Chowing down with the hound
Jim Leff, a founder of the food-obsessed website Chowhound, explores the culinary delights of Framingham and Worcester
FRAMINGHAM -- Even driving 50 miles an hour down Route 9 here, Jim Leff is getting a vibe. Restaurants stream by, and every now and then a voice in his head urges him to pull over, to check out the steakhouse with the full parking lot or the Chinese spot with the homemade sign, because either might serve up premium chow.
It's just a feeling, but Leff makes it sound almost preternatural. ''Do you think that could be real Chinese?" he asks as we sail past a place called Imperial Garden. ''I'm getting a vibe that it could be real Chinese. I don't know why. Did you see it?"
He sees. And if we didn't have a train to catch, he would be screeching to a halt and grabbing a menu.
Jim Leff lives to eat. Well, eat and play jazz trombone. OK, eat and play jazz trombone and proselytize about food. When he's not at a gig or scouting for the next best Cubano, Leff, 43, is writing about food or managing Chowhound (www.chowhound.com), the wildly popular website he and a partner founded. As its self-proclaimed Alpha Dog, Leff oversees a cult of some 800,000 hounds who every month post messages on everything from a pizza-by-the-slice joint to a hip new boite. The website is based in New York, as is Leff, but diners on more than 30 local boards dish on offerings from San Francisco to Boston.
For a few days in November, Leff did the dishing himself. He has family and friends in the area and has played gigs here, so he knows that Worcester, Framingham, and environs hold the promise of food finds: a Brazilian bakery, a Jamaican cafe, a South Indian banquet hall, and hopefully more. With two other frequent website posters along for parts of the ride, he demonstrated what he looks for in restaurants by looking for them -- and by preaching the gospel according to Chowhound as he went.
Leff has invited Limster, a quiet, diminutive Singapore-born man who lives in Boston and prefers that only his Chowhound message-board name be published so restaurateurs don't learn his identity. As soon as we get in Leff's car outside Worcester's Union Station, Limster pulls out cannoli shells and a plastic bag of pastry cream from the North End's Modern Pastry. Leff bites off a corner of the bag, squeezes pastry cream into a shell, and moans as he eats. ''It's been too too long," he says.
In return, Leff offers us what he calls ''proto cheese doodles," Brazilian cheese-based cracker puffs that he thinks might be the precursor of the Frito-Lay snack.
Our first stop is one that the two hit the last time Leff was in the area: One Love Cafe, on Main Street. As soon as owner Venice Fouchard greets us, Leff says, ''I've been waiting to have your food again for two years."
Amid the paint-by-number horses and dogs and the poster of Bob Marley, Leff looks over his notes from the previous visit, and we peruse the menu of ''Likkle Tings," ''Big Tings," and ''Sweet Tings." Leff suggests oxtail, as well as ackee with codfish, the national dish of Jamaica. It is made from salt cod and the white flesh of a red tropical fruit. In the Northeast, ackee is often frozen, but Fouchard has a friend in Florida who grows the fruit and sends it to her fresh.
As we scarf down the spicy, salty, creamy fish and the deeply flavored oxtail with lima beans, Leff declares the oxtail ''the best I've ever had -- and I've had a lot" and urges me to get my share before Limster, whom he calls ''the vacuum," finishes it off.
They're barely through their second course when Leff and Limster, a molecular biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, start tossing around ideas for the next stop. Maybe it'll be another place they found last time, maybe a place they've heard about -- Armenian, perhaps, or South Indian -- or maybe one we happen across. ''If we can find Laotian or Cambodian, I'll feel like I've really scored," says Leff.
Leff practices yoga daily for 2 1/2 hours and says he often goes days without eating out much at all, because he likes to save himself for the good stuff. All that's hard to picture when he's in manic Chowhound mode. ''The only difference between me and you is that when I want a corn muffin, I go to a different place each day," he says. ''It's like the Colorado River whittling away the Grand Canyon. You can accumulate a wealth of information in piddling forays."
Leff, who grew up on Long Island ''with no culture except Frank Zappa and driving while eating pizza," admits to ''glomming on" to other cultures through their food. A food critic, he once spent a month in Rio de Janeiro and had a Brazilian girlfriend at one point but also says he feels ''5 percent Salvadoran" and is better versed than most in just about any ethnic cuisine you can think of.
After a stop for Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches and then for Salvadoran tamales, horchata, and papusas, it's back on the road. We see a sign for Armadillo Depot Texas BBQ. Knowing that I hail from West Texas, Leff pulls in.
It smells good and smoky. We decide on a combination plate, and when it comes, Leff shines a little keychain light on the brisket to show a red ring, proving that the meat has actually seen real smoke. Dry-rubbed ribs are tinged with crispiness but moist and tender, not the meltingly soft texture that some New Englanders mistake for good barbecue. With the exception of great, hand-cut fries, the sides bore us: cakey cornbread, bland jalapeno and cheddar grits.
''This is the best Texas barbecue in the Northeast," Leff declares -- though I don't think he's been to Uncle Pete's, now in Revere.
