticks unseats one of the Manhattan favorites for Best New Restaurant."

From this week's analysis of the newly released list of semi-finalists for the James Beard restaurant and chef awards.

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"They say every house has a story, be it old, charmed, sordid, or scary. Whatever the story, it always reads kind of like a personal ad: 'Tiny cottage with bad wiring, cracked foundation, and asbestos needs TLC, nuclear family, and station wagon to regenerate to former glory.' Just the same, no burger joint, steak house, sushi train, or truck stop is immune to a little colorful past and character. Having that extra bit of funk or flair definitely adds to the overall experience (as long as the funk isn't a dead bug or stray hair) and sometimes even the quality of the food."

From this week's Eatside review of Red House Beer, Wine, and Tapas.

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"We arrived at the Westin downtown and were met with throngs of ravenous, porcine-loving people. The VIP lounge opened at 3:30, and the main event would begin at 5. In the lounge, tables were decorated with bouquets of crisp bacon strips that were quickly dispatched. There were oysters on the half shell and a massive spread of cheese for sampling too. Charles Finkel from Pike Brewing weaved through the room with his beer keg/backpack contraption and filled empty glasses in an attempt to convert wine drinkers to beer. He was pretty successful.

"I ended up chatting with a young guy who was standing alone sipping his beer. I'd watched enough Portlandia to recognize that with his jaunty hat and tattoos, he must have been from Portland. Turned out he was Joseph Wells from Zorn Family Farm in Oregon (near Portland), and one of his pigs--a Tamworth breed--was being cooked by Jason Stratton of Spinasse for the event. Each of the five competing chefs (that's one of the first 5's in Cochon555; the other two stand for five breeds of pig and five wineries) prepared a different breed of pig for the competition."

You can read all about the Cochon 555 event in this report from the front lines, "Lark's Sundstrom Crowned Prince of Pork at Cochon 555."

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"Since the early days of frozen TV dinners, families across the country have packed their freezers, and subsequently their bellies, full of pre-assembled, single-serving meals packed with preservatives and calories. Working parents, college students, and single professionals breathed sighs of relief when the most taxing part of dinner was preheating the oven or pressing START on the microwave. Over the years, tons of new options have come onto the market that are healthier for your body, but that's no fun! Let's uncover some of the fattiest, most calorically dense plastic and tin plates still up for grabs."

From "7 Calorie-Soaked Frozen Dinners."

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"I step back out into the hallway. Trying to be casual about it this time, I stand by the fish tank and watch the dumpling-makers again. There are 17 of them tonight, all with their heads down, filling and crimping and packing teetering towers of steamer baskets. One guy does nothing but shovel raw pork goo into round dumpling skins. Another runs endless disks of dough through a pasta roller. Another just carries little balls of dough around to the stretchers--knobs of white dough, no bigger than the first joint of my thumb. It's fascinating to watch the machine in action, but then, in the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a Bellevue cop coming through the doors to the skyway next to Din Tai Fung. He's walking with purpose, making straight for the restaurant, and he looks scary-pissed as only a man with a uniform and a gun really can. Cop goes in, cop comes out. Cop stalks off with no lawbreakers in tow, and I'm wondering to myself, what the fuck?

"Everyone needs stories to root them in place. In the year that I've been here, I've collected a few. I've got a Ballard story, a couple Eastside stories, a West Seattle story, plenty of Market stories. Stories are my business. I collect them like baseball cards.

"And now I have a Bellevue story--a classic."

An excerpt from this week's review of Din Tai Fung in Bellevue.

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Balut--it's what's for dinner.

Just one of the selections from this week's list of "Top 5 Acquired Tastes."

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"Big Mario's mascot, a life-size photo of a 1970s dude wearing a white three-piece suit with a maroon butterfly collar, who I presume is Big Mario himself, is the best restaurant mascot in Seattle. He looks like Ron Jeremy's stand-in.

"But for what, exactly, would a porn star's stand-in stand in? Surely not the sex. That is, after all, what Ron Jeremy gets paid for. No, Ron Jeremy's stand-in, Big Mario, stands in for the dialogue. Whenever the sex scenes are done, Big Mario steps in and recites lines from Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part I. Big Mario plays Lord Talbot: 'God and Saint George, Talbot and England's right,' spake Big Mario, 'Prosper our colours in this dangerous fight.' Then Big Mario exits the stage to finish baking some killer 'za."

The Surly Gourmand, taking on Big Mario's (and Dante's Inferno).

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