On Chowhound's notoriously difficult-to-navigate website, there is a search function for those who don't want to scroll through the seemingly endless messages, but to Leff the scrolling is part of the magic. Searching is for people who want Chowhound to be Zagat: a reference rather than a celebration. Despite his cautions to the contrary, even on Chowhound a herd mentality can take over. ''Somebody finds a taco place and everybody goes to that taco place. I don't want to go to that taco place, I want to go to find a better taco place."
At the end of the day, at Union Station The Restaurant, a velvet-banquettes-and-brass kind of place inside the gleaming renovated Union Station, we trade tastes of crispy-skinned duck breast (a bargain at $20) and fudgy espresso chocolate torte and talk about Chowhound's frequent money problems. Since Leff doesn't sell advertising or charge users, the site is regularly short on cash for server bills. The proceeds from two recent guidebooks, to New York City and San Francisco, helped, but a few months back Leff had to issue a plea for donations on the boards. He has plans to make the site more self-sufficient but won't say more. Would he ever go the route of Craigslist and sell a stake in it to a big Internet player like
''If I could find somebody who could completely get the value in what we're doing and never dumb it down, I'd consider it," he says. But he doesn't expect that to happen; 800,000 users a month may seem like a lot, but Craigslist draws more than 10 times that. ''Over the years I've tried to find ways to turn it into a business," Leff says. ''I'm not a businessman, I'm a writer. And a musician. And a chowhound."
On Day Two, Limster has to work. Leff meets another Chowhound, Chris, at Magic Oven, a Brazilian bakery across Waverly Street from the commuter rail station in Framingham. Along with her toddler, Chris has brought Leff some doughnuts from Demet's in Medford. Ordering in Portuguese, Leff soon collects more than a dozen things, including the tangy pao de queijo (cheese bread) and addictive bolinho de mandioca (fried yucca ball), stuffed with meat and onions.
As a fan of Brazilian food, he's enraptured by Framingham. ''Cidade maravilhosa -- that's what they call Rio, city of wonder. But that's what I call Framingham."
Chris, 36, chuckles: ''He's kind of a zealot, but in a good way."
Sure enough, when Leff asks what I think of a baton-shaped, coconut-flavored sweet and I say it's fine but not that interesting, he rushes to correct me. ''Have you given it enough of a chance? Take another bite. Things will start to happen."
I do. Nothing happens. I'm sure it's perfectly made -- not stale or dry -- but does that mean I have to love it? Apparently so. ''Some things hit you over the head with flavor right out of the gate," he says. ''Some things build. This is a builder."
Chris is smiling. ''This is where the word 'zealot' starts to make sense," she says.
There's little time for debate, because our agenda calls. Next up is Dakshin, a South Indian restaurant recommended by one of Limster's colleagues. At 2:30 p.m., the kitchen is about to close, but they let us slip in. The 16,000-square-foot place, with banquet facilities available for up to 200, is empty. We order, then start picking through pani puri, little fried puffs made for dipping into chutneys; rava masala dosa, a huge crepe with a lacy crust filled with spicy potatoes and onions; malai kofta, cheese balls in tomato cream curry; and poondu kozhambu, whole garlic cloves stewed in a tamarind curry.
All the flavors are layered, complex, deep. Leff calls it ''like the difference between a light piece of cotton fabric and a big, heavy, velvet Russian curtain."
Chris has to take off, but her replacement soon arrives: Leff's cousin Adam Ezra Olshansky, a Somerville musician and founder of the acoustic rock band Adam Ezra Group. He immediately sets to work tasting everything on our table. ''Any particular thing I should be dipping this into?" he asks.
''Nah," Leff says. ''Just let nature take its course."
As a struggling musician, Olshansky relishes the chance to restaurant hop when his cousin is visiting or when he has gigs in New York and they spend time ''scampering around." Leff fills him in on our progress so far. Mere words don't suffice, so he takes Olshansky back by Magic Oven, where he also asks the workers where to get the best feijoada, a stew of black beans, meat, greens, and more that is the Brazilian national dish. They point us to Terra Brasilis, so off we go.
Once we find the place, there's no feijoada -- but there's so much more, served on an L-shaped buffet and sold by the pound. We share a piled-high plate of feijao tropeiro (bean stew), bacalhoada (salt cod and vegetables), bolinho de arroz (fried rice cakes), couve refogada (collard greens), and picana (top sirloin). Mostly good, especially for less than $8.
There's a train to catch, but between Terra Brasilis and the train station is Little Barriga Cheia, another Brazilian restaurant with another buffet, and Leff has to try it. We rush in and he gets a beef croqueta and a little container of eggy vanilla pudding much like a creme Anglaise; we each dip in a spoon. Even after we've scraped it clean and anyone else would cry uncle, Leff isn't finished: ''Wanna lick the lid?" he asks.
''I'm good," his cousin says.
''I'm good," I say.
Jim Leff licks. He's never good.
Joe Yonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.